20 Letters


[ Video : George Marshall of the Climate Outreach Information Network launching his new book "Don’t Even Think About It" on the communication of climate change at the Harvard Book Store, whereto he had to fly, thereby causing significant personal carbon dioxide emissions. This YouTube does not feature Ian Christie, but is not entirely unrelated to his address, which is documented in the text below. ]

Ian Christie of the Sustainable Lifestyles Research Group (SLRG) at the University of Surrey came to speak to the Green Christian Annual Members Meeting today under the heading “Sustainable Living : Why we struggle and how we can change”, and presided over three facilitated workshops on Church, Community and Campaigning. He was introduced as working with the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey, and having helped to pull together “Church and Earth”, the Seven Year Plan for the Church of England, as a response to the Alliance of Religions and Conservation initiative which culminated in the “Many Heavens, One Earth” Windsor Conference in November 2009. Ian Christie has also done project work with the Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development and the think tank Theos. He has been environmental advisor to the Bishop of Kingston.

Ian Christie joked that his colleague Tim Jackson, who has written a best-selling book “Prosperity Without Growth”, sometimes feels he is on a permanent global tour, given the huge impact his work has had worldwide. The “paradox” is that his carbon footprint is enormous. Yet clearly there is great benefit from travel to present the messages from Tim’s research. This illustrates the clash of goods and values that is always present in our attempts to reduce our impacts and change lifestyles. Ian said that we shouldn’t beat ourselves up too much about our carbon emissions-filled lifestyles – many of us are doing reasonably well in not very promising circumstances. It’s not surprising that we haven’t made much progress in sustainable living – this is perhaps the biggest challenge humanity has set itself.

Ian said, “Between 5% and 10% of the population (and this figure hasn’t changed over the last several years) are consistently trying to live as sustainably as they can in all areas of their lives. Meanwhile, another small segment – maybe 10% – 15% don’t care at all. The other two-thirds or more, including myself, are in the middle ground. We get confused. We sometimes give up on making particular changes. We might feel that taking the trouble on environmental issues is a bit of an effort – because other signals are not there, because other people are not doing it. Anyone who thinks we can bring about environmental “conversion”, person by person – it’s too difficult.”

He went on to say, “As advocates of change, we don’t tell positive stories very well. We environmentalists have been much better at telling the alarming or apocalyptic event, rather than explaining the diagnosis of unsustainability. There’s a lack of supporting infrastructure for doing the sustainable things in everyday life. People get locked-in to high-carbon behaviours. We might want to do the green, sustainable thing but we can’t. The idea that “joy in less” is possible can seem unbelievable.” He went on to explain that, “consumption can make us feel good. More can be more. I get a thrill going into John Lewis sometimes, all those bright and shiny things. It’s amazing they’re available for sale and that I can afford them. Consumerism can feel like it is bringing real benefits. It can be fun.”

Ian Christie remarked about the RESOLVE research at Surrey on the sense of “threatened identities”, a feeling that can arise when we’re asked to change our lifestyles – an important part of our identity can seem to be at stake. There is a lack of positive incentives and collective success stories. He gave an example – one where people cooking for their families want to recreate the cosy, nourishing food of their childhoods, or feel that they are giving a ‘proper meal’ to their loved ones, and they do that by using meat. These people find it hard to be told that they need to give up eating meat to save the planet. Another example, when people are told to cut down on car driving – there is a feeling of a loss of freedom, an assault on the idea that I can go where I like and do what I want to do. “Climate change is perhaps too big, distant or complicated for us. It is certainly too much for any one person to deal with”.

Ian Christie spoke about the clash of desires and values – and that St Paul got there first (Romans 7:15-17) (and St Augustine, but paraphrased). He joked that he has discovered that many people had a dirty secret, which he calls “Top Gear Syndrome” – “you’d be surprised how many environmentalists like watching Top Gear”. He also mentioned what he termed “Copenhagen Syndrome” – where environmentalists feel that they need to attend every meeting on climate change – and so they fly there. People like to go to exotic places – many Greens included.

Ian Christie emphasised that we can’t get to sustainable living one person at a time. He said that this amounted to a “Collective Action Problem” or (CAP). He showed us an image of what is commonly called a Mexican Stand-Off – where a group of three people have their weapons at each other’s throats and nobody will back down – each of the three major groups in society thinks that the other two should take the lead. So governments think that businesses and citizens should act. And citizens think that government and businesses should act. And businesses think that their consumers and governments should act.

Ian said that there is a clear finding from social research that people feel safety in numbers – we like to feel that we fit in with our peers and neighbours – for example, in some cultures like America, people would rather make everyone feel comfortable than break out of normative behaviour or views. Individual households have a low perception of “agency” – feeling that they can make any significant change – that they don’t have sufficient capacity to act – “no clout”, as one member of the audience commented.

Ian gave some examples of attitudes of people’s attitudes on environmental lifestyles : “I will even though you won’t – even though no one else steps forward”; “I will – but it’s never enough”; “I might if you will” or even, “I know you won’t, so don’t ask me”. He said that Collective Action Problems need to be addressed by all actors needing to be engaged. He said that there would be “no single ‘best buy’ policy” and that action will tend to be in the form of “clumsy solutions”. He said that people need “loud, long and legal” signals from government, consistent messages and incentives for change.

Ian Christie said there is a community level of action possible – “communities of practice”. He recommended that we look up the CLASL research done by Defra/WWF. He mentioned “moments of change” – times of transition in life – and whether these might be appropriate times to offer support for alternative choices. He said that action by individuals cannot be guaranteed by giving messages to people as if they are only consumers, rather than citizens. If we say that something will save people money, they won’t necessarily act in ways that support a shift to sustainable lifestyles. We need to address people’s intrinsic values as well as material self-interest.

Ian talked about some of the results of the research from the DEFRA-funded SLRG project, which is coming to an end. He spoke about the evidence of “Rebound Effects”, where people make savings on their carbon dioxide emissions by energy efficiency gains or other measures, and then spend the saved money in ways that can increase greenhouse gas emissions, like taking holidays by aeroplane – he mentioned the Tesco offer to “turn lights into flights”, where people were being encouraged to buy energy efficient light bulbs in exchange for Air Miles – “it’s going to make things much worse”. He said that research showed that re-spending (reinvestment) is what matters and that we need to go to the source of the emissions, through a carbon tax, for example.

Ian Christie said that it is very limited what we can do as individual households. Lots of policymakers have thought to get through to people at moments of change – although there used to be no evidence. People’s habits and networks can be restructured for example when they move home, have a child or retire – a “habit discontinuity”. Research has now shown that there is a small but significant effect with house-movers – who are much more likely to act on information if they are given well-timed and designed information packages on green living – but only a small minority are truly motivated. He asked “how do we magnify this effect ?” The sheer act of moving house makes people amenable to change. Research has also shown that there might be a willingness amongst new parents – who would express more pro-environmental values as a result of having a new child – but are less capable of acting on these wishes. The reverse was found in those entering retirement – they wanted to live more frugally – but didn’t necessarily express this desire in terms of sustainable living.

Ian said that the “window of opportunity” for introducing lifestyle change might be quite limited, perhaps a few months – and so people would not sustain their new habits without “lifestyle support systems”. People might not want to hear from a green group, but could be open to hearing from a church, or their Health Visitor, or Mumsnet. Maybe even a hairdresser ? One project that he recommended was PECT, the Peterborough Environment City Trust, which is acting as a facilitator for encouraging changes. He said people get demotivated if they feel businesses and governments are not doing the same thing. He mentioned avenues and approaches for increasing the sense of agency : framing environmental issues in : moments of change, local food growing, community energy groups, frugality, health and well-being…

Ian Christie said that Church of England work on “Shrinking the Footprint” was poised to make fresh progress, with leadership from the new lead bishop on the environment, Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam.

Ian Christie suggested that positive activities could inspire : why could a church not turn an emergency feeding centre – a food bank – into a food hub – a place where people could come for tools, seeds and food growing group support ? What about Cathedral Innovation Centres as catalysts for sustainable living schemes ? Why not partner with the National Trust or the National Health Service over environmental issues ? He said the NHS has a Sustainable Development Strategy – “one of the best I’ve seen”. How about calling for a New Green Deal for Communities ? One reason why the Green Deal has been so poorly supported has been it has been promoted to individuals and it’s much harder to get individuals to commit and act on projects.

Ian pointed towards good intervention concepts : “safety in numbers” approaches, moments of change, congregation spaces, trusted peers in the community, consistent messages. He recommended Staying Positive : “look how far we’ve come”; we have two decisive decades ahead; Business As Usual is failing – CEOs are breaking ranks; cities are going green – and the churches are waking up to ecological challenges.

In questions, I asked Ian Christie why he only had three social groups rather than four. I said that I see businesses broken down into two categories – those that produce energy and those that consume energy to provide goods and services. I said there were some excellent sustainable development strategies coming out of the private enterprises consuming energy, such as Marks and Spencer. He said that yes, amongst the fossil energy producing companies, there is a massive challenge in responding to climate change. He pointed to Unilever, who are beginning to see themselves as pioneers in a new model of sustainable business. There is a clear divergence of interest between fossil fuel producers and companies whose core business is being put at risk by climate disruption.

When asked about whether we should try to set the economy on a “war footing” as regards climate change, Ian Christie said “we aren’t in a war like that. We ourselves, with our high-carbon consumption, are ‘the enemy’, if we want to put it like that. We are not in a process where people can be mobilised as in a war.” He said that the churches need to bring climate change into every talk, every sermon “this is how we do Christian witness”.

In discussion after the breakout workshops, Ian Christie said that we need to try to get to local opinion-formers. He said that a critical mass of communication to a Member of Parliament on one subject could be as few as 20 letters. He said that mass letter writing to MPs is one way in which others seeking to influence policy “play the game” in politics, so we must do it too. For example, we could write to our churches, our leaders, our democratic representatives, and demand a New Green Deal for Communities, and in letters to political candidates for the General Election we could say it would be a critical factor in deciding who we vote for. In the General Election in 2015, Ian said that it could be a five-way split, and that the “green issue” could be decisive, and so we should say that our vote will go to the greenest of candidates.

Ian said we should try to audit our church expertise, and that we should aim for our churches to give one clear overall narrative – not an “environmental narrative”, but one that urges us to be truly Christian. He said that it was important that church leaders talk the talk as well as walk the talk – making it normal to talk about these things – not keeping them partitioned. The weekly sermon or talk in church must tell this story. He said that people disagree for really good reasons, but that the issue was one of trying to create a setting in which disagreement can get somewhere. He mentioned the work of George Marshall and the Climate Outreach Information Network as being relevant to building narratives that work on climate change out of a silence or absence of dialogue.

Positively Against Negative Campaigning

How to organise a political campaign around Climate Change : ask a group of well-fed, well-meaning, Guardian-reading, philanthropic do-gooders into the room to adopt the lowest common denominator action plan. Now, as a well-fed, well-meaning, Guardian-reading (well, sometimes), philanthropic do-gooder myself, I can expect to be invited to attend such meetings on a regular basis. And always, I find myself frustrated by the outcomes : the same insipid (but with well-designed artwork) calls to our publics and networks to support something with an email registration, a signed postcard, a fistful of dollars, a visit to a public meeting of no consequence, or a letter to our democratic representative. No output except maybe some numbers. Numbers to support a government decision, perhaps, or numbers to indicate what kind of messaging people need in future.

I mean, with the Fair Trade campaign, at least there was some kind of real outcome. Trade Justice advocates manned stall tables at churches, local venues, public events, and got money flowing to the international co-operatives, building up the trade, making the projects happen, providing schooling and health and aspirations in the target countries. But compare that to the Make Poverty History campaign which was largely run to support a vain top-level political attempt to garner international funding promises for social, health and economic development. Too big to succeed. No direct line between supporting the campaign and actually supporting the targets. Passing round the hat to developed, industrialised countries for a fund to support change in developing, over-exploited countries just isn’t going to work. Lord Nicholas Stern tried to ask for $100 billion a year by 2020 for Climate Change adaptation. This has skidded to a halt, as far as I know. The economic upheavals, don’t you know ?

And here we are again. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which launched the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports on climate change, oh, so, long, ago, through the person of its most charismatic and approachable Executive Secretary, Christiana Figueres, is calling for support for a global Climate Change treaty in 2015. Elements of this treaty, being drafted this year, will, no doubt, use the policy memes of the past – passing round the titfer begging for a couple of billion squid for poor, hungry people suffering from floods and droughts; proposing some kind of carbon pricing/taxing/trading scheme to conjure accounting bean solutions; trying to implement an agreement around parts per million by volume of atmospheric carbon dioxide; trying to divide the carbon cake between the rich and the poor.

Somehow, we believe, that being united around this proposed treaty, few of which have any control over the contents of, will bring us progress.

What can any of us do to really have input into the building of a viable future ? Christiana – for she is now known frequently only by her first name – has called for numbers – a measure of support for the United Nations process. She has also let it be known that if there is a substantial number of people who, with their organisations, take their investments out of fossil fuels, then this could contribute to the mood of the moment. Those who are advocating divestment are yet small in number, and I fear that they will continue to be marginal, partly because of the language that is being used.

First of all, there are the Carbon Disclosers. Their approach is to conjure a spectre of the “Carbon Bubble” – making a case that investments in carbon dioxide-rich enterprises could well end up being stranded by their assets, either because of wrong assumptions about viable remaining resources of fossil fuels, or because of wrong assumptions about the inability of governments to institute carbon pricing. Well, obviously, governments will find it hard to implement effective carbon pricing, because governments are in bed with the energy industry. Politically, governments need to keep big industry sweet. No surprise there. And it’s in everybody’s interests if Emperor Oil and Prince Regent Natural Gas are still wearing clothes. In the minds of the energy industry, we still have a good four decades of healthy fossil fuel assets. Royal Dutch Shell’s CEO can therefore confidently say at a public AGM that There Is No Carbon Bubble. The Carbon Discloser language is not working, it seems, as any kind of convincer, except to a small core of the concerned.

