tag: Climate change

May 2010

Airtricity SmartSaver Green Plan

I’m not the sort of person to provide free advertising to corporations. Nonetheless, I’m willing to make an exception in this case. A couple of years back, I switched my electricity supplier from the ESB to Bord Gáis. They were cheaper and they claimed to generate 10% more of their power from renewable sources. At the time, my research into alternative suppliers didn’t offer a better solution.

Then, at the beginnning of this year, I stumbled upon Airtricity’s Smartsaver Green Plan (click on the relevant tab on that page). Because I’d just begun a new billing period with Bord Gáis, I couldn’t switch straight away, but I put the wheels in motion. Then, a couple of months ago there was a bit of a muck up with the paperwork and the switch was delayed again (in fairness to Bord Gáis, it seems like it was an honest error by Airtricity rather than them trying to keep hold of me).

Anyhoo, the upshot of it all is that I’ve just received a letter from Airtricity informing me that I’m now, finally, on their system.

If you know anything about how national power grids work, you’ll know of course that I can’t claim the actual electrons being sucked into my home to power my appliances come directly from windfarms. However, what Airtricity guarantee is that over a year, their windfarms will add 100% of the power I use to the national grid. Barring a decision to go off-grid and self-generate (the ideal route, perhaps, but also somewhat impractical for me right now) this is the best solution available from an environmental perspective.

So well done to Airtricity for their 100% scheme. If we’re going to shift our society towards sustainability, this is the kind of thing we’ll need to be doing. I urge my Irish readers to make the switch.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Announcements

Mar 2010

The collapse of British Airways

John Band has a good analysis of the current British Airways strikes over at his place. It’s well worth a read.

He opens the piece by pointing out that BA’s “business model is unsustainable”. This is true in the sense that he describes it. But it’s also true in another sense; one that’s shared by the airline industry as a whole. Some within the industry have begun to belatedly wake up to this fact. A month or so ago, Richard Branson (of Virgin Airlines fame) had this to say…

The next five years will see us face another crunch — the oil crunch. This time, we do have the chance to prepare. The challenge is to use that time well.Richard Branson | Quoted in The Guardian

Of course, anyone who has been aware of the peak oil problem for longer than ten minutes will find themselves shaking their head in dismay at Branson’s statement. His belief that five years represents enough time to prepare for “the oil crunch” is roundly contradicted by every serious analysis of the problem that’s been carried out to date. Most famously (and arguably most authoritatively) the Hirsch Report, carried out by the US Department of Energy, has this to say about the length of time required to prepare for, and mitigate, the effects of peak oil.

Mitigation Efforts Will Require Substantial Time

Mitigation will require an intense effort over decades. This inescapable conclusion is based on the time required to replace vast numbers of liquid fuel consuming vehicles and the time required to build a substantial number of substitute fuel production facilities. Our scenarios analysis shows:

  • Waiting until world oil production peaks before taking crash program action would leave the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for more than two decades.
  • Initiating a mitigation crash program 10 years before world oil peaking helps considerably but still leaves a liquid fuels shortfall roughly a decade after the time that oil would have peaked.
  • Initiating a mitigation crash program 20 years before peaking appears to offer the possibility of avoiding a world liquid fuels shortfall for the forecast period.

Even taking this into account, there’s a very real possibility that — with regards to the modern airline industry — the problems presented by peak oil simply cannot be mitigated. Even if we had two decades, which appears not to be the case, there’s just no alternative fuel for modern commercial aircraft.

Let me stress that nobody sane is suggesting that oil or jet fuel will disappear overnight. Peak oil will result in a gradual reduction in crude oil production capacity of between 3% and 6% per annum. This will, however, be more than enough to cause massive economic upheaval of the kind that will certainly overshadow our current credit crisis*. More specifically, it’ll be enough to put an end to mass air travel in anything like the form we presently enjoy.

Put bluntly, British Airways is part of a dying industry. Flying millions of people around the world in jet aircraft is unsustainable in the short to medium term and while some form of commercial air travel will surely remain available to the extremely wealthy, the industry will soon be a tiny fraction of its current size.

