Planetary techno-fixes will not solve all our problems


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

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,

The Zuckerberg billions could be put to better use



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’ ”,, 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

A better way for the EU to spend a spare €10bn


Financial Times, 17 August 2016:

I for one would be delighted if the UK were locked out of the EU-funded Galileo Satellite Navigation system (“Space sector brought back down to earth”, August 15). It is headquartered in Prague with ground operations in Munich and Fucino, so the UK is only a bit player in the project anyway, and our membership of the European Space Agency is not affected by Brexit one way or the other.

In any event, the whole Galileo concept is a European vanity project designed to make us independent of the current US-controlled Global Positioning System that is free at the point of use for people using their iPhones. The US system also offers enhanced capabilities for those who possess the necessary commercial or military codes. This is why the French decided to reinvent the wheel, but they also wanted French to be the lingua franca and that didn’t work out too well either.

If the EU has €10bn to spare it would be better spent on a pan-European high-voltage DC supergrid that can iron out supplies from different sources of renewable energy across the continent. As the UK has 40 per cent of Europe’s available wind resource, plus most of the tidal power, there is no way that we will be excluded from that!

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

Progress on HFCs has been glacial


Financial Times, 12 July 2016:

Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, seems pleased with progress on HFCs and other CFC substitutes (Letters, July 7). As someone who has been involved in this debate since the late 1980s, I have to say that progress has been glacial.

In 1989 the UK hosted a UN conference on ozone depletion, and I asked the prime minister why she was allowing the substitution of CFCs with powerful greenhouse gases. In her reply, Margaret Thatcher mentioned HFCs and HCFCs, but seemed unaware of their climate-changing potential. Some 27 years later, HFCs are still in widespread use and still contributing to global warming.

Perhaps Mr Zaelke can tell me how long he thinks it will take to solve global warming if it requires more than a quarter of a century to fix a simple technological problem.

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

Atmosphere will respond to the laws of physics


Financial Times, 8 April 2016:

Martin Wolf’s perceptive column “Fossil fuel power plants will be stranded” (April 6) demonstrates that the world is rapidly running out of options.

We already possess conventional fossil fuel reserves equivalent to three times our carbon budget, so to keep below 2C of warming, we need to leave 80 per cent of coal, 50 per cent of gas and one-third of oil reserves in the ground. Developing further resources, in the shape of tar sands, shale oil or shale gas, is largely self-defeating as increased production in one country will require an equivalent reduction elsewhere.

This paradigm has become even more challenging since Paris which lowered the global warming limit from 2 to 1.5C. To have a 50 per cent chance of staying within this new limit, the remaining carbon budget is only 140bn tonnes, which will be spent by 2030 if current emission rates stay static, and sooner if they continue to increase.

Politicians will continue to obfuscate and delay, but the atmosphere will only respond to the laws of physics which are uncompromising and potentially lethal for most species on Earth, including our own.

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

We stand by our conclusions on methane emissions and fracking


Financial Times, 14 March 2016:

Dr Euan Nisbet (Letters, March 7) takes issue with Dr Robin Russell-Jones (Letters, March 4) over the sources of increasing atmospheric methane. Dr Russell-Jones pointed to a review paper which he and I recently presented to the Committee on Climate Change, which shows that fracking in the US has produced such high emissions of methane that natural gas is a worse source of climate-changing gases than coal. Dr Nisbet briefly points to recent research by the US Environmental Defense Fund showing lower emissions in one oil and gasfield in the US, the Barnett Shale, as evidence that our estimate is too high, and goes on to stress the importance of “natural” emissions from tropical sources such as wetlands in Africa.

In fact, both fossil and natural methane emissions have an important bearing on Earth’s future. Concerning fossil methane, the Barnett Shale region does indeed emit less methane than most other unconventional oil and gas producing regions, probably because it is a mature field with a much lower rate of well completions (fracking) than in many other regions. Still, we believe the Environmental Defense Fund paper underestimates Barnett Shale emissions by about 40 per cent owing to its neglect of infrequent emission events of magnitude greater than about 1 tonne per hour, which, because they are rare, could only be picked up by long-term measurements beyond the timeframe of the Fund’s study. The importance of such events is underscored by the recent Aliso Canyon accident in California which emitted methane at the rate of 60 tonnes per hour, equivalent to emissions from an entire gasfield, for a period of several months. Taking into account the best oil and gas methane data currently available, and data from coal production, we concluded that methane emissions from the fracking industry are high enough to reverse the supposed benefit of natural gas over coal, and we stand by that conclusion. This is an absolutely key point for decision makers contemplating the future of energy generation in the UK.

Concerning natural methane sources, it is clear from satellite data that there has been a rise in atmospheric methane emissions at latitudes that intersect the Sahel region of Africa. Industrial activities such as hydroelectric projects, as well as human induced climate change, are damaging the wetland ecosystems of the Niger delta and this is clearly another significant climate threat. I entirely concur with Dr Nisbet on the critical importance of continuous atmospheric monitoring during a period of rapid climate change, and on the value of isotopic measurements. Data, modelling, understanding, and well-informed decision-making are all now vital to our future.

Prof Nick Cowern
Oswaldkirk, N Yorks, UK

Methane: the focus on fracking is a distraction



Financial Times, 7 March 2016:

Robin Russell-Jones (Letters, March 4) argues that fugitive emissions of methane from gas production remove the global warming advantage of natural gas over coal. Recent published studies and our own measurements suggest a more nuanced view. Methane leaks from gas production are typically over 1 per cent, as Dr Russell-Jones states, but coal mining also emits methane. Our own work measuring carbon isotopes in methane in air from China in winter suggests coal is an important contributor to East Asian methane.

Turning to shale gas, Dr Russell-Jones suggests methane losses average 8 per cent of production, with an upper limit of 13 per cent. This contrasts with the meticulous work of the US National Oceans and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Environmental Defense Fund. In Utah’s small Uintah basin, high leakage was indeed measured, but in the major Barnett Shale basin in Texas, methane emissions attributed to fossil sources were 1.3-1.9 per cent of production. Gas-fired electricity in this region would cause less climate forcing than coal-fired. A few “high emitters”, for example in storage and collection systems, have a disproportionate impact. Our own work in the UK and Australia similarly shows the importance of high emitters, that our mobile vehicle-mounted analyser easily pinpoints. These sites presumably represent financial loss and safety risks, and should relatively easily be controlled.

The focus on fracking distracts attention from the remarkable global methane rise since 2007, exceptionally strong in 2014 and 2015, which seems mainly to be from tropical sources. The rise has been accompanied by a carbon isotopic shift that suggests the increase is not primarily from fossil fuels but from tropical wetlands responding to meteorological events. Is this the result of a large but “normal” decadal-scale weather oscillation, or is methane the canary that warns a profound tropical change is occurring? We simply do not know. Tracking tropical emissions depends on a very few remote marine sites. Satellite data are not accurate enough, nor can they use isotopes to identify sources. Our instrument on Ascension Island has recently failed, and is so old that the manufacturer is soon withdrawing service support. Ascension’s air integrates a wide tract of the Southern Hemisphere: for want of £5,000 we risk losing the 2016 record of methane and CO2 during the current great El Niño. Many of our international partners in greenhouse gas measurement are suffering similar budget challenges. This illustrates a wider point: the greenhouse debate is like an inverted pyramid, with a vast top layer of opinion interpreting underlying computer models, that in turn depend on a tiny basis of direct in situ greenhouse gas measurement.

Dr Euan G Nisbet
Royal Holloway,
University of London, UK

US is taking the lead again—this time in pursuit of VW

Financial Times, 21 January 2016:

 In your perceptive article on the VW scandal you state that diesel cars produce less CO2 than petrol models (Noxious omissions Jan 18) Of course this is only true if other pollution control devices are removed, which is the reason that VW created their defeat devices in the first place. So the technology used to minimise emissions of NOx is switched on during test cycles in the laboratory, but turned off under real driving conditions. This results in better mileage (and therefore less CO2), but the downside is higher levels of NOx in the urban environment.

