Think carbon! I know I've said it before, but everything you choose to eat, use or wear has a direct impact on the size of your carbon footprint. Carbon footprints and carbon emissions determine the future of this planet, our home. Unsurprisingly, this week’s episode is concerned directly or indirectly with carbon emissions and carbon footprints.
I'll talk about consequences and the type of extreme weather we are likely to see as the climate becomes increasingly disturbed. There's a lot of extreme weather about at the moment.
I'll talk about energy (as usual), two new types of battery and how we can best use SMRs, (small modular nuclear reactors). Is a heat pump the best way to provide clean energy to heat your home? Cambridge University have found an alternative which does not involve greenhouse gases.
We all want to cut pollution and some corporations want to be seen to be cutting pollution even more than they really are. The Chair of the Environment Agency warns against greenwash. And what can we use instead of plastic for storing liquids?
I was interviewed recently by Mercedes Fernandez for her Hello Mercedes podcast. We spoke about how your daily choices contribute to climate change. It’s out. It’s on Youtube and on anchor.fm. Find the links here:
West Cumbria Coal
My second interview of the week leads into my first story, which is about the new West Cumbria deep coalmine. A final decision on whether this can go ahead was expected this week, although whether we will actually find out about it is not at all clear because of the current turmoil in the Westminster Parliament. I was interviewed on GB News TV and put up against the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, who of course is totally in favour of the project. Lord Deben, on the other hand, who is chair of the Climate Change Committee said that a decision to go ahead would be totally indefensible.
The man from the NUM said that it made much more sense to mine and use the coal in the UK rather than to import it from places like Russia. It will be metallurgical coal which is used for steelmaking, not for power generation. He said that the mine would be environmentally responsible and that by avoiding imports the carbon footprint of transporting the coal to the point of use would be much reduced. This overlooked the fact, as reported in an earlier episode of the Sustainable Futures Report, that the Materials Processing Institute found that 80% of this coal would be exported, because it is of a type which does not suit the British Steel manufacturing process. A small amount of the coal may be used by Tata steel, but Tata does not import any coal from Russia, so it doesn't solve that problem.
How long must we wait?
In any case nothing will be produced surely for five or 10 years, so as we get closer to our Net Zero 2050 target this mine will come on stream and blow holes in it. We're not talking about the carbon footprint of transporting the coal. The impact is far greater from actually burning the coal, and while we could congratulate ourselves that it was not going to be burned in the UK, the effect on the environment that we all share is the same wherever it’s burnt. And carbon capture and storage (CCS) is generally so expensive as to make any steel mill using it, uncompetitive. More on CCS later.
There are two possible solutions. Some Swedish steelmakers have successfully produced steel using hydrogen rather than coking coal. Of course that will require massive investment to change the production facilities, but it in the face of the damage that burning fossil fuels creates, it's surely a justifiable investment.
The other solution is simply to use less steel. Again, as I've reported in an earlier episode, some constructional steels can be replaced by timber. Buildings up to 18 storeys high have been successfully completed using timber framing instead of steel. The timber locks up the carbon which was absorbed as the trees grew and that carbon is locked up for the life of the building, which could be a century or more.
If I don't hear the decision on this before my publication deadline I will bring it to you as soon as I get it. I’ll also put the GBNews interview up on YouTube and let you have a link to that when it’s done.
On the energy front this week there is news of two new types of battery.
Not all batteries store electricity, and in Finland a new sand battery stores heat. Surplus renewable energy from solar panels and wind turbines is used to heat 100 tons of builder’s sand. This heat is stored at 500°C and could remain hot for months at a time. Using a heat exchanger the heat can be extracted to power the local district heating system. A very simple technology, presumably cheap and unlikely to wear out. An important development for Finland since it has relied so much on supplies of Russian gas.
A sand battery is clearly not appropriate for an electric vehicle and lithium-ion batteries which are commonly used are not without their own problems. Their price is determined by the supply of lithium, and since lithium mining has not been able to keep up with the dramatic increase in demand, that price has gone up. Nickel, manganese and cobalt, also needed for these batteries, are also in short supply and their price too has risen. Lithium-ion batteries have a limited life and they need to be carefully disposed of.
A company called Natron announces the sodium-ion battery. The main component is sodium chloride, common salt, and there are vast amounts of that in the sea. The technology does not need nickel, manganese or cobalt, so the environmental impact of obtaining the raw materials is minimal by comparison with lithium-ion battery production.
The developers claim that the battery would be capable of 50,000 charge cycles and could be charged from 0 to 99% in just eight minutes.
Too good to be true?
Sounds too good to be true. Yes, there’s always a but. The sodium-ion battery has less energy density than the lithium-ion battery which means for a given capacity the sodium version will be bigger and heavier than the lithium unit. Given its rapid charging capability consumers might accept it in an EV with a shorter range, but remember, rapid charging is not just about the battery, it’s about the charging infrastructure. As rapid charging becomes more widespread it will put increasing demand on both the generators and the distribution system. The price of rapid charging is likely to rise significantly to reflect this.
