Category Archives: Transition to Low Carbon

Following the science: what should that mean?

It is a mantra repeated every day at the UK Government’s Covid-19 press briefing that they are following, or are guided by the science.

What does this mean or what should it mean?

Winston Churchill famously said that scientists should be on tap, but not on top. 

This meant, of course, that politicians should be the ones on top. 

Scientists can present the known facts, and even reasonable assessments of those aspects of a problem that are understood in principle or to some level, but for which there remain a range of uncertainties (due to incomplete data or immature science). As Donald Rumsfeld said, there are known knowns, unknown knowns and unknown unknowns. Science navigates these three domains.

Yet, it is the values and biases, from whatever colour of leadership is in charge, that will ultimately drive a political judgment, even while it may be cognisant of the evidence. The science will constrain the range of options available to an administration that respects the science, but this may be quite a wide range of options. 

For example, in the face of man-made global warming, a Government can opt for a high level of renewables, or for nuclear power, or for a radical de-growth circular economy; or something else. The science is agnostic to these political choices.

The buck really does stop with the politicians in charge to make those judgments; they are “on top”, after all.

So the repeated mantra that they are “following the science” is rather anti-Churchillian in its messaging.

If instead, Ministers said, “we have considered the scientific advice from the Chief Scientific Adviser, based on discussions of a broad range of scientific evidence and opinion represented on SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), and supporting evidence, and have decided that the actions required at this stage are as follows …”, then that would be correct and honest. 

And even if they could not repeat such a wordy qualification at every press conference it would be like a proverbial Health Warning – available on Government websites – like on a cigarette packet, useful for anyone who feels brave enough to start smoking the daily propaganda on how brilliant the UK is in its response to Covid-19 (which, despite a lot of attacks on it, has not been as bad as some make out, and the Chief Scientific Adviser (CSA) and Chief Medical Officer (CMO) have rightly gained a lot of credibility during the crisis).

The uncomfortable truth is that ‘following the science’ is about proaction not reaction; about listening to a foretold risk years in advance and taking timely and substantive actions – through policies, legislation, projects, etc. – to mitigate against or build resilience in the face of known risks.

Pandemics of either a flu variety or novel virus kind have been at the top of the UK’s national risk assessment for a decade. Both SARS and MERS were warnings that South Korea took seriously to increase their preparedness. The UK was also warned by its scientists to be prepared. The UK Government under different PMs has failed to take the steps required.

Listening to the science in the midst of a pandemic is good, but doing so well in advance of one, and taking appropriate action is a whole lot better. Prevention is better than cure, is a well known and telling adage.

Of course, the naysayers will come out in force. If one responds to dodgy code prior to 2000 and nothing bad happens, they will say that the Y2K bug was a sham, an example of alarmism “gone mad”; they will not acknowledge the work done to prevent the worst outcomes. Similarly, if we mothball capacity for a pandemic, then once again, expect the charge of alarmism and “why so many empty beds?”.

Our economy is very efficient when things are going well – just-in-time manufacture, highly tuned supply chains, minimal redundancy, etc. – but not so great when shocks come, and we discover that the UK cannot make PPE (personal protective equipment) for our health and care workers and we rely on cheap off-shored manufacturing, and have failed to create sufficient stocks (as advised by scientists to do so).

Following the science is not something you do on a Monday. You do it all week, and then you act on it; and you do this for risks that are possibly years or decades in the future. You also have to be honest about the value-based choices you make in arriving at decisions and not to hide being the science.

Scientists don’t argue about the knowns: the second law of thermodynamics, or that an R value greater than 1 means exponential growth in the spread of a virus. But scientists will argue a great deal about the boundary between the known and unknown, or the barely known; it’s in their nature. Science is not monolithic. SAGE represents many sciences, not ‘the’ science.

For Covid-19 or any virus, “herd immunity” is only really relevant to the situation where a vaccine is developed and applied to the great majority of the population (typically greater than 85%), with a designed-in strong immunity response. Whereas immunity resulting from having been naturally infected is a far less certain outcome (particularly for Coronaviruses, where there is typically a weak immune response).

