Wednesday, 19 December 2007

Has the USA started getting the message on CO2 emissions?

Fresh from their willingness to at least "talk about talks" on climate change in Bali, the US Congress has also, for the first time since 1975, moved to significantly beef up the requirements on for more energy efficient vehicles. It aims to reduce America’s dependency on imported oil by raising corporate average fuel economy standards (CAFE) for new cars and trucks to 35 miles per US gallon on average. The 40% increase over the current CAFE standard is intended to cut oil demand by 1.1 million barrels a day by 2020. (The current standards mandate 27.5mpg for cars and 20.7mpg for light trucks. These are equivalent to approximately 33 and 25mpg using the Imperial gallon in the UK, or for cars 8.56l/100km, or 197gCO2/km. The new CAFE standard is equivalent to 42mpg (UK) or 6.73l/100km or 155gCO2/km.)

The proposals were part of a wider Energy Bill passed by the senate at the end of last week (13 December). The Energy Bill did however lose two other key environmental elements, one of which would have required utilities to get 15% of their electricity from renewable sources, and the other which would have eliminated huge tax breaks for oil companies. These were removed in response to a likely veto from President Bush.

The Energy Bill also contains a requirement to increase by nearly fivefold US production of renewable motor fuels like ethanol to 83 billion litres by 2022, although this may, as the EnergyDon has noted before, cause more problems than solutions, leading to rising food prices and a potential shortage of corn and soya beans for food uses. (There is also worrying evidence that the US Midwest may run out of irrigation water from underground aquifers, but that's another story...)

Electricity companies in Southern States lobbied strongly against the 15% renewable electricity provision, arguing there are few renewable energy sources like wind in their part of the USA, in contrast to plentiful (and polluting) supplies of cheap coal. No wind along the Gulf Coast – now does that sound right?

While the cut-down energy bill might not be as environmentally benign as its sponsors had hoped, it still represents progress. It is to be hoped that a greener White House in 2008 will allow the change of reintroducing some of the elements lost this year.

Meanwhile the European Commission has confirmed its plans to table draft legislation on this week to reduce CO2 emissions from new cars, even though the final details of the plan appear to be uncertain. In particular, the Commission may allow car manufacturers to form emissions groups for the purpose of calculating average fleet emissions. This would be similar to a basic form of emissions trading, where producers of larger vehicles could pay the makers of smaller cars to offset their higher emissions.

The European Commission is also expected to try and differentiate between different car classes in meeting the anticipated overall target of 130gCO2/km by 2012. The calculation will probably be based on three variables, including the weight of the car, in an apparent concession to German manufacturers which manufacture significantly large (and so heavier) cars than the EU average.

So does the new action in the USA mean that it is catching up the European Union, and is this something that we should be pleased about? To answer the second question first, any progress in improving the lamentably bad US fuel economy standards has to be welcomed. However, if they reach 35 miles per US gallon by 2020, they will still be no further forward than we are now, and the EU's proposed standards, while watered down from earlier proposals of 120gCO2/km, will still be 16% better and 8 years earlier.

But there is another more serious problem. Historically the USA has defended its large, inefficient vehicles by pointing out that their country is large, with a severe climate and long distances. To some extent this has been a self-fulfilling prophecy. US cities suffer from a vast urban sprawl, linked by traffic-clogged freeways, with in most cases few public transport alternatives. If you are sitting in a jam on the Santa Monica freeway in 90° heat, for example, you expect a bit of space in which to stretch and a nicely air-conditioned vehicle. To overcome America's dependency on oil will require more than smaller or more fuel-efficient cars; it will also need a re-think about how America does business and builds itself.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Australia, China and Climate Change

The Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, made ratifying the Kyoto protocol on climate change his first official act after his inauguration last week. Mr Rudd is reported as saying "Australia’s official declaration today that we will become a member of the Kyoto protocol is a significant step forward in our country’s efforts to fight climate change domestically – and with the international community". Mr Rudd will also be one of only six heads of government expected to attend the Bali conference on Climate Change. Some commentators have noted that his signature was largely symbolic, as Australia is one of the few developed countries likely to meet its Kyoto targets due to its shift away from coal. Nonetheless, the environment was one of the two main areas of difference between the incoming Labor Party and the conservative coalition under former PM John Howard and assumed its importance in part due to Mr Howard's perceived intransigence in not signing up to Kyoto, as well as due to the prolonged droughts in much of Australia.

