Archive for January, 2008

Wind. Great stuff. It blows around here and there (especially around the British Isles) and just waits for someone to come along and make electricity out of it. Brilliant.

But in the recent past we haven’t really been that bothered. Hans-Josef Fell (a German MP who was a driving force behind Germany’s Renewable Energy Sources Law) has a great little graph that he likes to show British audiences, which compares wind power in the UK and Germany from 1990-2003. Here it is………..


Of course, the British audience being British, usually respond by laughing loudly and exclaiming things like ‘Ha ha! – aren’t we crap! Oh we’re SO crap.’ Or ‘Well those sensible Germans would have done that wouldn’t they.’
And they’d be right. We are pretty bad at wind power. In fact, we’re pretty bad at all renewable sources of power here in Britain – only 5% of our electricity comes from renewable sources(1).

The EU has recently been telling its members what is required of them in terms of carbon emission cuts and renewable energy increases, as part of its plans to tackle climate change (2). So what does this mean for us in the UK? Well, we have to increase the percentage of total energy demand (including transport and heating) coming from renewables to 15% (we are currently at 1.3% according to The Independent (1)). It is likely that electricity generation will have to come up with a large proportion of this percentage, and therefore we will require around 40% of electricity to come from renewables. And remember, at the moment we are at 5%. We’ve got 12 years and counting.

According to the British Wind Energy Association these requirements will mean we have to build 7,350 new offshore, and 3,000 new land based wind farms(1). We’d better get going then. As a result there is going to be a huge number of arguments between planners and local environmentalists, as there have already been in several areas (3,4). A lot of very careful planning is required to ensure that the best solution is found, providing the maximum power generation with the minimum of immediate environmental cost.

However, if even this approach results in a direct decision between local ecology and turbine construction, the decision should surely be in favour of the turbine. Unfortunately some sacrifices will need to be made locally in order for the global environment to ultimately benefit. Keep this in mind if someone plans to build a turbine in your area. If it’s the local bird species you are worried about then don’t worry – climate change that is already in the pipeline will probably cause them to migrate north anyway. So either way it’s bye bye birdies.

It would logically follow that the best plan might be to build all the new turbines offshore so that these problems don’t arise – but I am sure there are corresponding problems at sea, and as always it will be a trade-off with other issues, such as cost.

But the real issue here shouldn’t be the windmills. It should be the target. Although the EU is rightly being commended internationally for discussing, and now enforcing, these targets, the world still needs to realise that a 20% reduction is too small. Much too small. And as I have said previously about the UK Government’s targeted reductions, they are easy to set, but a lot harder to meet – assuming that you want to meet them in the first place(5). These targets are a very significant step, but they are only the start of a very long and difficult process.

The UK MEP Graham Watson said as much in his response to the proposals – “….the Commission’s proposals while a welcome – and, by today’s standards, radical – departure from short term economic thinking are still only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tackling climate change”(2). The tip of the iceberg indeed. A slightly unfortunate choice of metaphor.

But even these little targets are already too much for some people. I find it incredibly frustrating when spokespersons and people in positions of huge responsibility start to add to the resistance instead of logically attacking the problem we face. The latest on this list is Richard Lambert, director-general of the CBI (Confederation of British industry), who said this week “It can be done but it will cost a hell of a lot of money,” – “I think it is not realistic.” (6).

Cost hell of a lot of money??!?!! Of course it is Mr.Lambert! Not realistic?!? As leader of the CBI it’s partly your job to make it realistic. Now are you going to help us deal with it or are you going to continue adding to the problem?

1. Britain will need 12,500 wind farms to satisfy EU targets – Michael McCarthy, 24th January 2008.
2. MEPs give first reactions to climate change and energy package – 23RD Jan 2008. European Parliament Online.
3. How Whinash saw off the turbines – The Independent Online, Emily Dugan, 26th January 2008.
4. Wind farm plan is blown off course – The Independent Online, Michael McCarthy and Mark Hughes, 26th January 2008.
5. See ‘Targets’ on this site from September 2007.
6. CBI director says emissions target unrealistic and not cost-effective – Guardian Online, Ian Traynor, 30th Jan 2008.


Read Full Post »

Recently the Environmental Audit Committee group of MPs, led by the Conservative MP Tim Yeo, produced their report ‘Are Biofuels Sustainable?’ in which they tried to find out the answer to the title (1). Their conclusion? That there should be a moratorium on biofuels until “technology improves, robust mechanisms to prevent damaging land use change are developed, and international sustainability standards are agreed”(1).

