China’s appalling record on health and safety

Independent on Sunday, 4 Oct 2015:

George Osborne’s determination to ignore human rights is only part of the problem (This Tory China syndrome is a new low Sept 27). The real issue is that he appears completely oblivious to China’s appalling record on health and safety.

The recent explosion at Tianjin in Northern China  killed over 100 people. The site contained illegal stores of Sodium cyanide which has contaminated the local water In October David Cameron is scheduled to sign a deal with President Xi Jinping  which will allow Chinese companies to  secure a significant stake in the building  of nuclear power plants in the UK. It is even more difficult  to build and operate nuclear facilities safely. Over the past 60 years we have witnessed major accidents  at  Windscale, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. These all occurred in  nations with advanced technologies and well developed health and safety programmes.  No doubt the Chinese deal will be accompanied by the usual fanfare over British jobs, but it should also be seen as the ultimate triumph of free market ideology over the safety of the UK population.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire

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Free market does whatever it can get away with

Independent, 25 Sept 2015:

It is extraordinary how car manufacturers will spend millions to evade or delay regulation rather than introducing technology that benefits public health (Volkswagen boss quits, while lawyer warns of huge group action in UK Sept 24).

It is 30 years since leaded petrol was banned in the UK, but that proposal was fiercely resisted by car manufacturers, who also opposed the subsequent introduction of catalytic converters. In those days less than 10 per cent of new cars were diesel, but nowadays it is 50 percent. The dangers of diesel particulates have also been well known for 30 years, but the car industry cynically proposed diesel as a means of reducing emissions of carbon dioxide instead of opting for genuinely clean alternative fuels. As a result air pollution now kills over 50,000 people annually in the UK and the UK Government was taken to the Supreme Court as it is unable to comply with EU air quality standards. There is a message here for those in the fossil fuel industry who promote shale gas as an alternative to coal. Industry appears completely incapable of acting in the public interest whilst civil servants and their political masters are toothless guardians of public health.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire

Two myths the fossil fuel industry likes to propagate

Financial Times, 25 October 2015 (paragraph in bold not published):

Expressions of concern by the oil and gas industry about global warming should not be mistaken for any change in policy, let alone a call for effective remedial measures (Energy chiefs in vow on climate change Oct 17).  Instead the communique  repeats two of the myths that the fossil fuel industry like to propagate.

Most prominent is the belief that you can solve climate change by substituting one fossil fuel with another. This approach was tried by car manufacturers who promoted diesel instead of petrol as a means of reducing carbon emissions, but failed to admit  that the technology needed to control other pollutants from diesel engines would inevitably compromise fuel efficiency. The same applies to the replacement of coal with shale gas. It seems attractive until you consider that fugitive emissions of methane tend to cancel out any benefit to the climate.

The second myth is that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is going to solve the problem of climate change, a scenario that the World Coal Association is also keen to promote (Letters Oct 21) The number of CCS projects under development world-wide has fallen over the past 5 years, partly because the price of carbon in Europe has fallen to less than 10 euros per tonne of CO2, and partly because CCS adds 50-100% to the price of an unabated plant, as well as reducing fuel efficiency. Noone is going to invest in carbon capture until a carbon tax is introduced that reflects the true cost of burning fossil fuels. According to the IMF that cost exceeds  5 trillion dollars annually which provides a price of $166 per tonne of CO2, or around $600 per tonne of carbon.

In any event the industry have been advocating gas instead of coal for 30 years, so if this represents a bridge to the promised land of renewable energy, then it is leading us in the wrong direction.

In 1989 I wrote an editorial for the Lancet ” Health in the Greenhouse” that identified most of the measures that were needed  to solve climate change. Had society in general and the the fossil fuel industry in particular started planning ahead at that stage, we would not now be faced with the existential crisis of having to abandon fossil fuels before the alternative technologies are fully developed.  Chief Executives of oil, gas and coal companies are largely responsible for that situation.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire

Professor Rockstrom is cautiously optimistic, but the reality is rather different

Independent on Sunday, 18 October 2015:

It may be reassuring to learn that Professor Rockstrom is cautiously optimistic, but the reality is rather different (“Climate change measures paying off, says scientist”, 11 October). The 1992 Rio declaration committed all nations to the “stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere” and the prevention of “dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. Since then, annual emissions of carbon dioxide have risen by 60 per cent, atmospheric levels have passed 400 parts per million, and our current trajectory will use our entire remaining carbon budget by 2040. Renewable energy represents only 2 per cent of global primary energy production.

Anything agreed at Paris will not become operative until 2020 and will be voluntary. Professor Rockstrom points to the banning of CFCs as an exemplar of how to solve an environmental problem. But they were replaced by HCFCs and HFCs, which are powerful greenhouse gases. I pointed this out in an editorial for The Lancetin 1989. Sadly they are still in widespread use.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire

Car makers exploited EU desire to curb climate change and pollution

Sunday Times, 4 Oct 2015:

Dominic Lawson would like us to believe that the European Union considered climate change more important than public health (Take a deep breath and say it Brussels: the US is right about pollution, Sept 27). A more accurate assessment is that the EU considered both to be vitally important, and that the car manufacturers cynically promoted diesel as a way of reducing carbon emissions without admitting that the technology needed to properly control other pollutants would inevitably compromise fuel efficiency. This trade-off would have been exposed by the stricter emission standards in the US, so car manufacturers cheated by fitting defeat devices. How tragic that VW’s ingenuity and resources weren’t put to better use developing a genuinely clean alternative to fossil fuel-dependent engines.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones MA FRCP FRCPath
Former Chair, Campaign for Lead-Free Air
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire

Governments woo the motor industry with dire results

The Observer, 4 Oct 2015:

The scandal over rigged tests by car manufacturers is entirely consistent with their past record (“Corporate cheating kills. It must be stopped”, leading article). In the 1980s, the battle to remove lead from petrol and to fit catalytic converters was vigorously opposed by the motor industry, which raised all sorts of technical problems that turned out to be groundless. Even so, both measures were passed by a Tory government under Margaret Thatcher. Nowadays, the Department for Transport emerges as a complicit partner in the rigging of tests, while Defra and the Department of Health seem to have abandoned completely their role as guardians of public health. Margaret Thatcher had a science degree from Oxford University. I’m not sure that this cabinet has a scientific qualification between them.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire