By Alexis RowellFirst published in Transition Free Press, Autumn 2013
How often have you heard people say: “There’s no point in me doing anything on carbon reduction – look at China”? Or “Don’t you know the Chinese are building two new coal-fired power stations a week?”
But what if China were to go it alone on cutting carbon? Would it give a boost to movements like Transition that are predicated on a move out of fossil fuels, or to grassroots carbon reduction initiatives like Carbon Conversations or Transition Streets? Would it give national governments a reason to take CO2 cuts more seriously?
By Jason Heppenstall & Alexis RowellFirst published in Transition Free Press, Summer 2013
With the coalition government ready to allow fracking companies to quite literally blow up Britain’s countryside in search of a replacement for dwindling North Sea resources, the evidence from the US is increasingly that shale gas is a bubble about to burst rather than a magic bullet.
The first comprehensive study of US shale gas production, Drill Baby Drill by the Post Carbon Institute, appears to lay to rest the notion that shale gas and other unconventional fossil fuels will solve the world’s energy problems.
“The best fields have already been tapped,” says report author, David Hughes, “and no major new field discoveries are expected.” “At best,” Hughes concludes, “shale gas, tight oil, tar sands and other unconventional resources provide a temporary reprieve from having to deal with the real problems.”
Published on Rob Hopkins' blog, Transition Culture, on 24 April 2013.
The other day a friend and I took our young sons on a tour of the Met Office’s centre near Exeter. The Met Office is home to the Hadley Centre, one of the foremost centres where climate modelling and research into climate change takes place. It was to turn out to be an event I left both angry and puzzled, and with some reflections I’d like to share here. The tour itself is of little consequence to this piece, other than to say that it managed to turn what could have been really interesting hour’s tour into a fairly tedious three hours, and certainly not a tour designed to sustain children’s interest.
The low point for me, however, was when we actually reached the Hadley Centre. So, picture the scene … My group of around 40, mostly pensioners on a group trip, arrive in the empty (well it is a Saturday) offices of the Hadley Centre. Now for those who don’t know, the Hadley Centre is kind of climate research holy ground. Here’s what their website says about what they do: “We produce world-class guidance on the science of climate change and provide a focus in the UK for the scientific issues associated with climate science. Largely co-funded by Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), we provide in-depth information to, and advise, the Government on climate science issues. As one of the world’s leading centres for climate science research, our scientists make significant contributions to peer-reviewed literature and to a variety of climate science reports, including the Assessment Report of the IPCC. Our climate projections were the basis for the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change”.
It’s a huge, fairly non-descript office, and we stand in a horse shoe shape around our tour guide (our kids are bored senseless by now and have gone off for a wander around the desks, so I’ve got one eye on them and one eye on our guide). He starts to tell us that this is one of the foremost centres of climate research in the world, whose data and models underpin much of the work going on around the world. He says (or words to this effect), “throughout history, the world has, on previous occasions, warmed to a far greater degree than we are seeing today. In that larger historical context, the warming we are seeing today is relatively minor. For me, I think it is inevitable that we will burn our way through all the fossil fuels there are. For example, I myself drive a very fuel inefficient car, I think you might as well have fun using it up”. I was stunned.
Dear Secretary of State, Minister of State and Parliamentary Under Secretaries at the Department of Transport,
Three years on and I’m still asking you to please reconsider your plans to build HS2.
By Antony Froggatt. First published in The Guardian.
"Two years ago today a huge tsunami devastated Japan, killing many thousands and causing one of the world's worst nuclear disasters. Japan's people will grieve for many years and they will be paying for the nuclear clean-up for many years. Yet, as negotiations over how much subsidy new nuclear power stations in the UK will get from energy customers, the financial liability of reactor operators for accidents remains tiny.
"Things were supposed to have changed following Chernobyl in 1986. The international nuclear community recognised its deficiencies and proposed reform of the governance structures in a number of areas, including international nuclear liability regimes. The definition of damage was to change, with the minimum amount utilities would have to pay in the event of an accident was to increase and the timescale in which those affected could claim damages was to lengthen.
"But 27 years after Chernobyl and two years after Fukushima, the proposed changes to the liability regimes are still to be adopted by the signatories of the international conventions. Consequently, in the UK, the current maximum that a nuclear operator is liable is still only £140m. The government is seeking to revise the maximum limit, but is waiting on the post-Chernobyl revisions to be adopted by other countries. If it is introduced, it will raise the operator's liability ultimately to £1bn.
