31 March 2007

There is no place for coal

By Andrew Boswell

Science can extend our use of the very small or very large. In 1970, my science teacher explained how, in a remarkable breakthrough, electronic circuits would soon be etched on silicon. 37 years and a micro-revolution later, we now live in a mature information age - Googling almost anything, snapping photos in mega-pixels, and carrying around our entire music collection in our pockets.

Science and technology are very beguiling. No wonder, governments look for techno-fixes faced with the awesome realities of climate change. Yet any technology applied at huge scale to our planet could simply create drastic problems if we do not thoroughly understand it. We must ensure that politicians do not go down hi-tech routes just to put off the awkward day when they will have to cut economic growth that is at the expense of the environment.

This solar motor is working a pump capable of delivering 1,400 gallons per minutePhoto: This solar motor is working a pump capable of delivering 1,400 gallons per minute.

The conundrum is that we have little time to tackle climate change, and we must also proceed carefully - new technology must be evaluated against the 'big picture'.

For example, the 'green fuels' myth of large scale biofuels production is now widely questioned as a consensus grows that current crop fuels help little with tackling climate change and are actually making things worse. It was crucial, big picture thinking that caused the environmentalist George Monbiot to call this week for moratorium on all biofuels targets and incentives.

What about another myth - 'clean coal'? If it were not for China's uncontrolled, economic growth, we probably would not be even considering coal as a fuel for the future. Recent reports that China's largely coal based emissions have doubled between 2001 and 2007 are totally scary, as is China’s build of around 40-50 Drax or Tilbury scale power stations every year. This trajectory of coal based growth is literally capable of killing us all.

Modern boilers can help efficiency by about 20% - that is, China could build 400 new power stations instead of 500 over the next decade to achieve the same energy growth. That's still 400 too many!

Enter carbon capture and storage (CCS) - trapping CO2 and pumping it into underground spaces eg old oil wells. It’s being trialled below the North Sea. But where could the CO2 produced this year, the next, for the next 50 years from many hundreds of power stations be stored?

Solar panels in AustraliaIn theory, there is actually enough space – the Stern review says enough for nearly a hundred of years of current fossil fuel emissions, possibly more. Proponents argue that it could be safely stored and without significant leakage but how can we be sure for hundreds of years? And even if it is, can we start storing it quickly enough and is it affordable?

In 2005, the EU and China launched a project "to develop and demonstrate in China and the EU advanced, near-zero emissions coal technology through CCS" by 2020. That's 13 years before mature technology – or 500 Chinese coal power stations too late. Remember Stern said that we have less than "10 years to act".

Each CCS demonstration project adds several hundred million dollars to the cost of a power station. The IEA are recommending that 10-15 such projects should be in place by 2015 at an estimated extra cost of $2.5 to $7.5 billion - just to demonstrate commercial viability.

That money could be used better by developing non-carbon based energy now by much greater investment in technology that is already viable – wind, solar and tidal – and crucially make 'quick wins' in reducing carbon emissions before 2020.

CCS may make coal 'usable', but big power stations will always waste up to 60% of energy as lost heat. By contrast, small-scale combined heat and power systems can use that heat for homes and buildings – such decentralised energy is very efficient.

Very large-scale extraction of coal will wreak major environmental damage eg blowing away complete mountains.

If we were starting from scratch, we wouldn't touch fossil fuels and would create entirely renewable energy systems. One such is concentrated solar power (see http://www.trec-uk.org.uk/) that could produce as much electricity as the world currently uses in less than 1% of the world's hot deserts – it needs urgent consideration and research funding - China could use it too.

Just on Thursday, it was reported that UK CO2 emissions from the power sector soared by 6% rise last year due to 'the roll to coal' – the switch from expensive gas to cheaper coal. The Government must reverse this urgently.

They must focus UK and EU research, money and effort on renewables that deliver emission savings now. Then we should transfer those technologies to the Chinese ASAP.

24 March 2007

Recipe for Darfur

By Liam Carroll

Newspaper commentators are the Delia Smiths of world affairs - no matter what the occasion or crisis they are always ready with a suitable recipe for western action that would - if implemented - surely lead to an easily digested solution that would satisfy all. This would then be followed by the self-congratulatory noises of those well fed on a diet of high moral fibre.

As the bloody crisis in the Sudan continues to unfold and ominous signs of wider regional collapse start to emerge, western commentators have churned out a series of such recipes that would, in their opinion, soon bring relief to the long suffering victims in Darfur whilst serving up a rather more chilling dish to the alleged sponsors of the atrocities in Khartoum.

