Friday, 7 November 2014

Repeating the fate of Carthage?

Did you know that the Romans sowed the fields of Carthage with salt after defeating it in the second Punic War?

If so, you know a myth!  Apparently this was invented quite recently!

Unfortunately, our salting of fields is all too real. An international research team points out that poor irrigation practice often leads to salt deposition causing production losses. They cite research showing that in India salt-affected fields produce 40 to 60% less than those not affected.  The team estimated the annual costs due to lost crop yields and additional costs at $27 billion per year.

Salt damage can be reversed - but it's not cheap.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Species Loss: It's later than you think

How many species are going extinct?  It's an impossible question, not least because we don't know how many species there are. We do, of course, know pretty accurately the numbers of species of birds, mammals and reptiles. The big uncertainties apply to insects, beetles and plants. 

The low estimates are two million species and of which we are losing 0.01% per year. That implies a loss of 200 species pa. Other estimates are as much as ten times greater implying  a loss rate of 20,000 species per year.

But the real frightener is that even these numbers may be a serious underestimate.

The main driver of species extinction is widely believed to be habitat loss but it has proved difficult to prove this quantitatively. However, work by Stefan Dullinger and Franz Essl (of the University of Vienna) and co-workers appears to have resolved this puzzle. In research published in 2013 (PNAS, April 30, 2013. vol. 110, no. 18) they showed that species loss in many species does not occur when the habitat is destroyed or degraded but decades later.

An analysis of threatened species from seven taxonomic groups and 22 European countries showed that the number of such species was best explained by what had happened in 1900. The most useful variable was the intensity of land use - or how much of the production of the land we humans take for ourselves. This accounted for 35% of threatened species - twice as many as were predicted by land use data for the year 2000.

It's not hard to see why. 

Intensification of land use such as deforestation or even hedgerow removal does not usually kill every member of a species but it does reduce their numbers and creates smaller, more or less isolated, populations. These populations are vulnerable to accidents, in-breeding, human disturbance and further habitat loss. Over a period of decades rare events become rather likely causing the small populations to become extinct. Even where physically possible isolation prevents recolonisation of the area and the species moves towards extinction.

What this means, practically, is that we have seriously under-estimated the impact of the human activity on the natural world because much of it has not yet happened. And, insofar as our predictions of future impacts are based on our experience those impacts are also under-estimated.

A separate study by Oliver Wearn and co-workers at Imperial College (Science, 337, p 228) estimates that deforestation to date will ultimately eliminate 5% of species of Amazonian birds, mammals and amphibians. However, if deforestation continues at its present rate Amazonian species loss will reach 40% by 2050 and may ultimately reach 65%.

And this, please note, is before we assess the impacts of climate change!

Pessimists are surely right to consider ours the time of the Sixth Great (species) Extinction - comparable to the asteroid strike that killed the dinosaurs. 

The difference is that the asteriod did not know what it was doing.  We do.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Wind farms perform better than we feared

Some commentators have claimed that the performance of wind farms will decline catastrophically with age. For instance, a report by Prof Gordon Hughes for the Renewable Energy Foundation claimed that the “normalised load factor for UK onshore wind farms declines from a peak of about 24% at age 1 to 15% at age 10 and 11% at age 15”. That implies an annual worsening of about 5% and would presumably be due to mechanical wear. 

It would greatly reduce the long-term value of wind farms both economically and as sources of low-carbon electricity.

Fortunately a more recent study, Staffel and Green, 20 13, suggests that it isn’t true. This is an extremely detailed study which draws on very large quantities of data about both weather and wind farms. The authors show that, though wind farm performance varies considerably:

  •  The initial load factor is 28.5% not 25%.
  •  The annual performance loss is about 1.6% not 5%.

This is good news for investors in wind farms and for the climate.

Hughes, Gordon, 2011: The Performance of Wind Farms in the United Kingdom and Denmark. 2012, London: Renewable Energy Foundation. URL:

Staffell, Iain, and Green, Richard, 2013: How does wind farm performance decline with age? Renewable Energy. Volume 66, June 2014, Pages 775–786. URL: DOI: 10.1016/j.renene.2013.10.041.

