Do Tipping Points mean Runaway Global Warming after 12 years?

Is it 12 years?

That’s a belief I am finding increasingly common, but it really isn’t what the science is telling us.

The science is saying that things are very serious and every year we fail to “bend the curve down” as Greta Thunberg puts it, the worse the outcomes. We know from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) 1.5oC Special Report that 2oC is significantly, perhaps surprisingly, worse than 1.5oC.

That is not a reason for a dystopian view that all is lost if we fail to get to zero after 12 (or is it now 11 years) if we don’t get to net zero by then.

The science is not that certain. The IPCC said that 2030 global net emissions must reduce by 45% versus 2010 emissions to achieve 1.5oC, and get to zero by 2050.

That is not to say we should not have highly ambitious targets, because the sooner we peak the atmospheric concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, the sooner we peak the global warming (see Note 1).

Because it is such a huge challenge to decarbonise every sector of our economies, we should have started 30 years ago, and now we have to move very fast; whatever date you put on it. So, if I question some of the dystopian memes out there it is certainly not to question the need for urgent action.

Feedbacks and Tipping Points

I think what lies at the root of the dystopian message is a belief that tipping points – and there are quite a number in the Earth system – are like dominoes, and if one goes over, then all the rest follow. At a meeting I went to that included policy experts, XR, scientists, and others, I got into a chat about feedbacks and tipping points.

The person I spoke to was basically 100% convinced that if we did not get to net zero after ’12 years’ we would set off feedbacks and tipping points. It really would be game over. I want to summarise my side of the conversation:

I appreciate your concern about tipping points; they are real and need to be taken into account.

It is complicated and there are cases that can runaway (take Venus), but there is often a response that limits a particular feedback.

For example, extra CO2 causes warming, which due to the Clausius–Clapeyron relation means that additional water vapour (gaseous form of water, not clouds) is added to the atmosphere (7% extra for every 1C of warming). Since H2O is also a strong greenhouse gas that causes more warming.

This is a crucial ‘fast feedback’ included in climate models. It means that the expected 3oC of warming from doubling CO2 in the atmosphere is actually 1oC from the CO2 and 2oC extra from the H2O feedback (see Note 2).

Ok, so why doesn’t this warming carry on as a runaway (there is plenty of water in the ocean)?

The reason is Stefan’s Law (or ‘Planck Response’).

A body at temperature T emits energy at a rate proportional to T to the power 4. So the loss of heat accelerates and this at some points stops the feedback process (see Note 3).

A way to think about this is a plastic container with a hole at the bottom (say 7mm wide). Pour water from a tap at a constant rate, say half a litre per minute, into the container. What happens? The water level in the container rises to a point that maintains this level. At this point the pressure at the base of the container has increased to the point that the rate of flow of water out of the bottom is equal to the rate of flow in. They are in balance, or ‘equilibrium’.

If I now plug the 7mm hole and drill a 6mm one instead (yes I did this for a talk!), then with the same flow rate coming in, the level of water rises, because it requires more pressure at the base to drive water out at the rate required, to bring the system back into balance (when the level of water stops rising).

We are in both cases having the same amount of energy leaving as entering the system, but in the latter case, energy has been trapped in the system. 

This is a very good analogy for what happens with the Greenhouse Effect (see Note 4), and the level of water is analogous to the trapped energy (which means a hotter planet), and the world warms even though the rate at which energy is coming in (from the Sun) is constant. We can explain the Greenhouse Effect via this analogy simply:

The increased heat trapping power of the atmosphere with an increased concentration of COrestricts the exiting (infra-red) radiation to space – this is analogous to the reduced hole size in the container – and so …

The temperature of the Earth rises in order to force out radiation at the correct rate to balance the incoming energy – this is analogous to the increased level of water in the container. 

This demonstrates that the planet must stabilise the flow of energy out so that it equals the energy in, but with extra energy behind captured in the process (see Note 5).

The main point is that feedbacks do not inevitably mean there is a runaway.

Professor Pierrehumbert wrote a paper reviewing the possibility of a runaway in the sense of heading for a Venus scenario, and it seems unlikely “it is estimated that triggering a runaway under modern conditions would require CO2 in excess of 30,000 ppm”.

Even in more complex cases, such as melting sea ice and ice sheets, the feedbacks do not imply inevitable runaway, because in each case there is often a compensating effect that means a new equilibrium is reached.

But there is not one possible end state for a particular level of warming, there are numerous ones, and we know from the climate record that flips from one state to another can happen quite fast (the ocean conveyor belt transports huge amounts of heat around the planet and this is often implicated in these rapid transitions).

