In December 2016, an FT report by Jamil Anderlini claimed that “China is now poised to become the world’s leader in tackling global warming”. We have come a long way since then (“A climate leader turns laggard”, The Big Read, November 26).
China’s main environmental concern is air pollution, and it started investing in renewables so that it could shut coal-fired power stations based in urban areas. Concern over climate change was always a secondary consideration, as demonstrated by China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is funding 300 new coal-fired power plants in other countries. It is also building more coal-fired power stations in China itself. So China will be opening new plants faster than the EU can phase them out.
China has been quite adept at hiding its true trajectory. Instead of carbon emissions, the only measure that matters to the environment, it talks about carbon intensity. It has promised to produce 20 per cent of its energy from renewables by 2030, but energy demand in China is scheduled to double by 2030 compared with 2010, so there is little prospect of China stabilising its carbon emissions, let alone reducing them.
In their joint declaration, presidents Emmanuel Macron of France and Xi Jinping of China announced that the Paris climate deal was “irreversible”. It would be more accurate to say that climate change itself is on the brink of becoming irreversible.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones, Chair, Help Rescue The Planet, Marlow, Bucks
Sir, The National Audit Office should be congratulated for its timely report examining the financial and environmental costs of fracking (News, Oct 23). The rationale for developing yet another fossil fuel is based on the erroneous belief that gas is better than coal from a climate perspective. But this is only true if fugitive emissions of methane are ignored. The high global warming potential of methane (85 times greater than CO2 over 20 years) means that releases amounting to 2 per cent of production are sufficient to cancel out the benefits of burning gas instead of coal. Satellite measurements over shale fields in North America have indicated losses in excess of 5 per cent.
Even conventional gas production incurs losses of about 1.5 per cent. If that gas is then liquefied, which is itself a very energy intensive process, then gas still has no advantage over coal. The government should abandon its misguided support of fracking.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Help Rescue the Planet
Sir, The Queen’s Speech promised air quality targets that would be “among the most ambitious in the world”. Unfortunately we have not been told what those targets will be, or the date by which they will be implemented. The Clean Air Bill, published as a private member’s bill last week, includes a commitment to achieve WHO standards by 2030 at the latest.
The most dangerous type of air pollution is small particulates, and the annual WHO limit for PM2.5 is 10 microgrammes per cubic metre of air, which is significantly lower than the average level in central London of 15. The EU limit is 25; in the US it is 12 and in Australia 8.
The government needs to announce a phased reduction in the legal limit for PM2.5 that should stipulate 15 mcg/m3 for 2020, 12 mcg/m3 by 2025 and 10 mcg/m3 by 2030. This would provide the necessary incentive for the government and councils to promote public transport and reduce car usage, particularly in urban areas. In addition it would require the government to speed up the introduction of electric vehicles, and to bring forward the phase-out date for diesel and petrol-driven vehicles to 2030. This date would align with several other European countries, including Denmark and Sweden. Moreover, it would help the UK to meet its climate change commitments which, as things stand, are almost certain to be missed.
Geraint Davies MP, Chairman, all party parliamentary group on air pollution; Dr Robin Russell-Jones, Scientific adviser, air pollution APPG
Sir, It is highly abnormal for bush fires to run out of control in springtime (“Drought-ravaged Australia braced for worst fires ever”, Sep 13). Last autumn temperatures in the Arctic reached 30C above the historic average, and this summer we have witnessed a new phenomenon: wildfires in the Arctic. Melting of the Greenland ice cap has reached 8,500 tonnes per second, four times faster than predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Temperatures worldwide are rising faster than expected and may well reach 1.5C of warming by 2030 rather than the IPCC forecast of 2040.
Another new phenomenon is that these events are being widely reported by the media. The only thing that remains unaltered is the total lack of any meaningful response from our politicians. During Boris Johnson’s time as foreign secretary, British embassies lost 60 per cent of their climate attachés. The real danger of populist politicians is their ability to ignore existential threats to our survival.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Chairman of Help Rescue the Planet
Fracking may soon be a dead duck, but there are pivotal decisions on the horizon which will determine the shape of our energy policy in the coming decades, as well as the prospects for future generations (“Fracking tsar resigns saying industry is being wasted”, April 29).
The government is gambling on a combination of nuclear and offshore wind to decarbonise our electricity supply, but nuclear is looking increasingly uncertain, both technologically and financially, while offshore wind is incapable of meeting peak demand during windless conditions. The government needs to be far more ambitious: rather than subsidising fracking it should promote geothermal energy. It should remove the obstacles it has placed in the way of onshore wind, and reconsider its irrational decision to ditch the tidal barrage in Swansea bay. In addition it should urgently reverse its decision to discontinue the feed-in-tariff for solar power.
