A is for Action
That’s the opening message of my new A-Z of Sustainability, published letter by letter from next month and initially for patrons only.
I’m Anthony Day and this is the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 26th February. In this episode I follow up on the Green Homes Grant Scheme and on developments in the coal industry. I look at hydrogen and heat pumps and pass on more wise words from Mark Carney. Bill Gates has published a new book and maybe his high profile will give a positive boost to the climate movement. In the UK the national newspapers seem to be pretending that they’ve been green all along, while in snowy Texas the media is blaming all the blackouts on wind turbines. Don’t worry. Listener Ian Jarvis has sent some positive news.
A is for Action says it all. You can recycle, cut your use of plastic and turn your heating down, but unless we get action from our government and all governments, nothing will solve the climate crisis. The big hope is COP26, the international climate conference hosted by the UK next November. A cynical friend of mine says that if the British government were really serious about this they wouldn’t have put former Trade Secretary Alok Sharma in charge.
After all, he did once vote in favour of building a third runway at Heathrow Airport. Although that particular project is still subject to legal action, elsewhere in the UK the battle lines are drawn around plans to expand Leeds-Bradford Airport. Group for Action on Leeds Bradford Airport, (GALBA), has asked the Secretary of State to call in the plans and overturn the approval of the local authority. It’s suggested that one of the key reasons that Leeds councillors felt able to support airport expansion is that their planning officers told them that international aviation emissions are not a matter for local authorities to consider in the planning process. Given that emissions affect us all, it’s surely reckless to ignore them.
Green Homes Grant
Airport expansion is not something to be given a high profile in the UK in this year of COP26 and the government’s handling of the Green Homes Grant Scheme hasn’t done much to portray a global leader in combating climate change either. I’ve mentioned in previous episodes how this scheme, intended to help householders to improve the energy efficiency of their homes with grants of £5,000 or even £10,000, has turned into a disaster. Very few vouchers have been issued in relation to the numbers applied for and the number of projects completed is pitifully small. Many contractors have withdrawn from the scheme and some who actually undertook projects are still waiting to be paid. The government has blamed COVID as making householders reluctant to take up the scheme as it would mean workers coming into their homes. In fact there’s no shortage of demand as more than 100,000 people applied for grants. Installers blame government mismanagement, including the appointment of a US-based consultancy to manage the scheme. As we reach March when the scheme was planned to end, 80% - 90% of the grant money remains unspent. Instead of rolling it forward the government has decided to withdraw it. The problem of some of the most energy-inefficient housing stock in Europe remains.
“How will we heat homes in zero carbon Britain?”
asks BBC News. Hydrogen-powered boilers, heat pumps or other fuel like wood? It won’t be wood.
Wood fires have been identified as the principal source of particulate pollution according to government statistics. The danger is greatest to those living in the house with a wood-burner and some say that such stoves should be sold with a health warning. From 1st May the government bans the sale of bags of house coal and the retail sale of wet wood, though how this will be enforced must be open to question. Air pollution causes 30-50,000 premature deaths in the UK each year.
Hydrogen was the main component of town gas which heated our homes until North Sea natural gas came on stream at the end of the 1960s. Pure hydrogen burns cleanly with only water left behind, so what’s wrong with that? It depends where you get the hydrogen from. It can be stripped out of natural gas - methane - but that leaves behind CO2, which rather defeats the object of the exercise unless you can capture and store that CO2 somehow. Alternatively hydrogen can be electrolysed by passing electricity through water, just leaving oxygen behind. The problem is that the process needs vast amounts of electricity and it’s not very efficient. It’s been suggested that when there’s surplus wind power it should be used to electrolyse hydrogen - storing energy which otherwise would be wasted. As we move towards electric vehicles, electric steelmaking and possibly electric cement production, as well as rising standards of living across the world leading to increased energy demand, there just won’t be enough surplus energy for making hydrogen. Some homes may be heated by hydrogen, but are heat pumps the solution for the rest?
I’ve got an interview coming up with Kathy Hannun of Dandelion Energy where she explains how heat pumps work for home heating. The problem is that heat pumps are great for underfloor heating or for warm air systems which are predominant in New York State where she’s based. As they work at lower temperatures than gas boilers they are not as good at running the radiator systems which are more common in Europe. You may need more efficient and/or bigger radiators and you’ll need a separate boiler or immersion heater for hot water. And the initial cost of a heat pump is not small!
So how will we heat our homes? The key issue is looking first at where heat is leaking out before looking at ways of pouring more heat in. Double glazing, curtains, wall insulation, loft insulation, underfloor insulation can all play a part. It is possible to retrofit almost any house to Passivhaus standards, which means that heat losses are so small that you’ll need very little heating even in the depths of winter. The problem with that is that retrofitting an existing house to that level of insulation is very expensive and very disruptive. It’s a pity that current building regulations don’t require builders to produce homes anywhere near the Passivhaus standard. It’s been estimated that the construction costs of such houses would be little more than for constructing traditional homes. Of course builders don’t pay the heating bills, it’s their customers that have to do that.
