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Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is acting head of the climate and energy programme at nef.

Are we too optimistic about the promise of a magic bullet to solve climate change? Two mechanical engineers argue we are – and the only way to fix climate change is think about an alternative economic model.


Three years ago, I felt like a bit of a loan voice. I’d been increasingly highlighting my concerns about a mounting reliance on a magic bullet (or a number of them) to mitigate against climate change. But, most of the time, I just got glazed looks, or doe-eyed responses from proponents of technological fixes (e.g. nuclear or carbon capture and storage) that: ‘all I care about is preventing runaway climate change’. As if I don’t.

But now, two mechanical engineers, Patrick Moriaty and Damon Honnery have published a paper that sums up part of my argument.

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Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is lead researcher on climate and energy at nef.

The capture and the long-term storage of CO2 is now central to plans for reducing CO2 emissions from large-scale fossil fuel uses. But new and controversial research argues the storage potential of CO2 may have been overestimated.

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) involves the capture of the greenhouse gas CO2 produced from the combustion of fossil fuels. The captured and compressed CO2 is then transported to a location for long-term storage. While several proposals for the storage phase exist, geological storage has received the most attention. This is partly because it is believed to have the least logistical constraints.

While discrete components of a geological CCS system are mature, there is a broad consensus [subscription required] that significant technological and cost improvements are necessary for commercial CCS deployment. But in the absence of large-scale CCS demonstration plants, the technology is still surrounded by a haze of uncertainty such as cost and speed of deployment.

Adding to these uncertainties, a new study published in The Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering argues the potential for geological storage has been significantly overestimated. The results have prompted a very public and highly technical spat. A large body of experts from industry and academia have now contested the paper’s claims. Read the rest of this entry »

Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is lead researcher on climate and energy at nef.

I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen a pure blue sky without the tapestry of contrails that sketch out the invisible highways of the global aviation network.

The reality of the closed airspace due to the volcanic plume from an eruption near the Icelandic glacier Eyjafjallajoekull (pronounced aya-feeyapla-yurkul) hit me whilst strolling back along the Southbank on a warm spring Sunday afternoon. As I walked along the river, the world seemed strangely calm. The overhead roar of jet engines from aircraft as they march with military precession along the flight path to Heathrow, were conspicuous by their absence.

Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, Iceland, 17th of April, 2010 (NASA, MODIS Satellite)

But, such events also reveal that we are hugely dependent on what often seems like hidden infrastructure, woven together to create an intricate web of interdependence across the globe.

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Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is lead researcher on climate and energy at nef.

Yesterday myself and a few colleagues headed down to the Design Museum, London for the launch of Sustainable Futures – Can Design Save the World? a new exhibition that:

presents key examples of how design can deliver a more sustainable future. The exhibition examines not only the objects themselves but also the infrastructure in which objects are produced and exist. At a time when designers and architects are under pressure to ‘think green’ and education establishments are placing greater emphasis on sustainability in the curriculum, this exhibition highlights how design can, literally, help save the world.

Ration Me Up at the Design Museum, London

And, the exhibition features our very own Ration Me Up monthly carbon ration book.

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Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is lead researcher on the climate and energy team at nef.

Today, new zero-carbon energy company Lemonadability launches the first electricity tariff, fuelled entirely by lemons.

CEO and Lemonadability founder, Arthur Citrus says, ‘ it came to me one evening after a Gin and Tonic. I’d become increasingly worried by climate change and peak oil. And then it suddenly it dawned on me – in my school days we carried out an experiment with a zinc and copper electrode and a lemon. We made enough electricity to light up a small LED. And it just went from there.’

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Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is a researcher on the climate and energy team at nef.

UK Low Carbon Transition PlanThe Secretary of State for Climate Change and Energy’s plans for the transition to a low carbon future for the UK are welcome, and not before time. But is the scale of the vision set out in The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan up to the task at hand?

Beginning with the first element of Ed Miliband’s ‘Energy Trinity’, investment in wind and tidal energy is long overdue good news. However, at £180 million or 23 per cent of the estimated £775m annual bonus package for staff at the failed Royal Bank of Scotland, we have to question how far the rhetoric is matched by real commitment.

Nuclear power, now given the green light, poses serious unsolved problems to do with long-term waste, cost, inflexibility and international security. In any event, it couldn’t deliver in time to meet the real world target set, not by government, but by the atmosphere – of reducing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350ppm.Neither can the climate system wait for unproven carbon capture and storage technology to come on line.

The answer for coal must be elegantly simple. Leave it in the ground.

The first part of the Energy Trinity is vastly under-resourced; the other two are of a different nature entirely. They are a dangerous diversion which, if we follow, would undermine efforts to preserve the climatic conditions under which civilisation emerged.  Remove them and focus resources on the transformation of our aging energy infrastructure, massive scale-out of proven renewable technologies, the transformation of our building stock and the creation of a low vehicle transport system and the plan might begin to look like the Green New Deal our environment and our economy so urgently needs.

Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is a researcher on the climate and energy team at nef.

In one version of the story of the biblical flood, Noah gets the chance to pass on God’s warning of the coming deluge. One hundred and twenty years before the rain starts falling, Noah plants cedar trees so that he can have wood to build the ark and so that the ‘sinful’ can see what’s going on and amend their ways.

Step forward a few thousands of years and the story is being played out along much the same lines: climate scientists began planting their cedar trees at least two centuries ago, through research and the development of climate models.

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Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is a researcher on the climate and energy team at nef.

Today, the newly formed Department of Enertgy and Climate Change published final greenhouse gas emission figures for 2007. According to DECC, emissions had fallen by 1.7 per cent below 2006 figures. Great. Right?

Well it would be if the very foundations of our emissions monitoring weren’t based on voodoo accounting that ‘carbon launder’ the emissions from economies like the UK and the USA.

Under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) emissions monitoring guidelines, wealthier nations systematically underestimate their carbon emissions, while poorer countries systematically overestimate their emissions. This is because the UNFCCC requires emissions to be reported from a production-based perspective. In other words, only emissions associated with domestic emissions and exports are counted, while those associated with imports are washed from the national accounts. Because this method does not take into account ’embodied carbon’ of imports; the consumer of the product takes no responsibility for the greenhouse gas emissions associated with its production.

The UK’s consumption levels have risen steadily. And, as our major retailers scour the world for the cheapest production costs, the emissions that we are actually responsible for, have not only risen in line with our additional consumption – our consumption is proportionally more carbon intensive. This is because how much carbon that is in the energy mix (carbon intensity of energy) tends to be lower in developed nations and higher in developing nations. For example, the carbon intensity of energy in India is 20 per cent higher than the UK. This means a policy decision to monitor emissions based on production is more likely to result in an increase in emissions rather than a decrease – as production is driven up in nations with an energy mix that is more dependent on fossil fuels.

Today, if everyone consumed as much as the average UK citizen, we would need more than three planets like Earth to support us. In order to live within our overall environmental means, and to enable all of the world’s population to meet their basic needs, the UK will have to dramatically reduce the burden our high-consuming lifestyles place on the ecosystem. In effect – we have to take steps to reduce our ‘ecological debt’ – the burden our high-consuming lifestyles have placed, and continue to place on the rest of the planet.

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Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is a researcher on the climate and energy team at nef.

“There’s nothing more demoralizing than a leader who can’t clearly articulate why we’re doing what we’re doing”

– James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge

With parliament set for a symbolically important opposition day debate on proposals for a third runway today, a question that I have been asking myself is ‘how will the Government’s decision to expand Heathrow airport impact on the public’s response to climate change?’ A colleague was asked a simple question by a cab driver that cuts to the heart of the issue that’s been troubling me: ‘How can Gordon Brown expect me to recycle when they’ve decided to build another bloody runway?’ I can imagine he is not the only person asking that question. If that’s the case, the Government’s decision on Heathrow spells disaster for the climate in whole range of ways.

heathrow5Over the past four or five years, climate change has passed a critical threshold in public awareness and political discourse. But the growing profile of the issue has not translated into an adequate, proactive response. Research by AccountAbility and Consumers International found that while at least 90 per cent of the public believes that climate change is caused by humans, statistics from a survey of UK consumers showed that only 7 per cent felt they could do something about it. Of that 7 per cent, only 3 per cent tried to live sustainably. The evidence is that the increase in awareness of the seriousness of climate change and increased sophistication in the scientific understanding of future physical, social cultural and economic impacts has not been reflected in policy or public action. While there are many reasons for this, the key factors are diminishing trust in government and the fact that consumers are locked-in to unsustainable consumption patterns.

Defra has spent millions on research trying to understand what really motivates pro-environmental behaviour. And it turns out it is not as simple as just telling people about climate change. There are many factors that determine whether someone will change their behaviour or not. An extensive review carried out by Professor Tim Jackson in 2005, identified two key themes that determine behaviour change:

The first relates to the symbolic role of consumer goods, which goes beyond their functional use. The symbolic role facilitates a range of complex, deeply engrained ‘social conversations’ about status, identity, social cohesion, group norms and the pursuit of personal and cultural meaning. The second theme relates to the locking-in of consumers into unsustainable consumption patterns, which makes it difficult for consumers to make real choices about their consumption. Consumer ‘lock-in’ occurs in part through economic constraints (how much people have to spend), institutional barriers, inequalities in access, and restricted choice. But it also flows from habits, routines, social norms and expectations and dominant cultural values.

The research then goes on to suggest four key policy responses to combat these problems. One of which is leadership. For example, people assess the perceived priorities of government policy not only by what government says, but critically by what it does. The consistency or inconsistency of government actions can have a significant impact on the success of government initiatives designed to encourage people to take action that will reduce their environmental impact.

I am still doubtful that Heathrow’s third runway will ever be built. There are still a number of planning hoops that have to be jumped through and I doubt oil prices will stay as low as they are now for very long. It is worthing remembering that 24 airlines went bust when oil prices rose above $100 a barrel. But it is clear from Defra’s own research that the decision to press ahead with Heathrow has the potential to undo or at the very least stymie the public’s response to climate change. Whatever the outcome of the Commons vote today, it is clear that until the Government shows the vision and leadership to match the climate challenge they themselves admit we face, we are all less likely to change. And it shouldn’t take millions to work that out.

Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is a researcher on the climate and energy team at nef.

Is the sun setting on the case for expanding Heathrow?

With a government decision expected any day now, the debate about the proposed third runway at Heathrow Airport is going right to the wire. As activists set up their picnic rugs in the Departures Lounge to protest the damage that the expansion would do to the local community, to quality of life in London and – most dramatically – to the world’s climate systems, the backlash from pro-expansionists has begun.

There are plenty of arguments voiced loudly across the press, so let’s just pick two of them. The first is the economic argument. Business leaders are currently  urging ministers to approve the plans to expand Heathrow on the grounds that a new runway is vital if Britain wants to remain competitive, especially when the country is facing a recession if not depression. Businesses in London, they say, will suffer if the airport is improved and enlarged. The second argument is more of a class thing. It hasn’t escaped notice that the some of the anti-aviation protestors have university degrees from places like the University of Cambridge. This has prompted a glut of name-calling: activists from Plane Stupid and Greenpeace have been branded “middle-class militants“, “agitated bourgeois insiders“, the “bolshie Barbour brigade” and “upper crusties.” Because they’re posh – the argument goes – they don’t realise the impact that their demands will have on ordinary people who just want to take a holiday in the sun. According to Times columnist and spiked editor Mick Hume, the activists who blockaded Stansted Airport are “green meanies who pray that the recession makes us too poor to travel“.

Two recent nef reports address these arguments directly. In Plane Truths, a report nef produced with the World Development Movement in September last year, we examined the economic case for airport expansion. WDM has calculated that £10.4 billion was lost to the Exchequer in 2007 as the result of tax exemptions for the airline industry on things like fuel and VAT. To put this in perspective, this is double the amount of money needed to insulate the whole of Britain’s housing stock.  It’s 120 times more than the amount of money which the government currently spends on the research and development of renewable energy technology. What’s more, the rise of cheap flights has benefitted the rich, not the poor. Plane Truths undermined the claim that budget airlines have democratised travel, making it easier for people with less money to fly more. Research at a London airport showed that in 2005, people from the highest soci0-economic groups took 40% of all low-cost flights, even though they make up only 24% of the population. People with the lowest incomes fly the least – only 7.7% of all low-cost flights are taken by people from these groups, even though they account for 32% of the population. Flying remains a perogative of economic elites, not an opportunity for the poor as is so often claimed.

And, as our latest report Tackling Climate Change, Reducing Poverty shows, it is the poorest people in the UK who will be worst affected by climate change. Because people on low-incomes tend to have poorer health and worse housing conditions, they are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as heatwaves and flooding which will lead to an increase in diseases and will damage houses. So taking action to stop climate change won’t punish the working class: if done correctly, it could act as a catalyst for new jobs and lead to improved housing and better public transport.

The class argument collapses even further when you consider just how much damage climate change will wreak on the livelihoods of people living in the developing world. If Mick Hume and others were genuinely concerned about the world’s working class, they’d understand that it’s the poorest people in the global south who will feel the brunt of climate change.  For example, a 2006 study of 4,000 extreme weather events between 1980 and 2002, found that the poor, and rural people in poor countries suffered death, homelessness and displacement from climate-related disasters to orders of magnitude ranging from 10 to 100 times that of wealthier countries. nef‘s own analysis of the impact of climate change on developing nations can be found in our Up in Smoke reports.

Other pro-expansionists will claim that aviation will bring economic growth to developing nations, our research in Plane Truths found that most of the money spent by tourists in popular destinations such as the Maldives, Kenya and the Dominican Republic ends up in the pockets of multinational hotel chains and tour operators rather than to the local economy. As much as 75p from every pound.

join_plot_logoWe need a Green New Deal to revive the economy, not more transportation dependent on dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. So as the arguments in favour of airport expansion crumble, and the threat of runaway climate change looms ever closer, we need to take urgent action to stop the expansion of Heathrow, of Stansted, of any other airport. Today, Greenpeace, along with impressionist Alasdair McGowen, actor Emma Thompson and former editor of the Ecologist Zac Goldsmith, have bought a field right in the middle of the proposed third runway site at Heathrow. There can only be four signatures on the deeds, and hence only four legal owners of the land, but thousands more can sign up as beneficiary owners. Greenpeace is offering you a stake in plot for free. Yesterday, 5,000 people signed up, including George Monbiot and John McDonnell MP. Adding your name takes 30 seconds. Win the battle, and we all stand to benefit.


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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.