So, this is not to say that the new equilibirum reached is a good place to end up. Far from it. I agree it is serious, and the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is now unprecedented for over 3 million years. We are warming at an unprecedented rate, thousands of times faster than the Earth has seen in that period.

It is very scary and we don’t need to say a runaway is inevitable to make it even more scary!

Arguments that a feedback will trigger another, and so on, ad infinitum, may sound plausible but are not science, however confident and high profile the speaker may be. It does the XR cause no good to simply repeat wild speculation that has no scientific foundation, merely on the basis of a freewheeling use of the ‘precautionary principle’.

I hope this clarifies my point, which was not to minimise the urgency for action – far from it – I am 100% behind urgent action.

However, I think that sometimes it is important to be scientifically pedantic on the question of feedbacks and runaway. The situation is scary enough.

I really worry about the dystopian message for our collective mental health, and that this might freeze people and even limit action amongst the wider public who are not activitists (but need to participate in our collective actions).

We need a message of hope, and this is it:

The sooner we can peak the atmospheric concentration of CO2 (by stopping emissions), the sooner we can halt warming, and

the lower that peak in the atmospheric concentration, the lower the level of warming.

We can make a difference!

We have to act to make hope meaningful, because being alarmed, and frozen in the headlights, and unable to act, is not a recipe for hope.

However, being duly alarmed and having hope are not mutually exclusive, if we recognise we have agency. We can all make a contribution, to agitate for, or implement, a plan of actions and the actions that follow.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2019

 

NOTES

(1)   The IPCC 1.5C Special Report (p.64) talks about ‘committed warming’ in the oceans that is often assumed to mean that the Earth will continue to warm even when we stop CO2 emissions due to thermal inertia of heated oceans. Surprisingly for many, this is not the case. The IPCC reiterate what is a long known effect, regarding what they term the Zero Emissions Commitment:

“The ZEC from past COemissions is small because the continued warming effect from ocean thermal inertia is approximately balanced by declining radiative forcing due to COuptake by the ocean … Thus, although present-day CO2-induced warming is irreversible on millennial time scales … past COemissions do not commit substantial further warming”

(2)   This excludes clouds, and the effect of clouds at lower and higher levels can, for this simple example, can be regarded as cancelling each other out in terms of warming and cooling. Water Vapour in the atmosphere referred to here is not condensed into droplets but is a gas that is transparent to the human eye, but like carbon dioxide, is a strong absorber of infra-red. Because carbon dioxide is a non-condensing gas, but water does condense, it is the concentration of carbon dioxide that is the ‘control knob’ when it comes to their combined warming effect.  In 1905, T.C. Chamberlin writing to Charles Abbott, eloquently explains the feedback role of water vapour, and the controlling power of carbon dioxide:

“Water vapour, confessedly the greatest thermal absorbent in the atmosphere, is dependent on temperature for its amount, and if another agent, as CO2 not so dependent, raises the temperature of the surface, it calls into function a certain amount of water vapour, which further absorbs heat, raises the temperature and calls forth more [water] vapour …”

(3)  Strictly, it is a ‘black body’ – that absorbs (and emits) energy at all frequencies – that obeys Stefan’s Law. When using the law, we express T in Kelvin units. To a reasonable approximation, we can treat the Earth as a black body for a back of the envelope calculation, and we find that without carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the Earth – at its distance from the sun – would be 258K, or -15oC on average, a frozen world. That would be 30oC colder than our current, or pre-industrial, average of 15oC.

(4) John Tyndall originated this analogy in his memoirs Contributions to Molecular Physics in the Domain of Radiant Heat published in 1872, although he used the example of a stream and dam, which is raised, my exposition is essentially based on his precedent.

(5) One other aspect of this re-established equilibrium is that the so-called ‘Top of Atmosphere’ (TOA) – where the energy out in the form of infra-red, is balancing the energy in – is at higher altitiude. The more carbon dioxide we add, the higher this TOA. Professor Pierrehumbert explains it in this Youtube exposition, from the film Thin Ice, where he pulls in a few other aspects of the warming process, as it works on planet Earth (e.g. convection).

END

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Google and the Internet: Friend or Foe to the Planet?

I keep hearing this meme that goes along the lines of “a Google search will use X amount of energy”, where X is often stated in a form of a scary number.

I think numbers are important.

According to one source a Google search is about 0.0003 kWh of energy, whereas a 3kW kettle running for one minute uses 3 x (1/60) = 1/20 = 0.05 kWh, which is 160 times as much (another piece  uses an equivalent figure – Note 1).

