Yes, Wednesday is the new day for this weekly podcast. I hope you have had a good summer and return refreshed and resolute.
Since my last episode quite a lot has happened. We have a new prime minister in the UK, there’s a new green bill in the United States, Russia turns off its gas supplies to Europe and Pakistan turns from drought to catastrophic floods. The new prime minister has promised to sort out the energy crisis within a week and as he leaves office, Boris Johnson appears to have committed the incoming administration to building a new nuclear power station at Sizewell. That won't be in time to solve the current crisis and in any case the Greens believe that the solution is simply to nationalise the energy companies. Meanwhile incoming Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng raises doubts about the truth of the green credentials of Drax power station, which has received multi billions of pounds for burning wood. There’s feedback from patrons and listeners, Tommy Wiedmann and Carol Dance, and finally will the United States’ Artemis mission ever get off the ground, and if it does, is it a good thing?
Big news in the UK is that we have a new prime minister, Liz Truss, and have had for less than 24 hours at the time of writing. Big news for the UK, but relatively trivial for the global climate crisis. After all, climate sceptics are always keen to remind us that the U.K.'s emissions are less than 2% of the global total. True, but we need to influence the producers of the other 98% because the climate crisis knows no boundaries.
Despite the antics of our departed PM, Britain still has some influence in the world. We are at the top table as one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. We are one of the original members of the OECD, members of the G20 and the more exclusive G7. Many of our academics, engineers and architects are respected across the world. Despite our emissions of less than 2% we are in a strong position to influence others who emit far more. There is a clear opportunity for the new PM and team to take a lead on the global stage.
It's too early to know what actions the new prime minister will take, but unfortunately the prospects do not look good. Not much was said about the climate during the leadership campaign. Rishi Sunak said that he thought his daughters knew more about the issue than he did while Liz Truss told us that she was always keen to recycle. Neither seemed to understand the climate situation or to recognise that this is an existential crisis. It's been suggested that Lord Frost could be the new head of the Cabinet Office and he's on record as saying that there is no climate crisis.
Cost of Living
In the short term, the new administration will be totally preoccupied with controlling the cost of living. At the heart of this is the cost of energy, and of course energy is at the heart of the climate crisis as well. Without going into detail, whatever solution is finally proposed to the cost problem will be financial. There is enough energy available in the world, but prices and availability are in turmoil for political reasons. The government will buy its way out, somehow or other. Both leadership candidates have poured scorn on the idea of onshore wind farms and more solar panels and have supported the exploitation of more oil and gas fields and the development of fracking, although these are not short-term solutions. In the short term the UK and nations across Europe will bring coal-fired power stations back into operation and continue to burn gas from other parts of the world, biomass and probably diesel. Germany is considering slowing its closure programme for nuclear power stations, an opportunity missed by the UK which failed to act in time to prevent the nuclear station at Hinckley B from being taken permanently out of service prior to decommissioning. Government policy therefore seems to be relying on fossil fuels for both the short and the long term. This seems to me to be about as sensible as offering whisky to someone who is dying of thirst.
Keep the Lights On
There is no doubt that governments need to keep the lights on at all costs or face economic meltdown and social disruption. The chronic weakness of energy security strategies is revealed. As George Soros once said, “You don't know who’s swimming naked until the tide goes out.” Germany is particularly vulnerable because of its heavy reliance on Russian gas which now seems to be being cut off for the coming winter. The risks of relying to such a large extent on Russian gas were foreseen when the original Nord Stream 1 pipeline was planned back in the 1980s, but nobody took any notice. As I said, there is no shortage of fossil fuels, it's simply a question of paying the rocketing prices and find new sources of supply like LNG from the Middle East.
