Pre-election analysis – the UK’s Trump v’s the rebel alliance

daryanblog

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So its possible we’ll have an early election, thought probably not as early as Boris Johnson wants. He seems to be hoping that by bringing a bit of Trump like behaviour to the UK he can get a majority, allowing him to force through the sort of brexit he prefers…..which might not necessarily be a no deal mind (if he’s got enough seats then he doesn’t need the DUP or the hard brexiters anymore, he could toss both under the bus and put forward May’s deal again, or the EU’s original proposal of leaving NI in the single market, negating the need for any backstop).

The odds are certainly in his favour, he’s 10% ahead in the polls and such tactics have certainly worked in the past, but its not that straight forward. In fact its a very risky gamble. As I pointed out before, such is…

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Free market solutions to climate change

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There are certain aspects of extinction rebellions campaign aims and methods that do give me cause for concern. Be it gluing themselves to the doors of a oil industry conference (you are aware that glues are an oil based product, something I suspect the oil men had a good laugh about afterwards), to Emma Thompson calling for people to stop flying and go vegan….then being spotted on a first class flight eating beef. They say that they want to cut carbon emissions by 80% in just 6 years, which is clearly an unachievable target. And they claim they will somehow achieve all of this, via a “citizens forum”.

All in all I get the impression this is more of an anti-capitalist backlash against Trump, brexit and right wing populism. Now while there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that (as the plutocrats have long been warned, the pitchforks are coming), but there is a danger of confusing many separate issues. And such confusion of issues risks being counter productive (as the right wing media will simply say oh they’re only using climate change as an excuse to cause trouble). Notably this notion that we must ditch capitalism to save the planet. This ignores the fact that there are many free market solutions to climate change, some of which have been fairly successful.

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Now even the police are holding sit-down protests!

Certainly capitalism has a lot to answer for when it comes to climate change. Consider the allegations that Exxon knew about climate change decades before the IPCC came along. But rather than do anything about it, they instead buried the story and started throwing money the way of climate change deniers. Parallels have been drawn with the behaviour of tobacco firms.

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However, all economies, both capitalist and communist have contributed to climate change. In fact, the problems with pollution have often been worse in communist countries, due to a lack of a free press. Many communist countries, most notably the soviet union, took the view that they were implementing the will of the soviet people, which was justification for any destruction of the environment. Hence we ended up with the most horrendous of environmental catastrophes, the most notable example being the draining away of the Aral sea.

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By contrast, up until very recently in the west, environmental protection was a non-partisan issue. There were as many conservatives in favour of environmental protection as there were against it. And there were equally plenty on the left (generally worried about the impact on jobs in working class areas) against environmental protection, while others on the left were in favour. It was after all Richard Nixon who introduced the clean air act, Reagan who funded the IPCC and Bush senior who signed the Montreal protocol. So its a bit unfair to blame the right or capitalism entirely.

The vlogger and journalist Petter Hatfield, aka Potholer54, has a vlog series out about free market solutions to climate change (part 1 and part 2). And as he points, out capitalism can be part of the solution rather than just part of the problem. There’s a need for some suitable nudges from government yes. And there’s inevitably going to be a lot of kicking and screaming from some vested interests (but then again, what would you expect!). But once implemented some of the more successful climate change mitigation measures have often come from the free market.

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For example, I’ve pointed out many times before how renewable energy prices have been falling and installation rates rising. This is largely thanks to private companies competing against one another to try and drop their prices (by developing new technologies or increasing productivity and thus benefiting from economies of scale). The UK now gets 30% of its electricity from renewables (despite the Tories ending subsidies some time ago). Cap and trade policies have led to carbon emissions being reduced around the world, at the same time companies have saved money by investing in energy efficiency measures, making them more competitive.

Of course electricity production is only a small share of carbon emissions (about a quarter actually), with the bulk of the rest being made up by transport, agriculture/land use changes, industrial production and raw material extraction. But even here companies are doing their bit. Increasingly strict caps on vehicle emissions by the EU have gotten us to the stage where the end of the ICE engined car is now in sight. Within a few years its likely the only cars on sale will be hybrids or fully electric vehicles.

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And if you’ve visited a supermarket recently, you’ve probably noticed there’s a lot more vegetarian food available. Responding to customer demands, companies are introducing more meat free alternatives. Hell the other week I noticed my local supermarket was selling vegan friendly Lorne sausages (the infamous Scottish square sausage, often eaten for breakfast in a roll with some sauce). The day the types who eat a lorne sausage for breakfast turn vegetarian you know something’s changed! Even Blackrock, one of the world’s largest private equity firms, has now announced they will be investing in renewables, having gotten their fingers, burned losing tens of billions investing in fossil fuels (in unrelated news pigs have developed flight and hell has been hit by a cold snap).

Now I put it too you none of these would happen if companies hadn’t woken up to climate change and realised there was money to be made by doing their bit. Yes they are only doing it because they want to make money, but if it brings down carbon emissions, do we really care? Certainly this won’t be happening without the necessary nudges and legislation from governments. And a lot of the science and technology now being used by these companies is only available because certain government bodies (notably the EU or America’s NREL) were willing to pour billions into scientific research. But it is pretty clear that corporations, while part of the problem can also be part of the solution.