So, relying on uncontrolled infection as a basis for herd immunity would be naive at best. It is true that it was discussed by SAGE as a potential outcome, but not as the core strategy (as Laurence Freedman discussed here); the goal was always to flatten the curve, even if there was great debate about the best way to achieve this.

One of the problems with the failure to be open about that debate and the weighing of factors is that it leaves room for speculation as to motives, and social media has been awash with talk of a callous Government more interested in saving the economy than in saving lives. I am no fan of this Government or its PM, but I feel this episode demonstrates the lack of trust it has with the general public, a trust that Boris Johnson failed to earn, and is now paying the price in the lack of trust in his Government’s pronouncements.

Yet I do have confidence in the CSA and CMO. They are doing a really tough job, keeping the scientific advice ‘on tap’. They cannot be held responsible for the often cack-handed communications from Ministers, and failure to be straight about PPE supplies and the like.

Some people have criticised the make up of SAGE – for example, because it has too many modellers and no virologists. Well, virologists are clearly key for the medium-long term response, but a vaccine is probably over a year away before it could be deployed. So, at the moment, containment of the spread ‘is’ the Emergency, and social distancing, hand-washing, isolation, hospitals, testing, etc. are the tools at hand.

Groups at Oxford University and Imperial College are being funded to help develop vaccines and to run clinical trials. Virology is not being ignored and it is rather odd to suggest otherwise.  But again, transparency should be the order of the day – transparency on who is invited onto SAGE, when and why, and transparency on the evidence they receive or consider. But having a camera in there broadcasting live discussions may inhibit frank debate, so is probably not a great idea, but the Minutes do need to be published, so other experts can scrutinise the thought processes of the group.

The reason why Dominic Cummings (or any other political role) should not be sitting on SAGE, in my view – even if they make no contribution to the discussion – is that there is a risk (a certainty, probably) that he then provides a backdoor summary of the discussions to the Prime Minister, which may conflict with that provided by the CSA. It is the CSA’s job to summarise the conclusions of the discussion and debate at SAGE and provide clear advice, that the Government can then consider and act on. The political advisers and politicians will have plenty of opportunity to add their spin after receiving the scientific advice; not during its formation or communication.

Now, it seems, everyone agrees that testing and contact tracing will be key tools in ending or reducing the lock down, but of course, that means having the systems in place to implement such a strategy. We don’t yet have these.

The British Army, I understand, don’t use the term “lessons learned”, because it is so vacuous. We have “lessons learned” after every child abuse scandal and it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. 

A lesson truly learned is one that does not need that label – it is a change to the systems, processes, etc., that ensures a systemic response. This results in consistently different outcomes. It is not a bolt on to the system but a change in the system.

Covid-19 asks lots of questions not just about our clinical preparedness but the fairness of our systems to safeguard the most vulnerable.

Like a new pandemic, the threats from global warming have also been foretold by scientists for decades now, and UK politicians claim to be listening to the science, but they are similarly not acting in a way that suggests they are actually hearing the science.

As with Covid-19, man-made global warming has certainties and uncertainties. It is certain that the more carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere the warmer the world will get, and the greater the chance of weather extremes of all kinds. But, for example, exactly how much of Greenland will melt by 2100 is an on-going research question.

Do the uncertainties prevent us taking proactive action?

No, they shouldn’t, and a true political leader would take the steps to both reduce the likely size of impacts (mitigations), and increase the ability of society to withstand the unavoidable impacts (adaptation), to increase resilience.

The models are never perfect but they provide a crucial tool in risk management, to be able to pose ‘what if’ type questions and explore the range of likely outcomes (I have written In Praise of Computer Models before).

Following the science (or more correctly, the sciences) should be a full-time job for any Government, and a wise one would do well to listen hard well in advance of having to respond to an emergency, to engage and consult on its plans, and to build trust with its populace.