Part of the pressure on the cost of living is increasing food prices. Some of this is due to reduced supplies, partly due to the difficulty of getting grain out of Ukraine, one of the world’s largest producers. Some of this is due to the extreme weather which we have seen across Europe this summer, which has caused reduced crop yields. This pressure could carry over into next year, because while the soil remains dust dry the farmers cannot plant their overwintering crops because there is no moisture to make the seeds germinate. We will see higher prices and we will probably see less choice in the shops. If we have more extreme weather next year and the year after that, the pressure on food crops will lead to significant shortages. This goes beyond a financial solution. If citizens get used to governments cushioning the blow of inflated energy prices they will expect their governments to do the same for food prices. They won't be able to do that indefinitely. The chilling realisation is that if there is simply not enough food, as crops are destroyed and yields collapse, there will be rationing in some countries and starvation in others. If things continue to get worse there will be starvation everywhere.
This is the reality of the climate crisis. Of course no politician wishes to admit this because it would cause panic and make them unelectable. Rather than hit the problems head-on with blunt statements about future risks they could plan and gradually nudge people towards conserving energy and avoiding food waste. Not much chance of that in a UK where politicians reject the idea of government guidance, claiming that energy-saving is an individual decision.
Let's step back from this doomsday scenario and consider the fact that there are things that can be done and there are things that should be done.
First of all as far as energy is concerned, we need to tackle demand as well as supply. While there is enough supply, the profile of that supply is so heavily biased towards fossil fuels that we must drastically cut usage until we are able to meet demand 24/7, winter and summer, 365 days of the year from renewables or zero-emissions sources like nuclear. While we are not only pumping greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere but still pumping them in at an increasing rate, the idea of Net Zero 2050 is a fantastical dream. Without Net Zero 2050 the dream of the future is a nightmare.
More Clean Energy
We need more windfarms, we need more solar farms and we need more hydro, although hydro has been problematical recently with unusually low river levels.
We need more storage, and we need to recognise that that does not simply mean electrical batteries. In Episode 420 for 8th July I told you about the sodium battery and the sand battery. Interesting to see that Dave Borlace caught up with the sand battery in his latest episode. Then there’s the heat battery for domestic heating and hot water and the possibility of storing energy as hydrogen generated from surplus wind and solar energy. There’s pumped storage where water is pumped uphill overnight with off-peak electricity and released into turbines to generate electricity for the morning peak, although this is expensive and needs the right geography. On the same principle people have designed heavy trains to be driven uphill with surplus energy to generate power as they roll back down. Or heavy weights on a cable dropped into abandoned mine shafts, which release stored energy as they fall and again are wound back up when there is surplus energy. All this needs to be researched and developed, but gravity storage is relatively simple and it should be possible to install some of these solutions very quickly. Energy from these sources may be more expensive than from fossil fuels, but that is because no-one is taking account of the costs of fossil-fuel emissions: the damage that they do to the planet, the atmosphere and our weather systems. Nobody, at least nobody with the power to make the decisions, seems to appreciate how urgent this is.
Our new PM has promised to solve the energy crisis within the week. Maybe she’ll solve the climate crisis the week after.
More Extreme Weather
At the end of July Pakistan was suffering from catastrophic drought. Back in June the Dawn Newspaper reported that Pakistan was among the top 23 countries facing a major drought emergency. The Indus Delta had shrunk by a massive 92 percent from 13,000 square kilometres in 1833 to only 1,000 sq kms today. The country’s climate ministry said, “On this World Desertification and Drought Day, we need to set in motion work on improving drought preparedness and building drought resilience. Pakistan is one of the countries on the frontline of the climate emergency. We cannot stop droughts from happening but we can prepare for them by conserving our water.”
Now in the last couple of weeks all that is turned on its head and the country is suffering from the violent monsoons with more than 5 times normal rainfall in some areas. The rains have flooded large areas of the country and well over 1000 people have died. The floods remain at depths of two or three metres which makes it impossible to drop relief or to pitch tents to replace the habitations which have been washed away. It said that it will take weeks if not months for the waters to subside. Warming has caused more rapid melting of the glaciers which feed the Indus River, which rises in Western Tibet and flows down through the Himalayas. Increased flow makes the flood situation worse and may lead to lower flows next Spring when the water is needed for crops. The Pakistani minister of climate has called the situation a catastrophe and urged nations to send assistance. Given that the developed nations have promised $100 billion to those countries suffering most from climate change, but have yet to send any of it, his call may receive little response.
