Archive for [lang_en]the[/lang_en][lang_fr]la[/lang_fr] ‘Environment’ Category

Copenhagen – Who pays the bill?

Monday, December 7th, 2009

The United Nations Climate Change Conference gets under way in Copenhagen this week. There’s a lot at stake. We need a global commitment from all nations to adopt a low-carbon path for the future, and we need to get on that path fast. There’s simply no alternative if we want our children and grandchildren to live in a world that we would recognise.

I’m somewhat optimistic about the outcome. I certainly don’t think that the conference will result in an agreement that can prevent catastrophic climate-change in itself. Even if it did, we still have to make sure that it gets implemented, and that’s going to take decades of work. Signing a piece of paper this year will not be enough, even it if says all the right things.

So why am I optimistic? Grab a cup of tea, sit down, and I’ll tell you.

Most governments have made some form of commitment in recent weeks, even those that had steadfastly resisted pressure to do so in the past. The United States has pledged a 17% cut in emissions from 2005 levels by 2020. China will aim to reduce ‘carbon-intensity’ by 40-45% by 2020, and India will reduce its carbon intensity by 20-25%, also by 2020.

On the one hand, it’s great to see such statements in the leadup to the conference. On the other, of course, those levels of cuts are not enough to make any difference to the changing climate. Compared to 1990 levels, the US figure corresponds to a cut of just 2%, while the Chinese and Indian carbon-intensity targets mean even less.

Carbon intensity is like car mileage, you can drive more efficiently to improve your mileage, but if you drive further as well, you may still burn more petrol. China plans to grow its economy at 8% per year. That would mean that by 2020 Chinas’ emissions will be almost double the 2005 level.

Of course, there will be lots of finger-pointing, with people on all sides calling for others to do more, while claiming that they are doing their share already, or that they do not want to do more until other countries commit themselves to do more. Playing ‘chicken’ with the climate is not what we really want to see in Copenhagen. Some will point out that China emits more CO2 than any other country. Others will point out that the US emits more per person than any other country (sorry, almost any other country.).

You can see the emissions per person for a number of countries in the graph, below, taken from David MacKay‘s free ebook, Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air. That graph is for the year 2000, and you can clearly see that the ‘developed world’ is emitting far more CO2 per person than China or India, for example.

Carbon dioxide (equivalent) emissions per country for the year 2000

Carbon dioxide (equivalent) emissions per country for the year 2000

So it seems to me that the developed world has a clear moral obligation to take the lead in cutting emissions. Of course, everyone has to play their part, but there’s no need for anyone to wait, we can and should be cutting deeply, now. Unfortunately, politicians end up discussing the financial cost of action instead, arguing about how much money it will take to change, and what will it do to their countries’ economy. Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s your money they’re protecting either. No, it’s the money of big corporations that lobby hard to protect their interests.

Big corporations have always worked to protect themselves. The gas companies opposed Thomas Edison when he wanted to light the streets with electricity, for example. The reality is that every year of delay only increases the financial costs down the line. Will we have to change the way we live in order to tackle climate change? Yes, we will. Will it have an effect on our economies? Yes, of course. But will it hurt you, or me? Not necessarily.

Thomas Alva EdisonThomas Edison
Image via Wikipedia

Thomas Edison changed our lives for the better. Henry Ford changed our lives when he established the automobile industry. Other changes are more gradual, like from theatre to silent films, to talkies, to television, to videos, and now to satellite and internet TV. The entertainment industry has changed drastically in that time, and people have changed with it.

Changing our way of life is very much part of our way of life, and that’s a good thing. When we realise that fact, tackling climate change will not seem difficult or painful, it will appear as the opportunity it is. Unless you’re the CEO of a fossil-fuel company, of course.

So that’s one reason why I’m optimistic. I believe people can come to terms with the changes needed to tackle climate change, once they realise it is in their personal interest and the interests of their family to do so. For that to happen, we just need to look at who is behind the voices opposed to doing anything.

If you’re among those who think climate change is not a real problem, ask yourself this: where did you get the information that led you to that opinion? What motivates the person who tells you not to worry about climate change? What’s in it for them if you believe them?

Dig deep enough, and you’ll probably smell oil. Sometimes its obvious, such as the recent article in Scientific American, but often you have to dig deeper. If you do, you’ll probably find you are being conned by industry-funded PR campaigns.

Regular readers of this blog will know I’m fond of quoting President Nasheed of the Maldives. Well, I’m going to do it again. In a recent speech, he expressed himself very clearly:

To my mind, countries that have the foresight to green their economies today will be the winners of tomorrow. They will be the winners of this century. These pioneering countries will free themselves from the unpredictable price of foreign oil. They will capitalize on the new, green economy of the future. And they will enhance their moral standing, giving them greater political influence on the world stage.

Here in the Maldives we have relinquished our claim to high-carbon growth. After all, it is not carbon we want, but development. It is not coal we want, but electricity. It is not oil we want, but transport. Low-carbon technologies now exist, to deliver all the goods and services we need. Let us make the goal of using them.