If not in EVs, there could be an important future for static sodium-ion batteries to back up datacentres, industry and the grid.
Nuclear - SMRs
Still on energy, there is an interesting article in Medium Daily and a link to that on the website, about small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs). The technology is proven because it is widely used in nuclear submarines, and governments are hoping it can be adapted to provide clean electricity to the public power supply. The attraction, and the hope, is that these units could be installed much more swiftly than the traditional nuclear power stations which frequently take more than a decade to build.
Someone said to me in passing the other day, “Ah, but they produce much more nuclear waste.” This article explains why. It reveals that SMRs do indeed produce five times more waste than conventional reactors and this contains unused fuel, making them inefficient. Because they are smaller they need more highly enriched fuel to sustain the reaction and the reaction stops at a higher level of enrichment than it would in a normal sized plant. Hence more frequent re-fuelling and a higher level of radioactive fuel in the waste. Not looking good.
However, article author Will Lockett points out that the waste from SMRs could be used to fuel fast reactors which are highly efficient in making full use of nuclear fuel. Sounds like the circular economy in action. To achieve this would need a visionary government able to deliver an integrated programme combining the flexibility of SMRs with the efficiency of fast reactors. From the perspective of a country which doesn’t seem to have a government at the moment that seems some way off.
Plastic bottles are a ubiquitous example of single use plastic adding to the amount of plastic pollution. In this week of the Wimbledon Tennis Championships there are calls for plastic bottles to be replaced on court with reusable bottles. Wimbledon should follow the French Open’s lead. Players used only reusable bottles this year after a government ban in France on single-use plastic.
The Guardian reports that Carlsberg is to conduct its biggest trial of recyclable fibre beer bottles across Europe. The bottles are made of a wood-based fibre shell and a plant-based polyethylene furanoate (PEF) polymer lining. The whole thing is recyclable apart from the cap, and Carlsberg is working on that. It will all come down to cost and consumer acceptance, unless governments intervene either to ban plastic bottles or tax them out of existence.
Meanwhile Unilever and Coca-Cola, some of the world’s largest distributors of single use plastic containers, are facing accusations of greenwash through misleading statements about packaging. The Changing Markets Foundation says claims that companies are intercepting and using “ocean-bound” or “recyclable” plastic to tackle the plastic pollution crisis are some of the most common examples of greenwashing.
The claims are made with little proof about how the products address the crisis in plastic pollution, their report says. It says this is done to obscure the real impact of plastic from consumers.
The Changing Markets Foundation report - at https://greenwash.com - says claims by Kim Kardashian’s clothing company Skims on its compostable underwear packaging, which states “I am not plastic”, are undermined by the small print saying the product is plastic type 4 or LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene). It calls out the makers of Mentos mints, Spanish supermarket Mercadona, UK supermarket Tesco, Procter & Gamble and others for making false claims.
Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the UK’s Environment Agency and Interim Chair of the Green Finance Institute, made a speech this week to UK Centre for Greening Finance and Investment Annual Forum at The Institution of Civil Engineers. She said that businesses were “embedding liability” and “storing up risk for their investors” by giving a false impression they were addressing the climate crisis and the danger was that people “won’t realise this deception until it is too late.”
“If we fail to identify and address greenwashing, we allow ourselves false confidence that we are already addressing the causes and treating the symptoms of the climate crisis.”
She also warned that nearly £650 billion of public and private infrastructure investment planned by 2030 is at considerable risk unless increasingly severe climate impacts are considered in planning and delivery, and called for more government involvement to help drive investment in climate adaptation, starting with a Treasury-commissioned review to assess the economics of climate resilience, similar to the 2021 Dasgupta Review into the economics of biodiversity.
In other words, must do better.
Another other pollution imperative is, of course, minimising and ultimately eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. The US Supreme Court has been very much in the news over the last couple of weeks principally because it overturned the ruling in Roe vs Wade, a decision which has been accepted as a constitutional right for some 50 years. Less attention has been given to a ruling in a recent case brought by West Virginia on behalf of 18 other mostly Republican-led states and some of the nation's largest coal companies.
EPA - no authority
They argued that the Environmental Protection Agency did not have the authority to limit emissions across whole states and the court agreed that the EPA did indeed not have the authority to impose such sweeping measures.
President Biden has recognised the decision as a major blow. He called it a "devastating decision" but said it would not undermine his effort to tackle the climate crisis. In practice it will make it much more difficult. If Congress were to endorse the actions of the EPA then the court agreed that they could go ahead. However, in the past Congress has shown little appetite to support the EPA.
Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)
Is carbon capture and storage the answer to eliminate greenhouse gases from the combustion of fossil fuels? In theory, yes, but in practice no, because of the additional cost. However there is news that Tata Chemicals Europe have plans to implement CCS at their factory in Cheshire.They hope to capture 40,000 tonnes of the greenhouse gas per year, reducing its annual emissions by 10% and providing it with a supply of high-purity carbon dioxide that could be used in products ranging from glass and washing detergents to pharmaceuticals and food. It’s a step in the right direction, but what happens to the other 90%? Vented to the atmosphere, presumably. There is just not enough demand to take up all the CO2 we might be able to capture. And in any case, if you use it in fizzy drinks it all makes its way back into the atmosphere, one way or another.