"As of October 2012, approximately £9.4bn (1,335 bn yen) had been paid out in compensation as a result of the Fukushima accident and this is expected to double in the next year. At this stage the final cost can only be roughly estimated, but the utility company, Tepco, has suggested that cost for compensation and decontamination maybe in the order of £70bn (10 trillion yen).
By Emily E. Adams. First published by Earth Policy Institute.
"As the earth warms, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and seas are rising. Over the last century, the global average sea level rose by 17 centimeters (7 inches). This century, as waters warm and ice continues to melt, seas are projected to rise nearly 2 meters (6 feet), inundating coastal cities worldwide, such as New York, London, and Cairo. Melting sea ice, ice sheets, and mountain glaciers are a clear sign of our changing climate.
"In September 2012, sea ice in the Arctic Ocean shrank to a record low extent and volume. The region has warmed 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 1960s—twice as much as lower latitudes. With less snow and ice to reflect the sun’s rays and with more exposed ocean to absorb heat, a vicious cycle leads to even warmer temperatures. Thinner ice combined with rising temperatures makes it increasingly difficult for the sea ice to recover. The historically ever-present white cap at the top of the globe could disappear entirely during the summer within two decades.
"The Arctic plays a pivotal role in large-scale weather patterns. The stark contrast between cold air at the North Pole and warmer air in the temperate zone drives the jet stream over North America, Europe, and Russia. As the Arctic continues to warm faster than the rest of the globe, this contrast diminishes. This can change the path of the jet stream and slow it down, leaving weather systems in the same place for a longer time. A rainy spell that sticks around can turn into flooding, while a sunny spell can turn into a drought.
By Fred Pearce. First published in New Scientist magazine.
"As French troops battled with jihadists in Mali at the start of the year, some people had reason to be thankful for the chaos. Two million fishers, farmers and herders live on the inner delta of the River Niger, a huge wetland on the fringe of the Sahara. They hoped the fighting would end foreign investors' plans for irrigation projects that would suck water out of the river and destroy their livelihoods.
"Even before fighting broke out, rumours of impending insurrection had encouraged the food giant Associated British Foods to abandon a massive sugar cane project. Since then, "land-grabbers" from the US, Libya, China and elsewhere have departed. The Mali government's hope of using the river to irrigate up to a million hectares of desert looks doomed. The wetland – and the people who prosper from it – are saved. For now.
"But the same is not true elsewhere. Wetlands and the people who rely on them are under pressure across Africa. I have interviewed Kenyans angry at a US property tycoon draining their swamp on the shores of Lake Victoria and fencing off their wet pastures for a rice farm. I have also heard the concerns of tribal people in a remote corner of western Ethiopia, where Indian and Saudi agribusinesses are taking their forests and capturing the headwaters of the Nile.
"Usually this is called land-grabbing, but it is as much about water. In a world of drying rivers and plummeting water tables – and where a quarter of farm production is limited by water shortages – water is valuable stuff.
By Alexis Rowell. First published in Transition Free Press, Spring 2013.
If climate change was the global crisis which drew many into the Transition movement, then 2012 was the year it became almost impossible for the rest of the world to ignore the link between extreme weather events and climate change.
There was of course Hurricane Sandy, the most violent tropical storm since Katrina, which ravaged the Caribbean and the US East Coast, killing more than 250 people, and causing widespread flooding and physical damage. But 2012 was also the worst drought in the US since the dustbowl era of the 1930s. And, with 9.2m acres burnt, it was the third worst wildfire season in US history.
The United Kingdom experienced its wettest summer for 100 years and 2012 as a whole was the second wettest year since records began, just a few millimetres short of the record set in 2000. There was also extreme flooding in Australia, Thailand, Western Africa, Nigeria, Pakistan, Argentina and China, plus unusual and devastating temperature lows in Russia and Eastern Europe.
Last year thousands of people signed a petition to the then Director General of the BBC, George Entwistle, calling for better coverage of climate change on the BBC. Major problems, identified by a 2011 BBC Trust report, included too much 'false balance' between climate sceptics (like Nigel Lawson) and the scientific consensus (represented by actual climate scientists), whilst news presenters were found to be ill-equipped to cover science stories effectively.
Since then, a new Director General has taken office, and a second BBC Trust report has been produced on the subject of science and impartiality, which implied that all the problems had been solved. But on the Today programme last Wednesday morning, John Humphrys said: "The Met Office does not believe that global warming will be as severe as it had previously predicted."
That’s so misleading that it’s almost complete rubbish. The new modelling by the Met Office predicts near-record levels of global temperatures between 2013 and 2017, but says that these will be lower than they would have been because natural cycles will cool surface temperatures, masking the underlying warming trend. Of course, in some of the years to come, natural cycles will work the other way, exacerbating warming. Long term predictions are unaffected. And it should be noted that the Met Office is still predicting that at least two years between 2010 and 2015 will break global average temperature records.
This interview with Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, was conducted by Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Towns movement.
Could you share with us your analysis of where you think we find ourselves in terms of climate change and what’s our current trajectory if we carry on as we are?
In terms of the language around climate change, I get the impression that there’s still a widely held view that we can probably hold to avoiding dangerous climate change characterised by this almost magical 2°C rise in global mean surface temperature. This is the target that we have established in Copenhagen and then re-iterated in Cancun and to which most nations of the world have now signed up to; I think the rhetoric that we should not exceed this 2°C rise is still there.
It’s not just about our emissions now. If you look at the emissions we’ve already put out into the atmosphere since the start of this century, and you look at what’s likely to be emitted over the next few years, then I think it tells a very different story. It’s hard to imagine that, unless we have a radical sea-change in attitudes towards emissions, we will avoid heading towards a 6°C rise by the end of this century.
Can we for definite, in your opinion, say that this year’s extreme weather can be linked to climate change?
Certainly not. I think it’s fair to say that it’s unlikely we will ever be able to robustly link any particular single event to climate change. Now that’s not to say we can’t get a greater level of attribution, where we can start to say the things that we are seeing are what we would expect to see with a warming climate. We are struggling to find any other reasons for them and therefore it does seem a high probability that these events are caused, if not exacerbated by, the rise in CO2 emissions and other greenhouse gases and hence the increase in temperature. But I think it’s unlikely that we’d ever be able to say that any single event is a ‘climate change event’.
But would you say that if we were still at 280 parts [of CO2] per million [parts of the atmosphere] it would be much less likely that we would have had a summer like this?
Yes, I think that would be a fair comment. It would be much less likely. Before this summer, the probability of having this summer’s weather would have been less if we had not seen significant rises in greenhouse gases and their cumulative impact in the atmosphere. We are starting now to see events that it’s difficult to explain in terms of normal probabilities. We get extreme weather events, we always have had such events; extremes do occur. But if extremes start to occur regularly they’re no longer extremes, and what you’re then seeing is not a weather extreme, you’re seeing change in the climate. But it’s hard to say that any particular event in a range of events is a consequence of climate change, and not just an extreme weather event.
Sometimes people talk about this idea of ‘a new normal’, that the basic conditions around us have changed. In terms of what’s happening in terms of the climate, how would you characterise the ‘new normal’ that we’re in given the rise we’ve had in emissions so far?
I think it would probably be a very short normal, I don’t think this is the normal at all. It’s the normal for today, but I think the rate of increase of emissions, and there is no sign at all of that rate significantly coming down, would suggest that we’ll be reaching a new normal, and then another new normal, and then another new normal. I’m one of the people that concludes that we’re likely to experience significant climate change impacts over the next 1,2,3 decades and obviously beyond that point. At the moment, unless we change our emissions pathways and trajectory, the normal will be changing regularly.
Scapegoat-in-Chief: The Race for the Oval Office by Richard Heinberg
The first two U.S. presidential debates have been painful to watch. Both candidates are running on platforms constructed from verbal hallucinations about the nation’s past, present, and future. And the American people are being asked to choose between those hallucinations in order to select the best available scapegoat for the next four years of national economic decline.
The race is burning up billions of dollars in advertising money, yet few citizens seem genuinely excited about either candidate, with households evidently viewing the proceedings as a prime-time ritual combat in which it is the winner, rather than the loser, who will ultimately receive the fatal thumbs-down.
Most of the delusions and fantasies that pervade the debates can be grouped into three baskets: energy, the economy and climate change.
An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts by Joe Romm.
