It's Friday, the 13th. Unlucky for some, but not for you because you've got a new edition of the Sustainable Futures Report to listen to.
There’s a new US president-elect. We’ll look at what he can do on the climate front and what he might find rather more difficult to do. We’ll look, too, at what Prime Minister Johnson might do on the climate in the UK. The IPPR has a 10-point plan. What’s the attitude of business and the opposition party?
There is energy news as well, about UK windfarms, Russian gas, UK nuclear, a new green fuel - and could this be a tipping point for green technology?
In the US, stormy weather continues, and I’m not talking about Trump’s refusal to concede the election.
Despite lockdown, international climate protests continue. Some at quite high levels. And we look at sustainable futures for food and public transport, and what will be the impact of AI on the climate crisis?
Shell in Nigeria
But first, let’s pause for thought. Zoe Cohen, who appeared on the Sustainable Futures Report some months ago, reminds us that 25 years ago this week 9 Ogoni activists were killed for protesting Shell's actions in the #NigerDelta. Their families have been seeking #justice for more than 20 years. Despite court orders, #Shell have not cleaned up the oil spilled in #Ogoniland nearly 3 decades ago.
Shell on Social Media
Meanwhile Shell also attracted international criticism this week for a poll headed “What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions?” The poll received less than 200 responses, but the Tweet went viral with thousands of comments. “I'm willing to hold you accountable for lying about climate change for 30 years when you secretly knew the entire time that fossil fuel emissions would destroy our planet,” responded US politician Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Greta Thunberg and many, many others responded in the same way.
There's a new president-elect in the United States and Joe Biden has confirmed that one of the actions on his first day in office will be to re-join the Paris Climate Agreement. He can do this by executive order. Other plans to meet the climate crisis, such as building a new green infrastructure, will depend on the cooperation of the Senate, currently held by a Republican majority. It’s said that he may get such plans approved provided that they are not seen as “green”, but majority leader Mitch McConnell has indicated that he will oppose almost anything the new president wants to do. He’s maintained that pledge ever since he pledged, unsuccessfully, that Obama would be a single-term president. One of Biden’s early appointments must be a new head for the Environment Protection Agency so that it can start re-imposing controls on the fossil-fuel industries. Presumably that appointment will have to be ratified by the Senate, in the first of many battles.
There are two run-offs for Senate seats taking place in January in Georgia. If the Democrats win them both the Senate will be divided 50-50 and the vice-president will have the casting vote. However, early reports suggest that the Democrats will take only one of the seats.
Prime Minister Johnson is expected to announce his green infrastructure plans this week, after the Sustainable Futures Report publication deadline. It is likely, in part at least, to be a re-run of his presentation to the Conservative party conference. At the time he made much of technology and there were warnings that he should not rely on a Silver Bullet.
A decade-long rollout of home insulation and heat pumps to replace gas boilers is urgently needed to enable the UK to meet its climate obligations and recover from the Covid-19 recession, says the Climate Coalition of 70 charities and campaigning groups representing about 22 million supporters around the UK.
The IPPR, the Institute for Public Policy Research, this week published “The road to COP26”. The government promises us a 10 point plan for a green revolution. The IPPR sets out its own 10 points.
First, the UK needs to up-rate its NDC. The NDC, or Nationally Determined Contribution, is the nation’s commitment under the Paris Agreement. Previously this was all bundled in with the EU NDC, but of course in the future the UK will have to set its own. Estimates suggest that the government will need to reduce emissions by up to 69% by 2030 at the very least, in order to reach net zero and keep within a 1.5°C target. This must be done domestically, without any international credits. Incidentally, Climate Action reports this week that a number of business groups have written to the Prime Minister urging him to announce an ambitious Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) for the UK.
Secondly, targets for consumption emissions must take into account emissions occurring abroad as the consequence of manufacturing goods for the UK market.
The UK must manage its global environmental footprint and must not import products with standards that would not be accepted at home.
Net Zero and Just Transition
The report recommends that the UK government should establish a Net Zero and Just Transition Delivery Body (NZJT) led by the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy and include representatives from other government departments such as the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions, local authorities and metro mayors, trade unions, the industrial sector, financial institutions, civil society and the National Infrastructure Commission.
The NZJT should be responsible for developing and delivering a national Net Zero Delivery Plan which must be centred around a just transition, and there should be a roadmap for every sector.
The UK government should use the 10-point plan to set out an ambitious package that accelerates progress towards net-zero and the restoration of nature, sets the UK on a recovery path after Covid-19 and also helps achieve its objective of ‘levelling up’ the economy.
The government should set up a home improvement plan based on heat pumps combined with high energy efficiency standards. It should also invest in nature restoration and transport infrastructure. The authors also believe that investment should help industry to develop carbon capture and storage, and a new hydrogen industry.
National Investment Bank
“The government,” they say, “should establish a National Investment Bank (NIB) with a remit centred on a just transition to a net zero economy and the restoration of nature.”