Clearly this ratification is to be welcomed, even though it is 10 years (yesterday!) since the Kyoto protocol was first agreed. The US is now the only major country not to have ratified the treaty, which requires developed countries to cut their CO2 emissions but imposes no targets for developing countries.

We do not have the luxury of another ten years in which to prevaricate, and squabble among ourselves about which countries should do what. And yet, we see this happening in Bali at the moment, with China and the USA involved in some sort of game of chicken, trying to be the last to cross the road towards making meaningful emissions reductions.

While this brinkmanship is going on, emissions are continuing to rise globally, with China - in particular - continuing to build new power stations. The Financial Times estimates that this year around 90GW of new coal fired capacity will be opened in China (although perhaps 15% of this will replace older smaller and often illegal stations. This comes on the back of 102GW opened in China last year - an all-time record.

It would be wrong of us in the West though, to focus too much on China. Certainly, much of the dirty electricity generated is then used in inefficient manufacturing, compounding the problem. The Chinese admit that this additional coal-fired capacity would not be entirely needed if their burgeoning manufacturing industry was more energy efficient. But part of the reason that it is inefficient is due to an escalating demand for inexpensive products by the very countries in the West, such as the UK, that are complaining about its rising emissions. As we go to the shops this Christmas and load our baskets with cheap Chinese goods, we should remember that there is a high carbon cost as well as the low financial cost that we see.

To bring this full circle, China and Australia are both Pacific nations, joined loosely through APEC (the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation). The world is shifting away from Europe and the Americas in the 21st century; let's hope that the new realism about climate change in Australia can spread around the Pacific Rim.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Of Bali and Golf Courses...

Many environmentalists are gathering in Bali for the start of the talks intended to lay a groundwork for the successor to the Kyoto treaty. It almost goes without saying that these talks (and the expected successor rounds in Poland and Copenhagen) are vitally important is the worst effects of Climate Change are to be avoided by the end of this century. An expected 12,000 delegates, protestors and general hangers-on are expected to converge on the island over the weekend. If each has flown an average 5,000 miles, the CO2 emissions from the return journey could be just under 3 tonnes (before adding radiative forcing effects from vapour trails and low level ozone), adding a massive 35million tonnes to global emissions. (It's moot point as to how many of these emissions are incremental, or whether delegates will simply be occupying airline seats and hotel rooms that might otherwise have been sold to "normal" tourists.) And among the green initiatives for the Bali delegates, bicycles are being made available for their final journey from the hotels to the conference, or else they can travel on biodiesel fuelled buses (but don't start me off on the dangers of Indonesian biofuels from palm oil...)

The Energydon won't be there. This is not because I am trying to save these CO2 emissions or because I have been put off by Bali's reputation as the being the Ibiza for Australians. It's simply because I wasn't invited: I could have paid my way, but what use can a lone voice be among 12,000 others? That might seem a strange question from a blogger who is trying to make their voice heard in the blogosphere, where there are massively more voices. But in keeping the theme of this particular blog, that lone vice might be better heard back at home.

So for the second part of this blog, I will go not so far from home - just up into Scotland, where Donald Trump is trying to gain permission to build a £1 billion golf resort North of Aberdeen. Seen by some as having parallels with the film "Local Hero", the issues are not wholly straightforward; local business leaders have apparently hailed the scheme as a "once in a generation" chance to shift the economy away from reliance on the oil and gas industries. Anything that move away from fossil fuel exploitation to encouraging healthy exercise (golf???) should be encouraged, perhaps? Well, no, as the number of visitors to this resort (and associated CO2 emissions) are likely to completely dwarf the 12,000 delegates to Bali.

And there is another big question mark about how sustainable this sort of development is. The proposals are to site a luxury hotel, timeshare properties and over 500 homes on unspoilt links 12 miles North of Aberdeen, conveniently close to its airport. The proposed development area includes sites of special scientific interest. Martin Ford, chairman of Aberdeenshire's strategic resources committee used his casting vote to veto the project yesterday, despite it having been approved earlier by the local planning committee. He is quoted1 as saying "The golf course can go somewhere else; species and habitats can't. The risk to the local environment and wildlife was too high a price to pay. At the end of the day, this is not sustainable development because of the destruction of something that cannot be replaced. We are having a pistol held to our heads in the form of moral blackmail. We can only have it if we sell our soul." If this sounds strong stuff, Mr Ford - who has a doctorate in plant ecology, so knows the true value of the links area - concluded that "it was not an anti-golf decision [but] pro-due respect for an important conservation site".