And then there are the Carbon Voices. These are the people reached by email campaigns who have no real idea how to do anything practical to affect change on carbon dioxide emissions, but they have been touched by the message of the risks of climate change and they want to be seen to be supporting action, although it’s not clear what action will, or indeed can, be taken. Well-designed brochures printed on stiff recycled paper with non-toxic inks will pour through their doors and Inboxes. Tick it. Send it back. Sign it. Send it on. Maybe even send some cash to support the campaign. This language is not achieving anything except guilt.

And then there are the Carbon Divestors. These are extremely small marginal voices who are taking a firm stand on where their organisations invest their capital. The language is utterly dated. The fossil fuel industry are evil, apparently, and investing in fossil fuels is immoral. It is negative campaigning, and I don’t think it stands a chance of making real change. It will not achieve its goal of being prophetic in nature – bearing witness to the future – because of the non-inclusive language. Carbon Voices reached by Carbon Divestor messages will in the main refuse to respond, I feel.

Political action on Climate Change, and by that I mean real action based on solid decisions, often taken by individuals or small groups, has so far been under-the-radar, under-the-counter, much like the Fair Trade campaign was until it burst forth into the glorious day of social acceptability and supermarket supply chains. You have the cyclists, the Transition Towners, the solar power enthusiasts. Yet to get real, significant, economic-scale transition, you need Energy Change – that is, a total transformation of the energy supply and use systems. It’s all very well for a small group of Methodist churches to pull their pension funds from investments in BP and Shell, but it’s another thing entirely to engage BP and Shell in an action plan to diversify out of petroleum oil and Natural Gas.

Here below are my email words in my feeble attempt to challenge the brain of Britain’s charitable campaigns on what exactly is intended for the rallying cry leading up to Paris 2015. I can pretty much guarantee you won’t like it – but you have to remember – I’m not breaking ranks, I’m trying to get beyond the Climate Change campaigning and lobbying that is currently in play, which I regard as ineffective. I don’t expect a miraculous breakthrough in communication, the least I can do is sow the seed of an alternative. I expect I could be dis-invited from the NGO party, but it doesn’t appear to be a really open forum, merely a token consultation to build up energy for a plan already decided. If so, there are probably more important things I could be doing with my time than wasting hours and hours and so much effort on somebody else’s insipid and vapid agenda.

I expect people might find that attitude upsetting. If so, you know, I still love you all, but you need to do better.


[…]

A lot of campaigning over the last 30 years has been very negative and divisive, and frequently ends in psychological stalemate. Those who are cast as the Bad Guys cannot respond to the campaigning because they cannot admit to their supporters/employees/shareholders that the campaigners are “right”. Joe Average cannot support a negative campaign as there is no apparent way to make change happen by being so oppositional, and because the ask is too difficult, impractical, insupportable. [Or there is simply too much confusion or cognitive dissonance.]

One of the things that was brought back from the […] working group breakout on […] to the plenary feedback session was that there should be some positive things about this campaign on future-appropriate investment. I think […] mentioned the obvious one of saying effectively “we are backing out of these investments in order to invest in things that are more in line with our values” – with the implicit encouragement for fossil fuel companies to demonstrate that they can be in line with our values and that they are moving towards that. There was some discussion that there are no bulk Good Guy investment funds, that people couldn’t move investments in bulk, although some said there are. […] mentioned Ethex.

Clearly fossil fuel production companies are going to find it hard to switch from oil and gas to renewable electricity, so that’s not a doable we can ask them for. Several large fossil fuel companies, such as BP, have tried doing wind and solar power, but they have either shuttered those business units, or not let them replace their fossil fuel activities.

[…] asked if the [divestment] campaign included a call for CCS – Carbon Capture and Storage – and […] referred to […] which showed where CCS is listed in a box on indicators of a “good” fossil fuel energy company.

I questioned whether the fossil fuel companies really want to do CCS – and that they have simply been waiting for government subsidies or demonstration funds to do it. (And anyway, you can’t do CCS on a car.)

I think I said in the meeting that fossil fuel producer companies can save themselves and save the planet by adopting Renewable Gas – so methods for Carbon Capture and Utilisation (CCU) or “carbon recycling”. Plus, they could be making low carbon gas by using biomass inputs. Most of the kit they need is already widely installed at petrorefineries. So – they get to keep producing gas and oil, but it’s renewably and sustainably sourced with low net carbon dioxide emissions. That could be turned into a positive, collaborative ask, I reckon, because we could all invest in that, the fossil fuel companies and their shareholders.

Anyway, I hope you did record something urging a call to positive action and positive engagement, because we need the co-operation of the fossil fuel companies to make appropriate levels of change to the energy system. Either that, or they go out of business and we face social turmoil.

If you don’t understand why this is relevant, that’s OK. If you don’t understand why a straight negative campaign is a turn-off to many people (including those in the fossil fuel industry), well, I could role play that with you. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about when I talk about Renewable Gas, come and talk to me about it again in 5 years, when it should be common knowledge. If you don’t understand why I am encouraging positive collaboration, when negative campaigning is so popular and marketable to your core segments, then I will resort to the definition of insanity – which is to keep doing the same things, expecting a different result.

I’m sick and tired of negative campaigning. Isn’t there a more productive thing to be doing ?

There are no enemies. There are no enemies. There are no enemies.

——-

As far as I understand the situation, both the […] and […] campaigns are negative. They don’t appear to offer any positive routes out of the problem that could engage the fossil fuel companies in taking up the baton of Energy Change. If that is indeed the main focus of […] and […] efforts, then I fear they will fail. Their work will simply be a repeat of the negative campaigning of the last 30 years – a small niche group will take up now-digital placards and deploy righteous, holy social media anger, and that will be all.

Since you understand this problem, then I would suggest you could spend more time and trouble helping them to see a new way. You are, after all, a communications expert. And so you know that even Adolf Hitler used positive, convening, gathering techniques of propaganda to create power – and reserved the negative campaigning for easily-marginalised vulnerable groups to pile the bile and blame on.

Have a nicer day,

—–

The important thing as far as I understand it is that the “campaigning” organisations need to offer well-researched alternatives, instead of just complaining about the way things are. And these well-researched alternatives should not just be the token sops flung at the NGOs and UN by the fossil fuel companies. What do I mean ?

Well, let’s take Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). The injection of carbon dioxide into old oil and gas caverns was originally proposed for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) – that is – getting more oil and gas out the ground by pumping gas down there – a bit like fracking, but with gas instead of liquid. The idea was that the expense of CCS would be compensated for by the new production of oil and gas – however, the CCS EOR effect has shown to be only temporary. So now the major oil and gas companies say they support carbon pricing (either by taxation or trading), to make CCS move forward. States and federations have given them money to do it. I think the evidence shows that carbon pricing cannot be implemented at a sufficiently high level to incentivise CCS, therefore CCS is a non-answer. Why has […] not investigated this ? CCS is a meme, but not necessarily part of the carbon dioxide solution. Not even the UNFCCC IPCC reports reckon that much CCS can be done before 2040. So, why does CCS appear in the […] criteria for a “good” fossil fuel company ? Because it’s sufficiently weak as a proposal, and sufficiently far enough ahead that the fossil fuel companies can claim they are “capture ready”, and in the Good Book, but in reality are doing nothing.

Non-starters don’t just appear from fossil fuel companies. From my point of view, another example of running at and latching on to things that cannot help was the support of the GDR – Greenhouse Development Rights, of which there has been severe critique in policy circles, but the NGOs just wrote it into their policy proposals without thinking about it. There is no way that the emissions budgets set out in the GDR policy could ever get put into practice. For a start, there is no real economic reason to divide the world into developing and developed nations (Kyoto [Protocol]’s Annex I and Annex II).

If you give me some links, I’m going to look over your […] and think about it.

I think that if a campaign really wants to get anywhere with fossil fuel companies, instead of being shunted into a siding, it needs to know properly what the zero carbon transition pathways really are. Unequal partners do not make for a productive engagement, I reckon.

—–

I’m sorry to say that this still appears to be negative campaigning – fossil fuel companies are “bad”; and we need to pull our money out of fossil fuel companies and put it in other “good” companies. Where’s the collective, co-operative effort undertaken with the fossil fuel companies ? What’s your proposal for helping to support them in evolving ? Do you know how they can technologically transition from using fossil fuels to non-fossil fuels ? And how are you communicating that with them ?

——

They call me the “Paradigm Buster”. I’m not sure if “the group” is open to even just peeking into that kind of approach, let alone “exploring” it. The action points on the corporate agenda could so easily slip back into the methods and styles of the past. Identify a suffering group. Build a theory of justice. Demand reparation. Make Poverty History clearly had its victims and its saviours. Climate change, in my view, requires a far different treatment. Polar bears cannot substitute for starving African children. And not even when climate change makes African children starve, can they inspire the kind of action that climate change demands. A boycott campaign without a genuine alternative will only touch a small demographic. Whatever “the group” agrees to do, I want it to succeed, but by rehashing the campaigning strategies and psychology of the past, I fear it will fail. Even by adopting the most recent thinking on change, such as Common Cause, [it] is not going to surmount the difficulties of trying to base calls to action on the basis of us-and-them thinking – polar thinking – the good guys versus the bad guys – the body politic David versus the fossil fuel company Goliath. By challenging this, I risk alienation, but I am bound to adhere to what I see as the truth. Climate change is not like any other disaster, aid or emergency campaign. You can’t just put your money in the [collecting tin] and pray the problem will go away with the help of the right agencies. Complaining about the “Carbon Bubble” and pulling your savings from fossil fuels is not going to re-orient the oil and gas companies. The routes to effective change require a much more comprehensive structure of actions. And far more engagement that agreeing to be a flag waver for whichever Government policy is on the table. I suppose it’s too much to ask to see some representation from the energy industry in “the group”, or at least […] leaders who still believe in the fossil fuel narratives, to take into account their agenda and their perspective, and a readiness to try positive collaborative change with all the relevant stakeholders ?


Mind the Gap : BBC Costing the Earth

I listened to an interesting mix of myth, mystery and magic on BBC Radio 4.

Myths included the notion that long-term, nuclear power would be cheap; that “alternative” energy technologies are expensive (well, nuclear power is, but true renewables are most certainly not); and the idea that burning biomass to create heat to create steam to turn turbines to generate electricity is an acceptably efficient use of biomass (it is not).

Biofuelwatch are hosting a public meeting on this very subject :-
http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/2013/burning_issue_public_event/
“A Burning Issue – biomass and its impacts on forests and communities”
Tuesday, 29th October 2013, 7-9pm
Lumen Centre, London (close to St Pancras train station)
http://www.lumenurc.org.uk/lumencontact.htm
Lumen Centre, 88 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9RS

Interesting hints in the interviews I thought pointed to the idea that maybe, just maybe, some electricity generation capacity should be wholly owned by the Government – since the country is paying for it one way or another. A socialist model for gas-fired generation capacity that’s used as backup to wind and solar power ? Now there’s an interesting idea…




http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03cn0rb

“Mind the Gap”
Channel: BBC Radio 4
Series: Costing the Earth
Presenter: Tom Heap
First broadcast: Tuesday 15th October 2013

Programme Notes :

“Our energy needs are growing as our energy supply dwindles.
Renewables have not come online quickly enough and we are increasingly
reliant on expensive imported gas or cheap but dirty coal. Last year
the UK burnt 50% more coal than in previous years but this helped
reverse years of steadily declining carbon dioxide emissions. By 2015
6 coal fired power stations will close and the cost of burning coal
will increase hugely due to the introduction of the carbon price
floor. Shale gas and biomass have been suggested as quick and easy
solutions but are they really sustainable, or cheap?”

“Carbon Capture and Storage could make coal or gas cleaner and a new
study suggests that with CCS bio energy could even decrease global
warming. Yet CCS has stalled in the UK and the rest of Europe and the
debate about the green credentials of biomass is intensifying. So what
is really the best answer to Britain’s energy needs? Tom Heap
investigates.”

00:44 – 00:48
[ Channel anchor ]
Britain’s energy needs are top of the agenda in “Costing the Earth”…

01:17
[ Channel anchor ]
…this week on “Costing the Earth”, Tom Heap is asking if our
ambitions to go green are being lost to the more immediate fear of
blackouts and brownouts.

01:27
[ Music : Arcade Fire – “Neighbourhood 3 (Power Out)” ]

[ Tom Heap ]

Energy is suddenly big news – central to politics and the economy. The
countdown has started towards the imminent shutdown of many coal-fired
power stations, but the timetable to build their replacements has
barely begun.

It’ll cost a lot, we’ll have to pay, and the politicians are reluctant
to lay out the bill. But both the official regulator and industry are
warning that a crunch is coming.

So in this week’s “Costing the Earth”, we ask if the goal of clean,
green and affordable energy is being lost to a much darker reality.

02:14
[ Historical recordings ]

“The lights have started going out in the West Country : Bristol,
Exeter and Plymouth have all had their first power cuts this
afternoon.”

“One of the biggest effects of the cuts was on traffic, because with
the traffic lights out of commission, major jams have built up,
particularly in the town centres. One of the oddest sights I saw is a
couple of ladies coming out of a hairdressers with towels around their
heads because the dryers weren’t working.”

“Television closes down at 10.30 [ pm ], and although the cinemas are
carrying on more or less normally, some London theatres have had to
close.”

“The various [ gas ] boards on both sides of the Pennines admit to
being taken by surprise with today’s cold spell which brought about
the cuts.”

“And now the major scandal sweeping the front pages of the papers this
morning, the advertisement by the South Eastern Gas Board recommending
that to save fuel, couples should share their bath.”

[ Caller ]
“I shall write to my local gas board and say don’t do it in
Birmingham. It might be alright for the trendy South, but we don’t
want it in Birmingham.”

03:13
[ Tom Heap ]

That was 1974.

Some things have changed today – maybe a more liberal attitude to
sharing the tub. But some things remain the same – an absence of
coal-fired electricity – threatening a blackout.

Back then it was strikes by miners. Now it’s old age of the power
plants, combined with an EU Directive obliging them to cut their
sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions by 2016, or close.

Some coal burners are avoiding the switch off by substituting wood;
and mothballed gas stations are also on standby.

But Dieter Helm, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of
Oxford, now believes power cuts are likely.

03:57
[ Dieter Helm ]

Well, if we take the numbers produced by the key responsible bodies,
they predict that there’s a chance that by the winter of 2-15 [sic,
meaning 2015] 2-16 [sic, meaning 2016], the gap between the demand for
electricity and the supply could be as low as 2%.

