Working together

I make no apologies for talking about the thorny issue of climate change yet again. There’s a good reason why: after a decade or more of unwillingness to listen to criticism of the IPCC story on climate change, this week a mainstream paper was published in Nature Geoscience that to all intents and purposes shows many of the criticisms to be justified.

Even the most objective-sounding paper is open to different interpretations, and this one is no exception, despite its apparently unambiguous title: Emissions budgets and pathways are consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C. The message from the authors is seemingly a clear one. If we try hard, global warming can be limited and managed.

To quote from the paper’s summary: “Hence, limiting warming to 1.5°C is not yet a geophysical impossibility, but is likely to require delivery on strengthened pledges for 2030 followed by challengingly deep and rapid mitigation. Strengthening near-term emissions reductions would hedge against a high climate response or subsequent reduction rates proving economically, technically or politically unfeasible.” This straightforward message is taken up by the BBC under the headline Paris climate aim is ‘still achievable’.

The authors’ research was a reassessment of the projections from climate models, the output of which has so often in the past been used to argue that the world was, in effect, already past the point of no return. The iconic figure of a 2°C rise in average temperatures had been taken as the limit above which the net impacts of climate change would become seriously negative. At the end of the 20th Century, stories of what life might be like on an Earth that had warmed by 4, 6 or 8 degrees were commonplace.

The surprising thing about the current study, therefore, is that not only is the 2° temperature rise seen as a practical reality, but that the more stretching 1.5° target arising from the Paris agreement is also deemed possible. The underlying message is that the computer models have indeed overestimated the extent of warming and that all is not lost. The BBC nevertheless report a conflicting view from another recent paper: Importance of the pre-industrial baseline for likelihood of exceeding Paris goals.

Co-authored by Michael Mann, this paper argues that, as the target temperature is measured against a baseline of pre-industrial conditions, taking an earlier reference point makes the goal more difficult to achieve. This is hardly surprising, given that the last few centuries have seen the planet emerge from the so-called Little Ice Age.

Since cooler conditions have historically been less favourable for farming and hence for society overall, it seems a little perverse to consider this to have been an ideal climate to which we should aspire. Nevertheless, Professor Mann is quoted by the BBC as saying “There is some debate about [the] precise amount of committed warming if we cease emitting carbon immediately. We’re probably very close to 1.5C.”

However, there are alternative views. The Times, for example, put the story on the front page under the headline We were wrong – worst of effects of climate change can be avoided, say experts. The focus of this story is that the present climate models systematically overstate the amount of warming arising from a rise in carbon dioxide levels. In this report, co-author Professor Michael Grubb explains this.

Having said at the Paris summit “All the evidence from the past 15 years leads me to conclude that actually delivering 1.5C is simply incompatible with democracy”, he told the Times “When the facts change, I change my mind, as [John Maynard] Keynes said. It’s still likely to be very difficult to achieve these kind of changes quickly enough but we are in a better place than I thought.”

The comments about facts and evidence are interesting. The ‘facts’ referred to in Paris were the output from the computer models now deemed to be biased. The ‘evidence’ of today is that these models have projected higher temperatures than observed for the century so far. Until the models can produce a reasonable hindcast of the pattern of average temperatures over the past 50 years without incorporating unexplained or unjustified fudge factors, we can hardly place much credence on the forecasts for the next half century. Even then, we have to bear in mind that modelling is not reality, but at least it might then represent our best current understanding and be some guide to the future.

Whatever the different interpretations of this important paper, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the understanding of climate change espoused by the mainstream of scientists and the IPCC is looking more and more like that of sceptics whose views have so often been dismissed and who have regularly been tagged ‘deniers’. This, surely, should be good news, and an illustration of shifts in the paradigm based on an increasing body of evidence. In an ideal world, it means that the common ground can be occupied by many more scientists and policymakers, working together both to improve our understanding of the complexities of climate and to formulate effective and economic ways to deal with any challenges.

Would that this were so, but in practice there is still a clear line separating many critics from the mainstream view: the nature of governments’ response to the situation. The clear message from the latest Nature Geoscience paper is that policymakers need to continue to increase their efforts, but that these will be rewarded by the outcome. Meanwhile, there are others who continue to argue that the consensus remedy – a drastic reduction of carbon dioxide emissions – cannot be achieved with the current tools at our disposal.

No matter how low the price of wind-generated electricity, no matter how sophisticated electric cars become, no matter how quickly we convert domestic heating to electricity, a secure energy supply given the current state of technology will be very significantly higher than at present. It need not be like this if the best minds on both sides of the ideological divide can work together to develop better solutions.

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Rush to judgement

This is proving to be a pretty bad season for Atlantic hurricanes, after several years in which few intense ones made landfall. Hurricane Harvey, which started in late August, was the first major hurricane to hit the United States mainland since 2005 (Hurricane Wilma, in the same year as the flooding of New Orleans caused by Katrina). Irma, coming along a few days later and only dissipating this week, was a category 5 storm bringing destruction to the Caribbean and Florida.

Despite the intensity of the storms, the total death toll so far is around 150. Each fatality is a personal tragedy, of course, but without evacuation and shelter the number would have been far, far worse. Because of the widespread destruction of property, the communities hit will take quite some time to recover from this, but recover they will. And it’s certain that those same communities will be hit by more violent weather at some time in the future.

Tropical storms – hurricanes in the Atlantic, typhoons in the Pacific – are a fact of life for countries that lie in their path. While we cannot predict them until they begin to form, we can record their characteristics, path and effect in great detail. And, while we can make comparisons across recent decades, we have far less detail about highly destructive storms from the first half of the 20th Century and earlier. This year may have set records, but only over a comparatively short timescale. How it sits with past centuries is anyone’s guess.

Given the severity of the tropical Atlantic storms over the past months, it is human nature to look for a reason why this year has been so much worse than the previous decade. In part, this is because of the vagaries of the path taken by such storms. There have indeed been very intense hurricanes, but most of them over recent years have either not made landfall or have weakened before doing so.

But now, some people are increasingly talking about the impact of climate change (for which, we should understand man-made climate change). In particular, they are using the destruction and loss of life in the Caribbean and USA to bolster their call to take radical action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. For example, the Grantham Institute’s Bob Ward, never one to miss an opportunity to bang the drum, contributed an article headlined Irma and Harvey lay the cost of climate change denial at Trump’s door to the Observer.

The moral outrage is palpable: “But the merciless assault on the US mainland by Harvey and Irma should be forcing the president to recognise the consequences of his arrogance and complacency in dismissing the research and analysis carried out by scientists.” If that isn’t enough, the head of the Catholic Church has also made his contribution (Hurricane Irma: Pope Francis condemns climate change sceptics): “Those who deny it (climate change) should go to the scientists and ask them. They are very clear, very precise.”

Most politicians will find it hard to resist this pressure, especially couched in terms that mix moral responsibility with (supposedly) hard science. President Trump is probably the exception, as he is in so many ways. There are undoubtedly others who simply don’t want to put their head above the parapet; there is not political capital to be gained by voicing even mild criticism of radical action.

Note that the terms ‘scepticism’ (a quality that all scientists should have in abundance) and ‘denial’ are increasingly being used almost interchangeably. Normally, we might want to make a distinction between those who completely disagree with a hypothesis on what we believe to be spurious grounds and those who want to discuss more detailed interpretation. Properly grounded criticism from sceptics should strengthen a viable hypothesis but weaken an already dubious one.

In the case of climate change, the vast majority of people dismissed as ‘deniers’ or ‘sceptics’ have a lot of common ground with those who cleave to the received wisdom. Their disagreements are quantitative rather than qualitative. But a lower than predicted degree of warming (as has actually been the case for the last 20 years) leads to a different policy prescription: a focus of adaptation rather than mitigation.

This is why climate change activists and many mainstream scientists would apparently reserve a special place in Hell for those who take issue with them, however constructively. Because if the projections of the impact on humans of a 4°C+ rise in average temperatures over this century turn out to greatly exaggerated, then the entire edifice of climate change policy as enshrined in the Paris Accord could simply collapse. And that, for the IPCC and climate change establishment, would be intolerable.

In fact, nothing in emissions reduction policy would have made a scrap of difference to the two recent hurricanes (nor, for that matter, to heatwaves, droughts or any other extreme weather that some try to ‘link’ to climate change). Communities in vulnerable areas will always be at risk, including to the risk of flooding from naturally steadily rising sea levels. Focussing on adaptation and protection will pay dividends, installing more wind turbines will not.

While using resources to make communities more resilient, there is nothing to stop us continuing to develop alternative energy generation and storage systems and rolling these out as they become dependable and economic. These will make a real impact on future emissions as part of a least regrets policy. But no amount of moral blackmail will enable us to tune the climate to our liking when long term natural processes are underway, about which we understand very little and cannot control.

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Debunking claims about renewable energy costs

Letter in the Times, 13 September

Sir, The claim that the Hornsea Two wind farm “will cut the cost of green energy” (report, Sep 12) is factually correct but nonetheless misleading. Generation costs have undeniably come down but the real cost is that of delivering a secure supply of electricity to the end user. Even if wind turbines produced electricity at zero cost, the total system cost would be higher than a system relying purely on nuclear and gas-fired power stations. The need for back-up means retaining conventional generation capacity, to be run intermittently, inefficiently and at high cost until the holy grail of cheap energy storage on a vast scale can be realised. In the meantime, domestic and industrial consumers will continue to pay higher bills.
Martin Livermore

Scientific Alliance, Cambridge

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All-electric cars only by 2040?