I would like to echo Mr Hall's comments. His was a near-lone voice that could prevent real local environmental loss. We have to get the balance between sustainable and development right, and not to treat the phases "sustainable development" as an indivisible whole. And I hope that some of the delegates in Bali can think about his moral stand while they are enjoying the conference. But if I don't like their decisions, maybe I'll just have to buy a ticket for Poland instead...

1 Financial Times, 1 December 2007, p3.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

US Green Car of The Year is not at all Green

It has been reported that the Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid has been named 2008 “Green Car of the Year” by the US Magazine Green Car Journal at an event to coincide with the Los Angeles Auto Show. Although the judges included a number of well-known US environmentalists, from bodies such as the Worldwatch Institute, the Sierra Club and the World Resources Institute, the winning vehicle only returns 21 mpg in the city or 22 mpg on the highway. (These are per US gallon, equivalent to around 26 mpg in UK units, or 246gCO2/km.)

The editor of Green Car Journal, Ron Cogan, apparently hailed the choice as a “milestone,” because although SUVs are usually thought of as bad for the environment, the dual-mode hybrid system in the Tahoe “changes this dynamic with a fuel-efficiency improvement of up to 30 percent compared to similar vehicles equipped with a standard V-8.” All the short-listed cars were hybrids this year.

Now, I'm something of a fan of hybrid technology, seeing it as being an important first step towards genuinely low carbon vehicles. But 246gCO2/km is derisory; compare this with the 109gCO2/km for the Toyota Prius, or even the EU's "voluntary" target of 130gCO2/km for the average car sold and you should be able to see why. Indeed, even non-hybrid cars - such as the new diesel VW Polo BlueMotion - can just scrape in under 100gCO2/km - well under half the level of the Chevrolet Tahoe. And I haven't even started thinking about the embodied carbon in a large chunk of metal and plastic...

It's not valid to compare this with other SUVs. Most drivers do not need an SUV, and should not be encouraged to drive one by spurious greenwash. (For reasons that I shall not mention, I spent 20 chilly minutes standing at a road junction this morning scanning cars coming towards me. None of the SUVs had more than a single occupant.) This award is just another example of the worst sort of environmental claim being made, that may allow consumers to feel less guilty about their choices, but will get us nowhere towards a really sustainable energy economy.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Are Biofuels a Crime against Humanity?

I had just returned from holiday, when the BBC World Service rang up, asking me if I'd defend biofuels against charges that they constitute a Crime Against Humanity. According to the BBC's own website1:
A United Nations expert has condemned the growing use of crops to produce biofuels as a replacement for petrol as a crime against humanity.

The UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, said he feared biofuels would bring more hunger. The growth in the production of biofuels has helped to push the price of some crops to record levels.

Mr Ziegler's remarks, made at the UN headquarters in New York, are clearly designed to grab attention. He complained of an ill-conceived dash to convert foodstuffs such as maize and sugar into fuel, which created a recipe for disaster.

Now I'm not the right person to defend biofuels, as I have serious doubts myself about the effects on global food production and prices - witness the "tortilla riots" in Mexico, or rising beer prices worldwide - but as with the previous two blogs about risks, it is all relative. At current levels, even I doubt that many (if any) people are going hungry owing to biofuel production - the poorest and hungriest are more likely to eking a living from subsistence farming and suffering from the direct effects of climate change. And much of the BBC report seemed to be focusing on a little bit of EU-bashing, as they seemed to feel that the real cause of the problem was the EU Directive on Biofuels, which sets targets for each member state. Under this Directive, Britain will have to provide 5.75% of its road fuels from biofuels by 2010 - a high figure based on current levels, but probably achievable substantially from land that won't be competing with food crops2.