Wouldn’t it be nice if a few other leaders could make a stand with President Nasheed, and offer us development, electricity, and transport, instead of coal and oil?

How many Physicists does it take to change a light bulb?

Sunday, November 15th, 2009

David MacKay is a professor of natural philosophy at Cambridge University. At the beginning of October he started work for the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in the UK. He is now their Chief Scientific Advisor, and if you ask me he is clearly the right man for the job.

He’s written a book, Sustainable Energy – without the hot air, which you can download for free from the web (in several formats). Unlike many scientists, he’s an excellent communicator, able to put things in terms that are easy to understand with just a bare minimum of maths. As the book title suggests, he explains a lot about the realities of sustainable energy, in plain english, and with numbers to put it all into context and to set the scale of things.

For example, he converts everything to kilowatt-hours, the amount of energy used by leaving a 1 kW heater on for one hour. By converting everything to the same units, he makes it easier to compare things directly, like the energy you use by driving your car, flying off on holiday, or heating your bath. The kilowatt-hour is also the unit you are charged for on your electricity bill, so it’s something we can all relate to.

He doesn’t have a personal agenda to promote, either. Or rather, he does, but his agenda is to ensure that people can make informed decisions on their own, based on the facts. As he says:

I don’t want to feed you my own conclusions. Convictions are stronger if they are self-generated, rather than taught. Understanding is a creative process. When you’ve read this book I hope you’ll have reinforced the confidence that you can figure anything out.


This book is emphatically intended to be about facts, not ethics. I want the facts to be clear, so that people can have a meaningful debate about ethical decisions.

As a scientist, he obviously accepts the concensus view that we need to stop using fossil fuels, and fast. He points out that nine-tenths of the electrical power in Britain comes from fossil fuels, so replacing it means increasing the amount of every other form of energy by a factor of 10, or some equivalent mix.

The British are famous for opposing change. Brits are opposed to having windmills, wave-machines, or nuclear power stations anywhere near them, protest groups will spring up like daisies anywhere you propose to put them. There are currently about 2400 wind turbines in Britain; if we were to attempt to power Britain from wind alone, we would need 600,000 of them. That’s 6 wind turbines per square mile (2.5 per square kilometer). Next time someone tells you that Britain could be powered by wind alone, ask them where they’re going to put all those turbines!

Steel, concrete, and land-use by wind, solar thermal, and nuclear power, from

Steel, concrete, and land-use by wind, solar thermal, and nuclear power, from

Nor is it easy to construct that many wind turbines. They take a lot of steel and concrete to build, and a lot of cable to connect them to the electrical grid. Barry Brook has an excellent article about the cost and effort of building such infrastructure (I’ve borrowed one of his charts, on the right).

Barry is not the only one speaking out, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers have recently criticised the UK government for setting climate-targets without providing the support needed to make them happen. They say there’s no way to build that much new infrastructure without a significant change of strategy.

I’m sure they’re right, but I’m not convinced by some of their proposals for solving the problem, which include carbon capture and storage (as yet unproven) and building ‘artificial trees’ (also unproven technology). I guess engineers would naturally choose an engineering solution! However, they also propose giving much more authority to the DECC, where David MacKay has just started work, and that sounds like a great idea to me.

David has a real knack for putting all these facts and figures into easily understandable forms. But rather than me telling you about him, why not take a look at the video and see for yourself. It’s only six minutes long. (Thanks to Charles Barton of The Nuclear Green Revolution, which is where I found it!)

If you like the video, why not read David’s book, or maybe start with his own 10-page synopsis of it if you’re pressed for time. You’ll get a clear, no-nonsense analysis of what it means to power Britain with sustainable energy, with no politics attached. Though his analysis is specific to the UK, many of the lessons apply elsewhere, of course.

I find it very encouraging that the UK government has decided to listen to David. I hope more people do too, he’s someone we can all understand.

Gardening over for the year…?

Sunday, November 8th, 2009

plant tubs, covered for the winter

plant tubs, covered for the winter

The garden is finished for the year, which is a shame because it’s been a lot of fun. We had the last of our lettuce just a few days ago. It was surviving nicely due to the lack of frost, though it was hardly growing anymore, it’s too cold now. I’m surprised it has lasted so well, I wish I’d planted more towards the end of the summer!

Today I ‘officially’ closed the garden by covering the big plant tubs with their water-trays, to avoid having the winter rains leech out all the nutrients before the next growing season. I’d never really paid much attention to how soil in pots gets depleted of its nutrients before, but that was brought home to me this year. The white tub that I have had for many years grew tiny sunflowers compared to those with new soil, which were three or four times bigger. Shame on me, I should have known better.

I don’t want to use chemical fertilisers, I don’t want to replace the soil in the pots, and I don’t think I can realistically put a compost heap on my terrace, so I’m trying something different. I’m digging small, deep holes in the soil, and burying vegetable peelings in them. Hopefully, over winter, they will rot down enough to feed the soil without also rotting next years plants. Maybe it will work, maybe not, we’ll see!