On the UK grid, with a carbon intensity of approximately 300 gCO2/kWh (and falling) that would equate to 0.09 gCO2 or roughly 0.1 gCO2 per search. On a more carbon intensive grid it could be double this, so giving 0.2 gCO2 per search, which is the figure Google provided in response to The Sunday Times article by MIT graduate Alex Wissner-Gross (cited here), who had estimated 7 gCO2 per search.

If the average Brit does the equivalent of 100 searches a day, that would be:
100 x 0.0003 kWh = 0.03 kWh, whereas according to Prof. Mackay, our total energy use (including all forms) is 125 kWh per person per day in UK, over 4,000 times more.

But that is not to say the that the total energy used by the Google is trivial.

According to a Statista article, Google used over 10 teraWatthours globally in 2018 (10 TWh = 10,000,000,000 kWh), a huge number, yes.

But the IEA reports  that world used 23,000 TWh in 2018. So Google searches would represent about 0.04% of the world’s energy on that basis, a not insignificant number, but hardly a priority when compared to electricity generation, transport, heating, food and forests. Of course, the internet is more than simply searches – we have data analysis, routers, databases, web sites, and much more. Forbes published findings from …

A new report from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory figures that those data centers use an enormous amount of energy — some 70 billion kilowatt hours per year. That amounts to 1.8% of total American electricity consumption.

Other estimates indicate a rising percentage now in the low few percentage points, rivalling aviation. So I do not trivialise the impact of the internet overall as one ‘sector’ that needs to address its carbon footprint.

However, the question naturally arises, regarding the internet as a whole:

how much energy does it save, not travelling to a library, using remote conferencing, Facebooking family across the world rather than flying, etc., compared to the energy it uses?

If in future it enables us to have smarter transport systems, smart grids, smart heating, and so on, it could radically increase the efficiency of our energy use across all sectors. Of course, we would want it used in that way, rather than as a ‘trivial’ additional form of energy usage (e.g. hosting of virtual reality game).

It is by no means clear that the ‘balance sheet’ makes the internet a foe rather than friend to the planet.

Used wisely, the internet can be a great friend, if it stops us using planes, over-heating our homes, optimising public transport use, and so forth. This is not techno-fetishism, but the wise use of technology alongside the behavioural changes needed to find climate solutions. Technology alone is not the solution; solutions must be people centred.

Currently, the internet – in terms of its energy use – is a sideshow when it comes to its own energy consumption, when compared to the other things we do.

Stay focused people.

Time is short.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2019

 

Note 1

I have discovered that messing about with ‘units’ can cause confusion. So here is an explainer. The cited article uses a figure of 0.3 Watt hours, or 0.3 Wh for short. The more commonly used unit of energy consumption is kilo Watt hours or kWh. As 1000 Wh = 1 kWh, so it remains true if we divide both sides by 1000: 1 Wh = 0.001 kWh. And one small step means 0.1 Wh = 0.0001 kWh. Hence, 0.3 Wh = 0.0003 kWh.  If you don’t spot the ‘k’ things do get mighty confusing!

 

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Fusion is the Future

I mean it, it is the future.

Or rather, to be accurate, it could be the future.

In the core of the sun, the energy production is very slow, thankfully, so the beast lasts a long time. You need about 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 collisons between hydrogen nuclei before you get 1 that successfully fuses, and releases all that energy.

Beating those odds in a man-made magnetic plasma container (such as a Tokamak) is proving to be something that will be done by tomorrow, plus 50 years (and repeat).

Boris Johnson obviously believes that the way to show a flourish of leadership is to channel dreams of technical wizardry that goes well beyond the briefings from those experts in the know.

But who believes in experts in magneto-hydrodynamics? Stop over complicating the story you naysayer PhDs. Positive mental attitude will confound physics! Get back in your box experts!

*CUT TO REAL WORLD*

Man-made fusion energy as an answer to the man-made climate emergency by 2040 is not just ignorant, it is a deliberate and cynical attempt to delay action now. It is a form of techno-fetishism that deniers love. Boris Johnson spends a lot of time with these people.

We have relevant solutions available today, and just need to get on with them.

We do indeed have a functionally infinite fusion energy generator available to humanity, and it is free.

It’s called ‘The Sun’ (an astronomical entity, not a rag masquerading as a newspaper).

If man-made fusion energy is commercialised it *MAY BE* relevant to a world *POST*  resolving the climate crisis, but is definitely not part, or even maybe part, of that resolution.

It fails key tests I discussed here

Please politicians – left, right and centre – stop playing games and take the climate emergency seriously.

It may surprise you that while Boris’s cult following will swallow anything (almost literally), the rest, and particularly the rising youth, will not.

But I am prepared to compromise. A deal is possible.