In this post, I will summarize what the recent scientific literature says are the key impacts we face in the coming decades if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path. These include:
- Staggeringly high temperature rise, especially over land — some 10°F over much of the United States.
- Permanent Dust Bowl conditions over the U.S. Southwest and many other regions around the globe that are heavily populated and/or heavily farmed.
- Sea level rise of some 1 foot by 2050, then 4 to 6 feet (or more) by 2100, rising some 6 to 12 inches (or more) each decade thereafter.
- Massive species loss on land and sea — perhaps 50% or more of all biodiversity.
- Unexpected impacts — the fearsome “unknown unknowns”.
- Much more extreme weather.
- Food insecurity — the increasing difficulty of feeding 7 billion, then 8 billion, and then 9 billion people in a world with an ever-worsening climate.
- Myriad direct health impacts
Remember, these will all be happening simultaneously and getting worse decade after decade. Equally tragic, a 2009 NOAA-led study found the worst impacts would be “largely irreversible for 1000 years”. [NOAA: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]
The single biggest failure of messaging by climate scientists (until very recently) has been the failure to explain to the public, opinion makers, and the media that business-as-usual warming results in simultaneous, ever-worsening impacts that, individually, are each beyond catastrophic, but combined are unimaginablly horrific.
For these impacts, terms like “global warming” and “climate change” are essentially euphemisms. That is why I have preferred the term “Hell and High Water.”
By virtue of their success in promoting doubt and inaction, the climate science deniers and disinformers have, tragically and ironically, turned the worst-case scenario into business as usual.
Don’t blame the physical markets: financialization is the root cause of oil and commodity price volatility. An article by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development on how commodity speculators have distorted and taken over food prices.
The sharp price movements of many primary commodities, including oil, have fuelled intense debate about the causes of the price hikes and possible remedies. Growing demand from large developing economies and frequent supply shocks, such as adverse weather and export bans, are generally accepted as more tangible factors that explain volatility, rather than the hundreds of billions of dollars of bets placed on expectations of temporarily rising prices. Despite a growing body of evidence on the destabilizing influences emanating from financial markets, the “real economy” explanations still dominate the debate.
It is not commonly recognized that demand from financial investors in the commodity markets has become overwhelming during the last decade. Of course, supply and demand shocks can still move commodity prices time and again. But with the volumes of exchange-traded derivatives on commodity markets now being 20 to 30 times larger than physical production, the influence of financial markets has systematically transformed these real markets into financial markets. This calls for strong and prompt policy and regulatory responses in the financial markets, rather than in the physical markets.
Global agriculture has changed more in our lifetimes than in the previous 10,000 years. But as with all change, conflicts of interest have arisen. Nowhere is this conflict more poignant than in the story of seed. A new film from the African Biodiversity Network (ABN) and the Gaia Foundation, narrated by actor Jeremy Irons, explodes pervasive myths about agriculture, development and Africa's ability to feed herself.
At the heart of the film Seeds of Freedom is the story of seed and its transformation into the property of agri-business. Africa is under growing pressure to turn to hybrid seeds, fertilisers, pesticides and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Only last month, President Obama launched the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, which will see the combined forces of agribusiness giants Monsanto, Syngenta, Cargill, DuPont and Yara investing $3 billion into creating new markets in Africa, amidst nonsensical claims that this will solve hunger and malnutrition.
I started to take climate change seriously when I concluded that the sea ice at the North Pole was melting so fast that the Arctic would be completely ice-free during the summer months in my lifetime.(1)
“Ice doesn't vote. Ice doesn't contribute to any political party. It just melts.”(2)
The quote above is from Rear Admiral David Titley, Chief Oceanographer of the US Navy. He was a climate sceptic, but the changing Arctic convinced him too.
A drip-feed of worsening environmental news stored away in the recesses of my brain became a personal tipping point back in 2005 when I read about the demise of the Arctic ice on the front page of The Independent. This was a seismic shift in my understanding of what was happening.
Suddenly I saw the need for change – by me and by human society as a whole. Not because of the polar bears – although the recent news that polar bear cubs are struggling to swim the larger distances melting sea ice implies is tragic - but because the existence of ice at the North Pole is one of the fundamentals of our world and when you start looking behind the melting ice it is clear that we are in deep trouble.