Boris Johnson and his Government need to demonstrate that it has a plan, and seeks support for what it aims to do, both in terms of prevention and reaction. It needs to do that not just for the Covid-19 crisis, but for the array of emerging crises that result from man-made global warming.

We need to change the system, before the worst impacts are felt.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2020.

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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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The Climate Change Committee just failed to invent a time machine

These past two weeks have been such a momentous time for climate change in the UK it is hard to take in. My takes:

On 21st April, Polly Higgins, the lawyer who has spent a decade working towards establishing ecocide as a crime under international law, sadly died. At a meeting at Hawkwood Centre, Stroud, I heard the inspiring Gail Bradbrook speak of how Polly had given her strength in the formation of Extinction Rebellion. 

On 23rd April, Greta Thunberg spoke to British Parliamentarians with a clear message that “you did not act in time’, but with imagination and some ‘Cathedral thinking’ it is not too late to act (full text of speech here).

On 30th April, Extinction Rebellion met with the Environment Secretary Michael Gove, a small step but one that reflects the pressure that their actions (widely supported in the country) are having. Clare Farrell said the meeting “.. was less shit than I thought it would be, but only mildly”, but it’s a start.

On 1st May, the UK’s Parliament has declared a climate emergency

On 2nd May the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), setup under the 2008 Climate Change Act, has published its report “Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming” to the Government on how to reach net zero by 2050.

These are turbulent times. Emotions are stirring. Expectations are high. There is hope, but also fear.

The debate is now raging amongst advocates for climate action about whether the CCC’s report is adequate.

Let’s step back a moment.

The IPCC introduced the idea of a ‘carbon budget’ and this is typically expressed in the form such as (see Note):

“we have an X% chance of avoiding a global mean surface temperature rise of  Y degrees centigrade if our emissions pathway keeps carbon emissions below Z billion tonnes”

The IPCC Special 1.5C Report, looked at how soon we might get to 1.5C and the impacts of this compared to 2C. As Carbon Brief summarised it:

At current rates, human-caused warming is adding around 0.2C to global average temperatures every decade. This is the result of both “past and ongoing emissions”, the report notes.

If this rate continues, the report projects that global average warming “is likely to reach 1.5C between 2030 and 2052”

Perhaps the most shocking and surprising aspect of this report was the difference in impacts between 1.5C and the hitherto international goal of 2C. The New York Times provided the most compelling, graphic summary of the change in impacts. Here are a few examples:

The percentage of the world’s population exposed to extreme heat jumps from 14% to 37%

Loss of insect species jumps from 6% to 18%

Coral reefs suffer “very frequent mass mortalities” in a 1.5C world, but “mostly disappear” in a 2C world.

So, in short, 1.5C is definitely worth fighting for.

In view of the potential to avoid losses, it is not unreasonable for Extinction Rebellion and others to frame this as a “we’ve got 12 years”. The IPCC says it could be as early as 12 years, but it might be as late as 34 years. What would the Precautionary Principle say? 

Well, 12 years of course.

But the time needed to move from our current worldwide emissions to net zero is a steep cliff. You’ve all seen the graph.

D5bh1ZmW0AAvOCd.jpg-large

It seems impossibly steep. It was a difficult but relatively gentle incline if we’d started 30 years ago. Even starting in 2000 was not so bad. Every year since the descent has  become steeper. It is now a precipice.

It is not unreasonable to suggest it is impossibly steep.

It is not unreasonable to suggest we blew it; we messed up.

We have a near impossible task to prevent 1.5C.

I’m angry about this. You should be too.

I am not angry with some scientists or some committee for telling me so. That’s like being angry with a doctor who says you need to lose weight. Who is to blame: the messenger? Maybe I should have listened when they told me 10 years back.

So if the CCC has come to the view that the UK at least can get to net zero by 2050 that is an advance – the original goal in the Act was an 80% reduction by 2050 and they are saying we can do better, we can make it a 100% reduction.

Is it adequate?

Well, how can it ever be adequate in the fundamental sense of preventing human induced impacts from its carbon emissions? They are already with us. Some thresholds are already crossed. Some locked in additional warming is unavoidable.

Odds on, we will lose the Great Barrier Reef.  Let’s not put that burden on a committe to do the immpossible. We are all to blame for creating the precipice.

That makes me sad, furious, mournful, terrified, angry.

There is a saying that the best time to have started serious efforts to decarbonise the economy was 30 years ago, but the next best time is today.

Unfortunately, the CCC does not have access to a time machine.

Everyone is angry.

Some are angry at the CCC for not guaranteeing we stay below 1.5C, or even making it the central goal. 

Extinction Rebellion tweeted:

The advice of @theCCCuk to the UK government is a betrayal of current & future generations made all the more shocking coming just hours after UK MPs passed a motion to declare an environment & climate emergency. 

It is I think the target of 2050 that has angered activists. It should be remembered that 2050 was baked into the Climate Change Act (2008). It should be no surprise it features in the CCC’s latest report. The CCC is a statutory body. If we don’t like their terms of reference then it’s easy: we vote in a Government that will revise the 2008 Act. We haven’t yet achieved that.

Professor Julia Steinberger is no delayist (quite the opposite, she’s as radical as they come), and she has tweeted back as follows:

Ok, everyone, enough. I do need to get some work done around here.

(1) stop pretending you’ve read & digested the whole CCC net-zero report. It’s 277 pretty dense pages long. 

(2) there is a lot of good stuff & hard work  making the numbers work there.  

3) Figuring out what it means for various sectors, work, finance, education, training, our daily lives & cities & local authorities and so on is going to take some thinking through.

(4) If you want a faster target, fine! I do too! Can you do it without being horrid to the authors and researchers who’ve worked like maniacs to try to get this much figured out? THEY WANT TO BE ON YOUR SIDE! 

(5) So read it, share it, reflect on it, and try to figure out what & how we can do a lot faster, and what & how we can accelerate the slower stuff.

Treat the CCC report as in reality an ambitious plan – it really is – in the face of the precipice, but also believe we can do better.

These two ideas are not mutually exclusive.

Maybe we do not believe that people can make the consumption changes that will make it possible to be more ambitious; goals that politicians might struggle to deliver.

Yet communities might decide – to hell with it – we can do this. Yes we can, do better.

Some are scornful at Extension Rebellion for asking the impossible, but they are right to press for better. However, can we stop the in-fighting, which has undermined many important fights against dark forces in the past. Let’s not make that mistake again.

Can we all be a little more forgiving of each other, faced with our terrible situation.

We are between a rock and a hard place.

We should study the CCC report. Take it to our climate meetings in our towns, and halls, and discuss it. 

How can we help deliver this?

How can we do even better?

I for one will be taking the CCC report to the next meeting of the climate action group I help run.

I’m still mournful.

I’m still angry.

But I am also a problem solver who wants to make a difference.

Good work CCC.

Good work XR.

We are all in this together.

… and we don’t have a time machine, so we look forward.

Let not the best be the enemy of the good.

Let not the good be a reason for not striving for better, even while the best is a ship that has long sailed.

© Richard W. Erskine, 2019

 

Note:

You pick an X and Y, and the IPCC will tell how much we can emit (Z). The ‘X%’ is translated into precisely defined usages of terms such as ‘unlikely’, ‘likely’, ‘very likely’, etc. To say something is ‘likely‘ the IPCC means it has a greater than 66% chance of happening.

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‘Possibilities Everywhere’ for more BP Greenwash

If you say “I am cutting down on smoking” and it turns out that from 7,300 cigarettes per year over the last 10 years you have managed to reduce your consumption by 25 cigarettes per year over the last 4 years and now are at 7,200 per year, then yes, it is true, you are cutting down.

But are you being honest?

In fact, it is fair to say that far from telling the truth you are in a sense lying or at least ‘dissembling’

screenshot 2019-01-23 at 11.15.32

That is what BP is doing with it’s latest massive ‘Possibilities Everywhere’ public relations and media advertising campaign, which was “jointly created by Ogilvy New York and Purple Strategies, with the films directed by Diego Contreras through Reset (US) and Academy (UK). The global media agency is Mindshare.”, as Campaign reports.

In a Youtube video on the initiative Lightsource BP is craftily suggesting it is seriously investing in solar energy, but don’t worry folks if the sun goes in, because we have plenty of gas as backup.

They want it both ways: claiming to be supporting renewables while continuing to push ahead with investments in fossil fuel discovery and production.

So let’s look at BP Annual Report and Form 20-F 2017 and what do we find. Let’s follow the money.

The on-going investments in upstream oil & gas development runs into many billions of dollars annually, which rather dwarfs the measly £300 million that Lightsource will be getting over three years by a factor of over 250.

This is not a serious push for renewables. 

If they were serious they would have actual renewables energy generation (arising from their ‘investments’) as one of their Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in their Annual Report. They don’t because they don’t actually care, and they don’t expect their investors to care.

No, this is what BP cares about (from the same BP Annual Report) …

screenshot 2019-01-23 at 11.05.22

…. the value of their fossil fuel reserves. The more the better, because that has a huge influence on the share price.

In the Annual Report referenced above, BP states:

“Today, oil and gas account for almost 60% of all energy used. Even in a scenario that is consistent with the Paris goals of limiting warming to less than 2oC, oil and gas could provide around 40% of all energy used by 2040. So it’s essential that action is taken to reduce emissions from their production and use.

In a low carbon world, gas offers a much cleaner alternative to coal for power generation and a valuable back-up for renewables, for example when the sun and wind aren’t available. Gas also provides heat for industry and homes and fuel for trucks and ships.”

How do we decode this?

Well, what BP sees in a collapse of coal is a massive opportunity to grow oil & gas, but especially gas; they are not the only oil & gas company spotting the opportunity.

So they are not pushing energy storage for renewables, no, they are using intermittency as a messaging ploy to have gas as “a backup”.  So while 60% to 40% might look like a fall in profits, for BP’s gas investments it is a growth business, and less renewables means more growth in that gas business. So don’t get too big for your boots renewables – if we own you we can keep you in your place. Maybe you can rule when we have dug the last hole, but don’t expect that any time soon.

No amount of tinkering with emissions from production facilities or more efficient end-use consumption will avoid the conclusion that the “transition” they talk of must be a whole lot more urgent than the – dare I use the metaphor – glacial pace which BP are demonstrating.

Maybe BP should take seriously 3 key learning points:

  • Firstly, we have run out of time to keep playing these games. Your fossil fuel industry has to be placed on an aggressive de-growth plan, not the growth one you envisage, if you take seriously the implications of the IPCC’s 1.5C Special Report.
  • Secondly, far from your not-so-subtle digs at renewables, it is possible to construct an energy regime based on renewables (that does address intermittency issues); try reading reports like Zero Carbon Britain: Rethinking the Future from the Centre for Alternative Technology.
  • Thirdly, your investors will not thank you if you continue to ignore the serious risks from a ‘carbon bubble’. Claiming a value for BP assets based on unburnable fossil fuels will catch you out, sooner or later, and that your shareholders, pensioners and many others won’t thank you for your complacency.

Dissembling in respect of your commitment to the transition – which you intend to drag out for as long as possible it seems – will fool no one, and certainly not a public increasingly concerned about the impacts of global warming (and, by the way, also the impacts of plastics – another of your gifts to Mother Earth).

We are out of time.

By investing seriously and urgently in solutions that demonstrate a real commitment to the transition, and in planning to leave a whole lotta reserves in the ground, you can earn the trust of the public.

Change your KPIs to show you have read and understood the science on global warming.

Then you can build a PR campaign that demonstrates honesty and earns trust.

Until then, please, no more #BPGreenwash.

(c) Richard W. Erskine, 2019

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