Coal and Fossil Fuels
The debate in the UK over plans to open a new deep coal mine in Cumbria, northwest England, rumbles on. Meanwhile, across the world in Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announces plans to reactivate the nation’s coal industry. Two coal-fired power stations will be re-opened and orders for 2m tonnes of coal placed with small independent mines. Clearly a populist move, at the same time as clean energy is downgraded and emissions and climate commitments are ignored. The government believes that it will meet its commitments by raising the proportion of electricity from hydro to 35%, although whether this will actually offset the new emissions from coal is unclear.
Still on fossil fuels, another development in the UK in the year that it will host the COP26 Climate Conference. This one is in East Yorkshire and concerns a plan by Rathlin Energy to extend operations at an existing site. They have drilled for gas and found oil which they estimate will be produced for 20 years. It will be delivered from the site by road tanker with one vehicle every 14 minutes travelling along narrow country roads. Planning permission has not yet been granted, but the East Riding of Yorkshire Council has indicated that it does not believe that an environmental impact assessment is necessary. Local residents are concerned that there will nevertheless be significant environmental impact and they oppose the development. The perennial question must be whether it makes sense to continue to exploit fossil fuels, regardless of any other consideration than the nation’s objective to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. We need to start reducing now, not leave it to 2049. I’ll watch this issue and let you know the outcome.
Clean Energy for Coal
A story which at first sight appears to come from the “You couldn’t make it up” department. A member of the Australian parliament has proposed that the country’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation should invest in coal. The logic behind it is that while Australia exports millions of tons of coal to be burnt in power stations all over the world, it is prevented from developing such stations at home. I suppose Australia could build state-of-the-art stations to minimise emissions, but it would still create emissions and certainly couldn’t use all the coal it creates. Emissions targets are an ongoing political football in Australia and it’s not even clear whether the country is committed to net zero by 2050. Given that the average Australian citizen has one of the highest carbon footprints in the world it’s not going to be easy. In fact, as Bill Gates says, it’s going to be hard.
How to Avoid a Climate Disaster
Last week Bill Gates published his new book, How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. It’s a clear and detailed account of the problem we face and the challenges that must be overcome to deal with it. It’s a good introduction to the climate crisis, it looks at the advantages and disadvantages of various solutions and it’s not just setting out to solve the problems of the here and now. Gates recognises that the population is growing, but more important than that, the expectations and ambitions of the population are growing.
He looks in turn at the main areas where GHG emissions come from: manufacturing, electricity generation, agriculture, transportation, and heating and cooling. Which do you think generates the most? Listener Carol Dance has sent a link to a graphic which breaks these categories down into fine detail and you'll find a link to it at the end of this article on the website. For the purposes of the book Bill Gates examines each of these categories in detail.
It’s an optimistic book. Some might say over-optimistic, but to paint graphic pictures of impending disasters would just drive people away from thinking about it. Gates says we must exploit the technologies we have to address the situation, and research and develop new technologies to tackle the problems we cannot so far deal with. This is not a complacent view - “Oh technology will take care of it like it always has.” This is an analysis of where we need to concentrate resources and research.
Zero to 51 Billion
Two things I particularly liked. The first that the book opens with just two numbers - 0 and 51. The message is that 0 carbon emissions is the target for 2050 and that 51 billion tons is the amount of greenhouse gases that we release into the atmosphere each year. The other thing is the concept of the Green Premium.
There are already ways of achieving things without emissions or impacts on the environment, but these are frequently more expensive and the extra cost is defined as the Green Premium. This, along with a few odd expressions, is where it becomes clear that Bill has an American audience in mind. For example, he calculates that while a US gallon of petrol costs $2.43, a gallon of advanced biofuel would cost $5, so the extra cost or Green Premium would be $2.57 or 106%. If you convert that to UK prices where a US gallon, or 3.78 litres, costs $6.40, the Green Premium is actually a saving of $1.40 or 22% from the advanced biofuel at $5. It shows that the Americans have a harder hill to climb in some places, but the Green Premium concept is a useful yardstick to indicate where research should be focussed to achieve the the quickest wins.
Read this Book
I'm glad to see that Bill Gates is using his money and his profile to address the climate crisis. Far better than other billionaires who are spending their money on space tourism or planning trips to Mars. Solving the climate crisis will do far more for far more people. We’ve been short of opinion leaders on the world stage apart from Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough. We need more of the profile and calibre of Bill Gates to face off Donald Trump and all the other highly-organised deniers. See more on that below. Read this book and share it.
