28 October 2012

Biofuels – Not the Solution

It didn’t take long for biofuels to go from saint to sinner destroying early hopes that they offered a low carbon means of meeting our energy requirements. This idea was quickly replaced with the realisation that a full life cycle analysis showed few offered any real benefit over fossil fuels and many produced even greater carbon emissions once land use changes were accounted for.

Unfortunately the political process moves a lot more slowly than scientific knowledge. The analysis that biofuels offered no environmental benefit has not stopped the US government from subsidising the growth of refineries to turn corn into ethanol, or the EU from mandating that transport fuels should have a steadily increasing biofuel content.

Finally though the message seems to be getting through, and leaked documents have indicated that the EU is planning on reducing its 2020 target for the percentage of biofuel in transport fuels from 10% to 5%. Critically it appears to be the fact that these fuels use food crops which has driven the change of policy. In a world where global food production has been lower than consumption in six of the last eleven years and reserves have shrunk from 107 days of consumption 10 years ago to just 74 days now, politicians are finally acknowledging the absurdity of turning food into fuel.

In America too they are debating the logic of a policy which decreed that the ethanol content in gasoline should rise each year and which had led to around half the US corn crop being used to make fuel. In a year when the US maize crop has been devastated by a heatwave, highlighting the vulnerability of our food production to the increasing impacts of climate change, this policy has contributed to food prices reaching record highs with consequences for the number of people going hungry around the world.

But just as we are getting to grips with the absurdity of using grains to make fuel, so here in the UK we are seeing a surge in applications for biomass power stations to generate electricity; typically these will burn wood or palm oil. Drax, the country’s largest coal fired power station has long co-fired a limited amount of biomass mostly sourced locally. Now though it hopes to convert three of its six generating units to run on biomass. This would involve a major increase in the amount of biomass required implying either substantial imports or the conversion of much local land to produce the required volumes. Meanwhile in Tilbury RWE have applied for planning permission to use a former coal station to burn millions of tonnes of timber every year, most probably from the USA and Canada – you can help object to this here.
Elsewhere around the country there has been a surge of applications for power stations which are likely to run on imported palm oil, contributing to the rapid destruction of rainforests and peatlands in Indonesia and other Asian countries. To add insult to injury most of these biomass power stations will only generate electricity, and will dump the heat generated in the firing. This is a very inefficient use of the total potential energy available; it’s like paying for something which costs £4 with a £10 note and then throwing the change down a drain. We have to realise we have limited resources on this planet and we must use them all as efficiently as possible.

Why is this happening now? Because our government is subsidising biomass as a low carbon power source. The premise is that burning wood is carbon neutral because the CO2 was only recently locked up by the tree growth and replanting will recapture the CO2 again. Even the most cursory of thought processes though will tell you that there is still a significant time-lag involved of 40+ years before any new tree has locked away an equivalent amount to that being released in a few minutes of combustion. This is time we don’t have. Once again the thinking here is all wrong and an EU analysis has concluded that “the use of trees from forests for bioenergy purposes would cause an actual increase in greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuels in the short term”. So not just not carbon neutral, but actually worse than fossil fuels.

We need to tackle the source of this problem – the subsidy - now before committing ourselves to building more infrastructure which will actually harm the environment rather than benefit it. Subsidising real renewables, such as wind, solar, tidal and wave power will help develop these industries and decarbonise our energy industry in the longer term. Subsidising biomass will do no such thing.

15 October 2012

Why we still need to oppose airport expansion

Aviation is the fastest growing cause of climate change. Last time the government bothered to check, it made up 13% of the UK's climate impact. If we keep expanding airports and keep flying as much as we are right now, then we are on a one-way ticket to climate change. Yet aviation - or rather, airport expansion - is back on the agenda in a really big way. Politicians of all stripes are using new runways as a test of how serious they are about getting the UK out of the recession.

Plane carbon footprint
The disease is infectious - and spreading. Even those MPs whom you'd expect to be environmentally savvy, such as Tim Yeo, former chair of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee and current chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, have caught it. Yeo, who voted against the third runway in 2009 on environmental grounds, taunted the Prime Minister over the summer, asking whether he was a "man or a mouse" - men, it seems, support big, thrusting runways as a sign of their commitment to Britain's economic virility.

What is it about airport expansion that so arouses politicians - and what tactics should we, as people who understand the urgent need to tackle climate change and get off oil, respond with?

The answer to the first is simple. Politicians - at least those with enough experience to understand the limitations of managing a globalised economy - know that economic growth is not something over which the government has a lot of control. The Chancellor can't go round to every small business in the UK, buying a handful of widgets from each, personally pulling us back into the black. Neither does macro-economic policy impact in the compressed timelines that our media cycles demand, especially when you consider the interaction between our economy and the equally moribund economies of our trading partners. He or she is playing a waiting game - sit tight, sound credible and hope that the wheel stops turning whilst you're still in office.

No third runway placard
Politics in respect of economics is mostly about mood music and gestures - big, sweeping generalisations which sound credible enough to laypeople and commentators. Infrastructure is a great example of this: a totemic solution to the crisis. If we build an airport, goes the argument, then more people will fly here to buy the stuff we make, creating lots of new jobs. Meanwhile, our businesses can fly more easily to other countries and sell stuff overseas. Add to that a healthy dose of jealous national rivalry - why do we have fewer flights to X than the French / what if people fly through Paris or Amsterdam instead of London - and you have the perfect platform for a pro-growth, pro-business politician to argue from.

Thankfully the arguments against airport expansion are far more robust than the base calculation that infrastructure = growth.

First we need to expose the economic nonsense that the aviation industry and its supporters are peddling. We need to point out that when the owners of Heathrow Airport complained about a dearth of flights to China, they forgot to include the 3,000 flights to Hong Kong. London is the best connected city in the world, served by five major airports and a high-speed rail link to continental Europe. Heathrow already offers unrivalled connectivity to 20 of the world’s 27 key business destinations, with more flights to key markets than any other airport in Europe – more than the combined total of its two nearest rivals, Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt.

Elephant in the room
If Heathrow is so crowded that airlines can't find space for more flights to China or India, we must ask, then how did Virgin Atlantic find the space to lay on new flights to Manchester when it lost the West Coast Mainline? Even if Heathrow is full, then Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and London City airports all have considerable unused capacity. Surely if there was that much demand for these destinations, airlines would either scrap wasteful domestic flights from Heathrow or use this spare capacity to lay on these flights?

Then there are the local arguments. I'm focusing on Heathrow, as it remains the most likely candidate for expansion. But trust me - the case against expansion at Stansted, Gatwick or Luton is equally strong. So too are the local arguments against expanding Birmingham, or Manchest, or Leeds Bradford airports. Boris Island, as the Mayor of London has modestly called it, is so preposterous that it's not even worth me explaining why. (Oh go on then: it would cost taxpayers £30 billion just to connect it to the existing transport network.)

So, Heathrow. A third runway would destroy hundreds of houses in Sipson and Harmonsworth, forcing around one thousand people out of their homes. It would involve digging up a graveyard in which generations are buried. It would deafen London with the roar of 220,000 new flights each and every year. It would breach EU regulations on air pollution - in fact, Heathrow and London are already breaching those regulations. It would means thousands more trips on the M4, A4, M40, M25 and the tube, bringing much of the capital's already-overloaded transport network to a grinding halt. It would drown out teachers trying to educate tens of thousands in classrooms right across west London.

Don't think that would be the end of it, either. The most vocal lobbyists aren't content with a third runway at Heathrow. They're already calling for a fourth.

Paper planeThen there is the impact that third runway would have on our climate change emissions. A new runway at Heathrow would emit as much as Kenya, which is hardly going to endear us at the global climate change talks. We already have to cut our emissions by 80% from 1990 levels; if aviation grows instead of making major cuts, then other sectors would have to go even further to compensate. That means higher fuel bills and more people stuck in fuel poverty - hardly the equal society we should be striving towards.

Some people, like Tim Yeo, say that the European Emissions Trading Scheme means that we can expand our airports without breaking our carbon limits. They are talking out of their arses. The ETS was broken long before aviation was included, with polluters being given so many free carbon credits that the price of carbon crashed and never recovered. This latest round is no better - and not just because you can buy offset credits from seriously dodgy schemes outside of Europe. Besides, we've seen how craven most MPs are. If the aviation industry builds a new runway, the airlines will make best use of it and politicians will let them.

It should be clear by now that airport expansion is a really dumb idea. In fact, it is so stupid an idea that once understood, it provokes a strange reaction in people. It becomes tempting to use flying - particularly for leisure - as a litmus test of your commitment to ecological causes. If you don't fly, you are virtuous; if you do fly, you are beyond hope.

This is incredibly counter-productive, and I want to end by warning against it. Aviation still has a special hold over many of us. It takes us to new cities, new places and new people. It transports us to our holidays and to absent relatives, and it brings us home again. For many people, asking them to give up their freedom to fly is like asking them to give up electricity - so far outside their comfort zone as to alienate them just by asking.

We need to remember, as people who are working for real change, to start our arguments from where people are. That means accepting that it's okay for people to oppose airport expansion before they give up on flying. We all have our carbon vices, and for some people, it's the occasional international flight. We're all going to have to fly less if we're to live sustainably, but you can ease people in gently. Persuade them to oppose airport expansion, and let them see for themselves that there's a life without airmiles.Richard George

Richard George is a founding member of Plane Stupid and a Climate Campaigner at Greenpeace.
Photos: 1. Plane carbon footprint; 2. No Heathrow expansion placards; 3. The elephant in the room at Town Hall protest against Manchester airport; 4. Paper plane at Salisbury carnival - all photos Plane Stupid, Creative Commons license.

This post was originally part of a week about Flying on the Transition Network's Social Reporting Project

7 October 2012

Up The Creek Without a Paddle - Britain's Nuclear Industry

While reading the local paper last night, I came across a small article nestling close to the fold of a page.  The headline read: A Warning Over Energy Shortfall.  The article went on to say that Britain is facing the rising risk of an energy shortfall within three years.  The energy regulator, Ofgem, said that energy supplies were being hit by the closure of ageing coal, oil-fired and nuclear power stations and being hit at the same time by tough European Union environmental laws. 

