Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Energy Futures: Belgium

Graph from Federal Planning Bureau in Belgium: but is it correct in its prediction of rising fossil gas use to replace nuclear power?

Belgium has just formed a new government. It is a coalition of seven parties, including both the Belgian Green Parties Ecolo and Groen. One long term policy of most European Green Parties is to phase out nuclear power. The chart above has been produced by the Belgian Federal Planning Bureau and predicts a big rise in the use of fossil gas. This quite naturally is drawing considerable criticism as just when Belgium, like all countries, should be rapidly decarbonising, it threatens to increase emissions.

However I think the graph is wrong. It predicts solar increasing from 5% to 6% between 2015 and 2050, and wind from 8% to 32% over the same period. This to me seems a massive underestimate of both. Solar and wind have been getting steadily cheaper, more efficient and with higher capacity factors for many years, and this trend is predicted to continue. The chart, and much of the debate on Twitter and elsewhere assumes the choice is between nuclear and gas, both of which are already costly, each have environmental downsides and future costs look high.

Belgium is already ramping up its offshore wind farms and has plans for more. Better insulated buildings, more efficient appliances, more walking, cycling, home-working and public transport should all act to decrease overall energy demand. So too will the transition from a throwaway linear economy to a circular economy. Gradually pretty well all new buildings everywhere will have solar panels installed.

Two trends that do not appear on this chart are of significance. The first is distributed local energy storage. Many houses will have batteries, in electric cars and larger static ones. Green hydrogen will also be produced at scale. All these will facilitate the greater take up of wind and solar, so together they will make up more than the 38% predicted in the graph. They may make up 70%, possibly 90%, of Belgian electricity demand by 2050.

The second trend is long distance renewable energy trading. Belgium, like Germany, will probably be a net energy importer, being densely populated, quite highly industrialized and with relatively poor wind and solar resources. Denmark is already planning to export wind power to Holland, Germany and Poland to help them decarbonize. Scotland, Norway and Iceland all look well positioned to be net energy exporters, with their huge wind, hydro and geothermal resources and relatively low energy demand. However the biggest renewable energy exporters are likely to be from the sunniest countries.

North Africa is one huge area where solar will be developed at scale. Morocco’s Ouarzazate solar park is one of the most exciting energy infrastructure projects anywhere on Earth. Many more large solar parks will be built, utilizing both concentrating solar thermal and solar photo-voltaic systems, and will also have on site energy storage with batteries for very short duration of a few minutes to a few hours, solar thermal heat stores for up to 24 hours, and on-site electrolysis for hydrogen production and so energy storage over weeks, months or even years. Energy will be exported via high voltage direct-current cable and as hydrogen using tankers or pipelines.

Germany is investigating purchasing green hydrogen from Australia, and Australian entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes is planning to connect a cable from Australia to Singapore to supply 20% of Singapore’s electricity. The long distance trade in renewable energy is a relatively new phenomenon, and consequently often overlooked by energy planners. It will be a huge global industry very quickly: the economics look good, and it will be vital for global decarbonisation.

So back to Belgium and their new coalition: my advice to them is hold fire on any new investments in fossil gas, even if that means a slower ramping down of existing older gas and nuclear power stations. Invest in demand reduction through changes to buildings, transport, work patterns, circular economy etc. Invest in renewables, energy storage, and interconnection and longer distance sourcing of green hydrogen.

Apologies

I think it is about nine weeks since I posted a blog, so apologies to regular readers. That is I think the longest gap I’ve had in over ten years of blogging. I have been rather engrossed in thinking about a book I’ve wanted to write, and have had several attempts at. Just starting again: daunting and exciting.

I’ll be posting a blog in a few hours…

Quaker Identity & Climate Activism

I was recently asked to write an article for our local Quaker newsletter. This is what I wrote.

Identity & Activism

What does it mean to be alive now, in the summer of 2020, and to be a Quaker living in Herefordshire?

We humans are at a critical time for our species: perhaps the most dangerous time since we first evolved about two million years ago. During that time we’ve had many challenges. We survived the last Ice Age. For the last ten or eleven thousand years we’ve thrived and multiplied during the benign climate of the Holocene era. That era is now over: we have entered the Anthropocene, the era in which we, our one single species, is now shaping the planet’s climate, the acidity and warmth of the oceans and causing the decline and extinction of countless other species. Over the eleven thousand years of the Holocene atmospheric carbon dioxide was relatively stable, fluctuating around 285 parts per million. The burning of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution has pushed this figure up to 416 ppm, and it is still rising. We need to stabilize that figure and then get it back down to 350 ppm or less, and do so as quickly as humanly possible. That in itself necessitates changing almost everything we associate with our contemporary way of life.