Didn’t we use to have a Green Investment Bank? The one that was stripped of its environmental responsibilities and sold off to an Australian finance group?
As soon as the government publishes its plans for the green revolution we’ll see how it measures up.
The opposition Labour Party is keen for a green recovery plan to be implemented as soon as possible, and certainly before next year’s COP26 UN conference on climate change.
Protesters are keeping up the pressure for climate action across the world. The pandemic makes protest difficult and XR were dismayed to find that there are no special dispensations for street protests under the U.K.'s latest lockdown regulations. One supporter took things into his own hands last weekend and climbed a construction crane in Norwich, eastern England last weekend. He unfurled an XR banner and stayed on the gantry some 33 metres above ground for two nights and two days. 17-year-old Alex Sidney was arrested when he eventually climbed down, on suspicion of criminal damage, aggravated trespass, breaching Covid-19 regulations and a public order offence.
In Norway, members of the organisation Nature and Youth are taking the government to the Supreme Court in an effort to prevent the issue of further licences for oil exploration. Norway has tremendous green credentials. For example, it has the highest concentration of electric cars in Europe, with over 40% of cars sold in 2019 being electric. It fully endorses the Paris Agreement and is a major contributor to the Green Climate Fund. The irony is that much of this is based on Norway’s Sovereign Investment fund; the proceeds of oil. Norway is Europe’s largest oil producer after Russia.
Oil inevitably leads us on to this week’s energy news. The BBC reports that the Grangemouth refinery in Scotland is to be scaled back in the face of dramatically falling demand as a result of the COVID pandemic, with the loss of some 190 jobs. Parts of the plant to be mothballed date from the 1940s and 1950s and there are doubts whether they will ever be reopened. This depends on the the recovery of demand, and given that commuting patterns are changing, electric vehicles are becoming more widespread and there is increasing pressure to reduce emissions by reducing the use of fossil fuels it is unlikely that demand will ever return to pre-COVID levels.
Grangemouth is one of six refineries in the UK and the only one in Scotland. Given that it will now be one of the smallest, this may have some implications for Scotland’s hopes for independence.
In his recent conference speech the UK Prime Minister expressed his belief that every home in Britain would be powered by electricity from offshore wind turbines. Energy giant RWE casts some doubt on this, claiming that the onshore grid cannot keep up with the needed connections. It all comes down to regulation. Since investment in the power infrastructure is eventually paid for by consumers through their bills, the regulator off gem restrict the level of investment to what it considers absolutely necessary. RWE, National Grid and Scottish Power are all urging for these controls to be loosened. Without this they warn that the UK’s net zero climate targets could be at risk.
Russia has vast gas reserves and has plans to continue to expand production. Gas is of course much cleaner than coal, but it is still a fossil fuel. The Russians also plan to develop a supply of hydrogen and to exploit carbon capture and storage. There are two ways of making hydrogen, one is to extract it from water using electrolysis but if you have vast quantities of natural gas it makes sense to strip hydrogen from that. The problem with extracting it from natural gas is that CO2 remains. Hence the need to use carbon capture and storage. As I have commented on many occasions it's the philosopher’s stone of the energy industry. It'll be absolutely wonderful when it works, but for the moment commercial exploitation of carbon capture and storage is extremely limited.
I haven't mentioned Hinkley C for some time. That's the new nuclear power station being built down in Somerset. The one that's over budget and should have been cooking Christmas turkeys in 2017, even though it was already years late by then. Work continues but there is no indication on the EDF site of when it will actually come into production. 2025 seems to be the best current estimate, at which point it will enjoy government-backed index-linked revenues at about twice the current average electricity price.
Undismayed, and supported by the Labour opposition, the government is now expected to approve the construction of another new nuclear plant at Sizewell in Suffolk. Nuclear currently produces about 16% or the UK’s electricity but most of the plants are coming to the end of their lives. Nuclear is carbon emission free in operation, although the construction process has a significant carbon footprint. Nuclear is attractive because it can supply baseload, running at a steady and reliable outlet for months at a time, something which renewables cannot do, at least until we have a vastly increased storage infrastructure.
The key question is whether we need more electricity. At first sight the answer is obvious as we adopt electric cars and the government urges us to replace gas boilers with electric heat pumps. But if we manage energy and above all reduce waste we may not need so much. Writing on the BBC News website Justin Rowlatt predicts that as new technologies converge green energy will rapidly become vastly cheaper, pointing out how much lower the costs of offshore wind already are by comparison with projects like Hinkley C. It will be interesting to see how the prime minister’s green revolution statement will relate to all this.
And finally in energy news we learn that a Dutch brewery is burning iron for process heat. That sounds totally counter-intuitive, but it turns out that finely powdered iron burns at high temperatures with no CO2 or other emissions and all that is left is rust. When you think about it, rust is oxidised iron and any combustion is oxidisation. The clever bit is where they take the rust and using surplus renewable energy to drive an electrolysis process they convert the rust back into iron powder which they can then burn all over again. Apparently, the energy restored is about 80% of the energy input, which is better than the efficiency of producing hydrogen by electrolysis. The brewery is working with the Metal Power Consortium and researchers at the Technical University of Eindhoven. Apart from its use in industrial processes, the team are looking at iron powder as a cheap and efficient energy store - far cheaper than batteries or hydrogen.
And I thought Irn Bru was Scottish.
And in other news…
Artificial intelligence. Is it sustainable? There is no doubt that it takes a tremendous amount of processing power which in turn needs vast amounts of electricity which in its turn leads to greenhouse gas emissions.
Now researchers at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Computer Science are working to change that. They’ve developed a tool called Carbontracker, which works out the energy consumption associated with deep-learning algorithms and then converts this into a prediction about CO2 emissions.
A 2019 study by researchers at the U.K.’s University of Bristol suggested that YouTube videos carry a carbon footprint of around 10 million tons of CO2 equivalent each year. They suggested that carrying out some relatively minor code tweaks could save 100,000 to 500,000 tons of CO2 equivalent every year.
Copenhagen researcher Benjamin Kanding said that the aim is not to point to specific models and claim they are “ruining the environment.” Instead, it’s an attempt to raise awareness about the impact of compute-intensive research and to promote the development of energy-efficient deep neural networks and “responsible computing.” This could hopefully lead to the reduction of carbon footprints associated with the training and development of deep-learning models.
There’s no doubt that computing and data processing (there’s a phrase from the past) are using significant and growing amounts of power across the globe.
News from Australia
Equity Generation Lawyers is now suing the federal Australian government over its alleged failure to appropriately disclose climate risk in the bonds it issues. This follow a successful case against $57 billion super fund Rest over its climate change disclosures. The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the settlement included a commitment from Rest to publish all portfolio holdings and align its investments with a ‘net zero’ emissions target by 2050.
Commenting on the case against the government, ‘‘We’re in it to win,’’ said principal David Barnden. ‘‘It’s not difficult to imagine that the more debt Australia has, the more sensitive bondholders may become to risks such as climate change.’’
Thanks to listener Carol Dance for this story.
In its annual report on motoring, the Royal Automobile Club (RAC) claims that attitudes to public transport have gone back almost two decades since the Covid pandemic. Understandably, people don't want to travel on a bus or a train where they risk picking up an infection. More and more people are relying on their cars and there has been an upsurge in secondhand car sales. The increase in cycling which was seen during the original lockdown has largely declined, probably as the weather deteriorates towards winter. This obviously has implications for the environment because for the moment the vast majority of cars are fossil fuelled so there will be increased pollution and increased congestion. There is no doubt that we have to return people to public transport, or possibly reduce their need for travel, if we are going to meet net zero carbon targets. I don't envy the government having to work out how to achieve this.
More extreme weather. The thunderstorm that swept through the American midwest in August is now officially the most expensive in US history, inflicting more than $7.5bn of damage in 14 hours, according to figures released by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The underlying cause of the destruction was a derecho, a weather phenomenon that typically produces a row of storms spanning at least 100 miles. Unlike cyclones and hurricanes, which rotate, a derecho blows in a straight line. The August derecho blasted almost 800 miles across parts of Nebraska, South Dakota, and Iowa.
Could this have something to do with climate change?
The research journal Nature Food warns that the United Kingdom’s fruit and vegetable supply is increasingly dependent on imports from climate-vulnerable producing countries. A clear lesson that action to protect the climate may start at home but must continue across the world. The climate crisis knows no boundaries.
Patron Esteban Villalon shares and article about his company in JEC Composites magazine. We’ve mentioned his product Carbonium before, because it’s made from aerospace production waste and is a composite capable of replacing aluminium or titanium. It’s a recycled product and it’s up-cycled, not down-cycled like so many recycled products. It’s been used for up-market watch cases, but it’s now being used for much more technical applications. Lavoisier Composites was one of the ten finalists of the Startup Booster program at JEC World 2019. Since then, Airbus has selected Lavoisier Composites to join its BizLab acceleration program for developing structural parts.
There’s a link to the company’s website below, and if you have a good-news story to share you know where I am.
And that’s it!
Yes that's it for another week. I’m Anthony Day and that was the Sustainable Futures Report.
If you have a moment why don't you hop across to the new sustainable futures report website? It's at www.sustainablefutures.report. While you're there it's an easy hop across to patreon.com/sfr (there’s a link) where you too can become a patron.
Whatever you do I'll be here next week with another Sustainable Futures Report although I have no idea what it's going to be about.
Thank you for listening and see you then.
Shell’s climate poll on Twitter backfires spectacularly
Protest exemption set to be removed from England rules
Protester, 17, climbs crane in Norwich
BBC News: The young Norwegians taking their own country to court over oil
UK's plan to power every home via windfarms by 2030 at risk
Russia vows to step up ‘eco-friendly’ gas production despite climate impact
Watch this ad for Irn Bru
In other news
Covid set back attitudes to public transport by two decades, says RAC