Our garden has been quite productive, and we’ve enjoyed the produce from it. A recent study claims that organic food is no healthier than normal food, but that study completely ignored the use of pesticides in conventional agriculture. I’ve read enough to convince me that pesticide-free veggies are a good thing. Of course, there are other benefits to growing your own vegetables, such as reducing food-miles.

Food-miles are a measure of the amount of fuel needed to transport food from the farm to your plate. That fuel all contributes to climate-change by emitting greenhouse-gasses, so getting your food locally means less global warming. You can’t get more local than your own garden, so growing your own food is good for the planet too!

On a larger scale, organic farming is also beneficial in the fight against climate change in other ways. Organic farming feeds the soil, not the plant, and doing so means that the soil will absorb and hold more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than chemical-intensive methods. The Carbon Farmers of America have taken this one step further, deliberately adopting farming techniques to optimise carbon sequestration, and making farms more productive in the process. The story of the farms of “Yobarnie” and “Nevallan”, in Australia, is quite an eye-opening account of how well such techniques work.

So your organic garden may be good for the climate, as well as providing good food. I could have squeezed a few more vegetables out of our garden this year, but I’m glad I left some space for sunflowers instead. Apart from being pretty in their own right, they’ve been feeding the bees all summer, and now feed the birds, long after nearly everything else out there has finished. If you look closely at the photo below you’ll see there are 6 goldfinches, quite a sight!

goldfinches galore

goldfinches galore

great tit and goldfinch on sunflower

great tit and goldfinch on sunflower

Nor is it just goldfinches, we’ve had great-tits too. As you can see, they’re not timid about getting their share, this one was quite happy to push in while the goldfinches were feeding. He’s more agile than the goldfinches, so manages to get his way.

Other birds have benefited from both the goldfinches and the great tits dropping seeds on the ground. Black Redstarts and sparrows often forage around the pots while the other birds are doing their stuff. Sparrows may be plain compared to other birds, but they’re still fun to watch. Here’s 3 of them looking on while a fourth is dipping into the bowl of water we put out for them. You can’t easily tell, but he was taking a bath at the time.

sparrow bathtime

sparrow bathtime

Finally, although the garden outdoors is finished for the year, we’re still growing something! Dweezeljazz has got the bug now, and is growing fresh shoots of all sorts for our salads. They’re very easy to grow, using a neat little gadget from Satoriz, and make a welcome addition to our meals. Thank you, Dweezeljazz.

salad shoots

salad shoots

A Bug hotel

Monday, November 2nd, 2009



Winter is approaching, and change is in the air. We’re wrapping up warmer these days, and we’re not the only ones. Insects, such as this lacewing, are looking for a safe place to spend the winter. This year, I’m trying to help them.

There are lots of places on the web where you can get good information about the type of home that you can provide for insects for the winter. They range from simple things like a pile of leaves in a wire cage to more elaborate and attractive DIY projects like the one at Herbs and Dragonflies. Other sites have more detailed information, such as the Paignton Home Garden & Allotment Society, or the Cheshire Wildlife Trust. For the ultimate in accomodation for garden wildlife, take a look at the invertebrate habitat they designed as part of their exhibit at the 2005 RHS Tatton Park Flower Show.

bamboo pieces

bamboo pieces

I wasn’t nearly as ambitious as that, maybe next year, who knows! I put together a simple bug-home from a plastic container, a few pieces of bamboo, and a bit of string. I started by sawing off the bamboo into sections, just behind the knuckles so that each section is closed at one end. Many of the sections were still filled with pith, I used a long drill-bit to clean them out.

assembled ladybird house

assembled ladybird house

Then I made four holes in the plastic container, two at the top, two at the bottom. The holes are spaced about a quarter of the way around the container, and the pairs of holes line up along the axis of the container. Oh just look at the picture, you’ll get the idea!

I threaded two pieces of string, one in and out of the top pair of holes, one in and out of the bottom. Then I stacked the bamboo in the container, with the closed ends inside of course! Pack the bamboo in tight, so that it holds itself firmly.

I made sure that the string was looped around the bamboo inside the container, so that when I pull it tight it will hold the bamboo tighter together. Otherwise, the string might just tear through the plastic over time, and that would not be good.


ladybird house mounted on fence

ladybird house mounted on fence

Then I simply tied it to our fence. It’s deliberately placed on a slight downward angle, to prevent water running down into the bamboo and drowning any unsuspecting occupants. It’s also close to our wall, and facing it, so that it gets protection from direct rain and winds.

My only question is, how will I know if there’s anyone living in there? Any ideas?

Climate Action Day in Ferney-Voltaire

Sunday, October 25th, 2009 logoClimate Action Day was yesterday, October 24th. It was organised by, and there were about 5200 events worldwide. One such event was ‘Picnic for the Planet‘, held in Ferney-Voltaire, organised by Paul (thanks Paul!). Ferney-Voltaire is just down the road from me, so Dweezeljazz and I went along. We gathered by the statue of Voltaire himself for a photo after the picnic. I think Voltaire would probably have approved of our actions, he was quite a force for change in his own day.