And it turns out that those forecasts are based on extremely
optimistic assumptions about how far demand will fall in that period
(that the “Green Deal” will work, and so on) and that we won’t have
much economic growth.

So basically we are on course for a very serious energy crunch by the
winter of 2-15 [sic, meaning 2015] 2-16 [sic, meaning 2016], almost
regardless of what happens now, because nobody can build any power
stations between now and then.

It’s sort of one of those slow motion car crashes – you see the whole
symptoms of it, and people have been messing around reforming markets
and so on, without addressing what’s immediately in front of them.

[ Tom Heap ]

And that’s where you think we are now ?

[ Dieter Helm ]

I think there’s every risk of doing so.

Fortunately, the [ General ] Election is a year and a half away, and
there’s many opportunities for all the political parties to get real
about two things : get real about the energy crunch in 2-15 [sic,
meaning 2015] 2-16 [sic, meaning 2016] and how they’re going to handle
it; and get real about creating the incentives to decarbonise our
electricity system, and deal with the serious environmental and
security and competitive issues which our electricity system faces.

And this is a massive investment requirement [ in ] electricity : all
those old stations retiring [ originally built ] back from the 1970s –
they’re all going to be gone.

Most of the nuclear power stations are coming to the end of their lives.

We need a really big investment programme. And if you really want an
investment programme, you have to sit down and work out how you’re
going to incentivise people to do that building.

[ Tom Heap ]

If we want a new energy infrastructure based on renewables and
carbon-free alternatives, then now is the time to put those incentives
on the table.

The problem is that no-one seems to want to make the necessary
investment, least of all the “Big Six” energy companies, who are
already under pressure about high bills.

[ “Big Six” are : British Gas / Centrica, EdF Energy (Electricite
de France), E.On UK, RWE npower, Scottish Power and SSE ]

Sam Peacock of the energy company SSE [ Scottish and Southern Energy ]
gives the commercial proof of Dieter’s prediction.

If energy generators can’t make money out of generating energy,
they’ll be reluctant to do it.

[ Sam Peacock ]

Ofgem, the energy regulator, has looked at this in a lot of detail,
and said that around 2015, 2016, things start to get tighter. The
reason for this is European Directives, [ is [ a ] ] closing down some
of the old coal plants. And also the current poor economics around [
or surround [ -ing ] ] both existing plant and potential new plant.

So, at the moment it’s very, very difficult to make money out of a gas
plant, or invest in a new one. So this leads to there being, you know,
something of a crunch point around 2015, 2016, and Ofgem’s analysis
looks pretty sensible to us.

[ Tom Heap ]

And Sam Peacock lays the blame for this crisis firmly at the Government’s door.

[ Sam Peacock ]

The trilemma, as they call it – of decarbonisation, security of supply
and affordability – is being stretched, because the Government’s
moving us more towards cleaner technologies, which…which are more
expensive.

However, if you were to take the costs of, you know, the extra costs
of developing these technologies off government [ sic, meaning
customer ] bills and into general taxation, you could knock about over
£100 off customer bills today, it’ll be bigger in the future, and you
can still get that much-needed investment going.

So, we think you can square the circle, but it’s going to take a
little bit of policy movement [ and ] it’s going to take shifting some
of those costs off customers and actually back where the policymakers
should be controlling them.

[ KLAXON ! Does he mean controlled energy prices ? That sounds a bit
centrally managed economy to me… ]

[ Tom Heap ]

No surprise that a power company would want to shift the pain of
rising energy costs from their bills to the tax bill.

But neither the Government nor the Opposition are actually proposing this.

Who pays the premium for expensve new energy sources is becoming like
a game of pass the toxic parcel.

[ Reference : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot_potato_%28game%29 ]

I asked the [ UK Government Department of ] Energy and Climate Change
Secretary, Ed Davey, how much new money is required between now and
2020.

08:06

[ Ed Davey ]

About £110 billion – er, that’s critical to replace a lot of the coal
power stations that are closing, the nuclear power stations that are [
at the ] end of their lives, and replace a lot of the network which
has come to the end of its life, too.

So it’s a huge, massive investment task.

[ Tom Heap ]

So in the end we’re going to have to foot the bill for the £110 billion ?

[ Ed Davey ]

Yeah. Of course. That’s what happens now. People, in their bills that
they pay now, are paying for the network costs of investments made
several years, even several decades ago.

[ Yes – we’re still paying through our national nose to dispose of
radioactive waste and decommission old nuclear reactors. The liability
of it all weighs heavily on the country’s neck… ]

And there’s no escaping that – we’ve got to keep the lights on – we’ve
got to keep the country powered.

You have to look at both sides of the equation. If we’re helping
people make their homes more inefficient [ sic, meaning energy
efficient ], their product appliances more efficient, we’re doing
everything we possibly can to try to help the bills be kept down,

while we’re having to make these big investments to keep the lights
on, and to make sure that we don’t cook the planet, as you say.

[ Tom Heap ]

You mention the lights going out. There are predictions that we’re
headed towards just 2% of spare capacity in the system in a few years’
time.

Are you worried about the dangers of, I don’t know, maybe not lights
going out for some people, but perhaps big energy users being told
when and when [ sic, meaning where ] they can’t use power in the
winter ?

[ Ed Davey ]

Well, there’s no doubt that as the coal power stations come offline,
and the nuclear power plants, er, close, we’re going to have make sure
that new power plants are coming on to replace them.

And if we don’t, there will be a problem with energy security.

Now we’ve been working very hard over a long time now to make sure we
attract that investment. We’ve been working with Ofgem, the regulator;
with National Grid, and we’re…

[ Tom Heap ]

…Being [ or it’s being ] tough. I don’t see companies racing to come
and fill in the gap here and those coal power plants are going off
soon.

[ Ed Davey ]

…we’re actually having record levels of energy investment in the country.

The problem was for 13 years under the last Government
[ same old, same old Coalition argument ] we saw low levels of investment
in energy, and we’re having to race to catch up, but fortunately we’re
winning that race. And we’re seeing, you know, billions of pounds
invested but we’ve still got to do more. We’re not there. I’m not
pretending we’re there yet. [ Are we there, yet ? ] But we do have the
policies in place.

So, Ofgem is currently consulting on a set of proposals which will
enable it to have reserve power to switch on at the peak if it’s
needed.

We’re, we’ve, bringing forward proposals in the Energy Bill for what’s
called a Capacity Market, so we can auction to get that extra capacity
we need.

So we’ve got the policies in place.

[ Tom Heap ]

Some of Ed Davey’s policies, not least the LibDem [ Liberal Democrat
Party ] U-turn on nuclear, have been guided by DECC [ Department of
Energy and Climate Change ] Chief Scientist David MacKay, author of
the influential book “Renewable Energy without the Hot Air” [ sic,
actually “Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air” ].

Does he think the lights will dim in the second half of this decade ?

[ David MacKay ]

I don’t think there’s going to be any problem maintaining the capacity
that we need. We just need to make clear where Electricity Market
Reform [ EMR, part of the Energy Bill ] is going, and the way in which
we will be maintaining capacity.

[ Tom Heap ]

But I don’t quite understand that, because it seems to me, you know,
some of those big coal-fired power stations are going to be going off.
What’s going to be coming in their place ?

[ David MacKay ]

Well, the biggest number of power stations that’s been built in the
last few years are gas power stations, and we just need a few more gas
power stations like that, to replace the coal
, and hopefully some
nuclear power stations will be coming on the bars, as well as the wind
farms that are being built at the moment.

[ Tom Heap ]

And you’re happy with that increase in gas-fired power stations, are
you ? I mean, you do care deeply, personally, about reducing our
greenhouse gases, and yet you’re saying we’re going to have to build
more gas-fired power stations.

[ David MacKay ]

I do. Even in many of the pathways that reach the 2050 target, there’s
still a role for gas in the long-term, because some power sources like
wind and solar power are intermittent, so if you want to be keeping
the lights on in 2050 when there’s no wind and there’s no sun, you’re
going to need some gas power stations there
. Maybe not operating so
much of the time as they do today, but there’ll still be a role in
keeping the lights on.

[ KLAXON ! If gas plants are used only for peak periods or for backup to
renewables, then the carbon emissions will be much less than if they are
running all the time. ]

[ Tom Heap ]

Many energy experts though doubt that enough new wind power or nuclear
capacity could be built fast enough to affect the sums in a big way by
2020.

But that isn’t the only critical date looming over our energy system.
Even more challenging, though more distant, is the legally binding
objective of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in 2050.

David MacKay wants that certainty to provide the foundation for energy
decisions, and he showed me the effect of different choices with the
“Ultimate Future Energy App”. I was in his office, but anyone can try it online.

[ David MacKay ]

It’s a 2050 calculator. It computes energy demand and supply in
response to your choices, and it computes multiple consequences of
your choices. It computes carbon consequences. It also computes for
you estimates of air quality, consequences of different choices;
security of supply, consequences; and the costs of your choices.

So with this 2050 calculator, it’s an open source tool, and anyone can
go on the web and use the levers to imagine different futures in 2050
of how much action we’ve taken in different demand sectors and in
different supply sectors.

The calculator has many visualisations of the pathway that you’re choosing
and helps people understand all the trade-offs… There’s no silver
bullet for any of this. If I dial up a pathway someone made earlier,
we can visualise the implications in terms of the area occupied for
the onshore wind farms, and the area in the sea for the offshore wind
farms, and the length of the wave farms that you’ve built, and the
land area required for energy crops.

And many organisations have used this tool and some of them have given
us their preferred pathway. So you can see here the Friends of the
Earth have got their chosen pathway, the Campaign to Protect Rural
England, and various engineers like National Grid and Atkins have got
their pathways.

So you can see alternative ways of achieving our targets, of keeping
the lights on and taking climate change action. All of those pathways
all meet the 2050 target, but they do so with different mixes.

[ Tom Heap ]

And your view of this is you sort of can’t escape from the scientific
logic and rigour of it. You might wish things were different or you
could do it differently, but you’re sort of saying “Look, it’s either
one thing or the other”. That’s the point of this.

[ David MacKay ]

That’s true. You can’t be anti-everything. You can’t be anti-wind and
anti-nuclear and anti-home insulation. You won’t end up with a plan
that adds up.

[ KLAXON ! But you can be rationally against one or two things, like
expensive new nuclear power, and carbon and particulate emissions-heavy
biomass for the generation of electricity. ]

[ Tom Heap ]

But isn’t that exactly kind of the problem that we’ve had, without
pointing political fingers, that people rather have been
anti-everything, and that’s why we’re sort of not producing enough new
energy sources ?

[ David MacKay ]

Yeah. The majority of the British public I think are in favour of many
of these sources, but there are strong minorities who are vocally
opposed to every one of the major levers in this calculator. So one
aspiration I have for this tool is it may help those people come to a
position where they have a view that’s actually consistent with the
goal of keeping the lights on.

[ Tom Heap ]

Professor MacKay’s calculator also computes pounds and pence,
suggesting that both high and low carbon electricity work out pricey
in the end.

[ David MacKay ]

The total costs of all the pathways are pretty much the same.
“Business as Usual” is cheaper in the early years, and then pays more,
because on the “Business as Usual”, you carry on using fossil fuels,
and the prices of those fossil fuels are probably going to go up.

All of the pathways that take climate change action have a similar
total cost, but they pay more in the early years, ’cause you have to
pay for things like building insulation and power stations, like
nuclear power stations, or wind power, which cost up-front, but then
they’re very cheap to run in the future.

[ KLAXON ! Will the cost of decommissioning nuclear reactors and the
costs of the waste disposal be cheap ? I think not… ]

So the totals over the 40 or 50 year period here, are much the same for these.

[ Tom Heap ]

The cheapest immediate option of all is to keep shovelling the coal.
And last year coal overtook gas to be our biggest electricity
generation source, pushing up overall carbon emissions along the way
by 4.5%

[ KLAXON ! This is not very good for energy security – look where the
coal comes from… ]

As we heard earlier, most coal-fired power stations are scheduled for
termination, but some have won a reprieve, and trees are their
unlikely saviour.

Burning plenty of wood chip [ actually, Tom, it’s not wood “chip”, it’s
wood “pellets” – which often have other things mixed in with the wood,
like coal… ] allows coal furnaces to cut the sulphur dioxide and nitrous
oxide belching from their chimneys to below the level that requires their
closure under European law.

But some enthusiasts see wood being good for even more.

16:19

[ Outside ]

It’s one of those Autumn days that promises to be warm, but currently
is rather moist. I’m in a field surrounded by those dew-laden cobwebs
you get at this time of year.

But in the middle of this field is a plantation of willow. And I’m at
Rothamsted Research with Angela Karp who’s one of the directors here.

Angela, tell me about this willow I’m standing in front of here. I
mean, it’s about ten foot high or so, but what are you seeing ?

[ Angela Karp ]

Well, I’m seeing one of our better varieties that’s on display here.
We have a demonstration trial of about ten different varieties. This
is a good one, because it produces a lot of biomass, quite easily,
without a lot of additional fertilisers or anything. And as you can
see it’s got lovely straight stems. It’s got many stems, and at the
end of three years, we would harvest all those stems to get the
biomass from it. It’s nice and straight – it’s a lovely-looking, it’s
got no disease, no insects on it, very nice, clean willow.

[ Tom Heap ]

So, what you’ve been working on here as I understand it is trying to
create is the perfect willow – the most fuel for the least input – and
the easiest to harvest.

[ Angela Karp ]

That’s absolutely correct, because the whole reason for growing these
crops is to get the carbon from the atmosphere into the wood, and to
use that wood as a replacement for fossil fuels. Without putting a lot
of inputs in, because as soon as you add fertilisers you’re using
energy and carbon to make them, and that kind of defeats the whole
purpose of doing this.

[ KLAXON ! You don’t need to use fossil fuel energy or petrochemicals or
anything with carbon emissions to make fertiliser ! … Hang on, these
are GM trees, right ? So they will need inputs… ]

[ Tom Heap ]

And how much better do you think your new super-variety is, than say,
what was around, you know, 10 or 15 years ago. ‘Cause willow as an
idea for burning has been around for a bit. How much of an improvement
is this one here ?