Regular worshippers at the church of George Monbiot – activist and sensible person generally – will know that he suggested this should be the answer to the problem of biofuels nearly a year ago (2) and this was also suggested more recently by the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, who got a lot of press for saying that biofuels were “a crime against humanity”(3)

The word biofuel is a broad term used for a renewable fuel produced through biological reactions using the suns energy and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They include fuels that are designed for use in conventional combustion engines such as ‘bioethanol’ and ‘biodiesel’ (this is the main appeal of biofuels – it gives Governments an apparent ‘get out of jail free card’ meaning they can appear to be combating climate change while causing minimal annoyance to the general public) as well as things like normal firewood.

Carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere when biofuels are burnt is offset by the carbon dioxide taken in to produce the fuel, and this is the basis for excitement about them.

So far so good, but clearly that is only half the story. There are two main problems with biofuels at the moment, each of which makes them potentially disastrous for the globe.

Firstly, the processes involved in much of biofuel production are large net producers of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases due to pesticides, harvesting and processing requirements – all of which requires more energy, which at the moment comes from burning fossil fuels. Overall many biofuels may actually cause more harm to the environment than fossil fuels do(4).

Secondly there is the link to food prices. As more and more farmers across the world begin to produce biofuels instead of basic food crops, the price of food will escalate and the global poor will suffer as a result (5), especially as the farmers likely to be paid to convert to these crops are in lesser developed countries.

There is also the problem of energy density. A very large amount of a biofuel crop (and therefore a large land area to grow it) is required to produce a relatively small amount of usable energy compared to the fossil fuels we are used to using. In a study by LMC International on biofuels and agriculture in 2006 (widely referenced since) it was found that in order to make 5% of fuel worldwide biofuels by 2015, we would need 15% more land for agriculture worldwide (6). That means saying goodbye to forests and rainforests (closely averted recently in Uganda (7)) as well as inevitable switching from food to fuel production. That would mean game over for trying to restrict climate change – and that’s just for 5%!

In 2007 the EU agreed to a target of 10% of transport fuel in Europe to come from biofuels by 2020(8). Less than a year later the EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas admitted that they had not foreseen the problems that this target would present(9) and that it would be reviewed, but as far as I am aware at the time of writing the target still stands.

So if biofuels are so bad why are there calls for a 5-year moratorium and not an all-out ban? The thinking behind this is that so-called ‘second-generation’ biofuels (which would demand another entire piece like this one to explain), with carefully controlled production, may still be able to provide renewable and ethical sources of energy in the future (although these are not likely to be viable according to the campaign group Biofuelwatch (www.biofuelwatch.org.uk)(10). Also, calculations on land requirements for biofuel production in the UK may not always take into account that many biofuel crops grown are dual purpose, and may simultaneously produce animal feed, possibly reducing required imports presently (according to the NFU – ref.11).

It remains to be seen whether these ‘second generation’ promises materialise, but whatever happens one thing is for sure – we can’t rely on biofuels to solve the problem of climate change.

The consequences of pursuing the use of the presently available biofuels are obvious and are already starting to take effect. Governments and International bodies need to discard their biofuel targets before they make the problem any worse. Pleading unfortunate ignorance of the consequences is not acceptable.

1. Are Biofuels Sustainable? – Environmental Audit Committee, First Report of Session 2007–08. Available from http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmenvaud.htm#reports.
2. A Lethal Solution – George Monbiot, 27th March 2007.
3. UN independent rights expert calls for five-year freeze on biofuel production – UN News Centre, 26 October 2007.
4. How Green Are Biofuels? – Jörn Scharlemann and William Laurance, Science Vol. 319. no. 5859, pp. 43 – 44.
5. IMF concerned by impact of biofuels on food prices – AFP, October 17, 2007.
6. A Strategic Assessment of the Impact of Biofuel Demand for Agricultural Commodities – LMC International (2006).
7. Uganda ‘averts tragedy’ with reversal of decision to clear virgin forest for biofuel – Xan Rice, The Guardian, October 29, 2007.
8. EU ministers agree biofuel target – bbc.co.uk, 15th February 2007.
9. EU rethinks biofuels guidelines – Roger Harrabin, bbc.co.uk, 14 January 2008.
10. ‘Second Generation Biofuels: An Unproven Future Technology with Unknown Risks’ – Helena Paul and Almuth Ernsting, biofuelwatch.org.uk. Click here to download.
11. ‘UK biofuels – land required to meet RTFO 2010’ – National Farmers’ Union Online, 10 August 2006.

Read Full Post »

The challenge of overcoming climate change has been likened to the challenge of the second world war by Gordon Brown(1), or war more generally by others(2). It is easy to see why this comparison has been used. Everyone in the country knows what a huge challenge the Second World War was, and the sacrifices that each and every person had to make to help the cause, as well as in the work required to rebuild after it was over. It is hoped that comparing this with the challenge of minimising global warming will make people understand the size of the problem we are facing, and persuade them that they will have to help.

In trying (but not trying very hard, it must be said, – and certainly not leading by example) to explain to the British public that dealing with climate change may require sacrificing a few creature comforts, Mr. Brown is indicating that he’s finally starting to realise the gravity of the problem, and the scale of the required solutions.

However, if he takes a few moments to think about the World War 2 comparison, he will realise that persuading the public this time is going to be infinitely harder than it was for Winston Churchill. There are a few main reasons for this –

Reason 1. – You can’t see carbon dioxide.
In the Second World War you could see the enemy. It was a nasty man in Germany with lots of weapons and a big army. Showing people what they were up against was nice and easy, and it made it a lot easier to convince people that they all needed to do their bit and be prepared to make a few sacrifices in the war effort.
You can’t see carbon dioxide (or other greenhouse gases) in the air. They float around menacingly and gradually increase the temperature of the globe bit by bit until it’s too late, and we are committed to runaway climate change regardless of what we do. Before long the price of food will rocket, diseases will spread, etc. etc. and if that wasn’t enough the poor middle-Englanders will suffer from the mother of all hosepipe bans. At the moment it is difficult for many people to see the connection between flying across the world on holiday and millions of people suffering in extreme weather a few years later. If we could see the whole process it would make it a lot easier to convince people. But unfortunately we can’t.

Reason 2. – The general public don’t see it as their problem.
This follows on from problem one. Everyone could see the horrible things that were going to happen to them if we didn’t fight the war, and that made them want to fight it. This was mainly because the nasty things were going to happen to them.At the moment the British Public seems to think that climate change isn’t really going to harm them much, and therefore it isn’t at the top of their to-do list. There are a few reasons for this.

First is what I call the polar bear problem. Yes, polar bears are facing extinction due to climate change. Yes, that is a terrible thing. But the more that polar bears are used as the representative image of climate change the less the average person is going to want to do anything about it, because polar bears come a very long way down the list of peoples priorities in life.
Secondly, most people that know anything about climate change realise that the developing countries are going to be hit much harder than us in the developed world (3). What they may not realise is that a) this is likely to be less and less evident the more that temperatures rise and b) the entire scale is serious – we might not have as many problems as in the developing world, but the ones we do have are going to be more than enough to try and deal with.
Thirdly, nobody wants to fight this war because they are completely dependent on the cause of the problem.

Adding to all of this is the fact that the Governments own actions are confusing the general public – with concerned, proactive rhetoric on climate change, and simultaneous contradictory actions building more coal power plants and expanding airports (see previous post 22nd Nov. 2007). They are effectively saying “We need to go to war…….errrr…….but some of us are going to welcome the enemy with open arms and help them to win…….okay?”

Problem 3. – It isn’t going to be easy to see the outcome.
It was obvious when the war had been won. Well done everyone, we did it. We succeeded. Now we can start to pick up the pieces and not have to worry about that again for a while. That’s not going to happen with climate change. It takes a very long time for the atmosphere to sort itself out and come to a new balance, and it isn’t going to be obvious when it has. If the end is clear, then it will mean we have lost this war.

The World War 2 comparison is a good one, because everyone knows the huge effort required then, which will help them to understand what is required now. At the moment it isn’t obvious to the general public why this needs to happen – and therefore they won’t be very understanding when someone says they can’t fly across the world for their holiday, or they have to stop using their car.

People do not care about polar bears enough to make them stop flying. We need to make it clear that climate change is going to affect them – and it could make their lives a lot more miserable than it will be if they have to walk to work and not fly to Thailand on holiday.

At the rate we are going, by the time people realise we are at war we will have already lost. We cannot allow this to happen.

1. Gordon Brown speech on 19th November 2007 at the WWF.
2. Climate change is like ‘World War Three’ – Telegraph.co.uk, 5th Nov. 2007.
3. Discussed briefly in the UN Human Development Report 2007/08.

Read Full Post »