So I declined the BBC's opportunity, as
although I felt that the emotive language used by Mr Ziegler was not really advancing the debate at all, his real target was probably the US support for bioethanol from corn, and I really did not want to start defending that. Certainly in the past, exports of surplus US grain have helped "feed the starving" (although they may also have undermined indigenous agriculture by making it easier for farmers to receive food aid than to attempt to grow their own crops on difficult land), and the diversion of grains (wheat as well as maize) into bioethanol reduces the surplus available for the needy. But in truth, the support for the US bioethanol industry looks as if it is as much targeted at providing a valid excuse for farm subsidies in swing political states, as towards attempting to combat climate change through biofuels.

And as the BBC didn't want to hear my views on how public transport and cycling might help solve the fossil fuel problem with minimal need for biofuels, I thought it better not to be drawn into this debate!

1 See BBC Americas website, 27 October 2007

2 It may however be competing (indirectly) with rain forest, especially if it's biodiesel from palm oil, produced in South East Asia, or bioethanol imported from Brazil. This bioethanol comes from highly efficient sugar plantations that do not directly lead to the cutting down of the Brazilian rain forest, but there is evidence that the use of land for fuel crops has led to ranching shifting away from the coast inland to the Amazon basin.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Which is scarier: Obesity or Climate Change?

The question posed may seem trivial, weird even. But clearly not to the new British Government - Dawn Primarolo was shown on the news last night keeping a perfectly straight face as she announced that Obesity is a greater risk to the UK than Global Warming. Apparently she was only echoing the words of her boss, Alan Johnson, but it does raise another interesting question about perceptions of risk - just after we have heard how the public perceive the risk from terrorism vs. Climate Change.

Of course, I suspect that in truth we have a little bit of jumping on the bandwagon here. You can almost see the frustrated health minister listening to all the positive coverage on Friday about Al Gore and Climate Change, and thinking "Why can't we have some of that?". So some bright young intern no doubt comes up with comparing obesity risk to climate risk and - hey presto! - you get an excellent soundbite that makes climate freaks like myself spluttering into my cocoa1.

So how do we compare the risks? Well, in one sense, Ms Primarolo may be right. If we look at premature deaths among UK citizens, then there may be more attributable to obesity than to climate change, and will almost certainly be so over the next 25 years. Longer term, it's harder to hazard a guess - indeed if some of the predictions about the loss of agricultural land (and lower yields) due to rising sea levels (and weather instability) are true, the obesity issue may dissipate as food prices rise. I doubt that we'll starve in Britain, but the days of cheap meat (and hence cheap burgers) and vegetable oils may be over sooner than we expect. But if we fast forward past 2050, and don't take action against climate change in the near future, I suspect that even in the UK climate related deaths (including ones from illnesses associated with shifting climate patterns) will outnumber obesity ones.

Perhaps I can square this circle with a suggestion for something that can simultaneously tackle obesity AND climate change. Cycling. Yes, using the humble push-bike to commute to your work or school will address both issues at ones, at a very low cost. And there's some evidence that healthy people feel happier, too, and so worry less about Government pronouncements on obesity, climate change, or whatever...

1 Of course, we environmentalists too can be guilty of jumping onto bandwagons to try and elevate our message. I fondly recall an advert I saw in 1992 in Northern Ireland that carried the message in block capitals "ENERGY INEFFICIENCY IS AS ANTI-SOCIAL AS DRINKING AND DRIVING". Maybe...or maybe not...

Friday, 12 October 2007

Al Gore and the Nobel Peace Prize

This blog may be sometimes accused of being a little grumpy, so let's give a big Hurrah! to the Nobel Prize Committee for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore and the IPCC. Al Gore needs no introduction, although unlike some of the current crop of green politicians he's no johnny-come-lately; I prize my copy of his 1992 work "Earth in the Balance", written just before he became vice-President.

Of course, this was - like most Nobel Peace Awards - a political decision, and coming just after President Bush's rather strange anti-climate change summit, it shows that the committee in Sweden can tell real McCoy from the fake. What Al Gore realises, is that we have to act; climate change may be an inconvenient truth, but it is the truth, and needs a concerted global response.

And it's also pleasing to see that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shares the award, for this is the group that has cautiously advanced the scientific case, building a consensus and providing hard facts on which the rest of us can base our arguments. Without the IPCC, the nay-sayers really would still be denying the evidence all around us.

However, to end the short celebratory post, I'll return to the words of Al Gore, in his 1992 book1: "We can work to achieve it and preserve it [the balance now missing in our relationship to the earth], or we can whirl blindly on, behaving as if one day there will be no children to inherit our legacy. The choice is ours; the earth is in the balance."