[ Angela Karp ]

Quite a bit. So, these are actually are some of the, if you like,
middle-term varieties. So we started off yielding about 8 oven-dry
tonnes per hectare, and now we’ve almost doubled that.

[ Tom Heap ]

How big a place do you think biomass can have in the UK’s energy
picture in the future ?

[ Angela Karp ]

I think that it could contribute between 10% and 15% of our energy. If
we were to cultivate willows on 1 million hectares, we would probably
provide about 3% to 4% of energy in terms of electricity, and I think
that’s kind of a baseline figure. We could cultivate them on up to 3
million hectares, so you can multiply things up, and we could use them
in a much more energy-efficient way.

[ KLAXON ! Is that 4% of total energy or 4% of total electricity ?
Confused. ]

[ Tom Heap ]

Do we really have 3 million hectares going a-begging for planting willow in ?

[ Angela Karp ]

Actually, surprisingly we do. So, people have this kind of myth
there’s not enough land, but just look around you and you will find
there’s lots of land that’s not used for cultivating food crops.

We don’t see them taking over the whole country. We see them being
grown synergistically with food crops.

[ KLAXON ! This is a bit different than the statement made in 2009. ]

[ Tom Heap ]

But I’d just like to dig down a little bit more into the carbon cycle
of the combustion of these things, because that’s been the recent
criticism of burning a lot of biomass, is that you put an early spike
in the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, if you start burning a lot
of biomass, because this [ sounds of rustling ], this plant is going
to be turned into, well, partly, CO2 in the atmosphere.

[ Angela Karp ]

Yes, I think that’s probably a simple and not totally correct way of
looking at it. ‘Cause a lot depends on the actual conversion process
you are using.

So some conversion processes are much more efficient at taking
everything and converting it into what you want.

Heat for example is in excess of 80%, 90% conversion efficiency.

Electricity is a little bit more of the problem. And there, what
they’re looking at is capturing some of the carbon that you lose, and
converting that back in, in carbon storage processes, and that’s why
there’s a lot of talk now about carbon storage from these power
stations.

That I think is the future. It’s a question of connecting up all parts
of the process, and making sure that’s nothing wasted.

20:02

[ Tom Heap ]

So, is wood a desirable greener fuel ?

Not according to Almuth Ernsting of Biofuelwatch, who objects to the
current plans for large-scale wood burning, its use to prop up coal,
and even its low carbon claims.

[ Almuth Ernsting ]

The currently-announced industry plans, and by that I mean existing
power stations, but far more so, power stations which are in the
planning process [ and ] many of which have already been consented –
those [ biomass ] power stations, would, if they all go ahead,
require to burn around 82 million tonnes of biomass, primarily wood,
every year. Now by comparison, the UK in total only produces around
10 million tonnes, so one eighth of that amount, in wood, for all
industries and purposes, every year.

We are looking on the one hand at a significant number of proposed,
and in some cases, under-construction or operating new-build biomass
power stations, but the largest single investment so far going into
the conversion of coal power station units to biomass, the largest and
most advanced one of which at the moment is Drax, who are, have
started to move towards converting half their capacity to burning wood
pellets.

[ Tom Heap ]

Drax is that huge former, or still currently, coal-fired power station
in Yorkshire, isn’t it ?

[ Almuth Ernsting ]

Right, and they still want to keep burning coal as well. I mean, their
long-term vision, as they’ve announced, would be for 50:50 coal and
biomass.

[ Tom Heap ]

What do you think about that potential growth ?

[ Almuth Ernsting ]

Well, we’re seriously concerned. We believe it’s seriously bad news
for climate change, it’s seriously bad news for forests, and it’s
really bad news for communities, especially in the Global South, who
are at risk of losing their land for further expansion of monoculture
tree plantations, to in future supply new power stations in the UK.

A really large amount, increasingly so, of the wood being burned,
comes from slow-growing, whole trees that are cut down for that
purpose, especially at the moment in temperate forests in North
America. Now those trees will take many, many decades to grow back
and potentially re-absorb that carbon dioxide, that’s if they’re
allowed and able to ever grow back.

[ Tom Heap ]

There’s another technology desperate for investment, which is critical
to avoiding power failure, whilst still hitting our mid-century carbon
reduction goals – CCS – Carbon Capture and Storage, the ability to
take the greenhouse gases from the chimney and bury them underground.

It’s especially useful for biomass and coal, with their relatively
high carbon emissions, but would also help gas be greener.

The Chancellor has approved 30 new gas-fired power stations, so long
as they are CCS-ready [ sic, should be “capture ready”, or
“carbon capture ready” ].

Jon Gibbons is the boss of the UK CCS Research Centre, based in an
industrial estate in Sheffield.

[ Noise of processing plant ]

Jon’s just brought me up a sort of 3D maze of galvanized steel and
shiny metal pipes to the top of a tower that must be 20 or so metres
high.

Jon, what is this ?

[ Jon Gibbons ]

OK, so this is our capture unit, to take the CO2 out of the combustion
products from gas or coal. In the building behind us, in the test rigs
we’ve got, the gas turbine or the combustor rig, we’re burning coal or
gas, or oil, but mainly coal or gas.

We’re taking the combustion products through the green pipe over
there, bringing it into the bottom of the unit, and then you can see
these big tall columns we’ve got, about 18 inches diameter, half a
metre diameter, coming all the way up from the ground up to the level
we’re at.

It goes into one of those, it gets washed clean with water, and it
goes into this unit over here, and there it meets an amine solvent, a
chemical that will react reversibly with CO2, coming in the opposite
direction, over packing. So, it’s like sort of pebbles, if you can
imagine it, there’s a lot of surface area. The gas flows up, the
liquid flows down, and it picks up the CO2, just mainly the CO2.

[ Tom Heap ]

And that amine, that chemical as you call it, is stripping the CO2 out
of that exhaust gas. This will link to a storage facility.

What would then happen to the CO2 ?

[ Jon Gibbons ]

What would then happen is that the CO2 would be compressed up to
somewhere in excess of about 100 atmospheres. And it would turn from
being a gas into something that looks like a liquid, like water, about
the same density as water. And then it would be taken offshore in the
UK, probably tens or hundreds of kilometres offshore, and it would go
deep, deep down, over a kilometre down into the ground, and basically
get squeezed into stuff that looks like solid rock. If you go and look
at a sandstone building – looks solid, but actually, maybe a third of
it is little holes. And underground, where you’ve got cubic kilometres
of space, those little holes add up to an awful lot of free space. And
the CO2 gets squeezed into those, over time, and it spreads out, and
it just basically sits there forever, dissolves in the water, reacts
with the rocks, and will stay there for millions of years.

[ Tom Heap ]

Back in his office, I asked Jon why CCS seemed to be stuck in the lab.

[ Jon Gibbons ]

We’re doing enough I think on the research side, but what we really
need to do, is to do work on a full-scale deployment. Because you
can’t work on research in a vacuum. You need to get feedback –
learning by doing – from actual real projects.

And a lot of the problems we’ve got on delivering CCS, are to do with
how you handle the regulation for injecting CO2, and again, you can
only do that in real life.

So what we need to do is to see the commercialisation projects that
are being run by the Department of Energy and Climate Change actually
going through to real projects that can be delivered.

[ Tom Heap ]

Hmm. When I talk to engineers, they’re always very passionate and
actually quite optimistic about Carbon Capture and Storage. And when
I talk to people in industry, or indeed read the headlines, not least
a recent cancellation in Norway, it always seems like a very bleak picture.

[ Jon Gibbons ]

I think people are recognising that it’s getting quite hard to get
money for low carbon technologies.

So – recent presentation we had at one of our centre meetings, was
actually a professor from the United States, Howard Herzog. And he
said “You think you’re seeing a crisis in Carbon Capture and Storage.
But what you’re actually seeing is a crisis in climate change
mitigation.”

[ KLAXON ! Priming us for a scaling back of commitment to the
Climate Change Act ? I do hope not. ]

Now, Carbon Capture and Storage, you do for no other purpose than
cutting CO2 emissions to the atmosphere, and it does that extremely
effectively. It’s an essential technology for cutting emissions. But
until you’ve got a global process that says – actually we’re going to
get on top of this problem; we’re going to cut emissions – get them to
safe level before we actually see people dying in large numbers from
climate change effects – ’cause, certainly, if people start dying,
then we will see a response – but ideally, you’d like to do it before
then. But until you get that going, then actually persuading people to
spend money for no other benefit than sorting out the climate is
difficult.

There’s just no point, you know, no country can go it alone, so you
have to get accommodation. And there, we’re going through various
processes to debate that. Maybe people will come to an accommodation.
Maybe the USA and China will agree to tackle climate change. Maybe
they won’t.

What I am fairly confident is that you won’t see huge, you know,
really big cuts in CO2 emissions without that global agreement. But
I’m also confident that you won’t see big cuts in CO2 emissions
without CCS deployment.

And my guess is there’s about a 50:50 chance that we do CCS before we
need to, and about a 50:50 chance we do it after we have to. But I’m
pretty damn certain we’re going to do it.

[ Tom Heap ]

But we can’t wait for a global agreement that’s already been decades
in the making, with still no end in sight.

We need decisions now to provide more power with less pollution.

[ Music lyrics : “What’s the plan ? What’s the plan ?” ]

[ Tom Heap ]

Dieter Helm, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Oxford
believes we can only deliver our plentiful green energy future if we
abandon our attitude of buy-now pay-later.

[ KLAXON ! Does he mean a kind of hire purchase energy economy ?
I mean, we’re still paying for nuclear electricity from decades ago,
in our bills, and through our taxes to the Department of Energy and
Climate Change. ]

[ Dieter Helm ]

There’s a short-term requirement and a long-term requirement. The
short-term requirement is that we’re now in a real pickle. We face
this energy crunch. We’ve got to try to make the best of what we’ve
got. And I think it’s really like, you know, trying to get the
Spitfires back up again during the Battle of Britain. You know, you
patch and mend. You need somebody in command. You need someone
in control. And you do the best with what you’ve got.

In that context, we then have to really stand back and say, “And this
is what we have to do to get a serious, long-term, continuous, stable
investment environment, going forward.” In which, you know, we pay the
costs, but of course, not any monopoly profits, not any excess
profits, but we have a world in which the price of electricity is
related to the cost.”

[ KLAXON ! Is Dieter Helm proposing state ownership of energy plant ? ]

29:04

[ Programme anchor ]

“Costing the Earth” was presented by Tom Heap, and made in Bristol by
Helen Lennard.

[ Next broadcast : 16th October 2013, 21:00, BBC Radio 4 ]

Obey the Future

Disobedience only gets you so far. Resistance can be fertile, but intellectual ghettos can be futile. The human tendency to generalise creates too much negativity and prevents us from being constructive. We complain about the “evil” oil and gas companies; the “greedy” coal merchants and their “lying” bankster financiers; but refuse to see the diamonds in the mud.

We should obey the future. In the future, all people will respect each other. There will no longer be war propaganda carried by the media, demonising leaders of foreign countries, or scorn for opposing political parties. In the future, human beings will respect and have regard for other human beings. So we should live that future, live that value, have care for one another. I don’t mean we are obliged to give money to charity to help needy people in poor countries. I don’t mean we should campaign for our government to commit funds to the Climate Finance initiatives, whose aim is to support adaptation to climate chaos in developing countries. No, charity is not enough, and never matches the need. Philanthropy will not answer climate change, and so solutions need to be built into the infrastructure of the global economy, sewn into the design, woven into the fabric. There should be no manufacture, no trade, no form of consumption that does not take account of the climate change impacts on the poor, and on the rich, on ecosystems, on ourselves.

Yes, it’s true that corporations are destroying the biosphere, but we cannot take a step back, grimace and point fingers of blame, for we are all involved in the eco-destructive economy. We are all hooked on dirty energy and polluting trade, and it’s hard to change this. It’s especially hard for oil, gas and coal companies to change track – they have investors and shareholders, and they are obliged to maintain the value in their business, and keep making profits. Yes, they should stop avoiding their responsibilities to the future. Yes, they should stop telling the rest of us to implement carbon taxation or carbon trading. They know that a comprehensive carbon price can never be established, that’s why they tell us to do it. It’s a technique of avoidance. But gathering climate storms, and accumulating unsolved climate damages, are leading the world’s energy corporations to think carefully of the risks of business as usual. How can the governments and society of the world help the energy companies to evolve ? Is more regulation needed ? And if so, what kind of political energy would be required to bring this about ? The United Nations climate change process is broken, there is no framework or treaty at hand, and the climate change social movement has stopped growing, so there is no longer any democratic pressure on the energy production companies and countries to change.

Many climate change activists talk of fear and frustration – the futility of their efforts. They are trapped into the analysis that teaches that greed and deceit are all around them. Yet change is inevitable, and the future is coming to us today, and all is quite possibly full of light. Where is this river of hope, this conduit of shining progress ? Where, this organised intention of good ?

We have to celebrate the dull. Change is frequently not very exciting. Behind the scenes, policy people, democratic leaders, social engineers, corporate managers, are pushing towards the Zero Carbon future reality. They push and pull in the areas open to them, appropriate to their roles, their paid functions. Whole rafts of national and regional policy is wedded to making better use of energy, using less energy overall, displacing carbon energy from all economic sectors.

And then there’s the progressive politics. Every leader who knows the shape of the future should strive to be a Van Jones, or a Jenny Jones, any green-tinged Jones you can think of. We should enquire of our political leaders and our public activists what flavour of environmental ecology they espouse. We should demand green policies in every party, expect clean energy support from every faction. We should not only vote progressive, we should promote future-thinking authority in all spheres of social management – a future of deeper mutual respect, of leaner economy, of cleaner energy.

The future will be tough. In fact, the future is flowing to us faster than ever, and we need resilience in the face of assured destructive change – in environment and in economy. To develop resilience we need to forgo negativity and embrace positivity. So I ask you – don’t just be anti-coal, be pro-wind, pro-solar and pro-energy conservation. Where leaders emerge from the companies and organisations that do so much harm, celebrate them and their vision of a brighter, better, lower carbon future. Where administrations take the trouble to manage their energy use, and improve their efficiency in the use of resources, applaud them, and load them with accolades. Awards may be trite, but praise can encourage better behaviour, create exemplars, inspire goodly competition. Let us encourage the people with good influence in every organisation, institution and corporation. Change is afoot, and people with genuine power are walking confidently to a more wholesome future.