Fusion is indeed the future …

… it is the energy from the Sun!

And you might be surprised to hear that it gives rise to …

direct Photovoltaic (PV) capture of that energy,

and indirect forms of capture (e.g. wind energy).

Problem solved.

As to man-made fusion, the jury is out (and a distraction for now), and we don’t have time to wait for the verdict.

 

(c) Richard W. Erskine. 2019

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Renewable Technologies: Facts, Fiction and Current Developments

Chris Wilde, Managing Director of Yorkshire Energy Systems (YES), gave a talk Renewable Technologies: Facts, Fiction and Current Developments on 5th September 2019 at The Arkell Centre in Nailsworth, hosted by Nailsworth Climate Action Town (NCAT). The focus was on domestic renewables in UK.

Chris exploded many myths and misunderstandings that even some supporters of renewables believe in. The audience included an influential range of people, from the national political level, to district and parish councillors, from Transition Stroud, local climate groups, Severn Wye Energy Agency, and local renewable energy businesses. It was an excellent talk and very well recieved.

I will be sharing a fuller record of the talk, but to briefly summarise his words that accompanied the pictures used in the talk, using my notes …

Whereas 5 years ago, or even 6 months ago, the majority of householders installing renewables were doing it simply for financial reasons, rather than to reduce their carbon footprint, that has now changed, and about half of those now doing it are motivated by concerns about global warming. Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion can take a lot of credit for raising awareness.

Chris showed an aerial view of a large 110 kW (kilowatt, a unit of ‘power’) solar PV system YES did for a company close to Wembley Stadium. What is shocking is that there are huge areas of commercial roof space without solar surrounding this installation. As Chris said, it shouldn’t be a question of seeking permission to have solar – particularly on new homes or new commercial buildings – it should be required that they do have solar, and it is much cheaper to do it at build time than to retrofit later (“solar” will be used as shorthand for solar photovoltaic (PV) in the text below):

Solar Myths

Myth 1 – Solar is ugly. Leaving aside the point that saving the planet might be seen as more important than the aesthetics of roof lines, the fact is solar panels have been getting slicker and more aesthetic. It is now possible to replace tiles completely with in-roof panels.

Myth 2 – You can only have 4kW on your house. No, you can only have 4kW per phase before seeking permission from the grid.

Myth 3 – Cannot have solar without a south facing roof. Actually, the variation in input from west or east, versus south, facing panels can be as little as 15%, and in fact having east and west facing panels can be better for households needing more energy in the morning and afternoon. On flat roofs, you can pack east and west panels more tightly (because less spacing is then required to deal with shadowing effects), and this completely compensates for not being south facing.

Myth 4 – We don’t have a roof that is not shaded, so pointless. Ok, but there are other options, such as ground mounted arrays, or a tracking system like Heliomotion (which has a UK base in Stroud). Chris also showed arrays mounted high enough for sheep to graze under; and there is even a trend now to place solar on top of parking bays. There are simply so many ways of having solar fitted, there are no excuses for not doing it!

Myth 5 – The Feed In Tarif (FIT) has ended so it cannot be made to work, financially. This is wrong on several levels.

  • Firstly, the sun’s energy is free.
  • Secondly, the price of solar has dropped while the panels have increased in output (250 to 350 kW over 5 years).
  • Thirdly, it is true that FIT gave householders 40p per kWh (kiloWatt hour, a unit of ‘energy’) for all energy generated, whether exported to the grid or not, and an extra 3p per kWh for 50% of that generated that is assumed to be exported to the grid. However, while there are now no FIT payments, utility companies will have to pay for what you export, under the new Export Guarantee Scheme (Octopus are already offering 5.5p per kWh even before the scheme comes in).
  • Fourthly, with a low cost ‘solar diversion switch’ any excess solar energy can be used to heat hot water, avoiding the need to export it to the grid (and by the way, this simple device has essentially killed the ‘solar thermal’ market).
  • Fifthly, systems that were costing between £3,000 and £4,000 per kW are now down to £1,000. So, in short, payback of a solar system is still possible within 6-7 years even without the FIT subsidy.
  • Finally, the reduction in bureaucracy with the loss of FIT means that it actually might, paradoxically, accelerate uptake of solar.

Heat Pump Myths

Chris started by explaining how heat pumps work, which seems miraculous to many people, but is the product of 17th century physics: if you compress a gas, it gets hotter. And a heat pump works by transferring heat from the air (or ground) via a fluid (a refrigerant) that is compressed and then releases its heat inside the building. But for each unit of energy used by the pump, 3 to 4 units of energy is extracted from the air in the form of heat. The two main categories of heat pump are Air Sourced Heat Pumps (ASHP) and Ground Sourced Heat Pumps (GSHP). The efficiency of a heat pump will vary with external temperature, but overall is quoted as a seasonally averaged figure.