1 Conclusion on p 368, British Edition (Earthscan Publications)

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Which is scarier: Terrorism or Climate Change?

Are the British public becoming scared of Climate Change? A recent Yougov survey1 indicated that one couple in seven were reluctant to have children because they were concerned about the future of the world. Apparently, of this group who were polled online, 70% cited terrorism, 58% immigration, and 38% Climate Change as a contributory reason.

Quite apart from the fact that it's always wise to take this sort of survey result with a pinch of salt, I find the results a little perplexing. As a former mathematician, I find perceptions of risk interesting, as I can tell you precisely the chance of rolling 10 sixes on a dice in a row (1 in 60,466,176), which is roughly the same chance as being the next person in the UK to be struck by lightning. But how can we balance these highly unlikely events in any meaningful way? The chance of being directly involved in a terrorist incident is actually very low in most Western countries2. Just compare the number of deaths in the tragic event of 9/11 with the number of homicides or road accidents in the USA in the same year, and you'll wonder why the US President didn't start bombing the gun makers or General Motors. Nonetheless, the fear of random - and at times inexplicable - events can be very real.

To give the survey its due, Yougov's client, the Mental Health Foundation, were using the results to demonstrate how rising anxiety and general feeling of helplessness was leading to possibly irrational decision-making. Clinical psychologist Dr Michael Reddy was quoted as saying "As social animals, we are sensitive to dangers from other humans that are intentional, such as terrorism. Accidental dangers, such as natural disasters, fail to motivate us in the same way."

I am not sure whether Dr Reddy would place Climate Change into the natural disaster category or not. Hopefully it is not intentional (although I might point an accusing finger at some politicians for behaving as if they didn't really care whether it is happening or not), but equally, it is generally accepted to be humanly induced. So are the reluctant parents behaving rationally by choosing not to bring children into a world that maybe severely affected by Climate Change?

Here the answer is less clear cut. There is a very small chance that we may reach a tipping point that leads to unchecked and major climate changes - a 5-10°C temperature rise (with massive sea level rises) or the "switching off" of the North Atlantic conveyor system (the Gulf Stream rendering parts of Northern Europe uninhabitable). But based on IPCC predictions and fairly firm science, a 2-3°C temperature rise over the forthcoming century is manageable, at least for those of us lucky enough to live in fully developed countries such as Britain. Yes, there may be famines and floods, but they will largely affect developing nations, and not the middle class web users being polled by Yougov. So are people over-estimating the risk of the big events, or basing their choice on a less rational fear of a smaller shift in climate?

But is there a second, almost hidden, moral issue: is it right to bring more people into a world that cannot really meet adequately the material needs of its current 6 billion inhabitants without creating major environmental problems, such as Climate Change? Or to put it in more biological and less social terms, by holding back from starting a family, are couples already instinctively starting a mechanism that is common in nature of reducing population sizes when times look tough? Big questions, and perhaps ones that I will return to in another blog.

1Poll of 2,012 adults online by Yougov, for the Mental Health Foundation, as reported by BBC News on Monday, 8 October 2007.

2Terrorism (and its reporting in an era of 24 hour news) tends to have a much wider impact than those directly affected. For example, we can almost all remember where we were when we first saw a news report of the 9/11 atrocity, and I, for one, was forced to cancel a planned meeting in London due to the suspension of public transport on the day of the 7/7 London terrorist attacks.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Too much to blog about

There's too much to blog about in today's papers...

  • At the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth Gordon Brown promises Britain will "lead in carbon-free vehicles, carbon-free homes and carbon-free industry", although he supplemented this by adding that Britain will be a "world leader in energy...from nuclear to renewables". But not energy efficiency?
  • Up in London, the Carbon Trust announced more funding for research into marine energy. It's only £3.5million, but this is helpful, especially in the light of the concerns I expressed about funding for offshore technologies in yesterday's blog.
  • At the United Nations in New York, General Secretary Ban-ki Moon noted that "10 years since Kyoto...most industrialised country emissions are still rising and their per capita emissions remain unacceptably high".
  • Ex-President Bill Clinton has also been focusing this week on combatting climate change in his Clinton Global Initiative, and in an interview with the Financial Times1 suggested that countries such as Britain and Denmark have had faster economic growth than the USA since 2000 precisely because of the development of new green industries. However he was taken to task by the FT's leader column for under-estimating the costs of some of the climate mitigation measures; certainly his own estimates of paybacks on low energy lights and a highly efficient window he had recently installed in his barn were far too optimistic.
  • However in Montreal, all is less optimistic. The International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) is set to reject the European Union's plan to permit the inclusion of international aviation into its cap and trading scheme (the ETS).
  • And if all this action gives the impression that global climate change may yet be averted, the string of mini tornados unleashed by a cold weather front running from Farnborough in Hampshire to Scunthorpe via Luton and Northampton has been blamed by some on climate change. Britain is apparently likely to become more vulnerable to tornados because of its location on the edge of the Atlantic with prevailing Westerly winds picking up energy from the warming seas and creating increasingly violent storms.

