A funny thing has been happening in the UK over the last 7 years. We have had two Conservative Prime Ministers since 2010 who have rarely paid more than lip service to sustainability issues in general and tackling climate change in particular. We have a press which is largely sceptical about climate change science, or possibly worse, cynically calculate that climate denial sells papers. Green activists fume and rage about all of this, but how come UK renewable energy is booming and coal is dying?
Here's a few things which might explain things:
1. Ninja legislation: Some simple legislation, such as Feed-In Tariffs, the press and green activists can get their head around, but there are other bits and pieces which are more complex and stealthy in operation. A good example is the Carbon Price Floor, which has been lurking quietly in the background putting the coal-fired power sector to the sword and boosting the opportunities for renewables.
2. Supply and Demand: one good reason for cutting solar feed-in tariffs is that they have been far more effective than their designer, one Ed Miliband, expected, leading to a precipitous fall in solar PV installation prices. Cutting the tariffs may have slowed the original goldrush, but installations continue to make financial sense. Demand not only pushes down prices, but incentivises innovation – a virtuous cycle which will drive ever more demand and remove the need for any subsidy in time.
3. Responsible Business: as businesses grasp the full business case for Sustainability (ie going beyond a simplistic 'go green, save money' mindset), they are investing in renewables whatever the direct financials as they know the indirect benefits (PR, winning business, attracting and retaining staff) will deliver many times the return.
4. High fossil fuel prices: while the price of oil plummeted from its 2008 peak, at $55 a barrel, we are still facing historically high oil prices and the $147 peak in 2008 is a brutal reminder that nailing your colours to the fossil fuel mast brings significant risk.
Which all begs the question, how good could the UK be if senior politicians showed real leadership and the press woke up and smelt the coffee? I live in hope, perhaps naively.
In the meantime, if they don't do it, the rest of us will get on with the job!
There has been a raft of big Sustainability announcements from Corporations recently:
Ikea achieving zero waste last year;
Google saying they'll be 100% renewable-powered by the end of the year;
Unilever's pledge to make all its plastic packaging ‘fully reusable, recyclable or compostable’ by 2025.
These are BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals) and a half. And what's more they're being delivered. That's because big stretch targets such as zero waste or 100% renewable energy make you think in a quite different way to incremental targets. Business as usual will not do the job, neither will Sustainability as a bolt on.
Before I had kids I used to see myself as a bit of a songwriter. One of my enduring insights from that time is that is much more difficult to write a good happy song than a good sad song. For the latter, you only need to reach for a minor key, a slow tempo and some pseudo-intellectual phrases and you're away. I could never get it right with an upbeat, positive song, so I used to fall back on scathing satire to make it work.
I find the same happens with sustainability news (or any news for that matter). It is very easy to create a headline from a negative story, much more difficult to be impactful with a positive one. So you get articles like this one from the Guardian's Robin McKie which includes the line
"The trouble is that very little has been done in the past decade to trigger changes that might wean us off [the UK's] fossil fuel addiction."
That is utter nonsense. We have seen a renewable energy boom and a collapse in the coal-fired industry. OK, so the domestic heating/insulation sector and transport are proving harder nuts to crack and the Government should be putting this much higher up the agenda, but the picture is encouraging. Of course we need people like McKie to keep the pressure on, but the context is important or people will get despondent.
You can scale this up to the global level. Carbon emissions are stalling, as is population growth, and extreme poverty is falling fast, but you'd never know it from the press. The war isn't won yet by any means, but our front lines are moving forward. Let's keep the troops motivated!
I was born and bred in Northern Ireland, my 19 years living there coinciding with the bulk of 'The Troubles' – the Unionist/Protestant vs Nationalist/Catholic (delete as applicable) conflict which cost in the region of 3,500 lives over 30ish years. Since the Good Friday agreement of 1998, an elaborate power-sharing structure has just about held peace together and the province has returned to some state of normality.
The NI Assembly has been pitched into one of its periodic of crises, ostensibly by the revelation that the local implementation of the Renewable Heat Initiative has overspent by £400 million.
Now, I've semi-deliberately avoided keeping up to date with Norn Irish politics as I find the tribalism depressing, but I know enough to assume that the crisis is probably more than a failed renewable energy subsidy scheme. But I am very angry at just how inept the NI RHI scheme was. It paid users of biomass heating systems a staggering 150% of fuel costs. The safety mechanisms that prevent abuse in the rest of the UK were not implemented, resulting in a 'cash for ash' goldrush (Irish politics are notable for their memorable rhyming nicknames). Rumours abound of farmers heating empty barns and factories heating previously unheated spaces to profit from the subsidy. What did the scheme's architects think was going to happen?
Why does this anger me? Because bodged subsidy schemes, like the UK's original Feed-In Tariff scheme (which didn't take into consideration plummeting solar PV prices) or the Green Deal insulation scheme (which loaned householders cash at an interest rate higher than a standard commercial loan), give renewable energy a bad name. They create uncertainty and apprehension amongst the general public, anger amongst tax-payers, and feed into the clarion calls from the anti-renewable/climate change denying/pro-fossil fuels lobby. The RHI scandal has had far more press coverage than, say, the record levels of renewable electricity generated in the UK in 2016, even though the latter is in many ways a much more significant story.
Delivering on sustainability is hard enough without tying our shoe-laces together and falling flat on our faces. We can try and fail on technology or private-sector initiatives, but when it comes to spending public money, we must get it right first time.
About 17 years ago, I took a job establishing and running the Clean Environment Management Centre (CLEMANCE) at the University of Teesside. At the time, the Uni was known for one thing above all else – Virtual Reality. Our building was called the Virtual Reality and Technology Centre – every other engineering and science discipline was crammed in under the afterthought. And then, suddenly, it was decided that VR had no future and the VR Centre was unceremoniously shut.
I mused on this when my sister presented the boys with a Google Cardboard for Christmas. Just a decade after the VR Centre closed and a piece of cardboard with a couple of lenses in it, costing less than a fiver, is giving us VR in our living room. Of course you have to add in the critical element yourself – a (my!) smartphone. And that's probably where the VR centre went wrong – it closed a few years before the smartphone revolution changed the way we interacted with technology for ever. You could accuse those decision makers of being short-sighted, but the extent of that supposedly-unrelated revolution was extremely hard to anticipate.
When you look at clean technology trends they follow a similar trend – individual ideas will appear, get hyped and then disappear. And then, suddenly, we get something like the current renewable energy boom, far exceeding all predictions. The traditional way of explaining this is the hype cycle (see below), but to me this is over-simplistic.
I believe such breakthroughs occur as much by the convergence of technologies as by the maturity of individual technologies. If we go back to the smartphone, all the component technologies: mobile telecommunication, data transmission, the internet (in the form of bulletin boards etc), GUIs and even touch screens were all bimbling along in the 1980s but it took until 2007 for a certain Mr Jobs to conceive the smartphone as we know it. But I doubt that even Jobs would have foreseen, say, the addition of a piece of cardboard bringing VR to the masses. Predicting the future is a mugs game.
We're starting to get to the stage where the Energy 2.0 revolution could go really huge. At the minute we still have a centralised energy system (1.0) slowly morphing into a distributed one. You can see the other elements starting to fall into place – smart(er) grids, electric cars (with their batteries for storage), the Internet of Things, variable energy pricing and the ubiquity of smartphones as a potential interface/control system. That vision of sitting in front of the TV getting an alert on your phone that you could sell some of your solar-generated, EV-stored energy at a premium price if you tap OK right now could soon be with us. Or it could be something completely different, who knows?
Last week somebody responded to the edition of Ask Gareth on zero waste by saying zero waste was thermodynamically impossible. My heart soared as I love a bit of thermo, and a bit of a debate, so I thought I'd expand a little on Sustainability and thermodynamics, and explain why this comment is incorrect.
Way back in 1998 when I was a newbie researcher exploring Sustainability as a concept, I was wading through a mountain of heartfelt waffle on the subject when I stumbled on an explanation in terms of thermodynamics. It made complete sense to me and something clicked. When I explained this to my project supervisors, one of them said thermodynamics was for chemical reactions, not for the whole planet. I persisted as I like nice neat explanations for big complex situations and I won him over. To this day I tend to fall back on the laws of thermo to help me spot perpetual motion machines and other blind alleys, and remind me of the big Sustainability picture.
There are four Laws of Thermodynamics, and a gazillion definitions of each, but for our purposes we need the first and second Laws which can be expressed simply as:
First Law: energy and material can be transformed from one form to another, but cannot be created or destroyed.
Second Law: the total entropy of an isolated system always increases over time.
As entropy is a measure of disorder (read: pollution, dissipated resources), the two are often interpreted as us being stuffed in the long term – inevitably the world will grind to a halt. This is the interpretation of zero-waste-impossible guy. But the crucial bit is the 'isolated' caveat – the earth is not isolated, rather it receives huge amounts of external energy in the form of solar insolation and gravitational pulls.
Earth's natural systems have been pretty sustainable for the last billion years as they follow two important principles to comply with those two laws:
1. there is no waste, all materials and nutrients are endlessly recycled;
2. those cycles and everything else, are powered by those external energy sources, most notably via photosynthesis.
Translating these into industrial parlance and you get the circular, zero waste economy and the renewable energy industry as models for a sustainable economy.
No matter what your politics, it's hard to see a Donald Trump presidency being a boon for the fight against climate change in particular, and for Sustainability in general (although this less pessimistic view by Michael Liebreich is worth a read). As a big L Liberal myself, I find the whole global political shift to inward-looking petty nationalism and short-termism utterly, utterly depressing.
I ended last week under my duvet in the grip of not only despondency, but a bad dose of the dreaded manflu. Checking my e-mail on my mobile for anything urgent I needed to deal with before the weekend, an e-mail appeared from one of the crowd-investing platforms I subscribe to. They'd opened a new investment opportunity in a major solar project.
I jumped out of bed, went down to my office, checked out the offer document, and immediately made a modest investment. And, it made me feel really good. Really, really good.
Nothing beats being proactive when you feel you're up against the wall. And my investment in the future is not just a financial one, it's an emotional one too. I am buying into a low carbon future. Much better than marching with a placard.
* usual caveats: investments are risky, you could lose money, I'm not endorsing any particular investment etc.
Half term means it's half-working, half-child-caring here at Terra Infirma Towers, although I did sneak off for a 47-mile cycle this morning. And it was glorious, with the late-ish autumn giving a spectacular display of colour across the rolling hills and river valleys of Northumberland and the crunch of leaves and fruit under my wheels.
I always find autumn a time of reflection – whether about life, working practice or Sustainability philosophy. Those leaves falling, becoming food for a variety of microfauna whose own 'waste' feeds plants and so on, is the basic model of the circular economy. That cycle, like every other natural cycle, is powered by solar energy, which gives us another basic principle for Sustainability. And it's beautiful – a much neglected element in Sustainability where sheer pleasure is often neglected.
PBC: Here's the evidence (holds up graph demolishing ACS's arguments).
ACS: That data's been manipulated.
PBC: By who?
[Audience bursts out laughing, PBC doesn't know where to look]
Secondly, I've seen a number of letters in newspapers and comments on blogs where the author clearly believes the UK is lagging the world, if not moving backwards, on renewable energy. The reality is, as the FT points out, the UK is ranked No 2 for renewable energy amongst G20 nations having gone from 6% of electrical power from renewables to 24% in the last five years.
It is simply impossible to argue that this surge is not impressive without contorting reality beyond breaking point. But these guys manage it with remarkable ease.
Both ACS and the green doomsters are suffering from extreme cases of confirmation bias – our tendency to grasp any tiny sliver of evidence to back up our gut instincts, while ignoring everything which contradicts that feeling, no matter how strong that counter-argument is. We all do it, shouty people just do it much more than the rest of us.
The moral of the story? Evidence is not enough. We need to engage with people's gut instinct as that's where change happens or doesn't.
We're holidaying just north of the border from where I live in North East England – in a very secluded location. To get here from the main road, after a short wiggle through some minor roads, we had to unlock a gate, drive down a rough track with a precipitous fall to some jagged rocks and the sea one side, and stop outside a tunnel in the hillside. Just inside the tunnel is a wheelbarrow which we had to unlock, load up with some luggage and walk 50 metres in the dark towards the light, then out and 200m across a beach path and up some steps to our cabin.
The tunnel bit was enlivened by bigger children telling the youngest it was full of zombies who would "suck out his brains." It took about 3 shuttles with the barrow, and lots of reassurance to small child about the undead (or lack thereof), to get all our stuff in (and about 10 minutes to log onto the wifi.)
It's a glorious location, watching the tide roll in and out of the harbour, leaving rock pools full of fish, prawns and hermit crabs for the children to harass. House martins are nesting in the cliffs above us, swooping around feeding on the midges and trying not to feed the sparrowhawks in turn. The midges seem to be taking it out on me, and me alone, putting me in a special place in the food chain.
When we climb back out of the cove, we're surrounded by low carbon energy – Torness nuclear power station dominates the skyline to the west and we have major wind farms to the south and east. The latter two form an impressive backdrop to my cycles/hunts for a decent coffee stop.
We've been here for five days and have hardly 'done anything' – just being here is enough!
Back in 1999,a group called the Energy Technology Support Unit (ETSU) calculated for the Government that the 'practicable' amount of solar power which could be generated in the UK by 2025 was 0.5 terawatt hours. Fast forward to 2015 and solar power generated over 7.5 terawatt hours – 15 times as much as predicted, a decade earlier than predicted.
I can't find the ETSU report online (wonder why?), but reading the huge amount of material that quotes it, it appears to be based on the amount of south facing roof area (whether this includes industrial sites, I don't know) and doesn't appear to take into consideration, say, solar farms or solar facades. I would guess that the plummeting cost of solar with rising demand wasn't factored in either. The point is not to rub the authors' noses in it, but rather that this report was often quoted in early 21st Century diatribes about the 'madness' of trying to rely on renewable energy in general – and solar in particular. And they were dead wrong.
And now we have companies like Solaroad producing significant amount of solar energy from somewhere most of us wouldn't have looked for it – a cycle path (see photo). Just 70m of path generated enough energy for 3 houses. Multiply that up by potential cycle path coverage (plus pavements and roads?) and you're starting to see another potentially chunky, but unexpected, contributor.
How many other SolaRoad-type ideas are there out there? Nobody knows. But we shouldn't fall into the trap of putting artificial constraints on our sustainability ambitions on the basis of what we know now. Because the one thing we do know for sure is that we don't know very much!
We're getting to the stage where headlines like these hardly make a ripple. The revelation last month that the UK produced a full 25% of its electricity from renewable sources last year, with an additional 20% or so coming from low carbon nuclear, hardly raised an eyebrow. When I got started in Sustainability in 1998, the former figure was at a mere 2% with 90% of that being Scottish hydropower.
I believe there's only one way the world is moving now and it's towards a low carbon economy. We've got a long way to go, and some rocks to navigate, but we've almost certainly pointed the ship in the right direction. Full steam ahead!
Years ago I was at a regional sustainability workshop and the facilitators made the mistake of giving each table a blank flipchart to list our priorities.* One lady in our group from a conservation group promptly slammed a fat file of newspaper clippings and internet print-outs on the table and commenced a lengthy rant against wind turbines, oblivious and impervious to all attempts to change the subject.
More recently we've had the big debate about climate change vs local air quality – I'm one of those who went diesel in the drive to cut carbon emissions, but at the expense of other pollutants. Of course the anti-climate change brigade have jumped on this as an example of 'green idiocy'.
And I'm sure we've all come across minds which are fixed in the concrete of "sustainability = reduced profits" despite all evidence to the contrary.
In all three cases, progress gets stuck on the spike of a false 'OR'. We can have renewable energy AND protect the countryside, we can tackle climate change AND local air quality, we can be sustainable AND turn a healthy profit. But those ORs must swap to ANDs or we'll be stuck on the start line.
The Smart-grid has always been more talked about than done, but now the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) has announced that the UK could save up to £8bn a year by using electricity smarter, bringing it up the news agenda.
The main benefit of a Smart Grid is that it can match supply and demand in an intelligent way – so, to take a if everybody gets up at half-time during a cup final and switches on the kettle then your fridge will hold off on firing up its compressor until the spike has gone. Likewise, you may benefit from cheaper electricity to charge your electric car overnight – and maybe sell some of that stored energy back to the grid at peak times. It would truly unlock what I call Energy 2.0 – when energy consumers become producers as well.
I've long argued that if the Government wants to make a Keynesian investment in infrastructure, then instead of the grandiose transport projects (which feature mature technologies), investment in a Smart Grid would stimulate a cascade of innovation given the technology is new and it would unlock further opportunities in renewable energy. But we seem bogged down in protocols when we need a revolution.
I saw the above graph on Carbon Tracker, and it tells a great story. Despite all the fossil fuel subsidies, erratic Government policies and powerful anti-renewables lobbies, solar energy is exceeding expectations by a country mile – taking an exponential growth rate rather than the predicted incremental linear approaches (from reports of the respected International Energy Agency between 2000 and 2007).
We are winning folks. Let's keep striving forward, driving the sustainability revolution forward and ignoring the cries of "it'll never happen" from the libertarian right and the deep green left. Let's build the future we want our children to enjoy.
Twice in recent weeks, UK prime minister David Cameron has answered questions on green issues with a simple and superficially impressive statistic:
98% of solar panels in the UK have been installed while I've been Prime Minister.
Now that may be strictly true, but I'm sure it generated howls of anguish from the two Lib Dem energy and climate change secretaries who had to fight tooth and nail to keep renewables on the agenda during the coalition government when this solar surge happened.
The other problem with this approach is that it's justification of the past rather than true leadership for the future. We need our leaders to set out the direction and magnitude of change (the sustainability 'vector' as my client Sean Axon of Johnson Matthey likes to put it). UK private and public sector organisations are not getting the signals they needs to deliver sustainability. Some are forging their own way, others paying lip service like the PM, others not even bothering with that.
Leadership matters – with just a couple of years left to leave a legacy, Cameron should emulate Barack Obama in the twilight of his presidency and stick his neck out.
Photo copyright by World Economic Forum swiss-image.ch/Photo by Remy Steinegger
I had an old college chum over for dinner last week and we did a lot of reminiscing about our student days and the years of optimism post-graduation in the mid-90s - Brit Pop and all that. I made the comment that the period between the fall of The Wall in 1989 and the Iraq War in 2003 was a period of hope where everything seemed to be going in the right direction. Democracy was spreading and peace-processes were popping up in long term conflicts from Northern Ireland to the Middle East. Then I had to correct myself - except for Rwanda, of course. And the former Yugoslavia... and Sri Lanka. before long we realised that the 90s weren't that great after all – we were looking at the past through rose tinted spectacles.
I've made it a rule that I fact check my assumptions, so over the weekend I did some Googling and found that we were wrong about the 90s - despite the ghoulish terror tactics of ISIS/Daesh, the world has been safer in the 21st Century than it has been for decades (see the graph below from the Centre for Systematic Peace). The Rwandan conflict in particular was a huge spike in misery, yet I had shunted it to the back of my head.
When we are dealing with a threat such as climate change, it is easy to get misty-eyed about the past and negative about the present. If you check the data, rather than the headlines, we are making steady progress. World carbon emissions have stalled, oil demand has plummeted (one of the factors in the falling price), and many nations are surging past significant renewable energy milestones. Even here in the UK, with Government support that could charitably be described as lukewarm, last quarter over 48% of our electricity came from renewables or nuclear, with coal falling to its lowest contribution ever.
Let's not get despondent by the negativity. Like a rugby prop forward we have to keep throwing ourselves a couple of yards forward into enemy territory, crashing into the opposition, then presenting the ball cleanly back for the next player to do the same, grinding our way towards the goal line. The gaps to dart through to score will open eventually – and often more quickly than we expect.
[Maybe I should apologise to all my English readers for a rugby analogy at this sensitive time, but those of us from the Celtic nations will appreciate it!]
Something I missed earlier in the year was the discovery that when we sit on the toilet, we are literally sitting on a goldmine. US researchers found that the amount of gold in our faeces is about the same as that in mineral deposits. Another study estimated that, by extracting all metals, the annual excrement of a million Americans could be worth $13 million. There are over 300 million Americans, and a further 900 million plus living in OECD countries whose consumption patterns are broadly similar. You do the math.
In addition, extracting toxic metals such as lead would make it more viable to use composted human waste as fertiliser – maybe extracting gas first – turning a waste material into a potential product.
I love this kind of thinking – urban mining in the true sense of the word where everything from road-sweepings to our own poo is seen as a potential goldmine. Where there's muck indeed...
Just weeks after promising to "unleash a solar revolution", UK Energy & Climate Change Secretary Amber Rudd has announced the Government is considering a massive 87% cut to Feed in Tariffs (FiTs) for solar energy, leading to a predictable paroxysm of outrage from the industry and environmental activists. The Government's argument is that it is ahead of its targets on renewable energy, capital costs have plummeted so subsidies are no longer needed, and the budgets are vastly overspent.
While this is strictly true, it is coming at the issue with the view that the target is a maximum, rather than a minimum. There is no such thing as 'too much renewable energy' until we get to grips with climate change. The other big issue is these sudden, colossal changes create uncertainty for investors – not just in installation, but those investing in technological advances.
You can trace the source of this problem back to a certain Miliband, Ed, who held Rudd's post before the 2010 General Election. When Miliband drew up the plans for Feed-in Tariffs, the tariffs were fixed, no matter what happened to the capital costs of solar panels. This meant that, as volumes rose and capital costs plummeted, investors would make a killing, snaffling up the FiT budget at an unsustainable rate.
This flaw wasn't spotted by the incoming coalition Government either who took the reins of a month-old scheme in May 2010. In 2011 they slashed the subsidy as inevitable economic forces took hold, and caused similar outrage to the present one. Before his silly downfall for trying to dodge a speeding offence, DECC Secretary Chris Huhne proposed adopting the German system – where FiTs track average capital costs – but as far as I am aware, this never happened.
This was a big shame as it would have taken short term politics out of the equation, FiTs would be gradually phased out as solar energy hit 'grid parity', yet investors and innovators would have a predictable economic framework to work in.
A big question is why do mature and declining energy forms such as conventional oil and gas require so many Government subsidies - and why these aren't targeted as well? Maybe these highly inefficient subsidies are a source for topping up the FiT budget? Just saying...
So I had my meeting with sustainability officials at the City Council of Portland, which is unlike any local Government I've come across before. It has only 6 elected officials – the Mayor, four commissioners and an auditor – for a city of half a million people. Apparently this means things can happen quickly – IF you have the attention of one of the first five.
My meeting wasn't on the record, so I must emphasise the following things I gleaned are my impressions rather than the express opinions of the Council officials (and I take full responsibility for any errors):
While the City now has an exemplary sustainability reputation, it wasn't always this way. It was sued by the federal Government in the 1970s over air quality standards.
The City has integrated sustainability into its city plan, but that plan doesn't mention sustainability – it is just embedded in there;
Renewable energy is not a big thing in Portland as Federal incentives are weak and electricity is dirt cheap (8c a unit). This explains the one weakness I've noticed in Portland compared to, say, Newcastle where I live, a lack of domestic solar;
Summer temperatures are definitely rising (it hit 36°C yesterday and may be warmer today) which has led to retrofitting of domestic air conditioning which is a big challenge;
The first move in the cycle network was to install cycle parking around the city. As local businesses saw more business coming their way from cyclists, they became open to the idea of more cycle infrastructure. There's now a waiting list from businesses for cycle parking;
The cycle greenways that form the wider network were very low cost – signs, speed bumps and the occasional cycle crossing. The idea is to divert drivers and create safety in numbers for cyclists by funnelling them along those routes;
The sustainable drainage swales I saw, are not just a trial – there's 1,000 of them across the city. In addition, every new development is responsible for dealing with 100% of stormwater on site. As a result, many buildings have green roofs and/or gardens to retain excess water;
While the hippy/alternative culture creates expectations, it can also cause resistance to, for example, a shift to more dense housing to avoid unlimited sprawl;
A key tactic is to compare the cost of 'sustainability infrastructure' with that of car infrastructure. For example a new major bridge is about to open for trams, light trains, cycles and pedestrians. If cars had been factored in, it would have tripled the costs.
I'd like to send a big thank you to everybody who helped with this visit – I've learnt a lot!