“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,” said poet Robert Burns, “Gang aft agley.” Which I think means they often go wrong.
Hello. I'm Anthony Day and this is the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday, the 20th of November.
This week it's all about scheming and plans. As I told you last time, this is the week when the Prime Minister Boris Johnson will unveil his 10 point plan for a greener Britain. There is no shortage of advice. Business Green says he should take the opportunity to cull white elephants. The Climate Coalition issues its own 10 point plan and last week we spoke at length about the 10 points planned by the IPPR. At the time of writing the Boris plan was yet to appear but it did squeak in just before the Sustainable Futures Report publication deadline. In the meantime, let's look at some other sustainability news.
In Other News
There’s news from the National Audit Office, from the Treasury and from the Committee for Climate Change. The Climate and Ecology Emergency Bill makes its way through Parliament hoping that it will not be killed off by procedure and the Dalai Llama, spiritual leader of Tibet, assures us that Buddha would be green. There’s energy news, well there’s always energy news, and as Hurricane Iota hits Nicaragua there’s more evidence of extreme weather.
Could your dog be killing birds? Totally unintentionally and without even realising it, but recent research reveals concerning evidence. Bees are at risk, too.
Small Modular Reactors
First, while we wait for the PM’s statement let’s talk about energy. As part of the statement he’s expected to announce a new nuclear power station at Sizewell in Suffolk, but a consortium including Rolls-Royce is promoting the idea of mini nuclear stations called small modular reactors or SMRs. 16 stations are proposed and the initial cost is estimated at around £2.4 billion each, although this would fall below £2billion as the number of units built increased. The project is presumably based on Rolls-Royce’s experience in building small nuclear reactors for submarines, although these SMRs would be very much larger. The consortium claims that the price per megawatt would be much lower than that produced by the full-scale schemes at Hinkley or Sizewell, but of course it's all theoretical at this stage. Certainly the capital cost per unit will be 1/10 or less of the cost of a Hinkley station which is looking like a final bill of £25 billion. The SMRs would generate jobs by being built in Britain without French expertise or Chinese investment. The future for the project will depend heavily on government financial support. Will it feature in this week’s announcement?
Meanwhile, vox.com returns to a topic which we have discussed quite often on the Sustainable Futures Report: geothermal energy. They say, “The heat stored in the Earth’s crust, known as geothermal energy, is carbon-free and effectively inexhaustible. There’s enough of it to run all of civilisation for generations, if it could be cost-effectively tapped.” New drilling techniques, some involving lasers, can reach depths where water at nearly 400°C can be found. Even temperatures as low as 10°C can be useful, and that can be found at little more than 3m below the surface. A major application for geothermal energy is heating and cooling of buildings. Superheated steam from the deepest bores could drive turbines to produce electricity. Laser drilling may make more and hotter water available but the use of geothermal energy is already proven technology.
In Southampton in the south of the UK, an area which is certainly not known as a volcanic hotspot, the Department of Energy carried out a feasibility study in the 1980s. They came to the conclusion that it was commercially unviable and should be abandoned. The system was taken over by the local council. According to Wikipedia it initially supplied only the Southampton Civic Centre, but was gradually expanded to serve over 1,000 residential properties, as well as the WestQuay shopping centre, the Royal South Hants Hospital, Solent University and the Carnival offices; and is part of an enlarged city centre district heating system that includes other combined heating, cooling and power sources. By 2007 the system had 11 km of pipes, and was producing 40GWh of heat, 22GWh of electricity and 8GWh of cooling per year. It’s still in operation.
Construction of a geothermal plant is very much simpler than building a nuclear power station, operation is emission free and there are no toxic residues to clear up. Will geothermal be in the Prime Minister's plans? (Spoiler - no)
I mentioned last week that there were concerns that onshore infrastructure and connection points could obstruct the PM’s planned expansion of offshore wind power. Scottish Power and National Grid, who were both complaining about these problems are nevertheless working with RWE to build what’s called an energy superhighway to bring the power to the coast. It will involve a 270-mile cable, with a capacity of up to 4GW, from hubs at Peterhead and Torness in Scotland down the East coast of the UK to Hawthorn Point and Selby. Selby presumably because of Drax, the UK’s biggest power station, which must already have a major grid connection. None of the reports I’ve found explain how the cable will actually reach Selby, some 40 miles from the coast. Construction is expected to start in 2024 and the link will provide enough electricity for 4.5 million homes, a significant proportion of the 23 million homes in England.