Assume you had an ASHP with 3.5 efficiency factor. If you have a heating requirement of 18,000 kWh for your home, this could be achieved by using 18,000/3.5 = 5,143 kWh of electricity. Mains gas is currently 3p per kWh and mains electricity is 13 p per kWh so to heat the house with gas would be 18,000 x £0.03 = £540 per year, whereas to do it with this ASHP would be 5,143 x £0.13 = £669; still a bit more than gas, because gas is currently ridiculously cheap, but a few things to consider:

  • when a crisis occurs in the Middle East for example, gas prices can rise, and don’t have to swing much to wipe out the current distorted advantage of cheap gas;
  • a tax on carbon including gas, will come sooner or later to reflect the damage that carbon dioxide emissions are doing;
  • even if today some electricity is coming from fossil fuel plants, increasingly the grid is being ‘greened up’ (see www.carbonintensity.org to look at how much the grid has already greened);
  • as you will see below, if you add solar to a heat pump the maths flips, because you can use the free solar electricity to help drive the heat pump and even if that is not all year round, 24-7, it has made a huge difference;
  • finally, if you cannot add solar to your heat pump for some reason, many people are prepared to pay an extra £100 or so per year to save the planet (that is clear from the recent boost in heat pump installations YES have been seeing).

One other key point is that heating a house using a heat pump requires sufficiently large radiators because it operates using a flow temperature of 45/50oC, rather than say 70oC as with a gas boiler. At 45/50oC they still heat the house to the required temperature (typically 21oC), but does so with a larger surface area of ‘emitter’ (this effectively means a slight fatter radiator, and depending on how old the heating system in a house is, that may mean that some of the radiators need to be upgraded, but rarely all radiators; even better, under floor heating can be used, increasing the area even more).

Myth 6 – It cannot work when it is cold outside. Yes it can, as described. It is basic physics at work, and no magic is involved!

Myth 7 – They are more expensive than a gas boiler, so are unaffordable. Heat pumps are more expensive to fit but the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was designed precisely to deal with this. It is paid to the householder over 7 years (and commercially over 20 years), reducing running costs and overall, paying off half to two-thirds of the cost of the installation. To qualify for RHI, the key requirement is roof insulation, and if you have cavity walls, then cavity wall insulation.

Myth 8 – They cannot work in old leaky houses. Untrue. Chris presented an example of an old rectory with 290 square metre floor area, that had good roof insulation but with walls that could not be clad, and overall it was a high heat loss building. It cost £3,500 per year using an oil boiler to heat it. Using a brilliantly effective combination of a 10kW solar array and 6 under lawn ‘slinkies’ to feed a GSHP, the heating bill dropped to £1,500 per year.
That is despite the heating system being set to ‘on’ all the time (but obviously, with a thermostat it runs only when the temperature drops below the required temperature). The 80 year old grand mother loves visiting the house now because “it is always so cosy”. Chris is not saying, from this experience, that insulation is unimportant – it is crucial you get good insulation – but where it is not up to modern standards, don’t let that be a reason for not installing renewable heat: That is, a heat pump with or without solar, but preferably with because the solar reduces the amount of electricity used from the grid, and swings the maths in favour of heat pumps (versus gas).

Chris gave another example of a bungalow (177 square metre floor area) that was costing £1,551 per year to heat. With just a 4 kW roof mounted system and a 14 kW ASHP the bill came down to £903. Now this was £168 more saving than they had expected. Why? Chris believes this is down to behavioural change. Instead of the behaviour with traditional gas systems which can heat up a house fast, and people switch up the system when cold and down when hot – creating a see-saw effect – with heat pump systems, people can just keep it on and be comfy at a sensible temperature (whichever is their preference). Increasingly, Chris is persuading householders to refrain from fiddling with the heat controls and allow the system to work as pre-programmed and provide consistent, comfortable but not hotter than required levels of heating. This changes behaviour and actually creates a perception of a cosier home and reduced bills; what is not to like?

The caveat is that we need more skilled fitters who do not put in the wrong sized radiators, or pipe work, and of course householders who don’t leave doors open (trying to heat your local town is not a sensible approach!).

Renewable technologies like solar and heat pumps are not rocket science, but a basic knowledge is required and vendors are very good at providing training. Along with persuading householders to take the plunge we also need to transfer trade skill sets, to acquire the knowledge and experience to help increase adoption. If your plumber says they don’t know anything about heat pumps, encourage them to take a course – to unlearn some old ways and learn some new ways – and they might be in the vanguard of the change to renewable heat in your neighbourhood.

