Yes it's Friday again! It's Friday the 27th June, this is the Sustainable Futures Report, and I’m Anthony Day. Welcome, thank you for listening, and thank you for boosting listener numbers to record levels this month.
Whatever we do, whatever we suffer - pandemics, racism, urban terrorism - the climate is still in crisis and our environment continually abused. I don’t intend in any way to minimise people’s suffering from the COVID pandemic, from rights for centuries denied or from the random murders which took place in a Reading park last weekend. These all need our urgent attention but add to our ongoing challenges.
Remembering last week’s warning from the IEA that we have but 6 months to head off the worst of the climate crisis, there’s worrying news of unheard-of temperatures in the Arctic and there’s serious river pollution in the UK. Whatever the need for urgent action we need continuous research and innovation, steadily building an infrastructure for a low-carbon future. I bring you news of solar farms and energy storage, stories of the future of fossil fuels, news of ways of processing waste. And the advice and ideas for establishing a green recovery still keep pouring in, though not to universal approval. The Republicans have discovered that Joe Biden is taking advice from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Green New Deal guru, and they don’t like it.
Remember, links to the sources of all the stories can be found on this blog.
We’ll start with a weather report.
Climate and Environment
Last weekend a weather station in Verkhoyansk logged a temperature of 38℃. That was the highest temperature for the region since 1915, 38℃, but Verkhoyansk is in Siberia, north of the Arctic Circle. The whole of Siberia has experienced warmer weather this year, as much as 18°C above average maximum temperatures for June.. Scientists have been expecting increasing temperatures as a consequence of global heating, but increases of this magnitude were not expected before 2100. These warmer temperatures have brought wildfires to boreal forests and peatlands. These fires have continued to burn throughout the winter, but seem to be largely ignored like the massive oil spill up there that I told you about recently. As the trees and the peat burn they release CO2 and are no longer available as carbon sinks. More CO2 in the atmosphere brings warming and melts the Arctic ice. As increasingly more ice melts, less sunlight is reflected and more is absorbed by the darker ocean surface. This creates a vicious cycle whereby the temperature increases, resulting in further sea ice loss, and so on. Is this the tipping point that we have been warned of? The self-reinforcing cycle that we will be unable to stop? It puts into perspective last week’s warning from the International Energy Agency, that we have only six months to get things under control. Will governments take note and take action? Distinguished Economist Sir Nicholas Stern urged governments to act, predicting that the climate crisis could be solved at a cost of around 1% of global GDP, but significantly more for every year’s delay. But that was back in 2006.
Closer to Home
Quite apart from saving the global climate, we don't seem too good at protecting our local environment. This story comes not from some distant failed state, but from the United Kingdom where the River Wye has been described as a deathtrap for wildlife and looking like pea soup. The river rises in central Wales and descends via Hereford until it joins the Severn estuary. It is bordered by dozens of free range chicken farms. The excrement from the chickens is washed by the rain into water courses until it finds its way into the river. This run-off is rich in phosphates which cause algal blooms which in turn suffocate the fish and damage native plants. This destroys the habitats of kingfishers and other birds and mammals which are live along the river. Apparently all this is legal, but maybe when we are released from European directives new British regulations will clean this up. We'll have to wait and see.
More news, opinions and advice on how we sort out the climate crisis as we exit from lockdown. The UK government promises to reveal its plans next month. It has apparently already set up working parties, according to Lexology, an international legal news website. The groups will focus on five key themes, including “Green recovery: how to capture economic growth opportunities from the shift to net zero carbon emissions”.
Each working group will contain approximately 20-25 participants, consisting of businesses, business representative groups, and prominent academics. Business Secretary, Alok Sharma chairs the “recovery roundtable” meetings, which began on 8 June 2020. Sharma has said, “These roundtables […] will undoubtedly lead to a cleaner, greener, more resilient economy which will create new jobs.”
Writing in vice.com, Tristan Kennedy says, “Reversing the Climate Crisis Isn't On You. We Need to Change the Entire System.” He makes the point that 71 percent of all global carbon emissions come from just 100 companies.
While we as individuals can cut our carbon footprint by driving less, avoiding single use plastic, changing our diets and simply buying less, this will have a negligible effect in the face of pollution from these enormous companies. It is only regulation by government that can make the change. Governments have been fully aware ever since the Rio Earth Summit back in 1992 that we are facing a crisis. But rather than legislate, they prefer to shift the burden of responsibility onto companies (which all too often can't see past their immediate bottom line), and onto us as individuals. The danger is that we will believe that we are responsible and that what we are doing is making a difference. Meanwhile these mega-polluters continue with business largely as usual.
The committee on climate change has written to the British government about the future of carbon pricing. After leaving the EU the country will no longer be part of the EU ETS carbon trading scheme and will therefore have to set up its own mechanism. The committee warns that the proposals currently put forward by the government will not allow it to achieve its net zero target by 2050.
Consumer guilt is reinforced by The Environment Journal Online with the headline, “ Overconsumption must be addressed to solve climate crisis”. Like The swaddle.com they are quoting a new report in the journal nature communications. The authors say,
“For over half a century, worldwide growth in affluence has continuously increased resource use and pollutant emissions far more rapidly than these have been reduced through better technology. The affluent citizens of the world are responsible for most environmental impacts and are central to any future prospect of retreating to safer environmental conditions. … Any transition towards sustainability can only be effective if far-reaching lifestyle changes complement technological advancements. However, existing societies, economies and cultures incite consumption expansion and the structural imperative for growth in competitive market economies inhibits necessary societal change.”
“[Having identified] affluence as a driver [of overconsumption], the strongest pillar of the necessary transformation is to avoid or to reduce consumption until the remaining consumption level falls within planetary boundaries, while fulfilling human needs. Avoiding consumption means not consuming certain goods and services, from living space (overly large homes, secondary residences of the wealthy) to oversized vehicles, environmentally damaging and wasteful food, leisure patterns and work patterns involving driving and flying. This implies reducing expenditure and wealth along ‘sustainable consumption corridors’, i.e. minimum and maximum consumption standards. On the technological side, reducing the need for consumption can be facilitated by changes such as increasing lifespans of goods, telecommunication instead of physical travel, sharing and repairing instead of buying new, and house retrofitting”.
They do admit that achieving reductions in consumption will reduce GDP, with varying consequences from country to country. They explain how the current capitalist system is founded on consumer expectations and ambitions, leading them to consume to keep up with their peer groups, thus driving growth.
The authors present alternative solutions. Some writers propose policy changes, including, among others, stringent eco-taxes or cap-and trade systems, directed investments in green industries and public institutions, wealth redistribution through taxation and a maximum income, a guaranteed basic income and/or reduced working hours. They believe this would work within a capitalist framework.
More radical solutions are proposed by reformists, eco-socialists and eco-anarchists. They require policy changes as described above but focus on a specific de-growth strategy, with a major role for the state. (Not for the anarchists.)
It's an interesting article and well worth a read. It's freely available and there is a link on the blog. The question is whether this will actually stop over-consumption and whether it will be incorporated in government policy or even the policies of the UK’s Labour opposition. One of the authors, Julia Steinberger, has agreed to an interview. I’ll bring it to you next week.
There’s always news on the energy front. The Shift Project, a French think tank, warns that the EU is likely to see an oil shortage by 2030. The volume produced by EU oil providers is expected to fall by 8% between 2019 and 2030. The production from Russia, from the former USSR countries and from Africa, which together supply 50% of the world’s oil, is also in decline. Even though there will still be millions of barrels of oil in the Earth, Peak Oil is now predicted for 2030, and supply will never reach that level again. As a result, countries which are slow to implement low carbon policies, notably the introduction of electric vehicles, are likely to be subject to wild price fluctuations.
Apparently fossil fuels are not all over for everyone and The Ecologist magazine complains that the British government has spent nearly £4 billion pounds of UK public funding on fossil fuel infrastructure in the global south in the years since the Paris Agreement was signed. The government has revealed that 90% of the energy deals struck at the UK-Africa Investment Summit in January were in fossil fuels. Projects included fracking in Argentina and China, oil refineries in Bahrain, and power plants that run on heavy fuel oil (HFO) and diesel in Cameroon, Kenya, Ghana, Guinea and Mali.
Don’t they know that global heating doesn’t respect national boundaries?
Says The Ecologist, “These investments are made in the interests of private profit rather than the public interest, enforcing fossil fuel dependency on global south economies and frustrating attempts to tackle fuel poverty via a just transition to renewable energy.”
Support for fracking in Argentina? It’s ironic that Energy Minister Kwasi Kwarteng let slip this week that fracking in the UK is effectively dead. Dead, after millions of pounds spent on policing the exploration sites to exclude protesters. Dead, after promises of millions of pounds to communities which would welcome fracking into their areas.
Looking at renewable energy, I spoke last week about a major new solar farm in Kent in south east England. More information on the project comes from Private Eye magazine. Their correspondent reveals that the developers of the site applied for a unit with over 50 MW capacity and it now appears that the final size will be 350MW. In addition, the development consent order gives them authority to deposit at sea … plastic, synthetics [and] marine coatings among other waste materials. How can this be permitted in the 21st-century?
The other aspect of the development is energy storage. The developers have also received permission to install more than 50 MW of electricity storage. Should this turn out to be a 350MW unit it will be the biggest in the world. If this means a conventional battery the outlook is not good. Quite apart from whether it is appropriate to locate the storage alongside the generation, storage batteries in other parts of the world have suffered terrible fires, releasing what Private Eye describes as “ultra-toxic hydrogen fluoride.”
No Hot Air
But maybe they don't intend to use conventional batteries at all. I've recently come across High View Power and you’ll find a link to their website on the blog. High View Power uses air to store energy from surplus and off-peak electricity. It uses the electricity to run a refrigeration plant which reduces the temperature of the air to the point that it liquefies and stores it in that state. When power is needed liquid air is returned to ambient temperature and as it gasifies it releases energy to drive a conventional turbine which drives a conventional generator. Sounds simple, and of course there are no harmful or environmentally damaging emissions of any kind on the site. No risk of fire or explosion either. No need for rare earth metals or other chemicals as part of the storage process. I'm not sure whether there is an installed base of these units, but the company has projects under construction across the world. Is liquid air the future?
Cooling the Charge - and a dead end!
Still on energy and batteries, I came across a report from the Faraday Institution for Science and Religion about research into methods of cooling the core of electric car batteries under charge. The holy grail of the electric car is a battery which can be charged very rapidly, but apparently the main problem is getting rid of excess heat during the rapid charging process, which otherwise will damage the battery. My first reaction to this story was that while electric vehicles make far more efficient use of energy than petrol and diesel vehicles do, how much energy is going to be wasted if electric cars have to discard excess heat as they recharge? I attempted to follow it up with the Faraday Institution. This organisation is a charity based in Cambridge which coordinates and supports battery research. The story was indeed to be found on their website. I clicked on the link only to be taken to The Times newspaper which was carrying the story behind a pay wall. I attempted to complain to the Faraday Institute about this, but there is no contact point of any kind on their website, so I can't bring you the truth of the story.
And a final note on batteries. You can now get a kit to convert your VW Beetle to electric power.
Don’t Waste It!
Looking at other sources of energy, although some will hotly dispute whether this is renewable energy, the East Rockingham Waste to Energy plant at Perth, Western Australia, will process 300,000 tonnes of the city’s waste, leaving just 4% to be diverted to landfill. Waste goes in at one end, electricity comes out at the other. Along the way particulates are scrubbed out of the flue gases and can be used for road construction or similar.
By coincidence, this week I took a virtual tour of the Allerton Waste Recovery Plant in North Yorkshire. This has a lot of similarities with the plant in Perth, except that it has a vast waste treatment system on the front, long before anything gets into the furnace. Waste that comes into the plant has already had glass, paper, plastic bottles and metal containers removed by citizens who separate it for the kerbside recycling collection. Even so, some of these materials are still put in the landfill waste which is sent the plant. This waste is mechanically sorted and separated into cardboard, plastics, ferrous metals, aluminium, glass and rubble. All of this is sent for recycling. Organic materials go into an anaerobic digester and the digestive gas drives a generator which feeds electricity into the National Grid. Everything else goes into a furnace just like the one in Perth, raises steam and drives a turbine and generator also supplying the grid. The residue which is sent to landfill is 3% of the input.
Incinerators have a bad name and are not popular with environmentalists, but the Allerton plant is much more than an incinerator. Emissions from the stack, by the way, are constantly monitored on site and minute by minute data is sent to the Environment Agency to ensure that the plant is operating cleanly at all times.
Across the Pond
The Americans are preoccupied, as they will be for the next four or five months, with the coming presidential election. Forbes magazine says, “Biden’s Mask Of Moderation Has Finally Slipped”. What's all that about? Well it seems that the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is associated with left wing extremists. People like Bernie Sanders who wants to reform healthcare and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, outspoken supporter of the Green New Deal. According to an analysis by the Heritage Foundation, even the most stripped down version of this plan could increase household electricity expenses by 14%, eliminate more than 1.4 million jobs and yield an aggregate GDP loss of $3.9 trillion by 2040. To meet the proposal's goal of 100% renewable power would cost more than $5 trillion.
The Heritage Foundation is a rightwing conservative think thank associated with the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. It is closely aligned with the Trump administration. In advertising a webinar entitled “Freedom or Equality: The Key to Prosperity Through Social Capitalism” it explains that “Socialism, unnecessary interventionism, and other choices promise equal outcomes but inevitably fail.”
Others may disagree with its analysis of the Green New Deal.
This week Zeroavia made a 20-minute test flight in an electric-powered Piper M-350 aircraft. Energy came not from batteries but from a hydrogen fuel cell. Interesting development. The question must be, which has the higher energy density, batteries or hydrogen? Let’s see how this develops.
And that's it…
…for another week. I’m Anthony Day and that was the Sustainable Futures Report. I'm off to enjoy this amazing sunshine - which is probably damaging the planet - and to think about what I'm going to bring you next week. I've already decided that I'm going to take August off but there are at least five more episodes between now and then.
Thank you for listening, thank you for getting in touch with ideas and suggestions. I haven’t forgotten, Stephan Gill. I am going to get back to you with a detailed response.
And if the rest of you like the Sustainable Futures Report please spread the word and I hope together we can help to change the world in some small way. Mind you, we need a really big change so don't give up.
I’m Anthony Day.
Have a great week.
Bye for now.
Climate and Environment
‘It's like pea soup’: poultry farms turn Wye into wildlife death trap
Sorting the Climate Crisis
Climate Change Committee
71% of all emissions come from 100 companies. Governments must act - not individuals.
Energy and Storage
Europe could face oil shortage in a decade, study warns
UK funding fossil fuels
See Private Eye re Kent solar farm and storage
Waste to Energy
Across the Pond