MP suggests cars carry ‘climate health warnings’ - maybe someone’s listening

It’s very rare that I am impressed by a UK MP’s ideas or statements on Climate Change, but for once, someone has raised their voice and come up with something sensible. MP Colin Challen, chair of the all-party climate change group has come up with the idea of government health warnings on all car adverts, pointing out that they are damaging to our health and to our climate, and that consumers are being misled by the ‘green’ message now being given out in many ads, suggesting to some extent that they are now good for the environment.

Ok, maybe this is a bit far, but I’m still happy to see someone pointing out - if in a bit more extreme manner - that car manufacturers are getting away with selling cars without highlighting the negative effect they do have on the environment. I’m especially happy as it’s a subject I have brought up before, although my suggestion is slightly less extreme - that all car ads in all formats should display as clearly as possible the CO2 emissions generated by the car in question.

It has got better - most posters and magazine ads do now include CO2 emissions figures (in very small print), but TV ads still blatantly avoid the subject. In fact, I’d love to do a test with a panel of consumers to get them to estimate the actual CO2 emissions of a series of cars based on the message from their ads.

And that’s the point. It’s not clear, and something needs to be done to ensure that we make educated decisions. I don’t think we need great big ‘CARS CAN KILL THE PLANET’ health warnings - this is the ‘THE END IS NIGH’ approach to getting people to reduce CO2 emissions, and it puts out more backs than it encourages people. However, the fact that someone influential is pointing out the absence of any clear message on CO2 emissions in many car ads is a step in the right direction.

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New UK coal-fired power stations with ’substantial’ CCS: a step forwards, backwards, or sideways?

With trumpeting and fanfares from the government, some of the press and even green groups, Ed Milliband the UK’s ‘Climate Change’ Secretary announced the construction of up to four new coal-fired power stations, but with the proviso that each must capture a ’substantial’ amount of the CO2 generated (estimated at around 25%) and store it underground. He also made it clear that no coal-fired power stations will be built in the future without carbon capture.

This obviously does represent a step, if not a leap forwards, and puts the UK in a leadership position in this area, but I can’t help questioning how much it will contribute to actually reducing the UK’s CO2 emissions, especially in the short term? The issue is with the phrase ’substantial’, which I would normally have expected to mean at least over 50%, but actually means between 20% and 25%. Apparently it is just not possible to capture 100% of emissions from the get-go as the technology has not yet been proven. According to Mr Milliband, ‘2025 is a practical’.

I am supposing that these new power stations will be replacing older, less-efficient ones, so that even without CCS each one would not represent a 100% additional weight on the UK’s CO2 emissions. However, I am struggling to understand how, even with the predicted 25% of CO2 collected, these plans can constitute anything but an increase in emissions between now and 2025, when we hope that 100% can be collected. If the glummest of doomsayers are right, this is not a good thing, as we need to be focusing everything we do on reducing emissions every year, and can’t allow for any further increases.

Conclusion? It’s a huge step forward to see the government insisting on and investing in new, CO2 reduction solutions, but the question has to be asked: could the estimated £4 billion of investment (not including further increases in fuel bills) be better spent on zero-emissions energy solutions? To me it’s a step-forward in thinking, but we are no nearer the desired results.

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To act or not to act? That is the question

Ok, so I’ve bastardised a line from Hamlet, but the acting I’m referring to does not involve a stage in a theatre, or cameras. I’m talking about whether or not we should act, that is take action on Climate Change.

Every day I read 5 or more online articles on Climate Change / Global Warming plus the comments from readers, and every time I witness yet another ‘road to nowhere’ argument:

“AGW is real and we must do something about it now”.
“It’s all a plot by government and big business to make money and tax us even more”.
“The facts prove that man-made emissions are destroying the planet. Look at all the scientific proof, and all the experts who back it up”.
“The facts prove that Global warming is totally natural and that the planet can deal with it. Look at all the scientific proof, and all the experts who back it up”.
“We need to act now, for our children!”
“I’m not compromising one ounce of my comfortable life for a non-reason. There’s no danger anyway”.

And so it goes on, and will do until we get some solid proof either way. By which time it may be too late anyway…. if there really is a problem. Personally, I am inclined to believe the “AGW is real and we need to act now” argument, but any doubts I may have are anyway backed up by a much stronger belief that working to reduce our CO2 emissions will not compromise our lives but rather improve them, that it will certainly improve the way we treat our planet, and it will also save us money.