At least more and more people are prepared to identify catastrophes such as these as the consequences of climate change. Gradually the public public perception is increasing.
Guardian Special Report
The Guardian newspaper has prepared a special report on extreme weather based on data analysed by Carbon Brief. Like all the stories in the Sustainable Futures Report there are links to this document at the end of this episode on the website at sustainablefutures.report. It reminds us of the floods and fatalities in Germany earlier this year; of the heatwaves in Pakistan and Japan, and few will forget the day when temperatures exceeded 40°C in the United Kingdom. In recent years we’ve had floods in Texas and South Africa, drought in Ethiopia and wildfires across Australia and California. The report quotes Prof Maarten van Aalst, the director of the International Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre. “The world is changing fast and it’s already hurting us – that is the blunt summary. The world is currently on track for a rise of at least 2.5C. Based on what we have experienced so far, that would deliver death and destruction far greater than already suffered.”
Inflation Reduction Act
At least some politicians seem to be getting the message. In August the US government passed the Inflation Reduction Act. Despite the name, this law has significant implications for tackling the climate crisis. The legislation includes $369bn in funds aimed at expanding renewable energy sources and lowering planet-heating emissions. Experts have estimated the bill could reduce America’s emissions by about 40% by 2030, compared with 2005 levels. David Bryngelsson, CEO of CarbonCloud, complained that, “While the bill provides much-needed incentives for heat pumps, electric vehicles, and induction stove tops, food is missing. Agriculture alone is responsible for 11% of total US emissions, and with a mere 5% of the climate budget, it is disadvantaged.” Speaker Nancy Pelosi promised that there was more to come.
In his final major policy speech as Prime Minister, this week Boris Johnson announced £700m in funding for the nuclear project in Suffolk, urging his successor to “go nuclear and go large and go with Sizewell C”. He also muttered about a new nuclear power station every year. The project is likely to involve finance from foreign investors such as Saudi Arabia and China, and it's not quite clear who will actually construct it. In principle I am persuaded that nuclear energy is essential for the future to provide clean energy. There is much protest at Sizewell, not so much about the fact that it is a nuclear power station but about the risk that it will damage the local environment and wildlife principally because it will use vast amounts of water for cooling. It's not clear where that water will come from. An article in The Times suggests that the plant could kill some 804 million fish each year. I'm not sure how they can be so precise but it is certainly a worrying statistic.
Regular listeners will be well aware of my scepticism of the nuclear plant under construction at Hinkley C. I was particularly concerned that the strike price for the power to be paid and guaranteed by the government was about twice the current market rate at the time, index linked and guaranteed for 35 years. According to the government website - and you can find the link on the Sustainable Futures Report website - “The Hinkley Point C CfD provides a Strike Price for the developer of £92.50/MWh (2012 prices), for a 35 year term from the date of commissioning. This means that for each MWh of electricity generated at Hinkley, the developer is paid the difference between the Strike Price and the market reference price (a composite of wholesale price indices) for electricity sold into the market for the duration of the contract. The generator will pay back the difference should the market reference price rise above the strike price.The agreement was made on a contract for difference basis, which means that if the market price falls below the strike price the government will make up the difference. If the market price exceeds the strike price the company has to pay the difference back to the government.”
That’s a strike price of £92.50 against a market price which is on a rising trend, over £250 today and over £500 in the last month. That looks like a substantial income flow for the government, if only they can get the damn thing - way over budget and way behind schedule - ever to work.
Kwarteng on Drax
Still on energy, the new chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, has expressed scepticism about Drax power station, the largest in the UK which is now burning biomass. Drax claims to be producing clean energy because it is burning wood chips and the emissions from these will be offset by new growth of timber. This overlooks the contribution to the plants carbon footprint from the new pelleting mill that they had to build in the United States, because that's where the timber comes from. They also had to develop the port so that the wood could be shipped across the Atlantic and they had to build new trains to carry the pellets from the docks to the plant. Running the machines which fell the timber and haul it to the pellet implant, running the plant itself, fuelling the ships which cross the Atlantic and the trains which bring the wood from the ports also has a carbon footprint. There is much doubt that the wood burnt is truly offset by new growth. If it is, the carbon is absorbed in US forests while the pollution is emitted in North Yorkshire. In some ways woodburning is more polluting than coal. Nonetheless the government has accepted power from Drax as clean energy and paid more than £5 billion in subsidies. Maybe Mr Kwarteng will stop all that. Drax share price fell 10% in response to his remarks.
Greens to nationalise energy
The Green Party has a solution to the energy crisis. They say, “We … need to bring the big five energy retailers into public ownership to stabilise the market and lay the groundwork for the huge investment we need to see in renewables and insulating peoples’ homes…”
The flaw in that argument is that these are retailers and they have to pay for wholesale prices which are controlled by the producers. The retailers are making margins of less than 2%, so cutting them out would make virtually no difference to consumer prices. The producers are generally large multinational organisations which are way out of the control of the UK or any other governments. BBC more or less did an interesting item on this recently. You'll find a link on the Sustainable Futures Report website.
Feedback from Patrons
I'm always grateful for feedback from patrons. Tommy Wiedmann draws my attention to an article in Time Out which reports that Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands will cut its flights by 12% by 2023 in order to reduce its environmental impact. On the face of it that is a laudable decision. I do have some niggling doubt that there may be an element of greenwashing there.
Airports in the UK have also cut their traffic, but that is because the ground handling crews are not up to the level of demand and the number of flights that the airlines would like to operate. Maybe it's different in Holland. At least their labour market has not been affected by Brexit.
Thanks also to Carol Dance who keeps me up to date on environmental issues in Australia. I hope to have an assessment of the new government and its green policies very soon.
Artemis, NASA’s latest project to go to the moon, will it ever get off the ground? The launch of Artemis 1, the un-crewed mission to orbit the moon, was called off for the second time last week as a result of technical difficulties. Another attempt is not expected before October. Why should we want to go to the moon? And why should we want to go to Mars, which is another objective of this project? The NASA website, and you can find the link on the Sustainable Futures Report website at sustainablefutures.report, talks about discovery, economic opportunity and inspiration for future generations. There is a vast amount more information on the website as you would expect. I have heard, and some of you may have more definite information on this, that the economic interest is in the rare earth metals and materials that may be found on the surface of the Moon and Mars. While on Earth these materials are generally buried and therefore have to be mined, the surface of the moon and Mars is fairly static and apparently these minerals can be found lying on the surface. We undoubtedly have a shortage of resources, at least in the very near future, so maybe it makes sense to look elsewhere for them. Certainly there is greater interest in the Artemis mission from both Russia and China and clear rumblings and warnings about any idea of colonising either of these in the name of any state.
But should we really be doing this when there are so many problems left to solve here on Earth? Watch this space. Watch this space mission.
And that's it for another week.
Thank you for listening to the Sustainable Futures Report and I hope you enjoy the episodes that I am going to prepare for you over the coming months. There will be just one episode a week, because I need time for my bees, our allotment garden, the family, working at the hospital and at Citizens Advice and attending Toastmasters meetings. Some episodes will be interviews and others will be just me talking about what is going on in the world of sustainability, which is our world, the one we rely on.
Become a Patron
I'd like to remind you about Patreon. I'm most grateful to the loyal people who support the Sustainable Futures Report with a small, or not so small, monthly contribution. The Sustainable Futures Report is nonprofit, and as you know accepts no subsidy, advertising or sponsorship. Your support is what keeps it independent and ad-free. As always you can find the details at patreon.com/SFR.
Once again thanks for listening and of course the next episode will be next Wednesday which is I think the 15th.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
I’m Anthony Day.
Until next time.
UK Energy Price Cap
Guardian Special Report
Hydro shortages in China
Inflation Act US
Biden’s Green Deal
Greens to nationalise energy
Patron Tommy Wiedmann
Carol Dance - Australia
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