Seeing as COP26 has made the front cover of The Big Issue magazine the message must really be getting through! The key question is whether the message is getting through to the right people and whether the right people have the power to do what is needed. Prime Minister Johnson is making all the right noises. The trouble is that he's in thrall to right-wingers within his party.
First it was the ERG, the European Research Group, which wanted Brexit at all costs in its hardest possible form. Then there was the CRG, the Covid Recovery Group, desperate to minimise lockdown, avoid wearing face masks and sceptical of social distancing. Watch out for CRG2, the Climate Rejection Group, which no doubt will have exactly the same members as the previous two did and will exert just as much influence on the actions, or inactions of the government.
Before we get into that, here's what you'll find in today's episode.
COP26 This Week
As we get closer to COP26 - it starts on Sunday - there are complaints that governments have been trying to change the conclusions of that IPCC report.
Net Zero Strategy
There’s more green activity from the UK government with publication of the promised Net Zero Strategy. Also published and almost immediately unpublished was the government’s Net Zero: Principles for Successful Behaviour Change.
World Leaders at COP26
There’s still uncertainty about which leaders will go to Glasgow while Greta Thunberg complains that there are no leaders.
Insulate Britain campaigners will go to Glasgow although they thought they’d be going to prison long before this. Why haven’t they?
The Price of Oil and Gas
Price rises for oil and gas have gone off the front pages, but they’ll still be on your bills.
And I’ll also tell you why I didn't appear on GB News TV this week instead of a spokesperson for the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) and why I think I probably should have done.
Going back to prime minister Johnson. It's not just the right-wing members of his party that he has trouble with. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is very sceptical about the cost of action to address the climate challenge, and sees it more in terms of cost than in terms of benefits created.
Not a Green Budget
This week he presented his budget to Parliament. Green MP Caroline Lucas pointed out that the statement did not include the words “climate” or “nature” and there was no mention of COP26. The provisions included the reduction of duty on domestic flights, the most polluting form of air travel, another £21 billion for more roads, a freeze on science investment and a continuing freeze on fuel duty.
Criticism came from the Institute for Public Policy Research, WWF and even from the director of the Conservative Environment Network representing over 100 Conservative members of parliament, who said it was a missed opportunity to put net zero at the heart of the Treasury's long-term strategy, to align the tax system with environmental goals, or to help owner occupiers to insulate their homes. Other commentators pointed out a clear divide between the prime minister's ambition for a green industrial revolution and the chancellor’s desire for fiscal restraint.
Political Leaders at COP26
Although he’s the host, Mr Johnson is by no means the most important leader at COP26. That must go to President Biden of the US in the absence of Chairman Xi Jinping of China who is unlikely to attend. In terms of emissions China now outstrips the US to lead the pollution stakes.
China is desperate to keep its economy moving and while it has nuclear power and more wind, solar and hydro than almost anyone else it still needs electricity and is still building new coal fired generating plants. Chairman Xi has probably decide to stay at home to avoid the catcalls and criticisms which he would clearly suffer if he attended. China has committed to net zero by 2060 and to reach peak emissions in 2030 before a managed decline for the following 30 years. Whether the Chinese delegation will offer anything more at COP26 will have great significance for the overall success of the event. Maybe China could set a limit for 2030: for the moment the size of the peak is undefined. Maybe they could offer assistance to developing countries to help them decarbonise. That might concentrate the minds of other world leaders who have committed to, but not yet provided, $100bn of climate aid to emerging countries. It would certainly contrast strongly with the UK government’s decision to break a manifesto commitment and cut foreign aid.
China is not best friends with the US, the UK or Australia at present because of the AUKUS agreement - the deal to build nuclear powered submarines for Australia to patrol the seas around China - and other issues like the simmering trade war with the US.
If agreement at COP26 is a casualty of political point-scoring it will be a historic failure of leadership.
Although PM Scott Morrison of Australia has now decided to attend COP26 he will probably be a prominent target for the discontent of demonstrators if not of the delegates. Australia has more emissions per head than the US and more than twice as much as China. The government has recently declared that it will meet net zero by 2050, but has not set any intermediate targets and remains committed to its coal industry.