In the longer-term It could commission a multi-centre research programme into better methods of storing energy, including compressed air, and evaluate the capacity for pump storage in the UK. Finally it should reintroduce zero-carbon homes for new build, and subsidise a Green deal for existing homes. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it underlines the failings of current policy, and highlights the challenges that lie ahead.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Help Rescue the Planet,
Marlow, Bucks, UK
You are right to question the weaknesses in the government’s proposal to establish an Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) after Brexit (“Green Brexit”, leading article, Aug 14). Climate change, for example, is specifically excluded from the remit of the OEP, as is indoor air pollution. As regards outdoor air quality, the UK has been in breach of EU air quality standards for nitrogen dioxide since 2010, and the government has suffered three defeats in the High Court over its failure to implement effective action. Having resisted legal judgments and failed to comply with EU air-quality standards for more than eight years, is it credible that the government would now seek to create an even more effective domestic system for scrutinising government policy?
It needs to be remembered that between 2003 and 2016, the EU Commission started 753 actions against the British government, of which 120 related to the environment. That equates to nine environmental actions every year. Most were settled, but 29 cases reached the European Court of Justice. In order to replicate this level of scrutiny at a domestic level, the OEP will need to be truly independent: it will need significant resources, as well as sufficient powers to investigate, gain access to relevant data, issue legally binding enforcement notices and monitor compliance. Ultimately it will need the power to take government ministers to court. It is not clear if any of these requirements will be met by the ill-defined proposals in the Draft Environment Bill that was updated last month.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Scientific advisor to the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution
Our political system has been hijacked by a cabal of ideologically driven free marketeers with no democratic mandate. Air pollution and climate change, the two most urgent issues confronting society, are nowhere mentioned in the bubbles of bombastic rhetoric generated by our new prime minister. Boris Johnson’s main contribution to air quality as mayor of London was to cancel the western extension of the congestion zone. As for climate change, he presided over a 60% reduction in climate attaches as foreign secretary and subsequently accepted an expenses-paid trip to the US courtesy of the American Enterprise Institute, a fossil-fuel supporting free-market thinktank partially funded by the Koch brothers. I no longer recognise our leadership as embodying British values. I feel I’m living in a foreign dictatorship consumed by profit and self-interest. Dr Robin Russell-Jones Chair, Help Rescue the Planet
The main cause of rising atmospheric methane has been the subject of intensive research, but we are not as ignorant as Professor Jonathan Stern makes out. (Letters, June 5). Methane levels plateaued in the 1990s but have been rising again over the past decade by 8 parts per billion a year. Tropical wetlands and fossil fuel releases are both potential sources, but this debate was resolved by a Nasa-led study published in December 2017 which concluded that fossil fuels were contributing more than biogenic sources to the extra methane. Prof Stern is also mistaken if he thinks that oil and gas facilities can provide data that will clarify the amount of methane being released, since ground-based measurements consistently underestimate the extent of leakage. Aircraft sampling and satellite measurements over the US have produced higher values equivalent to 1.5 per cent of natural gas production. This is a crucial observation because methane releases amounting to 2 per cent of production cancel out the climate change benefit of burning gas instead of coal. Fracked gas probably releases more methane than conventional gas due to the greater number of wells. Liquefied natural gas has a larger carbon footprint than coal as the process of liquefying gas is very energy intensive. So the current strategy of the fossil fuel industry, which is to replace coal with gas, and to market LNG as a clean fuel, is based on a total misconception.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones Scientific Adviser, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution,
Marlow, Buckinghamshire, UK
The harmful effects of air pollution during early life deserve greater attention (Air pollution damages ‘every organ in the body’, 18 May). Ongoing research in the US has reported that exposure during pregnancy to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a constituent of diesel exhaust, is linked to developmental delay at three years, an IQ reduction of 4-5 points at five years, increased anxiety, depression and inattention at six to seven years, a reduction in surface white matter in the brain at eight years, and delayed self-regulatory behaviour which became most significant at 11 years. These data are “preliminary” only in the sense that they have not yet been replicated. Benzo-a-pyrene (BaP) is the only PAH routinely monitored by the EU. Due to the rapid growth in the sale of diesel vehicles since 2000, levels of BaP at traffic-monitoring sites has increased by 52%.
These findings have huge implications for public health, educational attainment and the high level of mental health problems currently afflicting schoolchildren in the UK. It is beyond belief that the government’s only response is a vague commitment to halve the number of people exposed to levels above the WHO limit for small particulates by 2025. This is not even a target; it is an aspiration that is legally unenforceable.
Dr Robin Russell-JonesScientific adviser
Geraint Davies MPChair, all-party parliamentary group on air pollution
There is a strong case for dating the start of the Anthropocene to 1950, since which time a million species have become threatened; 1950 coincides with the growth of international travel, leading to the introduction of alien species into vulnerable populations which then collapse. Back in 1950, world population was one-third of its current level. A combination of antibiotics, vaccination programmes and ineffective family planning have seen human numbers rocket past 7 billion, and they are still rising. Finally the demands of humanity have led to deforestation and widespread loss of habitat in every part of the globe.
It is entirely appropriate that the UN and other institutions produce reports documenting the disappearance and decline of most species on Earth. But they will have no impact at all unless they are accompanied by measures to limit human numbers. Dr Robin Russell-Jones Chair, Help Rescue the Planet