Yes, those wildfires are still burning, and people are still facing the devastation of the floods in Europe, India and China. Scientists are blamed for not seeing it coming and journalists are being harassed for reporting it.
There are reports from the OBR, the National Infrastructure Commission, the Climate Crisis Advisory Group, the Met Office and the Climate Change Committee. There’s also a lot of news, comment, questions and promises about COP26. Suddenly, after decades of scientific concern, people seem to be taking the possibility of a climate crisis seriously.
This is an extra edition of the Sustainable Futures Report. I’ve put it together because there’s so much going on. I know your time is precious, so I didn’t want to add this to a regular edition and make it too long. If you want to save time you can skip to the links below to all these stories.
There’s a new way to get your climate views heard, a British oil company is taking the Italian government to court over the right to drill for oil, if you make it to France on holiday you could go on a tour of the Flamanville nuclear power station and I have the latest on electric goods vehicles and sustainability training for airports. And finally, the prime minister’s climate change spokeswoman explains how we can all help to tackle the climate emergency. Apparently it’s all to do with washing up….
Scientist have been warning about extreme weather for decades and the damage it could do, but they have been criticised for not predicting recent events.
Prof Dame Julia Slingo, a former Met Office chief scientist said that the climate models currently available are “just not good enough.”
She is promoting an international centre to deliver the quantum leap to climate models that capture the fundamental physics that drive extremes. She said that the costs of the computer, which would be in the hundreds of millions of pounds, would "pale into insignificance" compared with the costs of extreme events for which society is unprepared. She hopes to get agreement at COP26 to launch the project.
China has been badly hit by storms and floods, but journalists from across the world have been jostled, intimidated and attacked on social media as they attempt to report on the situation. Much of this hostility seems to be approved of, if not encouraged, by government officials. In Henan province journalists are accused of rumour mongering and slandering China. In other areas some people have complained of lack of support from the government in helping to rescue them from the floods. Maybe China’s response has been inadequate and the government doesn’t want its shortcomings to be widely known.
Predictions and Reports
A new report in the International Journal of Climatology from the Royal Geographical Society, The State of the UK Climate 2020, provides a summary of the UK weather and climate through the calendar year 2020, alongside the historical context for a number of essential climate variables. “The UK's climate is changing. Recent decades have been warmer, wetter and sunnier than the 20th century. Year 2020 was third warmest, fifth wettest and eight sunniest on record for the UK. No other year has fallen in the top-10 for all three variables for the UK.”
This time last year experts were already warning that British building stock was ill-suited to modern heatwaves. Last week Dr Jess Neumann, a hydrologist at the University of Reading, said: “Flooding from intense summer rainfall is going happen more frequently. No city, town or village is immune to flooding and we all need to take hard action right now if we are to prevent impacts from getting worse in the future.”
Climate Crisis Advisory Group
Independent SAGE is an unofficial body mirroring the official Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies which advises the government on the COVID crisis. The Climate Crisis Advisory Group, is another unofficial body, which plays a similar role on climate. Led by Sir David King, a former Chief Government Scientist, this month the group published Observations and Impacts of the Arctic Warming.
They say, “It is difficult to explain the severity of the recent extreme floods in Europe and the heatwaves in North America merely with the additional heat and moisture in the climate system caused by 1.2°C of global warming.
“It cannot be excluded that the rapid warming and melting in the Arctic has triggered additional changes in how our weather works, explaining the extremity of these extremes.”
In a recent interview on Channel 4 News, Sir David King explained that warming is happening more quickly in the Arctic than anywhere on earth. It may already have reached a tipping point.
Refreeze the Arctic
The group recommends deep and rapid emissions reduction, removing GHGs from the atmosphere at scale and refreezing the Arctic region. This last, refreezing the Arctic, sounds like science fiction, but was presented as a sensible and urgent measure to buy time while we get emissions under control.
The most popular approach to refreezing the Arctic is by cloud brightening. This means increasing the density of clouds so that they cool the environment by reflecting more sunlight and preventing it from reaching the earth. Clouds consist of water droplets. For water vapour to condense into droplets nucleation sites are needed - specks of dust floating in the air. Since the air is much cleaner over the ocean than over land, fewer clouds form at sea. The plan is to spray seawater up into the clouds so that the salt stimulates the formation of more droplets.
Whether the ships needed to do this can be designed, built and deployed in time must be open to question, but the group is in no doubt of the extreme urgency.