Chris also mentioned that he has found an issue related to Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs). The question Chris is asking Government is this:

Why is it that it is government policy to encourage the installation of heat pumps through the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme, yet EPCs never recommend them and even discourage them by predicting higher running costs for heat pumps even than old oil boilers contrary to the research carried out by the government in 2013 on which the RHI was based? Does the left hand not know what the right hand is doing?

Chris has written a paper EPCs: A MAJOR OBSTACLE TO HEAT PUMPS AND DECARBONISATION going into more detail on this issue, that can be found on the YES website.

Chris covered a number of other points and new developments such as thermal storage, but I hope this summary does justice to what was an excellent and inspiring talk.

We have a climate emergency – we need to start behaving like we actually believe it!

So let’s get to work, and make it happen! There is no excuse for not doing so.

This summary of Chris Wilde’s talk is based on my notes, so will be incomplete, as Chris is a brilliant speaker who doesn’t need a script or use bullet points. So, if any errors have crept in, naturally they are mine. Richard Erskine, 7th Sept. 2019. Any comments please provide via my blog.

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The Curious Case of Heat Pumps in the UK

Heat Pumps, whether Air-Sourced or Ground-Sourced, can and should be making a major contribution to decarbonising heating in the UK. Heating (both space heating and water heating) is major contributor to our carbon footprint.

Heat pumps are now incredibly efficient – for 1 unit of electrical energy you put in you can get at least 3 units back in the form of heat energy (a pump compresses the air and this causes it to rise in temperature; two century old physics at work here).  The process works sufficiently well even in UK winters.

The pumps are now relatively quiet (think microwave level of noise). They can deliver good payback (even more so if there was a cost on carbon). They even work with older properties (countering another one of the many myths surrounding heat pumps).

I even heard Paul Lewis on BBC’s ‘Money Box’ (Radio 4) – clearly getting confused between heat pumps and geothermal energy – saying ‘oh, but you need to be in a certain part of the country to use them’ (or words to that effect).

We clearly need much more education out there to raise awareness of the potential of heat pumps.

When combined with solar (to provide some of the electricity), they are even better.

So why is the take-up of heat pumps still too slow? Why is the Government not pushing them like crazy (it is an emergency, right!)? Why are households, when replacing old boilers, till opting for gas?

When we had the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, the UK Government undertook a major health awareness campaign, and other countries also, which largely succeeded. In an emergency, Governments tend to act in a way that ‘signals’ it is an emergency.

The UK Government is sending no such signals. Bland assurances that the commitment to reach net zero by 2050 is not a substitute for actions. In the arena of heat, where is the massive programme to up-skill plumbers and others? Where is the eduation programme to demystify heat pumps and promote their adoptions?

And where is the joined up thinking?

This article below from Yorkshire Energy Systems, based on their extensive research and practical experience, suggests one reason – that EPCs (Energy Performance Certificates) issued for homes and including recommended solutions – are biased against heat pumps.

The mismatch between what the Government is saying (that heat pumps are part of the decarbonisation solution) and what EPCs are advising suggests a clear lack of joined up thinking.

… and no sign that the Government really believes that urgent action is required.

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Increasing Engineering Complexity and the Role of Software

Two recent stories from the world of ‘big’ engineering got me thinking: the massive delays in the Crossrail Project and the fatal errors in the Boeing 737 Max, both of which seem to have been blighted by issues related to software.

Crossrail, prior to the announcement of delays and overspend, was being lauded as an example of an exemplar on-time, on-budget complex project; a real feather in the cap for British engineering. There were documentaries celebrating the amazing care with which the tunnelling was done to avoid damage at the surface, using precise monitoring and accurately positioned webs of hydraulic grouting to stabilise the ground beneath buildings. Even big data was used to help interpret signals received from a 3D array of monitoring stations, to help to actively manage operations during tunnelling and construction. A truly awesome example of advanced engineering, on an epic scale.

The post-mortem has not yet been done on why the delays came so suddenly upon the project, although the finger is being pointed not at the physical construction, but the digital one. To operate the rail service there must be advanced control systems in place, and to ensure these operate safely, a huge number of tests need to be carried out ‘virtually’ in the first instance, to ensure safety is not compromised.

Software is something that the senior management of traditional engineering companies are uncomfortable with; in the old days you could hit a machine with a hammer, but not a virtual machine. They knew intuitively if someone told them nonsense within their chosen engineering discipline; for example, if a junior engineer planned to pour 1000 cubic metres of cement into a hole and believed it would be set in the morning. But if told that testing of a software sub-system will take 15 days, they wouldn’t have a clue as to whether this was realistic or not; they might even ask “can we push to get this done in 10 days?”.