That’s my reasoning, but I’m always looking for other relevant arguments, and today, thanks to an article in the Guardian, I found one that I particularly like. It’s neither official, nor totally serious, and what’s more it’s relatively old news, but as I’ve just found it, I thought I would upload it for anyone else who hasn’t yet seen it. I don’t totally agree with what will happen if we act and then discover that Climate change doesn’t exist - I believe there will always be major benefits, but I will certainly try this approach out on a few doubters over the next few days:

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Shell gives up on wind, solar and hydro power. Why bother?

Amongst the myriad of different opinions voiced every day regarding the best solutions for reducing world CO2 emissions, there is at least one consensus: we can’t achieve anything without a major push from and the support of governments AND big business. When talking of big business, there’s nothing much bigger than the oil producers, with their huge annual profits, credit crunch or no credit crunch, and amongst the oil producers, few come bigger than Shell.

Until recently, the energy companies seemed to be doing all they could to demonstrate their green credentials. BP has changed their logo and become an ‘Energy Company’. Total talks about ’sustainable development’. Esso talks about ‘provide energy, protect the environment’. All of them have been actively investing in other energy sources and making a lot of noise about it, showing a ‘green side’, and also in a sort of admission about the peak oil situation. Of course they are still producing and selling as much oil as possible, but at least they are helping to take the world forwards in the crucial search for the energy solutions of the future.

But now, all of a sudden, Shell has announced that they are stopping all investment in wind, solar and hydro power as they are not ‘economic. Instead they are re-focusing on biofuels. Linda Cook, Shell’s executive director of gas and power, said: “If there aren’t investment opportunities which compete with other projects we won’t put money into it. We are businessmen and women. If there were renewables [which made money] we would put money into it.”

Wow…. hold the front page! Renewables aren’t money-making today, and Shell has been kind enough to tell us! Thank you so much. Amazingly enough, we all know this, or at least that renewables don’t offer the profit-making potential of oil, but we also know that this is early days. The first nuclear power stations took years to become profitable, but we persevered, and technology improved. Similarly, solar power has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years, as have wind and hydro, but the only way for them to reach the nirvana of genuine profit is via serious investment in research and development, the kind of investment only available to the oil companies with their billions in annual profits.

But apparently Shell does not want to lead the way in this area. They don’t want to set an example, and their excuse is because it’s a waste of money.

I can’t say I’ve ever been a fan of the oil companies (I can’t think why), but what seems a better investment to you: (allegedly) spending millions on paying people not to prove that oil is a major contributor to CO2 emissions and global warming, or spending millions on future, cleaner energy sources - basically to ensure that these very companies have a future?

They have the infrastructure, they have the scientists, they have the money, but unfortunately, Shell don’t seem to have the will to help us improve the way we all live. Sadly, we will have to look elsewhere for the example-setters at this crucial time.

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Fast-charge batteries? Good news, though don’t hold your breath… yet

The world’s press got very excited last week by a letter published in ‘Nature’ magazine by two researchers from MIT. They have been looking into enhancing lithium iron phosphate electrodes in order to improve charging times for batteries, and talk about the potential for Li-ion batteries (used in mobile phones, but also in the Tesla electric supercar) that could charge fully in seconds.

Clearly this would be good for mobile phone and laptop users, but just imagine what it would do for electric cars, where probably the biggest barrier to entry apart from how long they last is how long it takes to charge their batteries. Theoretically, our MIT heroes suggest, and the media emphasises, this could mean electric cars that are chargeable in under 10 minutes.

This truly would be an amazing development, although a quick surf around the more intelligent parts of the blogosphere suggests that things aren’t as simple as all that: fast charge batteries may not be capable of providing the same level of power, and the fast-charge process itself could require far more power than today’s typical batter-charge process. And anyway, this is a discovery in its early days…

Still, it does make you think - well, it makes me think at any rate. If I go back to the piece I wrote on Lord Stern’s analysis of what green technologies we should be investing in right now, he pushed the development of efficient batteries right down the scale. I said I didn’t agree then, and I repeat it now. Whilst I fully realise that batteries need to get their power from somewhere, I still think that electric power needs to play a major role in transport before we manage to develop other more efficient, safe solutions such as hydrogen power and maybe one day fusion on an industrial basis.

