A lot more stories, actually. I'm trying to get to grips with the stories that I haven't covered over the last four or five weeks. Links to all the sources, as usual, below. There’s a whole range of issues which I’ve loosely grouped into Energy, Science and Warning Signs, Managing the Message, and Inconsistencies, Greenwash and Counter-Intuitive ideas. With that last category in mind, let’s look at the East Yorkshire Oilfields.
Hello, I’m Anthony Day. Welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report, recognised as one of the 20 Best Podcasts About Climate Change of 2021 by https://prettyprogressive.com/20-best-podcasts-about-climate-change-of-2021/
It’s Friday 14th May 2021. A special welcome to all my patrons who help keep this award-winning show on the road with a small monthly contribution. If you like the Sustainable Futures Report why don’t you join them? Details at patreon.com/sfr.
East Yorkshire Oilfield
Yorkshire? Yes, in the northeast of England. The Yorkshire coalfield, no longer exploited, is massive, so it’s not surprising that there should be other hydrocarbons like oil and gas to be found. Rathlin Energy has two wells at West Newton in rural East Yorkshire and now wants to drill another six. You can see a virtual consultation on line, but you have to register your name and address before you can get access to the Rathlin website. There’s a link below.
East Yorkshire Council has ruled that this expansion, these six new wells, will not require an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). While I’m sure this must be legal, as a member of the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (iema) I’m surprised. Especially as three days after announcing that an EIA would not be needed the Council declared a climate emergency. Isn’t that about cutting emissions, which largely come from burning hydrocarbons?
Of course an EIA is not the only hurdle to the expansion. Planning permission is required and that is not yet decided. However, assuming the Council gives the go-ahead, the plan is to transport 25 tanker-loads of hydrocarbons along Yorkshire’s country lanes every day for the next 20 years. That’s the 20 years during which the government has committed to cutting emissions by 78% by 2035. You know, emissions caused by burning hydrocarbons. By the way, if it all works out, Rathlin Energy have plans for a total of 18 wells here and on nearby sites.
Let’s do some sums. I know there’s at least one listener who will pull me up if I get them wrong, but I’m just trying to gauge an order of magnitude.
A road tanker has a capacity of 36,000 litres. One barrel of oil contains approximately 159 litres, so one tanker equals 226 barrels. The 25 tankers each day will therefore carry 5,660 barrels between them. If you put that into context with the UK’s daily use of about 1.6 million barrels that’s a tiny amount. It’s less than 0.5%. It may make sense commercially, but it’s environmental nonsense. Producing more fossil fuels is directly contrary to the government’s stated net zero carbon objective, and whether West Newton is developed or not will make no difference to the nation’s energy security.
Of course one can protest and there have apparently been some lively sessions at local consultations. There’s a link below to the BBC Northeast report. Active non-violent protests like blocking roads or locking gates - seen some years ago at the potential fracking site at Kirby Misperton - could be used.
But remember, this week’s Queen’s Speech promised that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill would become law in the coming session, giving the police the power to determine when a demonstration is a criminal activity, which means that on conviction demonstrators could face up to 10 years in prison. 10 years - for trying to stop an organisation determined to work against the government’s net zero targets. As I remarked in a recent episode, we live in dangerous times.
As I complete this episode, news comes in that the Environment Agency has approved new rules for work at the West Newton-B oil and gas site. This includes the use of new chemicals in drilling muds. Operator Rathlin Energy has also announced that it is seeking road closure orders around the site for a further 18 months.
Before I get up-to-date with a number of stories that you may have missed over the last few weeks, let me tell you about the episode scheduled for next Friday the 21st May. The Nuclear Option is a discussion of the role of nuclear power in a future zero carbon energy mix between energy specialist Sarah Cullen, photographer Ashley Cooper and journalist Robin Whitlock. At just under the hour it’s the longest episode to date, but packed with insights, intelligence and information. Don’t miss it!
And In Other News…
Managing the Message
How do we manage the message? How do we convince people to take action on the climate crisis without scaring them to the extent that they simply ignore it? In her new book Kimberley Nicholas quotes Katharine Wilkinson of Project Drawdown. While scientists are expected to be dispassionate and fact-focussed, it is impossible to deny their emotional reaction to things that they study. “There are two responses to loss,” she says. “A heart that simply breaks, that curls up on the couch and hides away, and a broken open heart that reconnects with the world around us, that is “awake and alive and calls for action.” No matter the object, grief and sadness focus our attention on what matters in our lives, and they turn us into human distress signals: they summon help.”