Climate Death Rate
In the meantime Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England, warns that deaths from the climate crisis could far exceed those from COVID. “The world is heading for mortality rates equivalent to the Covid crisis every year by mid-century unless action is taken”, he says. It all depends how we come out of the post-COVID recession and how governments and others choose to invest. “The scale of investment in energy, sustainable energy and sustainable infrastructure needs to double,” he said. "Every year, for the course of the next three decades, we must invest. That’s $3.5 trillion (£2.5tn) a year, for 30 years. It is an enormous investment opportunity.” And he believes there is sufficient private capital to meet this demand.
And now for some positive news shared by listener Ian Jarvis.
French State loses court case
In a landmark court ruling, the French state was this week convicted of failing to address the climate emergency. The case was brought against the state by four environmental organisations, including Greenpeace, which described the verdict as a “historic win for climate justice”. It encouraged campaigners elsewhere to hold their governments to account too.
The court in Paris found the French state guilty of “non-respect of its engagements” in combating climate change. France has pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent by 2030, but campaigners claim the government is not moving fast enough to meet its targets. The court agreed.
So the British government is not alone in being successfully sued for climate negligence. Will the French state, much like the British government, simply ignore the judgement or will it take action?
Other good news stories include an increase in the UK crane population (that’s the bird, not the lifting machine), a proposed ban on bottom trawling for UK fishing sites, and a successful legal action against the Shell oil company over oil spills in Nigeria. Find these and other positive stories at www.positive.news.
In the Press
Writing in the i-newspaper Ian Burrell reports that UK newspapers finally seem to be turning away from their years of climate scepticism. He notes that few if any editors have a scientific background, and that they are therefore more inclined to confuse opinion with fact. It seems that the papers are recognising a change in public opinion and so are changing their position. The fact that the new position is diametrically opposite to their previous views is quietly unmentioned. If this trend is continued it can only be a good thing. Compare this with some of the media across the pond. For example…
In recent weeks Texas has had a dose of extreme weather, with snow, ice and temperatures as low as -10℃. This has hit the state’s power grid, which is separate from the other two grids which cover the remaining states, leading to extensive blackouts. The other effect has been on consumers’ bills. In Texas you can choose to buy unregulated power at the wholesale market price, but being unregulated these prices can fluctuate wildly. Faced with a shortage of power, some of those who still had a supply were billed hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for their energy.
I’ve recently come across Climate Town, comedy videos on climate change with a serious message. The latest explains how the Texas power outages were caused by coal, oil, gas and nuclear generators shutting down in the face of extreme low temperatures, as reported by industry spokespeople. Then newscaster Tucker Carlson decided to blame wind turbines. “The turbines froze,” he said, “and people died.” Yes, some turbines did freeze, but the total installed wind power only accounts for a maximum of 13% of the state’s generating capacity. Much of the other 80% also shut down, and clearly was a much bigger cause of outages than wind. But Tucker Carlson’s repeated attacks changed the agenda. The governor of Texas went on record to blame wind turbines for the blackouts. Fossil fuel executives decided to blame wind turbines after all, and suddenly the message was changed. It’s a shocking demonstration of the power of misinformation. Watch the video - it’s less than 10 minutes. Search Climate Town on YouTube or find the link at the end of this episode on the website.
If you’re wondering whether you got it right when I asked where most GHGs come from, here’s Bill Gates’s answer.
Electricity generation 27%
Heating and cooling 7%
If you did get it right don’t stop to congratulate yourself - go and do something about it. And you too, if you got it wrong.
Incidentally, if you don’t want to buy Bill’s book it was BBC’s Book of the Week last week. You can find it on BBC Sounds in the UK, and maybe also in other parts of the world.
And that’s it for this week.
Thank you for listening. I’m very grateful for my patrons’ continuing help. If you think it’s worth $1, €1 or £1 per month - that’s for four, sometimes five, episodes - why not become a patron? The Sustainable Futures Report has expenses but receives no advertising, sponsorship or subsidies. That means I can say what I like and I hope you like it too. To preserve this independence and to make me believe that it’s worth three days of my time to prepare this each week, please pledge your support. Go to patreon.com/sfr. Oh, and the guys at Patreon are working on changing contribution levels which means they can only go up. If you sign up now, your contribution level will be fixed indefinitely.
And so, at the end of another week’s episode, have a good week and stay safe.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Leeds Bradford Airport
Green Homes Grant
Millions in green grants for English homes pulled despite delays
Wood burning at home now biggest cause of UK particle pollution
As others shun fossil fuels, a nation turns to coal
Bill Gates Book
Detailed carbon sources
In The Press
Texas Power Outage