So if I am not to simply report things, what am I to say in this blog?

The one common factor is a lack of local action, leading directly to real savings. Neat triplets about carbon-free Britain may lead to action eventually, but when the Government is backtracking on local authority initiatives to raise standards above the minimum (for example through discouraging the so-called "Merton Rule", where councils can require 10% of renewables on most new developments), it's hard to take some of these positive announcements at face value.

Of course, some action is being taken; this evening I was asked by my local radio station to explain just how my local council's policy of carbon-neutral homes would work. I was clearly either too lucid or opaque, as the next question ignored my carefully constructed answer and went for the jugular: "Why is it worth it, with the Chinese opening a coal fired station a week?" I should have quoted Ban-ki Moon back at the interviewer, but rather chickened out, referring to the Chinese only building power stations to meet Western demand for consumer goods. True, but in a week where "Moral Hazard" has become a buzz phrase in connection with Northern Rock, perhaps I too could have pointed out that we have a moral responsibility to take action on Climate Change. Or is that just too po-faced for drive-time radio?

1Full Transcript on, 24-9-2007, editorial comment 25-9-2007

Monday, 24 September 2007

Two Cheers for the Energy Technologies Institute

The Government has finally announced where the new Energy Technologies Institute will be located. It is to be based at the Midlands consortium of universites, centred on Loughborough. The new institute, which will apparently have a budget of £1.1 billion (good news) over 10 years (oh well..) and will be headed by David Clarke, currently head of technology strategy at Rolls-Royce. Six companies - BP, Shell, EDF Energy, Eon, Caterpillar and Rolls-Royce itself will contribute £5mn a year each, leaving a shortfall of some £250 million still to be found to match fund the Government's own contribution of £550 million.

I am slightly of two minds about this institute. On the one hand I welcome it, and the fact that it is levering in significant amounts of private money (if not quite all that the Government had hoped for). But on the other hand, I am concerned that focusing too much money into one place may limit the breadth of innovation, and could risk reducing funding for some of the many other current centres of excellence. I suspect that the Loughborough team's focus will be on engineering solution to energy; this may help generation at all levels from nuclear to renewable. There are also excellent teams working on fuel cells and the hydrogen economy. (And it will be good to see the old BG research centre brought back to life).

However, apart from their excellent work in automotive energy efficiency, I don't see as much evidence of their expertise on the demand side, or on behavioural aspects. It would be a disaster for the UK's move to a sustainable energy economy if the work being done in the ECI in Oxford, focused around consumer behaviour and the uptake of low energy appliances, were to be dissipated, or starved of funds. And in Loughborough you can't get much further from the sea; yet by 2050 much of the UK's energy should be generated offshore, from wind, wave or tidal flow, and the Scottish universites are justifiably proud of their research into this area.

Aha, you might say; is this sour grapes from the energy "don"? Well, yes, I was involved in the very early stages of another consortium bid (centred round a university I have not so far mentioned), and clearly we were not successful. And as my very first post made clear, I am not a real don, so I won't be sending in my CV just yet to the new institute, even though I do have a relative working there...

Monday, 17 September 2007

Could the UK ban the sale of Petrol Cars by 2040?

It's Party Conference Time again, and this year all the major parties are vying to appear greener than each other, especially when it comes to Climate Change. This is probably a Good Thing, as it is throwing out some interesting ideas.

