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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 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 ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.


Is the Vesta case merely a symbolic blip, or something more interesting? Dim hope can be found in this dismal affair.

Picture the scene. It’s the beginning of the second world war. Germany’s industrial war machine is in full production and Hitler is advancing across Europe. Back in England, the government decides that the cost and planning complications of building tanks and aircraft are just too great and lets the factories – who would be willing to build if there was a demand for them – close. In compensation, it offers the firms a grant from an already existing budget to carry out research and development.

As bizarre as it sounds, a rough equivalent of this otherwise unimaginable scenario is playing itself out at the Vesta wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight – the subject of a high-profile sit-in protest by some of its workforce. The company says that the government has failed to make the domestic market happen, and so plans to shut up shop. The government, for its part, braces to endure a crushing symbolic failure just as it publishes its strategy for a transition to a low-carbon economy, and it is reported that it has offered the firm a little compensatory R&D money (£6m).

Which brings us to the strategy itself. It arrived just weeks before the clock ticks down to 88 months left until global greenhouse gas emissions tip us into a new, more dangerous phase of risk of runaway warming.

Depending on which parts of the strategy you look at (actually having one is, of course, a good start), it seems to be characterised either by some good intent, but too few resources (renewable energy), severe blind spots (peak oil and the role of communities) or a lack of vision about real alternatives for our oil-addicted economy (transport, food and farming). Through the document you can almost feel the begrudging effort of a system coming to terms with external realities that can no longer be entirely ignored or simply “news managed”.

Symbolic events in politics can sweep away even the very best intentions. But is the Vesta case merely a symbolic blip, or something more interesting? On the one hand, it couldn’t be worse. If the UK were to specialise in any form of renewable energy, it is in wind that we are particularly wealthy. The UK has access to 40% of the total wind energy resources in Europe (pdf). And the government plans for another 10,000 wind turbines to be erected by 2020.

So for the nation’s only full turbine factory to close, and for its sit-in protesters, who were trying to keep it open, to be sacked by letters tucked in with a lunch box, it’s hard to imagine a worse message being sent to the public and the marketplace. Why bail out banks to the tune of billions, to keep profit-hungry, bonus-obsessed financiers in work, who then still fail to provide necessary capital to the productive economy, and allow the foundations of our future energy system to crumble? Anyone wishing to register their thoughts can sign a petition on the No 10 website.

One dim hope filtering from this dismal affair is the way in which the environmental and trade union movements have finally found common cause over the future direction of the economy.

It is just one incident, but the message is getting through that a low-carbon economy, and the transition to it, is going to generate a vast number of new jobs. With the vast range of skills that will be needed in a world in which we will almost inevitably do many more things for ourselves, it could also represent a rebirth of useful and interesting work. It’s not just about the number of jobs, but their quality. The reason that this won’t just happen is because the government is still in thrall to market mechanisms.

As Vesta’s business decision to move production to the US shows, markets aren’t there to solve your, the nation’s or the planets problems, they are there to make profits. That is why they need to be subservient to the social and environmental objectives that we choose. On this case, at least, if you want to know the future for employment and the environment in the UK, and whether or not we are likely to avert catastrophic climate change, the answer, my friend, really is blowing in the wind.

88 months and counting

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 ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

The first 'green budget' is very balanced – every measure to stop climate change is balanced with one that makes it worse

Faced with worsening projections for global warming and energy security, learning that the wind turbine maker Vestas will be closing its factory on the Isle of Wight is a bit like hearing that pharmaceutical companies are closing down the production of flu vaccines just as the alert for swine flu goes from level five to full pandemic.

The comparison is useful in more ways than one. It reveals how governments can recognise and act to avert systemic risk in some areas like high finance and flu, but have blind spots or grossly inadequate responses in others, such as climate change. It’s also a useful reminder that when natural systems cross a critical threshold – for example, the number and distribution of people infected with a virulent flu virus, or the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – humanity quickly finds that it is no longer in the driving seat and able to control the direction of travel.

Last month the budget demonstrated the continuing confusion of a political system still struggling to come to terms with the inescapable parameters set by natural systems. The budget was balanced, but only in the sense that anything positive done to promote a low-carbon economy was cancelled out by other measures that will lock in fossil fuel-intensive infrastructure. Both the car and oil industry were happy recipients of budget bungs.

