Bike theft

Bike theft mostly affects the poorest in UK society (or at least in England and Wales).  This is the outcome of the latest survey on cycle theft.  Most people who have their bikes stolen have an income of less than £10,000/year.  This is of itself a surprise until you work out that a lot of these will be students or children.  My experience of cycling is that its a middle class pursuit.  The biggest hotspots for bike theft are the big cities and university town.  This is hardly a surprise.  Its always been said that bikes are stolen almost to order in Cambridge and sold in Oxford or visa versa.

Here are what the survey says.

  • Most thefts take place during the week.  Again not a surprise, the bike is either out in use or is more vulnerable since its owner is out.
  • Most thefts take place in flats.  Again this is not a surprise since there is no where to leave it except the stairwell in most cases and taking the bike into your flat when its wet or fills the place up is unacceptable to most users.
  • 40% of thefts took place when the bike was locked up.  This figure this misleading though since it excludes bikes locked in sheds.  The figures also do not include cycles stolen as part of a break in.
  • Higher bike theft took place amongst students and in lower income areas.
  • Under 35’s were more likely to be victims than those over 35.

What’s interesting is the trend by whatever measure is downwards (graph below).

ons bike theft dataI’m very lucky not to have had any bikes I’ve owned stolen ever.  My daughter has had bits nicked off hers.  I often leave my bike outside shops for very short periods unlocked, when I go to get something.  I got away with it so far.  My advice is leave it somewhere public, have a good lock, take it into your flat and not have quick release wheels.


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One thing we have learnt this week – banning gas boilers

DSC_1715Banning gas boilers and gas cookers from 2025 is the suggestion UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has just made.  It has suggested using low carbon energy sources instead and not even connecting he houses to the gas grid.   Banning gas boilers is perfectly feasible in new build since we know we can build houses that require no heating whatsoever.  There are a number of potential problems.  The first is that building such houses is very expensive at the moment.  Having said the housebuilders are making plenty of profit and only by actually getting on with it will prices of such buildings fall.  The second issue is that if the developer does decide to put renewable energy in (which is probably cheaper than a passive house) then technologies such as heat pumps could overload the local grid and the distribution network and require grid reinforcement.  Certainly the CCC seem to be going for the second option which also needs the builders to improve their quality of build otherwise such houses will be cold.  This is another of the CCC’s recommendations, improve training for builders.

The CCC make some other interesting recommendations.  Houses should be climate ready, flood ready, have provision for cycling, walking and electric vehicles and the houses should use wood in their construction.  This latter point is to add lower carbon construction and to sequester carbon for the long term.

The big problem that the CCC only address in passing is what to do about existing housing.  They state correctly that its not pit for purpose.  But as this blog has suggested before renewable heat is very difficult and expensive to retrofit and making homes fit for such technology is expensive and difficult.


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Greener fashion

1024px-CM_Juarez_District_5_Tour_-_Mary's_Place_(24513339843)A report suggesting ways to promote greener fashion has been produced today.  Whilst as I mentioned in passing last week the average shelf life of an item is not as little as 5 weeks, it is certainly true that clothes are treated as a disposable commodity.  Clothing produces an astonishing 8% of global climate emissions, which is bigger than aviation and shipping combined.  There are also continual questions of the ethics of its production.  Mostly concerning child labour and health and safety rules in the developing world where its made.  There is also the issue of artificial fibres.  These end up in the worlds oceans.

The cross-party environmental audit committee have suggested that a tax be put on each item of 1p.  This would aid recycling.  To me this does not seem nearly enough.  There are 1 million tonnes of clothes thrown away every year.  In addition retailers attempts to reduce waste since 2012 have been outweighed by an increase in sales.  The other main recommendation is to introduce sewing classes to schools.  This seems a sensible idea.  I was taught to sow.  I can do very basic repairs but no more than that.  There is no question greener fashion could be an easy win.  Apart from a recycling tax my recommendations would include wearing clothes longer (in all senses since washing puts fibres into the sewage and hence ultimately the sea).  Buying less clothing and trying to buy clothing that has no oil based fibres in.  A search on some images brought up nettles and traditionally clothing has been made from this plant.  You can also buy clothing made of bamboo and hemp.  This latter clothing looks indistinguishable from any other fashion item.  The advantage of all these plants are that they are essentially very easy to grow and grow quickly.   So there are natural alternatives and any tax should encourage these niche expensive products to go mainstream.