I should have looked into this more closely before making my previous post. The UK government is also looking to ban the sale of hybrid cars in 23 years’ time. This beggars belief, without some plan for how these electric cars are going to be reliably powered while – and we have to assume that this is the main long-term goal despite the talk about air pollution – cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

Without rationing times for driving, either directly or because batteries can’t be charged, the only option would be to build a whole fleet of nuclear power stations. Since it’s doubtful at the moment whether even Hinkley Point C is going to be built, there is little chance of this eminently sensible option coming to pass.

This proposal is either going to be watered down, or there will be some face-saving U-turn or postponement by 2030. In the meantime, subsidising the purchase of electric cars and the provision of charging facilities will be a massive drain on the economy which could largely be avoided if hybrid cars were the choice.

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The internal combustion engine isn’t dead yet

The UK government has now joined with France in banning the sale of new diesel and petrol cars from 2040. At least, that’s the headline, but in practice it’s likely that hybrids with modest battery range will become the new norm, with all-electric cars still waiting on a quantum leap in battery technology, massive investment in charging infrastructure and, last but not least, a large expansion in electricity generation.

The present generation of plug-in hybrids, with maybe a 30 mile range on battery and a small petrol or diesel engine for longer journeys, would certainly help to improve urban air quality, while still be practical all-round cars. Without such a government edict, however, their higher price would mean that the internal combustion engine would still be the choice of many. Over the next couple of decades, we can expect hybrids to become more capable and the price gap to reduce. Don’t expect much of a running cost advantage, though: governments aren’t going to lose billions in fuel tax without recouping the income in some other way.

There are, however, two elephants in the room. The first is that this move will require a big investment in electricity generation, and the power has to be there when drivers want it. Not everyone will be able to charge their cars overnight, particularly in cities where many people live in flats or terraced houses. But the alternative to thousands of accessible daytime charging points is simply to run the petrol or diesel engine to power the car and recharge the battery, significantly reducing the supposed impact on air pollution.

The other elephant, and one we hear less about, is the fact that car exhausts only contribute a fraction of the pollutants in urban air. Cars would have to be taken off the road entirely to avoid the particulates shed by brakes and tyres, for example. And, more importantly, the ubiquitous gas boilers put out significant quantities of NOx. If you think that the introduction of electric cars would cause a problem, that’s nothing compared to the infrastructure challenge created by a move to electric heating.

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Battery power

UK business secretary Greg Clark has announced a £200m+ investment in developing battery technology, as part of a broader industrial strategy. Despite being late in the game compared to some Asian countries, the intention is to boost the UK economy by making the country a leader in energy storage. There are a lot worse things the government could be spending taxpayers’ money on. We have been calling for investment in energy storage R&D for years. Without it, most of the current (subsidised) spending on renewable electricity is wasted.

At the same time, the plan is to reduce peak demand by enabling domestic consumers to have appliances turned off for short periods when demand is high. This has some merit, as long as it relates to non-essential items such as water heaters, fridges and washing machines.

But the policy is flawed because it also proposes to encourage domestic generation and storage of electricity from solar panels, with surplus to be fed into the grid tariff-free. While this may be of some benefit in summer, such households will inevitably be net consumers from the grid after dark and during the winter months. Conventional backup generators will still be needed, but will operate (expensively) for somewhat less of the year. The government hopes that fewer power stations will be needed, but this is very much a moot point at the moment.

And, importantly, the system costs will not go down. In fact, they are likely to increase further, because someone has to pay for the solar panels and batteries and few people will do so themselves without grants, subsidies and a guaranteed price for the electricity they export. However this system is constructed, taxpayers and most consumers will pay more. The projected £40bn that consumers are projected to save by 2050 (cumulative? per year? relative to what and making what assumptions?) is likely to go to those lucky house owners with south-facing roofs and enough money for the initial capital outlay. That means relatively well-off suburban and village dwellers, by and large.

So, it’s good that more R&D is being funded, but markets will respond naturally when breakthroughs in performance and price are made. In the meantime, subsidising inadequate solutions is not the answer.

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On the right tracks?

Major infrastructure projects can be fraught with difficulties of various kinds, not least political, where the UK planning system can drag out decision-making for years. Even before reaching that stage, governments are loath to make decisions that are subject to significant local or national opposition.

The intended third runway at Heathrow is a case in point. A number of major new airports have been built in other countries while each government of the day in Westminster has failed to bite the bullet. In the meantime, the country’s primary airport – and one of the world’s busiest – continues to run very close to maximum capacity, with inevitable delays.

Not that Brits are necessarily bad at implementation. Once the protracted planning inquiry had been completed, the much-needed Terminal 5 at Heathrow was built on time and to budget, for example. In comparison, countries with excellent skills and capacity to get things right can sometimes get them badly wrong. Construction of the yet-to-be-completed Berlin Brandenburg airport has been a catalogue of disasters; it is still at least two years from opening, and will be massively over-budget.

Another project that went well on the UK side of the Channel was the high-speed rail link to the Channel Tunnel, the so-called High Speed 1 (HS1). The country is now well on the way to building HS2, and the good experience with HS1 might seem to bode well for this, but this is a very different beast and already subject to intense criticism. There was a strong case for Heathrow T5 (and just as strong a case for one or more extra runways either here or at another SE England airport) and a strong(ish) case for HS1, but some critics see the planned high-speed line as an expensive vanity project rather than an essential addition to the country’s infrastructure.

HS1 shaved some time off the London to Paris/Brussels journey time and provided a high-class modern terminus at St Pancras, plus a brand-new station at Ebbsfleet in Kent, effectively replacing Ashford as the secondary UK stop. There were major tunnels to be built, as well as the two new stations and the line itself, but the line followed the route of the existing track, which minimised some of the problems of building from scratch.

But, although the project was delivered to budget, the cost of £51.3 million per kilometre was much more than that of the Paris-Strasbourg TGV line, also completed in 2007. To a large extent, this is an inevitable consequence of building a railway line in a densely populated country with a number of natural obstacles to overcome. Suffice it to say that building a high-speed railway line in the UK is very expensive.

Not surprising then to read headlines such as this even in 2015 – Revealed: HS2 ‘abysmal value for money’ at 10 times the cost of high-speed rail in Europe.  At the time, the project cost was estimated as £42.6bn, at a cost of £78.5m per kilometre (£125m per mile). But it was widely expected that these costs would increase and a new report – based on an estimate commissioned by the Department for Transport – lends credence to this. As reported in the Sunday Times, building of HS2 to cost £403m per mile, bringing the cost of the entire two-phase project up to £104bn. [For those who noticed the discrepancy with the figures quoted, the £125m/mile above is for the entire project, while £403/mile is for phase 1, including the very expensive first stage in north London.]

Michael Byng, the expert who produced the latest figures, was asked to comment on the costs:

Asked why the project was so costly, Byng said: “We live in a very heavily populated, property-owning democracy which has very high use of railways, so land is very expensive and disruption is very expensive. People have rights and are prepared to stand up for them. “The railways have also inherited the malaise of British construction — an inflation of consultants. In the rest of the world soft costs, such as consultancy and planning, make up 12-15%. Here it can be as high as 35%.”

In the meantime, the government insists that this latest estimate is way too high (although the budget has now increased to £55.7bn). At the same time, the route of the second phase through Yorkshire was announced. Not surprisingly, this has been controversial, leading to headlines such as HS2 route to destroy new homes in Yorkshire, while not providing any stations in the area.

But, to a large extent, the details are unimportant. The cost may be justified by the benefits. However, the ostensible reason for starting the project (apart from having a bright shiny new high-speed railway to show the world) was to provide more capacity as an alternative to the over-crowded west and east coast mainlines. The problem is that there may be much more cost-effective ways of doing this.

For those committed to the project (which would, of course, be very embarrassing to cancel at this stage) everything is rosy. But passenger projections are very high, which seems questionable given that the already high cost of rail travel would be subject to a large premium for HS2. It is likely that trains would be used by business people (although many companies will surely look askance at the cost) and leisure travellers who have booked well in advance to get more affordable fares. Breaking even will be a challenge for any franchisee.

But the economic case is made partly on the basis that shorter journey times mean people can be more productive, which takes no account of the realities of laptops, tablets and wifi. There is also a somewhat Panglossian quote from Philippa Oldham of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the BBC piece:

“By freeing up the capacity on the East Coast Mainline, West Coast Mainline, through the HS2 route we’ll be able to shift some of our freight network onto the rail network from the road network,” she said. “So that will ease congestion on our roads providing that we have an integrated transport strategy.”

As Boris Johnson might say, go whistle on that one. If HS2 is not to become a massively expensive white elephant, some serious thinking has to be done. The first phase, to Birmingham, is not due to open till 2026, a date that the National Audit Office says is unlikely to be met, with the links to Manchester and Leeds not being ready till 2033. Well before then, the £50-100bn (not including trains) could have been spent on more affordable conventional railway upgrades and more motorways.

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