In the world of software, when budgets and timelines press, the most dangerous word used in projects is ‘hope’. “We hope to be finished by the end of the month”; “we hope to have that bug fixed soon”; and so on  Testing is often the first victim of pressurised plans. Junior staff say “we hope to finish”, but by the time the message rises up through the management hierarchy to Board level, there is a confident “we will be finished” inserted into the Powerpoint. Anyone asking tough questions might be seen as slowing the project down when progress needs to be demonstrated.

You can blame the poor (software) engineer, but the real fault lies with the incurious senior management who seem to request an answer they want, rather than try to understand the reality on the ground.

The investigations of the Boeing 737 Max tragedy are also unresolved, but of course, everyone is focusing on the narrow question of the technical design issue related to a critical new feature. There is a much bigger issue at work here.

Arguably, Airbus has pursued the ‘fly by wire’ approach much earlier than Boeing, whose culture has tended to resist over automation of the piloting. Active controls to overcome adverse events has now become part of the design of many modern aircraft, but the issue with the Boeing 737 Max seems to have been that this came along without much in the way of training; and the interaction between the automated controls and the human controls is at the heart of the problem. Was there also a lack of realistic human-centric testing to assess the safety of the combined automated/ human control systems? We will no doubt learn this in due course.

Electronics is of course not new to aerospace industries, but programmable software has grown in importance and increasingly it seems that the issue of growing complexity and how to handle the consequent growth in testing complexity, has perhaps overtaken the abilities of traditional engineering management systems. This is extending to almost every product or project – small and large – as the internet of everything emerges.

This takes me to a scribbled diagram I found in an old notebook – made on a train back in 2014, travelling to London, while I debated the issue of product complexity with a project director for a major engineering project. I have turned this into the Figure below.

Screenshot 2019-08-14 at 19.30.09

There are two aspects of complexity identified for products: 

  • Firstly, the ‘design complexity’, which can be thought of as the number of components making up the product, but also the configurability and connectivity of those components. If printed on paper, you can thinking of how high the pile of paper would be that identified every component, with a description of their configuration and connection. This would apply to physical aspects but also software too; and all the implied test cases. There is a rapid escalation in complexity as we move from car to airliner to military platform.
  • Secondly, the ‘production automation complexity’, which represents the level of automation involved in delivering the required products. Cars as they have become, are seen as having the highest level of production automation complexity. 

You can order a specific build of car, with desired ‘extras’, and colour, and then later see it travelling down the assembly line with over 50% of the tasks completely automated; the resulting product with potentially a nearly unique selection of options chosen by you. It is at the pinnacle of production automation complexity but it also has a significant level of design complexity, albeit well short of others shown in the figure. 

Whereas an aircraft carrier will in each case be collectively significantly different from any other in existence (even when originally conceived as a copy of an existing model) – with changes being made even during its construction – so does not score so high on ‘production automation complexity’. But in terms of ‘design complexity’ it is extremely high (there are only about 20 aircraft carriers in operation globally and half of these are in the US Navy, which perhaps underlines this point).

As we add more software and greater automation, the complexity grows, and arguably, the physical frame of the product is the least complex part of the design or production process. 

I wonder is there a gap between the actual complexity of the final products and an engineering culture that is still heavily weighted towards the physical elements – bonnet of a car, hull of a ship, turbine of a jet engine – and is this gap widening as the software elements grow in scope and ambition? 

Government Ministers, like senior managers, will be happy being photographed next to the wing of a new model of airliner – and talk earnestly about workers riveting steel – but what may be more pivotal to success is some software sub-system buried deep in millions of lines of ‘code’; no photo opportunities here.

Screenshot 2019-08-14 at 19.30.27

As we move from traditional linear ‘deterministic’ programming to non-deterministic algorithms – other questions arise about the increasing role of software. 

Given incomplete, ambiguous or contradictory inputs the software must make a choice about how to act in real time. It may have to take a virtual vote between independently written algorithms. It cannot necessarily rely on supplementary data from external sources (“no, you are definitely nose diving not stalling!”), for system security reasons if not external data bandwidth reasons.

And so we continue to add further responsibility, onto the shoulders of the non-physical elements of the system.

Are Crossrail and the 737 Max representative of a widening gap, reflected in an inability of existing management structures to manage the complexity and associated risks of the software embedded in complex engineering products and projects? 

© Richard W. Erskine, 2019

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Boris loves Corbyn

No not Jeremy; his brother.