Zero Emission Heat Pumps
As you probably know, a heat pump works much like a refrigerator in reverse. It sucks the heat from the air or the ground outside and delivers it to the heating system indoors. A refrigerator extracts the heat from inside the unit and radiates it into the kitchen from a grid on the back. Like a refrigerator, a heat pump uses refrigerant chemicals, but these can release some of the most powerful greenhouse gases. That is why refrigerators can only be recycled and repaired by specialists, to prevent these dangerous gases from escaping. The same must apply to heat pumps.
Now an organisation called Barocal is working with researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK to eliminate this risk. Instead of using refrigerant gases with high global warming potential, Barocal’s technology uses new solid-state, temperature-changing materials. Cheap and non-toxic, these are organic materials that release and absorb heat at different pressures as they change volume. Known as barocaloric materials, they are more efficient than fluid refrigerants. And, as they are solids, they are more environmentally friendly and easier to recycle at the end of a product’s lifetime.
As with everything, whether the system is adopted will depend on cost.
Emissions from livestock are constantly under discussion. Writing in The Guardian, Adair Turner, former chair of the Climate Change Committee, cites a report from the Food Climate Research Network, Grazed and Confused?. While cattle stimulate the growth of pastures and the grass sequesters more carbon as a result, this is far from offsetting the impact of the methane that the cattle produce. He says, “We do not need to reduce beef or lamb production to zero in order to solve the challenge of the climate crisis, since small residual emissions in many sectors of the economy can be offset by some limited use of carbon removal techniques. But the simple fact remains that one of the biggest things that ordinary citizens can do to reduce their own climate impact is to significantly reduce red meat consumption.”
Climate Change Committee
Launching its 2022 Progress Report to Parliament, Lord Deben, current chair of the Climate Change Committee said last week that the government had set strong targets on cutting emissions but policy to achieve them was lacking.
The report set out a number of key messages:
- The UK Government now has a solid Net Zero strategy in place, but important policy gaps remain.
- Tangible progress is lagging the policy ambition.
- Successful delivery of changes on the ground requires active management of delivery risks.
- Action to address the rising cost of living should be aligned with Net Zero.
- Progress is slow. The Net Zero Strategy contained warm words on many of the cross-cutting enablers of the transition, but there has been little concrete progress.
- The UK must build on a successful COP26.
“The government has willed the ends, but not the means,” said Lord Deben. “This report shows that present plans will not fulfil the commitments [to net zero].”
Let’s talk about the weather.
In Sydney Australia, one of the hottest and driest countries in the world, tens of thousands of people have been warned this week to leave their homes in the face of flash floods.
Across the world, Italy has declared a state of emergency in five northern regions and announced emergency funds over a worsening drought that has plagued the Po valley in recent weeks.
In June a heatwave across Europe broke multiple records.
Extreme weather is with us.
We will struggle to live with it.
We must take every measure to stop it getting worse.
And on that note I leave you for another week.
Thanks for listening, and if you are, thanks for being a patron. Patrons help support the cost of running the Sustainable Futures Report which is a non-profit organisation and receives no subsidies, sponsorships or advertising income. A small monthly donation from you via patreon.com/sfr helps me keep this podcast independent and ad free. It goes towards the cost of hosting and getting the transcriptions done, because there is a text version of every episode on the Sustainable Futures Report website. If my interviewees are corporates or represented by an agency I ask them to take responsibility for preparing the transcriptions. Some are much better than others. I had one today sent over to me with a comment, “This is the raw unedited version of your interview.” What do they expect me to do? Which is more or less what I said in reply. It's a bit of a dilemma, because I don't want to publish an imperfect transcription – and when I say imperfect this one didn't even identify individual speakers – but I don't want to abandon the interview because I've already invested my time in preparation and recording it. I resent having to pay to have a proper transcription done. It's a waste of my loyal patrons' money.
Okay - rant over.
There will be a Wednesday Interview next Wednesday, although for the foregoing reasons I'm not quite sure which one it will be. There will be another Sustainable Futures Report next Friday and at the end of the month I am going to close down for August. After that, I am moving the podcast to Wednesdays and there will be only one episode per week. One week it will be a magazine programme and the other week will be an interview.
Before I go, don't forget there are extensive links to all the stories covered in this episode on the Sustainable Futures Report website, as always. I put them in so that you can get more details of the stories that I have covered and also so that I can remember where I actually got them from.
And now I must put 55 kg of honey into jars and label them up. Looks like a good year this year.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
I’m Anthony Day.
Until next time.
West Cumbria Mine
Plastic bottles at Wimbledon
Emma Howard Boyd: chair, Environment Agency
Biden constrained on emissions limits
Emissions from Livestock
Redesign of Heat pumps
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