Every now and again it seems like a solution has been found to our energy problems, one that will allow us all to go on consuming (and wasting!) for decades, if not forever. For many years nuclear fusion was billed as the answer. The research began with the hydrogen bomb in the 1950s, but the timeline for rollout to the civil nuclear industry keeps getting pushed out and currently stands at 2040 at the earliest.(1)
In the 1980s Japanese scientists proved that it was theoretically possibly to extract uranium from sea water, which appeared to suggest that a key physical limit to nuclear power – the availability of uranium supplies – was no longer an issue. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately given all the other problems associated with nuclear power) nobody has actually been able to make usable uranium via this process because of the high level of carbonate in sea water.(2)
In the last few years shale gas has bubbled to the top of the pile and is now being widely touted by the oil and gas industry as: a) a clean, green alternative to coal and oil; b) proof that Peak Oil/Gas is many years off; and c) a cheaper use of government subsidies than support for renewables.(3)(4)
Those are pretty mighty claims, but do they really stack up? And even if they don’t, might there be some pretty unpleasant home truths in the shale gas story?
It’s probably fair to say that most of us remember growing up and that some of our best memories are about the outdoors: playing with friends in the park; going for a walk with the family; climbing a tree or that feeling you get when you’re standing on top of a mountain. Remembering those experiences is not just sentimentalism for a time when we were young or had more freedom to explore. Those experiences and a continued relationship with nature were and are essential for our development and wellbeing.
As David Cameron recently wrote in an essay 'In praise of general well-being’: “Central to our wellbeing is environmental sustainability. I believe very strongly, that clean, green environment is absolutely pivotal to our quality of life. I am in no doubt how important it is that we pass this inheritance on to future generations”.(1)
There is an increasing basis of scientific evidence that shows the value of nature to enhance and improve our levels of wellbeing and happiness. This is not an argument about protecting and preserving the environment, but a framework of evidence which underlines how access to a rich natural environment improves the health and quality of our lives. The implications for policy are that bringing the provision of outdoor space for the enjoyment of everyone, should be at the heart of urban and rural planning, not be set aside in a box labelled "green issues". Bluntly, access to a high quality natural environment needs to be seen as a social and public health issue not an environmental issue.
This will be “the greenest government ever” said David Cameron exactly a year ago. The bar set by the previous Labour government was low. Incredibly, even with the supposedly eco-friendly Liberal Democrats in government, it looks like this coalition will go under that bar.
Environmentalist Jonathan Porritt says of the 77 measures he’s reviewed for Friends of the Earth: “the bad and the positively ugly indisputably outweigh the good.” And adds that: “All in all, [it is] as close to a nightmare as one can imagine.”(1)
The Guardian's environmental commentator George Monbiot argues that, based on the coalition’s Red Tape Challenge, which puts at risk every environmental protection law we have: “The “greenest government ever” presents the greatest ever threat to our environment.”(2)
Sustainable food expert Prof. Tim Lang says: “I am not alone in being extremely frustrated at the coalition dropping the work that began to emerge under the last government. Goodness knows, it took a long time to get going. It was painfully slow but at least it got going. The Cabinet Office’s Food Matters (2008) led to Defra’s Food 2030 (2010) and implementation plans were underway only to be parked as the ‘bonfire of the quangos’ (SDC included) took over.”(3)
It’s almost impossible to find an academic, a commentator or an environmentalist who is positive about the coalition’s environmental record. Which is hardly surprising given what’s happening.
It was quite extraordinary and utterly surreal to hear the Chairman of the Climate Change Committee, Lord Adair Turner, on the radio this morning fantasising about nuclear power being a low cost option.(1)
A 2009 Citigroup report said "We see very little prospect of [civil nuclear] construction costs falling and every likelihood of them rising further" and "three of the risks faced by developers - construction, power price, and operational - are so large and variable that individually they could each bring even the largest utility company to its knees financially."(2)
Earlier this year the European Commissioner for Climate Action, Connie Hedegaard, confirmed that nuclear power was more expensive than offshore wind.(3)
The Fukushima nuclear accident has now been upgraded to level 7 in terms of severity, the same as Chernobyl, and the evacuation zone around the stricken plant has been widened to 40km. Not only is nuclear power not safe (see herehere for Dr Helen Caldicott's response to George Monbiot's hysterical conversion to nuclear power), it’s not green, it’s too expensive, it crowds out renewables investment, it won’t come in time, it can only be an interim solution, it will only provide a tiny fraction of our energy needs, it won’t reduce our carbon emissions significantly, it’s too centralised, the waste can’t be made safe, and the industry has an appalling track record of lies and cover ups.