There’s a link to the report on the Sustainable Futures Report website, and a link to the Channel 4 interview. If you follow up nothing else, I urge you to watch it.
Climate Change Committee
The official Climate Change Committee takes a much more UK-centred approach. In its official 2021 progress report to Parliament it said that “Sustained reductions in emissions require sustained Government leadership, underpinned by a strong Net Zero Strategy.”
It warned that the Government had made historic climate promises in the past year, but it had been too slow to follow these with delivery. “ With every month of inaction, it is harder for the UK to get on track.”
Last week the Met Office published its UK Climate Projections. Its headline findings set out an increased chance of warmer, wetter winters and hotter, drier summers along with an increase in the frequency and intensity of extremes. New data suggests future increases in the intensity of heavy summer rainfall events and for urban areas particularly, this will impact on the frequency and severity of surface water flooding. Significant increases in heavy hourly rainfall intensity in the autumn are predicted.
The authors say that we can continue to expect increases to extreme coastal water levels driven mainly by increases in mean sea level rise..
Adaptation plans should include preparation for worse climate change scenarios.
There is a useful infographic which summarises the predictions for the four nations of the UK under low and high emissions scenarios. Find the link on the Sustainable Futures Report website.
Office for Budget Responsibility
Also last month the OBR published its Fiscal Risks Report, devoting a whole chapter to Climate Change.
“The fiscal implications of climate change for the UK are complicated and depend upon the policy response at home and abroad. Global trends that are largely beyond the UK Government’s control will determine the extent of global warming and the costs associated with adapting to the changes that brings. Unmitigated climate change would ultimately have catastrophic economic and fiscal consequences, but even meeting the Paris goals implies some further warming.”
In a wide-ranging and detailed analysis, based on information from the Climate Change Committee, the report discusses issues such as the merits of carbon taxes, emissions trading schemes, fuel duty, landfill taxes and levies on electricity bills. It points out that, perversely, these levies incentivise the use of gas over electricity for household and business customers, thereby slowing the transition to cleaner energy.
It mentions the disruptive process of installing heat pumps and improving the heat efficiency of people’s homes. Heat pumps are significantly more expensive than existing boiler technologies. They are also unfamiliar in the UK and require better-insulated homes to function efficiently. This, it says, creates a very large delivery challenge.
“Illustrating the fiscal costs to the UK of global inaction in tackling climate change relative to the OBR’s 30-year early action scenario is not straightforward. The costs of mitigation show up within this horizon, but the benefits of preventing warming largely do not, even though choices taken by the middle of the century will have lasting influences on the trajectory of global warming beyond that point. In addition, severe climate change does not just alter a given central outcome in any given year, it is also likely to increase the likelihood and magnitude of tail-risk events occurring, due to extreme weather events here and/or the resulting mass migration and conflicts that might result in hotter, drier parts of the world.”
The report considers a range of scenarios and estimates the various costs and benefits in terms of capital outlay and job creation.
In conclusion it says that unmitigated global warming has the capacity to deliver catastrophic changes to lives and livelihoods – and would be essentially irreversible. Between now and 2050, the fiscal costs of reducing net emissions to zero in the UK could be significant but not exceptional, while the costs of failing to get climate change under control would be much larger than those of bringing emissions down to net zero.
National Infrastructure Commission
The National Infrastructure Commission produced a raft of reports last month. I won’t go into them in detail here, but they include
- The importance of developing GHG removal technologies
- The long-term role of cars in towns
- Can local energy planning help solve ‘double challenge’ of net zero and levelling up?
- The urgency of transport decarbonisation and the Commission’s response to the government’s net zero transport plans
Links on the Sustainable Futures Report website.
It’s less than 100 days to COP26, the UN conference on climate change which takes place in Glasgow in November.
Writing in the i newspaper, former UK prime minister Tony Blair said that COP26 must be about more than empty promises.
First, he said, there must be ambitious targets backed by clear and credible delivery plans.
Second, there is a moral imperative for high-income countries to support their developing counterparts - and a practical reason. High income countries must transfer of green technologies, skills and finance to less developed countries. This will reduce inequality and also discourage developing nations from adopting cheap but outdated and polluting technologies, which will threaten our world as much as theirs.