Today it's the turn of the Liberal Democrats. Chris Huhne, their environment spokesperson has come up with two eye-catching ideas about private cars as part of a ten-point plan to achieve a carbon-neutral Britain by 2050:

  • Raise the annual road tax on the worst gas guzzlers to £2,000 a year
  • Ban the sale of Petrol Cars from 2040

Neither of these are likely to happen, as the LibDems are unlikely to form the next Government, or even one by 2040. But they are worth a little consideration.

At first sight, the Road Tax one appears easier to implement. The UK wouldn't need the approval of Brussels, unlike (say) introducing a ban or an emissions cap. And by applying it only to newly manufactured cars, it cannot be accused of penalising poorer consumers who have bought second hand has guzzlers.

However there is one possible downside. Some people — mainly company car drivers — would still choose these gas guzzlers, in the knowledge that they (or their employer) could afford this road tax bill. But the second hand value of such a vehicle would plummet, and many would be become worthless (and hence scrapped or exported to other countries with a less punitive tax regime) whilst still quite new. If they were scrapped, this would be a shocking waste of the embodied energy in the gas-guzzler; if exported it is likely to be to a country with lower petrol taxes, and would lead to them driving a higher mileage than if retained in the UK. Ultimately the only way to prevent new gas-guzzlers appearing on Britain's road is through legislation, restricting the sale of vehicles with high CO2 emissions and this requires concerted European action. The current voluntary agreement to reach 120g/km emissions is not working; the UK Government (of whatever colour) should put pressure on Brussels and act unilaterally in support of the "voluntary" targets to ensure they are met.

The other new idea is to require all cars sold to be zero-carbon by 2040. This appears at first to be even more radical, as at present there are only a handful of ZEVs on sale — mainly small electric vehicles. But let's look at this from a historical perspective and suppose that in 1935 someone had said to the bigwigs at the LNER, GWR1 et alia that within 33 years there would be no steam trains running on Britain's main line railways. I think that would have been received with guffaws of incomprehension: after the companies were hard at work refining their designs to create ever better and faster steam engines. At the LNER, Sir Nigel Gresley had just launched his streamlined Pacifics and Silver Link had set a new world speed record of 112mph in September, and over at the Great Western the Castles and Kings were setting standards for efficiency and reliability. Surely steam would be the principal motive power for at least another 50 years, if not more?

So 33 years is still quite a long time in transport development. I see no reason to doubt our ability to meet the LibDems' target. And if the White House is serious about using technology as the "fix" for Climate Change, then it makes the 2040 zero-carbon cars target look positively easy.

1London & North Eastern Railway and the Great Western Railway; two of the Big 4 pre-nationalisation rail groupings. Every schoolboy still knows (or should know) that Mallard holds the World Steam Speed record, at 126mph, but this wasn't set until 1938.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Can Wal-Mart do more for the Environment than the Body Shop?

Dame Anita Roddick, who sadly died yesterday aged just 64, will be remembered as the pioneer of ethical retailing. Although she is most famous for the Body Shop's stance "Against Animal Testing", she was active in many areas, including the active sourcing of ingredients from under-developed parts of the world, and charities associated with issues such as HIV-AIDS. In the Body Shop's early years they would take back their trademark simple bottles for refilling, and were also pioneers in renewable energy, investing in a wind farm to power their Littlehampton headquarters.

So it may appear to be almost sacrilege to suggest that Wal-Mart can do more for the environment than the Body Shop. Isn't this the company that famously prevents unions from operating in its stores, and has a reputation for squeezing down prices from suppliers to the level where they are barely economic? Yes it is, but it is also a company that has very publicly committed to making real cuts in its carbon emissions. Bentonville AK is taking a stance on this issue that Washington DC seems to be incapable of. And when the bosses at Wal-Mart tell their store managers to cut energy consumption they do: if not, your job may be at risk.

Wal-Mart's sourcing policies may also help. They have recently mandated that all their US suppliers of detergents must use double concentrate (or more). This will massively reduce packaging and waste, as well as transportation energy. And because of Wal-Mart's massive influence and buying power, almost all US detergent manufacturers are voluntarily following suit. Wal-Mart can achieve what Washington cannot; its detractors have accused it of applying "European standards" (now there's a real insult!) to the environment.

So has Wal-Mart turned from environmental foe to friend? It's too early to be sure; if management does not see a bottom line improvement it may well change its mind, although savings from energy efficiency should be a no-brainer. And critics point out that Wal-Mart's own CO2 emissions are just the tip of a fast-melting iceberg. Much more energy is used throughout the supply chain and by enticing citizens to drive to its big boxes in the suburbs. The Wal-Mart supercenter by the freeway has driven the Main Street Piggly-Wiggly out of business1.

But are Wal-Mart and the Body Shop so different? Aren't they both selling us, the consumer, the goods that we want in a way that we like at the price that we're willing to pay? And if the English middle classes like fancy "ethically sourced" ingredients, rather than a US redneck's industrial product, does that say more about the retailer or the consumer? Do we need the Body Shop's bottles of coconut oil and lime shower gel any more than Wal-Mart's value detergent offering? Is Littlehampton (or Paris, where Body Shop's owners, L'Oréal are based) really nearer to Bentonville than we think?

And to answer the title question, Wal-Mart could do more for the environment than the Body Shop; I just hope that they will.

1 English readers should read this sentence as "The Asda superstore on the bypass has driven the High Street Walter Willson out of business"

Monday, 10 September 2007

We should welcome HIPs in the Home

We should all welcome the extension of the requirement for Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) today (10th September), as part of a Home Improvement Pack (HIP) to three-bedroom homes in the UK. The certificate will show the home's energy efficiency on a scale from A to G, similar to that used for several years on fridges, as well as indicating its environmental performance in terms of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Giving consumers information about their energy performance should encourage the market for low energy homes. It may also provide an opportunity for sellers to raise the value of their homes by making simple energy improvements prior to sale. Yet the Government almost bungled the introduction of the certificates as part of HIPs, with delays to the implementation date that undermined confidence in the market, coming under pressure from an alliance of estate agents and surveyors keen to entrench their members' position in the market.

These certificates provide just enough information to help homebuyers choose the most efficient properties. This will also provide an incentive for sellers to make energy savings upgrades to their homes before putting them onto the market, as they will know that buyers will be able to see the resultant benefits. At a rough estimate, if 5% of homeowners were to take action to improve their property by one energy rating band, this could still lead to annual savings of over 50,000 tonnes of CO2, the main gas contributing to global climate change.

Energy labels are, in general, a Good Thing1 for both consumers and the environment. So although the Conservatives have been unhelpful at times over their introduction on homes (as part of HIPs), it is pleasing to see recent press reports2 that John Gummer and Zac Goldsmith are recommending to the Tories that energy labels should be extended to entertainment products (so-called brown goods). This is even without waiting for instructions from Europe (or perhaps, especially if not being imposed by Europe). This return of bipartisanship is to be welcomed, and we hope that it will extend to the introduction of Energy Performance Certificates (as part of HIPs) in all homes.

1 As might have been approved by Sellar & Yeatman in 1066 and all that. OK, they might not have approved of labels if they thought they were coming from Europe rather than England…

2 Sunday Telegraph, 9 September 2007

Friday, 7 September 2007

Welcome to the Energy Don's Blog

Energy and Climate Change are issues that affect us all - and this blog is a first attempt by someone, who ought to know better, to put his or her thoughts about energy into a blog.

I should start by saying which axes I am grinding. I am passionately in favour of sustainable energy, and greatly concerned by global climate change. Indeed, I am so passionately concerned that I gave up a well paid job somewhere else to come and work in the sector. But...(and there will always be a but), there's a lot of hype around and, to be quite honest, a lot of misinformation, from all sides of the debate. So I will be trying to take a unbiased view of the argument: not dispassionate, just straightforward. That's why I chose the name "Energy Don"; in best academic tradition I will seek to expose the truth, without fear or favour. (But not without plagiarism, occasionally: it wouldn't be a blog otherwise!) I'm not a don of course, but in the blogosphere who is quite what they say they are?

Most of the time I will be "on message" with my employer (which I shall be keeping anonymous; any lawsuits will need to head in er... my direction, not theirs). But at times I will be most certainly "off message".

At all times I will try and keep this lively, and try and point out some of the real issues behind combating climate change, as well as some of the strange side effects. I hope that with over 20 years' experience of the subject I can bring the occasional insight. If not, then someone must tell me and I will stop.

For while you have been reading this another 7,0001 tonnes of carbon have been emitted in Europe alone, quite apart from what's been happening in China, USA...

The Energy Don

1 Source: Eurostat, based on 1 minute reading time, and EU-25 2002 data of 3,750MtC annual emissions.