Another country heavily committed to coal and in the top 5 of global polluters is India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be at COP26. What will he offer? This week India’s Federal Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav urged rich countries to take more responsibility for historic emissions.
Although she has complained that there are no climate leaders, Greta Thunberg will be at COP26.
HM The Queen
Unfortunately HM The Queen, arguably the UK’s most important diplomat, has been advised not to make the journey to Glasgow and will address the conference only by video link.
Oil and Gas
As I said at the beginning, although rapid increase in oil and gas prices has disappeared from the front pages, it is still a very real issue for consumers across the world. In the UK pump prices of petrol and diesel have reached record levels and 14 suppliers of domestic electricity and gas have collapsed. The government has stepped in to support a US-owned fertiliser company which uses natural gas as raw material and is a major producer of carbon dioxide. It had suspended production in the face of increased costs, but the loss of carbon dioxide risked causing problems elsewhere in the economy as it is widely used in the food industry, in abattoirs and for putting the fizz in beer and other fizzy drinks.
Why this sudden and dramatic rise in oil and gas prices? My contact in the industry cites a number of reasons.
We had a cold Spring, so there was sustained demand for gas both for home heating and electricity generation. This led to the run-down of reserves as you would expect, but when Summer arrived there were problems with refilling storage facilities. First, because pipeline maintenance had been deferred during lockdown, this backlog had to be cleared before enough gas could flow. Secondly there was increased demand from Asia, and that particularly affected the UK which has been getting natural gas from the Middle East by tanker for years.
All at Sea
If the price changes the ship can simply change course and when Asian users offered more than British companies that's exactly what happened. During the summer, winds were unusually light for long periods so wind power output was low and the shortfall had to be made up by gas and in some cases by coal.
Summer heatwaves in the US meant air conditioners working hard, needing more electricity and more gas to generate it. As the price of gas rose, users who could, turned to other fuels - oil and coal - so their prices rose as well.
Vladimir Putin says he will not be at COP26, although he has a major interest in the outcome. Like India, Russia is a top 5 polluter. Russia may also have the key to gas prices in Europe through the Nordstream 2 pipeline, now on the point of completion. This new pipeline will bring gas to Europe on a route which avoids Ukraine. This is leading to some political difficulties but the reality must be that if Europe needs gas (it does) there is little alternative. This, of course, gives Russia a political weapon as a consequence partly of Germany's precipitous rush away from nuclear power following the Fukushima disaster. On the other hand, while Russia could put pressure on Europe by restricting gas supplies, if it does so it will restrict its own revenues from the gas. In the immediate term it will take some time for the new pipeline to achieve full throughput so it is not an overnight solution.
The UK Angle
The UK gets 50% of its gas from the North Sea, so in some ways it is in a stronger position than many other European countries. However, the remaining 50% has to be imported, either by sea or by pipeline from Europe and ultimately Russia. Back in 2017, in a time of relatively low gas prices, it was decided to cease to maintain and therefore effectively close the Rough gas storage field in the North Sea. This cut the U.K.'s gas storage capacity by about 50%. The consequences of that decision are now being felt.
Domestic gas and electricity is available in the UK from a wide range of private companies.
The government caps the price that can be charged to consumers and since this is lower than the price that these companies now have to pay on the wholesale market, many of them have collapsed and more are expected to do so. Unless the government is going to subsidise gas and electricity, and that's likely to be ruinously expensive, they will have to lift the cap and consumers will face substantial increases. The alternative is somehow to suppress demand. What did the government’s Net Zero Strategy have to say on that?
Net Zero Strategy
The document published last week, entitled Net Zero Strategy: Build Back Greener includes a section on heat and buildings. It talks in great detail about heating homes and the announcement about a £5000 grant to help homeowners exchange the gas boiler for a heat pump was widely trails before publication. This has attracted criticism because the amount of money allocated to the scheme will be enough to retrofit only in 90,000 homes, whereas the document itself says the target is to upgrade to 600,000 homes each year. The response has been that the price of heat pumps will come down rapidly so that the grant will not be needed, but industry specialists have expressed doubt that the price will fall sufficiently and sufficiently fast. In any case, there is no point in pouring heat into a house which is not properly insulated.