Thirdly, global leaders must move climate change into the mainstream of politics and public consciousness. We’re ahead of you there, Tony. I made that point in last week’s Sustainable Futures Report. See below for how PM Johnson’s climate spokeswoman is addressing the issue.
Blair’s final point was that we can only succeed if the private sector and the state work together.
A correspondent to The National, a Scottish newspaper, was horrified that representatives from the nuclear industry would be involved in discussions around COP26. In his view the time for nuclear was past and future demand would be met by renewables. We've been hearing that increasingly recently but I seriously wonder whether it's feasible, at least not for a while yet. Although nuclear projects tend to over-run both in terms of cost and construction time, once in operation they do provide a constant flow of zero carbon electricity. Maybe we should continue with the construction of plants such as Hinkley C and hope that by the time that's on stream we will be much closer to meeting all our needs from renewables. Never forget that electric cars and electric powered heat pumps are going to increase the demand for electricity dramatically.
COP26 at Sea
Another Scottish correspondent, this time to The Scotsman, was concerned about 30,000 people arriving in Glasgow for the conference in this time of Covid. His suggestion was that the delegations should be cut to the bare minimum and then they could all meet offshore, on board HMS Queen Elizabeth, the largest and most powerful vessel ever constructed for the Royal Navy. Apparently its power plant develops enough energy to drive 1,000 cars. Unfortunately it runs on diesel.
In Other News…
At the G20 Climate & Energy Ministerial in Naples last week, Alok Sharma, COP26 President-Designate, called for coal to be phased out as quickly as possible. Sadly the G20 reached no agreement on phasing out coal power or overseas coal financing. No doubt he’ll try again at COP26. Conveniently the government’s decision on whether to allow that new coal mine in Cumbria is scheduled for the week after COP26.
Meanwhile the UK government presses ahead with a major road building programme. Transport Action Network (TAN) took the government to court and argued that the Minister had not taken the environmental impact into account and that the plans were inconsistent with the government’s net zero targets. In finding against TAN the judge said that the government was taking action to reduce transport emissions. “Whether they are enough is not a matter for the court.” TAN’s lawyers have appealed against the judgment and are crowdfunding for further legal costs. There’s a link on the website.
Domestic Heating - no big bills
Domestic heating is a major contributor to the carbon footprint of the United Kingdom. There is discussion about the way forward and the government has already announced that gas boilers will be outlawed and replaced with heat pumps. This gives rise to concern, because heat pumps are much more expensive to buy than gas boilers and are no cheaper to run. The Prime Minister has announced that there will be a new strategy for heating published before COP26 and there will be no big bills for consumers. Let’s hope that this will have more substance than recent announcements. The levelling up statement and the plan for policing have both been criticised as nothing more than hot air and headlines and the social care policy, announced months ago, has yet to be published.
One of the demands of Extinction Rebellion (XR) is for a Citizens’ Assembly, where people can come together, learn about the climate crisis from experts and advise governments on the best way forward. A recent announcement from the think-tank Demos, working with WWF, The National Grid and Scottish Power describes their Climate Calculator.
Anyone can use the Climate Calculator to choose their preferred package of solutions for tackling climate change. They will be shown the direct impact of their decisions on jobs, household budgets and other aspects of their lifestyle. Of course this is based on your opinions; there’s no new knowledge involved, but it’s interesting to see the effect of what you decide. I managed to achieve a 45% reduction by 2030 at a cost of only 95p per week for the average household. Try it yourself. There’s a link on the website.
International Trade - ISDS
I’ve mentioned ISDS in previous episodes. It’s investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS), which allows companies to sue governments for introducing policies that could affect their future earnings.
In 2014 UK company Rockhopper Exploration bought a licence to drill for oil off Italy’s Adriatic coast in 2014. There was wide opposition to the deal at the time and now the Italian government has changed its policy and imposed a ban on oil and gas projects within 12 nautical miles of the Italian coast. In response Rockhopper is seeking damages of $275m based on expected future profits from the oilfield.
ISDS is part of the energy charter treaty (ECT), meaning energy companies can sue any of the 53 signatory countries – including the UK – if they take action that could dent those companies’ future earnings, such as banning the exploitation of coal, oil and gas reserves.
The German energy company RWE, for instance, is suing the Netherlands for €1.4bn (£1.2bn) over its plans to phase out coal.
The UK is considered to be the most vulnerable to ISDS of all the countries in Europe, with more than £120bn worth of fossil fuel infrastructure owned by foreign companies. There is concern that the UK could delay or water down climate change legislation for fear of being sued.