If the forthcoming review of the UK nuclear industry concludes that new nuclear should go ahead over here because: a) we don’t have, nor are planning to build, any reactors of the same design as Fukushima; or b) we don’t suffer from the sort of seismic activity that Japan does, then that will be a complete whitewash.
There are perfectly good non-nuclear solutions to the climate and energy crises but they all require a lot more intervention than the coalition government seems prepared to contemplate. They are: 1) energy efficiency; 2) renewables; and 3) demand management.
It’s great to see another book out there which looks at the myriad ways that local government can take action on the sustainability agenda. But what’s particularly good about this one - “Sustainability in austerity” by Philip Monaghan – is that it addresses the fundamental question which is on the lips of most in local government: can you spend money on sustainability in a time of draconian public sector budget cuts?
I’m glad to see that Philip’s answer is, like mine, an unambiguous and hearty “yes”. His book is packed with examples from around the world of local government policies that have had an impact on carbon emissions or sustainability more generally, but which have been cost neutral in the short or medium term.
Last week’s Budget was a wasted opportunity from the man who said in 2009, “if I become Chancellor the Treasury will become a green ally not a foe.”(1) Indeed it made it even less likely that the coalition government would be the “greenest government ever” as David Cameron pledged on day two of his administration.(2)
George Osborne’s fancy footwork over petrol prices and oil company taxes did nothing to combat climate change and prepare the UK for peak oil. The so-called “fair fuel stabiliser” is a simply a sop to drivers. When global oil prices are high, as they are now, fuel duty will be lowered, with the loss of revenue compensated for by extra tax on profits for companies producing UK North Sea oil and gas. A UK carbon floor price of £16 per tonne starting in April 2013 was announced. But the carbon price in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme rate is already £17/tonne so the proposed UK floor price is meaningless. The floor price is supposed to rise to £30/tonne in 2020, but it would be far more sensible if it rose steadily year on year. The money earned from the carbon floor price will pay off public debt rather than being invested in renewables infrastructure. Scandalously, if it does ever come in, the existing nuclear power operators would make windfall gains on their supposedly carbon-free electricity. So not a great plan all in all.
The Green Investment Bank will start in 2012, but won’t be able to borrow until 2015 and then only if the public debt has gone down. Until then it’s just a £3bn fund. Nice, but not a Green Investment Bank. At the same time no serious attempt to rein in the conventional banks was announced in the Budget. To put the Green Investment Bank/Fund into perspective, Barclays paid its investment bankers £3.5bn in bonuses for their work in 2010.(3)
The previous government's commitment to zero carbon homes by 2016 is being watered down to a carbon emissions reduction target of 67%. That will make it harder for innovative councils like Milton Keynes who have been seeking planning gain contributions from those developers who fail to hit zero carbon.
The current plan for High Speed Two (HS2), a new railway line from London to the north, is predicated on the idea that it will shift passengers from planes to trains and will therefore produce a reduction in carbon emissions. But it's hard to see how that's likely to happen.
The first thing to say is that, operationally, high speed rail can never be low energy, but it can be low carbon if the electricity used to run it comes from renewable sources. However, based on the government's current plans, renewables are highly unlikely to supply the majority of the UK's power by the time the first part of the line is open in 2025. In other words, whatever else happens in terms of passengers switching from planes to trains, HS2 will be relatively high carbon and very high energy for decades to come.
Nuclear has always been an expensive white elephant. UK taxpayers currently subsidise nuclear directly to the tune of more than £1bn per year. But the indirect subsidies such as decommissioning and insurance are far greater.
The cost of decommissioning old nuclear in the UK is now estimated to be at least £73bn. Surely therefore that anyone wishing to provide new nuclear should have to put that sort of sum into an up-front clean-up fund? But of course they won't. They can't possibly afford to.
If there's a nuclear accident in the UK, then who will pay? An insurance company? Not a hope. Existing UK reactors are insured to the tune of £140m each, which the government is talking about increasing to £1.2bn, but that’s still nothing like enough to cover a serious accident like Fukushima or Three Mile Island or Chernobyl.