Protect your soul. Don’t get locked into the rejection of evil, but hold fast to what is good. Do not conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Be strong for goodness, even as you turn your back on a life of grime.

Live the Zero Carbon future, and make it come as soon as it can.

Continue reading Obey the Future

Tillerson Talks It Down

Rex Tillerson, Chief Executive Officer of ExxonMobil, was recently invited to talk to the Council on Foreign Relations in the United States of America, as part of their series on CEOs.

His “on the record” briefing was uploaded to YouTube almost immediately as he made a number of very interesting comments.

Reactions were mixed.

The thing most commented upon was his handwaving away the significance of climate change – a little change here, a little change over there and you could almost see the traditional magician’s fez here – shazam – nothing to worry about.

In amongst all the online furore about this, was discussion of his continued Membership of the Church of Oil Cornucopia – he must have mentioned the word “technology” about seventy-five times in fifteen minutes. He clearly believes, as do his shareholders and management board, that his oil company can continue to get progressively more of the black stuff out of tar sands, oil shales or oil-bearing shale sediments and ever-tighter locked-in not naturally outgassing “natural” gas out of gas shales. At least in Northern America.

As numerous commentators with a background in Economics have claimed, well, the price of oil is rising, and that creates a market for dirtier, harder-to-reach oil. Obviously. But missing from their Law of Supply and Demand is an analysis of how oil prices are actually determined in the real world. It’s certainly not a free market – there are numerous factors that control the price of the end-product, gasoline, not least state sponsorship of industries, either through direct subsidies, or through the support of dependent industries such as car manufacture. At least in North America.

In the background, there is ongoing shuttle diplomacy between the major western economies and the assortment of regimes in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) who still have the world’s largest pool of cleaner-ish petroleum under their feet. That, naturally, has an impact on supply and pricing : even though the strength of this bonding is not as tight-fast as it historically was, there appears to have been more of it since around 2005. Or at least, that’s when I first started monitoring it consciously.

In addition to that, there are only a limited number of players in the oil industry. It is almost impossible to break into the sector without an obscene amount of capital, and exceedingly good buddy-type relationships with everybody else in the field – including sheikhs you formerly knew from when you attended specialty schools. So, no, the market in oil is not free in any sense. It is rigged – if you’ll excuse the pun.

And then there’s foundational reasons why oil prices are artificial – and may not cause a boom in the “unconventional” production that Rex Tillerson is so excited about (in a rancher-down-the-farm kind of way). Oil is still fundamental to the global economy. In fact, the price of oil underpins most business, as oil is still dominant in the transportation of goods and commodities. Despite all the techno-wizardry, it is fundamentally more costly to drill for fossil fuels in shale, than from pressure wells where oil just gloops out of the ground if you stick a pipe in.

It’s not the drilling that’s the major factor – so the technology is not the main driver of the cost. It’s the put-up, take-down costs – the costs of erecting the infrastructure for a well, or putting underground shale heating or fracturing equipment in place, and the cleaning up afterwards. Some of the technologies used to mine shales for oil use an incredible amount of water, and this all needs to be processed, unless you don’t mind desecrating large swathes of sub-tropical scenery. Or Canada.

The price of oil production has a knock-on effect, including on the very markets that underpin oil production – so increasing oil prices have a cyclic forcing effect – upwards. It also has an impact on the prices of other essential things, such as food. One can see a parallel rise in the price of oil and the price of staple crops in the last few years – and the spiralling cost of grain wheat, rice and corn maize is not all down to climate change.

Oil companies are in a quandary – they need to have higher oil prices to justify their unconventional oil operations – and they also need good relationships with governments, who know they cannot get re-elected if too many people blame them for rising costs of living. Plus, there’s the global security factor – several dozen countries already have economies close to bust because of the cost of oil imports. There are many reasons to keep oil prices depressed.

Let’s ask that subtle, delicate question : why did Rex Tillerson espouse the attitudes he did when asked to go on the record ? Why belittle the effects of climate change ? The answer is partly to soothe the minds of American investors, (and MENA investors in America). If such a powerful player in the energy sector believes “we can adapt to that” about climate change, clearly behind-the-scenes he will be lobbying against excessive carbon pricing or taxation with the American federal administration.

And why be so confident that technology can keep the oil flowing, and make up for the cracks appearing in conventional supply chains by a frenzy of shale works ? Well, logically, he’s got to encourage shareholder confidence, and also government confidence, that his industry can continue to deliver. But, let’s just surmise that before he was shunted onto the stage in June, he’d had a little pre-briefing with some government officials. They would be advising him to show high levels of satisfaction with unconventional oil production growth (in America) – after all, this would act against the rollercoaster of panic buying and panic selling in futures contracts that has hit the oil markets in recent months.

So Rex Tillerson is pushed awkwardly to centre stage. Global production of oil ? No problem ! It’s at record highs (if we massage the data), and likely to get even better. At least in America. For a while. But hey, there’s no chance of oil production declining – it’s important to stress that. If everyone can be convinced to believe that there’s a veritable river of oil, for the forseeable future, then oil prices will stay reasonable, and we can all carry on as we are. Nothing will crash or burn. Except the climate.

Rex Tillerson’s interview on global (American) oil production may have been used to achieve several propaganda aims – but the key one, it seems to me, was to talk down the price of oil. Of course, this will have a knock-on effect on how much unconventional oil is affordable and accessible, and maybe precipitate a real peak in oil production – just the thing he’s denying. But keeping the price of oil within a reasonable operating range is more important than Rex Tillerson’s impact on the American Presidential elections, or even Rex Tillerson’s legacy.

Just like they said it would be – how extreme weather is proving climate change theory

Nature has been sending a strong, chaotic message to many people in the last few months – drought, floods, storms, and very unusual temperatures and weather events.

Public communicators of science have been explaining the underlying phenomena – the ENSO cycle in the Pacific Ocean has been flipping winds and sea surface temperatures from a condition known as La Nina, towards the El Nino configuration; plus, in the northern hemisphere, wind flow high above our heads has been erratic.

Scientists have been careful not to claim every extreme weather event as proof of climate change theory. After all, any one violent storm or unprecedented high could be just that – freak – never to be repeated. Climatologists instead talk of “loading the climate dice”, a way to explain that extreme weather is more likely in a warming world.

Reticence and restraint are in evidence, however, now is a prime moment to assert, without triumphalism, that all this crazy weather does indeed offer confirmation of climate change theory – everything is happening just the way the atmospheric scientists said it would.

Arctic amplification

There is no doubt that surface of the Earth is warming up, and the Arctic region of the globe is warming faster than anywhere else. This is to be expected in a world with added Greenhouse Effect from rising carbon dioxide levels in the air. The climatologists projected that this would happen, due to localised additional heating resulting from the side effects of melting ice, snow and permafrost in the northern pole. Antarctica, on the other hand, would not show the same kind of strong “albedo” feedback response as it was still too cold and ice-and-snow bound and surrounded by isolating ocean and wind currents.

Up there, where the air is clear

Scientists predicted that because of Arctic amplification, the profile of the planet’s atmosphere would change under global warming conditions. And so it has. The tropopause – the place where the lower, thicker atmosphere – the troposhere – meets the upper, thinner stratosphere, has shifted, and the temperature change profile or “inversion” at this height has also been modified. While the air close to the Earth’s surface has become warmer, the air in the stratosphere has become colder. All just as the scientists predicted would happen.

Jet stream weaker and loopier

Close to the surface of the planet, wind tracks and the passage of storms, pressure systems and clouds are turbulent and pretty chaotic. But above this zone, winds flow freely. The winds stream because the atmosphere drags whilst the Earth turns. Because of the general patterns of billowing air below them, jet streams are usually centred at particular places – the polar jets at around 30 degrees angle from the poles, the subtropical jets at around 30 degrees from the Equator.

Atmospheric scientists have been monitoring these winds for change, as the models indicated that the northern polar jet, in particular, would shift its position northwards, because of the other climate changes, and weaken. As it weakened, they worked out that the normal wavy kinks in the jet stream would become big loops, and maybe even lock into certain shapes for longer than usual, a situation known as a blocking event.

Wobbly weather

Because jet streams have an impact on the movement of weather systems further down, the scientists projected that the more meandering jet stream would carry weather systems out of their usual tracks, and also create bubbles of unusual temperature. Normally cold places would see heatwaves, normally hot places would have cold snaps, and everywhere would experience unseasonal and more extreme weather. And this is exactly what we have been seeing.

The number of freak weather events is mounting, along with insurance company manager blood pressure readings. The flooding and drought that would be expected with the periodic Pacific ENSO system flip from La Nina to El Nino have been highly damaging, and when the final accounting is done, probably more damaging than previously.

The food on the table

Climate change scientists have long predicted altered patterns and increased variability of rainfall with global warming. There are real concerns that farmers can no longer predict when, or for how long, it will rain, and this is affecting major food growing regions. The major global rice, wheat and maize corn harvests are at risk, and recent years of failings have dented confidence and ballooned prices.

Strange weather is impacting on fruit and vegetable growing, as seasons are becoming unclear and even swapping their normal order. The weather has gone wrong, and this is exactly what the scientists have been warning us about for several decades in official reports. How much easier would we have accepted changing realities if we had understood the language of the early research papers from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change !

BP Biofuels : Murders & Acquisitions ?

[ The empty billboard at Highams Park train station, that had previously boasted an advertisement for BP’s Olympic public relations mission, after I complained about it. ]

I can see it now – a shimmering summer London afternoon – the heat radiating from the newly constructed sports track, and all television eyes on the shiny BP Biofuels filling station.

Oh, you’ll have choice. Which “green” fuel shall we choose for the Olympic village van ? Bioethanol, biodiesel or biobutanol ? The bright white and metal filling station will be glowing like an saving angel in a storm, with the friendly, homely green and yellow BP star flower tattooed across it.

But while you’re drinking in the public relations, “Oh look ! BP goes green !”, you will be living a distraction, like a child hypnotised by glinting gemstones. You will not be looking further than the pump station podium, to the full context, where lies a narrative rich in troubling complexity, harrowing tales that somehow never quite make it to the bread-and-circus mainstream media.

1. BP Biofuels is growing by acquisition, not in-house development

It is clear from the outset that BP Biofuels is a greenwash mirage – the “world class” fossil fuel oil and gas company are not tending to dirty their engineers’ hands with actually making biofuels themselves. What BP Biofuels has been doing is leveraging their ecological reputation by making purchases of already-existing companies – for example, Tropical Bioenergia in Brazil.

Where they have entered into a more joint venture, things are a bit rocky, for example, at Vivergo Fuels in Hull, England, which was due to open in early 2012, no, I mean “late spring”, no actually “later in the year”.

And where they have been unable to acquire or merger, they’ve been taking to the law courts to suppress the competition, as with Gevo in Minnesota in the United States of America.

2. Land grabbing in the Brazilian Cerrado and the socioeconomic fallout

Although BP Biofuels are claiming that they are developing advanced biofuels with due care for sustainability, there are continuing problems with land use change in the Brazilian Cerrado, which is documented as displacing indigenous people, and perhaps even partly behind the murder of social activists in the region.

BP Biofuels is making use of the highly unequal Brazilian economy by using low-skilled or unskilled landless people in the area. As usual, the BP company reports focus on the safety of their employees – they claim that mechanisation of sugarcane harvesting is improving the wellbeing of their workers – but they are not addressing the economic disadvantage that forces people to work for extremely low wages in this business.

3. Ecosystem destruction by agrifuel/agrofuel farming

Sugarcane plantations have been highlighted as causing detrimental effects to soils, even causing stress on local water supplies.

4. The GM crop menace

At least one company specialising in the sale of agrochemicals, I mean genetically modified crops adapted for use with patented agrochemicals, is active alongside the BP Biofuels concerns. It is possible that there will be extensive crossover between the energy and GM crops companies – not only in the ownership of the genome of energy crops such as GM sugarcane, but also GM trees – to be used to build carbon credits for the large international companies growing plantations in Brazil.

5. Buggy biofuels will remain a niche in the vehicle fuel market

Biofuels made by any process that involves microorganisms suffer from one unique problem – speed – or rather, lack of it. There does not appear to be much evidence that any bio-activated production of biofuels – whether it be fermentation for ethanol, or algae grown for oil – can be sped up. This indicates that biofuels grown from bugs are likely to remain relatively small-scale in the global fuels markets – adding weight to the arguments from companies such as BP for drilling for fossil fuels in the Arctic Ocean and offshore in Africa, South America and Asia.

[ NOTE WELL : Before you mentino it, yes, this post does not have much in the way of links, in fact, none at all. That’s because I’m still compiling sources on this subject and hope to write it up properly later on. If you’re keen to find out more, Google knows everything, just about. ]

The Island Prescient

Video Credit : Dogwoof

The message today is taken from the Book of Psalms, chapter 104, an anthology of holy songs recognised by both Jews and Christians as being divinely inspired.

I have heard and read some Christian leaders, including North Americans and Australians, claim that global warming isn’t happening, because they believe that the Bible teaches that dangerous sea level rise is impossible, based on the contents of verses 5 to 9.

“You set earth on a firm foundation
so that nothing can shake it, ever.
You blanketed earth with ocean,
covered the mountains with deep waters;
Then you roared and the water ran away –
your thunder crash put it to flight.
Mountains pushed up, valleys spread out
in the places you assigned them.
You set boundaries between earth and sea;
never again will earth be flooded.” (The Message)

These verses contain a reference to the Noah’s Ark story – the Biblical account that encapsulates a very widespread oral tradition of worldwide inundation. Some scientists believe these narratives are an echo of very real events, and that the Epic of Gilgamesh also records severe drought (corresponding to the Bible story of Joseph in Egypt):-

Continue reading The Island Prescient

Living Life and LOAFing It

CHRISTIAN ECOLOGY LINK
PRESS RELEASE

Living Life and LOAFing It – Green Christians ask churches to “Use your LOAF !” on sourcing sustainable food

In the run up to Easter, Christian Ecology Link is asking supporters to think and act on how they source food for their church communities, with the aim of reducing the impact of unsustainable agriculture on their local area, and the wider world.

CEL have launched a new colour leaflet on the LOAF programme principles in time for Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras), or Pancake Day, on 21st February 2012.

Continue reading Living Life and LOAFing It

The Last Battle

The “Statue of Liberty” or Saint John’s Lamb of God ?

Britain’s real enemy is not Iran.

The real enemy is the mismanagement of the Earth’s energy resources.

The last battle is to overcome the misdeeds of those who have commandeered and wasted the Earth’s energy resources – and that includes ourselves.

It should not be a violent dispute, for aggression and the use of weapons are morally unjustifiable. But all the same, it will be a genuine, Titanic, struggle.

As C. S. Lewis portrays with so much resonance, it matters little under which flag or title we serve or belong – what matters is our allegiance to the precepts of divine honour, holy devotion and right dealings with other people :-

“Why did the faithful Taarkan end up getting to come into Narnia ? Usually Lewis writes allegorically so is he trying to tell us something when a worshipper of Tash is allowed to enter the new Narnia ? Any thoughts ? …It wasn’t the name that mattered, but rather the conduct of the Taarkan and how he chose to see and do things. He didn’t believe in the cruelty and underhanded ways his countryman were doing things, but rather in honour and a code of conduct. So even though the Taarkan thought he was worshipping Tash, the whole time he was actually worshipping Aslan [Turkish for “Lion”] through his thoughts and deeds. So when the time came for the end of the world and judgement, he was placed where his heart had always led him.”

For those who recognise the twin threats from climate change and energy depletion, we realise that there is hard work ahead. Our natural aim is to protect ourselves; and the moral consequence is that we are obliged to protect the other – because both climate change and energy depletion are global problems.

Climate change hits the poorest the hardest – already, significant changes in rainfall and weather patterns have created long-term drought, encroaching coastal and inland inundation, crop losses and enforced migration. And it’s only going to get worse. It’s so terrible we could not even wish it on our enemies – it teaches us that nobody is an enemy.

To solve climate change, we need to change our energy systems. Some hail the depletion of hydrocarbon and coal energy resources as a gift that will help us resolve the emissions problem and prevent dangerous climate change, by making a virtue of necessity – but the situation is not that simple.

The reaction of the world’s authorities, wealth controllers and corporate proprietors to the winding down of fossil fuel energy resources has so far been complex, and there are many indications that warfare, both military and economic, has been conducted in order to secure access to energy.

This may be the way of the lion in us all, but it is not the way of The Lamb. The Lamb sacrifices all that others value so that he is qualified to bring about a new universal regime of peace and responsible autonomy – a kingdom of priests, pastors with mutual respect.

We are called to become good stewards of each other and the Earth. The gentle Lamb of God will judge our hearts.

The Book of the Revelation to Saint John the Divine, Chapter 4 :-

“…I looked and saw a door that opened into heaven. Then the voice that had spoken to me at first and that sounded like a trumpet said, “Come up here ! I will show you what must happen next.” Right then the Spirit took control of me, and there in heaven I saw a throne and someone sitting on it. The one who was sitting there sparkled like precious stones of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow that looked like an emerald surrounded the throne. Twenty-four other thrones were in a circle around that throne. And on each of these thrones there was an elder dressed in white clothes and wearing a gold crown. Flashes of lightning and roars of thunder came out from the throne in the center of the circle. Seven torches, which are the seven spirits of God, were burning in front of the throne. Also in front of the throne was something that looked like a glass sea, clear as crystal…And as they worshiped the one who lives forever, they placed their crowns in front of the throne and said, “Our Lord and God, you are worthy to receive glory, honour, and power. You created all things, and by your decision [and for your pleasure] they are and were created…”

The Book of the Revelation to Saint John the Devine, Chapter 5

“In the right hand of the one sitting on the throne I saw a scroll that had writing on the inside and on the outside. And it was sealed in seven places. I saw a mighty angel ask with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals ?” No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or see inside it. I cried hard because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or see inside it. Then one of the elders said to me, “Stop crying and look ! The one who is called both the `Lion from the Tribe of Judah’ and `King David’s Great Descendant’ has won the victory. He will open the book and its seven seals.” Then I looked and saw a Lamb standing in the center of the throne…The Lamb looked as if it had once been killed. It had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God, sent out to all the earth. The Lamb went over and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who sat on the throne. After he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders knelt down before him. Each of them had a harp and a gold bowl full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. Then they sang a new song, “You are worthy to receive the scroll and open its seals, because you were killed. And with your own blood you bought for God people from every tribe, language, nation, and race. You let them become kings and serve God as priests, and they will rule on earth.””

Leaders of the powerful nations – put aside your death-hastening technology.

Let there be a low carbon energy peace on a climate-stable Earth.


Additional Readings

http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Galatians%203:7-9&version=NIV

“…Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles [non-Jewish people] by faith, and announced the gospel [good news of God’s love and forgiveness] in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith…”

http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Galatians%203:26-29&version=NIV

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized [ritual bathing] into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile [non-Jewish person], neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Be_Thou_My_Vision

“Thy love in my soul and in my heart –
Grant this to me, O King of the seven heavens.

O King of the seven heavens grant me this –
Thy love to be in my heart and in my soul.”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Spirits_of_God

[ UPDATE : No, I have not taken leave of any of my senses. I was in church, All Saints in Highams Park, London E4, and many thoughts arose as I contemplated the stained glass window, with its Suffering Servant Messenger King/Lord/Master, rainbow, Alpha, Omega, Noah’s dove with the sprig of olive; and listened to the reading from Revelations 4; and sang “Be Thou My Vision” with the congregation; and considered what Epiphany the world needs at this time of intense war propaganda. There are those who declare themselves as Christian who claim that war with Iran is prophesied. This may be a fringe view, but the narrative infects major political discussion in the United States of America : “The problem, of course, is that rhetoric can have political effects that narrow the options available to decisionmakers. If you’ve publicly declared Iran’s nuclear program sufficiently threatening to warrant initiating a potentially catastrophic war and then sanctions fail to achieve their defined goal, you may have a hard time walking back from that threat.” ]

Biomassacre : Agrofuels Aggro

Stop Biomassacre Subsidies from You and I Films on Vimeo.

The UK Government has a neat plan – meet a considerable proportion of the nation’s electricity needs by burning biomass and biofuels : wood, waste wood, agricultural residues, palm oil, maize ethanol and such-like.

They are even considering setting up a generous subsidy, the kind of subsidy that would encourage massive imports of biomass and bioliquids.

Without care and regulatory checks and balances, the net effect will almost certainly be rainforest deforestation, land grabbing in under-developed nations, and economic problems for the growing biomass heat movement in the UK.

Most people probably think burning wood, wood waste and plant-derived fuels to make power sounds like a good energy idea – stop burning coal and start burning trees – has to be better for the planet, surely ?

There are a number of really deep problems with this agenda. Almuth Ernsting of Biofuelwatch told me this weekend that burning biomass for electricity generation is incredibly inefficient.

She said the UK Government has apparently heard concerns about the burning of bioliquids such as the biofuel bioethanol for power generation, and it shouldn’t be included in the subsidy arrangement.

However, biomass-fired power generation is still set to receive support – although it is still being depicted as making use of agroforestry residues, and all sourced within the country – judging by a recent permission for a biomass burning plant in Yorkshire.

Generous subsidies for burning biofuels to generate electricity will encourage the combustion of food-quality oils, imported from across the world, exacerbating the existing problems with the destruction of tropical rainforest for commercial gain.

Offering significant subsidies for burning biomass for power generation will most probably trigger further logging of virgin rainforest, as it would be cheap to produce and export to Britain.

Even if biomass were sourced in the United Kingdom – with restrictions on imports from areas of the world where there is extensive land grabbing and deforestation occurring – the subsidy would encourage the burning of wood products for generating power instead of being used in the most efficient way – to heat homes.

Almuth Ernsting said, “the big energy companies are going to burn that much wood, small heat providers won’t be able to compete.” The same would be true of street-scale biomass combined heat and power (CHP) proposals.

Almuth Ernsting and others have pointed out that the UK Government public consultation on the subsidy ends on 12th January 2012, but that even after that date, people are being encouraged to write to their Member of Parliament to express views.

Another group, nope, is also calling for citizen action :-

http://nope.org.uk/

In an e-mail to joabbess.com, Almuth Ernsting offered extra resources :-

“All the materials related to our campaign against subsidies for biomass and biofuel electricity can be found here :-”

http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/uk-campaign/rocs_overview/

“A briefing about the impacts of ROCs for biomass, biofuels and waste incineration :-”
http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/2011/rocs_impacts/

“A briefing to hand or send to MPs :-”
http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/2011/rocs_mps/

“A guide to lobbying MPs on this :-” http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/2011/mp_guidance_rocs/

“We have got two email alerts on one page just now (http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/2011/rocs-alerts/), though we will take down the one to respond to the DECC Consultation when that closes next Thursday, while keeping the one to MPs. However, we very much encourage people to write personal letters or, even better, visit their MPs, which will have much more impact than taking part in a standard email alert.”

The Storm

On my Christmas journey, on the train from Brussels, Belgium, to the Dutch border, besides the wind turbines, I counted the number of solar electric rooftop installations I could see. My estimate was that roughly 300 kilowatts of solar could be seen from the track.

There has been an explosion of deployment. The renewable energy policies that are behind this tide of photovoltaics in Flanders seem to be working, or have been until recently.

On my journey back from Holland to England, I pondered about the polders and the low-lying landscape around me. I don’t know what river it was we crossed, but the river was only held in place by narrow banks or dikes, as it was higher than the farmland around it – waterlogged fields in some places – where parcels of land were divided by stillwater ditches instead of hedges or fences.

“Oh no, we don’t have “Mary Poppins” on Dutch TV any more at Christmas every year like we used to. We’re going to see the film “The Storm”…” said my host. Curiouser and curiouser. “De Storm” is a film that harks back to an actual historical event, the major North Sea flooding in 1953. “I remember what it was like afterwards,” says an older English relative, “I visited Belgium and Holland with my aunt and uncle just after the flooding – he wanted to visit the family war graves. We stayed in Middelburg. You could see how high the water reached. There were tide marks this high on the side of the houses, and whelks left stuck on the walls.”

The film attempts to nail down the coffin casket lid of bad weather history. By telling the narrative of major, fearful floods of the past, people are distracted from the possibility that it may happen again. History is history, and the story tells the ending, and that’s a finish to it.

However, for some people, those people who know something of the progress of the science of global warming, this film is like a beacon – a flare on a rocky landing strip – lighting the way to the future crash of the climate and the rising of sea levels, which will bring havoc to The Netherlands, Dutch engineers or no Dutch engineers.

We have to be prepared for change, major change. If you or anyone you know has Dutch relatives and friends, think about whether you can invite them to live with you in future if things get really bad. One or two really bad storms combined with excessive tides and a few centimetres of sea level rise could be all it takes to wreck the country’s ability to organise water and destroy a significant amount of agricultural land.

“I’ve been studying Climate Change science”, I told another host. “You believe in Climate Change ?”, he asked, somewhat incredulously. “It’s 200 years of science”, I replied, smiling, “but we probably shouldn’t discuss it. I don’t think it would be very productive.”

The Problem of Powerlessness #2

On Wednesday, I received a telephone call from an Information Technology recruitment consultancy. They wanted to know if I would be prepared to provide computer systems programming services for NATO.

Detecting that I was speaking with a native French-speaker, I slipped into my rather unpracticed second language to explain that I could not countenance working with the militaries, because I disagree with their strategy of repeated aggression.

I explained I was critical of the possibility that the air strikes in Libya were being conducted in order to establish an occupation of North Africa by Western forces, to protect oil and gas interests in the region. The recruitment agent agreed with me that the Americans were the driving force behind NATO, and that they were being too warlike.

Whoops, there goes another great opportunity to make a huge pile of cash, contracting for warmongers ! Sometimes you just have to kiss a career goodbye. IT consultancy has many ethical pitfalls. Time to reinvent myself.

I’ve been “back to school” for the second university degree, and now I’m supposed to submit myself to the “third degree” – go out and get me a job. The paucity of available positions due to the poor economic climate notwithstanding, the possibility of ending up in an unsuitable role fills me with dread. One of these days I might try to write about my experiences of having to endure several kinds of abuse whilst engaged in paid employment : suffice it to say, workplace inhumanity can be unbearable, some people don’t know what ethical behaviour means, and Human Resources departments always take sides, especially with vindictive, manipulative, micro-managers. I know what it’s like to be powerless.

Continue reading The Problem of Powerlessness #2

Occupy your mind #5

Image Credit : npmeijer

It rained last night in London. Cold rain. And the wind was blowing. And the poor little Occupyers were on my mind.

So I cooked up some vegan fare and this morning went down to St Paul’s Cathedral to try and offer nourishment to the be-weathered masses. Most of the placards and signs were gone, minimising the message, but the tent city was still there.

As usual at political protests, I took certain measures to disguise myself, and carried no form of identification.

Signs of the global economic meltdown – the train I wanted to catch was cut short – probably by the theft of metal cabling. It’s wrong to make the transport system grind to a halt – so many people depend on it. But I can understand why people are press-ganged into stealing metals – poverty is on the rise.

It took me ages to reach St Paul’s Cathedral, and I went straight to the kitchen tent to unload lunch, and grab a coffea (tea mixed with coffee) and breakfast mini-croissant.

Continue reading Occupy your mind #5

Ed Miliband : Squeezed Middle

Ed Miliband, leader of the British Labour Party, addressed the pre-party conference cameras in uncustomary casual attire, shelving his favourite suit, dazzlingly shiny tie and white shirt, you know, the one with the fat turned-over cuffs.

He sought to assure the nation that his one man mission is to relieve the financial pressure on the hardworking “squeezed middle” – fighting their corner against the profiteering railway companies and the moneygrabbing energy companies.

The little snippet of BBC TV News 24 that I saw cut to the correspondent raising doubts about whether this cost-of-living protection strategy would have any impact on the wider economy – whether measures to control transport fares and energy bills would create economic growth.