The report predicted that the amount of spare capacity in the UK could plunge from the current 14% to just 4% in 2015, leaving the UK at risk of significant shortfalls. This is sobering stuff and brings the crisis home to people in their own living rooms – or wherever they like to read their newspaper.  How can the situation have become so desperate?  Well, first of all it stems from the government’s wilfully blind obsession with nuclear power and its failure to engage with renewable energy in a purposeful way. Secondly, having put most of its eggs in a nuclear basket, it now has to watch as one by one members of the consortia who were to build Britain’s new nuclear power stations are pulling out due to ever rising costs. The government has bent over backwards to accommodate the nuclear industry. At present it is trying to concoct an energy bill that will give aspiring nuclear plant builders big enough returns to overcome their fears.  However, it has promised that this should not involve any public subsidy at all and will be held to this by both the political opposition and the public.  Yet no nuclear power station has ever been built without public subsidy – and everyone knows this, so we’re all in ‘never never’ land, but dare not admit it.

And it is not just the cost of the new nuclear power stations. On 4th October, the European Commission published the results of its “stress tests” on all nuclear reactors following the Fukushima disaster, revealing hundreds of defects. Practically all of the 134 nuclear reactors in the European Union – including Sizewell B in Suffolk - need safety improvements at a cost of up to £20 billion, a bill that is likely to be passed on to the consumer in higher electricity prices.  Whoever said that nuclear electricity would be “too cheap to meter”?

Where will all this money go?  I would like to quote a paragraph from “This is Money” on 7th October 2012, which answers that question  : “A set of negotiations that have the ability to swipe tens of billions out of the public purse and into private coffers. Chinese investors may be about to pick up part of the tab for building some of our new nuclear power stations, but this is not out of the goodness of their hearts. French energy group, EdF, in partnership with British Gas owner Centrica, has been embroiled in long negotiations with the Government over what will effectively be a subsidy to help them cover the huge building costs of these new generators. The Government is worried that unless we get these plants built – and quickly – there is a real chance that the lights will go out.  But some of the numbers now being talked about in terms of price guarantees for the energy giants are astronomical.  The highly regarded Supporters of Nuclear Energy group has calculated that, after building costs have been paid, the firms will coin a cool £4 billion a year in profits.  And these power stations are expected to run for 50 years or so.  That is an awful lot of our money likely to find its way into the pockets of EdF and Centrica.  Certainly the Government’s negotiating position is not strong.  Despite a belief that, should push come to shove, we could throw up a load of gas-fired power stations to cover any gap, there is still a conviction in Whitehall that we will be in severe trouble unless these nuclear plants are built.” 

To go back to the little notice in our local paper – everyone seems to have forgotten that when Tony Blair suddenly changed his mind in 2005 and said we must have more nuclear power, the reason he gave was that unless we did, we could face exactly the shortage that our local paper has suddenly discovered for us – the retirement of ageing coal and nuclear power plants and personnel.   Perhaps the paper has also forgotten that at the time many people with foresight were saying: “Yes – you’d better get on and encourage benign renewables too, because unless you do there will be nothing except carbon profligate gas to replace those ageing stations.”

On the subject of ageing reactors and personnel, a specialist engineer who worked at Hinkley Point nuclear power station for almost thirty years recently slammed the nuclear industry’s approach to safety and predicted that a Fukushima-type disaster in the UK was “almost inevitable”.  Speaking at a rally organised to oppose the construction of a new mega-reactor at the Somerset power station, Peter Smith said “Over the years, I became more and more aware of the dangers and the dark side of nuclear power”.   Smith, who was head of the electrical and instrumentation section at Hinkley before he retired, said he had seen corner-cutting from the design stage onwards. At Hinkley, major safety systems were omitted and others only implemented after accidents.   He concluded that human error makes it impossible for nuclear power to be 100% safe.
Commenting on EdF Energy’s bid to build a new EPR reactor at Hinkley, Smith added: “The nuclear industry suffers from the delusion that nuclear power is safe.” And he raised the issue of the lack of nuclear engineering expertise in the nuclear industry: “The reason there was never a major incident at Hinkley was because there were experts like me who knew the systems inside out. These experts are now retiring or moving to other sectors. If you combine this brain drain with increasing commercial pressures and old reactors being pushed to perform beyond their intended lifespan, you’re creating a recipe for disaster.”

Neither Blair nor Cameron have done anything but try to fiddle a political way around the crisis – and it is left to the local Eastern Daily Press to play the role of Macbeth’s witches and warn us all of doom.

But there is something the government could do – and should have done by now. They could invoke the “war time spirit” and engage people with a vision of helping get Britain through this energy crisis. The government could promote and lead a wholehearted change of attitude towards selfishness and greed – including an end to the squandering of electricity as happens everywhere at present.  This would be a more honest way of going on – instead of acting like Tony Blair and refusing to even consider telling people to do anything that might affect their life-styles (his reported response to a suggestion to ask people to switch to low energy light bulbs!)

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