Plastic is one of the wonders and at the same time biggest problems of our age. Its quite ubiquitous, I am writing this on a plastic keyboard on a laptop made of plastic (in large part). One of greatest problems is one of its biggest advantages – its indestructibility. We have known about this indestructibility for decades but in recent years we have learnt of new problems due to this property. These are the huge volume of plastic in the worlds oceans and the shredding of the plastic down to a microscopic level and its effects on everything from wildlife to us.
A huge whirlpool of plastic drifts in the Pacific, the great Pacific garbage patch. One Dutchman thinks he has a solution to this. This is a rubber boom called Boomy McBoomface (UK readers may get this name more than others).
A 21 year student dropout had the idea and crowdfunded its development. Now the Dutch government is funding its sea trials. There are three huge problems.
1) the device has to be huge since the problem is huge and in order to make any impact on it. It needs to be 100km long, a lot bigger than the 100m trial. No such device has ever been built that size.
2) It needs tethering to the seabed which is 4.5Km deep at the point of the great Pacific garbage patch. No such tethering has been tried before.
3) It will need to be robust enough to survive Pacific typhoons.
4) Some means of collecting and disposing of the plastic will need to be found.
If this works it would be great but in the meanwhile we need to cut down our use of this material.
Renewables had very good 2015, that is the message from the REN21 global renewables status report. The report has an extraordinary range of facts and I will attempt to pull out both the main ones and some surprising ones.
Unsurprising ones first.
- Solar PV capacity soared by 50GWp or 25% in 2015.
- Wind capacity grow by over 17%. Very little of this was offshore.
- Both are now competitive at least in part with new build gas/coal without subsidy.
- For the first time renewables investment in developing countries exceeded non-renewable investment.
- Renewables investment was twice the amount spent on gas and coal power together.
All other types of renewables investment were very low figures so these technologies dominate.
Did you know?
- China has more Solar hot collector investment than the US and is first in the world for this technology. Brazil is 5th.
- That 110 countries have a feed in tariff.
- That 21 countries have a renewable heat incentive.
- 148 countries have some kind of energy efficiency target.
- 22 countries had enough PV capacity to meet more than 1% of their electricity demand.
- Costa Rica met 99% of its electricity demands via renewable energy.
- In the developing world distributed renewable energy is continuing to flourish. With both clean cooking stoves and small PV systems being rolled out with several thousand mini grids in operation in countries such as Bangladesh.
- Battery costs (lithium EV) fell 35% between mid 2014 and 2015.
Challenges remain. Renewable heat as we wrote in our book is a major challenge and a lot of the use of biomass in the developing world is non-sustainable biomass. Renewable electricity is still dominated by hydropower and wind and solar have some way to go to catch up. Ocean energy is still stalled as the renewable alternatives such as wind and solar are cheaper. Nevertheless the renewable revolution is now unstoppable.
Hydroelectric dams. They are a good thing right in fighting peak oil and climate change? Well it depends. This week there is a fuss over the building of a series of massive hydroelectric dams in Brazil with up to 26GWp capacity. An astounding figure. Greenpeace are opposing this and other vast hydro schemes in the Congo.
There are two problems with such dams. The first is the one we all hear about which is loss of habitat and damage to indigenous tribes. There seems never to be enough compensation to people displaced in this way by dams and you read of corruption from India to China.
The second problem is one you don’t so often hear about. That is anaerobic digestion and the release of methane from the reservoirs. This makes hydroelectric schemes (at least in the tropics) net greenhouse gas emitters. The sludge at the bottom of the reservoirs contains organic compounds, bacteria and little oxygen. Aerobic bacteria require oxygen for respiration but anaerobic bugs don’t and will grow quite happily without. Instead of producing CO2 they produce methane a much more potent greenhouse gas. In temperate regions of the world the lower water temperatures mean that either the bacteria don’t at all or only very partially so that the schemes are carbon negative overall.
Two questions arise. Is there any way to stop this in the tropics? The answer is almost certainly no. The only exceptions to this might be schemes that do not use reservoirs (which do less of first type of damage) and high altitude schemes where the water is cold. The second is with rising global temperatures how long before some hydro schemes in temperate regions become a problem? One final point is that sediment does still exist at the bottom of reservoirs in temperate regions. These need dredging if they are not to get silted up. In most dams in this country this is made of peat. Its now being sold as an environmentally friendly alternative to peat from peat bogs.
Its that time of year when the BP data in their statistical energy review comes out. This blog covers some the main things that stood out for me in the 2016 BP data.
1) oil reserves show a fall, this is almost a first. Its very small at -0.1%.
2) For the third year in a row gas reserves have fallen but previous years that have shown a fall previously have been revised upwards in this data.
3) PV and Wind capacity has soared (again).
4) The BP data reveals total energy use is rising, but over the last few years has been well below the long term trend.
5) CO2 emissions barely grew (I assume these are energy related and do not include agriculture and other sources of natural emissions).
6) Coal use is also falling quite fast and the reserve to production ratio has risen again slightly.
All the above and some other data commented on below indicates things are going in the right direction. Challenges still lie ahead. Renewables still only account for 3% of global energy production. Oil accounts for about a third of of global energy production and gained market share for the first time since 1999. It also does increasingly look like global oil and gas reserves might have peaked (despite shale). Emerging economies account for nearly 60% of global energy use but some developed countries also increased their energy use marginally in 2015 reversing a recent trend.
Up until now robots and automation has been peripheral to most of our lives -insufficient technological progress in AI and globalisation have saved us from it. However this does look about to change. Just last Saturday the Guardian magazine did a test where a robot painted a portrait, made a meal and wrote something.
Lets consider some of the areas that are under consideration for automation. Whilst since I wrote in part 1 McDonalds has rowed back on its robot threat other restaurants are trialling robots.
- The UK is going to allow driver-less vehicles on its roads. At first these will require “drivers” but as the technology gets accepted?
- Its no secret that Amazon is working on full automation for its warehouses. Also it wants to use drones to deliver its parcels.
- The estimate is 40% of all jobs could be automated. What are the implications of this?
From 2000 globalisation was all the rage and on everyone’s lips (at least all politicians). It was seen as a good thing and in many ways it was. The transfer of many jobs to the developing world lifted millions out of poverty in a little over a decade. Whilst these jobs were lost in the West the price of almost everything fell (apart from oil). This was in a way supposed to keep the masses happy, cheap consumer goods. However three things meant this led to a false sense of security for those who unthinkingly supported neo-liberalism. Firstly median incomes had not been rising for the great majority of people for decades only for top 1%. Whilst consumer goods were falling so much in price this was is acceptable. Second, a whole set of jobs was lost and and the jobs that replaced them were not of the same quality. Third rising energy prices (and therefore food prices) began to make a relatively falling standard of living apparent.
In 2008 came the global crash. The Western electorate reacted in a quite surprising way. The crash could firmly be blamed on right wing policies, but the left with some slight exceptions (such as in Spain) has struggled. Instead in almost every democracy the electorate has turned to new often nationalistic parties. (I see Donald Trump as the latest example of this.) These parties promise much deliver little and blame the “other” for all their “nations” problems. The fuss over immigration and migration is not really about immigration but about a lack of well paid secure jobs.
This is what worries me about Robots. Arguably the Western electorate has in most ways behaved with remarkable forbearance since 2008. Whilst they have voted for some extreme parties, these parties are either not in power or have done little damage so far. But what if 40% of all jobs disappear if not overnight over a decade or so? Can these jobs be regenerated in other as yet to be thought of ways? Maybe but its a big ask and how will the electorate react? One solution that is increasingly brought up when robots are mentioned is the universal basic income (citizens income). Whilst I’m a big fan of this idea there is one reason why I do not see it as a solution to the challenge of automation. Robots do not pay tax. At least not at the moment, although they may have to.
Its possible an international backlash may stop this. Its also possible as I wrote in part 1 that the robots’ energy use* may stop their widespread implementation. This whole business raises questions over how far should economic efficiency go, a good deal of ethical problems and issues over energy use. However, at the moment we are sleep walking into this without any real discussion.
* something I’ve found impossible to find any data on.
A frisson of despair entered my heart this week when I heard OFGEM have suggested we might have to pay a charge for the grid upkeep. According to the chief executive of OFGEM due to solar panels and energy storage, demand for centrally generated electricity is falling. Since the grid has to be maintained somehow than an annual charge should be levied on bill users. This situation is unfair since the poorest users are paying for the richest that can afford such systems.
Lets just unpick the arguments here. First, a lot of this seems to be looking forward especially on energy storage. We are only just starting on this and its interesting and encouraging in a way that OFGEM see it as a threat to the centralised model.
The second point is that central energy demand is falling not just due to solar panels on peoples’ roofs. Its falling due to energy efficiency as well. My electricity use is not falling due to my PV system. Adding my first system cut my import a lot, the second not much and the demand kept rising until recently. What’s cut my electricity consumption is energy efficiency measures and these are not just the preserve of the rich. Should we pay a charge for this?
The third point is most PV in the UK is not on private roofs, but in fields so again the domestic bill payer could be charged for something that is beyond their control.
The fourth point is we already pay for grid upkeep through our energy bills so I feel I’m already paying a charge anyway.
The fifth objection is that there are many thousands of social housing systems with PV systems on their roofs, so again these systems are not the simple preserve of the rich.
In principle I have no problem with this although to stand it having any chance of acceptability it will need adding onto our bills so its “invisible”. My concern is as in the US, or horror of horrors Spain, we are going to be charged for PV systems as a tax retrospectively and that this is really a fightback by the energy establishment.
Are robots a real threat? There has been a lot of talk about automation recently. Last week Mcdonalds were threatening to replace their serving staff in the US who have been agitating for living wage of $15/hour with robots since they would be cheaper.
There are a number of areas of concern about robots. The first is could robots with artificial intelligence (AI) take over? This is still the realm of SF but serious scientists like Stephen Hawking are raising concerns. Asimov proposed the first law for robots was never to harm a human being, but was he thinking about their potential military use? At the moment AI is insufficiently advanced to pass the Turing test but we do need to think about this. We are also reaching the point when conventional chips reach the physical limits of how many transistors can be squeezed on a chip (see Moore’s law). There are solutions to this problem, at least one company is trying to develop a quantum computer, but it needs cooling to near absolute zero so will use a lot of energy (see below). So is not likely to be portable. Even knowing as little about this as I do it seems computing power is not yet there on AI, which could save us from this threat.
The second threat is as I outlined in the opening paragraph to jobs. In the late 70’s BBC “Horizon” made a documetary showing the threat to the UK economy from computing. This so concerned my school we were all made to watch it. Of course the programme was not wholly negative and as it pointed out new technology has both pluses and minuses. Many new types of jobs have been created here, most of which would have been pure SF -web designer anyone?. What hollowed out the UK economy was Mrs Thatcher’s economic policies and then later globalisation. A whole swath of jobs just disappeared overseas. Many of these jobs were unskilled or low skilled and there is a shortage of these jobs. Robots were brought in to such settings as car factories but are used for welding or in the paint shop. Its noticeable that the insides of the cars are put together by humans. There just seems to be threat from robots moving into other sectors now. One estimate is that almost 50% of current jobs could disappear. Globalisation and automation is now threatening other jobs more skilled professional jobs. Lest you think that robots serving in restaurants is scifi there is at least one restaurant in Japan that is using them. Then there are other such areas as driverless car/trucks etc. These are on the way.
The third area of concern is that of energy. As oil and gas run down we having some success in switching to renewables. Germany, Portugal, Denmark etc. and even the UK are breaking renewable records almost everyday. However this process is just beginning. We will have to electrify almost all our economy. That is going to take a lot more energy. If we automate large swaths of it than the energy to build and maintain the robots has to come from somewhere. As does running them. Taking the McDonalds example. The robot will likely take more energy to run but even if they didn’t (taking into account commuting for example) then the displaced worker is still going to use energy sitting at home. It seems very unlikely widespread automation would use less energy as it seems unlikely widespread globalisation uses less energy. In my next post I will look at the social effects and draw some conclusions.
Is the recent interest in renewables by oil companies just greenwash? A long time ago I took a friend from church who worked for Wood Mackenzie (a research and consultancy firm involved in the mining and oil industries) to a Scottish parliament renewable energy group meeting. No peak oil or climate sceptic afterwards he said “you do know Neil that all this interest by the oil companies in renewables is just greenwash?”. At the time the oil majors had big interests in renewables. Big is a relative term none of the their green interests could in any way be said to be a major part of their businesses. But at that time BP had major solar and some wind farm interests. BP solar was at one time the second largest PV manufacturer in the world. I bought their modules which are still on my main roof. They even branded themselves at “beyond petroleum”. Shell had wind and solar manufacturing interests. BP sold their PV subsidiary and closed their research labs at the aptly named Sunbury in the UK. Shell sold their PV manufacturing to Total of France. (There were said to be reliability issues with modules Shell sold in the developing world.)
It seemed as though the oil companies had given up on renewables until recently. But now the oil majors are dipping a toe in the alternative waters. Apart from Saudi Arabia which as I have written about is saying they want to get out of oil, Statoil, Total and Shell are all involved in some way. The question is why? Is it the Paris climate talks, peak oil, falling oil prices or the fact they can pick up renewable assets cheap at the moment? Who knows. The sums they are investing are a very small part of their revenues (less than 1%). Greenwash? We will see only Total is thought to be serious according to many environmentalists.
As a peak oil and climate site we like to encourage cycling. As the particulate crisis deepens one way to combat this is to encourage walking and cycling. I have just heard on the BBC radio 4 “You and Yours” consumer programme that so far this year there have been no cycling fatalities due to lorries in London. All new trucks entering London have to be fitted with extra mirrors and side guards to prevent cyclists being pulled underneath. And all lorry drivers apparently have to spend half a day cycling in London as part of a driving safety course.
There was a time when I was a student when I cycled in London (without a helmet). It seems suicidal now. I was knocked off by a woman in car to turned left across me. She was more worried that I might have scratched her Merc than about me. In those days there were few of us cycling on the road in London, now there are loads. I was happy to overtake buses and lorries on the left and we used to see turning right as the main hazard. No longer. Most fatalities involving buses, lorries and cyclists involve the cyclist being squashed on the left hand side of the vehicle. I’m an increasingly cautious cyclist.
However, it should be said that lorry drivers cannot hold all the blame. Cyclists cycle without due care and attention and give cycling a bad name. Its amazing how many cyclists I see jumping lights (though few cycling on pavements). Its difficult to say why so many more people are cycling. Its certainly quicker for short trips around town, keeps you fit and builds fitness into your daily routine. Increased environmental awareness could be another reason, as could the rise in the oil prices. For whatever reason there are a lot of people just jumping on bikes and peddling off, which is never a good idea. We suggested in our book you did not do this but instead linked up with one of the many cycling pressure groups who run training courses on how to cycle safely in cities. As a keen cyclist I want to encourage the maximum number of people to cycle, its a wonderful way to get around. However we need to do it sensibly.
There has been a lot of talk about experiences recently. As economists puzzle on very low growth rates throughout the Western world one theory going around is that we have hit peak stuff. People are said to be materially satisfied so buying less material goods and looking to experiences instead. These experiences may be going out for a meal or doing something on holiday like bungy jumping or hot air ballooning, to name two examples at random. There is a theory that property prices are are so high that younger people priced out of them are simply spending their money on experiences. However, are we simply swapping one problem for another? Whilst an iphone takes emits 70kg of carbon dioxide in manufacture and uses non renewable resources, experiences that involve travel are not carbon neutral and could involve the intensive use of energy. Cheap flights mean people can jet off for a long weekend a long way away and do.
As a Christian can I show a more low carbon sustainable way? At the moment despite my problems I’m trying to think and pray about gratitude. Most of us in the West are “lucky” and live easy lives in relative peace and good health. We need to seek experiences that are simpler and more sustainable (this not to say we cannot ever go on holiday). I’m also trying to spend time with God in quiet reflective way. As part of this I went and sat by my apple tree and spent time in silence admiring its blossom. Its a really special time of year when it comes out since it only lasts a few days. This may sound a bit hippish until you read Job 37v14-16.
“Pay attention to this, Job! Stand still and consider the wonders God works. Do you know how God commands them, how he makes lightning flash in his storm cloud? Do you know about the balancing of the clouds, that wondrous activity of him who is perfect in knowledge?”