In fact this is where I’d argue conservatives are making a huge mistake. These free market solutions have one major flaw. They take time to implement. By running down the clock on climate change, we risk the scenario where these free market solutions won’t have time to be effective. Leaving us with only the quick and nasty authoritarian options. So rather than carbon taxes, we get carbon rations. Its ironic that conservatives put forward the conspiracy theory that climate change is hoax intended to bring down capitalism, when in fact this could easily become a self fulfilling prophecy if they aren’t careful.

But equally its is incorrect for those on the left to argue that the only way to stop climate change is to get rid of capitalism. In truth if we don’t stop climate change there won’t be any capitalism, but that will be the least of our problems! But it seems that there are some in Extinction Rebellion who’d see that as a silver lining.

In fact lets look at that idea of using a citizens forum to sort out climate change. All I can say is there are easier ways to start a public brawl. You are talking about putting a bunch of eco-warriors in the same room with climate deniers, brexiters, Trump supporters, rich toff’s, scorer mom’s, white van men & blue collar types, expecting them to all get along and resolve one of the most complex issues of our age.

And the oil industry is unlikely to go down without a fight. We’re assuming they won’t try to manipulate the outcome of such a forum (by bribing people, or manipulating delegates social media feed). And its all to easy for people to be bamboozled by those placing style over substance (just look at the solar roadways fiasco). Hence why I’d guess the outcome of such a forum would be that they elect to do nothing (based on recent elections, this is the most likely outcome), or they’ll back some crazy pseudoscience solution that fundamentally won’t work, or can’t be developed in time (the aforementioned solar roadways, LFTR’s, hydrogen woo, fusion woo, hydro-vac, etc.) or it descents into the trading of insults and a massive fist fight.

And let us not underestimate what a complex issue sustainability is. It involves a lot of trade off’s between least worse options. For example, Greta Thunberg is sailing across the Atlantic to reduce her carbon footprint. Not really practical for the rest of us (don’t know about you, but I don’t own an ocean going racing yacht), but are ships better than planes? Well actually a passenger ferry burns through twice the energy per passenger than a 747 and a cruise ship has a much higher carbon footprint per passenger mile.

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Sorry Greta, but moving people by ship actually produces more carbon emissions than flying….

Of course in theory that’s not a problem, if you power your ships using renewable energy, using for example biofuels rather than diesel. Although the same applies to planes if they are run off renewables. But of course biofuels come with their own problems. They can lead too carbon emissions through land use changes. And they can take away land from food production. Although only a fraction of the world’s grains are used for biofuels (about 5% last time I checked), much more is fed to farm animals. So we could have our biofuels (for long distance travel) if we go vegan, would that be a good idea?

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….but ships are becoming more fuel efficient

Aside from quitting driving and flying ,going vegan is probably the best thing you could do to reduce your carbon footprint. But as I’ve discussed before, there’s a lot of devil in the detail. Certain vegetables have a relatively high carbon footprint, a high water use rate (notably Asparagus, Avocados and Coconuts) or their cultivation causes all sorts of environmental issues.

So as you can see, what seems to be a pretty straight forward issue (flying bad, sailing good or vegan good), actually balloons into a massively complex series of trade off’s very quickly. If there was an easy silver bullet solution to climate change, it would have already been implemented. Its not that simple. This is why the solution to climate change is better long term planning, not some sort of magical quick fix.

Climate change is a crisis no doubt. And the pace of change is currently way too slow, that much is true. You need only look to the recent drama in the UK where a dam partially collapsed, with experts warning that the government best get working a hundreds of other dams which were never designed to withstand dangerous climate change. Or the fires now raging in the Amazon, largely because the president is in the pocket of wealthy landowners (which is why boycotting Brazilian products would seem to be to be a good idea). Ignoring climate change and doing nothing will cost far more than the cost of taking action.

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While Trump tweets, the Amazon burns

But equally we need to be realistic as to our goals and methods. Setting a timetable that simply can’t be achieved is as crazy as Trump proposing that the Mexicans should pay for his wall. Expecting people to make sacrifices those advocating for such change seem unwilling to make themselves, is just going to have you labelled a hypocrite and provide plenty of ammunition for the right wing tabloids. And trying to use the climate crisis to push a particular political agenda is no morally different from the brexiters trying to engineer a hard brexit to create a crisis that they can exploit.

Posted in aviation, Biomass, cars, CHP, clean energy, climate change, efficiency, energy, environment, EU, fossil fuels, future, Global warming denial, history, LFTR, nuclear, Passivhaus, peak oil, politics, power, renewables, Shale Gas, subsidy, sustainability, sustainable, technology, transport, water scams | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Environmental news roundup

UK blackout

The UK recently suffered a series of sporadic blackouts across the country. Its being blamed on the fact a wind farm and a gas fired power station both suddenly went off line at more or less the same time, likely due to the high levels of rainfall and thunder storms we’d had that day. However it was not a lack of power, nor a lack of wind since we’re talking about it, that caused this blackout. I happened to have Grid Templar open at the same time as this blackout and it showed no major spike in demand, plenty of power available (including over 8GW’s of wind up and running), all the inter-connectors running (some of them even exporting power) and a grid frequency just a touch over 50 Hz, all of which pointed to no shortages of available electricity.