The consequences are not trivial. Air pollution in the UK causes 1000  deaths every week, of which 45 % is attributable to NOx. Although VW has not yet come clean as to the strategic operation of its defeat devices within Europe, the concern is that its  illegal technology has resulted in extra premature  deaths amongst the UK population

When questioned on this issue by the House of Commons Environment Audit Committee in October 2015 , Ministers from the Department for  Environment, Food  and Rural Affairs and Department for Transport  could not say whether legal action against VW was being considered by any regulatory agency, nor which agency was primarily responsible. Several were mentioned including  the Serious Fraud Office, the Environment Agency and the Vehicle Type Approval Authority (VCA). Rory Stewart MP from DEFRA, stated these were matters for the individual agencies. Robert Goodwill MP from DfT stated that his agency had  insufficient equipment to carry out the necessary tests and that  his department was certainly  not in a position currently  to pursue such a case.

The contrast with the US  is striking. In America the Department of Justice is pursuing VW without fear or favour under the terms of the Clean Air Act and VW may incur fines of $30,000 per vehicle. In Europe there appears to be no appetite for a legal confrontation, whilst the UK doesn’t even think it can gather the necessary evidence. If one considers other areas of public life, such as  banking, Libor rigging and FIFA, it always seems to be the US that takes the lead, whilst Europe emerges as a cosy club for big business.

One wonders how long European consumers will tolerate this profound lack of corporate accountability. 

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Stoke Poges,Buckinghamshire


Business as usual for China now COP 21 is over?

Financial Times, 15 Dec 15:

Calvin Quek claims that levels of PM 2.5 in China are 15% lower this November than last year and that this can be attributed to government action on air pollution (Chinese authorities are responding to air pollution problem Letters Dec 11).  Clearly levels of small particulates are subject to weather conditions which I suspect is a more likely explanation for the short-term fluctuation that he has documented. In any event 17% of deaths in China are now attributable to air pollution, which makes it the biggest cause of mortality apart from smoking.

If one considers Bejing, levels of PM 2.5 peak  in the early morning, an anomalous observation explained by the fact that this is when diesel-powered lorries make  deliveries to the city centre. Although these lorries carry certificates that they are compliant with government regulations, most of them carry no pollution control devices of any sort, so NOx and particulates are vented straight into the night sky. Traffic police are not allowed to ban such vehicles if they are making “essential deliveries”  which all claim to do.

The factories that supply these untrapped vehicles claim that they are only for export to Africa. Government legislation that allows both drivers and manufacturers to be prosecuted have been on the statute books for more than a decade, but so far there has not been a single prosecution.

So I am perplexed how Mr Quek concludes that air quality in China is improving as a result of government action. My concern is that  China’s  decision to close factories during a recent smog alert was a cosmetic exercise cynically timed to coincide with the Paris summit on climate change.Now that is behind them, I suspect that China will go straight back to “business as usual”. I would love to be proven wrong.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Stoke Poges,Buckinghamshire

Clean energy technology that could be made even more sustainable

Financial Times, 22 November 2015:

Sir, Matt Ridley, rather surprisingly, proposes that kerosene has proved beneficial to health (Letters, November 18). According to the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, kerosene is flammable and explosive above 37 degrees. It is an irritant to skin and eyes, and accidental ingestion is a common cause of fatalities in children. In India and Africa it is widely used as a fuel for heating and illumination in villages that lack electricity, but it is a major cause of indoor air pollution and won’t run an electrical appliance.

A far better solution is to charge a battery using solar power during the day, which will provide sufficient power to run LED lighting and a computer during the hours of darkness. Earlier this year, Jeremy Leggett, founder of two such companies, SolarAid and Solarcentury, won the Gothenburg award for bringing this type of clean energy to more than 9m people.

The technology could be made even more sustainable if compressed air were used instead of a battery, but this requires a major research effort to improve the efficiency of the systems currently available. Three years ago I funded a pilot project in the engineering department at the University of Southampton, but our subsequent application to the Department of Energy & Climate Change was rejected. This epitomises society’s dilemma.

There is no shortage of ideas and initiatives that could solve the problem of climate change, but as long as dissident scientists like Lord Ridley insist that the burning of fossil fuels is good for health, the harder it will be to persuade politicians to commit the necessary resources.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire