One thing we have learnt this week – The ecological limits of work

2016-09-14-17-16-48The ecological limits of work is not something I’ve ever considered much.  I imagine my surprise yesterday when I read an article with a headline saying we are going to have to reduce our hours of work to 9 per week to “save the planet”.  The Ecological Limits of Work is the title of a report just out from a think tank called Autonomy whose mission is to think about the future of work.

The first question which I have considered a little bit on this blog in the past is would cutting the hours of work or even work from home cut emissions?  As we covered a bit in a our book there is an economic theory called the rebound effect.  This states that energy efficiency savings in one area are more than wiped out by the change in another area.  So in this case if working hours are drastically reduced the person might travel more and in winter uses loads of heating.  There isn’t much research in this area but such that there is suggests the savings are small.  For a 1% reduction in work time the green house gas (GHG) cuts are in the range of 0·8% – 0·42%.  Hence the drastic hours figures.  This does suggest the Jevons paradox as the above idea is more formally known, might be in play here.  Its also true that 1% isn’t much and you still have to (in most cases get still physically get there).

The authors of the report come up with a different way.  Its elegant and relatively simple.  To keep global temperature rises to below 2°C (and its arguable it should be below 1.5°C) then every person on the planet can emit 1.6 tonnes of carbon.  This method assumes a proportional relationship between labour time and GHG emissions.  Knowing the total GHG emissions per unit of GDP and using this the figure of GDP per capita that would be sustainable you can do some calculations.  Dividing this figure by the productivity in an economy gives you the number of hours that would be sustainable.  This for some leading OECD countries is 100-200 hours a year.  The authors then slightly loose me.  They do another calculation on how the labour is used.  For example how many students work part time and how many holidays are there in a year.  This is where for the UK they come up with the number of hours we could work is 9.  It has to be said, its not many more hours for other economies either.

So where are we?  The authors do give a nod to the Jevons paradox.  They do admit the cut in hours in of itself would not be sufficient.  What they don’t do is look at the acceptability of this and how people’s lifestyle would be funded.  I’m a big support of a citizens income (search this site) but the money for this has to come from somewhere.  If everyone works just a few hours a week without automation then you’ve pretty much shut the conventional economy down (something I don’t in principle have an issue with).  Automation is not really mentioned.  There is also the problem of making this socially acceptable.  As someone who still struggles with underemployment, getting people to work a few hours a week could be difficult.  Very few in society want to sit around doing nothing.  One solution might be to work full time for a few months of the year and have the rest of the time off (this would be more productive anyway).  Also under this theory the more sustainable we can make our economies the more we can work.  A final thought.  The whole area of work needs looking at urgently with not just the ecological threat but also the rise of automation.  We need to have a big debate about work and come up with a fair plan that treats everyone equally.


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One thing we have learnt this week – VAT on solar

solar powered houseI’m extremely pro Europe and want to remain but I would be the first to concede the EU does not get everything right.  One thing its got very very wrong is VAT on solar and other energy saving materials.  This saga goes all the way back to when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister.  He wanted to cut VAT on solar and other things like insulation.  There was a value added tax (VAT) of 17.5%.  (In those days as now there were three rates, 0% on items like children’s clothes, 5% and 17.5%.)  When I installed my first PV system I managed to get the rate down with an HRMC ruling to 5% since I imported the modules myself.   Brown as I remember it wanted the rate cut to either zero or 5%.  This is illegal under the EU single market rules without the EU commission agreeing.  This they would not do.  Brown argued for a zero rate throughout the EU.  This they would also not do.  At some point the UK government cut VAT to 5%.  The EU commission took the UK government to the European Court of Justice, where we lost.  The government ignored the ruling.  Then came the EU referendum.  Astoundingly despite the fact we are supposedly leaving the UK government has given up and is raising the rate.  There will be some exemptions as there are now.  At the moment the 5% rate only applies to the residential market and you had to use an installer.  Under the proposed changes there will be some exemptions for those over 60 and people living in sheltered housing.  Here’s what I found online ( “If the customer or building does not qualify under the above heading, the goods and services can still be subject to 5% VAT provided that the goods make up no more than 60% of the total charge. If they do, then 5% VAT can only apply to the services element.”

I don’t know how achievable the 60% figure is.  This is all just wrong.  The EU should be making all renewable and energy saving equipment zero rated.  After all we are facing a climate emergency.  Its also very annoying since oil and gas are charged 5% VAT.  If we do ever leave the EU it will be interesting to see what happens…


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Basel Convention

Grocery_bag_of_junk_foodsOn Friday the Basel Convention was signed.  A year or so ago China unilaterally announced it was going to stop taking our plastic waste.  By ‘our’ I mean the West’s plastic waste.  I’m not criticising the Chinese at all.  Why should they take our low grade plastic waste?  However this led to a problem.  What to do with it all?  The recycling facilities in most Western countries were not up to taking it.  This is hardly a surprise.  If they were why would we ship it there?  (As an aside I’ve read that most containers going to China are empty apart from waste since there is so little they want to buy from us.  This Trump might want to consider with his trade war.)  The obvious solution is ship the waste to other developing countries.  Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia have taken it and there have been reports that its ended up ruining pristine sites.

The Basel Convention does not stop the export of such waste.  It does stop states simply shipping and forgetting about it.  This is a very important treaty.  It will gradually stop the export of waste and mean that we have to take responsibility for it ourselves which is the morally right thing to.  It should be added that in doing so there are jobs to be created in the circular economy.  187 countries have signed the Basel Convention.  The US did not, surprise surprise sign, but is bound by its rules.


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One thing we have learnt this week – climate fix research

beech treesA new institute for climate fix research has just been announced today based at Cambridge University.  Its mission – to investigate the unthinkable.  That is geoengineering solutions to climate change.  Before moving on to briefly look at some of the suggested solutions its important to say this is an act of desperation.  The best climate fix is to stop producing CO2.  The scientists led by the former chief scientific advisor Sir David King are obviously pessimistic about our chances of doing so.  A variety of climate fix(s) have been suggested.  These include;

Coating the Arctic in light coloured plastic.  As you should know dark materials absorb for infra red than light ones.  With all the problems with plastic this is a non-starter.  It would shred in winter storms.  Its probably not practical to do anyway. The area of plastic required would be huge.

Spraying salt water into the atmosphere above the poles.  This is a variation on spraying water into the atmosphere, world wide.  A solution I’ve heard of before.  The idea is that the salt water increases the cloud cover.  This reflects light back and causes the Arctic to freeze.  The advantage of this method is that the increased snow and ice cover could cause a virtuous circle, reflecting more light and therefore heat back into space.  This is the opposite to what is happening at the moment, where any rock liberated of ice absorbs more heat.  The idea is to used unmanned drone ships powered by the wind.  Still very difficult to envisage on the scale required.

Carbon capture and storage.  In general I don’t approve of the idea of filling old oil or gas wells with CO2.  It smacks to much of hiding dirt under the carpet, whilst producing a lot more dirt.  However there is a variation on this theme.  To turn the CO2 into fuel by combining it with hydrogen.  This has the advantage that you would by tying a lot of CO2 up in stored fuel (think how much petrol or diesel you have in the tank of your car alone).  One major problem we looked in our book was where the hydrogen comes from.  Another disadvantage is that for other reasons we want to stop using carbon fuels and there is a big push on electric cars.  It could allow people to fly, but there are other good reasons for stopping airport expansion.  One area where it does interest me is in making methane for the gas grid.  This would allow us to use our existing boilers when renewable heat is such a problem.

Ocean greening.  The next two solutions in my view are more benign although this solution still has its critics. If you add iron to the seas then it encourages the growth of phytoplankton.  That is plankton that are photosynthetic.  They enter the food chain and end up the bottom of the ocean where the sediment is a huge carbon sink.  Its been tried on a small scale with mixed results.  Again critics think it could harm the eco systems, it also needs to be done on a vast scale.  Interestingly enough NASA research shows that a decline in phytoplankton that was happening has now reversed (at least in shallow coastal waters).  There is also a question as to whether the sequestration is permanent.

Planting trees.  Agriculture is a relatively easy win as far as cutting emissions is concerned.  The Committee on Climate Change suggested planting 1.5 billion trees in the UK.  National forests in Scotland and Wales are underway but progress on both is far too slow.  This is the most benign solution of the lot.  Very few people will object to tree planting.  If the wood is used in building then the CO2 can be sequestrated  The problems are can it mop enough in time?  And the trees must be protected.  There are plenty of upland areas in the UK that could be used and indeed used to be forested.

All of this is one huge danger.  That governments will assume that new CO2 emissions don’t need to be cut.  The above is for emergency use only.  Not a get out jail card.


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One thing we have learnt this week – are politicians being straight over climate change?

CCCAre politicians being straight over climate change?  I’ve heard nothing but news on climate change this week and much of it good.  Extinction rebellion can take credit for shifting the balance in politics.  The UK parliament passed a motion declaring climate change an emergency and the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) brought out a report on the how the UK should and can get to net zero carbon by 2050.  There’s just one problem.  They make it all sound too easy at least on a personal level.  I’ve not heard a single politician use the word sacrifice this week.  Now there’s a surprise.   Are we going to have to stop flying, no.  What about another runway at Heathrow?  We can still do that.  Every time someone has been asked a question they have dodged it.

Even the CCC in my view in the report gloss over the problems or rely on chimeras like carbon capture or hydrogen (search for past blog posts particularly on hydrogen).  They say we should cut our meat consumption by 20% again this seems too low and too easy.  They call for a huge roll out of electric vehicles and heat pumps.  To be fair they do say there will be challenges on this in terms of grid reinforcement and electricity supply.  Those are the easy problems to solve for both (search the blog for the major problems).  That’s not to say there are not good things in the CCC report.  I happen to think (and there is scientific evidence for this) that tying carbon up in 1⋅5 billion trees is a good idea.  So is using the trees for building materials.  So is not buying carbon credits from abroad.

Are politicians being straight over climate change?  Well you decide for yourselves.  In my opinion we could have done this relatively easily if we’d started in 1986.  Delay after delay means we have run out of easy options.  For what its worth I’m optimistic but think the changes required far more drastic than in charge people are letting on.  After all if it was easy the shovels would have been a blur decades ago.


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shipping CO2 emissions

image010I heard an interesting article on shipping CO2 emissions this week on the radio.  Climate change has been in the news a lot recently with David Attenborough and Extinction rebellion.  The PM programme on radio 4 has been looking at three different areas we have to cut emissions from.  The first of these was housing where I felt the presenter Evan Davies skirted around the difficulties.  The second was on shipping CO2 emissions.  This is not an area that comes up very much when considering climate change.  This article did not avoid the issues but met them head on.  They spoke to someone from Maersk which claims to be the largest shipping company.  The interview was very revealing.  As I have written about before current container ships are huge.  Evan Davies went on board one.  It carries 18,000 containers and has a tank with a capacity of 10,000 tonnes for the diesel fuel used to power its enormous diesel engines.  The man from Maersk was very forthright and honest.  They have cut emissions by 40 odd % over the last number of years but his aim was to get to zero emissions.  What was so revealing was he had no idea how they were going to do it.  The programme then explored various ways of achieving this.  These have been covered in a previous blog post on shipping but are worth reiterating.

The first is batteries.  This was dismissed straight away.  The size of the vessels and their engines lead you to see this would never work.

They then looked at biofuels.  This is a theoretically feasible solution but of course you straight away come up against the food versus fuel.  Second generation fuels using the parts of crops you cannot eat (stalks/leaves) are a potential way round this.  We covered this in our book and I would direct the reader towards the problems covered there.

The next solution was something I don’t know much about but will research, that is making liquid fuels from CO2 using electrolysis.  This has an advantage that I thought the programme was going to pick up on, that it would tie a lot of carbon up and potentially act as a carbon sink.  Like the last solution it would take a lot of energy though.

The next solution is to slow the ships down.  They spoke to someone from a green group who said slowing the ships down by 30% would buy the company 6 years grace.  Their representative was not at all interested in this, funnily enough.

The last solution was put by Evan Davies.  Maybe the era of globalisation has to end.  Strangely enough the man from Maersk didn’t see it that way.

What was very surprising to me was his comment that the company had to come up with a solution by 2030 if they wanted new ships for 2050.


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Oxo degradable plastics

plastic bottle greenhouse at CATThere was a letter in today’s Guardian about oxo degradable plastics.  I’d never heard of the term before and decided to do a bit of research.  Conventional wisdom is that plastics do not degrade.  Or at least only on a geological timescale.  Conventional wisdom is largely right.  Polyvinylchloride (PVC) is degraded by heat and light and releases hydrochloric acid, which isn’t great.  Polypropylene is pretty much regarded as non biodegradable.  Most plastics do break down into small nano-particles.  Then progress stops.  Research this week has found these are present almost everywhere in supposedly pristine environments.  Other research has found that they are in the food chain and therefore in us.  The longterm biological effects of this are unknown.  They are unlikely to be too serious for the plastic itself, which is as alluded to above is biologically inert.  The problem is the effects of the plasticisers.  These are chemicals that give the same plastic different physical properties.   These plasticisers mimic hormones in the body.  Large pieces of plastic of course have detrimental effects on wildlife.

A number of solutions have been proposed to this problem.  The first has been so called bioplastics.  These are polymers largely made from natural polymers (e.g cellulose) using renewable feedstocks.  These are mostly, but not totally biodegradable.  Broadly speaking compounds are biodegradable when bacteria or fungi have seen them in evolution before and therefore possess enzymes capable of degrading them.  This is not the case for oil based plastics.  We outlined the problems with bioplastics in our book.  Basically in replacing our massive plastic use we need a lot of plant based feedstock.  This is not possible to do totally.  But these materials will have a place in a post oil world.  Another issue is that bioplastics do not have either the durability or entire range of properties of oil based plastics.

The next solution to the problem is the circular economy.  Recycle and reuse what we have in new products.  Some progress is being made on this.  One problem is that plastics do degrade when reused.  Not enough to destroy them but enough to make them unusable.  This is a particular problem in mixed recycling.  So this is not a total solution either.  Chemical methods of destruction using heat are being developed.  These would allow the resulting material to be reused perhaps de novo.

The next solution is to find bacteria or fungi that can breakdown conventional plastics.  Again some progress is is being made.  This is probably of more interest in bioreactors as a means of disposing what we produce at some point in the future.  But for what’s out there now it won’t work.  Bacteria and Fungi will degrade compounds that are simpler, easier nad more abundant first.

Of course we mustn’t forget the solution of using less in the first place.  Under public pressure companies are starting to alter the way that packaging is used.  Walkers Crisps and Guinness (this week) are too examples.  But the reader will know progress on this front is slow.

Finally this brings us to oxo degradable plastics.  These are plastics that contain small amounts of salt or metals.  These act as a catalyst and allow oxygen to break the plastic down to short chain molecules such as ketones or organic acids.  These bacteria will readily use.  It sounds to good to be true.  And to some people it is.  The EU don’t believe it works.  Other countries such as some in the middle east think it does and require its use.  Even if it does work its not a total solution.  Potentially it solves the litter in the environment bit. But not the use of non-renewable resources problem.

There is not one solution to the plastics issue.  All of the above are required.  We have become addicted to these highly convenient materials.  We need to reduce our use of plastics and look for alternatives, fast.


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Global energy transformation

The International Renewable Energy Agency has produced a report called “Global Energy Transformation”.  There are number of headlines being pulled out of this report, but the main one is that renewable capacity will make up most generation capacity by 2050 with wind and solar providing most of that.  There would 8.5TWp of solar capacity and 6TWp of wind capacity.  This would provide 50% of global electricity.  The report covers the areas that are going well and going badly for the Global Energy Transformation, with very interesting and clear graphics.  As you can see from the one below there is much to be cheerful about.


progress so far in the global energy transformation

However other graphics make plain there is still much progress still to make.  Energy efficiency gains need to be over 3% a year, not 2% as they are now. Share of electricity in final energy consumption i.e. electrification of the economy is off track, as is annual wind additions, use of heat pumps, use of liquid biofuels, energy consumption per capita, reduction in fossil fuel demand (there isn’t any -apart from coal)and energy related emissions.

On track are;

Renewable energy share in power generation, solar capacity, (surprisingly) electric car use, use of solar thermal collectors, solar energy costs and use of smart meters.

There is much in the above and other parts of the report I don’t agree with.  There is too much support and reliance on biofuels and only a tiny reference to competition with growing food. “Bioenergy must be produced in ways that are environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. There is a very large potential to produce bioenergy cost-effectively on existing farmland and grassland, without encroaching upon rainforests, and in addition to growing food requirements.”  I disagree.  I think the use of agricultural wastes will provide limited amounts of biofuel for transport.  I also regard the use of hydrogen as a waste of space.  However there is much that is good in the report and its well worth a look at.


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One thing we have learnt this week – transparent wood

B and W birch trunkThis week we learnt of a remarkable new material transparent wood. Two groups at the University of Maryland and the KTH institute of Technology in Sweden have developed a see through wood.  Not only that but it can store and release heat.  The researchers have achieved this by removing the lignin.  This absorbs visible light and is achieved by boiling the wood in a mixture of sodium hydroxide and sodium sulphite for some hours.  Adding hydrogen peroxide completes the process.  Than an epoxy compound is added to occupy the space liberated by the lignin.  Finally by adding glycol you can give its insulating heat storage capabilities.   When the now transparent wood warms the glycol warms absorbing the energy.  When it cools the glycol freezes again, liberating the heat energy.  Different glycols melt at different temperatures so you can easily adapt the material to a particular application.  Its also stronger than plastic.  There is talk of electronic applications and even producing solar cells.

The advantages are that by using it you are trying up carbon in structures that may be used for many years, acting as a much needed carbon store.   The material also reduces our oil dependency.  The disadvantage is that the process is still oil dependent unless the chemicals can be made by bio-refining.  In addition 100g absorbs as much heat as a 1W bulb uses in one hour.  So we are not talking about huge amounts here of energy storage in my view.  Nevertheless this is a fascinating idea that could find widespread application.


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Ryanair pollutes as much as coal fired power stations

Ryanair pollutes as much as coal fired power stations.  The data comes from the EU emissions trading scheme registry.   Ryanair’s flights in Europe are in the top 10 emitters.  The 9 above are coal fired power stations.  Ryanair pollutes more than other short haul airlines, its rival are further down the list.  It could be because they use newer more fuel efficient aircraft, or it could be because Ryanair flies more.  There are two countervailing things going on here.  At the moment airline emissions make up only 3% of the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions.  However before we all book our next flight the output from this source is rising fast.  Some estimates say there could be a 700% increase by 2050.  That to me is a very surprising figure since it sort of implies an over 700% increase in flights (aircraft are getting more fuel efficient).  I’m not sure where you would all these aircraft.  Anyway leaving that aside…EU ET data 2019 top 10Conversely coal power is falling fast (at least in the EU).  Could it be that airline emissions take over from coal power as the biggest EU emitters (at least those who have to buy permits)?  At the moment airlines are exempted from fuel taxes and VAT on the fuel.  They do have to buy permits under the trading scheme.  This costs the whole lot of them 800million Euros a year i.e. nothing.  Its reckoned that if they had to pay the above taxes then the costs would be an astounding 27 billion Euros.  You can guess what’s going to happen, nothing.  But until it does the airlines will have a free ride, whilst other sectors make sacrifices.


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