UK’s energy plans should be much more ambitious


Financial Times, 8 May 2019:

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

Green Brexit


The Times, 16 August 2019:

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

Geraint Davies MP

Group chairman, House of Commons

Getting to grips with the climate crisis


The Guardian, 27 July 2019:

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

Methane releases cancel out benefit of switch to gas


Financial Times, 19 June 2019:

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

Air pollution, ill health and the need for a 21st-century Model T Ford


The Guardian, 23 May 2019:

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-Jones Scientific adviser

Geraint Davies MP Chair, all-party parliamentary group on air pollution

Can we humans save ourselves from self-destruction?


The Guardian, 8 May 2019:

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


Dieselgate and the unintended consequences of anti-idling drive


The Guardian, 25 March 2019:

In the US, the Dieselgate scandal has resulted in prosecutions against VW personnel and multibillion dollar fines (Where’s there’s smoke…, 22 March). In Europe, no one has been charged and nobody has gone to jail, though the EU commission has threatened action against the UK government for failing to prosecute VW.

Defeat devices result in higher emissions of nitrogen dioxide, but the real danger from a health perspective are small particulates, notably the ultra-fine nanoparticles that can penetrate tissue, reach a placenta and cross the blood-brain barrier. These are largely present in exhaust emissions, so while all vehicles generate particulates from tyres and brakes, researchers have demonstrated that medical effects such as low birth weight are tied more closely to exhaust particulates than to friction particulates. This is important as the government likes to pretend that all particulates are equivalent, regardless of the source. Thus its clean air strategy emphasises the contribution of secondary particulates generated from agriculture etc, even though these contain little in the way of ultra-fine particles. It is disheartening that the UK government seems more anxious to protect the interests of car manufacturers than the health of its own citizens, but this situation is likely to worsen post-Brexit.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones Scientific adviser

Geraint Davies MP Chair, All-party parliamentary group on air pollution

Dirty air and babies


The Times, 15 March 2019:

Sir, One neglected aspect of air pollution is its effect on birth weight (“Air pollution kills more people than boasting about freezing the fuel smoking”, Mar 13). A meta-analysis of 32 studies linking birth outcomes with the level of small particulates (PM2.5) concluded that each increase of 10g/m3 in PM2.5 lowers birthweight by 16 grams. Living in central London while pregnant is thus equivalent to smoking one cigarette a day.

In 2017 researchers from King’s College London showed that reductions in birth weight were tied more closely to exhaust emissions than to other types of particulates generated by traffic (eg, wear and tear on brakes and tyres) and not at all to noise pollution. During the Olympic Sir, Alice Thomson (Comment, Mar Games in 2008, the Chinese government made every effort to reduce pollution levels in Beijing, and birth weight increased. The maximum benefit was for women in the eighth month of pregnancy, a period of maximum foetal growth.

Low birth weight is important because it is linked to a host of adverse outcomes in later life, including lower IQ. The British government could do far more to mitigate these effects. Instead of boasting about freezing the fue escalator for the past nine years, the chancellor should increase the tax on diesel, introduce a diesel scrappage scheme and bring forward the phase-out date for fossil fuel vehicles from 2040 to 2030.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones, FRCP, FRCPath, scientific adviser to the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution

Geraint Davies, MP
chairman, APPG on air pollution

Gas strategy in the UK is wrongheaded


The Guardian, 12 March 2019:

It is no surprise that the government’s strategy on fracking has been deemed unlawful (Fracking guidance illegally ignores climate change, 7 March). Gas may be more fuel efficient than coal when burnt, but shale gas is 95% methane, and methane is a powerful greenhouse gas. According to the IPCC it has a global warming potential (GWP) 85 times greater than carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe. Misleadingly, HMG have relied on an obsolete figure of 36 for the GWP of methane, dating back to 2013.

Methane levels plateaued in the late 1990s, but have started to increase again over the past decade and have now reached 1,900 parts per billion, against a pre-industrial level of 700. Fracking is the obvious culprit. Satellite data over the US has shown that methane leakage exceeds 5% of shale gas production, an observation that fits with more recent studies by Nasa showing that fossil fuels are the major contributor to the continuing rise in atmospheric methane.

Despite this evidence, the government’s energy strategy is to forge ahead with fracking while reducing environmental safeguards and providing tax incentives for its development. The government claim that gas is better than coal from a climate change perspective is only sustainable if fugitive emissions of methane are ignored. Let us hope that the high court judgment means that fracking will be abandoned in the UK as it has been elsewhere in Europe.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones Scientific adviser to the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution (APPG)
Geraint Davies MP Chair, APPG