But climate change is far from our only problem. Our democracies are under threat. Huge and powerful forces are funding campaigns that create hatred and anger directed towards the poor and vulnerable, foreigners and refugees. Inequality has grown more extreme. An Oxfam report recently stated that there are 2,153 billionaires in the world and that they own more than the 4.6 billion poorest people. Old problems like poverty and war persist.

We as a species now have the most extraordinary tools at our disposal. We have sufficient money, resources and technology to feed, clothe and provide a comfortable way of life for all 7.7 billion of us. But that comfortable way of life would have to be quite different from how we live now. As Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed’. In the current context we have to say the world has not enough for anyone’s greed.

The rich and powerful shape our politics, our media and the impact we as a species are having upon ourselves and the planet. Their greed seems limitless. Their desire to keep making profits from doing business as usual seems to blind them to seeing how things could be different, and how they could be happier while being less wealthy. For humanity to have a future we will need to redeploy resources on a truly massive scale, away from fossil fuels and towards renewables, away from the rich and powerful towards the poor and weak.

The British government is failing us. They care not a jot for the poor and vulnerable, and their attempts at energy transition are confused and misguided. Many of us make personal decisions to stop flying, or not to own a car, or to reduce our overall consumption and waste by simply buying less stuff. However the impact of individual lifestyle choices is limited. We can only choose from the options available, and most people are not prepared to give up on things if others are still enjoying them. In the Second World War people accepted rationing because it was seen to be fair. Then we came together as a national community in the face of a common enemy. Now we have to come together as a global community to face a common crisis.

Would we accept some rationing, of things like flights, fuel or clothing? Would we accept very much higher rates of taxation on wealth, higher incomes and inheritance, on fossil fuels, plastics and pesticides? Would we accept the loss of our white privilege?

Of course a sustainable and better future is not all about giving things up. Money instead could be invested in wellbeing. There is so much that needs doing. We could provide useful work for billions of people deploying renewable energy and developing a hydrogen economy, in farming in ways that increased biodiversity and sequestered carbon into the soil, and in caring for one another so much better through better health and social care, better education and training. All this needs active government and intergovernmental action supporting global leadership.

Probably all of us in Hereford Quakers make lifestyle choices at least partly conscious of the social and ecological impacts of our decisions. Most of us also try to influence things for the better through signing petitions, writing to our MP and campaigning actively within political parties and pressure groups, by helping charities and being good citizens. Some of us no doubt see prayer as an active part of the process of change. Many of us are aware that we have tried all of these for decades and still so many aspects of the global situation continue to get worse. The urgency of the situation cannot be overstated. We have to reduce carbon emissions to zero as fast as humanly possible, yet our governments are sill aligned so closely to the fossil fuel industries. This is why so many children are on school strike, why so many of us support the actions of Extinction Rebellion and others who are taking to the streets in protest.

Sometimes climate change can feel like a distant problem that does not much effect a place like Hereford. However in an ice free world sea level would rise to a point where Hereford Quaker meeting house would be under the ocean. That I find a useful image to think about while contemplating if and when we shall all meet again in that special space, when at last we emerge from lockdown.

Billionaires and emissions

Humanity currently emits around 40 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide every year. That is 40,000,000,000 tonnes. There are 7.7 billion of us, so that works out at about 5 tonnes per person per year. Of course our emissions are not evenly spread. National averages vary a lot, with high emitters like Bahrain emitting 24 tonnes per person while the people of Burundi emit on average 0.0, or too little to measure. The figures for USA are 15.7, China 7.7, UK 5.7 and India 1.8.

Finding data on carbon emission by the wealth of individuals is very much harder than finding these national averages. One thing is very clear; these individual emissions would be very much more widely spread. The typical billionaire lifestyle involves the use of private jets, super yachts and other aspects of excessive consumption. There are currently 2,153 billionaires in the world, and by my calculations they each emit on average at least 1,000 tonnes per year, and this is almost certainly a very considerable underestimate.

Oxfam figures reveal that these 2,153 billionaires own more than the 4.6 billion poorest people. If we compare their emissions with the poorest billion or two of the population, who’ve never been in an aeroplane or owned a car, then it becomes apparent that the emissions of these couple of thousand individuals will be equal to many hundreds of millions, if not billions, of the poorest people.