Picnic for the Planet, in Ferney-Voltaire

Picnic for the Planet, in Ferney-Voltaire

Climate Action Day was intended to send a message to politicians ahead of the December Climate Conference in Copenhagen, the message that people want atmospheric carbon dioxide reduced to a maximum of 350 parts per million (ppm).

Why 350 ppm? The site has a page explaining it. If you want a more detailed scientific explanation, you can take a look at Target atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? (Open Atmos. Sci. J. (2008), vol. 2, pp. 217-231), by Jim Hansen The bottom line is that, if atmospheric CO2 levels remain higher than that for any length of time, the earth’s climate will change change out of all recognition. A great many species will go extinct and many vital ecosystems will be destroyed. Our lifestyle, anywhere on the planet, will become a lot more difficult to sustain, as whole countries become uninhabitable.

Of course, this would be a very bad thing!

Reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide to 350 ppm is entirely possible, the difficulties are political rather than technical. It’s difficult to get politicians to see past the next election, so they’re reluctant to embark on anything that requires global co-operation for a number of decades. If they go to Copenhagen with that attitude, they’re unlikely to solve the problem. We need a climate-change treaty that is fair, ambitious, and binding, and the sooner we get it, the better.

That’s the message we need ringing in the ears of our politicians as they go to Copenhagen, and that’s what Climate Action Day was all about. Picnic for the Planet was only one of the events yesterday. Take a look at the homepage, they have a slideshow of the photos people have sent in from all over the world, or visit the 350 blog. It’s impressive to see how many people took part. Anything that gets active participation from people in over 180 countries must surely count for something!

Personal experience of climate change

Thursday, October 15th, 2009

Blog Action Day 2009Today is Blog Action Day 2009, and the subject for this year is climate change.

I’ve learned a lot about climate change in recent years, but nothing brings home an academic lesson like a little personal experience. I got that when I visited Chamonix at the beginning of August. I particularly enjoy the view from Brevent, on the opposite side of the valley to Mont Blanc itself. From there, on a clear day, you can enjoy an unsurpassed view of Mont Blanc and its surroundings. The panoramic restaurant at Planpraz does some very good desserts. While you sit there soaking up sunshine and calories, you get the best view possible of the Glacier des Bossons, straight across the valley from you.

I have been to Chamonix many times, summer and winter, since about 20 years ago. That’s not a long time really, I’m not exactly old! Nonetheless, as I looked across the valley in August, I realised I could see for myself that the glacier des Bossons has retreated a lot in that time.

Glaciers around the world have been retreating for a long time, I know, and have even caused the border between Switzerland and Italy to change. I don’t know why I was so surprised to realise that I could see it for myself. Here are two photos to prove it, both taken by me, from Brevent. On the left is a view from July 1993, on the right, August 2009. The views aren’t taken from exactly the same place, but you can see common features in them.

In the 2009 photo, you can see the bottom half of the glacier is almost separated from the top part by a clearly visible band of rock, running across the top of the picture. You can see that there is a thick shelf of ice, above the rock, that breaks away as it crosses the line of rock. In the 1993 photo, that band of rock is nowhere visible. Then, the ice was thick enough to cover the rock completely. That gives a fair idea of how much the glacier has melted since I have been visiting Chamonix. I can only imagine how Fernand Pareau feels about it, he’s been watching the glaciers retreat for much longer than I have. In Fernands own words:

Même les glaciers ne veulent plus nous voir, ils reculent!

Even the glaciers don’t want to know us, they back away!

Glacier des Bossons seen from Brevent, Chamonix, July 1993

Glacier des Bossons seen from Brevent, Chamonix, July 1993

Glacier des Bossons seen from Brevent, Chamonix, August 2009

Glacier des Bossons seen from Brevent, Chamonix, August 2009


Glaciers are important for many people. Switzerland depends on its glaciers for drinking water and hydro-electric power (which supplies half of their electricity). With predictions that these glaciers may be gone by 2050, if not sooner, that’s not a good situation to be in. Elsewhere in the world, the story is very similar. The glaciers of the Himalayas may well disappear on the same timescale, which could seriously affect the lives of up to 750 million people who depend on them.

Nor do you have to appeal to something as dramatic as running out of water to suffer the effects of climate change. Insurance companies now factor climate change into their calulations, and you can guess who ends up paying the bill for that! Climate change could melt a hole in your pocket just as easily as it melts the glaciers.

With climate change having the potential to harm so many people, in rich and poor countries alike, it’s not surprising that more and more people want something done about it. From individuals doing what they can to big businesses calling for strong policies from world leaders, people are calling for action at all levels of society. Even most world governments realise change is needed, but without a concerted effort from all of them, tackling climate change will be that much harder.

The UNFCC conference in Copenhagen, in December, is our chance to get some common sense from our politicians. World leaders will have the opportunity there to negotiate a truly historic treaty to tackle climate change. There is no excuse for them to fail. From the viewpoints of economy, national security, food security, and health, as well as for reasons like saving polar bears and rainforests, it makes sense to stop the damage we are doing to our climate.