Nuclear power is uninsurable. It's too risky and the potential payouts are too big. The government, meaning the UK taxpayer, will have to pay as we did to bail out the banks. The free market will never bear the true costs of nuclear.
A report published by the US Union of Concerned Scientists last month said nuclear power had never operated in the United States without public subsidies. The existence of an Office of Nuclear Development at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) makes a mockery of Chris Huhne’s claim that no public money will be spent on new nuclear.
At last there’s been some movement on the UK Sustainability Communities Act. This innovative law was designed to help local people to protect or create truly localised and sustainable communities by unblocking obstacles at central government level . It establishes the right for local people and councils to submit proposals for government action. Government is then required not just to consult, but to try to reach agreement on the implementation of those proposals.
When the campaign to introduce the Act began there was strong opposition from the government. A group called Local Works began organising constituency public meetings with local MPs in support of the Act. Local Works National Coordinator, Steve Shaw, takes up the story: “Turnouts averaged between 150 and 200 people, with some meetings attracting 500. MPs were astonished and murmurs rippled through Parliament. When the Act became law in 2007, it did so with full support from all the political parties in Parliament. This was a great success and a victory for grass-roots citizen action.”
Last week we visited a Victorian property in Hornsey, North London, which had been refurbished to reduce its energy and carbon use by 80%. The house is owned by Metropolitan Housing Association and was retrofitted by Anne Thorne Architects. Three thoughts occurred to us based on what we saw:
1) Time to address the tension between sustainability and conservation
We need some form of national intervention to move the bar towards what we might call “heritage-friendly sustainability”. Planning departments all over the country are refusing to allow the sort of external, rear wall insulation that we saw at the Hornsey house and much credit is due to Haringey Council for allowing this one. External insulation is easier and cheaper to install, and is more effective in terms of preventing heat loss or rainwater penetration. There needs to be some national guidance that moves us forward on these issues.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Cancun was how little was expected to come out of it. The bar for success was low and the outcome barely achieved the little that was hoped for. Friends of the Earth called it: “a weak and ineffective agreement but at least a small and fragile lifeline for continued negotiations.” In short it revived faith in the UN process – just about.
But there was no agreement on legally binding cuts to keep global warming to under 2°C. The voluntary cuts on the table amount to playing Russian roulette with the planet’s climate.
There’s to be a Global Climate Fund to provide developing countries with money to tackle climate change, but the pledges of finance are a long way from what's needed. It also feels like madness that the World Bank, one of the largest lenders for fossil fuel projects in the world, should have been given a role as trustee of the Fund. That’s a bit like giving your grandmother to the wolf!
The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Chris Huhne, has described the Passivhaus comfort and energy efficiency standard as “a watershed moment in our relationship with the built environment” and said he “would like to see every new home in the UK reach the standard.” Mr Huhne was speaking at the first ever UK conference devoted entirely to discussion about the Passivhaus standard, which which was held at Islington Town Hall on Monday 11th October.
"It would be an enormous relief if the recent attacks on the science of global warming actually indicated that we do not face an unimaginable calamity requiring large-scale, preventive measures to protect human civilization as we know it.
"Of course, we would still need to deal with the national security risks of our growing dependence on a global oil market dominated by dwindling reserves in the most unstable region of the world, and the economic risks of sending hundreds of billions of dollars a year overseas in return for that oil. And we would still trail China in the race to develop smart grids, fast trains, solar power, wind, geothermal and other renewable sources of energy — the most important sources of new jobs in the 21st century.
This list of UK climate scientists backing the underlying science of manmade climate change is impressive. And this piece by Dr Vicky Pope at the Met Office which was published in The Times is worth reading:
"For Britain’s climate science community, the past few months have come as a profound shock. First we had the so-called “climategate” scandal, where e-mails leaked from the University of East Anglia (UEA) showed apparent attempts to thwart Freedom of Information requests.
"More recently we have had a series of reports suggesting that “key” sections of assessments of climate change science by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were in error.
The Liberal Democrat shadow Climate Change and Energy Secretary, Simon Hughes MP, this week vowed to become the first politician to live in a Passivhaus home so energy efficient it wouldn’t need central heating. Mr Hughes, who was speaking before a packed audience of planners, building control officers and architects at the inaugural Camden and Islington Passivhaus conference*, called on councils to introduce the Passivhaus standard into their planning rules.