National Audit Office
Transform, the journal of IEMA, the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment, reports a warning from the NAO that the UK lacks a clear plan for environmental targets. The NAO said that the government's 25 Year Environment Plan remains a mixture of aspirations and policy commitments with “varying and unclear timescales”. In a report issued last week it said, “It is now nine years since government first set an ambition for this to be the first generation to improve the natural environment in England, and there is still a long way to go before government can be confident that it has the right framework to deliver on its aspirations and ensure value for money from the funding it has committed to environmental projects. The NAO recognises that the demands of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic over the past six months have slowed the momentum it had started to develop, but progress was already slower than government had intended. Environmental issues are broad, inter-related and complex, so these are not straightforward challenges to address, but government needs to pick up the pace if it is to improve the natural environment within a generation.”
Maybe we’ll learn more this week.
Sixth Carbon Budget
There is no shortage of advice to the government.The Climate Change Committee (CCC) will publish its recommendation on the level of the Sixth Carbon Budget next month. This Budget, required under the Climate Change Act, will provide Ministers with advice on the volume of greenhouse gases the UK can emit during the period 2033-2037. It will set the path to the UK’s Net Zero emissions target in 2050, as the first carbon budget to be set into law following that commitment. The launch event will be live on YouTube on the 9th of December. Find the link below.
Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill
The Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill was published in the Commons earlier this month. The Bill outlines a proposal for a temporary emergency Citizens’ Assembly who could help to assist the government in determining which policies should be included in the emergency strategy. The emergency will be the consequences of global warming in excess of 1.5℃ and the urgency is the belief that net zero emissions by 2050 will be too little too late. The bill calls for:
- the UK to make and enact a serious plan.
- the nation’s entire carbon footprint to be taken into account (in the UK and overseas)
- the protection and conservation of nature here and overseas along supply chains, recognising the damage we cause through the goods we consume
- no dependence on technology - no silver bullet.
- ordinary people to have a real say on the way forward in a citizens’ assembly.
Much of this echoes the recommendations of the IPPR which we studied last time.
Caroline Lucas, the Bill’s primary sponsor in the Commons, said: ‘As hosts of the UN climate conference next year, the UK Government has a critical opportunity to show the climate leadership it boasts of, and to deliver a serious plan to tackle both the climate and nature emergencies.
‘The CEE Bill is the roadmap to do this. I’m delighted it has growing cross-party support and I urge all MPs who recognise the urgency of the climate crisis, and the need to make those far-reaching and unprecedented changes in our society, to get behind this initiative so this vital Bill becomes law.’
The cross-party support so far amounts to 77 MPs. The CEE Bill is a private member’s bill, and the sad fact is that without government support no PMB ever makes it into law. Having said that, at least debates on the Bill will help to emphasise the importance of the issues.
The Role of Business
Business has a key role to play in a green industrial revolution but while profit remains an over-riding objective there is little incentive to do anything which will cost money. On the other hand if regulations are applied to all organisations equally then all must act. Good news, therefore to learn that Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak recently announced that large UK companies in the private sector will all be forced to disclose their financial exposure to climate change by 2025.
The Buddha would be green.
And adding advice spiritual to advice secular, the Dalai Llama says the Buddha would be green if he returned to Earth now. In an interview for Channel 4 News and the Guardian he warned that “global warming may reach such a level that rivers will dry” and that “eventually Tibet will become like Afghanistan”, with terrible consequences for at least a billion people dependent on water from the plateau “at the roof of the world”.
“The big nations should pay more attention to ecology. I hope you see those big nations who spent a lot of money for weapons or war turn their resources to the preservation of the climate.”
The Dalai Lama says that if he joined a political party now, “I would like to join the Green party. Their idea is very good.”