What does this little word “growth” mean to the BBC TV reporter, I asked myself. Does he think it means increasing employment, increasing incomes ? And how could employment be increased ? By increasing the “consumption” of goods, energy, water, transportation and knowledge economy services ? And how can this “aggregate demand” consumption be increased, if unemployment remains high and incomes remain stagnant ?

Allowing the utility and transportation companies to raise their prices allows them to remain profitable and build their businesses, presumably creating employment as well as giving a return to investors – those who have their savings in pension funds – where the fund managers invest in energy and transport. Why not allow energy and transport prices to rise ? People can learn to spend more on these valuable services, surely ? Pensioners will have their funds protected, and energy and transport businesses will stay profitable, paying tax into the state.
Continue reading Ed Miliband : Squeezed Middle

The New Sciontist : BP Subvertisers

Image Credit : Liberate Tate (Event Flyer)

The New Scientist magazine must be hard up. They’ve already bowed to economic pressure and taken the “king’s shilling” from the oil and gas industry by running Statoil advertisements, at least one made to look like a normal New Scientist article, giving Natural Gas a makeover as desirable as washing powder – all clean and reliable and loved by obsessives everywhere. Now they appear to have lost their power for critical reasoning and sunk to being suckers as billboards for BP spin, taking a front cover foldout for biofuels, with what I think is a completely deceitful portrayal of BP’s business.

Continue reading The New Sciontist : BP Subvertisers

Mark Lynas : Oxford Ragwort

Image Credit : Mark Holderness

Mark Lynas betrayed more of his intellectual influences this week, when he tweeted as @mark_lynas “Colony collapse disorder – honeybees – not quite the environmental story it seemed:
http://breakthroughjournal.org/content/authors/hannah-nordhaus/an-environmental-journalists-l.shtml

Hmmm. That’s a piece from a new generation of Nordhaus-es, Hannah, writing for the Breakthrough Institute, founded by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, authors of “The Death of Environmentalism“, a document I truly regret wasting the paper to print. As I read it, I started scratching hot red comments in the margins, so many, that in the end the pages were more red than black-and-white.

Hannah’s piece, like her book, “The Beekeeper’s Lament“, is more delicate and considered, I think, but still shreds decades of environmental thought and much science, without any justification in my view.

She writes, “…very quickly, many journalists settled on neonicotinoids — pesticides that are applied to more than 140 different crops — as the likely culprit. It seemed a familiar story of human greed and
shortsightedness. With their callous disregard for nature, big chemical companies and big agriculture were killing the bees — and threatening our own survival. The honey bee’s recent problems have occasioned a similar rush to judgment. Before any studies had been conducted on the causes of CCD, three books and countless articles came out touting pesticides as the malady’s cause. Had I been able to turn a book around quickly, I might have leapt to the same conclusions. But I was late to the party, and as more studies came out and I came to better understand the science, I became less and less convinced that pesticides provided a convincing explanation for beekeepers’ losses…”

Her argument appears to be that pesticides are bad for other pollinators, not bees; but that this makes life harder for the bees, who then have to do all that pollination instead :-

http://naturebeebookclub.wordpress.com/2011/05/02/the-beekeepers-lament-nordhaus-hannah/

“In steps John Miller, a boundingly energetic and charismatic beekeeper, who tasks himself with the care and the sustainable keeping of honeybees. He is descended from America’s first migratory beekeeper, N.E. Miller, who, at the beginning of the 20th century, transported thousands of hives from one crop to another, working the Idahoan clover in summer and the Californian almonds in winter. Back then beekeepers used to pay farmers to keep a few dozen hives on their land. But now farmers pay beekeepers millions of dollars to have their crops pollinated by upwards of ten thousand hives. With the rise of the monocrop and increasingly efficient pesticides, there are simply not enough natural pollinators to complete the massive task of sexing-up millions of acres of almond groves.”

This kind of writing seems to me like a lot of anti-green writing, where a straw man is set up, only to bow down and worship it. The central framework of fallacy appears to be :-

a. Environmentalists are zealous, and therefore crazy.
b. They believe pesticides are dangerous to bees.
c. They must be wrong, and pesticides can’t be all that bad for bees.

Let’s just read a little around that idea, shall we ? Let’s start with Wikipedia, just to make it easy :-

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pesticide_toxicity_to_bees

“For the majority of pesticides that are registered in the United States, EPA only requires a short-term contact toxicity test on adult honeybees. In some cases, the agency also receives short-term oral toxicity tests, which are required in Europe. EPA’s testing requirements do not account for sub-lethal effects to bees or effects on brood or larvae. Their testing requirements are also not designed to determine effects in bees from exposure to systemic pesticides. With Colony Collapse Disorder, whole hive tests in the field are needed in order to determine the effects of a pesticide on bee colonies. To date, there are very few scientifically valid whole hive studies that can be used to determine the effects of pesticides on bee colonies.”

Actually, it’s not just “mad environmentalists” who are concerned about the effect of pesticides on honeybees. Here’s just one scholarly paper :-

http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0009754
“High Levels of Miticides and Agrochemicals in North American Apiaries: Implications for Honey Bee Health”, Mullin et el., 2010.

What has this got to do with Climate Change. I can hear you asking ?

Well, it’s like this – in order to do intensive farming, agricultural chemicals are used on crops. Specialised herbicides, pesticides and fungicides are used on genetically modified crops, along with chemical fertilisers.

In order to convince people to accept Genetically Modified food, they’ve got to be encouraged to believe that pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are really alright.

Hence, pesticides cannot be fingered as a problem for bees, otherwise people might not accept GM crops…

Yes, it’s coming back round to tampering with our food genes. And it’s being sold to us as a cure for Climate Change.

At the bottom of this page there’s a transcript of a snippet from a television programme I was unlucky and incensed enough to have viewed yesterday. Called “The Wonder of Weeds”, it took us through the basic logic of modern-day plant breeding, including the role for genetic modification of plants – without once mentioning the words “life sciences”, “bioengineering”, “biotechnology” or even “genetic modification”.

The GM crops are presented as being the saviour of humanity, without once mentioning why conditions in the world may be damaging crops in new ways in the future, a lot of which will be due to climate change.

There was the usual category error – of confusing science with technology. Let’s repeat that one again. Technology is when you play with the genes of a crucial staple crop like wheat. Science is when you discover, maybe 25 years later, that it has had knock-on effects in the food chain. Oh dear. Too late for remorse – the genetically modified genome is now globally distributed.

The presenter of the programme, Chris Collins, didn’t even spot the cognitive dissonance of his own script. In the first part of the programme he talks about common weeds that are foreign invaders in the UK and cause untold trouble. In the second part of the programme he doesn’t even blink when he talks about modifying crops at the genetic level – not questioning that introducing foreign genes into vital crops might have detrimental, unforeseen impacts – rather like a microscopic version of the imported “plant pariahs”, Buddleia davidii, Rhododendron ponticum and Japanese knotweed. Oh yes, Oxford Ragwort, another introduction to the UK, is not such a hazard, but you can’t guarantee what happens when you get plant invaders.

I find it astonishing that such obvious propaganda on behalf of corporate plans to modify crops for their own private market profit is allowed into BBC television programming.

Climate Change is being used as the Trojan Horse rationale in which to bring GM crops to the UK, and elsewhere, as part of international agricultural development programmes. This is the ideological equivalent of a rogue gene inserted into the DNA of science. I find this an outrage.

I recommend you check the work of GM Freeze to counter this braintwisting manipulation.

And if you want a little bit more of an insider on what Dr Alison Smith, featured in the BBC show, is actually doing with her amazing knowledge of plants – it seems her work encompasses improving the production of alcoholic beverages, not feeding the world. I kid you not :-

http://www.foodsecurity.ac.uk/news-events/news/2011/110615-pr-improved-crops-food-security.html
“Glucosidase inhibitors: new approaches to malting efficiency : Alison Smith, John Innes Centre : Improving the efficiency with which barley grain is converted into beer and whisky would reduce waste and energy consumption in the brewing industry, as well as ensuring profitability. This project aims to improve the efficiency of malting, the first stage in beer and whisky production, by building on new discoveries about how barley grains convert starch to sugars when they germinate.”

What is the BBSRC ? This is a research programme that’s “infested” with corporate people – whose agenda is money-making, not philanthropy.

And what’s genetic modification of crops got to do with Mark Lynas ? Well, just read his new book, “The God Species“, and you’ll find out.

The plain fact in my view is that we do not need genetically modified crops in Europe. In Africa, they’re too poor to afford the chemicals to use with the GM seeds. And in the not-too-distant future, the price of the chemicals will shoot up because of Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas, making GM crops inaccessible to those North Americans who currently use it. So this particular technology takes us nowhere forward at all. We need to manage water and the root causes of poverty rather than tamper with genes.



http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01224kv/hd/The_Wonder_of_Weeds/

BBC 4 TV
Saturday 25 June 2011

“The Wonder of Weeds”

“Travelling around the UK and meeting experts in botanical history, genetics, pharmaceuticals and wild food, Chris Collins tells the story behind the plants most people call weeds.”

45 minutes 20 seconds

…And the massive irony of all this is that the very crop that has become a monoculture at the expense of weeds, wheat, was once a weed itself…

Plant scientist Professor Nick Harberd of Oxford University has researched the moment a weed became wheat.

Nick : “About half a million years ago, there was spontaneously, in the wild, nothing to do with human beings, a cross-hybridisation, a cross-pollination if you like, between two wild grass species…”

“…So one can imagine that humans were cultivating this wheat [10,000 to 12,000 years ago] in a field and then by chance a weed was growing within that field. And there was again a spontaneous hydridisation event beteen the cultivated wheat and this wild grass that was growing in that imaginary field.”

“The whole process made a plant that was bigger and more vigorous. And as a result of this we ended up with the wheat crop we all grow and feed off today.”

Nick can exactly recreate exactly how wheat and weeds crossbred in a lab today…

47 minutes 40 seconds

Weeds helped us out millenia ago and now scientists in the 21st Century have turned to weeds once again for one of the most important discoveries in plant biology ever.

It could save lives by creating a super wheat.

It all took place here, at the John Innes Institute in Norwich.

Alison : “So come on in Chris. You need to sterilise your feet here…”

Chris : “So this means we’re not bringing in anything nasty from outside…”

Alison : “That’s right. No thrips or viruses or anything else that might come in.”

Dr Alison Smith is head of Metabolic Biology here.

Chris : “This is the first time I’ve ever dressed up to go and see a weed.”

Alison : “We look after our weeds very carefully here.”

Alison’s team have been studying a small common weed called Arabidopsis [thaliana] or Thale Cress, which is now used as the model to map the DNA of all plants on the planet.

Alison : “Well this weed is incredibly easy for us to work on. And all plant scientists almost in the world take information from this weed. And many plant scientists only work on this little weed.”

“The reason why it’s really useful is that like a lot of weeds it goes from seed to seed really quickly, so we can get through lots and lots of generations, and that makes it easy for us to do genetic studies to understand how the weed behaves and what all of its genes are doing.”

“But also, about 20 years ago, plant scientists got together. And at that time they were working on lots and lots of different plants. And they decided, let’s work on one plant together that can become the model from which we can develop our understanding of plants.”

“So about the same time as we were sequencing the human genome, we started to sequence the genome of this little weed. So in 2000 we got the entire gene sequence of this weed, all of the genes are known, the same time as we understood the human genome.”

Chris : “So really then, this small weed is a blueprint for all plants ?”

Alison : “This is the model for all plant life, that’s right.”

But the sequencing of the Arabidopsis genome is not just for the sake of it. Alison and her 600 colleagues are unlocking the secrets of the plant’s success, like its speedy growth rate and its hardiness, and are transfering those abilities to the crops that matter to us, like wheat.

This is one of the most important discoveries in plant biology ever, where one of the humblest weeds could save millions of lives around the world.

Chris : “Now we’ve seen our magic weed and you’ve got this genetic blueprint. How do you take that blueprint and apply it to arable crops like this wheat ?”

Alison : “Well we can start to tackle, using this blueprint, some of the real problems that we have with our crops like disease, for example. Our crops are quite susceptible to some diseases. We’ve been able to breed for that, but we haven’t known what genes we’re breeding for.”

“In Arabidopsis, Arabidopsis gets diseases as well, we can understand exactly how it’s resistant to those diseases. We know what genes it needs. And we can say right, where are those genes in wheat ? Can we make sure that our new wheats have the genes that make them resistant to disease ?”

“Another example would be how the wheat exactly makes its seeds. Obviously, this is the really important bit of wheat. This is what we eat. This is human food. We understand a bit about the process of about how these little seeds are formed, but in Arabidopsis we understand in absolute molecular detail how those seeds are made, and that helps us to understand how we make to make better seeds, bigger seeds, more nutritious seeds in wheat. We can apply that knowlege in wheat.”

Well, I know scientists don’t like to be too dramatic, but I’m going to be, because of simply what I’ve found out. Weeds can play a big role in arable crops like wheat, or even maybe the future of humanity.

Alison : “I think it was the starting point for what has to be a revolution in our crops, a revolution in understanding how they work and making them work better and doing that fast.”

“It’s taken our ancestors, you know, millenia, to get to this point. We can’t afford to take the next step in millenia. We have to take it in tens of years or less. And in order to do that, you’re absolutely right, the information from Arabidopsis has been the key to pushing us forward.”

It’s the resilience of weeds and the insights they give us into helping crops survive that makes them amongst the most useful plants on the planet…

Fiona Harvey : Astonishing Admissions

From the consistent and unrelenting rise in global carbon dioxide emissions, you would never have guessed that there’d been a downturn. But that’s because energy is cheap, and easily substitutes for economic production, labour and resources – within limits.

Fiona Harvey has gathered and presents some astonishing admissions from various key speakers on the issue of emissions, ahead of the annual mid-year United Nations climate change talks in Bonn :-

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/may/29/carbon-emissions-nuclearpower

“Worst ever carbon emissions leave climate on the brink : Exclusive: Record rise, despite recession, means 2C target almost out of reach : Fiona Harvey, Environment correspondent, guardian.co.uk, Sunday 29 May 2011 : Greenhouse gas emissions increased by a record amount last year, to the highest carbon output in history, putting hopes of holding global warming to safe levels all but out of reach, according to unpublished estimates from the International Energy Agency. The shock rise means the goal of preventing a temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius – which scientists say is the threshold for potentially “dangerous climate change” – is likely to be just “a nice Utopia”, according to Fatih Birol, chief economist of the IEA. It also shows the most serious global recession for 80 years has had only a minimal effect on emissions, contrary to some predictions…”

Continue reading Fiona Harvey : Astonishing Admissions

Breadline Cairo : Democracy’s Challenge

Well, Mubarak’s made an exit – and real Egyptian democracy can begin – as long as the army don’t get crowd control ideas above their station and the old elites don’t interfere with the process of free and fair elections.