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The UK’s been subjected to a number of unseasonably large lightening storms recently…no doubt related to climate change

The thing is, you can have all the power in the world being generated, but if you can’t get it to where its needed, the lights go out. In other words if you don’t have enough capacity on your powerlines to cope if some part of that grid goes down, then you are kind of stuffed. And as I’ve mentioned several times on my energy blog, the Tories have badly mismanaged the UK’s electricity grid, investment has been cut to the bone to such an extent that the UK grid has transcended lean and mean, its now skinny and pissed.

So this failure was very much a fire drill for an even larger future crisis, which brexit btw makes more likely. Imagine for example the same thing happening again, but this time in darkest winter in the middle of a snow storm at a time of peak demand with no spare capacity and where it might take several days before weather conditions allow repairs to be made. That’s the kind of energy crisis that worries me. And the blame game going on with power companies and the national grid all pointing the finger at one another over the recent outage, is hardly encouraging.

Now while its true some other parts of the world do have to cope with less reliable power, but they are used to that. Locals will often have a generator or solar panels on the roof tied to a battery. The UK is not used to this. If anything this crisis shows that the UK’s motto these days isn’t so much “keep calm and carry on” but “now panic and freak out”. So such a crisis will not end well.

Crimes against the planet

We were warned that the Brazil’s neo-fascist president would be bad, but we were never told just how bad. He’s begun a massive programme that involves the systematic destruction of the Amazon rainforest, a vital part of the global carbon cycle. And those public officials who tried to do their job and document what’s going on have been fired as his regime attempts to suppress information. And in related news, there’s been a spike in the numbers of environmental activists murdered notably in Brazil.

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Why is he doing this? Well because like most populist he’s as corrupt as they come, in the pocket of wealthy landowners. The irony being he’s only in power because a massive corruption scandal took down the other two major parties….so the Brazilians responded to that by electing someone even more corrupt (like that makes sense, conservative logic, don’t even try to understand it). And as is often the case if there’s anything sensible liberals are in favour of, conservatives are against…..on which point I’d like to note liberals are also opposed to conservatives walking off of cliffs (I mean who would clean up the mess!), so we’d be really upset if conservatives started doing that 😉

But this has major implications for everyone on the planet. Many of the climate models the IPCC rely on assume that the natural carbon cycle will continue to absorb carbon dioxide, limiting the impact of climate change. At least for some period of time (after that the trees themselves start to die and release yet more carbon dioxide). In short he’s supercharging climate change, which will cause the more dangerous impacts of it to appear much earlier than currently predicted. It also makes a runaway greenhouse effect more likely.

What we are seeing here in action is a crime against nature. One that will directly lead to millions being driven from their homes and many more deaths do to extreme weather. Yet the world does nothing. Nobody is issuing arrest warrants for him. There’s no talk of sanctions or military intervention. There needs to be a new convention added to international law that prohibits such activity.

Crazy Ivans

When Putin announced that he was going to try to develop a nuclear powered cruise missile, among other weapons, I assumed it was just bravado. The Americans investigated such weapon systems in the 60’s as part of project Rover and project Pluto, where the goal was to create what would have essentially been an unmanned flying nuclear submarine.

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America tried to develop a flying nuclear missile launcher back in the 60’s….before coming to their senses!

Fortunately Congress came to its senses and realised that they’d have to be stark raving bonkers to continue this project and pulled funding. Well a recent accident at a Russian nuclear testing facility does raise the possibly that they are in fact trying to develop such a weapon. Yes Putin’s Russia of today is trying to outdo the Americans of the 1960’s on the crazy scale, on a project which you’ll often see listed as “world top five craziest ideas”.

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Project Pluto engine undergoing testing

What’s wrong with a nuclear cruise missile? Well needless to say flying around a nuclear reactor carries some pretty serious risks. You could end up with a mini Chernobyl (which is pretty much what happened the other day), or possibly even worse. The bulk of the radioactive material from Chernobyl is still within the containment building (melted or otherwise), only a small fraction of the fallout got into the atmosphere. If such a weapon was to malfunction at altitude and the plane/missile were to break up, you’d be scattering all of the reactor’s contents over a very wide area. To make matters worse while nuclear power plants use lightly enriched uranium, such a flying nuke would likely require highly enriched fuel, making the fallout much more severe.

This is largely why the Americans abandoned project Pluto back in the 60’s. The Pentagon decided that such a weapon system would be far too risky to have flying around and building one would just compel the other powers to do the same. Also in order to complete sufficient ground testing to qualify the hardware up to a point where they’d be prepared to try and let one take off, would have been enormously expensive, requiring massive testing facilities. It is pretty clear that Russia plans to complete development of a similar system on a shoestring budget using some quite amateurish methods. Which doesn’t inspire confidence that any hardware will be suitably certified prior to flight testing.

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In order to ground test their engine the Americans had to preheat the air flowing through it to produce realistic flow conditions, requiring a massive tank farm….which only gave them a few minutes testing time!

And contrary to Putin’s boasts, such a missile will not be stealthy. Its massive superheated (and mildly radioactive) exhaust plume will be impossible to hide, making it a sitting duck for  anti-aircraft missiles. And given the necessity to shoot it down well before it reaches your territory (given the aforementioned fallout, you’d want to knock it down as early as possible), the end result of Russia creating such a weapon would likely be to find themselves ringed by long range anti-aircraft batteries.