Talking of the pandemic he said, “If there’s a way to overcome [coronavirus], then no need to worry. If there is no way to overcome, then it’s no use to worry too much either.”
Up till now it has been relatively relatively easy for us in the prosperous west to think of the climate crisis as something which happens to other people. At least that's true for those of us who don't live in the path of the wildfires in Australia or the United States. The Independent newspaper, amongst many others, reports on the progress of Hurricane Iota which is laying waste to Nicaragua. This follows closely after Hurricane Eta, which caused widespread flooding and damage to that country and its neighbours only two weeks ago. For the moment we are safe, but globalisation means that the supply chains on which we increasingly rely are just that, global. As remote countries suffer we will begin to feel the consequences. Their climate crisis is our climate crisis. We won't be able to stop it, still less reverse it, but we may be able to slow it down. If we act. Now.
The prime minister’s 10 point plan for a green industrial revolution has just been published.
Toxic flea treatments
But before we get on to that I wanted to share a story with you about fleas. I mentioned at the start that your dog could be killing birds, and doing that without knowing it. It all comes down to neonicotinoids. You may remember neonics. They are the insecticide used to coat crops such as oilseed rape and blamed for the wholesale destruction of bees. Now research reveals that these chemicals are in commonly-used treatments to rid dogs and cats of fleas. Apparently 80% of domestic cats and dogs in the UK are treated against fleas and the chemicals are finding their way into the nation’s streams and rivers. Not only are these chemicals toxic to wildlife, they break down into even more toxic compounds. Treating one dog can release enough chemicals to kill 60 million bees but when this chemical gets into watercourses it kills the insects which in turn are the food of birds. The birds may not be killed by the chemicals, but they may just starve. Apparently there are no environmental regulations covering flea treatments for pets. Something must be done.
10-point green industrial revolution
That 10-point green industrial revolution. When I woke up on Wednesday morning the papers were full of the PM’s plans. Now it's very interesting to know what The Guardian or the Financial Times or Business Green or any of the others may think, but I like to get back to the original document and bring you my own opinion. So I searched and searched and I searched. Turns out, the press got an advance copy on Tuesday night and it didn't go into the public domain until Wednesday morning. I did eventually find it so here's my take on what it says and a comparison with what other people said it ought to say.
- Offshore wind: Producing enough offshore wind to power every home by 2030, supporting up to 60,000 jobs. If you read it carefully it doesn't make sense, but we know what he means. There is nothing new there because he announced it in his Conservative party conference speech.
- Hydrogen: Working with industry aiming to generate 5GW of low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030 for industry, transport, power and homes, and aiming to develop the first town heated entirely by hydrogen by the end of the decade. Is this a departure from electric heat pumps? Are they going to use the offshore electricity to create the hydrogen by electrolysis? If so, why not just use the electricity directly to power the homes? One answer of course is that hydrogen can store energy when the wind doesn’t blow.
- Advancing nuclear as a clean energy source, across large scale nuclear and developing the next generation of small and advanced reactors, which could support 10,000 jobs. They have clearly been listening to the consortium mentioned above. Nuclear’s advantage is that it can run for weeks if not months at a steady output to provide base load. The disadvantage, apart from the complexity and vast cost of decommissioning, is that it is very expensive and recent projects have seen significant delays, cost over-runs and technical problems. The SMRs are not yet proven.
- Accelerate the transition to electric vehicles, and transform our national infrastructure to better support electric vehicles. Just replacing petrol cars with electric cars will do nothing for road congestion, or for the pollution created by tyres and brakes. We need to rethink transport. If cars capable of receiving a hyper-rapid charge become the norm we’ll find that kerbside charging points will be a wasted investment. The signs are that hyper-rapid chargers can refuel new electric cars in little more time than it takes to fill a petrol tank. We need to take care that infrastructure investment is not overtaken by technology.
- A commitment to public transport, cycling and walking: Let’s see the details.
- Research projects for zero-emission planes and ships. Planes are likely to be particularly difficult to decarbonise. The global airline industry accounts for only 2-3% of global emissions. There are more important priorities.