Renewable Energy and Enfield

[This post was originally written for the newsletter of the Enfield Society - which will print part of it.]

In planning applications and fuel bills, on Welsh hillsides and in the North Sea, we keep hearing about renewable energy. But why? What’s the fuss about?

Let’s start at the beginning. Our economy is based on fossil fuels. Gas and oil heat our houses. Petrol and diesel fuel our cars. Coal and gas generate most of our electricity.

It has to stop. The overwhelming majority of competent scientists agree that burning fossil fuels has already increased global temperatures, raised sea levels, melted much of the Arctic ice and made extreme weather events more likely. If this continues island and coastal communities will lose their homes, arid regions will dry out and global food production will fall.

And we have to move fast. To avoid catastrophic climate change we need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 3% pa, starting now. The later we leave it the faster we’ll have to cut emissions. Also, since the UK’s prosperity is derived from our coal-fueled industrial revolution which has so polluted the atmosphere it’s only fair that we should cut our emissions sooner and faster than countries, like India and China, that are still industrialising.

Our first thought should obviously be to use less energy (and thus save money!). We can do this by improving building insulation, buying more efficient equipment, replacing things less frequently and driving and flying less. 

There a LOT of scope for this. Homes built to the highest standards (passivhaus) need 90% less heating energy than average homes. Unfortunately Enfield Council has refused to mandate this level of performance despite repeated representations from Enfield Green Party. There's also scope to provide the heating that is needed, especially in existing buildings, by using ground and air-source heat pumps rather than conventional boilers.

In addition the most energy efficient cars, computers and domestic appliance are much more efficient than average ones.

That will not be enough. We must also stop burning fossil fuels and move to low-carbon energy sources. Our existing nuclear power plants must play their part but new nuclear plants simply cannot be built fast enough or cheaply enough or run reliably enough to meet the need even if the waste disposal problem was solved – which it isn’t. Renewables will have to carry most of the load.

Fortunately there are lots of renewable energy sources: hydropower, sunlight, wind, waves, tides, hot underground rocks, spare heat from furnaces and sustainably produced fuels. Each of these has its pros and cons. How can Enfield play its part in the renewables revolution? How, in short, can we cut our greenhouse gas emissions and create the green jobs our people need?

We can exclude waves and tides (no sea) and hot rocks (wrong geology). Large hydroelectric schemes are also out though I believe that the Council plans a small turbine in the River Lee.  The Council also plans a heat network to distribute spare heat from the Edmonton incinerator.  That’s low-carbon energy provided that it’s our last resort for dealing with waste. Reuse and recycling are clearly better options where available. It may also be possible to add other sources of spare heat to the heat network or to support another heat network.

Could we use sustainably produced fuels in a heat network or even in cars? Perhaps. In the UK today these fuels are mainly biodiesel from vegetable oil and some sustainably produced wood. In practice the biodiesel isn’t always low carbon due to the deforestation that precedes palm oil production. Further, the UK already has a number of power stations that burn woodchips and other biofuels with others planned but their appetite for fuel greatly exceeds the supply of sustainably-produced fuel – even allowing for imports. The greenwash is particularly thick in this sector!

With appropriate regulation this may become an important sector as there are several novel fuels under development. However, these are all possibilities for the future not fuels we can use now.

So we come to the big ones: sun and wind.

Wind is actually a bit marginal in urban areas. Big turbines are impractical, small turbines are inefficient and may damage any wall or roof they’re attached to. Larger turbines might be installed in the north of the borough – though the many restrictions would make it hard, perhaps impossible, to find suitable sites.  To me wind turbines are elegant and stately. I like them. Some people object to them on aesthetic grounds but there’s no accounting for taste is there?