So what are the Russians playing at? Well as this former adviser to the Kremlin reports, Putin is engaged in a childish game of one upmanship with the west. They bomb Iraq, he helps out his allies in Syria. They rig elections in 3rd world countries, he interferes in elections in the west. Trump withdraws from a nuclear weapons treaty to test a new weapon system, well two can play that game. And given he has leverage over Trump (thanks to a certain pee tape) he knows he can get away with pretty much anything now and hence does not feel constrained by international law. Which is kind of scary when we are talking about nuclear weapons.

Day zeroes

As if to emphasise a point I made in a prior post, the world resources council has released a report highlighting that a quarter of the world’s population are effected by extreme water stress. In the 17 countries that were the focus of the report, agriculture, industry, and municipalities were found to be using up to 80% of available surface and groundwater in an average year. And recall, ground water is a finite resource. Once its gone its gone. And of course climate change can lead to more droughts and thus cut off the supply of surface water.

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This is leading to more and more “Day zeroes” where a community’s local source of water runs out completely. And while this has been happening for some time to farmers and villages, now its starting to effect cities, most notably Cape Town (which nearly ran out last year) and Chennai in India.

The consequences of such water crises can be severe. And I mean famines, wars and mass migrations severe. But also while there are solutions, they require long term planning. Waiting until the local reservoir is empty or your well runs dry is waiting until its too late to do anything about it.

Straw arguments

Speaking of crimes against the environment, although this is more a crime against logic, McDonald’s has been forced to admit that their new paper straws aren’t recyclable, whereas the plastic ones they previously used were (although straw recycling isn’t straight forward, there are methods if they are collected separately). So they are protecting the environment by switching to straws with a higher carbon footprint (generally any paper based product tends to lose out v’s plastic in terms of carbon footprint, the main advantage of paper is they bio-degrade more quickly) and which are harder to recycle. Clownish behaviour (didn’t know Ronald McDonald was the actual CEO of the company!).

Of course this highlights a point that was made by many experts about the big post-blue planet backlash against plastics – its complicated. People tend to see things in terms of black and white while or good v’s bad but in reality its much more complex issue. Swap from plastic to paper, where does paper come from? Trees….you know like the ones the Brazilians are tearing down….damn! Going to do away with plastic packaging (as some supermarkets have suggested), well if it means your food spoils more quickly any carbon savings will be cancelled out straight away.

A more realistic strategy for how to deal with plastic wastes would be to return to the waste pyramid, with a little carbon footprint calculator in our back pocket. And the first step of that pyramid is refuse, i.e. how about McDonald’s supplies cups (you know like the glasses and ceramic mugs we’ve been using for several thousand years!) that are reusable and can be drunk from without a straw.

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Second step, if you have to use a straw, use a reusable one. And yes you can get washable steel ones. In fact some of the plastic ones can be reused, this is what I do at home (rinse them after use in warm water, or if they get mangy leave them to steep in warm water with a drop of disinfectant and then rinse out), although there’s a limit to the number of times you can wash those (even so, cuts down consumption of them massively). And if and when they have to be thrown out, use a material that easily recycled. And if, like McDonald’s you are generating a large volume of them, surely you can afford to develop a method of recycling them. But the problem is that we have the waste pyramid in this country upside down and are doing things in reverse.

And for those who say its all just too complicated, well I was recently in Germany and their levels of recycling are massively higher. Things we say are impossible to do, the Germans say hold our beer bottle….then take it back to the store and get a refund! There’s a lot of reversible logistics, in which you buy your drinks (and inevitably in Germany a lot of that will be beer) by the crate and then when you are done, you return the empties and the crate to the supermarket and pick up a new one. And you see a lot less plastic packing in German supermarkets. And what you do see tends to be the types that are more easily recycled. Its like being a North Korean who wandered into a tech fair in Seoul.

That said, the Germans have been doing this for much longer than us. Successive German governments have passed legislation promoting recycling and reuse of packaging, largely by making manufacturers and retailers responsible for final disposal of their products. And also it does mean that the garage/basement/spare room of many German homes is full of empty crates and they have about 6 different bins in their kitchen. But certainly it shows that there are workable alternatives. We have no excuses.

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The dam bursts….and I’m not talking about the one in Derbyshire

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One recent story that much of the media missed was that Blackrock, one of the world’s largest asset management firms, lost some $90 billion investing in fossil fuel companies. As a result its reducing its investment in this sector and putting the money into renewable energy instead.

This answers a question I asked sometime ago, how long more is the financial services industry going to continue pouring good money after bad investing in fossil fuels. Well it seems we might be reaching the point where the dam has burst. The trouble is that since the 2000’s the CAPEX required to develop new oil field has been going up at the same time that the rate of return has been going down. This is not surprising as all the easy to produce oil and gas fields have already been drilled (or those fields have been exhausted). Those that are left are more expensive to drill, often as they are in less than ideal locations (or represent smaller pockets of oil), or because they are unconventional sources (shale gas, tar sands, etc.).

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Now the trouble with oil fields is its kind of like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get, how much oil will be produced and at what price you’ll be able to sell it at. And needless to say the low oil prices of recent years hasn’t helped, making it very hard to turn a profit. Hence the reduced rate of return. It also serves to make oil a much more risky investment. Which is a big deal for investors. They will typically spread their money out, putting the bulk into safe “boring” investments (blue chip stocks, mortgages, government bonds) and then different tranches of riskier investments. With  a higher return expected the riskier the investment becomes.

