Today’s issues

Early civilizations evolved after the development of arable farming about 10,000 years ago. This enabled settled communities to grow and some people to specialise in skills other than hunting and foraging. Life was still unbelievably hard by today’s standards, but the basis for development of modern societies was established.

During the 18th Century, the Industrial Revolution transformed the lives of vast numbers of people. Families moved from the land as cities grew further and factory jobs rocketed. Not all the change was for the better initially, but this phase of development was another essential component of our current prosperity.

As life became gradually less of a struggle for everyday survival, advances in public health and medicine drove further improvement. The realisation that bacteria caused many diseases and that a clean water supply was essential cut avoidable outbreaks of typhoid and cholera. The mid-20th Century development of antibiotics and widespread vaccinations finally brought many infectious diseases with high mortality rates under control.

Most readers will have lived through a time when smallpox was eradicated and polio nearly so, while most babies in the developed world are routinely protected from many serious childhood diseases. The spectre of HIV has emerged, but is now essentially under control. Viruses remain a threat and the declining effectiveness of existing antibiotics is a real concern, but the major health problems across much of the world come largely in the form of non-communicable diseases such as diabetes.

While we can’t pretend that life is a bed of roses for everyone, particularly in the developing world, many of today’s major problems are self-inflicted. Countries suffering civil war, poor governance or high levels of corruption cannot fulfil their potential until they are at peace and properly governed for the benefit of all citizens. Fortunately, despite a lost half century or so, many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are now on the road to a better future taken by much of South East Asia decades ago.

In this fortunate world, at least for those of us lucky to live in developed countries, life has been made even easier by the rapid development of IT, although what goes under the heading of social media has been a very mixed blessing. The saying that a lie can go halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes (normally, but wrongly, attributed to Mark Twain) has never been truer.

So, we find ourselves at a time in history where a large majority of citizens across the industrialised world no longer have to worry about food (except eating too much of it), shelter or clothing. This group finds itself at or near the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. In its original form, the top of the pyramid was self-actualisation; essentially, making the most of our potential. At a later stage, Maslow himself talked of a further stage: self-transcendence.

This is what we can see as the desire to improve society and is one of the underlying motivations for volunteer work and NGOs. After the traumas of the Second World War, it is not surprising that a recovering and increasingly prosperous world looked to improve the natural environment and protect what we see as basic human rights.

Care for the environment has become mainstream and, despite continuing bad news stories (as we know, almost all news is bad) our air and water are much cleaner than our parents experienced as young adults and conservation is an important component of what farmers are rewarded for. Large emerging economies, China and India in particular, are going through their own Industrial Revolutions and are only just beginning to tackle their severe air and water pollution, but in the West we are nearer the top of the environmental hierarchy of needs.

Big, overarching issues – climate change in particular – dominate the sector and are embedded in our psyches (to the extent that most people take them for granted and treat them as background noise to their lives). Debate, such as it is, is between relatively small numbers of people who take an active interest, for whatever reason. This present state of affairs has been a long time building, with a constant stream of messages from the IPCC and others. For much of the time, this has played out in traditional print and broadcast media, but the IT Revolution means that social media now leads the way.

This is perhaps the main reason why the focus is changing regarding matters of the environment. Climate change is still the predominant theme, but we hear less about this directly than a few years ago, maybe because this simply not a top of mind issue for most citizens. Every now and again, ocean ‘acidification’ rears its head as a likely consequence of higher CO2 levels, even if global warming turns out to be less severe than we were being led to believe.

In fact, there must be a strong suspicion that the scientific establishment has also accepted that the climate models are tuned to give projections that are too high to be consistent with observations. Is it possible that other issues are coming to the fore to move attention away from this?

Air pollution has been an issue for some time, but this has certainly come much higher up the agenda recently, probably to provide more direct motivation for the intended move away from the internal combustion engine. And over the last few months, plastics have become the number one issue; again, a problem that has been around for a long while, but now given much greater prominence.

People who believe in conspiracy theories might be tempted to think that this change of priorities is a coordinated one that is intended to move us towards the goal of a ‘low-carbon’, green future more easily than simply beating us over the head with a single issue year after year. Or, it could just be the way that social media picks up on and amplifies messages. Either way, priorities shift and messages evolve. It will be interesting to see what 2018 brings.

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The perils of pessimism

Being of a naturally optimistic disposition, I’ve often thought that the environmentalist movement has a deep streak of pessimism running through it. At the extreme, the world view is one of our species – and our species alone – being both outside Nature and with a negative impact on all other forms of life. Of course, most environmentalists don’t take nearly such a black and white position, but many still see humankind’s impact with a negative halo.

pessimism

Over the Christmas period, I came across two articles that cast some light on why pessimism seems so prevalent. Why things might not be as bad as we think covers the findings of an Ipsos-Mori report called the Perils of Perception. This found that a significant majority of respondents from 38 countries thought that the murder rate had not fallen, that deaths from terrorism hadn’t fallen – both of which run counter to the evidence – and that the rate of teenage pregnancies is much higher than the reality.

According to the article, this is because our brains handle bad news differently from good news. In essence, we are predisposed to believe the worst, because this enhances our chances of survival in a dangerous world. We may think that the relentless stream of bad news in the media causes our pessimism, but in reality newspapers are just reinforcing our natural feelings. Indeed, attempts to focus primarily on good news have always been a commercial failure, it seems.

The sub-heading of the second article, The Power of Negative Thinking, is pessimists fare better than people with sunnier dispositions. For natural optimists, that is in itself a dispiriting prospect, but there is certainly some food for thought. One argument is that taking too positive an outlook on life makes us complacent and overconfident. One example quoted is that those who underestimate their risk of heart disease are more likely to show early signs of it. We can certainly see the same tendency in smokers, many of whom will be aware of mortality statistics but think it won’t apply to them.

The benefits of pessimism apparently go further than this, though. Optimists are more likely to suffer disappointment, while a study in Germany showed that those who were less optimistic about their futures were less likely to become disabled or die prematurely. The suggestion is that a strategy of ‘defensive pessimism’ is good for us.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. I would argue rather that both blind optimism and constant pessimism are equally bad and that realism should be the order of the day. Perhaps because I see my glass as half full, I see no contradiction between having an optimistic outlook on life while relying on evidence which may lead us to be negative about particular issues.

Part of the problem is that much change is seen as inherently negative. This is one of the reasons why every generation tends to see society going to the dogs as standards of education, behaviour, speech and pretty much everything else decline. In fact, what many people see as decline is simply a move away from the norms they are accustomed to. The value judgement is in the eye of the beholder.

Concern for the environment is to a significant extent a reaction to the impacts we humans have on landscapes and other species. It is surely good that we are concerned, but finding a point of balance and rationalising it is incredibly difficult. First, we have to accept that the emergence of farming and settled communities has had a major effect on the environment in many countries. Before this, much of northern Europe was densely wooded and would have had much less diverse ecosystems.

These changes over the millennia we see as largely positive, since they have created the landscapes we know and cherish today. We may worry about declining numbers of farmland bird species but, without humans, most of them would not be in the region at all. More broadly, our well-meaning attempts at conservation may be good for species in decline, but we may have created the ecological niche in which they thrived in the first place.

For example, farming provided habitat for ground nesting skylarks and partridges, while red kites flourished in the Middle Ages at least in part because they scavenged in the filthy urban streets. Flower meadows became established on suitable areas where the grass was kept cropped by livestock. The balance of species we consider ‘natural’ is one which we ourselves have played a large role in creating.

A rule of thumb seems to be, quite understandably, that we take the environment we grow up in as the norm, although our perceptions are also influenced by the memories of our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. During our lifetimes, we experience great changes; the ‘good’ we tend to accept and take for granted, while the ‘bad’ we worry about.

In fact, nothing is purely black and white. IT has transformed our lives and the way we do business and has brought enormous benefits, but the downsides of what has become known as social media are also all too apparent. Things such as this make some people hark back to simpler times, but the reality of life in earlier generations was a lot harder than we sometimes realise.

The big environmental issue of the early 21st Century is, of course, climate change, and it’s here that our predisposition to believe bad news is particularly apparent. Despite the large amount of common ground between ‘warmists’ and ‘deniers’, the lack of constructive debate and knee jerk dismissal of criticism is a sign of deeply entrenched pessimism.