But democracy is not going to solve the problem of the price of bread.

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20082-can-complexity-theory-explain-egypts-crisis.html
http://climateprogress.org/2011/02/09/un-food-agency-severe-drought-threatens-wheat-crop-china-food-security/
http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2011/jan/28/climate-change-food-bubble
http://climateprogress.org/2011/02/07/economist-krugman-high-cost-of-food-extreme-weather-climate-change-tunisia-egypt/
http://climateprogress.org/2011/02/04/contribution-of-high-food-prices-to-mideast-unrest/

Climate Change plays a part in creating scarcity and irregularity in crop production :-

http://www.usda.gov/oce/commodity/wasde/latest.pdf

But it’s what happens next that’s the killer :-

http://www.wdm.org.uk/stop-bankers-betting-food/what-problem

“Food Speculation : What is the problem? : Banks, hedge funds and pension funds are betting on food prices in the financial markets, causing drastic price swings in staple foods such as wheat, maize and soy…”

http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/johann-hari/johann-hari-how-goldman-gambled-on-starvation-2016088.html

“By now, you probably think your opinion of Goldman Sachs and its swarm of Wall Street allies has rock-bottomed at raw loathing. You’re wrong. There’s more. It turns out that the most destructive of all their recent acts has barely been discussed at all. Here’s the rest. This is the story of how some of the richest people in the world – Goldman, Deutsche Bank, the traders at Merrill Lynch, and more – have caused the starvation of some of the poorest people in the world. It starts with an apparent mystery. At the end of 2006, food prices across the world started to rise, suddenly and stratospherically. Within a year, the price of wheat had shot up by 80 per cent, maize by 90 per cent, rice by 320 per cent. In a global jolt of hunger, 200 million people – mostly children – couldn’t afford to get food any more, and sank into malnutrition or starvation. There were riots in more than 30 countries, and at least one government was violently overthrown. Then, in spring 2008, prices just as mysteriously fell back to their previous level…”

http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/lifestyle/article-23921754-the-men-who-ate-the-world-why-foodstuffs-have-shot-up-in-price.do

“The hedge fund guy sitting beside me was asked about his next plan for global domination. He’d done houses and gold – what was the new new thing? “Food,” he said between mouthfuls of lobster. “We’re piling into food. Weather’s getting weird, so there’ll be crop failures. There won’t be enough to go around.”…”

Many blessings for your newly-born democracy, Egypt, and we hope you can win the fight to secure affordable food, too.

Algae BioDiesel Report Card : Fail

The New York Times blog asks, plaintively, when algae biofuels will be economically viable :-

http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/25/the-future-of-algae-fuels-is-when/

“January 25, 2011 ; The Future of Algae Fuels Is … When? : By TOM ZELLER JR. : As I write in Tuesday’s Times, a new study from the Rand Corporation, the global policy think tank based in Santa Monica, Calif., and formed more than 60 years ago to advise the American government on military issues, suggests that Department of Defense is wasting its time exploring alternative fuels. It raised particular questions about the near-term viability of algae-based fuels, which the study’s authors considered to be more or less laboratory-level stuff — and certainly not likely to scale up to any significant extent in the next 10 years. Given that the military has gone to great lengths to publicize its ongoing efforts to go green, and in particular, algae-green, the report did not sit well with with everyone…”

The eagerness around algae biodiesel seems to stem largely from those who want something to invest in, now that fossil fuels are starting to look like a liability :-

“…Certainly a number of investors continue to bet on the promise of squeezing oil from algae in amounts substantial enough to put a dent in the use of petroleum-based fuels. And dozens of companies and academic labs are busy chasing that dream. Despite all this, the Rand study’s lead author, Jim Bartis, remained steadfastly skeptical that the technology would be ready for prime time within the next decade — and certainly not ready for widespread military use…”

Highly crucially, hypothetical research has shown that the return on investment may not be very high :-

http://environmentalresearchweb.org/blog/2011/01/the-eroi-of-algae-biofuels.html

“…What Colin discovered was that the EROI of the Reduced Case and Literature Model were 0.13 and 0.57, respectively. This shows that we have much to learn for the potential of making viable liquid fuels. Additionally, Colin’s calculations for the experimental setup (and Reduced Case analysis) show that 97% of the energy output resides in the biomass, not the bio-oil For his idealized Literature Model, 82% of the energy output was in the biomass. While these results seem discouraging, we do not have much ability to put these results into context of the rate of development of other alternative technologies and biofuels. How long did it take to get photovoltaic panels with EROI > 1 from the first working prototype in a lab? We have somewhat of an idea that it took one or two decades for the Brazilians to get reasonable EROI > 1 from using sugar cane for biomass and biofuel production (Brazilian sugar cane grown and processed in Sao Paulo is estimated near EROI = 8)…”

Can it be that venture capital is chasing an imaginary rabbit down a virtual warren ?

For just $250 (ker-ching !) you can purchase a copy of an informative report, that just might explain it all :-

http://www.oilgae.com/ref/report/digest/digest.html

Interestingly, it is noted, “The yields of oil and fuels from algae are much higher (10-25 times) than competing energy crops”. Those “energy crops” would be the genetically modified food crops that are intended for the BioEnergy agri-industry, then.

And what at the food crops that the GM scientists want to splice with ?

I think we need to understand who has intentions for which crops :-

http://greenbio.checkbiotech.org/news/gene_stack_increases_biofuel_crop_productivity

“Gene stack increases biofuel crop productivity : Thursday, January 20, 2011 : By Jim Lane : In Illinois, Chromatin announced the successful first demonstration that genes can be assembled, stacked, and expressed in sugarcane using the company’s mini-chromosome technology…Developers, however, want to insert genes that offer improvements in multiple traits – when an organism has more than one gene inserted in this process – for example, for disease resistance, insect resistance, herbicide resistance – this is called a gene stack. In 2007, for example, Monsanto and Dow introduced an eight-gene stack (SmartStax) that contained eight herbicide tolerance and insect-protection genes, including Dow’s Herculex I and Herculex RW; Monsanto’s YieldGard VT Rootworm/RR2 and YieldGard VT PRO, Roundup Ready and Liberty Link tolerance genes. Gene stacking, thereby, is foundational in the drive for higher productivity from land crops…”

“…Not every plant genome is stable enough to support extensive cross-breeding in order to introduce desired genes. One of those is sugar cane. So, let’s say you wanted to introduce several genes, not just one – for example, insect resistance, herbicide resistance, disease resistance, higher sugar concentrations, and enzymes to enable better bagasse digestion. If you could do it at all in cane – and it would be a monumental, unprecedented achievement in cross-breeding, it would take, say 13 years or so to accomplish it. It has made changes at this level uneconomical. So that’s what the Chromatin breakthrough is all about. Creating a method to bring the sort of possibilities that have materially advanced yields in, say, corn and soy, to a whole new array of energy and food crops. Opening up the door for more rapid improvement of the underlying per-acre yields. Thereby reducing the amount of acreage needed to support, say, a cellulosic ethanol or renewable diesel processing technology. Increasing thereby the radius over which biomass can be transported at economically viable rates. Making the processing plants larger, and more cost effective. Speeding up the point at which a given technology can achieve parity with fossil oil. Pushing us faster towards the scaling of energy crops and biofuels…”

“Sugarcane and other feedstocks : Chromatin has wrapped itself into a worldwide exclusive with Syngenta in sugarcane – so, for improvements in the sugarcane genome, that’s where they will come from in so far as this technology is concerned. Meanwhile, Chromatin is pretty well wrapped up in terms of licenses for its technology in corn, soy, canola and cotton. And, Chromatin said last year that it would pursue opportunities in sorghum as a developer. But there are the energy canes, and the energy grasses like switchgrass and miscanthus. Or the woods like eucalyptus or poplar. Or the aquatic species, like algae. For those platforms, this is a licensable technology…”

Tampering with the genes of some of the most important crops in the world. That’s bold. Will we accept that ?

Syngenta are going to mess with sugarcane, all in the name of Climate Change alleviation.

And where will this sugarcane be grown ? In Brazil.

And who will be farming this sugarcane for BioEthanol use ? Dirt-poor people from the landless underclass, just as now.

So, corrupting the gene pool of one of the world’s most important food crops for some dubious possible gains in energy productivity, and still not resolving the human rights issues of how this is farmed.

What a revolution !

The Year of Unceasing Rain (4)

Irony alert ? “Typhoons ? They happen all the time. It’s just a little local storm. Nothing to worry about. Happens every season or so. The locals know how to read the warning signs, and head to high ground or build their huts on stilts. Power lines down ? Oh, they’ll be strung back up in no time. And the rice paddies will benefit from all that extra rain.”

Watch out China – here comes Megi :-

One For Pakistan

Please consider signing the ONE.org petition to the International Monetary Fund to freeze Pakistan’s national debt.

The country has been subject to a cataclysm, most likely made worse by Global Warming, which is most likely mostly caused by humankind’s fossil fuel burning, mostly caused by the actions of rich people in the West and North :-

http://www.one.org/international/actnow/pakistanfloods/index.html

“OVERVIEW : The sheer scale of the floods in Pakistan is staggering and the country will need all its available resources to help it recover from this crippling crisis and to fight long-term poverty. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) – the institution that oversees debt repayments – can play a key role in this. Ensuring all of Pakistan’s debt is frozen for 2 years would mean an extra $6 billion available to help those affected.”

This is how I signed :-


Dear Dominique Strauss-Kahn, IMF Managing Director,

Please help freeze Pakistan’s debt to ensure the country’s poorest people are able to recover from the devastating floods.

I believe it is an ethical and economic inevitability that, since global economic instability will continue, all debts to undeveloped nations will need to be permanently frozen or annulled.

The aid, development and emergency organisations are struggling to make their funds cover all the current needs and disasters, and the situation is being made worse by Climate Change, and will only deteriorate.

The poor are unable to pay back, and these debts therefore are becoming odious as well as untenable.

I think it would be appropriate to begin the process of recognition of this evolution by starting with Pakistan, whose people are suffering unimaginable catastrophe to their agricultural way of life, and are at high risk in the short-term of malaria, respiratory disease and water-related digestive system infections.


If you are in the United States of America, or Europe, you can afford to buy insurance against disaster. In Pakistan, you can’t, and anyway, in this case the disaster is so overwhelming, a normal risk-based financial product simply couldn’t restore the cropland, livestock, homes, public utilities and water sources for something like 20 million people.

Insurance is all about “all for one and one for all”. For Pakistan it’s too late, too impossible, for insurance.

Go on – show you’re an altruistic human and ask for Pakistan’s national debt to be frozen !

Let’s be one, and all for Pakistan.

Hungry for Change

People often talk about the weather in relation to Climate Change, but neglect to talk about the possible obvious and inevitable side-effects – hunger and starvation.

Frontline Club will screen the film “The Hunger Season” on 1st October 2010, and follow it with a panel discussion hosted by BOND and Oxfam UK :-

http://frontlineclub.com/events/2010/10/liberation-season-screening—the-hunger-season.html?utm_source=Frontline&utm_campaign=074ce4510f-Announcing+October+events&utm_medium=email

“Across the world a massive food crisis is unfolding. 
Climate change, increasing consumption in China and India, the dash for Biofuels are causing hitherto unimagined food shortages and rocketing prices. This has already provoked unrest and violence from the Middle East to South America and there is no end in sight in the coming months. The people who are going to be most sorely affected are those already living on the razors edge of poverty, those dependent on food aid for their very survival. As commodity prices have risen by 50%, the UN Agencies have barely half the budget they need to meet the needs of 73 million hungry people they are currently feeding…”

Biofuel targets may not be the only factor behind food price rises :-

http://www.wdm.org.uk/food-speculation/great-hunger-lottery

“In The Great Hunger Lottery, the World Development Movement has compiled extensive evidence establishing the role of food commodity derivatives in destabilising and driving up food prices around the world. This in turn, has led to food prices becoming unaffordable for low-income families around the world, particularly in developing countries highly reliant on food imports. Nowhere was this more clearly seen than during the astonishing surge in staple food prices over the course of 2007-2008, when millions went hungry and food riots swept major cities around the world. The great hunger lottery shows how this alarming episode was fueled by the behaviour of financial speculators, and describes the terrible immediate impacts on vulnerable families around the world, as well as the long term damage to the fight against global poverty…”

Continue reading Hungry for Change

Are You Ready for Pakistan ?

Compassion fatigue appears to have set in early in the Western Media – yet the existential problems of simple human survival, health, shelter, food and clean drinking water have only just started in large parts of Pakistan.

I was speaking with a contact recently who is just about to go out East to help coordinate an emergency mission in the region, and my first question was, “Are you ready for Pakistan ?”, because I don’t think anybody “parachuting” into the country will be.

Plus, this may be the worst crisis that the world’s humanitarian network has faced in the last half Century, but it’s not the only one ongoing and just about to start :-

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_Pacific_typhoon_season

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_Atlantic_hurricane_season

Human interest stories have been the bread and butter of holiday media for decades – now is the time to roll cameras for the never-ending rollercoaster of disaster Climate Change is turning out to be.

It’s been raining really, really heavily, catastrophically somewhere on the planet practically non-stop since the beginning of the year.

Surely that’s not just a story, that’s a whole narrative ?

And it’s about weather, too, every journalist’s favourite subject.

Continue reading Are You Ready for Pakistan ?

What a Disaster !

Apparently, there’s no link between mounting insurance losses from natural disasters and manmade Climate Change :-

http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/23/study-finds-no-link-tying-disaster-losses-to-human-driven-warming/

Well, that’s alright then, I can just forget all about Global Warming and go and focus on something more important instead.

Thanks Andy Revkin for lightening my load, and releasing oceans of deep joy into my life :-

Continue reading What a Disaster !