- Making our homes, schools and hospitals greener, warmer and more energy efficient, whilst creating 50,000 jobs by 2030, and a target to install 600,000 heat pumps every year by 2028. Again, let’s see the detail, particularly where these 50,000 jobs are coming from. And 600,000 heat pumps per year. This will reduce the nation’s reliance on gas for home heating, although it will take nearly 40 years to equip the UK’s 23m homes. Having looked into this in some detail I find that since heat pumps work at lower temperatures than gas boilers you need bigger radiators to get the same effect and you also need a separate hot water cylinder. Who’s going to pay for all this? The first step must be retrofitting insulation to stop heat leaking out, before changing the system for pumping heat in.
- Becoming a world-leader in carbon capture and storage with a target to remove 10MT of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by 2030. That's a hostage to fortune. I will be delighted if we do succeed in making carbon capture and storage work. The IEA has said that we can't achieve net zero emissions without CCS. Former Chancellor George Osborne offered a fund of £1 billion to any organisation that could successfully develop CCS. He withdrew it shortly afterwards. The PM has again promised £1billion for CCS, between now and 2030.
- We are going to protect nature, plant trees and create many more jobs. Another very worthy objective but once again, the devil will be in the detail.
- Developing the cutting-edge technologies needed to reach these new energy ambitions and make the City of London the global centre of green finance. Another Green Investment Bank? This was one of the recommendations of the IPPR. Let’s see it happen.
The Climate Coalition and business leaders have called for an improved NDC, Nationally Determined Contribution, our target under the Paris Agreement. There was nothing specific about that, although in closing the PM announced “further plans to reduce emissions whilst creating jobs to follow over the next year in the run up to the international COP26 climate summit in Glasgow next November.”
Green homes, renewable energy, nature protection, zero-carbon transport and green investment were all on the Climate Coalition’s shopping list and all were addressed by the PM’s statement. This was an announcement of strategy, and although some deadlines and investments were mentioned a tremendous amount of detail remains to be seen.
There was nothing about cutting overseas investment in fossil fuels or about protecting global ecosystems. There was nothing like the Net Zero and Just Transition Delivery Body suggested by the IPPR. Unsurprisingly there was no mention of a Citizens’ Assembly as called for by XR and others, to advise the government on reaching net zero. Greenpeace cautiously welcomed the statement but Ed Miliband MP, Labour’s Shadow Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Secretary, said,
“The funding in this long-awaited announcement doesn’t remotely meet the scale of what is needed to tackle the unemployment emergency and climate emergency we are facing, and pales in comparison to the tens of billions committed by France and Germany.”
The general consensus is that the plans amount to an investment of about £12bn, much of which has already been announced. That’s the amount spent on the Test and Trace system. It’s considerably less than the £100 billion allocated for the so-called Operation Moonshot mass coronavirus testing project, although arguably it’s even more important than that. It’s not a lot more than the UK’s net £8 billion contribution that we used to pay as a member state of the EU. The government, of course, plans its investment as seed capital which will encourage the private sector to provide the majority of the funds needed. Labour’s position is that we can’t wait to see if that happens and so should invest £30 billion of public money right now.
There’s no doubt that action is urgent.
And so as we wait to see how all these plans will be realised I will draw another episode of the Sustainable Futures Report to a close. Thank you for listening. Thank you for listening in ever greater numbers.
Thanks to my patrons for your continuing support and ideas. If you would like to be a patron all the details are at patreon.com/sfr and there’s also a link to Patreon from the website.
So that's it for this week. Still another episode to come in November and after that we start running up to Christmas. In these uncertain times that's another story.
Anyway, have a good week.
This is Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report and I'll be back next time - but just before I go let me tell you about a lecture to be given at the Yorkshire branch of the Royal Meteorological Society entitled “Air Quality and Health Impacts of the Saddleworth Moor and Australian wildfires”. It’s online on 10th December. The link to register is on the blog.
To a Mouse by Burns: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43816/to-a-mouse-56d222ab36e33
Mini-nuclear plants may be an experiment worth exploring
Firms agree Scotland to England renewable energy 'superhighway'
Sixth Carbon Budget
Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill
'Buddha would be green': Dalai Lama calls for urgent climate action