Grasping at the few optimistic straws still blowing around the economy, the chancellor, Alastair Darling, pointed out that the global economy still stood to double in size over the next 20 years.

What he forgot to mention, or didn’t know, is that with each “doubling” of the economy, you use as many resources as with all the previous doublings combined.

Prof Roderick Smith of the Royal Academy of Engineering at Imperial College identified these resource implications of economic doubling. Engineers, it seems, are more adept at understanding material limits. He wrote that the physical view of the economy “is governed by the laws of thermodynamics and continuity” and so, “the question of how much natural resource we have to fuel the economy, and how much energy we have to extract, process and manufacture is central to our existence”.

This year, on a conservative analysis, the UK started to live beyond its environmental means – consuming more and producing more waste than the UK itself can handle – by Easter Sunday, 12 April. This was our “ecological debt day“.

Given that both the UK and the world as a whole already use more resources and produce more waste than collectively our forests, fields, oceans and atmosphere can safely provide and absorb, where, we must ask, will the resources come from to double the size of the global economy?

Darling’s speech was to introduce the first “green budget”, a package meant to put the country on a path to sustainability. It included the world’s first legally binding carbon budget. Yet its targets to reduce emissions are roughly half of what is necessary, according to the climate research work of Prof Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall Centre at Manchester University.

The budget also included roughly £1.4bn of apparently new money to reduce emissions across a range of measures for energy efficiency and renewables. That sum amounts to about 0.09% of the UK’s GDP, and compares sadly to the 20% of GDP that the International Monetary Fund estimates the UK set aside for bailing out its financial sector.

But even here the green hue is darkened by our continuing dependence on oil, coal and gas, and plans to build more runways, roads and new coal fired power stations that capture only a small proportion of their carbon emissions.

Support in the budget to extract an additional 2bn barrels of North Sea oil will produce extra greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to the UK’s entire emissions in 2006, including shipping and aviation. Funds for car scrappage schemes, lacking any meaningful environmental criteria, could also see emissions rise rather than fall.

Funds for car scrappage schemes, lacking any meaningful environmental criteria, could also see emissions rise rather than fall.

Plans for electric cars may sound attractive, but you still need the clean energy to power them. More than a low-carbon vehicle strategy, if the UK is to improve its own energy security and environment, and tackle climate change, we need a low-car vehicle strategy.

Ultimately, the message sent by the budget was confusion. Setting an emissions reduction target in these circumstances is like setting someone a deadline to give up smoking, and then pushing them into a smoke-filled bar where all the walls are lined with cigarette machines.

Nature may be beautiful, but it also has a mind of its own and can take or leave humanity. That’s why we have to respect it and work within its parameters. Both flu pandemics and global warming are lethal. One difference is that if we go through the next 91 months without changing course, the climate roulette of runaway warming will not blow over. It will endure.

91 months and counting…

This article was originally published at Comment is Free.

Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

This was touted as the ‘green budget’, but the commitments on energy efficiency and low-carbon industry are obscured by a cloud of greenhouse gases spewing from the prop-ups given to the car and oil industry. It’s as if the Chancellor wants to ‘have his planet and eat it.’ You could say this is a balanced budget in the sense that any positive environmental action is likely to be cancelled-out by the Government locking-in a fossil fuel intensive infrastructure for transport and energy. As a result the budget turns out to be more beige than green.

Any shoots of recovery will not be green unless they are part of a rapid transition to a low carbon economy. The budget should be solving two problems. First, we need a green economic defibrillator to kick-start the country out of recession, but the Government seem to be just sparking two rusty wires together. Second, if we get the patient on its feet, we still have to cure its chronic fossil-fuel smoking habit.

It’s good to now have a proper, legally binding target for reducing emissions. But, the UK’s continuing dependence on oil, coal and gas, and plans to build more runways and roads, means the target is like setting someone a deadline to give up smoking, and then pushing them into a smoke-filled bar where all the walls are lined with cigarette machines.

Plans for electric cars may sound attractive, but you still need the clean energy to power them. As things are, together with ‘scrappage’ schemes, the initiative could even see total emissions rise rather than fall. More than a low carbon vehicle strategy, if the UK is to improve its own energy security and environment, and tackle climate change we need a low car vehicle strategy.

Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

Selling permits to emit carbon dioxide is fine in theory, but there's a fatal flaw that means it can never avert climate catastrophe.

One day renewable energy looks like a sunrise industry, the next, tumbleweeds are blowing around a setting solar panel. What has changed? The price of emitting carbon dioxide.

In 2005 the European Union created the world’s first proper carbon market, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which compels highly polluting industries to buy permits to emit CO2. The number of permits is limited, so the idea is that supply and demand set a price that encourages the development of a low-carbon economy. A rising price with no wild fluctuations sends an economic signal to invest in clean energy. But it’s not working.

The price of a tonne of CO2 on the ETS has had a roller-coaster ride – soaring one minute, plummeting the next. In the past year it has lurched from over €30 to €8, and now languishes at around €10. Disastrously, such low and unpredictable prices for CO2 remove the economic incentive to decarbonise economies.

This is the partly the result of the economic downturn. As heavy industries mothball factories, energy use drops and demand for permits goes down. At the same time businesses try to raise cash by selling their unused permits, flooding the market and further depressing prices. French energy company EDF recently complained that carbon markets were failing just like the market for subprime mortgages. As a result, all kinds of green energy schemes are grinding to a halt.

So how do you set a meaningful price for carbon? The reality is more complicated than the ETS might suggest, which is a problem for those who advocate using market forces to reduce emissions. As NASA climate scientist James Hansen points out, getting it right or wrong could determine whether or not we can avert irreversible climate change.

Apart from the ETS, there are many ways to put a value on carbon. You can, for example, work out what it costs per tonne to reduce emissions. But calculating this “marginal abatement cost” is complicated by doubts over the effectiveness of carbon offsetting and the true impact of some supposedly green technologies.

Another method is the “social cost of carbon”, which estimates the cost of the damage from emitting a tonne of carbon over its whole lifetime in the atmosphere. This has been used by the UK treasury, and the Dutch government and the World Bank have experimented with it. But with so many variables to account for, estimates range from £35 to £140 per tonne. The UK has now dropped it for a new “shadow price of carbon”, an approach supported by the French government and some members of the European Commission.

The shadow price is similar to the social cost but includes “other factors that may affect willingness to pay for reductions”, to use the UK government’s own words. It is “a more versatile concept”. In other words, it gives politicians some scope to rig the price. Although well intentioned, it is vulnerable to abuse.

Each of these methods has its advantages and disadvantages, but there is one problem that none can solve. I’ll call it the paradox of environmental economics, in which worthy attempts to value natural resources hit a wall.

The paradox is this. All these methods of pricing carbon permit the creation of a carbon market that will allow us to pollute beyond a catastrophic tipping point. In other words, they require us to put a price on the final “killing” tonne of CO2 which, once emitted, tips the balance and triggers runaway global warming. How can we set such a price? It’s like saying, how much is civilisation worth? Or, if you needed a camel to cross a desert alive, what is a fair value for the straw that breaks its back?

The paradox reveals the fatal shortcoming of market solutions to environmental problems. Unless the parameters for carbon markets are set tightly in line with what science tells us is necessary to preventing runaway warming, they cannot work. That palpably did not happen with the ETS, which initially issued more permits to pollute than there were emissions and now, in the recession, is trading emissions that don’t exist – so-called hot air.

Carbon markets cannot save us unless they operate within a global carbon cap sufficient to prevent a rise of more than 2 °C above pre-industrial temperatures.


In wartime, rationing proved to be both fairer and more effective than taxation.

Governments are there to compensate for market failure but seem to have a blind spot about carbon markets. They could counteract the impact of low carbon prices by spending on renewable energy as part of their economic stimulus packages, yet they have not done so. The UK, for example, has spent nearly 20 per cent of its GDP to prop up the financial sector, but just 0.0083 per cent in new money on green economic stimulus.

Price mechanisms alone are unable to do the vital job of reducing carbon emissions. They are too vague, imperfect, and frequently socially unjust. To prevent over-consumption of key resources such as fuel during the second world war, the UK government rejected taxation in favour of rationing because taxation unfairly hit the poor and was too slow to change behaviour. Rationing was the quicker, more equitable option. Carbon rations calculated in line with a safe cap on overall emissions provide a more certain way of hitting emissions targets.

Is there an answer to the paradox of environmental economics that could make the market approach workable? I can’t imagine one, but am open to suggestions. Even if you could price the killing tonne, it is a transaction that should never be allowed. Economics becomes redundant if it can rationalise an exchange that sells the future of humankind.

This article was first published in the New Scientist, April 2009.

Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

As the G20 summit approaches, Government must understand that leadership means putting the UK on course to climate safety

As the G20 summit approaches, Government must understand that leadership means putting the UK on course to climate safety

With motifs of climate-friendly transport woven into the fabric of the building, the Tricycle Cinema in north London was the ideal location to premiere Franny Armstrong’s new film, The Age of Stupid. One story in the film concerns the conflict between a wind energy entrepreneur and his rather self-satisfied and uptight posh local opponents who dislike the idea of any change to the landscape. The posh people win.

Afterwards, in the cinema bar, a slightly intense woman came up to me and asked, “Why don’t they make the wind turbines out of glass, then no one would be able to see them?”

Practicalities aside, her comment threw into relief the absurdity of a current impasse. We have a landscape that is already denuded and industrialised, flattened by monocultural farming and marked by pylons, motorways and mobile phone masts. But we are unwilling to restore to it the windmills that once proliferated, and could, today, help avert climate change and cleanly meet a significant share of our energy needs.

A few years ago, Allan Moore, chair of the British Wind Energy Association, pointed out that the opposition suffered by wind power was almost hysterically disproportionate and historically blind. He argued that in 17th-century Britain there were around 90,000 windmills. Now there were plans to build perhaps 4,000 bringing the total to 5,000.

Inverse proportions seem to be the order of the day. As the clock ticks down, it’s the environment that could bail out the economy if only politicians could order their priorities sensibly. Everyone from the Archbishop of Canterbury to the heir to the throne now understand this.

But, while the UK government were able to produce support to the financial sector equivalent to 20% of the nation’s GDP, new and additional spending for green measures in the Treasury’s pre-Budget report amounted to just 0.0083% of GDP.

The streets of London are filling with thousands of people calling on governments to link their responses to the global recession, climate change and poverty reduction. But, across a range of economic stimulus packages in countries around the world, the average share of spending going to green investments, according to HSBC, is just 15%.

So while the cries outside from industry, unions, the churches and environmentalists are for jobs, the climate and social justice, government is clinging to the illusion that, with the right support struts jammed into place, business as usual can continue. As no amount of rational argument holds sway, we’re reduced to cups of green custard, spiderman climbing buildings, clown armies and fantasies of transparent glass windmills, in order to achieve progress.

But, perhaps there is still more that we can learn from the economic collapse. The old banking system, with all its bravado, scams and subtle deceptions was held together, ultimately, by little more than aggressive self-belief. As soon as that went, it fell apart.

The notion that we cannot change, that we are bound to the status quo by what the poet William Blake called unbreakable “mind-forged manacles”, is similarly false, fragile and prone to sudden collapse. Rather than the politically popular fashion for “nudge” economics, however, we probably need to be given a good shove.

The “bystander effect” is a well-known psychological effect in which people are more likely to underestimate threats to the their safety in a group than on their own. In a group there is a kind of self-reinforcing inactivity if there is no initial response to a threat. Each assumes it must be ok to carry on, because everyone else is. That is why leadership is so important. To encourage fuel savings during the second world war government departments, public buildings and utilities all took high-profile measures to demonstrate that they were taking action.

Today, the head office of the Department for Energy and Climate Change (Decc) HQ is among the least energy-efficient buildings in Britain. Due to arcane rules governing access to information, the only way to discover each public building’s energy efficiency is by visiting each one.

Then, there’s the matter of the privatised research arm of the Ministry of Defence, Qinetiq. They have the consultancy contract to crunch numbers on greenhouse gas scenarios for the offical climate change committee that advises government over mandatory targets for emissions reduction. But Qinetiq is also a fully paid-up member of the lobby group pushing the expansion of UK aviation and a third runway at Heathrow – the organisation known as Flying Matters. Step forward whoever thought of awarding the procurement contract above.


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