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One thing we have learnt this week – renewables to dominate by 2040

electricity production data 2019Renewables to dominate electricity production by 2040.  That’s the main conclusion in the BP energy outlook 2019.  The graph shows the data provided by BP and replotted by me.  There a number of things to say about this.  Firstly some of this data is historical so in the graph renewables share of the data has doubled 2015-18.  Second, BP persistently underestimate the growth of renewables, so its likely that this latest projection will be an underestimate.  As you you will see from the graph this figure does not include hydro.  Whether big hydro especially in the tropics can be regarded as sustainable is a moat point.  It shows gas staying pretty level, with a huge drop in the use of coal.  Lastly this does include a big increase in electric vehicles, although not as high as other people would see the penetration although much of this is seen as shared rather than owned vehicles.  When this is taken into account the % of journeys is much higher.

Other things to note from the report apart from the renewables to dominate part.  The report talks about the circular economy as far as I am aware for the first time.  It also (surprise surprise) sees oil as the still dominate form of energy but sees much of the demand going forward as coming from need for oil to make plastics.  It warns a ban on single use plastics without an alternative will increase carbon emissions and energy demand.  Precisely why this is not made entirely clear, but one reason given is an increase in food waste.  So some encouragement here we need this transition and we need it fast.  The last thing to say is of course there are lots of other areas to decarbonise apart from electricity.


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We need to talk about woodburners

Woodburners come up in the news a lot at the moment.  And not in a good way. They are much maligned as a source of air pollution.  Confession time I have a woodburner which I love, so it was with interest and some trepidation I heard that the the radio 4 programme DSC_2911“More or Less” was covering the issue.  For those of you this programme throws a unbiased eye over statistics in the news.  For example the same programme briefly has a look at the statistic that had been in the news that week that the average length that someone (women) kept new clothes was 5 weeks.  It turns out that is completely untrue and was plucked of thin air.  But I digress…

All combustion produces oxides of nitrogen (NOX), soot and carbon monoxide (a product of incomplete combustion).   Most combustion produces sulphur dioxide as well.  NOX is produced largely since air is nearly 80% nitrogen.  This is present as a molecule made up of two nitrogen molecules joined by a very stable triple bond.   The energy of combustion is enough to break this bond and the nitrogen reacts with any oxygen present.  This is true of central heating, wood burning,  in fact any combustion.  Gas central heating produces soot, NOX and sulpher dioxide since the compound added to give it odour is a sulpher based organic.  After the concern over acid rain in the 1980’s cars in all Western countries had to be fitted with catalytic converters.  In addition NOX is carcinogenic.  Petrol cars have three way cats fitted these remove the NOX, organic hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide.  Diesel cars have two way cats fitted these remove the last two but not the NOX for technical reasons.  Under EU rules new diesels have particulate filters fitted to remove the smallest particles.  These are known as PM2.5’s due to their size (2.5 millionth of a millimetre).  These particles are now known to have a very wide range of health effects, none of them good.  Its been found that 100 µg/m3 increase of PM2.5, the morbidity of residents increased by 12.07% (1).  There has been a clear correlation between some asthma deaths and PM2.5’s.  So its a serious problem.

Now getting back to woodburners.  The UK government states that 38% of all PM2.5’s comes from burning wood (notice the subtle distinction).  Up until now my view as been as the following*;

  • I have been wary of accepting this figure.  One reason for that is the ratio of cars to woodburners is very high.  There are about 2 million woodburners in the UK and over 30 million cars.  To give an example.  I left my woodburner (reluctantly) to give my daughter and her friends a lift on Friday evening to the Theatre (since they were late).  It took me nearly an hour to make a return journey of 3 miles.  The reason was wall to wall cars (mostly diesel).  It seemed to me that my stove and the relatively few others compared to car numbers in my city would have be pushing a lot of filth to compete.
  • My stove has been thoroughly tested and is exempted under the clean air act.  I burn dry wood and regularly check to see what’s coming out the flue.  Usually this is invisible (yes I know PM2.5’s are not going to be visible, but it seems like its a reasonable check on general pollution levels).  When I bought the stove manufacturers were complaining the tests were too onerous and it was taking them 5 years to get a model licenced.
  • We are not sure what people are actually burning.  You can tell its wood but it could be wet wood, open fires (these are not legal), coal etc.

However, as a scientist I have to take peer reviewed scientific data seriously.

So where does this 38% figure come from?  “More or Less” explained.  Apparently according to the programme its from taking all woodburning combustion (from a survey) divided by all PM2.5 emissions for the UK.   This uses an assumption on PM2.5 emissions on cars but I wonder whether this is high enough, since the manufacturers cheated on their emission data?  Anyway the question is what happens when you measure real data?  By measuring particle size and using a mass spectrometer you can tell where particles come from.  One of the much maligned experts has done this and in urban areas found that woodburning makes up 6-9% of PM2.5’s.  This figure is also falling.  Notice the use of that word  woodburning since we still don’t know quite what’s being burned or how.  Also as the programme pointed out air quality is much better than it used to be although the problems it causing are certainly acute particularly regards childhood asthma

The last issue is why are asthma rates rising?  A number of theories have been put forward that are given in that link.  In addition warnings have been made about air quality within increasingly well sealed buildings as well as without which would be interesting to look at.

To conclude.  I’ve felt that woodburners are being blamed unfairly. This seems to be true looking at hard scientific evidence.  Its a lot easier to go after 2 rather than 30 million especially when this involves the motor car.  To really cut PM2.5’s we need to cut road traffic.  I would also point out I mainly burn scrap wood from skips and that saves me a whole lot of greenhouse gas emitting natural gas.  The programme can be heard here.

*they are not worried about the NOX presumably since the contribution is low compared to cars and central heating.

1) Kan HD, Cheng BH. Analysis of exposure-response relationships of air particulate matter and adverse health outcomes in China. Journal of Environment and Health 2002;19:422-4


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Has something clicked over climate change?

Hockey stock - 21st centuryHas something clicked over climate change?  Over the last year I’ve seen a big change in levels of concern over those I know concerning climate change.  My church has put protecting the planet if not at the heart of its new five year strategy then as an important plank.  This in itself is quite a major change.  In addition most weeks the environment is prayed for and increasingly mentioned in sermons.  We now have an ethical challenge (environmental) in our news sheet every month.  Its not just at church that concern seems to be rising.  My children are increasingly asking how they can cut their emissions.  They may not be ready to give up flying yet, but one has gone to Berlin/Amsterdam by train this week and two are now vegetarian.

What has brought this change about?  In my view it was last summer’s heat wave.  As one comedian put it one the BBC Radio 4 comedy “The News Quiz” last week.  “You can tell climate change is real since I got a tan in Edinburgh last summer”.  I’ve always thought people in the West would only take the issue seriously once the impacts could be seen close to home.  This does seem to be the case now.  Crazy weather is now commonplace and almost expected.  Australia has just had the most amazing drought and record temperatures of almost 50 degrees C followed by huge floods in Queensland over the last few days.  Obviously people have to move from concern to action, but concern is the first step and has to be encouraging.  Has something clicked over climate change?  It looks like it to me.


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One thing we have learnt this week – electricity from the air

10668295_1133346013348006_545104614_nElectricity from the air sounds too good to be true.  But researchers have announced this week they have found a way of harvesting electricity from the thin air.  Of course its not coming literally from the air but rather from the electromagnetic radiation passing through it.

This while not exactly a waste material is certainly partly going to waste.  We are talking about radio waves mainly.  Signals from Wifi and other radio signals.  What researchers have done is come up with new materials that can harvest the signals and convert it to a small amount of power.  There is nothing new in this and your radio or Wifi works on the same principle using Farady’s theories of electromagnetism .  The radio signal is converted to small amounts of electricity which an amplifier uses to convert to sound (in the case of a domestic radio).  Some mobile phones can be charged without plugging them in (although by a bespoke electromagnetic beam) and there is talk of charging electric cars in the same way.  What’s new is the material can harvest the power and are flexible. One sort of harvester is a sort of table  cloth.

Whilst electricity from the air looks interesting it suffers from a couple of drawbacks.  The amounts of power are very low and come from conventional electricity sources before they hit the air.  It not a free lunch.  Presumably the amounts of power you are removing do not interfere with signal quality.  It raises some issues you could harvest your neighbours Wifi power in fact in most cases there would be little way of telling where it has come from.  But if you think about your Wifi radiates in every direction and most of the time most of its going to waste.


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Feeding the world

pumpkinsFeeding the world in the future has been in the news recently.  The UN Food and Agriculture organisation (FAO) has called for a transformation in global agriculture towards healthy eating and the Lancet medical journal have brought out two reports on eating sustainably.  What is intersting is that the Lancet has linked the global health crisis (obesity and linked health disorders) to the climate crisis.

The Lancets’ recommended diet involves huge cuts in meat production (and therefore consumption) and a huge drop in consumption of sugars.  This general idae ahs been summarised in the past by food writer Micheal Pollen some years ago thus;

” “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

The problem with the Lancets recommendations for every person per person per day on the planet is that quantities are either small (29g chicken) or fractional (one fifth of an egg).  This makes sense scientifically (per year) but is hard to get your head around in practice.

We potentially face huge issues in doing all the above whilst feeding a lot more people whilst not using oil/gas.  Which of course is finite.  Briefly what are the alternatives.

Food waste.  Around 30% of global production is wasted.  In the developing world it tends to be in the field.  In the developed world in the fridge.  Pros.  An obvious solution that would at least buy time.  Cons.  Easy in theory but hard in practice to bring about.  Also the waste could be used for biogas which could be used an energy source.

Conventional “Western” agriculture.  Pros.  Has led to huge increases in food production since WWII.  Has saved whole continents from famine.  Cons.   Relies on farm machinery and fertilizer.  Very energy intensive at every stage, fertilizer uses enormous of gas to produce (covered in our book in more detail).  The use of fertilizer had led to severe soil and water courses.  It had led to many now talking about peak soil as it literally washes away.  Expensive kit.  Huge greenhouse gas emissions.

Organic production.  This makes up only very low percentages of food bought in the US and UK.  Organic producers have to follow a strict set of rules and the use of pesticides and antibiotics is severely limited.   Pros.  Good for the planet.  Cons.  Onerous and controversy rages over productivity and whether there are more nutrients in organic food.  Lots of rules and expensive to register with inspections.  Still uses oil to a certain extent.

Semi-organic.  This the approach that my co-author Andy has been taking.  Exactly as its name suggests using less of the fertilizer/pesticides but being less strict about it.  Pros.  Both these and completely organic producers are more likely to use heritage varieties of animals/plants.  These have advantages with diseases.  Cons.  Still only semi-sustainable.  Still uses oil to a certain extent.

Permaculture.  Hard to describe but involves using the land in a very specific and targeted way (the best use of land that is sunny/shaded/sheltered organically).  Pros.  Potentially sustainable.  Cons.  Quite specialised and more of a way of thinking and culture. Organic but still uses oil to a certain extent.

Biodynamic.  Involves doing things like planting according to the cycles of the moon, organically.  Pros. No hard evidence that its works although its proponents reckon it does.  Cons. Niche. Organic but still uses oil to a certain extent.

Small farms.  About 80% of the world’s food is produced by small farms which make 90% of the 570 million farms worldwide.   Pros.  The FAO sees these farmers as the key to any transition.  Cons.  Many smallholders are loosing land by people stealing it.  Hard to communicate new ideas and many such farmers are resistant to new ideas.  Still uses oil to a certain extent.

Technology.  We have covered this on the blog recently.  Basically uses robots and drones.   Has elements of permaculture to it in that the land is intensively mapped both in terms of topography and soil type, pest monitored using drones/robots.  Pros.  Not organic but allows lower use of pesticides/fertilizer/water.  Cons.  Has to be still pretty energy intensive.  Job losses for those who work on land.  Still uses pesticides/fertilizer.

We face huge issues in feeding the world.  One area of encouragement to leave you with.  There is increasing evidence to suggest global population may peak at a far lower level than had previously been thought.   Fertility rates are plunging.  In most developed countries they are well below replacement levels (including in the UK).  The only continent with vary high fertility rates is Africa but even these are falling.  Falls in population bring other economic challenges but in general terms from a sustainability perspective are to be welcomed.  On that note…



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One thing we have learnt this week – fossil fuel subsidies

walney 1 and 2Guess which country in Europe gives the highest fossil fuel subsidies?  No I wasn’t surprised either – its the UK.  Now guess which country subsidises renewables.  This time its easy to guess.  Germany.  The EU commission has produced a report based on the 2016 Eurostat data.  In the UK they reckon that we spent 12 billion Euros on fossil fuel subsidies and 8.3 billion on renewables.  Germany spends 9.5 billion on on fossil fuel subsidies and 27 billion on renewables.

Other countries such as the France the Netherlands, Sweden and Ireland all give more than Germany but less than us.  The fossil fuel subsidies fall into two main parts.  The subsidy of the north sea oil and gas industry (tax breaks) and an indirect subsidy of the low rate of VAT on domestic gas and electricity.  Under EU rules these cannot be cut but members are free to raise them.  A large part of the brexit campaign (interestingly now forgotten) was based around the idea that we should leave so we could VAT further.  Whilst I cannot see anyone cutting VAT on fuel if we leave (and cutting from such a low level would not make that much difference to peoples bills), its even harder to see it being raised either so I guess this subsidy is here to stay.  The North sea subsidies were raised with the drop in the oil price when a large number of fields were found to be uneconomic.  The only way this subsidy is going to fall is as these fields close.  Fracking is so small at the moment that its a very minor component.  The government promised to phase these fossil fuel subsidies out and insists they do not subsidise fossil fuels.  Whilst we should stop this due to climate change don’t hold your breath…



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Energy policy is collapsing

DSC_4304The government’s energy policy is collapsing.   With Brexit not much attention has been paid to what has happened over the last week.  Its looks like Hitachi has pulled the plug on new nuclear at Wyfla and therefore at Oldbury.  These two stations were expected to supply 7% each of the UK electricity.  This leaves a considerable hole to be plugged and follows on from Toshiba pulling out the Cumbria project.  The deal collapsed due to the UK government asking for a strike price of £7.5/MWh.  This is considerably less than Hinkley Point C at £9.25/MWh.  Hitachi didn’t think it was economic at this price to build either reactor.  They have written off a truly mind boggling £2 billion for this station alone?

The government has put (almost) all its eggs in the nuclear basket.  They have cut onshore wind, tidal/wave and are abolishing the FIT.  The green new deal (admittedly a disaster) was abolished and has not been replaced.  BEIS openly admit nuclear cannot compete with wind/solar and yet have done almost everything they can to destroy them (this continues apace with proposed standing charges on grid connected microgen and alterations to the export regime).   There are a whole heap of interconnectors under construction but both brexit and the size of the hole lead me to think these will not be enough. Energy policy is collapsing, the government needs to rethink on the abolition of the FIT, allow onshore wind through the planning system and invest in tidal and wave.  And come up with a proper energy efficiency scheme.  I have changed my mind on these sources thinking it would be too expansive for too long, but the collapse in the cost of offshore wind generation makes me think that these could undergo very rapid cost reductions as well.


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