Wise words, but we still have the difficulty of persuading people that they truly face a loss.
The British Government is facing criticism over the way it is managing the message in advance of the Cop26 UN climate conference to be held in Glasgow in November. A group of experts – including the former Nasa scientist Jim Hansen, the former UK government chief scientist Sir David King and the economist Prof Jeffrey Sachs – have written to ministers and the supreme court about a recent ruling that the government need not take the UK’s obligations under the Paris Agreement into account when setting policy, made in a case concerning the proposed expansion of Heathrow airport. The government has also faced criticism over the approval of a new coalmine, currently on hold at least until after COP26, for issuing licences for new oil and gas exploration in the North Sea, and for scrapping the Green Homes Grant, its flagship scheme for home insulation and low carbon heating.
The British government has also announced £27bn roadbuilding scheme. While lawyers for Transport Action Network (TAN) claim that the strategy is incompatible with climate crisis commitments, government lawyers have argued that the additional net greenhouse gases from the roadbuilding are de minimis, or too small to be material.
Expert witnesses disagreed, arguing that the true emissions were 100 times greater. Phil Goodwin, emeritus professor of transport policy at UCL, said that the government’s calculations appeared to include only “new” schemes, amounting to just five of the 50 listed in the £27bn roadbuilding programme. He said it appeared to exclude significant contributors to the climate crisis such as emissions from construction, and that the government had not factored in a lifetime impact, but made forecasts only until 2032 – when some of the road schemes would not have been completed.
Use More Steel!
It's not just the government which seems to be promoting actions against its net zero target for 2050. UK Steel, the trade body, urges the use of more British steel, particularly for defence projects and major infrastructure like HS2. Of course British steel supports British jobs, but while theoretically there are low carbon methods of producing steel using hydrogen, current methods are one of the biggest sources of pollution. There’s no short-term fix, no short-term way of eliminating polluting production methods, but the worrying thing is that while there’s a long-term strategy there’s no detailed plan on how we make these massive changes step by step.
Another counter intuitive approach is the announcement that Drax Energy is to double wood pellet production with the purchase of a biomass firm. Drax operates the U.K.'s largest power station which has been mainly converted to burning wood pellets instead of coal. It claims to be the U.K.'s cleanest site and receives extensive government subsidy on that basis. The basis for this claim is that while carbon dioxide is emitted on site, (and the emissions are generally believed to be worse than those created by coal), this is all offset by new growth in the forests from where the wood chips are sourced. There are plans to install carbon capture, as I discussed with James Dyke recently, but even if this works there will be questions over whether all the carbon emitted in the supply chain, which brings the woodchip from North America, will be covered. Read The Greenwashing files by Client Earth which analyses this argument in much detail. Link below.
Oil companies have an unenviable task. After decades of bringing unimagined prosperity to unimagined millions they are now pilloried for being the source of the dangerous emissions which are causing the climate crisis. Shell has pledged to become a carbon neutral company by 2050 and urges its shareholders to endorse its plans. Activists disagree and claim that the plan does not go far enough and is not consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world,
Further afield, Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison has resisted pressure to set more ambitious carbon emission targets while other major nations vowed deeper reductions to tackle climate change.
Addressing Joe Biden’s global climate summit last month, Mr Morrison said Australia was on a path to net zero emissions. But he stopped short of setting a timeline, saying the country would get there "as soon as possible”.
Let’s hope that will be soon enough!
Well, this wouldn't be the Sustainable Futures Report without something on energy.
Several peer reviewed articles in the Journal of Plasma Physics validate the nuclear fusion reactor design from Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS). Nuclear fusion is a reaction which mimics activity within the sun. The temperatures are so high that no materials can contain the reaction which have to be held within a map magnetic field. Research so far has not succeeded in creating a self-sustaining reaction and therefore the reaction has absorbed far more power than it has released. Researchers at CFS are using a much smaller unit than the international research establishment ITER. They are also using newer magnet technology.
Fusion has been under research for at least 30 years and if it is successfully achieved and can be replicated on a commercial scale it will deliver clean energy at low cost. Seen by some as the unattainable philosopher’s stone, CFS has nevertheless attracted $200 billion from investors.