This story is really quite worrying. According to Professor Igor Semiletov, who leads the International Siberian Shelf Study (ISSS) at the University of Alaska, methane leakage from the Arctic seabed appears to have dramatically increased.
Semiletov's team told the BBC they had recorded methane levels in the atmosphere around the region 100 times higher than normal background levels, and in some cases 1,000 times higher. Methane is 23 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, but 33 times if you include its indirect effect on tropospheric ozone and stratospheric water vapour. The Arctic methane was formerly trapped in water ice (methane hydrates), but global warming, which is far stronger at the poles than elsewhere, is causing it to melt.
A number of people have tried to suggest that this week's snowy weather is proof that global warming is a myth. The Conservative MP Ann Winterton was rightly jeered when she said this in the House of Commons. She's quite wrong, as are those at the other end of the belief spectrum who claim the cold snap is evidence that the Gulf Stream has suddenly stopped.
It's not a literary masterpiece nor is it easy to read, but might it be the most important book ever written? Dr James Hansen, the NASA scientist who has done so much over the last 30 years to try to warn a sceptical United States about global warming, attempts to explain why most climate predictions are understatements.
Here are four key thoughts from "Storms of my grandchildren"...
The Copenhagen Diagnosis is a report which was published to coincide with the UN Climate Change Conference in December 2009. It is aimed at providing policymakers with a synthesis of the latest climate science published since the last report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report serves as an interim evaluation of the evolving science midway through an IPCC cycle. The last IPCC report was published in 2007 and the next one is due in 2013. The Copenhagen Diagnosis was written by 26 authors, many of whom were lead authors of chapters in the 2007 IPCC report.
See here for the most significant recent findings:
Copenhagen was a catastrophic fiasco. Here’s why:
- The US refused to accept responsibility for its historic emissions which amount to more than 25% of all the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere
- The host nation Denmark tried to bounce developing nations into dropping the Kyoto Protocol, under which the developed countries still have emissions reductions commitments
- Denmark was also caught trying to pull together a secret deal struck with only a few rich countries
- The EU failed to lead from the front by offering to increase its emissions reduction target (from 20% to 30%) and is still only offering about half of what scientists say we need by 2020 (a 40% reduction on pre-industrial levels)
- A leaked UN analysis showed that developing countries were offering higher emissions cuts than developed countries
- The money offered to developing countries was woefully inadequate and turned out to be mostly already promised funds or loans
- The rich countries were quick to blame China for the impasse but unwilling to take adequate responsibility for the mess that they have caused
- Barack Obama flew in to universal acclaim but offered nothing new to break the logjam and flew out before the end saying a successful deal had been reached when it hadn’t and still hasn’t
One of the most important climate change campaigners in the US, Dr James Hansen of NASA, was in London this week for an Environment Agency conference. It was a privilege to hear him speak because he's been the only significant voice in a public position in the US speaking out about climate change over the last eight years. The Bush Administration and NASA both tried to shut him up, but he refused to stay silent.
Two years ago Dr Hansen said: "We have at most 10 years - not 10 years to decide upon action, but 10 years to alter fundamentally the trajectory of global greenhouse emissions." He now believes we have to have to reduce the level of CO2 in the atmosphere to under 350 parts per million. The problem is we’re at 385ppm at the moment and rising by 2ppm a year.
Most people now realise that the challenge in terms of housing stock and carbon emissions is not the new buildings but the old ones. 80-90% of our homes will still be standing in 2050. We therefore have to retro-fit them with energy efficiency and energy generation measures if we are to have any chance of hitting the government's new national 80% emissions reduction target. Local authorities have the ability to provide a solution so long as they concentrate not on eco bling like solar panels but on the boring stuff like insulation and double glazing.
At last there is a real debate in high places about how we need to eat less meat to reduce carbon emissions. The highly respected Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, has now pitched in saying: “meat production accounts for about 18% of the world’ s total greenhouse emissions so among options for mitigating climate change changing diets is something one should consider.”
It's good to see that Gordon Brown has apparently ruled out direct cash help for fuel bills and will instead concentrate on energy efficiency measures for homes which is by far the more sustainable solution. But there is another answer - tax energy profligacy not profits.
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