Oil has traditionally been seen as a fairly safe bet. But since the shale gas boom under Bush, its become something of a wild west. Yes there’s money too be made, but it means you need to pump in more cash up front and be prepared to take on more risk. Which might be fine for some Texas oil men, but not for others, as they have shareholder who’ll skin them alive if they lose that much money. Certain firms, notably pension funds, are often forbidden from undertaking any form of investment above a certain level of risk. And the snake oil tactics some in the oil industry have engaged in, notably in the selling of shale gas plays, has hardly helped endear them to wall street investors.

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And of course climate change makes investment in certain industries a lot more risky, most notably the oil industry. The bank of England has actually issued warnings to that effect. Not least because climate change could trigger another financial crisis (as if companies didn’t have enough reasons to shun investment in fossil fuels already!).

So Blackrock’s position here isn’t that surprising. And there are many in the same boat. Investment in oil and gas has been steadily declining for sometime now. Normally this would just be seen as part of the fossil fuel industry business cycle. A spike in oil prices, causes a massive jump in investment, they go on a drilling boom, everyone gets rich, production goes up, causing an oil glut, prices collapse, everybody loses their shirts and jokes like this become popular in Dallas “how do you address an oil geologist – can I get fries with that!”. Then the cycle repeats itself.

However, the problem for fossil fuels is that they now have competitors. Renewable energy is increasingly seen as an alternative. And electric vehicles means that we can run vehicles off something other than dino juice. Energy saving measures are reducing the need for oil and gas consumption in the first place. And more money going into renewables allows for greater economies of scale to be developed and lower installation costs. Which means they get to eat more of the fossil fuel industry’s lunch. So its possible that oil production could fall, without causing a significant increase in prices.

Yes populist governments, some of them in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry, can go on a rampage and commit acts of ecological vandalism (just look at the crimes against nature the Brazilian president is committing as he tears down large chunks of the Amazon rainforest), but all they can do is cause their country to fall behind in terms of renewable technology, so those jobs go overseas. And ironically enough there might be links to the rise in populism and climate change.

Granted if there was to be an artificial shortage, e.g. a war with Iran cutting off oil from the Gulf states for several months, that could push up prices…which could explain what Trump is up too. But it might not necessarily lead to an increased investment in the oil industry. We’ve been here before. Yes wars in the middle east led to an oil shock, shortages and high prices. But they were short lived affairs and nearly always followed by a massive price crash.

In fact one possible scenario in the event of a war could see investors, gambling on a quick American victory (and a probable drop in oil prices), dumping their oil investments as soon as the bombs start falling (doesn’t mean a war won’t happen, Trump is pretty dumb, but on the plus side it will just guarantees he loses in 2020).

Ultimately the problem here is that people tend to see the issue of peak oil through one of two lenses, geological or economic. When its actually a combination of both. Yes the amount of fossil fuels in the world (the resources) is a fixed finite value. How much of that can be turned into reserves and ultimately pumped out of the ground however, is a factor of economics and technology. You throw enough money at the problem, you can increase production. This has been the position of cornucopians.

However cornucopians fail to appreciate the practicalities of what they propose. There are engineering and geological factors that have to be accounted for. i.e. you are having to drill a lot more wells to great depths in more challenging conditions, unconventional oil has a higher carbon footprint and a lower EROI.

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Shale gas drilling physically requires not just fracking of wells but a lot more wells, often including lengthy sections of horizontal drilling

And its not a linear relationship between investment and oil production. Doubling your investment doesn’t double your production. Instead its more like you put ten times the amount in and get a lot less out than you’d have previously gotten from a conventional oil field….for a short time anyway (unconventional wells tend to produce for a much shorter time period than conventional wells).

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Shale gas wells tend to decline in productivity much more quickly than conventional fields

And that money doesn’t rain from heaven, nor can we assume the oil price will magically stay high just because we need it too. Someone has to be willing to invest in it and if they can make more money investing in something else (e.g. wind farms, electric cars, short selling anything British in advance of brexit) then they will take their money and run.

In short, the oil industry has spent the last decade running faster to stand still. And they are about to get hit with a massive attack of cramp. Hence its entirely possible the current trends might not only continue but even accelerate. Oil production falls yet the oil price doesn’t go up much, so more investors pull out.

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Which raises the question, how will it end? With a slow steady decline to obscurity? Or will the fossil fuel industry go out with a bang? While Blackrock and others might well be walking away, there’s still an awful lot of money tied up in the industry, so what happens if the bubble suddenly bursts? It could create the mother of all financial shocks.

Only time will tell. But I’ll have the popcorn ready just in case!

Posted in climate change, economics, efficiency, energy, environment, peak oil, politics, renewables, Shale Gas, Shale oil, sustainability, sustainable, Tar Sands | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Populists, corruption and disaster capitalism

daryanblog

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If I was to tell you about a newly installed government, whose minsters and party donors were making millions betting against their own country via offshore firms, who openly earn large sums in kickbacks for a few hours of supposed work (e.g. after dinner speaking fees, “consultancy fees”, etc.), a government that was now using a crisis to give out sweatheart deals to its cronies, you’d probably assume I’m talking about some tin pot dictatorship in the developing world. But no, I’m talking about the UK under Boris, which has got to count as the most corrupt in the country’s history. But its actually the new normal (you think this is bad, wait till they are in coalition with Farage!).