Finally sunlight. We could all use sunlight to heat our water and generate electricity. Government subsidies (Feed-in Tariff and Renewable Heat Obligations to be technical) make investment profitable for the homeowner whilst contributing power to the grid. Unfortunately Enfield lags behind on solar electricity – only one home in 362 has solar panels – compared to 1 in 8 in Waltham Forest. Enfield has only 1.5MW of installed solar capacity.

Solar PV is not limited to private homes. The Council has installed panels on the Civic Centre and on schools. Many offices and factories could also benefit from solar panels. As a Green I’d like to see the Council make this mandatory for new and existing buildings. But national legislation make this impossible and the need to persuade hundreds of employers and to co-ordinate thousands of installations in a voluntary programme is daunting. And speed is vital.

That’s why I support the proposed solar array for Sloeman’s Farm. Once approved it would provide 15MW within just a few months. That’s ten times Enfield’s current solar capacity and it would increase London’s solar capacity by 30%. No other current scheme can do so much so fast.

Renewable energy is not a fad. To reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, fast, is an obligation we owe to future generations, to people in low-lying lands and to all the species threatened by climate change. Inaction is not an option I can live with.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Disrupting the world of growth

Here's a book I recommend very strongly. It's
      The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding
      Bloomsbury, 2011

Gilding is an interesting fellow. Former trade union organiser, former military officer, former head of Greenpeace Australia and now an international business consultant.

The book contains a lot of familiar stuff: threat of climate change, history of international negotiations and so on. But the really interesting part is unfamiliar. I think these are his most original points:
  1. The opportunity to avoid a planetary crisis has passed. There will be a crisis and it will involve the whole natural-social-economic system.
  2. We can and will address it. We are "slow but not stupid".
  3. The experience of mobilising for WW2 and addressing the banking crisis shows that we can make big changes fast once we see the need.
  4. We have already entered the crisis period. This can be seen in food price instability, rising energy prices, rising mineral prices, recession and the banking crisis. And, I would add, our inadequate response to these problems.
  5. Once our political leaders recognise the imperative need to act they will create crisis plans which will use existing attitudes and institutions to address the most urgent problem - which is probably climate change.
  6. Only as we work through the crisis will people recognise that sustainability is incompatible with economic growth.
  7. A new and better world will emerge from the crisis.
 More specifically he thinks our response will play out over three phases:
  • Years 1-5, Climate War. Crash programme to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50%. Uses existing institutions under government direction and proven technologies.
  • Years 5-20, Climate neutrality. Reduction of net greenhouse gas emissions to zero. Some new institutions and technologies.
  • Years 20-100, Climate recovery. Negative greenhouse gas emissions and the building of a new society.
Despite the negative start this is fundamentally an optimistic picture and there are many things that could go wrong. For instance we could react "too little, too late". Good plans could be undermined by selfish and shortsighted individuals, groups and nations as well as honest error. And, in planning something so novel and dramatic, there will be mistakes in the planning too.

So this transition will need strong leadership, effective systems of governance and a political environment that will at least tolerate the necessary changes and sacrifices. Gilding says almost nothing about the politics and government institutions that will be needed so I'll flesh that out a bit for the Climate War phase.

I believe that the later stages will present different political challenges; no less serious but there will be more time to address them.

Since this has to be a global response we'll need global leaders who are completely committed to the cause and who control the necessary institutions. These leaders will probably be people with substantial political experience that is, experience of both  winning elections and governing states. It's therefore unlikely that they will be drawn from the environmental movement or the existing Green parties except in countries with proportional representation. They will have spent their years studying power, not science or nature, and will be ignorant of ecological thinking.

They will, however, probably recruit people from the environmental movement and the Green parties as advisers.

National institutions
The required programme will include closure of some major plants, eg drilling rigs and oil refineries, and a rapid expansion in industries such as solar and wind power. Industries such as travel will have to shrink. Yet others, eg agriculture, will be transformed. We cannot expect the industries affected to organise their own decline or even transformation at the required pace so there will have to be national and international planning agencies.

It may be that most companies and countries will follow these plans but not all will do so. The selfish and short-sighted individuals and groups whose existence I noted above will have to be compelled to comply. Companies operating in one country are subject to national law and can, where the state itself works, be brought into line through the familiar processes of regulation and inspection - though the level of intervention will be greatly increased.

Or can they?

There are many countries in which laws and taxes are widely evaded by concealment and corruption. These countries will not change their natures just because we face a global crisis. So the more law-abiding countries will have to accept substantial non-compliance. And the less law-abiding countries will have to accept unprecedented levels of international monitoring and direction.

These facts will create backlashes in both kinds of countries.

International institutions
Since this is a global crisis we will need international institutions to ensure that the national actions add up to an adequate global response. And, since many of the largest and most-polluting firms are multinationals, there will have to be international enforcement mechanisms. The WTO provides some useful precedents here with the vitally important difference that participation will not be voluntary.

None of this can happen unless the leaders of the major powers, that is, the USA, China and the EU, support it but just as nations include selfish and short-sighted individuals and groups so the world will include selfish and short-sighted nations. Here, again, enforcement mechanisms will be needed.

It's likely that, with a strong push from the major powers, a good deal can be achieved by courts and negotiation. Gilding seems to believe that this will be enough. I'd like to agree, but I don't.

The whole history of international attempts to address climate change persuade me that some nations will be unwilling to accept international direction and that military intervention will be necessary. This may be by UN forces or by the forces of the major powers.

Public opinion
In the richer countries the Climate War programme will imply restrictions on holidays, travel, fuel, heating, food and employment. Many people will have to change the ways in which they work. This will provoke a substantial backlash both from who can see no further than their own problems and those who see further but hope, by money or privilege, to escape the worst consequences of climate change. Both groups are already visible. Neither will vanish.

In any country with a functioning democracy, indeed, in any country in which people are free to talk and meet, this backlash has the potential to derail the Climate War programme. A variety of responses are available to governments from abandoning the programme through persuasion to suspending civil liberties for the duration.

Since Gilding cites the WW2 experience repeatedly it's worth noting that each of allied leaders, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, had domestic powers that constituted, or bordered on, dictatorship and control of large military and security forces. Each of them ran a command economy in which the government defined requirements and allocated work, and workers, to the places where it was to be done.

In short, I fear that success in addressing climate change may require some suspension of liberties and of democracy.

These are uncomfortable conclusions for me. I am not a closet authoritarian and I would much rather believe in a solution based on persuasion and democratic politics. But I have to agree with Gilding that the time for that option has passed. That it has passed is the fault of the politicians and commentators who could have provided timely leadership and didn't.

Now someone will have to clear up the mess.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Bring out your inner tortoise!

Speed is the defining characteristic of our age. Above all we go faster than our ancestors - until the steam train no-one had ever gone faster than a galloping horse. (Unless they fell off a high cliff I suppose.)  And we praise speed in sport, in business and in travel. It's no surprise then that George Osbourne's latest wheeze for reviving the economy is HS3, a high-SPEED rail line across the north of England.

Yet 'speed kills', speed is dangerous. Fast cars cause accidents. Fast decisions overlook inconvenient facts. And friction means that high speeds waste more energy than low speeds.

The Green movement knows this and has lobbied for lower speeds on roads and against high-speed rail on the grounds of energy and safety. But there's more to it than that. There are activities that are better if they're slower. Eating, drinking and lovemaking for just three. In fact most social activities are better if they're not rushed.

And this is one key to creating a better society. When we ask for speed limits we're making the street more accessible to those, children and the elderly, who aren't fast. We're also making the streets a more natural place for social contact. When we oppose high-speed rail we're also asking people and planners to focus on their local economies and suburbs.

And in all we're striving for a society that cares more for the relationships between its people than for the speed of its machines. A society in which people sustain each other and in which our demands are such that the Earth can sustain us; and our children.

For more on this see Carl Honore's TED talk.

Monday, 16 June 2014

The Global ConDominion?

In my Emergency Braking scenario I consider the possibility that a major power which I call Maverick (probably the US or China) becomes so concerned about climate change that it acts unilaterally to stop it. There's another, at least equally plausible, scenario in which the USA and China act together. Here's how it might play out.

