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May 2009 - Terra Infirma


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29 May 2009

Mitsubishi i MiEV hits the UK

This week I got to drive one of the first two Mitsubishi i MiEV plug-in electric cars in the UK. Like most electric passenger vehicles it is a sharp mover and a sharp stopper too as the regenerative braking kicks in, charging the batteries again.

According to Mitsubishi, its range is 100 miles on a full charge and its carbon emissions are about 30% of a petrol equivalent (presumably using the carbon intensity of Japanese electricity as a guide). A quick charge will take it to 80% of battery capacity in 30 minutes, but a full standard charge takes 7 hours.

This is quite a breakthrough - an electric car that you could imagine being seen (but not heard) in. The range would be a bit limiting for me - I'd like to see an extra 50 miles there as I often do a 80-100 mile round trip to clients on Teesside and I would want a bit of headroom in case of traffic problems etc. Tesla, makers of the impressive electric sports car, are working on a 300 mile saloon, which would be brilliant.

It is clear that electric cars are starting to evolve quickly and it will be very interesting to see how quickly they become a mainstream choice.

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27 May 2009

Some Ideas to Chu On...

While the last year has seen Barack Obama hogging the limelight of US politics, his new Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, has been emerging as a refreshingly honest and practical voice to combat climate change. Unlike most politicos in his position, Chu is more concerned with results than process.

His calls for flat roofs to be painted white (to reflect more solar energy back into space without contributing to climate change), his embracing of ideas such as 'negawatts' - energy you don't use, and his energetic participation in bike-to-work day have really endeared him to me, but green groups are not so sure. He has been attacked for changing his mind on permitting coal fired powerstations and has slashed funding for the hydrogen economy. His focus instead has been on energy efficiency and biofuels.

But his biggest challenge will be to win over his fellow US politicians in Congress - resistance to carbon reductions is fierce and entrenched, with Rep Joe Barton declaring recently "Carbon dioxide is natural - you can't regulate God". Quite.

Good luck to him!

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26 May 2009

More example projects...

We've just updated the projects page on this site to better reflect the kind of work we have been doing in the last 12 months or so. 

You'll see we've been deliberately shifting away from 'heads down, long report' type projects to working in collaboration with our clients and their stakeholders to develop more strategic solutions as this is where we believe more value lies for those clients.
This extra value comes from:
  • Collaboration = stronger ownership of solutions = more successful implementation
  • Collaboration = more capacity in the client organisation to implement projects = more successful implementation
  • Collaboration = utilising the intellectual capital (employee's nous!) already there = better solutions
  • Strategic = longer term solutions = better ROI
  • Strategic = higher level staff engagement (typically director level) = stronger leadership

If any of this is of any interest to you, then drop me a line.

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22 May 2009

The key to understanding climate change

In my opinion, much of the confusion and public uncertainty over climate change is a lack of understanding of the difference between weather and climate.

  • Weather consists of the short term patterns of temperature, pressure, winds and precipitation from hour to hour, day to day, year to year.
  • Climate is defined as the 30 year average of weather patterns.
If you imagine standing at the water's edge on a beach, weather is like the movement of the water backwards and forwards as the waves break and recede, but climate is like the tide - the longer term trend of the water in or out. You can easily see the former, but the latter is harder to notice until your feet get wet.

The reason why the difference between the two is so crucial, is that man made carbon emissions have weak effect on weather. Despite an increased concentration of greenhouse gases, winter will always be colder than its preceding summer, and indeed each year has a reasonable possibility of being cooler than the previous one. If you have a look at the average global temperatures on the graph below (the blue points) and zero in on any 3-4 years, it is hard to see a pattern. In fact on this scale, the biggest influence on the temperature in any one year is the El Nino/La Nina weather system in the Pacific. For example 2008 was a strong La Nina year. La Nina brings temperature down which is why 2008 was the coolest year since 2000.