The cauldron of animosities in the Sudan, however, goes way beyond the ruling party in Khartoum, the Janjaweed and their victims in Darfur. The oil and resource rich south has been at war with the north for years, roaming groups of armed bandits perpetuate tribal hatreds and blood feuds, whilst shrinking resources and a ready availability of weapons help to maintain a landscape ripe for enduring conflict. That isn't even to mention the nine neighboring countries, two of which, Chad and the Central African Republic are already suffering from a chronic refugee crisis that is putting tremendous pressure on their local populations.

There is no shortage though of commentators ready with their recipes for bringing the atrocities to an end; financial sanctions, no-fly zones, oil blockades, embargoes, and missile attacks are all part of a range of solutions offered up by articulate opinion. The argument goes that the government must be dealt a sharp lesson in order to force them into accepting an international UN force that will protect the millions of internally displaced persons in the camps of Darfur.

Alternatively, western moves against Khartoum rally anti-western allegiances - more extreme militants come to the fore - attacks against Darfurians escalate, civil war breaks out again and other tribes use the cover of war to execute their own land grabs, cattle raids and so on. There is plenty of scope for a descent into even greater chaos if conflicts spread further throughout a fragile region, engulfing central east Africa in a deeper and deeper crisis.

Some point the finger at China and suggest that the commercial oil deals and arms sales make China a sponsor of the government in Khartoum. Not a few of the same charges can be leveled at western governments who have often appeased unsavory regimes - frequently endorsed by profligate arms sales - in order to protect access to precious resources. It would be surprising, in that context then if China were to restrain itself in its relentless pursuit of energy supplies.

This also begs the question of whether trade and financial sanctions targeting the Sudanese government, but implemented without Chinese support, are ultimately futile and only serve to alienate the regime from international institutions like the UN and thus making the prospect of a negotiated settlement less likely.

It could be in fact that it is not the west that holds the solution to peace in Darfur at all. It could be that it is Africans that understand the dynamics at work in the Sudan far better than any westerner can. The west may be able to provide logistical support, but the strategy has to come from those who have a far better grasp of African politics.

In this sense there are several very useful things that the west could do straight away, like making sure the African Union force, which by most accounts is of at least some value in providing limited forms of security, gets paid and properly equipped. Believe it or not, it is countries like Rwanda that are providing the backbone of the AU force but might have to pull out because of crippling IMF debt repayments. That is surely something the west can fix.

In terms of a long term strategy though, there is a general agreement that a negotiated peace settlement between Khartoum and the Darfurians offers the best prospect for lasting peace. The terms of settlement and the negotiating process are likely to be complex and will undoubtedly require tactful and delicate handling, for no doubt there will be many legitimate grievances and concerns to be addressed.

There is surely some need for a measure of caution when dealing out ready solutions for crisis many miles away – we should never forget that it will probably not be us, but someone else who has to live with the consequences of what western opinion thinks must be done.

17 March 2007

The duty of care in a nuclear world

By Marguerite Finn

I attended a meeting last week, which left me feeling decidedly uneasy. The meeting of the Sizewell Stakeholder Group, included local councillors, workers from Sizewell A and B nuclear power stations, representatives of the Environment Agency, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and members of the public.

Bob Kury, Site Director of Sizewell A, reported on the incident on 7 January when 40,000 gallons of radioactively-contaminated water flowed out of a storage 'pond' following a pipe fracture. Accidents will happen and this one was dealt with quickly – although 10,000 gallons of contaminated water was discharged into the sea - passing the buck to the environment.

The accident itself was not the main cause of my anxiety – it was something much more fundamental. It seemed to me that the Government's universal principle of duty of care had broken down. The immediate cause of the accident was a pipe fracture - the wrong sort of plastic, not built to specification - but the resulting leak was not noticed because the alarms were "frozen due to an unrecognised system error" and the operator was completely oblivious to the danger. Mr Kury admitted some of the pipework was not accessible and that sections of critical pipework had never been inspected! He also said the operators needed better training.

Decommissioning operations at Sizewell A have been suspended until the completion of the safety review. The Nuclear Regulator recommended all alarms be reconditioned and pipework surveyed and replaced where necessary - in all nuclear reactors of the same age and type. Astonishingly, it was considered necessary to issue an instruction ensuring that in future, pond maintenance work was put on the schedule! The Nuclear Regulator commented: "We regard the engineering aspects as very serious indeed".

Sizewell is not the worst offender. At Sellafield in Cumbria, it was discovered, in 2006, that 83,000 litres of radioactive material, containing 20 tonnes of uranium and plutonium had been spilling out into a concrete containment tank undetected for nine months! Staff misread the instruments on ten separate occasions, dismissing the evidence of a leak as a "calculation error" because the volumes involved were so large and, anyway, it could not happen in a new plant!