Recently Channel 4’s dispatches did a piece on “brexit millionaires and how many in the Tory party, or their donors, were cashing…

View original post 1,300 more words

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The dangers of mislabelling a product

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I came across an article the other week, from the BBC, which discusses the links between the UK’s civil and military nuclear energy programs. And hence why certain politicians, notably the Tories, have this perverse obsession with nuclear that seems to go against their entire political ideology. To the point where they are willing to throw piles of government money the way of the nuclear industry, push up electricity bills and punish renewables for its successes (so much so there’s now a serious risk of a total stop to UK renewables installations and the UK missing its climate change targets), all to clear a niche for their little darling.

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For example, their latest plan involves the UK taxpayer paying for any future nuclear plants upfront, including cost overruns, even thought the reactors will still be privately owned. The Tories (you know the ones who live in fear of Corbyn and his socialism) are literally proposing to socialise financial risks to the tune of tens of billions, while privatising profits. If you hear knocking noises, that’s Thatcher and Adam Smith rolling in their graves….and that’s before they hear about Boris “fuck business” becoming PM!

Now it has to be said that I’d disagree with the aforementioned article. The links between the military and civilian programmes are very limited. The large nuclear reactors planned in the UK use very different components to those used in submarines and are often contracted out to foreign companies (France’s Avera for example…so those privatised profits at taxpayers expense go to a French state owned company!). The UK also has a significant surplus of plutonium, so more of that is not needed.

There’s been an effort to promote small modular reactors, which would basically just be knock off versions of submarine reactors, but so far nobody’s biting, in part because the UK electricity companies know that SMR’s are just too darn expensive and uneconomic. And that’s the UK, there’s plenty of other countries around the world who have a large nuclear energy program and no nuclear weapons (or nuclear sub’s program), Sweden, Finland, Japan or Canada to name a few.

So when environmentalists make such links, they are being disingenuous. And more recently, promoters of nuclear energy have taken to creating a straw man that the only reason not to build reactors is down to bombs (this was basically the theme of Pandora’s promise) and thus, as there’s little actual link, there’s no good reason not to build them….well aside from the other ten or so reasons!

That said, welcome to the wonderful world of conservative logic, where facts become irrelevant and double speak is the norm. The point for conservatives is there’s an ideological link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. They are in favour of one (nuclear weapons), so it stands to reason they must be in favour of the other. No, it doesn’t make much sense. Nuclear power requires things they hate, large government subsidy (paid for by taxes) and direct government oversight (which alternatives to nuclear don’t require), but yet they still want it. For much they same reason they are in pro-life and pro-death penalty. Or strong on crime, except for those committed with guns.

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Of course this means that the aforementioned anti-nuclear types are just doing free advertising for the nuclear lobby when the go around making the link between bombs and powerplants. Conservatives hear that and say, good we’ll want more of that then.

But this also works in reverse, for example you’ve probably heard Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez describe themselves as “socialists who want to implement “Nordic style socialism” in America. Well there’s an interesting vblog post here which discusses the accuracy of this.

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Firstly is Sweden, or any other Nordic country, socialist? No, not according to the textbook definition of socialism (the means of production are owned by the state and the abolition of all private property). That doesn’t apply in Scandinavia, by most measures they are as capitalist and free market orientated as the US. By some measures, even more so.

For example, Corporation tax in the US is higher than it is in any Scandinavian country (although there are deductions you don’t get in Nordic countries). Norway’s top rate of income tax is actually less than America’s. And while Denmark and Sweden’s top rates are higher, they aren’t anywhere near as high as AOC’s proposed 70% rate (although again deductions apply in the US but not these countries and there are many other taxes not charged in the US).

Top Marginal Income Tax Tate (plus payroll taxes)

Finland meanwhile has some of the highest per-capita rates of gun ownership, Sweden’s healthcare system was part privatised sometime ago and Iceland and Denmark tend to be ranked above the US in terms of economic freedom. In terms of ease of doing business Denmark and Norway rank above the US (and in both cases Sweden’s not that far behind the US).

And equally it would be incorrect to label the policies proposed by AOC or Bernie as socialism. A more accurate explanation is that really the democrats are just returning to their more traditional centre left position. For years the conservative media have gone around labelling anyone to the left of John McCain as socialists, trying to smear them as allies of the Soviet union (even though now, ironically, it is they who are allies of the Russians!). Well now that label has stuck and become a badge of honour for many. And thus, you’ve now got lots of people going around saying, socialism yes please! 

Which is kind of funny, but while AoC and Bernie clearly aren’t socialists, there are plenty of people in America who are socialists or communist (and thus don’t see what the problem is with the Venezuelan government). And this mislabelling by conservatives gives them cover to dress up as democrats, even thought they are well to the left of anyone in the democratic party (or any centre left party in Europe for that matter).

A good example of this, is the hysteria from the right over AOC’s Green new deal. Listen to Fox News, and the junior Congresswoman from NY wants to ban cars, flying and hamburgers. She doesn’t, there’s nothing in the proposed bill that suggests that (which actually pre-dates her election). Instead the bill proposes a transition to less carbon intensive alternatives (you know like renewable energy, electric cars, etc.). In fact some on the left have actually criticised it for being too pro-capitalist.

However as I’ve often pointed out, such free market friendly solutions to climate change will only work if there’s sufficient time for them to be implemented. The danger for republicans is that by talking down more common sense, business friendly solutions, they are implying that the only solution to climate change are the harsh authoritarian measures. Which raises the risk that this is what some on the left will be calling for in a few years time. In fact some already are.

And in another example, gun control. Listen to the NRA and they’ll tell you guns are illegal in Europe and if the slightest regulation of guns is passed in the US, its a slippery slope to the gov’mint taking away your guns. But as I’ve pointed out before, this simply isn’t true. Yes some EU countries (notably the UK and Ireland) do have very strict gun laws, but we’re the exception rather than the rule (which probably has something to do with the NI troubles!). In the rest of the EU, while guns are heavily regulated (by way of example, a discussion of German gun laws here), they are certainly not illegal. In fact (as noted earlier) some EU countries have higher rates of gun ownership than the US, yet no spree shootings on a daily basis.

But by mis-selling the idea that gun regulations don’t work, that simply enforces the view of liberals that the only solution is repealing the 2nd amendment and banning guns altogether (if the kiddies can’t play with their toys quietly, then we’ll have to take them away). And that’s exactly what might well happen (a few years from now Republicans may look to Europe with envious eyes with regard to its “relaxed” gun laws).

So all in all there are good reasons not to mislabel things. Don’t say that the only reason to build nuclear reactors is nuclear bombs. Lots of conservatives might believe that, but its simply not true. You are simply providing them with free advertising. Calling everyone who is merely a little bit to the left of you as socialists who hate America, well if you ain’t careful that’s who you might one day end up getting as a president. And woe to the GOP if such a president comes to power, given the many precedence’s Trump is setting.

Posted in clean energy, climate change, defence, economics, environment, Global warming denial, news, nuclear, politics, power, renewables, sustainability, sustainable, technology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Grapes of Wrath part deux

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Ground water now represents a critical source of water worldwide

Fossil fuels are critical to many industries, but most especially to food production, hence why any interruption to their supply (in the absence of suitable alternatives) would be so devastating. However, there’s one fossil resource that often slips under the radar, but which is equally, if nor more critical to food production – fossil water.

In many parts of the world, water from underground aquifers now represents a key source of water, for both farming and drinking water. However this water is not a sustainable resource. The water has built up in these aquifers over many thousands of years. The recharge rate of fresh water in is a tiny fraction of what’s being taken out. So once its gone its gone. And as the documentary film “Pumped Dry” discusses, those water levels have been dropping alarming fast in recent years, raising fears about wells run dry, which would have devastating results.

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The Ogallala aquifer is one of the world’s largest sources of ground water…..

Case in point the Ogallala Aquifer in the US. If you’ve ever taken a plane flight over the Prairie states of America you might have noticed these clusters of dark circles dotting the landscape. Those are crops irrigated by a rotating arm feeding off water pumped up from the Ogallala aquifer below. This aquifer, formed when meltwater from glaciers and ice sheets seeped into gravel beds after the last ice age, runs from the Texas Panhandle 1,200 km’s north up to South Dakota. The depth of water varies, but it can be as deep as 350m in places…or at least it used to be. On average every year the US extracts about 2m of water from the Ogallala and rain water only puts back in about 10-20mm. Water levels have thus been dropping alarmingly in parts of the mid west, with individual wells starting to run dry.

While its true that we’ve been tapping the Ogallala since the 1950’s, there’s been an exponential grown in water extraction in recent years. Part of the problem is that nobody’s entirely sure how much is left. Keep in mind that the water levels vary in different parts of the aquifer (so it could run dry in one part of the basin even thought there’s plenty left elsewhere). And perhaps unsurprisingly its likely to the parts of the mid west most dependant on water from this aquifer (generally those at the southern end who can’t easily source water from anywhere else) which are using water the quickest and thus they’ll likely to be the first to run dry.

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Water levels in much of the Ogallala have been dropping recently, often in the locations with no other viable alternatives

The consequences of losing this aquifer are considerable. Farming in this region, which represents a significant proportion of America (and the world’s) food supply would cease. 82% of the drinking water in the effected states comes from this aquifer. So it would be a repeat of the dustbowl of the 1930’s on monumental scale. Elsewhere in America, the water levels in the central valley of California have been dropping so fast that the land itself is now sagging and has sunk by several metres. Its fallen so much that the canal systems are starting to break down (as they can’t force water to flow uphill).

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Ground water extract in the central valley of California is occurring at such a rate that the ground is actually sinking

And this is not just an American problem, as the aforementioned film discusses, there’s water resource problems in pretty much every continent on earth. Hence why some experts worry about future water wars. And there’s already been several water wars, ranging from unrest and low level conflict in various parts of the world (the film looks into protests and unrest in Peru and India) to water being a key cause of friction between different tribes and country’s (e.g. the central Asia water dispute). Conflict over water was a contributor to the genocide in Rwanda, Darfur and the Arab Israeli conflict.

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Possible future water wars and flash points

As I’ve speculated before, its entirely possible that future historians will look back at our time and call it the start of the great resource wars (ongoing conflict in Africa will be known as the Great African water wars, the gulf wars will be known as the 21st century oil wars 1, 2 and 3….4’s about to start btw).

Ultimately the problem here is that these valuable water resources are being squandered. Often a big part of the problem is there is no incentive for farmers to conserve so they often engage in wasteful farming practices Such as just leaving pumps running 24/7, not fixing leaky pipes, nor collecting water that drains away, not covering water storage tanks or channels (resulting in high rates of evaporative losses) and the contamination of aquifers with run off from fertilisers and pollution.