Electric power already delivers, if you work within its limitations. The Tesla will travel up to 220 miles between charges, and at high speeds, but its hugely expensive. Smaller electric cars such as the Nice Mega City are far more affordable, but with a typical range of 60 miles at 40 mph and only 2 seats. The Vectrix scooter will travel over 60 miles at an average of 40 mph with a 2 hour charge time. Other day to day cars and scooters are arriving on the market that will travel up to 100 miles per charge, even if at limited speeds. As a commuter solution, electric vehicles already work, but they could take far more of the transport market if the challenges of range, power and charge time were improved still further.

To me, the development of fast-charge batteries is one crucial step for electric vehicles, as it takes the pressure off the need for greater range - although this remains important. Also, if you think laterally, it brings into play other potential solutions. If a battery can be charged easier and faster, couldn’t it be charged by green energy in this way? Surely a fast-charge battery would be ideal for a hybrid car, enabling it to take even more weight off the petrol side of the bargain?

So I at least am going to watch this space closely, whilst I continue to save up for my Vectrix, or whatever is the best solution by the time I hit my budget target. I’m convinced that this is the future (or one of the futures) of private and public transport.

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If there’s one thing you do in March, go see The Age of Stupid

I first read about it a while ago, but now it’s really here, and time to create a buzz. The Age of Stupid, a full-length docu-drama about climate change, has its ‘people’s premiere’, showing simultaneously in cinemas across the country on the 15th of March.

The film, brainchild of Franny Armstrong, and Executive Produced by the energetic, Oscar-winning John Battsek, stars Pete Postlethwaite as a man living alone in a climate change wracked 2055, looking back at ‘archive’ footage of 2007 and asking the obvious question: why didn’t we do something when we had the chance?

I haven’t seen the film yet, but will absolutely go - and pay to do so as its highly original business model needs all the support we can give it. I have no doubt, however, that the reviews from a huge range of people speak the truth when they say it is a movie that has to be seen.

There are those who complain about the ’scare-tactics’ of climate campaigners, saying that this approach is more likely to get us turned-off than inspired. From the various clips I have seen of The Age of Stupid, I think that this film is more cerebral than that. It’s not just pointing out that the way we live today could bring about major climate change. It’s also pointing out quite how unnecessary, inefficient and abusive to our planet our way of life is.

Anyway, here’s the trailer as a taster. From May the 1st onwards, you can organise your own screening to raise money for your own green causes, and I for one will be encouraging every one I know to watch.

The Age of Stupid: final trailer, Feb 2009 HD from Age of Stupid on Vimeo.

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How can we continue to reduce CO2 emissions and stimulate the economy?

In these difficult economic times, many people have voiced concern over the fact that the many advances made over the last few years in the battle against global warming may be negated due to the sudden massive reduction in investment in this area.

It has always been recognised that investment is required on a public and, to a lesser extent a private level in order to reduce our CO2 emissions at the speed recommended to avoid major global incidents. Governments need to invest in our infrastructure, in planning for a future where oil becomes more and more scarce, and where less is more with regard to energy consumption, and everyday people need to invest in changing their lightbulbs, replacing inefficient appliances, and in more efficient, but more expensive fuel sources. Suddenly noone has any money: the governments have spent it on saving our banks, and people have lost it on the markets, in the drop in the value of housing, or quite simply by losing their jobs. Everyone is tightening their belt, and this is not good news for the new, Green Economy.

Barack Obama, I am glad to say, has made huge steps to counter these concerns by guaranteeing investment in the Green Economy. He has openly said that his goal is to stimulate the economy by investing in this new area, creating new jobs, planning for a better future, and, ultimately, saving people money in the process. In the UK, however, we haven’t quite got that far. There is proposed investment in improving efficiency in our homes, but many other potential areas of investment still seem up in the air, either due to lack of funds or lack of decision-making.

Which is why a briefing paper published this week by Lord Stern of Stern Report fame and Alex Bowen, entitled ‘An outline of the case for a ‘Green’ stimulus is well worth paying attention to. This short but perfectly formed document takes an intelligent, practical approach with the aim of identifying how boosting the Green Economy can boost our economy overall, thus justifying ongoing investment in spite of hard times.

The report looks at a range of different solutions currently which have been, are being, or should be considered to help us reduce our CO2 emissions. It then looks at each of them from several angles, with the goal of identifying those solutions that can both promote economic recovery and limit the adverse effects of climate change. How quickly can each solution be implemented, is the investment required short or long-term, how much will it help reduce emissions, and will it help businesses and everyday people save money, thus aiding recovery?

Based on these scoring criteria, the 5 best performers are:

  • Improving residential home energy efficiency
  • Improving public building energy efficiency
  • Replacing boilers on a massive scale
  • Replacing lights and other appliances
  • Producing new, fuel-efficient cars

And the worst 5 solutions are:

  • Domestic renewable energy
  • Encouraging energy R&D
  • Connected urban transport
  • Advanced Battery development
  • Carbon capture and storage projects

I don’t totally agree with the scoring in every case, and it would be easy to change around the order by changing the criteria, but the approach is still very interesting and makes you think. I’m happy to know that point 1 seems to be already in progress, but I feel that point 2 needs far more investment and point 3 is simply too expensive to consider today. And don’t even get me on to fuel-efficient cars, as the car companies are really dragging their heels here, and because for me this is totally linked with advanced battery development.

Still, at a time when difficult choices have to be made, I am impressed by this attempt to help clarify the arguments for the different solutions. If you want to learn more, you can read the whole paper here - it’s not too long and well worth the read.

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Cadburys cows to burp less - an innovative way to reduce emissions

Cadburys, the UK’s most famous chocolate manufacturer have joined the drive to reduce emissions in an innovative fashion.

Not only are they looking to reduce energy consumption via the use of timers, by ensuring machinery and lights are switched off when not in use, and by using fertilisers (which require oil to produce) more intelligently, they are also looking to reduce the methane emissions from the dairy cows that supply the milk that goes into their products by putting them on a low fibre diet.

Everyone, even children, seems to know that cows make a dramatic contribution to the planet’s emissions with the amount of methane they produce. A typical cow emits between 80 and 120kg of methane a  year - the equivalent, believe it or not of an average car, although from its mouth and not in the form of farts as believed by many. Cadburys believe that they can reduce these emissions by as much as 30% by changing their cows’ diet, and lets hope they are right, but couldn’t they, and all cow owners go even further?

Cows spend a fair amount of time indoors - in the case of dairy cows, whenever they are being milked, and in the case of all cows for at least some of the winter in order not to completely destroy the fields they live in. Surely it would be possible to install a system into the typical cow barn that captures the huge amounts of methane produced, and even uses it in a practical way, for instance to heat the barn in question?

As a child, I remember being told stories about farmers being blown up when lighting a cigarette too close to farting pigs. Probably totally exagerrated, but not completely impossible, and something that returned to my thoughts these last few weeks. Whilst I agree that we absolutely need to go easy on our meat consumption, and that we should ideally look to reduce the number of polluting and consuming animals, maybe we should also be looking to harness the natural fuel being produced by them… Sounds mad? Right now, I think we should look at every option available - you never know what might work!

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If we paint it white, all will be all right…

Everyone is always looking for ‘big ideas’, the ones that will in one fail swoop solve all our problems. For me, the business of reducing our CO2 emissions and looking after the environment takes a different approach: we mustn’t stop looking for the ‘big idea’, or even several of them, but in the meantime we shouldn’t ignore the myriad of smaller ideas that on their own can’t turn everything around, but that definitely can help stop the rot.

This is why I love the latest idea put forward by Hasham Akbari, a scientist based at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. It’s really simple: if we turn more of the landscape, and above all the cityscape, white, more sunlight will be reflected and this will help reduce CO2 emissions and delay the effects of global warming.

So what we need to do is to emulate the inhabitants of many a sun-drenched country, and paint all possible outdoor surfaces (above all the roofs of all buildings) white, or at least a light-reflecting colour. This approach will contribute to the reduction of global warming in two ways:

  1. Sunlight reflected back from the earth’s surface reduces the amount of thermal energy given off, and thermal energy contributes to the greenhouse effect. Therefore, if we increase the surface area that reflects sunlight, we reduce the thermal energy given off by the earth.
  2. Buildings that reflect sunlight become less hot in the sun, and therefore need less cooling down. This concept has already been understood in places like California, where whitehouses with flat roofs have been painted white since 2005 in order to reduce the need for power-hungry, CO2 emissions-generating air conditioning.