And yes, it is possible to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, but the longer we delay, the harder it will be. Personally, I’ve seen enough of climate change, and would like not to see any more. The 350 organisation has called for people to take part in public activities on October 24th to demonstrate their support for a strong climate treaty. Why not take a look and see if there’s something near you that you can go to, add yourself to the numbers, and see if we can’t encourage our leaders to stay cool-headed in Copenhagen. Otherwise, we’ll all be in hot water eventually.

Why is Copenhagen important?

Saturday, September 19th, 2009

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) is hosting a conference in Copenhagen in December (United Nations Climate Change Conference, Dec 7-18, 2009). It’s supposed to negotiate a successor for the Kyoto protocol, to map the road for reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses worldwide. As such, it’s an extremely important event, but how important is it really? Well, in the words of President Nasheed of the Maldives:

Copenhagen can be one of two things. It can be an historic event where the world unites against carbon pollution, in a collective spirit of cooperation and collaboration, or Copenhagen can be a suicide pact. The choice is that stark. My message to you, my message to the world, is simply this: Please, don’t be stupid.

Until now, politicians everywhere seem to be claiming to be leaders in cutting emissions, while refusing to do anything until someone else does more. Everyone manages to find someone else to point the finger at. With all that hot air from the politicians it’s no surprise the globe is getting hotter!

There are few now who doubt that the global climate is being changed by mankind. Those who do are regularly debunked in the media as having not read or understood the scientific information they refer to, or they simply make up their own ‘facts’ to suit themselves. Some will tell you the climate is not changing. Some will tell you it is getting cooler. Some will say it’s getting warmer, but that it’s not our fault, or that it is our fault but it’s good for us, and so on. Like a child who hasn’t done his homework, they keep hunting for credible reasons.

On the other hand, scientists are agreed that the climate is changing, and that it’s our fault. Organisations as diverse as the World Bank and leading medical organisations around the world are calling for action to tackle climate change. Even religous leaders agree that the climate-change must be addressed.

If you personally have any doubts about the reality of global warming, one easy way to get some good information is to watch the Climate Denial Crock of the Week videos, by Peter Sinclair. These are a series of short videos that address some of the major claims by climate-deniers, showing where they are wrong in a very clear and entertaining manner. The facts are laid out very clearly, and he doesn’t pull his punches. Take a look, for example, at Denial was a River in Africa, and ask yourself if professor Hugh Montgomery might be correct in his claim that India is building a fence to keep Bangladeshi climate refugees out.

Other good starting places for more information on global warming are and the New Scientist Guide for the Perplexed.

You do not have to look far to see evidence of climate change. The small island nation of Tuvala is already feeling the effects of rising sea-levels, while on the other hand, California is running out of water. Even the British government knows it must plan for a changing climate. Changing the climate in Britain might sound like a good idea, but it’s not. Decreases in rainfall will harm agriculture, while increased flooding will also occur. Even so, Britain will have it easy compared to other countries. August in Australia has been exceptionally warm this year, and the predictions are that it will only get worse there. These are only a few examples, there are many others, from all over the world. Just keep your eyes on the news, you’ll see more.

Back in July, a meeting of the G8 countries accepted that global warming should be limited to no more than 2 degrees celsius (3.6 degrees farenheit). The Alliance of Small Islands States has called for a limit of 1.5 degrees celsius, arguing that 2 degrees is too much. They’re right, even 2 degrees will be enough to drastically alter the climate of the earth. Our grandchildren will grow up in a world unlike the one we see today. 2 degrees is enough to ensure that, for example every summer in Europe is as hot as the summer of 2003, and that one killed tens of thousands of people.

So how do we limit the temperature rise to 2 degrees? To translate that number into action, you have to consider the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that we can allow in the atmosphere. 2 degrees corresponds to about 400 ppm of CO2 (according to the IPCC). So far, so good, we’re below that according to the little counter on the left of this page. However, that’s not the whole story. Barry Brook points out that lower emissions-targets are even better, in order to slow down the damage from the warming that has already begun. It’s like turning down the heat before the milk boils, so it won’t boil over. 350 ppm is now the widely accepted target, enshrined in the campaign by Bill McKibben at As you can see, we’re way above that target already!

Whichever number you pick, the important point is that we are already in a dangerous situation. The world’s climate is changing fast, and in ways that are not good. There will continue to be big changes in climate whatever we do, but it is not too late to do something about it, not too late at all. The faster we reduce emissions, the sooner we reduce the damage to the environment, and the less sufferring there will be for man and beast alike. That is why Copenhagen is so very important.

Reducing emissions fast is possible, we know enough to be able to do it. Cleaner energy, higher efficiency cars and electrical appliances, recycling, reducing waste, and all the other things we keep hearing so much about, these all add up. Sometimes it costs money, for large-scale infrastructure like replacing coal-fired power stations, sometimes it saves money instead. Many big companies are going green, despite the economic recession, so cost can’t really be a big issue.

For individuals, too, reducing your carbon footprint can be as easy as small changes in lifestyle, neither expensive nor difficult. It’s quite possible to reduce your electricity use by half, for example. Solving global warming is more a political problem than a technical one, persuading people at all levels (families through to governments) that it must really be done.

Individual action is very important, of course, but the Copenhagen meeting must succeed if we are to reduce emissions globally and really begin to tackle climate change. That is why we have to make sure that our leaders do the right thing, instead of getting wrapped up in petty arguments and worrying that they will lose the next election. People power is crucial to making Copenhagen a success, and one way in which you can express your personal-power is to get involved in some of the demonstrations that are being coordinated around the world in advance of the meeting. is organising an International Day of Climate Action on October 24th, why not take a look and see if there’s something near you that you can go to? You might be glad you did, one day!

Heatwaves, Pollution, and Money to Burn

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

heatwave in France

heatwave in France

France is just coming out of a heatwave at the moment. Whenever I think of a heatwave, two things come to mind. The first is the film ‘Grumpy Old Men‘, with Jack lemmon and Walther Matthau. The film starts with the classic Irving Berlin song “We’re having a heatwave”, while they’re bundled up against the snow and ice. We were singing that a lot this winter.

The second thing that comes to mind is the heatwave of 2003, though that was far worse than this one. That one killed tens of thousands of people across Europe, I’m not sure this one has caused any extra deaths yet?

Even if it’s not as strong as the one six years ago, this has still been an unpleasantly hot time. A large part of the south of France has been under yellow or orange alert, meaning that people have been advised to take extra precautions against the heat. Things like staying out of the sun, drinking plenty of water, avoiding strenuous activity in the hotter part of the day. I’ve been playing it safe, and avoiding exerting myself altogether. The only exception has been to water the plants on the terrace. Come to think of it, that’s been hard work, they have needed a lot of water every day this past week!

Several measures were imposed in France to help people cope with the heatwave, from the small-scale to industrial. In some areas, exterior painting with solvent-based paints, and use of petrol-driven garden equipment was banned, while the heatwave ran its course. Industries were told to reduce the amount of pollution they produce, and car-drivers were ordered to reduce speed by 20 mph on major roads, for the same reason. Since the pollution from these sources is made worse by the strong sunlight, this is particularly important at times like this.

Geneva suburbs under smog

Geneva suburbs under smog

The same suburbs on a clear day

The same suburbs on a clear day

But what about when it isn’t so hot? Doesn’t pollution from all these sources matter then? It might be worse in a heatwave, but pollution from cars is dangerous at any time. What if people drove slower all the time, so they always produced less pollution? That’s something easy that we can all do. You can reduce your own contribution to pollution quite a bit that way, and save yourself some money in the process.

Last summer, when petrol prices were high, drivers in France reduced their consumption by 15%. Curiously, that drop in petrol consumption continued into September, even after the price of of petrol came back down again. I don’t know if that trend continues today, I hope so, but I haven’t been able to find out anything.

I know from my own experience that you can save a lot of your fuel costs just by driving gently, and anticipating changes in the traffic around you. My car is 18 years old, but I get on average 48 MPG (UK gallons, that’s 40 MPG in US gallons, or 5.90 l/100km) by driving gently. According to the US government, that’s almost the same as a 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid.

I track my fuel consumption at, you can find me there among the Opel Astras. Fuelly is very easy to use, whenever you fill your petrol tank you just note the mileage, date, and amount of fuel, then enter it into fuelly and it does the maths for you. It’s a great way to see how much petrol you really are using, and to compare yourself with other people. I can see there that, compared to Honda Civic Hybrids that people have registered, I actually get better mileage than one third of them. That’s not bad for such an old car!

You might think that it’s not worth much effort conserving petrol in an old car, but that’s not true. It’s actually easier to make good gains from an older car than from a newer one. Why? Because MPG is a deceptive quantity, and it’s more instructive to think about the amount of petrol it takes to travel a given distance (Gallons Per Mile, or GPM), instead. The more petrol you use to start with, the easier it is to improve, so drivers of older cars can make bigger gains.

For example, if your car does 20 MPG, you need 5 gallons of petrol to travel 100 miles. If you can improve your mileage by 5 MPG, to 25 MPG, you need only 4 gallons of petrol to travel that same 100 miles. You save one gallon. If your car did 40 MPG instead, you would have needed only 2.5 gallons to travel that same 100 miles in the first place. To make a saving of one gallon with that car, you would have to improve your mileage to 67 MPG, an increase of 27 MPG, not 5. Small savings on high-consumption make a big difference.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t buy an economical car if you can afford it, certainly you should. But if you can’t afford to replace your old banger, you can avoid wasting a lot of money just by paying attention to the way you drive. Why don’t you try it, you might enjoy it? Unless you have money to burn, reducing petrol consumption is a winner all round.

Nuclear Power, Yes Please!

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

Nuclear Power, Yes PleaseNuclear power has a bad reputation, and many environmental organisations are so strongly opposed to it that they resort to rather extreme measures. For example, Greenpeace consider any use of nuclear power to be an affront to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which seems a bit of a stretch.

Even the World Wildlife Fund is blatantly fabricating numbers to make nuclear power look bad. You can see that in their ‘G8 Climate Scorecards‘, where they state that they use numbers from fossil-fuels to replace numbers from nuclear power in calculating a nations’ emissions. The WWF scorecards rank France third, for example, despite the fact that it has far lower emissions than England or Germany, which they rank as better! If a company were to use similar methods on their annual reports, we would call it fraud, and expect someone to go to jail.

Six Degrees, Our Future on a Hotter PlanetTo be fair, not all environmentalists are against nuclear power. Mark Lynas, author of ‘Six Degrees, Our Future on a Hotter Planet‘, has declared his support for it. He says the environmental stance is based on myth and dogma, not facts.

So why is it that some environmental organisations are willing to go to such extreme measures and risk tarnishing their reputations to criticise nuclear power? The main reason, of course, is fear, but fear of what? Radiation, perhaps?

Nuclear power can, in principle, lead to radiation exposures in a variety of ways:

  • nuclear accidents, meltdowns, failures of safety systems, leaks large or small
  • long-lived radioactive waste that will be here until well after the human race has gassed itself to extinction with fossil fuels
  • proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, using radioactive materials produced by nuclear reactors
  • terrorists, either attacking a nuclear power plant or stealing radioactive material to make bombs

That list can be summed up in two groups: harm caused by the reactor or associated machinery (provoked or accidental), or harm caused by the waste produced during normal operation of the facility.

So what if it were possible to build a reactor that could not malfunction in a harmful manner? That would solve one problem. What if that reactor produced only short-lived nuclear waste which was easy to manage and not useful for making bombs? That would solve the other problem. Surely that would make nuclear power more attractive to everyone?

As it happens, you can produce nuclear power safely, with minimal and manageable waste. Oh and it’s not difficult either, it’s been done already, about 30 years ago. It’s called an ‘Integral Fast Reactor‘ (IFR), and there’s a very good summary of it by Barry Brook in ‘Brave New Power for the World‘, or an easy Q&A summary by George Stanford at The National Center for Public Policy Research.

Prescription For The PlanetIFRs are specifically designed to address those two major problems, safety and waste. They also happen to be extremely efficient, cost-effective, and easy to construct. If they’re so good, you might wonder why the world hasn’t heard much about them? The project to develop the Integral Fast Reactor was shut down by the Clinton administration in 1994, and since Bill Clinton’s energy secretary at the time was a former lobbyist for the fossil-fuel industries, that more than likely has something to do with it. In Tom Blees’ book, ‘Prescription For The Planet‘, there’s an account of the history and operation of IFRs. The Department of Energy actually issued a directive that the technology was not to be publicised, which you might interpret as the need to keep it a secret. Odd, then, that the chief engineer for the project, Leonard Koch, was awarded an international prize by Vladimir Putin for the work he had done. No state secrets there!

Back to those two big questions, first, why do I say that IFRs are safe? Their safety does not come from redundant backup safety systems, highly trained operators, or anything like that. Their safety comes from the laws of physics. We use the laws of physics every day in all sort of mundane safety systems. The fuse in your television, the emergency-release valve on your pressure cooker, and even the thermostat on your central heating system, these are all things that guarantee your safety by using the laws of physics to stop bad things happening in your home.

IFRs have their own built-in thermostat in the fuel itself. As the reactor heats up, the fuel expands in the heat, which in turn causes the nuclear reaction to slow down. The reactor cannot overheat, so it cannot possibly meltdown. In addition, the reactor core is cooled by a liquid metal (sodium), which does not actually need to be pumped in order to cool the core. Turn off the cooling pumps, the liquid sodium will still circulate by convection, and the core will still be kept under control.

This is not theoretical, these tests have actually been done with a real nuclear reactor running at full power. Cooling systems were turned off, the normal safety systems were disabled, and the reactor was left to itself. It shut itself down safely with no human intervention, in as little as 5 minutes. Sorry to disappoint the Star Trek fans out there, there will be no warp-core breaches in an IFR!

Incidentally, those tests were performed just three weeks before the Chernobyl disaster happened. Chernobyl had none of these inherent safety features. Condemning IFRs because of Chernobyl would be like condemning air-travel because of the Hindenburg.

On to the second question, what about the waste from IFRs? Long-lived nuclear waste is produced by reactors that do not burn their fuel efficiently, they only extract a tiny fraction of the energy from it, about 1% or less. IFRs, on the other hand, burn their fuel almost entirely, so that they actually consume the material that other reactors would produce as waste. In fact, you can power an IFR with waste from other types of reactor, burning it completely, and thereby solve the problem of what to do with all the waste we already have! It’s like the difference between a garden fire that smoulders gently and releases a lot of toxic smoke, compared to an incinerator that burns the same stuff to ash in a far cleaner manner.

The waste that does come out of an IFR is radioactive for far less time than the waste that comes out of other types of reactor, precisely because the fuel is burnt so efficiently. Instead of remaining radioactive for tens of thousands of years, the waste from an IFR is radioactive for only about 300-500 years. That’s about one tenth of the age of the pyramid at Giza, so building something to contain it while it decays should be easy enough. The plastic we throw away will take longer to decay than that. IFRs also produce much less waste than other reactor types, so there’s less volume to handle.

What about the bomb-question, can IFRs be used to make weapons-grade plutonium? In principle, yes, since they do produce plutonium inside the core (and then burn it), there is plutonium to be had. In practise, it is far harder to process the fuel from an IFR to extract weapons-grade plutonium than it is to obtain such plutonium by any other means. For more information, see this Q&A by Steve Kirsch (search for “non-proliferation efforts”). Meanwhile, ask yourself this: which government are you trying to prevent from getting their hands on the plutonium?

There are many countries that already have nuclear power. Many of these have signed a non-proliferation treaty, and allow international oversight to verify that they are in compliance. If they were to convert their installations to IFRs, compliance would be easier to verify, and they could even consume the stockpiles of plutonium that they have amassed by using it as fuel in those same IFRs. This ‘nuclear club’ also happens to account for 80% of the worlds emissions of greenhouse gasses, so even if you restricted IFR technology to them alone, you would be able to make the world a safer and more habitable place, on several fronts.

Of the countries that don’t have nuclear power, many want it. The big question is, do they want it for weapons, or for electricity? Not telling them how to build nuclear power stations isn’t going to make them go away. Do we really think nations that want nuclear power for themselves will not get it sooner or later? Maybe it’s better to help them towards proliferation-resistant nuclear power instead of just leaving them to their own devices? Politically, as well as technically, IFRs can be a tool for reducing proliferation.

That leaves terrorism as a consideration. Stealing fuel from an IFR would be extremely difficult, because while it is in the core it is lethally radioactive. The reactor itself can be protected by several layers of containment vessels and concrete bunkers, over-topped with earth if you like, so it would be impervious to a missile attack (or an aircraft crashing into it, for example). Frankly, there are easier targets, and terrorists have shown that they are imaginative enough to find them.

So, at the end of the day, I’m puzzled as to why many environmental groups are ignoring the facts and taking such an anti-nuclear position. IFRs emit no greenhouse gasses. They provide constant power, not relying on variable sources like wind, waves, or sunshine. They can be made cheaply, because they can replace coal-fired power stations in-situ, using the existing generators and distribution infrastructure. They can eliminate our stockpiles of nuclear waste, and solve the nuclear-waste problem. They are inherently safe. And they can power the world for millennia.

So why aren’t we building them?

Doing Nothing to Help Nature

Thursday, July 16th, 2009
path cleared of grass

path cleared of grass

orange butterfly

orange butterfly

The country lanes in the Pays de Gex need to be cleared of grass and wild plants from time to time, or they would rapidly become overgrown. I guess it’s necessary, but it always makes me sad to see all that lush green growth cut back in its prime. The photo above was taken one week after the one of the orange butterfly on the right, and in the same place. All those flowers gone in a moment, and the insects that relied on them for food and shelter now have to go elsewhere. Spiders, lizards, frogs, and other creatures that feed on the insects all get disturbed too, of course. It seems such a shame to harm all those plants and animals in the process, but is there really any alternative?

Even if it is necessary to cut back the growth to keep the paths open, there are ways that it could be done that are less harmful to both the plants and the animals that depend on them. For example, don’t cut back all the growth in one area at the same time, leave some as a refuge for insects. Not all insects can easily move on to new grounds. Some bees, for example, nest in banks along paths like this one, and are more exposed if their cover is removed. Other insects may have already laid their eggs on these plants, and the eggs will not survive when the plants are cut back. Even those insects that can move on can’t always move far or fast, so may not survive if the nearest intact stand of plants is too far away. They may not be able to feed on the crops in the fields, so the nearest food plants may be a long way off down the lane. I’ve no idea how far a caterpillar can walk, but with that many legs, sore feet can’t be fun! If a patch of plants every few metres or so could be left alone all season, instead of mowing down an entire area, these insects would have a chance to complete their lifecycle in a more natural manner.

It’s not just the insects and other animals that will benefit from a stay of execution, the plants need it too. They need to be allowed to flower and set seed, and for those seeds to be dispersed, or the next generation of flowers will have to come from somewhere else. For some flowers, this might not seem to matter, dandelions and daisies can probably survive the worst that the lawn-mower can throw at them. But sometimes, it really is important. Near to where I work in Geneva, there are grassy areas among office buildings that have been found to harbour orchids. There are at least two orchid species there, in fact, and one (Ophrys Apifera) is rare enough that it is on the CITES list of endangered species. The other (Anacamptis Pyramidalis)is more common, especially so since the grass it grows in is now left alone until late in the summer, so the orchids are allowed to flower and set seed in peace. A simple act of not cutting the grass is enough to help these orchids to thrive.

floral reserve

floral reserve

Anacamptis Pyramidalis

Anacamptis Pyramidalis, an orchid

So before you cut your grass again, or dig over that plot of land at the bottom of the garden, why not pause to take a good look at what’s living there. Even if you don’t have rare orchids, you might find some pretty wild flowers that you have overlooked in the past, or maybe a small frog or two, as I have found in my Mums garden in recent years. If so, maybe you can leave a patch of ground undisturbed for a while longer, and let nature do its stuff. You can help it to survive, by simply doing nothing to it.