The projections of computer simulations based on a partial understanding of chaotic weather systems are believed more than some of the perfectly credible questioning of the sense of attempting radical reductions in carbon dioxide emissions with inadequate technology. Arguments about the need for societies to adapt to changes in climate as they have had to during recorded history are largely ignored.

There is little point in trying to change human nature, but that shouldn’t stop people pointing to hard evidence and alternative views. It may not be sensible to have Always Look on the Bright Side of Life as our theme tune, but neither should we be too ready to believe the worst.

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2017 in perspective

Another year has nearly finished. For the EU, the combined tensions of Brexit, Catalonian nationalism and a much-weakened Chancellor Merkel seem to be doing little to disrupt normal life. On the other hand, the underlying contradictions inherent in a 27-member bloc technically united by a single currency – but in practice divided by very different economies and cultures – will surely be difficult to resolve, particularly with the current unwieldy and opaque system of governance.

The fudge of contradictions is very apparent in the supposedly evidence-based systems for approval of GM crops and licensing of pesticides. Independent scientists assemble and assess data and make their recommendations. Politicians normally take the official advice – after all, that’s why scientific advisors are appointed – but only when it suits their purpose. Unfortunately, the politics is such that a number of member states routinely vote against approvals of GM crops on totally spurious grounds, simply because it plays to their core supporters and powerful lobby groups.

The crop protection sector is slightly different, if only because there is a much longer history of use of approved products and a functioning, evidence-based approvals system. But the pressure from environmentalists has continued to increase and the barriers to continued approvals have risen. Approval conditions have always been stringent, with environmental or safety problems largely down to poor practice by users. Until a few years ago, decisions were based on a risk assessment and management.

But then came a change to hazard evaluation, representing a move to an even more precautionary approach. Pesticides are assessed based on the hazard they present with no risk management in place, and new compounds are required to present a lesser hazard than anything they might replace. There is no attempt to balance this by assessing hazard (or potential risk) against benefits, merely a blanket approach to minimise hazard.

The drawbacks of this should be obvious, but are ignored by those whose aim is to favour ‘natural’ over ‘synthetic’ and thereby supposedly make life as risk-free as possible. By way of parallel, we all have in our homes compounds which could maim or kill if misused, an unfortunately topical example being household bleach. And caffeine is more toxic than pretty much any pesticide on the market today, but only those with a highly excessive coffee consumption are ever likely to suffer ill effects.

More recently, circumstantial evidence of harm has been used to obtain a temporary ban on neonicotinoid insecticides, with that ban increasingly looking like becoming permanent. And campaigners have eagerly leapt on the rather dubious classification by a single agency of glyphosate as a probable carcinogen to push for this extremely useful, low toxicity herbicide to be refused re-licensing. Despite a positive recommendation from scientists working on behalf of the EU, it was only narrowly reapproved for a limited time on a qualified majority vote shortly before the licence expired, and then only by a last-minute change of stance by Germany.

So, this year has seen a continuation of the slowly ratcheting of pressure on a range of useful chemicals and technologies. It is difficult to see the tide turning any time soon. In the meantime, there have been some interesting shifts in what has become the key issue of the early 21st Century: climate change. The annual end of year climate summits, this year in Bonn, are still news but are now largely confined to the inside pages. The international IPCC travelling circus continues to put out bullish statements, but the reality is that there is no longer concerted international political action. Instead, the mitigation programme proceeds via voluntary agreements, with many governments making big claims while doing comparatively little.

Not that this has made much difference to the emissions reduction policies of some major players. The German energiewende continues on its very expensive path with one of the major unintended consequences being the increased use of coal. While not the only reason, the differences of opinion across the political spectrum have made the forging of a new coalition government even more problematic.

The UK is also suffering from political turmoil, with a weak minority government (inevitably) focussed on the complexities and ambiguities of negotiating a Brexit deal acceptable to all 27 other EU member states and to a majority of Westminster MPs. But that hasn’t stopped continued support for emissions reduction policies nor a new focus on electric and hybrid cars.

By 2040, the government intends there to be no sales of new petrol or diesel cars. The implication is that all new vehicles will be electric, but the reality (in the absence of major technological breakthroughs) is that hybrids will dominate the market. France has the same goal and, in both cases, the ostensible rationale for the change is the drive to reduce urban air pollution. Hybrids will certainly do this, for typically short city journeys, while providing the flexibility of a conventional car for longer trips at what policymakers no doubt hope will be an acceptable price for the consumer.

The two rather large flies in the ointment are the continued high price of all-electric cars and the major infrastructure challenges posed if they do become a major part of the market. Not least of these is the need to generate substantially more electricity which has to be low-carbon if the whole policy is to make any sense. However, providing a workable network of charging points and recouping the foregone revenue from fuel sales in a way acceptable to motorists will also pose major headaches.

Looking further forward, (partial) electrification of transport will at some stage lead on to a push of electrification of heating, coupled surely with a massive investment in insulation to reduce heating needs in the first place. By the time such policies start to take effect, we perhaps will be much closer to an understanding of what drives climate change and so whether the policies are in fact needed.

This is the last newsletter of 2017; normal service will be resumed in January. For now, I wish all readers – whatever their views on the issues covered this year – a very happy Christmas and a safe, healthy and prosperous 2018.

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Progress and Pollution

The human capacity for self-criticism is something of a double-edged sword. On one hand, we can recognise that we have caused harm and do something about it, but on the other hand this tendency can go so far that we think of nearly everything we do as being negative. At the extreme end of the spectrum, so-called Deep Greens consider humankind to be a blot on the planet, which would be better off without us.

Not so for most of us, of course, and at the other extreme there are those who refuse to recognise – or at least try to minimise – the negative impacts of something they have done. Overall, though, there is a clear inclination for people to think that modern life and technology causes environmental harm, and those of us in some of the cleanest environments are often most concerned about pollution.

An issue that has come right to the top of the list recently is plastic waste, particularly in the open sea. This is doubtless reinforced in the UK by the latest Blue Planet series, fronted by national treasure David Attenborough, but this is not a trivial issue. Plastic waste can be very obvious when it is in the form of bags or bottles washed up on a beach or gathered in areas such as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ (for a more objective summary of this, see How Big is the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’? Science vs Myth, from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).

However, much of the plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces or even micro-particles, and in this form it may be consumed by fish, other sea creatures and birds. Because of their inertness, these particles can accumulate in the digestive tracts of these creatures and lead to their undernourishment or death. It’s not surprising, then, to read that UN commits to stop ocean plastic waste.

This story is about an agreement reached at an environment summit in Kenya. This is not legally binding, but is intended as a signal of intent by setting up an international task force to deal with the problem. Environmental pressure groups, of course, think the action is too weak, and in many cases oppose the inclusion of business representatives in the discussions. For many environmentalists, business remains the enemy.

There is certainly a level of mutual distrust between these two parties. Inevitably, businesses will try to protect their interests in the face of criticism on this or other issues. Equally, campaigning groups are often selective with the truth when a topic dear to them is in question. On the other hand, better and more constructive progress can often be made by cooperation rather than confrontation. Rather than pressurise the plastics industry into submission, working with them to find effective ways to reduce waste is always likely to be a better long term option.

However, the thing that really struck me in the story about plastic waste was where it occurs. Figures are presented for the amount of waste produced in 2010 by country; the top 15 are China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Egypt, Malaysia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, South Africa, India, Algeria, Turkey and Pakistan. China dominates the list with nearly 9 million tonnes of plastic, but even Pakistan, in 15th place, produced about half a million tonnes.

There are a couple of really interesting things here. The first is that there are no rich Western countries in the list, despite the ubiquity of plastics in our economies and our concerns about waste and littering. Clearly, although we may worry about the level of waste produced it is not, by and large, finding its way into the wider environment. A significant proportion is recycled in any case.

The second point is the very wide disparity between the amount of waste produced and the population. China tops almost any list of anything because it has the world’s largest population. But India is catching up fast and yet produces less than 10% of China’s level of waste. Is this because there is less plastic in circulation, is the waste dealt with more efficiently, or is there a cultural difference in how people dispose of waste?

Of course, the total amount of plastic waste reported does not all end up in the oceans. By a recent reckoning, however, about eight million tonnes does go into the seas, where it builds up and persists (Plastic waste heading for oceans quantified). To put it into context, this is nearly twice the annual tuna catch worldwide. And it seems that most of this comes from developing countries, although the EU as a whole comes 18th out of the top 20 polluters, with the USA coming in at number 20.

Air pollution is another high-profile issue in the EU at present. But that shouldn’t blind us to the fact that the real problems are in developing countries. While London or Paris may have their problems, the air in European capitals is already much cleaner than a few decades ago, and bears no comparison to the situation in Beijing or Delhi. These cities are experiencing the sorts of problems European cities had during their own Industrial Revolution and will make big efforts to improve air quality as they develop further.

The people who will still suffer, though, are the largely rural poor who rely on wood or dung as fuel for indoor fires. The levels of respiratory disease and mortality among the women and children most at risk are very high. In the short term, this situation can be improved a lot by using more efficient cooking stoves burning paraffin or LPG, but in the longer term a secure electricity supply would not only lead to cleaner air but bring electric light to improve lives even further.

The fact that pollution is largely a problem of emerging economies and the developing world tells us that it is prosperous and highly developed societies that manage issues of pollution most effectively. Economic development is the solution, not the problem.

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Forecasting versus reality

As they say, forecasting is very difficult, particularly about the future. Hackneyed as this may be, it nicely encapsulates the need to take what anyone – however expert – says about the future with a large pinch of salt. This is particularly important as we are bombarded with projections about the future these days, largely because today’s IT makes it easier both to do the maths and to share the results.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t need forecasts, simply that we should put them in the right context and not assume they are automatically right. Those making the forecasts should be very well aware of their limitations (although human nature may sometimes get in the way of objectivity) but the rest of us usually receive the information via the filter of at least one layer of interpretation and rewording, often making them sound more certain than they really are.

Weather forecasts are a perfect example of the problems. It is quite possible to look at three different forecasts for your local area and get three different pictures of what the weather will be like. The Met Office and others make their projections for rain in terms of the percentage chance of precipitation and whether it is likely to be heavy or light. Also clouds, by their nature, are difficult to predict with certainty at times. This inherent uncertainty inevitably leads to different interpretations.

Some providers of the forecast to consumers, such as the main broadcast and internet media, put the projections in more black and white terms, based on their own interpretation. We, in turn, may then decide whether or not to take an umbrella with us. So, even if temperatures, wind speed and direction and overall amounts of sunshine may be pretty much the same in practice as predicted, if the pattern of rainfall is significantly different we regard the forecast as wrong.

Arguably of even more importance are economic forecasts, on the basis of which important policy decisions are made by central banks and governments. Weather forecasts, even with sophisticated data collection and use of supercomputers, rapidly become less accurate if made over to a horizon of just a few days. Economic forecasts are not only complex, but are based on incomplete data and cover a period of months or years. Not surprisingly, they are always subject to later review and revision. Even official historical figures are in the first instance a best estimate and are revised later, in some cases meaning that a supposed recession never happened.

We should never forget the difference between a forecast and a fact. Forecasting is a very useful tool, but only tells us one possible outcome if our assumptions are correct and our understanding of a particular system (the weather or the economy, for example) is good enough to reproduce the right trends via computer modelling. In other words, this is a ‘what if’ rather than certain view of the future.

This understanding of forecasting is well illustrated by a recent study on air pollution (Clean air target ‘could be met more quickly’). Air pollution in urban areas, and particularly the role of cars in elevating levels of nitrogen dioxide, has become a big issue for many European governments. EU rules are being regularly breached, and combinations of new engine emissions standards, encouragement of electric and hybrid vehicle purchase and restrictions on older cars entering inner city areas have been introduced to deal with this.

Setting aside for the time being the fact that even eliminating the internal combustion engine from cities would not solve the NO2 and particulates problems, it seems that the UK government has based its projections on how long it will take to reduce air pollution to below the legal limit on inaccurate data. Researchers at the Universities of York and Leicester have found that catalytic converters fitted to reduce emissions of particulates age in such a way that older cars actually produce less nitrogen dioxide than when they first roll off the production line. Government policy takes no account of this real world trend, so makes unduly pessimistic assumptions about the time taken for the policy to achieve its goal.

This kind of thing undoubtedly goes on all the time. It’s quite understandable: given the complexity of many of the studies, it’s likely that only one group of researchers will do each one, and going back to check assumptions after all the hard work is something that doesn’t often happen. Equally, it is unlikely that another group of researchers will provide an independent forecast unless they already suspect something to be awry with the initial one.

This issue is, of course, vitally important for climate change and energy policy. The weight of real world observation is gradually forcing a rethink of one critical assumption, the climate sensitivity factor. This is the increase in average temperature arising from a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The mainstream view, encapsulated in the various IPCC reports and driving international emissions policy, is that there is a positive feedback mechanism for every additional amount of CO2 injected into the air. What may be termed the lukewarmist view is that this positive feedback is either not real or very weak.

Despite this legitimate difference of opinion, we still hear talk of the number of gigatonnes of carbon dioxide it is safe to release without breaching the somewhat arbitrary target of a 2°C rise in temperature, above which warming would be considered dangerous. That forecasts (actually projections, as the modellers would call them) are treated as if they were fact is understandable as a way to pressure governments into cutting emissions, but it doesn’t make this an acceptable practice.

Governments do (or should) make policy based on scientific advice. It is incumbent upon the advisors to make clear the uncertainties and unknowns in the evidence on which their advice is based, and to properly assess new and possibly conflicting studies. Unfortunately, it is much harder to modify an existing policy position than to make the original one from scratch, so the inertia of the system tends to militate against improvement. The UK government’s response to the new evidence on air pollution could be an interesting test case.

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Are electric vehicles the future?

Electric cars are now a daily sight on our streets, what were previously token charging points in public places are often in use, and people are now beginning to think of the implications of the much-touted transition away from the internal combustion engine. The assumption by enthusiasts is that this is going to happen sooner rather than later but, as with any major technical change, its course (and even the end point) is very difficult to predict.

Most major changes such as this come about by a combination of innovation and market pull. Two hundred years ago, railways provided the first fast, affordable means of mass transport and, not surprisingly, grew rapidly. A century later, the development of the internal combustion engine made possible personal transport as well as more flexible public and goods transport than could be achieved with either railways or horsepower. Their rate of uptake was limited, partly by affordability, but mass motoring quickly became the norm from the middle of last century.

Both railways and cars became ubiquitous without any taxpayer subsidy or positive encouragement from governments; they were simply the right solution at the right time. Similarly, the IT revolution made possible by the miniaturisation of solid-state electronics was not planned, but evolved and developed. No policymakers sat down in the 1970s and decided that the economy would be dependent on the Internet by the end of the century, and yet technological and market forces brought it about.

Electric vehicles don’t represent a step change in transport as trains and cars did. There may be a major change in underlying technology, but this offers no intrinsic new benefits to the public. This is not a completely new generation of products, akin to moving from conventional mobiles to smart phones, but simply a different, clever and sophisticated means of powering vehicles.

But it is also more expensive. Although electric vehicles are mechanically simpler and the software needed to control them is by now fairly conventional, the need to provide a reasonable driving range means the use of a large number of heavy and expensive batteries, currently based on lithium ion technology. If this approach had intrinsic advantages over internal combustion engines, we could expect to see car manufacturers developing a range of battery-powered cars, and allowing the market to decide how much they displaced conventional cars. No subsidy would be needed, except perhaps in the early days.

In fact, the whole electric vehicle market is driven by climate change policy; the desire to slash carbon dioxide emissions means that the large (and growing) transport sector cannot be ignored once the (relatively) low-hanging fruit of electricity generation have been harvested. Tinkering around the edges with biofuels is little more than window-dressing. To make a real difference to the sector, something more radical was needed. In the absence of genuine progress in miniaturisation and cost reduction of fuel cells, enthusiasm for hydrogen has evaporated as quickly as the lightest element escapes from a fuel tank, leaving electric cars as the only game in town.

Teslas are now a common sight, as are electric models from more mainstream manufacturers, but even with the £5,000 of taxpayers’ money offered by way of subsidy in the UK (and with similar incentives elsewhere), they remain relatively expensive. First adopters are the relatively well-off and largely urban. How large a target market they represent is difficult to judge but, at some point, manufacturers and governments will face increasing difficulty in persuading consumers to buy an EV rather than a conventional car.

Both the British and French governments have announced that no new petrol- or diesel-powered cars will be sold by 2040, with the apparent assumption that by then voters will be very willing to make that choice. There would inevitably be a declining tail of conventional cars on the roads for some years after that (with some becoming the object of a romanticised affection, like steam trains and LPs, no doubt) but the transition would be inevitable.

Actually, there are a lot of problems along the way. How much space will be needed at fuel stations to cope with increasing numbers of people needing to charge their batteries rather than fill up with petrol? Given the longer time needed to recharge rather than fill a tank, long queues and ‘charge rage’ can only be avoided by installing considerably more fast chargers than existing fuel pumps. Where are they going to be put (most fuel stations don’t have lots of spare room next door) and who is going to pay for them?

The answer to the last question is that, ultimately, it will be the driver. But the driver also buys the car and votes for the government. While he or she may be coaxed and cajoled into buying a different type of car, if cost differentials remain too high, the less well-off will be disadvantaged and there is likely to be a revolt. But there is a halfway stage that gives governments a good amount of wriggle room: hybrid vehicles.

Hybrids are now definitely mainstream. They are still more expensive, still qualify for subsidy, but they are a flexible and pragmatic choice. Batteries in newer models are sufficient for modest journeys – perhaps 30 miles – which is enough for many commutes, particularly in towns. And range is never a problem, because the conventional engine takes over when necessary and also recharges the batteries. The owner has a complete replacement for a conventional car that also reduces air pollution in urban areas.

Since this is the basis of the current campaign against the diesel engine (despite the latest standard being little different from petrol engines) and no doubt against petrol engines as well before too long, governments should be pleased. But this ignores the elephant in the room, the very reason why EVs are the current focus of policy: emissions reduction targets. To meet these in the transport sector, not only must all vehicle move to battery power, but all the electricity for them must come from renewable sources.

The chances of achieving this in an affordable way while maintaining security of supply are currently rather low. If we combine this with the need to persuade people to buy expensive electric cars and for someone to provide a workable nationwide charging infrastructure, the chances become slim indeed. Thinking politicians will know this already, but continue to make the right noises to appease the green lobby. At some stage, either there will be one or more technological breakthroughs, or grim reality will force a rethink. Electric vehicles as we know them today may or may not be the future.

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The overstated dangers of nuclear radiation

The safety requirements for operating nuclear reactors are based on the principle that there is effectively no safe dose of radiation, a ludicrous proposition when we consider the lack of ill-effect from relatively high levels of ambient radiation (eg from granite in Aberdeen etc) or exposure to X-rays or gamma-rays for medical purposes. Despite this, the knee jerk reaction of the authorities in the case of concerns is to tighten standards still further ‘to reassure people’. Normally, such action has the opposite effect.

In the meantime, over 20,000 people where killed in the 2011 Japanese tsunami, with no fatalities reported related to exposure to radiation from the Fukushima nuclear plant (although a number of people were injured during evacuation, and some died as a consequence). Chernobyl, just about the worst civilian nuclear disaster that could be imagined, caused only 29 deaths from acute radiation poisoning, although the incidence of thyroid cancer rose and the UN has estimated that there could eventually be up to 4,000 premature deaths.

In this light, it is interesting but not surprising to read a new story in the Times: Nuclear disaster fallout ‘would be no worse than living in London’. To quote:

Philip Thomas, professor of risk management at the University of Bristol, said that in hindsight the Soviet and Japanese authorities had hugely overreacted when they forced more than 450,000 people to abandon their homes for good. “Very few people are properly aware of just how relatively small the risks of nuclear power are, even after a big nuclear accident has happened, never mind how rare that event might be,” he said.

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