I like to imagine a future — say a hundred years from now — where we have successfully weathered the twin storms of resource depletion and Climate Change. Where we have achieved, almost certainly through terrible suffering and struggle, some kind of balance with our environment. Where we have adopted an ethos and a lifestyle that allow us to look towards a sustainable future. And in this future, I imagine our great grandchildren flying across oceans in magnificent solar-powered airships.

But that’s science-fiction. A speculative future that becomes less and less likely every day we persist in ignoring the need for it.

* I happen to believe that peak oil had a part to play in precipitating the current crisis, but it was mostly a result of breathtaking folly and greed within the global political and financial establishment.

17 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2010

The essential disconnect

It’s not part of my brief to go, I’m quite satisfied with what I hear and what I see on video with the standards of the factories. It’s the job of the buyers and the ethical trade team to visit the factories.

That’s how we do it. How we keep it all going. A clothing retailer. A supermarket. A chain of petrol stations. A million other things. That chain of insulation. Our delegation of consequence and responsibility. The essential disconnect.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2010


It’s been over for a few weeks now, and the general consensus seems to be that the Copenhagen Climate Change Summit achieved nothing worthwhile. In fact, the view that the summit actively damaged efforts to combat anthropogenic climate change seems more plausible than the idea that it helped in any way.

In an attempt to save face, a few Western governments have claimed limited success for the summit… the UK wheeled out John Prescott to insist that “some progress” had been made, while the Irish environment minister described it as “underwhelming” (both of which fall a long way short of an accurate assessment). Having spent a year preparing for a ten day summit which failed to achieve a single thing of real value, it was obviously rather impolitic to use phrases like “abject failure”, “sheer incompetence” or “couldn’t organise a piss up in a brewery”.

Environmental writers are split on who was primarily responsible for torpedoing the summit. Some blame China, others blame the USA. It seems rather obvious to me though, that neither the Chinese nor the US governments actually wanted an agreement that would do anything to limit their economic activity. So they were both happy for the summit to fail by being seen to disagree.

See, it’s really quite simple. Any nation or government that genuinely feels combating Climate Change by limiting emissions is more important than economic growth (hint: it is) would simply announce unilateral cuts and wait for the rest of the world to catch up. They go down in history as The Good Guys, and they get a head start on the rest of the planet when it comes to coping with peak oil. That no major industrial nation is doing this (hint: they’re not, carbon trading and PR campaigns notwithstanding) tells us that either (a) our governments don’t consider Climate Change to be as big a threat as a planned reduction in economic activity, which means they are idiots; or (b) they do consider it a bigger threat but don’t think they can sell it to their population, which means they are crap at their job.

Either way, why the hell do we put up with them?

The sheer magnitude of Copenhagen’s failure was brought home to me earlier this week by a headline over at the BBC. Copenhagen climate deal ‘satisfies’ Saudi Arabia, it read. That the world’s largest producer of crude oil is happy with the outcome of the summit pretty much tells you everything you need to know about it. Ultimately our failure to deal with Climate Change — which is what Copenhagen will long represent — is as perfect an example of our inability to live sustainably as can be imagined.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Dec 2009

An appeal to Copenhagen

Today 56 newspapers in 45 countries take the unprecedented step of speaking with one voice through a common editorial. They do so because humanity faces a profound emergency. I’ve reproduced the editorial in full here.

Unless we combine to take decisive action, climate change will ravage our planet, our prosperity and security. The dangers have been becoming apparent for a generation. Now the facts are speaking: 11 of the past 14 years have been the warmest on record, the Arctic ice-cap is melting, and last year’s inflamed oil and food prices provide a foretaste of future havoc. In scientific journals the question is no longer whether humans are to blame, but how little time we have got left to limit the damage. Yet so far the world’s response has been feeble.

Climate change, caused over centuries, has consequences that will endure for all time and our prospects of taming it will be determined in the next 14 days. We call on the representatives of the 192 countries gathered in Copenhagen not to hesitate, not to blame each other but to seize opportunity from the greatest modern failure of politics. This should not be a fight between the rich world and the poor, or east and west. Climate change affects everyone. It must be solved by everyone.

The science is complex but the facts are clear. The world needs to take steps to limit temperature rises to two degrees, an aim that will require global emissions to peak and begin falling within the next five to 10 years. A bigger rise of three to four degrees – the smallest increase we can prudently expect to follow inaction – would parch continents, turn farmland into desert. Half of all species could become extinct, untold millions of people be displaced, whole nations drowned by the sea.

* * *

Few believe that Copenhagen can any longer produce a fully polished treaty; real progress towards one could only begin with the election of President Obama and the reversal of years of US obstructionism. Even now the world finds itself at the mercy of US domestic politics, for the president cannot fully commit to the action required until Congress has done so.

But Copenhagen can and must agree the essential elements of a fair and effective deal and, crucially, a firm timetable for turning it into a treaty. Next June’s UN climate meeting in Bonn should be their deadline. As one negotiator put it: “We can go into extra time but we can’t afford a replay.” At the deal’s heart must be a settlement between the rich and developing worlds on how the burden of fighting climate change will be divided.

Rich nations point to the arithmetic truth that there can be no solution until developing giants like China take more radical steps. But the rich world is responsible for most of the accumulated carbon in the atmosphere – three-quarters of carbon dioxide emitted since 1850. It must now lead – every developed country must commit to deep cuts which will reduce their emissions within ten years to very substantially less than 1990 levels.

Developing countries can point out they did not cause the bulk of the problem, and that the poorest regions of the world will be hardest hit. But they will increasingly contribute to warming, and must thus pledge their own meaningful, quantifiable action. Though short of what some had hoped for, the recent commitments to emissions targets by the world’s biggest polluters, the US and China, were important steps in the right direction.

* * *

Social justice demands that the industrialised world digs deep into its pockets and pledges cash to help poorer countries adapt to climate change, and clean technologies to enable them to grow economically without growing their emissions. The architecture of a future treaty must also be pinned down – with rigorous multilateral monitoring, fair rewards for protecting forests, and credible assessments of “exported emissions” so that the burden can be more equitably shared between those who produce polluting products and those who consume them. And fairness requires that the burden placed on individual developed countries should take into account their ability to bear it; for instance newer EU members, often much poorer than “old Europe”, must not suffer more than richer partners.

The transformation will be costly, but many times less than the bill for bailing out global finance – and far less costly than the consequences of doing nothing. Many of us, particularly in the developed world, will have to change our lifestyles. We will have to shop, eat and travel more intelligently. We will have to pay more for our energy, and use less of it.

But the shift to a low-carbon society holds out the prospect of more opportunity than sacrifice. Already some countries have recognised that embracing the transformation can bring growth, jobs and better quality lives. The flow of capital tells its own story: last year for the first time more was invested in renewable forms of energy than producing electricity from fossil fuels.

Kicking our carbon habit within a few decades will require a feat of engineering and innovation to match anything in our history. But whereas putting a man on the moon or splitting the atom were born of conflict and competition, the coming carbon race must be driven by a collaborative effort to achieve collective salvation.

Overcoming climate change will take a triumph of optimism over pessimism, of vision over short-sightedness, of what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”.

It is in that spirit that 56 newspapers from around the world have united behind this editorial. If we, with such different national and political perspectives, can agree on what must be done, then surely our leaders can too.

The politicians in Copenhagen have the power to shape history’s judgment on this generation: one that saw a challenge and rose to it, or one so stupid that we saw calamity coming but did nothing to avert it. We implore them to make the right choice.

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Nov 2009

Climate Change disinformation

Over in the UK someone has hacked into the computer system at the University of East Anglia. Specifically the server used by the Climate Research Unit. Information was stolen and then publicly posted on the internet. It’s resulted in a field day for Climate Change Deniers. Indeed a piece in the Daily Telegraph proclaimed the stolen data as “the final nail in the coffin” of man-made Climate Change.

Sadly, it isn’t. Though few things would make me happier if it was. Frankly I can think of no better news than the revelation that anthropogenic Climate Change is some kind of scam cooked up by 95% of the world’s climate and meteorological scientists; that global industrial activity isn’t doing nearly as much harm to our ecological systems as previously feared. But the leaked information suggests no such thing.

What the stolen information does appear to reveal, however, is the fairly shoddy attitudes of a few climate scientists working at the University of East Anglia. They appear to have made some pretty callous comments about the death of a prominent Climate Change Denier. Perhaps more worryingly, though, the released information includes emails that seem to suggest that the scientists had made attempts to suppress data that might have contradicted their own results and put pressure on scientific journals to refrain from publishing papers by those who disagreed with them.

This is all very unfortunate and I’d like to think that these revelations will prompt swift apologies and perhaps even resignations if it can be proven that someone genuinely did falsify data or actively engage in censorship (as opposed to merely suggesting it in a frustrated email). Climate Change is too damn important an issue to become dragged down into the mud by the kind of fools who would risk adding to the scepticism and doubt by engaging in dirty tactics and scientific censorship.

That said, I do think this should all be placed into perspective. Any dirty tactics and scientific censorship that may have been carried out at the University of East Anglia are reprehensible, but they are as nothing when compared with the tactics of the fossil fuel lobby and those they have in their deep pockets. The scientists at the centre of this latest brouhaha are simply guilty of trying to fight fire with fire. It’s unacceptable and they should, as I said, do the decent thing and apologise, maybe even resign. But for Climate Change Deniers to cry “foul” is a bit bloody rich.

The evidence for man made Climate Change is entirely convincing, and there’s nothing in this latest controversy that changes that. Despite this — and for years before the University computer was breached — a vast campaign to suppress and discredit was indeed underway. But by and large it wasn’t being undertaken by climate scientists. Rather, they were the target.

I’m dismayed and more than a little outraged by the scientists who sought to emulate this malign campaign of disinformation and censorship. But I’m also rather contemptuous of those deniers who claim dismay and outrage at today’s disinformation, while gleefully championing yesterday’s and tomorrow’s.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Oct 2009

The air we breathe

Ladies and gentlemen, the future.


The Airpod, air-powered car.

That air stuff… it’s great when you think about it. A ubiquitous, but entirely unobtrusive mixture of gases that’s wrapped around our planet several miles deep and provides fuel for many of the processes that occur within our body. It isn’t so much “easily accessible” as it is “impossible not to access” under normal circumstances.

Now before anyone looks at that strange little car and starts thinking either (a) that compressed air is the solution to our energy crisis, or (b) that I’m suggesting compressed air is the solution to our energy crisis, let me please request you stop thinking it. Because it’s not. And I’m not.

What I am suggesting, however, is that compressed air is a far better energy-carrier than batteries (or hydrogen fuel cells).

Let me qualify that statement.

Firstly, I’m not really talking about cars here. I still view the personal car as unsustainable, though there’s no reason compressed-air buses couldn’t be part of a future public transport system.

And secondly, I’m not speaking specifically about the energy-efficiency of compressed air Vs batteries.

What I am suggesting is that a wind-turbine powering your home / apartment building / housing estate (scale up as required) could be connected to an air-compressor during off-peak hours. Then when it’s calm and the turbine isn’t moving (or the sun isn’t shining, if solar panels are your primary generator) the compressed air can be used to produce electricity. It beats almost every other energy system I can think of hands down in the sustainability stakes. As well as the sheer elegance of the idea.

See the trouble with batteries is that they’re pretty short-lived, all things considered. They need to be replaced every few years and disposing of the old ones often involves dealing with nasty chemicals. With a compressed air system, on the other hand, you need a machine-shop and a bit of know-how (or the phone-number of someone with a machine-shop and a bit of know-how… hint: see the Yellow Pages under ‘Mechanic’) and you’ve got something that’ll last indefinitely. I’ve seen compressors in factories that have been lovingly maintained for thirty years and which, given continued loving maintenance, should last at least thirty more. I watched the mechanic in an Egyptian bottling plant manufacture spare parts for his compressor from a pile of off-cuts in the yard. No it wasn’t the prettiest piece of equipment I’d ever seen, with at least half of it having been replaced with local scrap over the years, but it still functioned to a high level of efficiency.

Compressed air is not without its dangers. But as an energy carrier it sure beats hydrogen in that respect. And compressor technology is old and proven. Over the decades we’ve made it pretty damn reliable. I have a hunch that “reliable” is exactly what we need right now.

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May 2009

Awww… it's a little nuke

Over at U-Know! someone posted a link to an article in The Guardian from last November (Mini nuclear plants to power 20,000 homes). The article discusses a technology under development by Hyperion Power Generation in Los Alamos, New Mexico. It’s essentially a small nuclear reactor capable of powering tens of thousands of homes and costing a relatively modest $25m.

A quick search on google news reveals an article on Reuters as recently as this week (Hyperion Has a $100M Valuation for Mini Nuclear Power) which includes the paragraph:

Although nuclear power produces radioactive waste, it doesn’t release greenhouse gases and it has vocal supporters in the new administration, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu. So it’s not so far-fetched for investors to see the potential of Hyperion’s nuclear option.

Now those two articles and a reading of Hyperion’s website (mostly marketing bumpf investor relations) are the extent of my knowledge on this subject, so I don’t know enough about the specifics of their solution to offer a considered critique of the actual technology. However there are some generic criticisms of this approach to energy production that I feel are valid and worth highlighting. All the same, I’m flagging this post in advance as a “first thoughts / first impressions” thing. OK?

And on that basis… yikes!

Small enough to be transported on a ship, truck or train, Hyperion power modules are about the size of a “hot tub” — approximately 1.5 meters wide. Out of sight and safe from nefarious threats, Hyperion power modules are buried far underground and guarded by a security detail. Like a power battery, Hyperion modules have no moving parts to wear down, and are delivered factory sealed. They are never opened on site. Even if one were compromised, the material inside would not be appropriate for proliferation purposes. Further, due to the unique, yet proven science upon which this new technology is based, it is impossible for the module to go supercritical, “melt down” or create any type of emergency situation. If opened, the very small amount of fuel that is enclosed would immediately cool. The waste produced after five years of operation is approximately the size of a softball and is a good candidate for fuel recycling.

Perfect for moderately-sized projects, Hyperion produces only 25 MWe — enough to provide electricity for about 20,000 average American sized homes or its industrial equivalent. Ganged or teamed together, the modules can produce even more consistent energy for larger projects.

The Hyperion team is committed to helping make the clean and safe benefits of nuclear power — benefits that could assist in solving the worst of our planet’s problems — available in even the most remote locations. We hope you will enjoy learning about Hyperion through our web site!

“Nefarious threats”? They make it sound like they’re securing the place against attack from Dr. Evil. Or that we live in a world where the worst thing that could happen is Terry-Thomas might show up and attempt to do something dastardly. Poor copywriting aside, I believe that passage from their website, coupled with some of the claims being made in the media, should raise some serious concerns.

Thousands of little nuclear reactors encased in concrete, scattered all over the world, maintained and secured by the lowest-cost local contractors? There’s a whole bunch of things wrong with that.

First of all, this commits us to a heavily industrialised future which I’m not sure is a sensible decision (i.e. one in which uranium mining and processing is done on a scale that rivals the modern oil industry — how this squares with the claim in the Reuters piece that “nuclear power […] doesn’t release greenhouse gases” is anybody’s guess). I’m not suggesting we abandon technology or automation or electrical energy; merely that we need to scale our usage of these things back dramatically if we wish to use them sustainably. Be far smarter and more selective in the technologies we adopt or continue to use.

Secondly, the waste management issues just give me the head-staggers. It’s one thing having a few secure, essentially semi-militarised, locations where the waste is produced and stored. Even that’s problematic in my view. But to handle a massively distributed network (“available in even the most remote locations”) with a reasonable guarantee that none of the stuff ever ends up in the local reservoirs? Significantly increasing the amount of highly toxic waste we produce when there are alternatives? Future history books will view such decisions as criminally negligent… beyond reprehensible and into pure evil. Always assuming there’s going to be history books chronicling our times and crimes.

Thirdly, I’m always worried when the person selling the technology creates a huge straw man regarding security. What’s he trying to distract us from?

‘You could never have a Chernobyl-type event – there are no moving parts,’ said Deal. ‘You would need nation-state resources in order to enrich our uranium. Temperature-wise it’s too hot to handle. It would be like stealing a barbecue with your bare hands.’Mini nuclear plants to power 20,000 homes, The Guardian

I’m not too worried about someone weaponising this stuff. North Korea’s already done that, and depending upon how the next few years go in Pakistan, some seriously hardline Islamists may get their hands on that technology too. Also, I’m not so sure that we can rely upon Israel to pursue a rational, evidence-based foreign policy and even the countries we view as being a relatively safe pair of hands are more than capable of rationalising a pre-emptive strike one of these days. So the “scary people with nukes” cat is very much out of the bag.

What worries me isn’t a nation state getting hold of this stuff and weaponising it, but a less organised bunch of psychos getting hold of it and poisoning wells and water-tables for several generations. See, I’m not sure exactly what part of “stealing a barbecue with your bare hands” would have prevented the September 11th hijackers doing so if it was part of their mission. For me the security risk of these things is a dedicated group of nutters — some of whom, perhaps, work for a local concrete supply company? — who don’t care about getting their hands burnt, metaphorically speaking. Unfortunately it seems there are plenty of people who’d be willing to expose themselves to a lethal dose of radiation as they steal a bunch of uranium “softballs” from one of the more remote clusters of these things.

Even if powdering the stuff and dumping it into a handful of municipal reservoirs was demonstrated to only raise the risk of childhood leukemia by 0.5% in those areas, how soon before you’ve got a bunch of ghost-towns? Ghost-cities? Millions of families won’t make a level-headed and rational assessment of the risks when the headlines scream “Radioactive Reservoir! Al Qaeda dumps uranium in Dallas water supply!”

The whole thing is fraught with the kind of “What Ifs” that just don’t enter the equation when you recommend a combination of renewable energy and a reduction in consumption.

But I’d be interested in having those “What Ifs” answered and I’ll look out for more information on this over the coming months should it start to gain credibility. Maybe this is the magic space dust we’ve been waiting for.

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May 2009

Where's Scully when you need her?

Via email from Gyrus

One of the newest energy lobbyists claims he has the answer to climate change: spaceships.

The government has in its possession “extraterrestrial vehicles,” lobbyist Stephen Bassett said. As in flying saucers.

Imagine the power source, he said, behind a 30-foot wide saucer that weighs the same as a tractor-trailer yet hurtles through galaxies at 20,000 miles per hour.

“What is the energy system operating that craft?” Bassett said. “They’re not burning kerosene.”

He added, “It eliminates oil. It eliminates coal. If it’s as good as we think it is, it transforms everything.”

Bassett certainly makes more sense than David Bellamy, for instance. So let’s not discount him entirely. Sadly though, he’s being overly-optimistic if he thinks E.T. will help prevent Climate Change. After all, the space-aliens have been manipulating human culture for thousands of years now precisely in order to create a civilisation that would pump vast quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Once it’s enough like their home planet, they’ll start Phase 2. And yes, that is a cookbook.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Nov 2008

A question

Would it be possible for a person, or group of people, to take legal action against their government for failure to protect them — and future generations — against a threat they acknowledge in their own publications is a serious one, but about which they are taking no practical action?

5 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion