A reputation sacrificed on the altar of free trade


Financial Times, 11 September 2020:

It appears that hardline Brexiters are increasing their grip on government strategy, and that there is now nothing that cannot be sacrificed in order to realise their vision of a free trade Britain; not even the UK’s credibility as a nation that abides by the rules-based order. (“UK government admits it will break international law over Brexit treaty”, September 9). So who, you might wonder, will now sign a trade deal with the UK if there is no guarantee that it will be adhered to? The European Research Group morphed from an anti-EU parliamentary study group into an ideological faction within the Conservative party under the influence of their high priest Steve Baker. Furthermore, it did so using taxpayers money. Consenting MPs were allowed to contribute £2,000 each from their expenses. However, the ERG has never published a list of its members and has never revealed the identity of donors to its private bank account. This cabal at the heart of government is now seized with a crusading zeal that is reminiscent of religious fundamentalism rather than a political faction. The outcome is that Britain’s reputation and future prosperity is about to be sacrificed on the high altar of a belief system that has no basis in reality. The ERG claim that free trade is omnipotent and contains the answer to everything. But it doesn’t have any solutions for climate change, and Britain never voted for a no-deal Brexit. I don’t believe that this is just a negotiating ploy. Boris Johnson is being held hostage by the provisional wing of his own party, and is about to do something unprecedented and catastrophic.

Robin Russell-Jones
Chair, Help Rescue the Planet,
Marlow, Buckinghamshire, UK


Abbott would be a blow to UK’s green credentials


Financial Times, 1 September 2020:

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.

Robin Russell-Jones
Chair, Help Rescue the Planet,
Marlow, Buckinghamshire, UK


China’s main concern is air pollution, not emissions

Financial Times, 28 November 2019:

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,
Help Rescue The Planet,
Marlow, Bucks

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

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

India has no strategy for improving air quality


Financial Times, 15 November 2018:

Air pollution in India illustrates the consequences of unregulated growth (“ How to power India”, The Big Read, November 5). Of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, 14 are located in India. In Delhi the level of small particulates (PM2.5) averages 143 microgrammes per cubic metre of air (the annual World Health Organization limit is 10). At this time of year, stubble burning by farmers produces peak levels up to 1000, equivalent to smoking 50 cigarettes a day. Such levels render Indian cities unfit for human habitation and particularly dangerous for pregnant women. Studies in Delhi have demonstrated that each 10 microgramme increase in the level of PM 2.5 decreases birth weight by 4 grams. As with smoking low birth weight results in lower IQ.

The tragedy is that no one wishes to accept responsibility. Unlike China, politicians in India have no strategy for improving air quality, and local politicians have no interest. In September the Ramphal Commonwealth Institute organised an international conference on Toxic Air and Megacities, but no delegate from the State of Delhi was willing to participate.

India seems equally oblivious to the dangers of climate change. Why would a country with up to 3000 hours of sunshine annually continue to rely on fossil fuels for 90 per cent of its energy? Prime minister Narendra Modi’s version of nationalism does not seem to include any concern for the health of the population, nor for the prospects of future generations.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Marlow, Bucks, UK, Former Chair, Campaign for Lead Free Air

Role of shale gas as a bridge fuel is overstated


Financial Times, 27 September 2018:

Your article on fracking claims that “natural gas is seen as a bridge between high polluting coal and cleaner energy sources led by renewables” (“ Cuadrilla prepares for start of commercial fracking”, September 26). First, no bridge is needed. Coal-fired plants are being phased out anyway under the terms of the EU Large Combustion Plant Directive, so by the time shale gas comes on stream it will be displacing renewables, not replacing coal.

Second, it is disingenuous to argue that shale gas is cleaner than coal in terms of climate change. Certainly it produces less carbon dioxide per unit of energy when burnt, but this benefit is cancelled out by upstream releases of methane during the exploration, extraction, storage and distribution stages. The rise in atmospheric methane that has occurred over the past decade can be attributed to the significant increase in gas production worldwide and the cavalier approach to fracking in North America.

Finally, fracking in the UK is confined to England, and is only possible because the government has assumed responsibility for planning permission in defiance of local democracy.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones Chair, Help Rescue the Planet,
Marlow, Bucks, UK

Car industry has no right to bemoan pollution fee


Financial Times, 5 September 2018:

It’s a bit rich for car manufacturers and their suppliers to complain about Birmingham’s pollution charge when those same car manufacturers lobbied European governments to promote diesel and then rigged laboratory tests (“Birmingham businesses hit at pollution charge”, September 3).

Evidence of the harmful effects of air pollution is accumulating rapidly with a recent study from China showing cognitive deficits in adults exposed to high levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulates. Even more disturbing is a study from New York of non-smoking women where exposure to particulates during pregnancy was associated with mental health problems.

Birmingham residents, including car workers, should be grateful to their council for addressing an urgent public health issue on which the national Government has abdicated responsibility.

Robin Russell-Jones
Former chair, Campaign for Lead Free Air, Marlow, Bucks, UK


Air quality targets will not be enforceable


Financial Times, 19 June 2018:

The letter from the UK roads minister Jesse Norman needs to be seen in context (“New regulations will drive emissions cheats off road”, June 8). Without the EU threatening legal action, would there have been any appetite in government to fine car manufacturers £50,000 per vehicle fitted with a defeat device? And why does this apply only to new cars? In the US, Volkswagen was fined $30,000 for every vehicle on the road, and VW personnel are subject to criminal prosecution.

There is of course a further dimension to this catalogue of failure. Following Brexit, the EU air quality directive will no longer apply. It will be replaced by a new environmental watchdog, but the proposal from environment secretary Michael Gove makes it clear that the air quality targets will not be legally enforceable. So the statutory body can issue advisory notices about poor air quality in central London, or unacceptable levels of pollution at Heathrow, but the government will be immune from prosecution.

Brexiters will claim a victory for the free market, but for everyone else it will be a defeat.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Former Chair, Campaign for Lead Free Air,
Marlow, Bucks, UK

We can now measure carbon flux from space


Financial Times, 23 February 2018:

Sir, George Whitesides (Letters February 21) states that the “Blue
Marble” image of Earth, taken from space in 1972, gave rise to the
modern environmental movement. This overlooks the campaign by
Stewart Brand in 1966 to force Nasa to release a rumoured colour photo
of Earth. The image was subsequently used on the covers of Brand’s
seminal Whole Earth Catalog that offered tools for ecological living and
was published from 1969 to 1972. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth
were founded in 1971. The great value of space access is that it is now
possible, using hyperspectral technology, to measure from space the
carbon flux on areas of Earth. This will make global carbon pricing and
trading viable as it brings scientific integrity to carbon sequestration
claims. Carbon markets have failed previously due to political
intervention and inaccurate measurement. Soil and forests, as carbon
sinks, are our main hope for reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas levels.
Satellites can help.

Craig Sams
Hastings, E Sussex, UK