Saturday, 28 June 2008

Wonderful plan...

Two days ago, Gordon Brown unveiled his "grand plan" for renewable energy. He has layed out a commitment to generate 15% of Britain's energy from renewable sources (note that this 15% figure comprises 30% of the electricity supply, 14% of the heat supply and 10% of transportation).

It sounds good. £100 billion for renewables... What remains unclear at this moment is exactly how this is supposed to happen. We have seen plenty of feel-good government targets before. Remember the target of generating 10% of our electricity from renewables by 2010? Lets have a look at the current electricity generation mix, and see how close we have come.

At present, the UK generates 4.5% of its electricity from renewables. On the face of it, it would seem that we're half way to the 10% target. But this would be a deception, because hydro power (all of which is pre-existing) accounts for 3%, with wind power currently making up about 1.5% of this mix. So in reality, we have added about one percentage point to our renewable electricity generation, instead of the 7 percentage points that would have been required to hit the target. So why have we fallen so far behind? The government has an apparently effective incentive scheme in place (the renewables obligation certificates) to encourage power companies to build renewable sources of energy, after all.

The reality is that there have been two major problems for this grand vision of Britain. The first is that onshore projects are repeatedly turned down for a variety of reasons. Firstly, for projects smaller than 50 MW peak capacity, district councils are responsible for granting planning consent. Clearly, however, the business-as-usual planning system is not geared towards efficiency in any way at all, so this has been a major roadblock for smaller projects. But the problems don't stop there. Consider the Lewis onshore wind farm project, which was granted planning approval by the Western Isles Council back in 2005. There are few onshore wind sites more suited to generation. Firstly, as anyone who has been to the Outer Hebrides knows, there is precious little in the way of grand or beautiful scenery on Lewis, and very few people either. So you would expect that it would make an ideal location for a wind farm. Particularly important in this is that the Outer Hebrides alone contain sufficient onshore wind resources to provide up to 25% of the UK electricity needs (see here).

You might think that it was local opposition to the project that caused the planning decision to be reversed, but you'd be wrong. It was reversed on environmental grounds. Specifically, the Scottish Executive turned it down because it would potentially damage an important wildlife habitat. Now, there is no better reason for turning down planning, but one really has to ask how much damage it would cause. Each wind turbine needs an access road, and machinery needs to be brought in to construct it, but the overall footprint of the development is a tiny fraction of the total area covered by the farm. So one could expect (particularly if appropriate care was taken during construction) that the habitat damage could be minimised. The other concern is to bird life. This to my mind is an argument too far. Wind farms do provably cause some limited damage to populations of birds nesting in the area, but there is a much more serious threat to bird populations from the business-as-usual approach.

In recent years, many species of sea birds up and down the East coast of Scotland have ceased to breed effectively. This situation has come about because there has been a complete collapse of the fish populations on which they depend to feed their young. And as far as anyone can tell, the reason for this is precisely global warming (Puffin numbers decline, Worst seabird season on record). So not doing something effective about global warming is going to wipe entire species of sea birds off the map in the British Isles. When you weigh that against potential damage to a few birds nesting near the wind farm itself, it seems ridiculous to turn it down on environmental grounds.

So, in the interests of preserving our birds, we're going to kill the whole lot of them. But the problems go further than this. Because each and every large project that gets turned down is a very strong disincentive to anyone planning on building new renewables. So the problems with the planning system effectively send a message to all would-be green developers, saying "don't even bother, you'll waste years and millions, and then we won't allow development anyway".

Of course, whenever an onshore project is turned down, people then point at the "vast potential" for offshore wind development, which has fewer environmental impacts. Unfortunately, the economic case for offshore wind, unlike that of onshore wind, is far from clear. Take for example the planned London Array wind farm, which was planned in the outer Thames estuary. This would have been the largest single offshore wind farm in the world, with a capacity of 1000 MW peak. This was a flagship project, which would have added 50% to existing UK wind power. But Shell, one of the key players in the consortium, pulled out. They were attacked for this by politicians, but one cannot really blame them for their decision. One of the key factors in the cost of any offshore wind project is the price of steel. Rio Tinto, one of the largest producers of Iron Ore in the world, recently hiked their prices by 96.5%, which is expected to feed through into a further 40% increase in the price of steel. So the cost of the necessary materials for any such project will only rise. Shell had already seen projected costs rise by 45%, and with another hike in the pipeline, they felt that the money would be better invested in onshore wind projects in the US.

Given that Gordon Brown's announcement is made in the context of an effectively unchanged planning system and a worsening economic case for offshore wind, it is very hard to see how it can be achieved without government subsidy. But that is exactly what he isn't proposing. The figure £100 billion may sound great, but reading the text of the announcement, it seems that this money is going to come from industry. The government contribution to this project, it appears, will be far less. We will soon see how he plans to achieve this promised goal, but until something workable is announced, I don't have much faith in it. After all, we've had and missed targets before now, and while the reasons for our current failure are still in the frame, its hard to see what progress can be made in the future.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

The Oil War

Very often, environmental policy is seen as being in direct conflict with economic growth. For instance, consider the EU-wide policy of placing high taxes on transport fuel. This issue has come to a head recently, as protesters gear up for a major battle with the EU governments. It is clear, however, that the current troubles have their origin not in the taxes placed on fuels, but in the fact that oil is running out, and global demand has finally caught up with supply.

It would be very easy at this point to come to the conclusion that the taxes on fuel are inflationary, leading to higher costs of goods throughout the economy, and therefore lower real economic growth. What this argument fails to take into consideration is adaptation. Because the EU (unlike the US) has pursued a strategy of placing taxes on fuel, we now use less oil and are therefore in a better position to weather the coming storm than the US, which has had no incentive to increase efficiency.

Thus, in the broad sense, the taxes on fuel have forced the EU consumers and companies to prepare to some extent for a future in which oil is no longer cheap. The US however, has had no such policies. Today there is still virtually no tax on oil in the US, and so, despite transport fuel still being around half the price there that it is in Britain, the US economy is ill-prepared to cope with the change. In some parts of the US, people are now spending more than 13 percent of their income on transport fuel (source: International Herald Tribune, 10 June 2008).

This situation, which is hardly mirrored in any section of European society, has arisen because in the absence of fuel taxes, there has been no incentive to develop public transport, and no incentive to car owners to consider fuel efficiency. As a result, people in rural areas often have long commutes to work, and their cars are often so-called "trucks", rarely doing much better than 20 miles to the gallon. In this situation, they have been left exposed to the price of fuel, because the changes that need to be made are long-term, and can only be made with capital investment. Someone who has just had 7% of their total income removed is unlikely to be able to buy a new car.

But there is a wider lesson in all this. Our economic prosperity is currently based on excessive consumption of non-renewable resources. If we do not use this prosperity to pay for the necessary changes to economic structures today, we will find ourselves poorer and less able to adapt in the future.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Everyday Changes (How to save money and CO2)

The simple steps described here could potentially save you over a tonne of CO2 emissions per year.

Identifying the problem is only the first part of the challenge. Once we accept that there is a problem, the question becomes: "what should we do?". We are as individuals directly responsible for some of our carbon emissions, and to some extent, these can be addressed. The totals for these tips, if all applied in the modelled case, are approximately:

CO2 Saving from electricity: ~1400 kg
CO2 Saving from heating: ~450 kg
CO2 Saving from transport: ~1350 kg
CO2 Saving from all measures: 3200 kg / year

Depending on the types of car, the distribution of your energy usage, your lifestyle and where you live, these figures may change, but most people should be able to save at least a tonne of CO2 a year without difficulty. Note that the total savings above are less than the sum of all savings (see double accounting in the notes).

1) Change your electricity supplier

There are a number of packages promising green electricity in most countries at the moment. Most of these are simply greenwash, because the suppliers don't commit to building new renewable resources; instead they just allocate or purchase electricity from existing renewable sources. In the UK, there is one company I'm aware of that is different.

Ecotricity is committed to building new renewable sources of electricity. On average, they invest £1 in new renewables for every £1 spent on customers' electricity bills, which is massively different from the business model of other utilities. They also commit to matching your existing bills, so that you don't even need to pay extra for the service. At present they generate 24% of their electricity from renewable sources. Their 2007 progress report is available here and you can sign up here:

Switch to Ecotricity

Don't be fooled by companies offering you 100% renewable electricity. What matters here is fixing the problem on a global scale, not buying "clean" electricity at the expense of everyone else having "dirty" electricity.