On 23 February 2007, the Government quietly released the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate report into the Sellafield accident. The Report found a lack of a "challenge culture" at British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) and that the Sellafield plant "condoned the ignoring of alarms" and that safety equipment was not kept in effective working order. Where was the 'duty of care' in all this – the responsibility to protect workers and the public from the fall-out of a nuclear accident?

How did the nuclear industry fall victim to such an endemic attitude of carelessness and complacency? Has the cult of the individual – so assiduously reinforced by television's daily dose of because you're worth it blandishments – finally separated us from the notion of a common reality? By adopting a defiant attitude to the dangers of nuclear power and the certainty of global warming, do we think the individual has become immortal?

One keen supporter of nuclear energy, Dr David Fishlock, put the duty of care firmly in the hands of the government. Giving evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee investigating the possibility of underground nuclear storage, he said: "There are many things for which quite legitimately the public looks to the government to make up the mind of 56 million people. Nuclear energy is a matter that is largely in government hands and is a matter for government decision".

Emphasising the duty this implied, Mohammed ElBaradei, from the International Atomic Energy Agency, warned Britain not go ahead with a new generation of nuclear power stations until it had a "clear and robust" plan for dealing with the twin problems of decommissioning and nuclear waste. Instead of exercising this care, however, the government exorcised the IAEA's advice as "plain wrong"!

Last night, the health service ombudsman found the government guilty of "maladministration" for failing to organise proper compensation for the thousands of vulnerable people who were unlawfully charged for NHS care and who were obliged to sell their homes to pay for a nursing home place that should have been free. Where is the Government's care here?

The International Expert Commission of the EU and Russian atomic power experts are currently meeting at the nuclear power plant in Smolensk in a bid to establish "a stronger fundamental culture for safety" when generating nuclear power – showing they have learnt from the errors of Chernobyl. Let us hope that BNFL will attend.

10 March 2007

Renewed diplomacy, not WMD, is needed

By Andrew Boswell

Expect an exhilarating MP debate on Trident next Wednesday as Tony Blair suffers a much bigger revolt than he did over Iraq. Blair, once again, is relying on the Tories, as leading Labour rebel Jon Trickett said confidently, there will be over 100 rebels, "realistically rising to 150", compared to 85 Labour rebels on Iraq.

Whilst it's good to see the strong conviction of many Labour MPs, can anyone believe that a vote for New Labour is not a vote for Tory foreign policy? MPs know the score - 17 motions on Trident replacement were ruled out of order at the Labour party conference 2006, and 3 executive motions are already ruled out for the 2007 party conference.

Many MPs learnt the hard way over Iraq when they failed to scrutinise Government arguments falling for, at best, spin. This week's report from the Defence Select Committee, challenging many of the Government's basic arguments for Trident, should warn them to be more vigilant this time.

Rushing the debate benefits just two groups - the defence business and the floundering 'Blair legacy' industry. Former Labour MP, Malcolm Savage, commented this week that the life time of the current Trident fleet had been reduced by ministers from 30 years to 25 years to force a decision during Tony Blair's last parliament. This echoes dodgy dossier scaremongering - particularly when the report notes that the US is planning to extend the life of its Trident submarines to 45 years.

The Government thrust is we need to maintain a "minimum deterrent" and calculates this conveniently as 50 more years of Trident. But the Defence Committee concludes that "what constitutes a 'minimum deterrent' is unclear" and that ministers must explain further – a calculus of missile numbers and threats that could keep defence analysts on high salaries for years.

MPs should 'cut the crap' and just ask themselves what, if any, deterrent is necessary. The concept does not transfer to 21st century issues: security risks such as climate change and terrorism. These risks are a far cry from balancing Cold War strategic interests. Was Tony Blair, the only Briton to miss the exciting TV footage of the Berlin Wall falling?

The Government says Trident is needed for "self defence", "in extreme circumstance", and to protect "vital interests". These unqualified, and unscrutinised, phrases can mean anything to anyone, and the Defence committee urges MPs to demand the Government defines them precisely and clearly for any rational debate. Such poor language certainly reflects the government's failure to address the changed international situation.

Can the potential catastrophes we face for the next fifty years be deterred by the UK launching a nuclear attack? An ICM poll last summer showed that 59% oppose the government replacing Trident – presumably because their answer is no.

Many actually fear the £76 billion investment is to continue bullying those who our Government call "rogue states", but whose 'threat' is largely that they have resources that we and the US would like.

Plans to replace Trident show the failure of this Government to keep to treaties and undermine the UK's future diplomacy. Since around 2000, the major powers have not been disarming as promised and the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is breaking down.

Trident replacement is tantamount to a strong UK signal that the NPT is dead. We can only expect those nations seeking nuclear weapons to interpret this one way – ever greater determination to join the club of fools – the nuclear club.

The most preposterous argument that I heard on this week's BBC Moral Maze program was that our grandchildren might be better able to disarm when the Trident replacement would end (2054). What abnegation of our responsibility! We are already leaving them with almost certain international chaos from climate change – leaving them with broken international treaties and security within that chaos is adding insult to injury.

UK diplomats have expressed deep concern about this government over Middle East policy. Last year, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, a retired Moscow ambassador, said "Mr Blair is constructing foreign policy out of self-righteous soundbites" indicating the urgent need for a renewal of British diplomacy and foreign policy that shows our commitment to the international community and law.

The rational argument is that Britain's nuclear deterrent is out of date. A 'No to Trident' decision would underwrite our much needed diplomatic renewal, and help ensure that global solutions to climate change and international terrorism based on common security are fully developed. Britain would be leading at its best by honouring the NPT and disarming – a truly positive signal to other nations and a true step to eliminating all nuclear weapons for future generations.

3 March 2007

Child Policies need to be guided by sound science and not sound bites

By Jacqui McCarney

Britain is great when it comes to friendliness towards dogs – I know this because my very pretty dog never fails to draw admiring comments, strokes, questions and unfailing willingness to throw her ball for her. Today, British children have far fewer expectations of friendliness towards them and miss out on all that warm positive interest that my dog enjoys. I still find this rather strange and sad because I grew up in a country – Ireland - where the reverse was true – my dog was ignored but I wasn't.

But now, we all live under the fear that any sign of friendliness towards children in public places will be regarded with suspicion. Toddlers onwards are told about Stranger Danger - right from the beginning the world is a frightening place and adults outside the family are not to be trusted.

Every generation of children is vulnerable to these and other dangers – fairytales from Little Red Riding Hood to Hansel and Gretel have allowed children to explore these dangers and ultimately triumph over them. The wolf is chopped open; Hansel and Gretel push the witch into the oven and the children have moved from victim to empowerment, from vulnerability to strength.

Living in fear of the worst possible scenario – some predatory male just waiting to abduct our child - victimises us and our children. Responding to life with fear is a depressing, joyless message for our children, unfairly imprisoning them in their homes and destroying the very links that make our communities safe in the first place. We keep our children locked indoors and isolated from the community more than Denmark, Sweden and Germany. After school, children in these countries play outdoors, free from adult supervision and interference.

These countries did well in the UNICEF report that looked at children’s wellbeing in 21 of the richest countries. Britain, obsessed by risk free childhood, came bottom of the league. Ironically our children end up feeling unsafe, depressed, experiencing poorer relationships, and are more likely to engage in risky behaviour, become pregnant and get involved in drugs.

The rich childhood experience of imaginative self-generated play is fundamental to a child’s healthy physical, psychological and intellectual development – the wealth of research findings across many scientific disciplines bears this out. Children are kinaesthetic – physical experience and brain development are interdependent and according to neurologist Frank R Wilson, the development of physical skills can further intense commitment to learning.

Children are social animals and learn to moderate their behaviour through interaction with other children but according to Tim Gill, formerly of Play England, the most profound change in the everyday social lives of children is not the amount of time spent with parents but the reduction of time spent with other children. Children in the UK may be imprisoned and controlled for so long that when they finally insist on freedom, probably in early adolescence, they have very little idea of how their environment works, and they either go wild or are overwhelmed.

Nor is it a cocoon of safety from which they emerge – most children will have had years of violence, pornography and cynicism from computer games and television.

When we encounter them cheekily cocking a pretend gun behind the back of David Cameron, hanging around in furtive little groups, we need to remember that they are still children. Making fully-fledged adults is a slow process – the human brain is not fully mature until the early twenties – the ability for abstract thinking and sound judgement is not fully integrated with the emotions until then.

If they are not the children we want it is because we are not the adults they need. Children certainly thrive when boundaries are clear and adhered to, but respect is offered to those who give respect. Politicians and media do huge damage to relationships with children and young people - while they wallow in the name calling of children it is they who are the real hooligans – mindless and irresponsible endlessly throwing proverbial stones and refusing fully inhabit adulthood – usually male, these psychologically castrated males are more inadequate than the boys they attack.

We like the doggyness of dogs and we need to learn to like the childishness of children. Children need to be praised and honoured for being good at being children and not constantly criticised for being bad at being adults. Child policies need to be based on sound science and not sound bites - so that we work with the child's natural development and not against it. We need to create more exciting child friendly environments – become less physically protective but more protective of childhood.