In the run-up to COP26, one likes to imagine that the UK government will at least pretend to take climate change seriously, if only so that it is not humiliated in Glasgow next year. But that illusion has been torpedoed by the proposal to appoint Tony Abbott to the Board of Trade (“Former Australian PM set to become UK trade adviser”, August 27).
If the global community is to have any prospect of curtailing the inexorable rise in greenhouse gas emissions, then it is critical that environmental standards are central to all future trade deals. Mr Abbott has described global warming as “absolute crap”. His first action as prime minister was to abolish his own climate change advisory council, closely followed by a decision to scrap Australia’s carbon trading scheme.
Although he seems to have had very little input into Australia’s trade deal with China, he took credit on the grounds that he was not “sidetracked by peripheral issues such as labour and environmental standards”.
One suspects that his indifference to climate change is the qualification that has endeared him to this government and Liz Truss in particular. He is ideologically aligned with Brexit diehards, and doesn’t have to worry about being voted out by his own party, which was his fate in Australia.
Chair, Help Rescue the Planet,
Marlow, Buckinghamshire, UK
Global warming is worse than portrayed by Robin McKie (“Revealed: Earth loses trillion tonnes of ice in less than 30 years”, News). Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center estimates that the world has warmed by just over 1C since 1880, but temperatures are higher over land than water. Thus Europe has warmed by 2C, and the Arctic by more than 3C.
Loss of ice leads to loss of reflectivity, which aggravates the warming, but wildfires in the Arctic are also dirtying the snow, which increases heat absorption. This can only end badly. Melting of the permafrost has the potential to double the amount of methane in the atmosphere. If the Arctic seabed starts to give up the vast amount of methane stored as clathrates, global warming will become irreversible and it is game over for human civilisation. Politicians seem transfixed by this unfolding tragedy. Their latest excuse is the pandemic, but they have done almost nothing over the past 30 years. The Kyoto protocol was designed to reduce carbon emissions but since 1990, the baseline year for Kyoto, annual emissions have increased by 50% globally. The UK is hosting COP26 (the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties) next year. We can only pray that the government recognises the awesome responsibility it carries.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones
chair Help Rescue the Planet,
The failure of the government to protect our rivers extends beyond the Environment Agency (The government is looking the other way while Britain’s rivers die before our eyes, 12 August). Defra’s Clean Air Strategy 2019 focused on the need to control emissions from agriculture, notably ammonia, which is a precursor for small particulates (PM2.5). Ammonia is released from nitrogen-containing fertilisers, and manure/slurry spread on to fields, particularly during the spring. Releases of ammonia can be reduced significantly by choosing the right sort of fertiliser, and injecting the manure into the soil. This would also protect rivers. Yet the list of financial incentives offered to farmers in the government’s current agriculture bill does not include air pollution. This is a glaring omission, as the government’s own data shows that the UK is set to breach the EU National Emissions Ceiling Directive for both ammonia and PM2.5. The government’s solution to this dilemma is to leave the EU and create its own green watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, which will doubtless prove as toothless as the Environment Agency, and other similar government-funded organisations. Dr Robin Russell-Jones Marlow, Buckinghamshire
This has been given renewed urgency by the realisation that Covid-19 mortality is closely linked to levels of air pollution. Thus city dwellers are between 40% and 80% more likely to die from Covid-19 than their rural counterparts, an observation that would go a long way to explain the higher mortality among members of the BAME community.
Robin Russell-Jones, scientific adviser, all-party parliamentary group on air pollution
Overall subsidies are £11bn in the UK, £38.1bn in France, and £44.6bn in Germany, which includes their £9bn hydrogen strategy. All three countries are supporting airlines, but in the UK there is no requirement to improve fuel efficiency. The total investment in “green” energy and transport is £8.5bn in the UK, £19.1bn in France and £21.5bn in Germany. So the UK contribution is smaller and only 25% is targeted, compared with 97% in France and 92% in Germany.
An example of an unconditional subsidy is the £3bn allocated by the UK government towards improving the thermal efficiency of buildings. No details have been provided as to how this will work, and most of the £3bn appears to be recycled monies.
A targeted subsidy would be the £1.6bn bailout of Transport for London, but bailing out fossil-fuel dependent industries such as airlines without imposing any climate change obligations is bad policy, particularly in the run-up to Cop26.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones Chair, Help Rescue the Planet Dave Faulkner Founder, Marlow CAN
Sir, The government proposal to bring forward the mandatory date for phasing out vehicles that rely on fossil fuels to 2032 is a welcome first step towards reducing air pollution and mitigating climate change (“Ban on sale of petrol cars could come in ten years”, Feb 13). Car manufacturers may protest at the time-scale, but that is unsurprising. They also objected to the introduction of unleaded petrol in the 1980s and to the introduction of catalytic converters, but both proceeded without any significant technical issues. In addition, there will be significant benefits to health: research estimates 64,000 premature deaths annually from air pollution in the UK, so the medical imperative is for an even earlier phase-out date. Turnover of the car fleet is about 7 per cent per annum, so it may take another 15 years after phase-out before the UK is close to carbon neutral road transport. And earlier date is therefore consistent with the government’s ambition to be zero-carbon by 2050. The government is also correct to include hybrid cars, which include a fossil-fuel engine. What is now needed from the government is co-ordinated investment in the infrastructure required for ultra-low emission vehicles. Alongside this it will be critical to maintain the subsidy of £3,500 for electric vehicles which the government has threatened to reduce or even discontinue before the budget.
Geraint Davies MP,
Dr Robin Russell-Jones, scientific adviser to the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution;
Greg Archer, UK director, Transport & Environment;
Simon Birkett, Clean Air London chairman
Plus a further three signatories at thetimes.co.uk/letters
Local authorities should be congratulated for banning vehicles from city centres (“Is this the end of the road for cars in Britain’s cities?”, Focus). Diesel vehicles are a particular problem as they generate ultra-fine particles, which are the most dangerous biologically. It had been assumed that diesel emissions would become less of a problem with the introduction of stricter emission standards, but recent testing has shown that diesel filters emit a huge number of ultra-fine particles when the filter is automatically decoked every 300 miles. Pressure from car manufacturers has ensured that these emissions are not included in EU vehicle emission tests.
Evidence as to the health impact of air pollution is also accumulating. A recent study showed that academic performance improved after air filters were fitted to schools in Los Angeles, providing key evidence of a causal link. After Brexit we will no longer be protected by EU air quality standards, and the government’s forthcoming environment bill is a poor substitute for EU law. We urgently need a new clean air act, and a national clean air agency to enforce it.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones, scientific adviser, all-party parliamentary groups Geraint Davies MP, chair, all-party parliamentary group on air pollution
House of Commons, London W1A
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