What it costs: Nothing
CO2 Saving: 681.5 kg / year (based on UK national statistics and ecotricity 2007 statistics)

2) Switch to using long-life light bulbs

For almost all types of fitting, it is now possible to buy long-life light bulbs. The only fittings this is not currently possible for are the standard halogen 12V fittings (MR16 being the most common). Halogen GU10 fittings, candle bulbs, standard screw fittings and spots can all be replaced with compact fluorescents . A compact fluorescent will have the same light output with five times less electricity usage. A typical two-bedroom flat might have 500 watts (equivalent) of lighting in the living room, 200 watts in the kitchen and 200 watts in each bedroom. Each standard light fitting (whether screw of bayonet) can be replaced for about 33p. Non-standard fittings such as 40-watt candle bulbs or spots can cost £3.50. You can buy non-standard replacements online (for example from here:

Both of these replacements pay for themselves quite quickly:

Standard light bulbs:
What it saves: 80% of the energy used with standard lighting.
What it costs: 33pence per bulb, £3.63 for a two bedroom house (replacing 100 watt bulbs)
Annual Saving: £12.80 per bulb, £141.30 for a two bedroom house (assuming 1100 watts replaced, and four hours of use per day average)
Time to pay back: 10 days
CO2 Saving: 53.78 kg/bulb/year, or 591 kg per year for a two bedroom house

Rarer fittings (e.g. 240 watt halogen GU10 fittings, candle bulbs etc...)
What it costs: £3.50 per 40-watt bulb.
Annual Saving: £6.42 / bulb / year
Time to repay: 7 months
CO2 Saving: 26.86 kg/bulb/year.

When you have changed to energy saving light bulbs, don't forget to switch them off when not in use. If you don't bother, then any saving you get from using them will be undone. It won't shorten their life substantially to switch them off. In general, it is good practice, whether you are using energy savinglight bulbs or not, to switch all lights off every time you leave a room. Even with energy saving bulbs, doing this could generate an additional saving of £12.80 per house per year (under the same assumptions as above).

Note that some of the very cheapest bulbs can sometimes produce a harsh light, but that if you spend a bit more, you can get softer tones. It's usually worth testing a particular type of bulb before you go crazy and buy 20 of them.

3) Don't drive unless you have to.

Depending on your car, driving will emit more or less CO2 per mile. One thing to remember though is that if you drive when you could be taking a train or bus, regardless of how efficient your car is, you are unnecessarily damaging the planet.

From the transport stats at the bottom of this post, here are a couple of scenarios:

Replacing HALF your typical annual mileage with intercity bus or train:
What it costs: Nothing (the same as the petrol for your car journey)
CO2 Saving: 1558 kg/year (typical family mpv) or 476 kg/year (the most efficient car on the UK market).

Note that not driving is by FAR the most effective thing that most car owners can do to be more eco-friendly. But not driving doesn't necessarily mean taking public transport. You can also carpool. You can do this either in a traditional way (i.e. approaching someone who works at the same place as you and lives nearby), or using a more modern solution.

Liftshare (a UK based website) allows you to split the cost of a trip with someone already planning on driving. Where I live in Oxford, it is quite easy, for example, to find people commuting on weekdays to London. I was also able to find a close match for a one-off journey up to Elgin in the far north of Scotland. With this flexibility, you can substantially cut down on your costs as well as your emissions:

Replacing HALF your typical annual mileage with a two-share in a car:
What it saves: £445 (typical family mpv), £160 (most efficient car on UK market)
CO2 Saving: 925 kg/year (typical family mpv), 346 kg/year (most efficient car on the UK market)

In reality, long-distance trips and commutes are most easily carpooled, and short trips are most easily replaced by public transport. A mixture of doing both will result in the best CO2 savings, using public transport to go to the shops (or getting a lift), and using carpooling to replace your commute (or longer trips).

Notes: The cost and savings stats for both scenarios assume that you are an average UK private car owner, with an annual mileage of 8700 miles. In the car pooling scenario, I have assumed that the car in which you get your lift is equivalent to the car that you leave behind. I have also shared the CO2 savings between the person getting the lift and the person offering the lift. See Notes at the bottom of this post for the basic stats for selected car emissions.

4) Unplug electronics when not in use.

It is surprising that televisions, computers, dvd players and hi-fi units all use substantial amounts of energy when left on standby, and in some instances when switched off. My computer, for example, draws 5 watts when switched off (about the same if it's set to sleep). Turning it off at the wall when I switch it off saves this energy. My mini hi-fi uses 20 watts on standby.

It may seem a lot of effort to go to to turn off all your electronics when not in use, but there are systems to help. If you live in the UK, you can buy a remote controlled socket kit (here for example). These are independently programmable sockets, that allow you to group items under one category. So for instance, you can have your lamps on one control, your TV and associated peripherals on another and your computer on a third.

What it does: Turns off your TV and other equipment at the wall via remote control.
What it saves: Up to 50 watts for a TV, hi-fi and computer.
What it costs: £29.95
Annual saving:
Time to pay back: 7 months (this saving applies all the time)
CO2 saving: 201 kg / year

Unplugging battery chargers and other similar equipment is always a good idea. In particular, don't leave your mobile phone or laptop on charge all the time.

5) Always turn off your computer

A modern computer with an LCD screen will typically use 150 watts when switched on. When it is put to sleep, it will typically use about 5 watts (the same as when it is switched off). So you should set your computer to auto-sleep, and you should turn it off (and switch it off at the wall) whenever you leave it for longer than a few minutes.

Turning off your computer when not in use:
Annual saving: £12 per year (based on an average of two hours of extra time left on per day)
CO2 saving: 50.37 kg / year

6) Keep the heat down

Turning your thermostat down a few degrees can make big differences. If you live in a multi-room house, you can also turn radiators down or off in spare rooms and storage spaces, because otherwise you're spending money to no good effect. An even more important change is to program your boiler or thermostat correctly, so that it doesn't waste time heating the house while you're out. It is hard to quantify the saving possible from doing this, because it depends so much on other measures you've taken. Various estimates for the "average" house are available (such as here ) however.

CO2 Saving: Approx 450 kg / year

7) Turn down the temperature of your hot water tank

If your home is fitted with a hot water tank, turning the temperature of the hot water down will have a substantial effect on your home heating. In general, there is no reason to have your hot water hotter than about 55 degrees Celcius. If it is currently set to, say 65 degrees, and the ambient temperature around the tank is on average 20 degrees, then turning it down to 55 will save 22% of the energy normally used to keep your water hot.

CO2 Saving: Variable, but certain to save you money and emissions.

8) Recycle your old refrigerator, and replace it with a new model

If your fridge is more than 15 years old, you are almost certainly wasting huge amounts of money running it, not to mention wrecking the environment. It is hard to say how much energy is wasted by running an inefficient refrigerator, because there is no practical limit to how inefficient they can be. For example, the BEKO MR52 mini beer fridge uses 525 kWh / year, or about 9 times what a bigger single unit energy efficient fridge uses.

Replacing a class C fridge (Tecnik TLFR2655 - 248 kWh/year) with a class A fridge (Baumatic BR16.2A - 56 kWh/year)
What it saves: 77% of the energy used with the old model
What it costs: £202
Annual Saving: £21.12
Time to pay back: 10 years (within the probable life of the appliance)
CO2 Saving: 88.3 kg / year

The larger the fridge is, and the colder you keep it, the greater the possible energy saving by switching. Note that products with the EST recommended logo will have the best performance. In general, the manufacturer is not a good guide to efficiency. For example, you can buy EST recommended fridge freezers from Hotpoint, and you can also buy class C fridge freezers from the same manufacturer. Always check the efficiency rating and see if there is an EST logo on display. Alternatively, you can select your brand online:

Planet Prices EST recommended fridge freezers

9) When you drive, drive less aggressively and slower

Going faster than the speed limit can be very damaging to the environment. My personal experience with my Toyota Corolla 1.6 is that driving at 60 to 65 mph, and making an effort to accelerate slowly (and to avoid braking), my typical fuel efficiency is around 16 km / litre. If, on the other hand, I drive moderately aggressively, and keep my speed at 70 to 75 mph, my fuel efficiency is 14km / litre. I have been unable to find any reliable stats on this, but assuming that my experience is typical, there is at least a 10% saving to be made from driving slowly and calmly (empirically, I would say split 50-50 between the two).

Driving less aggressively for all your journeys (assuming 10% - my car manages 12.5%)
What it saves: £177/year (typical family mpv) £64/year (most efficient car on UK market)
CO2 Saving: 370 kg/year (typical family mpv) 138 kg/year (most efficient car on UK market)

In Conclusion:

With the techniques listed here, you can save over a tonne of CO2 emissions resulting directly from your own choices, and have more money left over at the end of the day, without any reduction in your standard of living. These are the easy changes, and there is no reason not to make them. There are other harder choices that we all need to examine too.

Much of the CO2 emissions that we are responsible for happen on our behalf, and not as a result of any direct action that we take. There are already good steps being taken to address these, but my view is that if we all show willing, and engage with the problem at a personal level, we will send a clear message to others (politicians and policy makers included) that something needs to be done at all levels.

Note: Other measures

In this post, I have covered changes that are easy to make, without requiring a huge effort upfront. There are effective changes that can be made which are more long-term in character, but which still pay for themselves. I will discuss these in some future posts. These include changes such as draft-proofing your house, replacing old windows with double-glazing or modern glass, increasing the depth of your loft insulation, installing a wood-burning stove for heating and so on.

I have also limited this post to changes which pay for themselves or cost nothing in the marginal sense. Other changes which can have a big saving but do not necessarily pay for themselves are things like buying organic or locally produced food, fitting your house with a photovoltaic system (solar cells), and not eating meat. These can all produce significant savings, but are the subject for a different post.

I have tried to avoid lifestyle changes in this post, but there is one change that for many of us may be essential. This is to fly less, or if flying to fly shorter distances. One transatlantic return flight will emit over a tonne of carbon dioxide. Even with all the fuel savings that can practically be made this will never change. So changing our flying habits can be a very effective measure. Over the next 50 years, we will be reducing carbon emissions from all sorts of activity (traditional transport, electricity generation, retail and so on). If flights even remain at their current level of emissions, they will account for an increasing share of CO2 emissions in the future. So it pays to think - do we really need to go on holiday to the Bahamas, when we could go to the Greek islands instead? Do we need to take a domestic flight between London and Edinburgh, when we could drive, or better yet take the train?

Note: Double accounting and other notes.

Some of the savings in this post are not additive. For instance, all the savings resulting from energy efficiency measures would be 25% less if you switched to using ecotricity. In addition, you cannot assume that the annual CO2 saving is necessarily a good guide to how eco-friendly an approach is. For instance, switching to ecotricity will result in a far greater saving, because the money you spend on your electricity is being re-invested in new renewable resources.

In the case of driving, if you follow all of the recommended steps, you would not see an additive saving, because the saving from driving more efficiently would be smaller, since you'd be driving less. It is generally important, however, to note that taking public transport is ALWAYS more efficient in the marginal sense than driving, because you have taken a service that was running anyway, rather than driving even though the bus was running that route. Public transport CO2 emissions per passenger decrease with occupancy. By the time a service becomes so popular that the bus company introduces new stock, that service is efficient enough that the impact on global warming per person is entirely sustainable.

In accounting for CO2 savings, I have tried wherever possible to be fair. This means that I have used publicly available stats for CO2 efficiency of different measures wherever possible. Some calculations are necessarily too general to be of much use.

Note: Transport stats

The average mileage of a private car in the UK is 8700 miles. Here is a breakdown of the emissions and cost (in petrol only, neglecting road tax, parking fees, insurance, congestion charges, tolls, services etc...) for a variety of cars assuming that you are an average UK driver (prices correct 26-05-2008, unleaded 111p, diesel 124p):

Large family cars / mpvs:
Subaru Forester petrol S TURBO AWD auto: CO2 - 3550 kg/year. Cost - £1705
Ford Galaxy petrol ZETEC 16V auto: CO2 - 3700 kg/year. Cost - £1778
Volkswagen Touran 1.9 TDI auto: CO2 - 2072 kg/year. Cost - £959

Executive cars:
Audi A8 Petrol 3.7: CO2 - 4396 kg/year. Cost - £2112
BMW 545i SPORT saloon auto: CO2 - 3598 kg/year. Cost - £1712
BMW 520d manual with particle filter: CO2 - 1904 kg/year. Cost - £881

Efficient cars:
Toyota Prius 1.5 VVT-i hybrid: CO2 - 1456 kg/year. Cost - £700
Volkswagen Polo 1.4 TDi: CO2 - 1386 kg/year. Cost - £641

Public transport equivalent journeys:
On Express Coach (31 grams / kilometre): CO2 - 434 kg/year. Cost - probably not much more than the petrol cost.
On a city bus (89 grams / kilometre): CO2 - 1246 kg/year. Cost - probably less than petrol + parking.
On an intercity train (27 grams / kilometre): CO2 - 378 kg/year. Cost - probably less than petrol + parking.


Monday, 19 May 2008

A Moral Imperative

"We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late." - Martin Luther King

Al Gore has attracted a lot of criticism from all the usual vested-interest groups that are trying to dodge the issue of climate change. But none of his attackers have been more persistent and determined than those who try to do down his assertion that global warming is a moral issue. In general, they attempt to discredit this assertion by either deliberately misunderstanding what it means, or by ad-hominem attacks showing that he isn't a saint, and therefore shouldn't talk about moral issues. Clearly, neither strategy is valid, but it does raise an important question: what is meant by calling global warming a moral issue? And what purpose does it serve to frame the question in this way?

It doesn't seem, on the face of it, too hard to understand. Firstly, question of the sort "should I do X, when the consequences are Y and Z" is correctly a moral issue, concerned first and foremost with finding the right course of action. The answer to such questions usually comes down to a balance between desires on the one hand and conseqences on the other. This makes it tempting to frame the issue as follows: "Should I be driving my car to my summer house if it is going to kill X Ethiopians?". Clearly the textbook answer would be no. But the issue is as always more complex than this. If you don't drive your car to your summer house, the people awaiting the revenue from your tourist activities will not gain the economic benefit of your presence. And you will save a certain amount of money. But ultimately, you will spend this money on SOMETHING... And that something may be better or worse than driving the car in terms of its consequences to the planet and so on.

It is also true that we cannot be expected to give up all the basic freedoms and activities that are technically unnecessary to our mere survival. It is not pragmatic to demand that no-one should spend any money, or have any economic input, or generate any waste beyond what is required for subsistence. It would solve the problem, of course, but at the cost of the civilisation and freedom that we aim to maintain in the first place.

So what should we be doing? What is the moral limit? My view on this is quite simple. We must draw the lines where they are easy to draw first. So for instance, anyone who still has a standard lightbulb, which can be replaced with a long-life model, is morally bankrupt. Because not only are they spending more money than they need to, but they are doing so with the sole end purpose of killing people and destroying the planet, for the simple reason that they can't be assed to buy a new lightbulb they'll have to change in a few months anyway.

Now, lightbulbs are a first target, because the question is so heavily balanced in favour of changing them. But what about other things? What about, for example, buying a big-engine car or a sports car, instead of a more efficient, lightweight and less powerful model? This is also an absolutely moral issue, but one that conflicts with some peoples more basic desires. To us, cars are often a way of showing off, and a statement of personal freedom. The car represents the ability (whether or not we use it this way) to travel anywhere we want to, without effort and with the minimum of personal restrictions.

But how are these personal freedoms more valid than someone's right to life? Clearly they aren't. If it takes you five more minutes to walk to the bus stop, then surely that is the correct, moral course of action. And how often do you take your car to the racetrack, and make use of that 5 litre V8 engine under the bonnet? And how often is it merely burning three times more petrol than necessary while you're stuck unmoving in traffic? Even if the answer is that you use the capibilities of your car 1 second in every thousand spent driving when you don't, you're an unusually agressive driver.

So these are the questions. Is it a sufficient moral imperative, that we should re-frame some of the ideas that have been pumped into our heads by aspirational advertising, and lifestyle magazines, and celebrity endorsements? Overwhelmingly YES. And if there are still celebrities out there who endorse the opposite approach, and if you as an individual do, then you and they are morally bankrupt. Because knowing the issue, and knowing that you are killing people, you decide that a modicum of extra comfort, or consumer pride, is enough to destroy someone's home, ruin some subsistence farmer's harvest, and ultimately maybe even drown the world.

These are the reasons why global warming, far from being merely a political or a partisan issue, is in fact a moral and a personal issue.

Not Someone Else's Problem

This is not, of course, the whole story. Because there is a good political reason for framing the issue as a moral imperative. Morality must apply to us all. It is not a social issue, and not a political one. It overwhelms subsidiary concerns, such as looking good and being comfortable. As such, it is only a matter of morality that can ever bridge the divide between different political parties, social classes and nations themselves, because it is only morality that unites us all in our basic humanity. To give you an example, let us consider the civil rights movement in the US. It was only after Martin Luther King framed the issue as a moral one, not the remit of any one party, but an absolute requirement of human justice, that the politics finally caught up.

Mahatma Gandhi once said "Be the change you want to see in the world". What he saw was that it is only if we first recognise our own culpability, and act to the limits of our powers, that others start to understand the necessity of taking up the cause. It is easy for us to say that without the political will to change the law, and to subsidise this and rectify that, no real progress is possible. But that misses the point. Because if we want that change, and we act on a personal level in a way that is consistent with it, then and only then will others take note, and understand that they too must change. At any stage, it is easy to argue that there is someone bigger who must change first. But ultimately all change comes from the small scale to the large scale, and not the other way around.

Thus, it may well be true that China as a nation produces more CO2 than the US. And it may well be true that they are even less ready to address the issue. But the question isn't "who is responsible?", but rather "what is the very utmost that we ourselves can do, with the power that we have?". And this applies at all levels. Once the individual will exists, so follows the national will (we as individuals do at least have some political and opinion-forming power). And once the national will exists, so follows the international policy. This is why Al Gore, amongst others, insist on making it a moral issue. Because every single one of us must act, and suit our actions to our beliefs.

In my next post, I hope to talk about some of the steps that we can take at the personal level to improve our moral bank balances.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

The Problem is Real

Since the late 1800s, average global temperatures have risen by about 0.75 degrees Celcius. The evidence for this is overwhelming, and not subject to significant sources of error, because it comes from land-based as well as mid-ocean weather stations, many of which were established over 100 years ago. Thus, we can be certain that the effect is real. The amount of evidence available for the more recent changes in global temperatures has increased dramatically, both through a vast increase in monitoring stations (many intended to improve global weather forecasting), and also through satellite measurements.

Because we now have a record of 30 years of accurate, worldwide satellite observations, our ability to measure global temperature has improved to an unprecedented extent. We can now see the whole surface of the planet, and measure variations in temperature over almost every part of it on a continuing basis. So far, in the last 30 years, the satellite record has shown a warming trend of about 0.25 degrees / decade over land, and about half that over the sea.

So, what evidence is there that we are the cause of all of this? Firstly, we know that carbon dioxide, methane and other so-called greenhouse gases should have an effect on global temperatures. The reason for this is to do with the spectral absorption properties of these gases. When sunlight hits the surface of the Earth, part of it is not reflected, but absorbed. This raises the temperature of any un-mirrored surface exposed to sunlight. The surface of the Earth then radiates some of this heat back upwards in the form of infrared radiation. Some of this radiation makes it back into space, cooling the Earth overall. Greenhouse gases, however, tend to block this upwards transfer of infrared radiation, and thus keep more of it trapped in the form of heat. It is therefore clear that raising the concentration of greenhouse gases should increase global temperatures. Much work has been done in the past few decades in researching the extent to which man-made greenhouse gases influence the climate, and scientists are now virtually certain that these are the prime cause of recent global warming.

So why is there all this debate and controversy? The answer is that there isn't any among scientists. Almost all scientific institutions now accept that manmade greenhouse emissions are responsible for the majority of recent climate change, as can be seen from the following: Wikipedia: Scientific opinion on climate change It is, however, in the short-term interests of certain businesses and politicians to convince us otherwise. Because the true state of consensus among scientists is not publicly understood, people often believe there to be intelligent debate and dissent over the whole issue of climate change, where in reality the scientists are pretty much talking with one voice, and the politicians are sticking their fingers in their ears because they don't want to hear it. And because politicians have more public exposure than scientists, most of what people hear is what the politicians are saying.

So, accepting that the problem is real, what do we actually have to worry about? Some nice hot, sunny weather in the summers? What's so bad about that? In reality, however, hot summers are a significant threat to public health, even in Europe. The summer of 2003, one of the hottest summers on record in Europe, claimed many thousands of lives. In the UK, it is estimated that over 2,000 deaths occurred as a direct consequence of the increased temperatures that summer. In France, the number was over 10,000. Wikipedia: 2003 Heatwave

While it is impossible to attribute the extremes of any one event to global warming, the frequency of such events increases with increasing global temperatures. So we are killing ourselves, right now, by doing this. And we are doing it in numbers that outstrip most major social disasters. In the US, the consequence of rising sea-levels combined the increasing incidence of severe weather events will render coastal areas of Mississippi and Louisiana uninhabitable in the near future. Already, in the wake of hurricane Katarina, 250,000 people have permanently left the area (Earth Policy Article). Clearly, the disaster of Katarina is down to more than just sea-level rises. In particular, the loss of the Mississippi Delta, due to irresponsible engineering projects, is equally to blame. Nevertheless, the higher sea-surface temperatures created by global warming make weather events of this sort more likely, and the rising sea levels due to global warming (20 centimetres in the past 100 years) make them proportionately more devastating.

This of course only outlines the impact on Europe and the US. In reality, the vast majority of the early effects will be felt in marginal places, where the weather determines people's survival from year to year. Professor Martin Parry, of the UK Met Office, estimates that a global temperature rise of just 2 degrees could expose more than 2 billion people to water shortages. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warns that the same number could be effected by agricultural losses due to climate change, leading to a significant famines.

All these projections are understood to be very likely consequences of current warming trends. So at the very least, we are going to kill millions by being too lazy to act. But this is the bottom end of the scale. How bad does it get if the worst happens? Firstly, there is the possibility of the Antarctic Ice Sheets melting. This may already be happening (see this article), but if so, it is happening slowly. There is no reason to suppose, however, than it will continue to happen slowly in the future. During the warming period at the end of the last Ice Age, there was a significant discharge of meltwater from Antarctica, which happened very quickly indeed, raising global sea levels by about 20 meters. There is no reason to suppose that the ice cap will respond predictably to temperature rises, when in the past it has responded significantly unpredicably. 39% of the Earth's population lives within 100 km of the coast. Can you imagine the entire population of London moving inland? How about New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai, Seattle to name but a few?

We simply do not know what change in global temperatures would be necessary to melt the Antarctic icecap. Yet, even though we don't have this information, we continue to commit ourselves to ever greater increases in global CO2 concentrations, and therefore temperatures. We're effectively playing russian roulette with the whole of human civilisation. If both Greenland and Antarctica melt, we are looking at a global sea-level rise of something like 75 meters. All UK coastal cities would be drowned. Even places as far inland as Manchester and Reading would be underwater. In Europe, Berlin and Rome would be underwater. In the US, all of Florida, and about half of the land area of the states on the Eastern seaboard would be lost. Is this likely to happen? We don't know. This is a long-term threat. It isn't going to happen in 50 years or even 100 years, but we could be making the changes today that will inevitably cause it to happen in the long term.

