UK’s energy plans should be much more ambitious

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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
Chair,
Help Rescue the Planet,
Marlow, Bucks, UK

Methane releases cancel out benefit of switch to gas

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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

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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

financialTimes

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

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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

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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

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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

 

Our presence in space is helping us manage climate change

financialTimes

Financial Times, 21 February 2018:

Robin Russell-Jones (Letters, February 16) is right to assert that solving
climate change will involve a variety of Earth-bound commitments. He is
wrong though to dismiss the improvement of access to space by private
companies as pointless and harmful. The relevance of space-based
technologies to climate change mitigation has been self-evident since the
“Blue Marble” image of Earth, taken in 1972 by the crew of Apollo 17,
helped give rise to the modern environmental movement. Since then our
knowledge and understanding of the causes and effects of climate change
on the planet, as well as how to better manage the consequences for its
inhabitants, have been immeasurably improved because of our presence
in space. The new commercial space companies such as Virgin Galactic
aim to bring space transportation into the 21st century with reusable
space craft, cutting the cost and environmental impact of launch and so
permitting innovative space-based solutions to a host of Earth-based
challenges — including that of climate change.

George Whitesides
Chief Executive, Virgin Galactic

Planetary techno-fixes will not solve all our problems

financialTimes

Financial Times, 15 February 2018:

Elon Musk’s ambition to populate the world with electric vehicles
running on solar-powered batteries is a vision we can admire, but
pretending that Mars provides some insurance policy against fouling up
our planet is delusional (Opinion, Feb 10). Richard Branson is another
entrepreneur whose obsession with space travel is combined with concern
about climate change; but not every problem is amenable to planetary
techno-fixes.

The solution to climate change is closer to home and requires a huge
investment in renewables and energy conservation, combined with a
carbon tax that reflects the damage that fossil fuels impose on human
health and our environment. Virgin Galactic or building colonies on Mars
are vainglorious projects with little purpose and a huge carbon footprint.

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

The Zuckerberg billions could be put to better use

financialTimes

 

Financial Times, 29 September 2016:

The solution to most preventable diseases is obvious and does not require a century of research (“Mark Zuckerberg pledges $3bn ‘to end all illness’ ”, FT.com, September 22).

Of the 56m deaths that occur annually, 6m are linked to smoking, 4.3m to indoor and 3.7m to outdoor air pollution, so the solution to almost one quarter of all deaths is education.

Next come alcohol-related deaths (3.3m), obesity (2.8m) HIV/Aids (1.5m), diarrhoea (1.5m) and road fatalities (1.3m). Of these, the first, second and fifth are self-inflicted, while the other two are eminently preventable. Warfare is a diminishing cause of mortality, having fallen from 24 per 100,000 of the population in 1950 to less than one in this century, which equates to fewer than 70,000 deaths per annum.

Mr Zuckerberg’s boastful commitment may of course be referring to the hundreds of genetic conditions that affect children, or the myriad types of cancer that afflict adults, but if that is his intent, then he and his paediatrician wife are deluding themselves. Far better to spend the money on new ways to mitigate climate change, as unchecked global warming will release the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, whose victims will be measured, not in millions, but in billions.

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