Climate change is spiralling out of control at exponential speed. It is abundantly clear that we need to reduce emissions from 40 gigatonnes to zero as fast as humanly possible. There is much we can do technologically. Technical change alone will of course not be enough. We will need redistribution of wealth on a massive scale, and the abandonment of consumer driven capitalism and the massive levels of waste and excess that these lifestyles entail.

We will have to do many things that are currently considered impossible. One of the most important will be the rapid elimination of all billionaires, not through genocide but through taxation. The taxation would need to be globally administered and all tax havens and tax loopholes closed.

Humanity faces multiple crises simultaneously: climate, ecological, social and political. They are all intrinsically linked. We can only solve one by solving them all. Any ecologically sustainable future will also inevitably be more equal and fairer. Humanity cannot carry the dead weight of so much excess.

An academic analysis of the damage that excess affluence causes is beginning to emerge. In a sense this echoes what Mahatma Gandhi said: “The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed”. Extreme wealth almost inevitably causes extreme damage. We see this across everything from how it distorts politics to how it breaks social cohesion. It also carries unacceptable levels of carbon emissions.

Covid Comparisons

Death rates from Covid 19 have been highly variable. The worst four countries all have populist leaders.

This is one of the Financial Times’ excellent Coronavirus graphics. The red line was added by Tim Walker, who tweeted ‘If this chart shows nothing else, it shows that popularism and respect for human life are incompatible.’ I agree. Now, nearly six months into the pandemic, I want to take stock and compare the best and worst responses to the pandemic. Today the FT reports the global figures, 5.16 million confirmed cases and 331,300 known deaths. The real numbers are no doubt much higher. What is really becoming clear are the staggering differences between the low death rates in countries with compassionate and competent governments and the high death rates in countries lead by incompetent populists.

The populists, principally Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro and Johnson have behaved abysmally. Many people have died, and will continue to die unnecessarily as a result of their incompetence. George Monbiot wrote a good article about why the UK failed to follow its own preparedness planning. But it is not these stories of stupidity I want to focus on.

The countries that have acted with intelligence, compassion and competence are a large and diverse group. New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea are often cited as those countries that responded best, and have kept death rates very low. South Korea and Taiwan both experienced the SARS epidemic a few years back and really learnt important lessons. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, I rate as the best leader in the World and she embodies that mix of compassion and competence that the World desperately needs more of. Iceland, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Germany have all demonstrated leadership and competence, but that is what we’d expect from them, wouldn’t we? Afua Hirsch draws our attention to some remarkable stories of success from Africa, focusing on Ghana and Senegal.

However if you read just one story of success let it be this, from the state of Kerala in India. I, like most people outside Kerala had never heard of KK Shailaja the health minister of Kerala until a week or so ago. Now I’d love her to be our health minister. But it is not just about personalities, it’s about the political systems that make them possible. Kerala has long had a particularly practical breed of highly competent communists forming their state governments. Health, education, equality and life expectancy are all better in Kerala than elsewhere in India, thanks to them. Contrast that with the idiotic ideological inflexibilities Monbiot portrays in UK governance.

The Spanish flu pandemic that ravaged the World in 1918-19 is still being debated. In years to come this Covid 19 pandemic will be analysed. There is still much we do not know, about the disease itself, about a future vaccine and about how and when this pandemic will end. However one thing is becoming clearer every day. Good governance saves lives.

New video

I was due to give a talk on the politics of the Climate Emergency in the Cathedral. It was cancelled due to Covid 19. We have now made a video version of me showing slides and John Daniels asking me a few questions at the end. I do hope to do more such online talks. Please watch it and let me have any feedback.

My talk is the third one down on this page of the Cathedral website: here

A Global Health Service?

A couple of weeks ago Yuval Noah Harari wrote in the Financial Times what has been one of the clearest and most insightful articles I’ve read on the coronavirus pandemic and the longer term effects it will have on society. In this crisis decisions are being taken and policies enacted in a matter of hours that in normal times would take years of deliberation or would never even be considered possible. Harari shows how temporary emergency legislation has a habit of becoming entrenched and shaping long term policies. He identifies two key choices, one ‘between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.’ Harari powerfully advocates the benefits of citizen empowerment and global solidarity.