The Greenland icecap is even more sensitive to climate variations, and it seems very likely that it will melt at an accelerating rate over the next centuries. In total, the melting of Greenland could result in a sea-level rise of up to 7 meters.

So, is that the worst that can happen? In his book Heat, George Monbiot presents what is probably a worst-case scenario for the planet. He writes:

"The Permian period came abruptly to an end 251 million years ago... The marine sediments deposited at the time show two sudden changes. The rock laid down in the presence of oxygen is replaced by rock laid down in the absence of oxygen. A instant shift in the ratio of isotopes of carbon ... suggests a very rapid change in the concentration of atmospheric gases... At the point when the sediments change, 251 million years ago, the fossil record very nearly stops dead. The reefs die instantly and do not reappear on Earth for 10 million years. All the large and medium sized sharks disappear, most of the shelly species, even the majority of the plankton. Among the classes of marine animals, the only survivors were those adapted to the near absence of oxygen.

Plant life was almost eliminated from the earth's surface. Four footed animals, the group to which humans belong were nearly exterminated: so far only two fossil reptile species have been found anywhere earth which survived the end of the period... Altogether, some 90 percent of the species appear to have been wiped out... These events coincided with a series of volcanic eruptions in Siberia. The volcanoes produced great quantities of two gases, sulphur dioxide and carbon dioxide. The rising temperatures caused by the gas appear to have warmed the world sufficiently to have destabilised a super-concentrated form of methane which was found then (and is still found today) in large quantities in the sediments beneath the polar seas... The temperature rose by between 6 degrees and 8 degrees."

Now, as he points out, this change is unlikely to have been the consequence of the temperature rise alone, but also of the acid rain which would have resulted from the sulphur dioxide. On the other hand, it gives us an idea of how bad things can get. To give a basis for comparison, the IPCC predicts that the world will warm between 1.1 and 6.4 degrees in the 21st century. The lower end of this range is if we do everything possible to stave off climate change. Their best estimate if we continue as we have been is a warming of 4 degrees. It is very likely that human activity is already leading to a mass extinction to rival the Permian, of which global warming is one of the contributing factors. What the long-term effects of this may be, we cannot say, but they are potentially dire.

In conclusion, the problem is real. At the very least, we are already killing tens of thousands of people, and making millions homeless. At the most, we are risking the survival of our species, and most of the life on the planet. Given that this is the case, the prevention of manmade global warming must be our first and greatest priority, above all other political, economic or moral considerations. We are playing russian roulette with the future of our economy, our wellbeing, our civilisation and our species itself.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Global Warming - The Burning Issue

On 14th June, 1940, France fell to the Nazis. Four days later, Winston Churchill said, in his speech to the house of commons:

"What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin... The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age..."

It frightens me when I think that today, we might face an even greater threat. The world can well survive what we are doing to it, but our civilisation and indeed our species may not. Should the worst predictions of our scientists come to pass, all the advances and setbacks of human history will seem as nothing compared to the devastation that will follow. Even in the best case, even if the IPCC is unduly pessimistic, we face a threat greater than at any point in the history of civilisation, because today, for the first time, we have created a truly global problem.

Some people seek to make this into a political issue, rather than an absolute moral imperative. Some people deny that any such threat exists, either because it is easier for them to be governed by hope than by reason, or because they have been wilfully misled by interested parties. Today, we cannot afford to be governed by hope. We are at a turning point, and the consequences of going the wrong way could be terrible indeed.

I have not, in the past, put my name to anything, because I have never felt sufficiently involved or empowered to do so. Nothing here has changed, except my absolute conviction that we must all do what we can, to the limit of our abilities. I do not expect that I will have any readers, but even changing one person's mind would be worth it the effort. To paraphrase John Donne, any man's actions influence me, because I am involved in mankind.

I will write about the problem, and about what we know about it. I will write about the scientific consensus, the uncertainty and sources of uncertainty in our models, and the state of play in climate research. I will write about the morality and the politics of this issue, and about what we, personally, can do to make a difference. I will expose the scams and the doublespeak that pervade the emerging area of environmental consciousness, and strip every idea down to its essential details. I will expose the problems, and point to the solutions, when they exist. This is my mission. I hope to God that I can do something, and that you can do something; and I hope to God that we can still save ourselves.