Leaving the treaty is no protection to governments in respect to contracts and deals signed in the past.
Asked how its plans fit with the International Energy Agency’s warning against investing in new fossil fuel projects, Rockhopper declined to comment.
It’s sincerely worrying that ISDS could be a devastating weapon in the hands of the many organisations that still believe that short-term profits are more important than the long-term survival of the planet.
There’s news that IATA, the International Air Transport Association, has launched an environmental sustainability training programme together with the University of Geneva (UNIGE). Unkind people might say that’s a bit like painting a coal-fired power station green.
The UK government is planning a trial for overhead electric power for heavy goods vehicles. Batteries are not an option for HGVs because their size and weight would significantly reduce a vehicle’s payload and hence severely increase operating costs. A 12-mile stretch of the M180 near Scunthorpe is to be fitted with overhead wires for the trial. I believe I reported on a similar system in Canada a while ago. The idea there was that vehicles would complete the last miles to their destination, in that case a port, on electric power, reducing noise and pollution as they passed through a residential area.
Centre for Sustainable Road Freight
The Centre for Sustainable Road Freight, a joint project between Cambridge and Heriot-Watt universities, believes that an electric roads system could put all but the most remote parts of the UK within reach of the trucks by the late 2030s, at a cost of £19bn. (Compare this with the £107bn and rising cost of the HS2 high-speed rail line which is now expected to link London to Birmingham and go no further.) However there is robust debate within the road transport industry as some believe that batteries are a viable solution while others advocate the use of hydrogen fuel cells.
Overhead electric will present technical challenges. While an electric train picks up power from an overhead conductor and completes the circuit via the wheels and the metal rail, road vehicles will need to access two overhead cables for the two ends of the circuit. Could be tricky at motorway junctions and exits, and overtaking could be impossible.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Allegra Stratton, the PM’s spokesperson on COP26 explained how we all can help tackle the climate emergency. “Don’t rinse dishes before putting them in the dishwasher,” she advises. “Put your bread in the freezer and consider walking rather than driving to the shops.”
Amidst howls of criticism from all sides, Luke Pollard, the shadow environment secretary, told The Independent: “The planet is on fire and we are living in a climate and ecological emergency. If the government’s best answer is rinsing dishes, we are in serious trouble.”
I don’t think Allegra’s ideas would go down well with the drowning Chinese, the Indians carried away by mudslides, the Europeans whose homes have been washed away or the North Americans whose homes have been destroyed by wildfires.
OK, so what should the message be? First of all, it’s estimated that 71% of global emissions can be attributed to just 100 companies. Only governments can act effectively at that level.
At the consumer level? Think carbon. As I’ve said before, everything you eat, use or wear has a carbon footprint. Yes, even the water you use to rinse dishes has a carbon footprint bound up in the purification and distribution process and in sewage recovery and treatment. But get things in proportion. Driving to the shops will have a far, far larger footprint, but the things which will really make a difference are turning down your heating - or air conditioning - and avoiding flying. And urging governments to take far more effective action that we as individuals can on our own.
And that’s it,
For this week. It’s August, but this year the Sustainable Futures Report still goes on. I’m planning to take a break in September, as we approach edition No. 350. Having said that, York Environment Week takes place in September. I’m hosting two panel discussions which will be relayed on the Sustainable Futures Report. More detail shortly. Don’t miss out - hit the subscribe button. And if you’d like to add your support from a couple of pounds towards covering the costs of this podcast just head across to patreon.com/sfr
Thanks to all my patrons for your support, and thank you for listening.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was an extra edition of the Sustainable Futures Report.
Until next time, when I’ll be talking to Ross O’Ceallaigh about Green Urbanism.
Bye for now.
Science failed to predict
Foreign journalists harassed over floods coverage
Extreme weather will be the norm and UK is not prepared - report
Climate crisis advisory group
Could Scientists Refreeze the Arctic?
Office for Budget Responsibility
National Infrastructure Commission
Climate Change Committee
Hold COP26 offshore
Activists lose legal bid to stop £27bn roads plan for England
No big bills for heating - new strategy before cop26
Outrage as Italy faces multimillion pound damages to UK oil firm
Tours of Flamanville
IATA backs sustainability
UK government backs scheme for motorway cables to power lorries