Meanwhile, at one point last month the UK achieved nearly 80% of its electricity from zero-emission sources. 39% came from wind, 21% from solar and 16% from nuclear. This demonstrates the progress towards emissions free electricity, but of course it was helped by favourable weather over a public holiday when demand was relatively low. We've made progress, but there’s much more to be made. Next week’s discussion covers this in much detail.
Meanwhile China continues to burn coal and to be criticised for being the world’s largest polluter. A report from the think tank TransitionZero suggests that if China were to close 588 coal-fired power stations this would not only have a beneficial effect on emissions, but would save them $1.6 trillion. The report is called Turning the Tanker. You can download it via the link below or view the interactive version. Worth a look.
In Australia farmers have been fighting for 13 years to prevent a Chinese company from mining coal in their area. Finally the company has agreed to withdraw, on the payment of $100 million. Farmers are urging a complete ban on oil and gas production in the Liverpool Plains area, north of Sydney. “We don't want to future generations of farmers to have to go through what we've been through,” they say.
Wyoming to Sue
Crossing to the United States we find the governor of Wyoming threatening to sue any other states which refuse to allow Wyoming coal to be imported. The state is the largest producer of coal in the US, responsible for 40% of the nation’s output.
“I will not waver in my efforts to protect our industries, particularly our coal industry. The use of coal is under assault from all directions. And we have stood firm in our support of it throughout,” said Republican Mark Gordon.
Don’t worry, Mark, there are still some people on your side. UK lenders provided loans and underwriting services worth $30.3bn (£21.9bn) to companies that sold or burned coal, or provided coal industry services, during 2019, according to research by the campaign groups Reclaim Finance and Urgewald. That represented a significant increase compared with $21.5bn in financing provided in 2016, the year after the Paris Agreement was signed.
On the other hand, The Energy Transitions Commission (ETC), a coalition of more than 45 leaders from global energy producers, energy industries, financial institutions and environmental advocates – including ArcelorMittal, Bank of America, BP, Iberdrola, Ørsted, Volvo Group and the World Resources Institute among others – released two new reports analysing the feasibility of achieving a netzero economy by 2050 and the actions required in the next decade to put this target within reach. They focus on electricity and hydrogen. No mention of coal.
Energy in the Sky
Of course the biggest nuclear furnace in the universe, in this bit of it anyway, is the sun. with that blazing away why do we have to build our own? The BBC reports on solar power stations. The plan is to float solar arrays in space, maybe as big as 10km2. They would be constantly orientated towards the sun. One of the major challenges will be getting the power transmitted back to Earth. The plan is to convert electricity from the solar cells into energy waves and use electromagnetic fields to transfer them down to an antenna on the Earth’s surface. The antenna would then convert the waves back into electricity. Researchers led by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency have already developed designs and demonstrated an orbiter system which should be able to do this. Let’s hope these energy waves will not disrupt aviation or damage any people or systems on earth. Looks like an immensely costly project, but one which could cost very little to run.
Science and Warnings
More news from science, more warning signs.
Surprisingly, (to me at least) the connection between greenhouse gas emissions and their climate effects has remained theoretical, until now. NASA scientists have provided evidence through satellite observations that greenhouse gases are heating the Earth. "It's direct evidence that human activities are causing changes to Earth's energy budget," Ryan Kramer, the study's first author and a researcher at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, told CBS News.
The research, published in Geophysical Research Letters on March 25, used satellites to provide evidence of radiative forcing.
Meanwhile, a report in Geophysical Research Letters reveals that the climate crisis has led to the movement of the earth’s axis. Changes in how the Earth’s mass is distributed around the planet cause the axis, and therefore the poles, to move. Groundwater is stored under land but, once pumped up for drinking or agriculture, most eventually flows to sea, redistributing its weight around the world. In the past 50 years, humanity has removed 18tn tonnes of water from deep underground reservoirs without it being replaced. Another significant factor is the melting of the world’s glaciers, which has nearly doubled in speed over the past 20 years. Between 2000 and 2019, glaciers lost 267 gigatonnes (Gt) of ice per year, equivalent to 21% of sea-level rise, reveals a paper published in Nature. What was ice in one place is now water in another place, altering the balance of the earth.
Scientists have been studying the stratosphere and have found evidence that humanity’s enormous emissions of greenhouse gases are causing it to shrink.
The shrinking stratosphere is a stark signal of the climate emergency and the planetary-scale influence that humanity now exerts, according to Juan Añel, at the University of Vigo, Ourense in Spain and part of the research team. “It is shocking,” he said. “This proves we are messing with the atmosphere up to 60 kilometres.”
Writing in Environmental Research Letters, the researchers said, “It may affect satellite trajectories, orbital life-times, and retrievals […] the propagation of radio waves, and eventually the overall performance of the Global Positioning System and other space-based navigational systems.”
We’re warned that extreme weather is a likely consequence of global warming, but we often don't hear about it unless it occurs close to home. So you probably haven't heard about the recent flash floods in Afghanistan. Or the flash floods in Mecca. Mecca, yes that's in Saudi Arabia, in the hot dry and dusty Middle East. Not on this occasion. First of all, the citizens were delighted at the rain; so much so that they decided to go out and enjoy walking in it. Fine until the waters began to rise until they were pouring down the streets and flooding cars. Weather that's never been seen before like this.
Another form of extreme weather is invading China. The Lancet reports that On March 15, 2021, north China suddenly experienced a serious sand and dust storm, which originated in Mongolia and was the biggest in the past decade. At least nine people, including one child, were directly killed by the sand and dust storm in Mongolia. The devastating storm swept across northern China, covering 380 million hectares of land in 12 provinces. Schools in several cities were closed and more than 50 flights to and from Beijing were cancelled. PM10 concentrations in Beijing, that’s the microparticles dangerous to health, increased sharply to 8000 μg/m3 during the morning of March 15 due to the storm, and 24-h mean PM2·5 concentrations exceeded 200 μg/m3, which is far higher than the WHO guideline of 25 μg/m3. It has been estimated that such an increase in PM10 concentration could lead to an increase of 99·8% in daily all-cause mortality, which corresponds to at least 265 excess deaths per day in Beijing. This wave of sand and dust storms is a result of combined effects of dry cyclones from Mongolia and cold air from Siberia. Driven by the prevailing westerlies, dust particles in the deserts of Mongolia were lifted high into the air, travelling downwind from the source areas, and depositing in northern China and even South Korea.
Sand and dust storms, they say, are strongly related to climate change.
It’s strange how none of this made the popular press.
There are always more stories. I'm sorry I've not been able to bring you news of why endless pursuit of economic growth is destroying our planet, how wealthy nations are ‘failing to help the developing world tackle the climate crisis’, how mining for crypto currencies like bitcoin is using vast amounts of electricity with a vast carbon footprint, the winners and losers in Britain’s climate change plan or the Lancet’s view of the Global Health Threat from the climate crisis. I’ll aim to address these in future episodes, though by then many more stories will have come and gone.
Next time, don’t forget, we have a discussion on the place of nuclear power in the future zero-carbon electricity generation mix.
For the moment though, that’s it for this week. Remember to Think Carbon. Everything you eat, use or wear has a carbon footprint. It’s up to you to control it.
That was the award-winning Sustainable Futures Report.
I’m Anthony Day.
Until next time.
Oh, by the way, any thoughts on a new signature tune? Until someone comes up with a better idea we’ll stay with this one!
One of the 20 Best Podcasts of 2021
Yorkshire Oil and Gas
Council declares Climate Emergency.
Council says no Environmental assessment required
Managing the message
Scientists need to face both facts and feelings when dealing with the climate crisis
UK policy of ignoring Paris treaty ‘undermines Cop26 role’
UK aid cut seen as unforced error in ‘year of British leadership’
Carbon emissions for £27bn roads plan '100 times more than stated'
Counter-intuitive ideas, inconsistencies and Greenwash
Why vast projects such as HS2 could be best route for UK steel industry
Drax to double wood pellet production with biomass firm purchase
Shell calls on investors to vote for its new climate strategy
UK banks’ aid for coal industry has risen since 2015 Paris climate pact
Electricity and hydrogen
Science and Warning Signs
Climate crisis has shifted the Earth’s axis, study shows
Speed at which world’s glaciers are melting has doubled in 20 years
Emissions shrinking the stratosphere, scientists reveal
Flash flooding in Afghanistan, as Europe warms up
Sand and Dust storms