It's 2020 and GHG emissions have continued to increase. China has invested heavily in renewables and the EPA has regulated carbon emissions. Even so, we're digging and burning more coal each year.

Meanwhile a research team at the University of Sao Paulo in collaboration with scientists in London, Beijing and California has created a fine-grained climate model which links climate to weather. They predict that if, given global warming, certain conditions occur the Atlantic and Pacific weather systems will synchronise and throw tornados and typhoons of extraordinary strength at the coasts of the US and China. The conditions do occur and promised storms arrive on schedule causing unprecedented damage and loss of life.

The US president phones the Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party, which is still in power but Communist in name alone. They agree that the delays in addressing climate change have been folly and that the world faces a planetary crisis. Both also consult their domestic allies and opponents. The Republican party tries to resist but is cowed by the threat of several major corporations to switch funding to the Democrats.

Within a month the leaders of the US, China and the EU meet in Iceland and after two days announce their shared determination to stop climate change. The two days have in fact been spent finalising a secret treaty whose effect becomes apparent on their return home. Their first actions are to announce that coal production will be phased out within 7 years and to accelerate the development of renewables and nuclear power. Barriers to both, such as requirements of local consultation, are relaxed by executive order. In the US the presidential order is reluctantly confirmed by the both houses of Congress. In the EU the Council of Ministers issues the orders and prepares for lengthy dialogue with the Parliament.

A new Planetary Crisis Mitigation treaty is drafted within 60 days and signed by the major powers in 30 more. It creates a new UN Agency, the UNPCM Agency, with almost unlimited powers to regulate emissions and overrule national and corporate investment decisions that effect emissions (which is essentially all of them). The governance structure is complex (Kafka would be proud of it!) and it takes years for people to realise that many of the functions of national governments have passed to the UNPCMA. A secret court system (with some similarities to the TTIP courts) makes challenges to the UNPCMA slow, expensive and futile. 

In parallel the leaders of the USA and China hold bilateral discussions with their main allies. The usual diplomatic verbiage is produced but the underlying messsage is stark: Every country should join the PCM treaty immediately. Those that stay out will be subject to escalating trade and diplomatic sanctions with combined military action as a back-up.

The UNPCMA acts quickly, converting the national and EU coal closure plans into global plans, making these plans legally binding and creating continental energy agencies that will build continental-scale super-grids to share access to renewable power sources. In Europe these include British wind, Norwegian hydro, German solar and Italian geothermal.

The UNPCMA also starts urgent feasibility studies for geo-engineering plants. Plants that extract atmospheric CO2 by burning biofuels and burying the CO2 are initial favourites.

By the end of 2021 it's clear that the plan is working. Greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric concentrations are down - though not by much. Most countries have signed the treaty and most of the exceptions, eg North Korea, are too small to matter. There has been strong popular resistance to the treaty in most countries causing seven countries to suspend their constitutions and twenty more to introduce martial law. 

In 2022 Bahrain announced its intention to renounce the treaty but the parliament reversed this decision following a US-supported invasion by Saudi Arabia. Variations of this scenario, some rather bloody, played out in Venezuela and Indonesia.

In 2023 the G20 announced its determination that the world should return to national sovereignty, democracy and the rule of law "as soon as circumstances permit". It was widely understood that 'circumstances would not permit' for at least twenty years and that the Western model - democracy, corporations, markets and political liberty - would be honoured only in the breach. National planning bureaucracies, supervised by the UNPCMA, were increasingly established and effective in all countries.

So what do you think? You don't like it?

Neither do I. But by 2020 - or 2030 - it may be the ONLY scenario that can work. We know that the window for more orderly mitigation measures is closing. This scenario would show the failure of environmental politics. More, a human failure to read the writing on the wall and act while there was enough time to avoid catastrophe and preserve our liberties.

But even a failure, as with defeat in war, leaves choices to be made. This might look like the least bad