My belief in these principles of citizen empowerment and global solidarity are what underpin this blog. My concern for many decades has been about the climate and ecological emergency, and about inequality, poverty and human suffering. All these areas of concern, like the current pandemic, should be addressed in a spirit of global solidarity, with a globally empowered citizenship. So what might this mean in practice?

Pandemics, like climate change, terrorism or tax dodging require a degree of international coordination which in these weird days of Brexit and Trump has not been on the agenda. It is time to reverse that. Between 1966 and 1980 humanity cooperated and eradicated smallpox. Perhaps this has been humanity’s greatest achievement to date. Let us now cooperate with renewed vigour.

Perhaps now is the time to bring in a Global Health Service, free at point of use to all 7.7 billion of us alive today, and funded so as to provide excellent levels of care to all. We could also bring in excellent free education systems for all people of all ages in all countries. And of course we need a global green new deal providing renewable energy, good housing, clean safe water and sanitation, peace and prosperity as well as health and education. It’s all part of a package. It all goes together.

In a recent talk I presented these ideas and suggested how it all could be funded. Taxes on extreme wealth and internationally earned income, on carbon and other pollutants, on advertising, on resource extraction and on many other things could be levied globally. Business has long been globalized: it is time taxation, governance and service provision caught up. While there is a crying need for radically better global cooperation there is also a similar need for decentralisation. Local government needs massively more investment. We have for far too long concentrated power and resources at the level of the nation state.

Mark Z Jacobson and his team at Stanford have calculated the transition to a global zero carbon, 100% renewables based economy to be about $73 trillion, spread over 30 years. This may sound a lot but is cheap in comparison with dealing with the consequences of not taking action. My proposal here is for something bigger and more costly, adding generous health and education services to the global green new deal. With so many of the world’s big problems the cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of action.

Improving Cities

Helsinki: Declining Deaths on the roads, due to good policies

Cities around the world are beginning to implement policies that are creating a modal shift away from cars and towards walking, cycling and public transport. Multiple benefits can flow from such policies. Death and injury from traffic accidents can be reduced, or eliminated entirely. Air quality can be improved leading to declines in respiratory illness. Carbon emissions can be reduced. People can enjoy spending time on the streets, so strengthening social cohesion and acting to reduce crime. There are also tangible economic benefits as people eat, drink and shop on the city streets. Time can also be saved as traffic volumes decrease and as services are re-localized. Maybe most important of all, people enjoy hearing bird song, human conversation and children playing, rather than the continuous roar of traffic: there are improvements to mental health.

Many cities exemplify this process. The above graph shows road traffic deaths in Helsinki, which have declined dramatically over recent decades. The Belgian city of Ghent has achieved dramatic results by splitting the city into zones and limiting car connectivity between them while increasing access for public transport, walking and cycling. Birmingham is planning to copy some of the lessons from Ghent. Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, is planning to reduce, by 60,000, on-street car parking spaces, and to re-localize services in order to create the 15 minute city. In many cities (notably Berlin) electric cargo bikes are beginning to replace diesel delivery vans. It’s good to see the Co-Op are trialling this at one of their London stores. One innovation that is proving popular in France and Holland is the pedal powered school bus. Even here in Hereford we have Pedicabs and the Beryl bike share scheme.

Many of these changes can be implemented cheaply and quickly. Much more cheaply, more quickly, and with many more benefits than can ever accrue from road building. As governments and local councils lead on these kinds of changes they can also help in the roll-out of hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric vehicles. With the right mix of new policy and new technology cities may yet become safer, cleaner, less polluted and happier places to live. It is good to see many politicians at last beginning to understand this and to act to bring about these changes.

Politics: Populism & Protest

Writing in the London Review of Books Ferdinand Mount surveys the political landscape the UK is now in post Brexit. Apparently his article is being much discussed by Tory grandees. It certainly mentions all the figures of historical and economic thought to whom many Conservative MP’s look for inspiration. Under the influence of the ‘terrible simplifiers’ all checks and balances to the ‘elected dictatorship’ of Boris Johnson’s regime are now under attack, from the BBC to the Supreme Court, from local governance to the House of Lords. He cites Edward Luttwak prophetic predictions on the re-emergence of more fascistic forms of governance in these times of capitalism run rampant. Johnson is following a cohort of demigods from Trump to Putin, Orban to Bolsonaro down this most dangerous of paths.

Across much of the world the forces of centrist moderation, or of organised labour, are exhausted and spent. They represent no challenge to these emergent fascists. Ferdinand Mount’s prescription seems to be to battle to save what is left of the old checks and balances to moderate the excesses of these populist demigods. However he fails to mention the elephant in the room.

Other forces are at play. Rampant capitalism is running up against the laws of physics, of biology and of chemistry. These scientific realities are immutable. Humanity is easily expendable. Our dependence on a well functioning biosphere is absolute. Without forests and phytoplankton we would suffocate, without bees and worms we would starve, without nurturing nature and human community we would all go insane. Pure unpolluted air, fresh clean water, supportive human communities are fundamental to life in a way that gold, jewels, oil and coal simply are not. Capitalism, socialism or any of the old economic ideologies failed to understand this simple reality.

Greta Thunberg and the school strikes movement, Extinction Rebellion, and countless indigenous, environmental and community groups embody this different understanding of the World, that is both ancient and emergent. The nation state and national politics are not for them the main focus of attention. The World is one. We either all thrive or we all collapse as one single species. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is one simple calibration of planetary health. For most of human history it jogged along at about 285ppm. When I was born in 1955 the figure stood at 314 and it is now 413ppm. Humanity’s future is on a knife edge. Our survival must inevitably involve many rapid political changes, nearly all of which are beyond the scope of current political discourse. But the Overton Window is shifting. What is now beyond the pale could soon be mainstream orthodoxy: global free movement of people, global governance with globally redistributive taxation and a global health care system free at point of use may be a few of the changes. The end of throw-away consumer capitalism and the whole fossil fuel economy are necessary first steps. There is much to be done and not long to do it. This is the simple reality. It is a reality based on scientific understanding of the way people and planet must coexist. The old centrist politics failed to grasp the scale of the changes required, and the current crop of neo-fascist populists don’t give a damn.

I like many millions of people am now increasingly committed to non-violent direct action as the most vital and necessary act of political expression. Yes, I vote, and yes, I am an activist within a political party, but party politics in this country and in nearly all countries has failed to deliver the changes required to ensure humanity can flourish in the future. In the past all meaningful progress in human history has come from below. The streets now, perhaps more than ever, are where real politics is alive, exciting and transformative.

Over the next few months I’ve got three speaking engagements booked, in Presteigne, Hereford and Newtown, Powys. All three will be on various aspects of what needs to be done about climate change. More details on the events page of this blog.

Rage, Resistance & Gratitude

Almost everything this government are doing is wrong. We are leaving the EU, intentionally increasing inequality, doubling down on austerity, investing in over-priced and inappropriate infrastructure and most importantly of all failing to tackle the Climate and Ecological Emergency.

I’ve opposed every government over the last fifty years and have never voted for any party that has formed a government. I’ve been on countless protest marches, written letters, lobbied my MP, leafleted for the Green Party and been a member of countless pressure groups. I’ve given talks and led evening classes articulating how we could have a very different future.

Last weekend we had an Extinction Rebellion training weekend: lots of people, energy and determination, love and courage. Tomorrow I’m off to Birmingham for the West Midlands Green Party regional conference, which is a sell-out event. I’m also getting more involved in the Quakers and their Yearly Gathering has the intriguing title ‘Listening, prophecy & reconciliation: allyship in a climate emergency’. In this extraordinary Planetary Emergency we have countless allies in all countries on Earth.

Those still promoting socially and ecologically destructive policies control the media, and have the money and the power, and seem able to hoodwink sufficient numbers of people to vote for them, as is evidenced by Johnson, Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Modi and so in a way Putin and Xi Jinping. Change is inevitably coming. The future could be dreadful: ecological and social collapse, war, famine and quite possible extinction of our species. We could also be on the verge of something very much better, an era of ever greater ecological restoration and growing global equality, of social and environmental justice. As many of the young climate protestors have written on their banners, ‘Everything Needs to Change’.

To effect that change we need many millions of us active in multiple ways: legal, political, non-violent direct action, entrepreneurial and academic. So this week I want to say ‘Thank-you’ to Client Earth for taking the UK government to court over their mad decision to build a vast new fossil gas power station, going against their own climate guidelines. Thanks too to Caroline Lucas and Ellie Chowns for being politicians to be proud of. Thank-you to Extinction Rebellion, to the School Strikes movement and to the vast number of activists for Ecological and Social Justice in every country on Earth, and thanks too to all the academics and entrepreneurs developing the ideas and technologies that might make rapid decarbonisation possible.