We were led to expect that there would be proposals for a scheme to replace the Green Homes Grant scheme which was withdrawn earlier in the year, but there is no mention of that. As far as insulation is concerned the main thrust of the report is about consultations and about bringing homes up to Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) Band C, but none of the urgency that Insulate Britain demands. Many would also say that EPC C is a pretty unambitious target. There doesn’t seem to be anything about raising standards for new homes. One commentator claims that new homes built today are not fit for the 21st century and will need retrofitting to bring them up to an acceptable standard of insulation.
Another commentator suggests that it is not in the interests of energy companies for homes to be insulated and super-efficient users or energy.
In the foreword to the Net Zero Strategy the Prime Minister says:
“…this strategy shows how we can build back greener, without so much as a hair shirt in sight. In 2050, we will still be driving cars, flying planes and heating our homes, but our cars will be electric gliding silently around our cities, our planes will be zero emission allowing us to fly guilt-free, and our homes will be heated by cheap reliable power drawn from the winds of the North Sea.”
Net Zero: Principles for Successful Behaviour Change.
At the same time as the Net Zero Strategy was published the government released Net Zero: Principles for Successful Behaviour Change.
The Executive Summary says:
“Achieving Net Zero requires significant behavioural change, including rapid and widespread adoption of new technologies, and a significant reduction in demand for some high-carbon activities such as flying and eating ruminant meat and dairy. To achieve such a transformation government will need to utilise all available policy levers and intervene at multiple levels.”
Strangely this document disappeared from the government’s website within hours, but you can find it via a link at the end of this episode on the Sustainable Futures Report website.
In the age of the internet, once published things stay published.
Insulate Britain will be taking time off from blocking roads to take their protest to COP26 in Glasgow. They have been causing intense frustration among stranded motorists but have gained repeated publicity. The Home Secretary and the police have stepped up action against them with court injunctions but while protestors have been arrested, to their surprise they have not been detain for more than a day or so and have not been imprisoned.
They believe this is because it would look bad to imprison climate campaigners just before COP26.
I mentioned that I declined an offer to appear this week on GB News TV. They asked me to comment on a new report from IET, the Institute of Engineering and Technology, about the carbon footprint of selfies and other photographs. Apparently the IET could not offer a spokesman so they thought of me. I said that I didn't think I was technically qualified to comment on the report, but when I read it later I thought I could have actually contributed to the discussion. The report reveals an aspect of our carbon footprints which is totally overlooked by most people, me included.
“Brits’ mindless photo hoarding revealed to carry higher carbon cost per year than round the world flights.”
“With the average person taking almost 900 photos per year the duplicated, unwanted images left in storage alone could accumulate 10.6kg of CO2 emissions annually for every adult in the UK – the equivalent of over 112,500 return flights from London to Perth, Australia.”
Storage uses energy. Globally, until renewable energy is universal, and we’re a long way from that, energy production has a major carbon footprint.
Pictures in the Cloud
Personally I have over 27,000 photos stored in the cloud at a very, very small monthly cost. I’ve never thought about it. I admit that there are some I’ll never look at again, and with a camera that can take up to 14 frames a second I can only make the problem worse. Maybe photos should be deleted automatically after a month unless you mark them for keeping.
The IET also points out that many people use two or more devices at once and also fail to delete old text messages and out-of-date WhatsApp and Facebook posts. What they don’t mention is abandoned websites. I’m sure I’ve got some, but I’ve no idea where they are.
And on that point..
And on that point I will leave you for another week. Well, I say another week, but there will be another Wednesday interview, this time with Ian Riley the CEO of the World Cement Association. I aim to be back with another general roundup of sustainability issues on Friday, by when we will be in November. Less than two months to Christmas! Where has this year gone?
Just a final thought before I go. There’s a plan to deliver renewable energy to the UK via an undersea cable from Morocco. Check out Dave Borlace’s excellent Just Have a Think video blog.
I'm Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report
Bye for now!
Climate and emissions statistics
UK Net Zero
Rail Strike in Glasgow
Dirty Data - IET