For some years now Boris Johnson has channelled the crank theories of Piers Corbyn, who appeared in the 2007 film The Great Global Warming Swindle, which was shown to be ill-founded.

Rather like the myth that carrots helped RAF pilots see at night during WWII  which was such a great story that even today it is repeated and believed, the idea that some changes in the Sun’s output is responsible for recent climate change is a similarly attractive myth, which keeps on being repeated.

The BBC had to apologise for Quentin Letts’ execrable hatched job on the Met Office in 2015, which also included Piers Corbyn. 

The truth is that we know with a confidence unsurpassed in many fields of science what is causing global warming; it’s not the sun, it’s not volcanoes; it’s not contrails. The IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report (2013) was clear that greenhouse gases (principally carbon dioxide) resulting from human activities are the overwhelming driver of global warming (see Figure 8.15)

So you might expect Boris Johnson as a leading politician, to reference the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which gathers, analyses and synthesises the published work of thousands of scientists with relevant expertise on behalf of the nations of the world.

Instead, he has referred to the “great physicist and meteorologist Piers Corbyn” (It’s snowing, and it really feels like the start of a mini ice age, Boris Johnson, Daily Telegraph, 20th January 2013). Piers Corbyn has no expertise in climate science and theories like his have been completely debunked in a paper published in the Proceedings of The Royal Society:

… the long-term changes in solar outputs, which have been postulated as drivers of climate change, have been in the direction opposite to that required to explain, or even contribute to, the observed rise in Earth’s global mean air surface temperature (GMAST) …

What is alarming is that in the face of this strong scientific evidence, some Internet sources with otherwise good reputations for accurate reporting can still give credence to ideas that are of no scientific merit. These are then readily relayed by other irresponsible parts of the media, and the public gain a fully incorrect impression of the status of the scientific debate.

“Solar change and climate: an update in the light of the current exceptional solar minimum”, Proceedings of The Royal Society A, Mike Lockwood, 2nd December 2009

So, for Boris Johnson to call himself an “empiricist” is, frankly, laughable.

He has also cozied up to neoliberal ‘think tanks’ implacably opposed to action on global warming. 

I think we can safely say that hitherto he has firmly placed himself in the DENIAL bucket (in the illustration below).

Screenshot 2019-07-29 at 21.24.30

He shares this perspective with other hard Brexiteers in the new Cabinet, who are itching to deregulate the UK economy, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, and see action on global warming as a constraint on unregulated markets.

In his acceptance speech on becoming Prime Minister, Boris Johnson never mentioned climate change. But since then he has reiterated Theresa May’s Government’s commitment to net zero by 2050, and

Responding to concerns expressed by Shadow Treasury Minister Anneliese Dodds that he had not focused sufficiently climate change in the initial statements outlining his priorities as Prime Minister, Johnson replied: “The House will know that we place the climate change agenda at the absolute core of what we are doing.”

(edie, 29th July 2019)

He went on to say

He said: “This party believes in the private sector-generated technology which will make that target attainable and deliver hundreds of thousands of jobs. That is the approach we should follow.” …

Predicting that the UK will “no longer” be contributing to climate change by 2050, Johnson said: “We will have led the world in delivering that net-zero target. We will be the home of electric vehicles—cars and even planes—powered by British-made battery technology, which is being developed right here, right now.”

(edie, 29th July 2019)

By imagining that industry alone (without any stated plans for an escalating tax on carbon), can somehow address the huge transformation required, on the timescale required, without concerted effort at every level of Government (top down and bottom up), and civil society, he remains disconnected from reality, let alone science.

Moving from DENIAL to COMPLACENCY is an advance for Boris – assuming for the moment this is not another flip-flopping of positions that he is famed for – but it is hardly the sign of the climate leadership required. We need a leadership that respects the science, and understands the policy implications and prescriptions required.

Did anyone in the house ask the Prime Minister if he accepts and will fully support the recommendation of the Climate Change Committee’s report Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming? 

They need to, because great words need to turned into a plan of action, and every year we delay will make the transition more painful (it is already going to be painful enough, but they are not telling you that, are they?).

That will not be enough to meet the public’s concerns over the climate emergency, and increasingly, the public will be expecting leadership that has moved from COMPLACENCY to the URGENCY position.

Many see GREEN RADICALISM as now an unavoidable response to the COMPLACENCY in Whitehall.

If Boris Johnson fails to jettison his neoliberal friends and the crank science that is part of their tool-kit – who are trying (and have succeeded so far) in putting the breaks on meaningful and urgent action – the longer term political fall-out will make Brexit look like a tea party.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, essaysconcerning.com, July 2019

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