Climate change deniers and sceptics will be rubbing their hands with glee if they've read the last paragraph, but what they don't understand is that man-made carbon emissions may have a weak effect day to day or even year to year, but it is a persistent effect, slowly ratcheting up average temperatures. This is because carbon emissions, unlike say water vapour, must be taken out of the atmosphere by chemical or biological transformations (eg photosynthesis). 2008 may have been a rather cold year relative to the previous 6, but it is still much warmer than any year before 1998. If you look at the red line (a 5 year rolling average, so still quite short term in the sense of climate) there is a clear upward trend. This trend cannot be explained by natural cycles, but it can be explained by increased carbon emissions.

So if anyone ever says to you "How can there be global warming if we had two weeks snow in February?", your standard reply should be "That's just weather!"

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20 May 2009

Book Review: Blueprint for a Safer Planet by Nicholas Stern

Nicholas Stern's 2006 eponymous report has been credited with taking the climate change debate out of academic and green circles and into the 'real world' of economics (given what has happened to the world economy since, there is some irony in it being seen as more 'real' than the piece of rock we're all sat on). This book builds on that report to present a way forward to "a new era of progress and prosperity" as the tagline of the book would have it. It is clearly written for the benefit of those attending or sending delegations to the crucial Copenhagen COP15 conference later this year which will attempt to form a post-Kyoto international climate change agreement.

Stern's main point is that climate change is market failure on a grand scale. By fixing the market - putting a realistic price on the value of carbon and providing an effective trading mechanism - the economy can decarbonise itself, protect forests and go some way to dealing with global inequalities. It is the first point which is most controversial. Stern argues that to discount future costs of climate change is unethical despite it being common practice for most forms of investment (discounting accounts for the fact that if I offered you £10 today or £11 next year, you'd probably take the tenner right now). This is a question I naively asked 10 years ago on an academic environmental economics forum. I sat back while several eminent contributors started slinging increasingly puerile insults at each other across the ether, and unsurprisingly Stern got quite a bit of stick for this aspect of his original report. Personally, I'm with him on this - if we're going to take the intergenerational equality aspect of sustainable development seriously, then we can't discount the negative impacts that later generations are going to face.

My only criticism of the book is its readability. The sentences are long and have multiple subclauses, the paragraphs are rarely enlivened by either bullet points or metaphors and there is a lack of recap or summary at key places to help the reader. The chapter on ethics and discounting is particularly poor on this front which is a shame as this is where the reader needs to concentrate most. While this may not be a problem for the two-brained bureaucrats it is aimed at, it turned what should have been a very informative read into a real chore. I've since read Vince Cable's excellent book on the current economic situation ("The Storm") in a fraction of the time and retained much more of the content.

So, overall, this is an exceedingly important contribution to tackling climate change and it should be on the reading list for everyone involved in COP15. It's just a shame it wasn't more accessible for the rest of us.

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18 May 2009

More low carbon workshops with yours truly

Once again I'll be facilitating two sessions at the Low Carbon Innovation Network, this time on 11 June at the Olympia, London.

The sessions are:

1. Long Term Environmental Strategy, 10:00am

2. Empowering staff to take action, 3:30pm

These events are really good and I always learn loads during the sessions. If you want some info about previous events, see here and here. Highly recommended.

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13 May 2009

Would I join a club which would have me?

I've just received an invitation to become a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) on account of my "influential work in the field of environmental performance and sustainable development."

My first reaction was "they must be desperate", my second was that one of my colleagues had nominated me (one of our associates, Karen Johnson is already a Fellow), but it seems that, no, it is a genuine honour. I'm both proud and humbled!

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12 May 2009

Never Google "Climate Change"...

I've been refreshing my climate change slides for a couple of forthcoming workshops - one with NHS directors and the other for staff from a leading international engineering firm. And it's taking me deep into the murky world of the blogosphere.

The scientific consensus on climate change is clear. The scientific community is somewhere between 97 and 99% certain that man-made carbon emissions are responsible for a significant change in climate and, if this continues, the impacts on the earth will be huge. The political world is waking up to this consensus, and with the US, Australian and Chinese leaderships really leaping on board, there is a great chance of a significant international agreement in Copenhagen later this year.

But in a huge number of blogs and comments on forums and newspaper articles, these scientists, politicians and green activists are labelled "warmists", "alarmists" and "socialists" who are trying to curtail free enterprise and raise taxes (the greens retaliate with the loaded term "denier"). Therefore the scientific consensus must be a conspiracy with research funding only going to those who toe this political line (ignoring the fact that the scientific world has been struggling to get politicians to take note of climate change for decades).

So why are all these people convinced that there is a great swindle going on? Well...

1. Climate change really does threaten a lot of vested interests. From the fossil fuel executive to the couple who like their city-breaks to the man proudly polishing his SUV every Sunday, somebody is telling them they can't do what they want to do.

2. The science is complex once you get past the basics, leading to apparent anomalies which can be seen as a case against - I know people who are convinced it isn't happening because we had a two-week cold snap in the UK this winter, when there was a heat wave in the other hemisphere at the same time.

3. There is no quality control in most of cyberspace and no barrier to entry (many of the "deniers" lack even a degree level qualification in a related topic). Discredited 'facts' keep bouncing back from repeated rebuttal, conspiracy theories thrive and falsified data and graphs magically appear.

So, the moral of the story is: listen to the experts - those who have published peer-reviewed scientific papers on the subject - and never, ever google "climate change".

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8 May 2009

A new start for district heating?

According to the ENDS report, the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has commissioned a report on district heating in the UK, which accounts for just 2% of heat demand. It recommends the government intervene as district heating is “the preferred option for achieving carbon reduction in built up areas”. If a scheme was powered by waste heat from a power station, it would save carbon dioxide at a cost of £50 per tonne. This compares to over £150/t for solar thermal units and over £500/t for ground source heat pumps.

This is music to my ears. If you've been reading this blog for long you'll know it's a hobby horse of mine.

In this country we simply let two thirds of the fossil fuel energy we put into our electricity generation system fly up into the sky (or out into the sea). So much of this could be used to heat homes, public buildings, offices and factories at zero additional carbon and there is loads of it. 60% of Denmark's heat load is delivered through district heating.

We did a project in 2007 mapping potential heat users around a proposed power station in the North of England and found a good network of public buildings around which to base a commercially viable system. There are a number of CHP based district heating schemes like the establish one in Southampton and the new one in Birmingham. So there are green shoots in this area and Government investment would be very welcome.

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5 May 2009

Swine & Sustainability

OK, now it appears safe to do so, let's have a look at the probable origins of swine flu. We take a natural system - the pig - and industrialise it - breeding for maximum production and rearing them in huge numbers in unnatural conditions. Such a system maximises the opportunities for disease to flourish, so we dose them in antibiotics, but the bugs have the same desire to survive that we all do, so they mutate and adapt. The industrial system can only be made more productive by exporting it to countries where costs are lower, standards are lower and, for the same reasons, the local health infrastructure cannot cope with the results of the recipe for pandemic we have created. And guess what we get?

We appear to have been lucky this time - this flu spreads quickly but apparently doesn't have the proteins necessary to cause widespread death, but I get the impression that this is down to luck rather more than anything else.

All our environmental problems come from the same root cause - we are happy to exploit the natural resources around us (land, oxygen, animals, plants, fossil fuels, minerals etc, etc) without worrying about the sustainability of supply of those goods and services ie how they fit into the planet's natural cycles. One of the godfathers of the permaculture/organic farming movement, Masanobu Fukuoka, famously said:

"If we throw mother nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork."

This disregard for the physical realities of the piece of rock we inhabit can lead to slow(ish) degradation like climate change and sudden disasters like pandemics. It is down to human nature that we fear the latter much more than the former, even though the impacts are often fleeting.

But both tell us we have to learn to respect the natural limits of the planet we live on - this is what we call sustainabilty. That will take ingenuity, innovation and some restraint. But we can, and must, do it.

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