Akbari reckons that if we all get together to paint an additional 0.3 percent of the earth’s surface white (or at least a colour that reflects sunlight), we could actually save 44 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions, the same as the expected rise in emissions over the next 10 years, giving us more time to work on other long-term ‘big ideas’.

Perhaps painting 0.3 percent of the earth’s surface white is a little too much to hope for, and to achieve it, we would certainly have to address several major issues, starting with the fact that white sloping roofs would be, quite frankly, ugly, let alone a potential navigational nightmare for air traffic (hold on, maybe this is a cunning plan to reduce air traffic… keep that thought!). This would certainly be the case for white roads.

However, it does remain an excellent idea, and everyone could contribute to it cheaply and quickly. Imagine, for instance, if we all went out this spring and painted just our patios and garden sheds white. This would already account for a huge surface area, and at least several million tonnes of CO2 emissions, and all for the cost of a pot of paint. Now, let’s take it further: imagine that governments decree that all playgrounds, outdoor carparks, warehouse roofs, the roofs of public buildings are painted white. What about if the roofs of all new cars have to be white? Ok, that’s a contradiction, but could theoretically reduce the emissions of all future transport…

I think this idea has mileage, and will be off tomorrow to B&Q to buy my pot of paint. Not sure what I’m going to paint yet, but here’s advance warning to the neighbours…

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NICE Car Company goes into administration - where’s the support for the cars of the future?

I was going to write a positive article today. I’ve been researching the electric car market this week, and was starting to get excited at the increasing number of options - some of them even starting to compete with the internal combustion engine in terms of top speed and distance between charges, and at the cars that have been announced for the next 12 months.

The announcement of the new electric Mini put me into an even better mood because, although it’s still not that practical (only 2 seats, and a maximum range of 150 miles), and at least for 2009 will only be available for a limited trial, it is tangible evidence of the mainstream car manufacturers looking for solutions in the electric vehicle market.

So, boosted by all of this good news, I was intending to write about how we seemed, finally, to be reaching a ‘tipping point’, where electric cars are actually being taken seriously, even by the mainstream, and looking forward to exciting developments over the next few years: the first electric 4-seater; the first 400 mile electric car; the first electric car that is genuinely worth its price.

And then came this morning, and not one, but two pieces of depressing news:

First, I read that the NICE Car Company, along with G-Wiz the UK’s main electric car distributor today, has gone into administration. Apparently sales had dipped to under 1 car per week this year and, in spite of bullish announcements about new models and a new test-drive stall in the new Westfield shopping centre, they have run out of funds.

Secondly, it seems that this exciting new market has been flat as a pancake in 2008, with a total of 156 sales this year, a 58% dip on 2007. Most of these were sold by G-Wiz, who seem to be surviving, but it must be touch and go even for them.

So maybe the constructors and distributors are waking up to the opportunity, but the public is not? Clearly the recession has played an important part in this dip, but what has happened to the crucial message: invest in low-emissions solutions, save the planet, and save money?

Ok, so I’d be the first to admit that currently available electric cars are by no means everyone’s cup of tea - in fact they are totaly impractical for many of us. In general only 2 real seats, which cuts out families, a short range, which means they are almost certainly a second car, and now most London boroughs have withdrawn their previous offer of totally free parking, replacing it with time-limited free parking. On top of all of this is the price range, running from £8,000 to around £15,000 for the just-launched 4-seater Ze-0.

We musn’t forget, however, that these guys are the forerunners, the start of the revolution. They may not be perfect, but they get our attention, and they get the message out there. This is not the time for things to stumble to a halt and start to go backwards. There is a market for these little cars, even in a downturn, and I think that with some targeted marketing and by running a tight ship, they could easily turn a small profit.

Which is why I am hoping against hope that our dear government, desperate to preserve institutions such as banking, might take a leaf from the USA’s books and also look for a solution to support the electric car industry. The investment will be minimal, but to me it’s absolutely crucial. Still, I’m not holding out much hope - does anyone know any investors out there? If not, do let anyone interested in buying a NICE know that right now, they just might get a good deal. Visit the NICE Car Company web site for more information.

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