And in quite a number of water stressed regions they’ve been growing cash crops (rather than food crops) with a high water use rate in an environment where such water consumption rates simply can’t be sustained. And btw vegans have to take some of the blame here. As I pointed out in a prior post some vegan foods (such as coconut oil, Asparagus, Avocados) have a surprisingly high carbon footprint and high water demand.

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Certain crops come with a higher water demand than others, notably cash crops

There are possible solutions. Israel used to have all sorts of issues with squandered water resources, but has managed to turn the situation around, by focusing on better water conservation (i.e. cracking down on the poor practices mentioned earlier) as well as developing new water resources. But the problem is that to be effective there’s a need for a carrot and stick approach. But while governments are keen on using the carrot, they almost never apply the stick. Mention the aforementioned issues with draw down of US aquifers and the response you’ll usually get is, oh not to worry, we can just built more dams and rely more on surface water. To which the response is, no we can’t because we’ve already tried that.

Vast networks of dams have already been built across America (not to mention in country’s like, China, India or Morocco) and if anything they’ve made the situation worse. With plenty of water available and even less of an incentive to conserve, farmers started to engage in ever more wasteful farming practices. Which, when a drought hits and they have to go back to being entirely dependant on ground water, is part of the reason why these aquifers are coming under renewed pressure. And dams are expensive and create environmental problems all of their own. So much so that there’s actually a programme of dam removal ongoing in parts of the US.

And this looming crisis is creating water haves and have nots. Those with the money to buy working wells off other farmers, or who can afford to sink deeper and deeper wells can continue farming, often by sucking the water out from under the grounds of their neighbours. Meanwhile those who can’t afford such luxuries, often poorer subsistence farmers or those on small holdings, are driven out, creating a vicious cycle.

After all, in such an unregulated libertarian free for all, the best strategy for a farmer isn’t to conserve water but increase their water consumption, growing cash crops which will net enough revenue to allow him to afford to sink a deeper well and beggar his neighbours. But of course if everyone starts playing that game then everyone eventually loses.

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Depletion of ground water is increasing the levels of inequality worldwide

So really the solution here is some form of government intervention. Encouraging conservation of water, and the use of techniques such as drip irrigation, reuse of grey water, cracking down on water pollution, as well as concepts like rain water harvesting (or even so-called “fog catching”), can all help conserve water supplies. Swapping from cash crops with a high water use (in those parts of the world where water is scarce of course, there’s still plenty of places to grow such crops where this isn’t a problem), to crops which can be more easily sustained on less water. And domestic supplies too need to be conserved (which is more important in a drought, that rich people have manicured green lawns and a pool, or food?).

Another part of the aforementioned Israeli strategy was desalination, specifically using the reverse osmosis method. That said, desalination is fairly energy intensive and has an environmental impact (so only really an option after you’ve already got good water conservation measures in place).

And ultimately you need to start charging people the true cost of the water they use, with a particular premium put on ground water extraction.

Of course all of these measures make sense, but is easier said than done. The reason why politicians have happily spent billions on carrots yet not used the stick is they know how massively unpopular this would be. Going around telling farmers what they can and can’t grow, how to manage their farm and charging them for something they previously got for free isn’t going to go down well (to say the least!). Already such measures are proving to be deeply unpopular. If you represent a rural district, or depend on rural votes in some way shape or form, proposing such measures would be little short of political suicide.

Not to mention financial suicide. Given that the quickest way for a farmer forced to conserve water would be to swap from a cash crop with a high water demand to one with a lower water demand, but a lower revenue, this would have an immediate impact on that country or states finances, as tax revenue from those farmers would start to fall. And its not unusual for many politicians in these parts of the world to be invested in such cash crops themselves, or they are dependant on wealthy landowners bankrolling their campaigns.

Case in point, Ireland and the recent water charges fiasco. Now while Ireland hardly counts as a water scarce country (we get about 300 days of rain a year!), there are problems with the water management infrastructure. Its old, crumbling and to make matters worse nobody conserves water because its free. I mean some people just leave their taps running 24/7 in winter to stop the pipes freezing.

So the government decided it was going to bring in water meters and start charging people, which would both encourage conservation as well as providing revenue to fix and update the system. And I think you can guess what happened next. Yep, massive protests, with populists such as Sinn Fein jumping on the bandwagon and exploiting the issue (even thought at no point did they propose an alternative solution), till eventually it became such a poisonous issue that the governing parties just dropped the whole thing.

Of course the problem for politicians is that if you think people are angry now, how angry do you think they’ll be when their well runs dry and farmers lose their livelihood completely, cities have no drinking water and the economy of rural states collapses. One need only consider the political consequences of for example the Ogallala running dry. 74 electoral college votes, several state governorships, more than a dozen senate seats about a hundred in the house, which nearly all go republican every election. Can you imagine the GOP ever being able to win an election again without that block of support? Part of the job of being a politician is that sometimes you’ve got to make unpopular decisions that are in the best interest of the country.

In the mean time we the public need to also start factoring this in to our buying habits. So I’d advise being a bit more selective about what foods you eat, or more precisely from where in the world they come from (would advise against buying Asparagus from Peru or Californian wine for example). This might well create the necessary financial pressure to drive change.

Posted in climate change, economics, environment, politics, sustainability, sustainable, technology, water scams | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments