What the Dickens are they up too



I’ve long accused the Tories of trying to take the UK back to the Victorian era. However, already the UK is starting to resemble a Dickensian novel, where the poor are downtrotten and robber baron fat cats run amok, unchecked by government.

An Englishman’s home…is his landlord’s castle

Consider a recent report, which described how one third of those renting property in the UK are living in homes that fail basic health and safety standards. And more often than not it is those on lower incomes that are the most likely to experience these problems. Why don’t they report these rogue landlords? Because given that UK laws favour the landlord, nothing generally happens, other than you getting evicted.

Rogue_landlords Some examples of the appalling conditions UK tenants are forced to put up with…and still pay rent!

Should you ask, well why don’t they just go out and…

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Raw water and anti-science


Future historians are not going to be kind to us, frankly they are going to have a field day. Naturally things like Trump, brexit and climate change denial will figure highly. And the left’s response? Oprah for president? Seriously? Your answer to Trump is an anti-atheist, anti-vaccine, woo pedaller? Or in the UK they propose, Corbyn, a man who can’t control his own party, hasn’t changed his opinion on anything since 1963 (nor his wardrobe) and is so old there’s a 1 in 10 chance he might not wake up every time he nods off for a nap.

But its often surprisingly little things that make it into the history books. For example, the gladiators of Rome. I suspect that any Roman would be appalled to know that this is how we remember his civilisation. He’d probably point out that bread and circuses, well the bread bit was arguably more important and the “circuses” refereed to cheap entertainment, which included chariot races in the Circus Maximus (gladiator fights took place at the much smaller Colosseum down the road), street performers and theatre. And real gladiator fights weren’t quite as bloody as is portrayed in movies. Its equivalent to saying the only entertainment in America is NASCAR and pro-wrestling. Of course, the historian would counter by pointing out that the mere fact that such gladiatorial fights took place at all and that some significant portion of the population would show up to see them (even if it was only a minority), tells a lot about Roman society and hints at the reasons for Rome’s eventual decline.

So it is for this reason I despair when I hear about the latest health craze in America, raw water. And why I have a bad feeling that this is one of those things a future historian will make a big deal about. I mean when I first heard about it I assumed they were taking the piss.


A raw water guru, he will no longer allow scientific indoctrination to sap and impurify all of his precious bodily fluids

The raw water movement, who will no doubt be getting a plug on Oprah shortly, claim that unsterilised water taken from streams is somehow better than the stuff out of the tap (which is controlled by the gov’mint) or regular bottled water (which comes from regulated sources, such as a spring). And they are charging outrageous amounts for the stuff.

To say this is dumb is something of an understatement. One of the great achievements of our time has been clean drinking water. As a hiker I know this more than most as I’m often forced to use “raw water” on long distance trips. And yes, its nice to drink water fresh out of a mountain stream….until you climb a bit further up the hill and find a dead sheep floating in it! The fact is, if you are doing a long distance, multi-day hike you’ve no choice but to scavenge what water you can and make do.


Exactly what level of precautions you should take depends on the circumstances. If you are in the UK, no more than a day or two’s walk from a road (or a mobile phone signal) and with access to NHS medical care, you can probably be a bit less cautious. Applying some basic common sense to where you take your water from and perhaps boiling anything you aren’t sure about should suffice (being Irish, I tend to make a lot of tea, so boiling water tends to be a necessity anyways).

Being a bit weather wise can also be important. Ironically in the British Isles when there’s been heavy rain can be the time its hardest to get good water. Given that most of the hills are covered in peat bogs and given that peat has a relatively low ph value, it means that in heavy rain streams can be full of peat sediment, which will make the water mildly acidic and contaminated in a way where simple boiling won’t suffice (that said, you can always collect rain water with an empty cooking pot overnight). A point I bring up because, a word from the wise, if you ever go hillwalking in the British Isles across bogs, be sure to wash your boots afterwards (otherwise the exposure to peat will destroy them). And I can’t help but notice how one of these “raw water” quacks is shown taking water from a boggy stream (I literally won’t use that water to wash my boots).

On a longer distance hike, in situations where the water is more likely to be contaminated (glacier fed water sources can be a particular problem), where the distance to safety is longer or the level of medical care isn’t as good (and thus the consequences of getting ill are going to be a lot more serious), you might want to take further precautions. Carrying a filtration kit or water sterilisation tablets is a must. And if you are part of a larger group, having perhaps some appropriate antibiotics to hand might be a good idea.

So this “raw water” craze seems to be driven by people who are woefully poorly informed about the realities of basic wilderness survival. In a city the stuff out of the tap is fine (well unless you live in Flint!). But doesn’t tap water contain all sorts of chemicals? Yes and so does raw water, or mineral water for that matter. Let’s be clear, when someone says “minerals” they mean chemicals. The only difference is that with tap water the levels are carefully controlled and regulated. With bottled water, it can be a bit less controlled, but they do at least sterilise it. Raw water by contrast is unregulated and unsterilised. Frankly you’d be safer drinking your own urine…although I’d best be careful or some quack will start selling that!

There is a way you can get pure water that has no chemicals or contamination. In laboratories we often used ultra purified water (I used to use as a coolant for my laser). But don’t drink it whatever you do, it tastes awful. Of course strictly speaking it has no taste (its just hydrogen and oxygen which are both tasteless), but the human body doesn’t really know how to handle something that’s tasteless, so it can provoke a gag reflect (so it “tastes” horrible to some people or even makes them throw up).

Now there is a legitimate argument here to be had about the costs and environmental impact of water purification and fluoridation. Cleaning up water and treating it does have an environmental impact, it costs money and it has a carbon footprint. And keep in mind that in the UK about 90% of this water is literally flushed away, as the bulk of the water supply is used for toilet flushing, washing, industrial processes or is lost via leaks in a Victorian era pipe network (maintained by private companies who still use dosing rods!). Only about 10% of the water actually gets used for cooking and drinking. So one has to question do we really need to purify and fluoridate all of that water to this high standard if the majority of it is just going to be flushed away.

Of course there is a solution, which is increasingly being applied, that of grey water (basically water recycled within the building or collected rain water), which can be used for non-hygiene related uses, limiting treated tap water to just the purposes that it is required for.


And while there is no doubt about the benefits of fluoridation, those benefits are fairly limited. In essence we have to ask is a modest increase in water treatment costs cancelled out by a modest positive in terms of public health (and I’d argue its worth the trade off). But this is more an argument about public utilities, rather than an individual consideration on health. By contrast bottled water amounts to argue in favour of an order of magnitude increase in costs and environmental impact for no describable health benefits (at least for those of us lucky enough to live in a country with good drinking water). And raw water amounts to abandoning all logic and reasoning all together and going for a lot of wishy washy woo……plus dysentery and cholera!

All in all, this raw water craze, much like other fad’s, climate denial or anti-vaccine beliefs does hint at something very rotten in our society. I have little doubt in a history book a few hundred years from now, in a chapter labelled “reasons for the collapse of western civilisation” under the heading “growing scientific illiteracy” these will all get a mention.

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2017 a year in review: The death of coal

2017 might have been a bit of rotten year all round, but it was good year for renewable energy. The UK recorded a record low in terms of carbon intensity, with an average value of 233 gCO2/kWh (against a historical level of about 450 gCO2/kWh). And several key Rubicon’s were crossed this year. In April, for the first time since the industrial revolution, the country went a day without coal. In May solar outperformed coal. And the price of offshore wind fell below that of nuclear power.


Figure 1: UK electricity mix, fossil fuel and “low carbon” (i.e. nuclear, renewables, etc.). 2017 saw the majority of energy coming from low carbon sources rather than fossil fuels for the first time ever [Carbon brief, 2018]

And as regular readers of this blog will note, this is not because of any new pro-renewable policy by the Tories. Instead its occurred despite government attempts to thwart the renewable energy industry. The Tories have spent the last two years acting like Wile Coyote trying to stop the road runner, failing at every turn and ending up with a 100 ton rock falling on them. And Trump and the Republicans attics have had similar comic results. Certainly yes, the pace of the energy transition has been slowed down by their actions but it certainly hasn’t been stopped.


Figure 2: The UK coal industry is in a death spiral…literally [Carbonbrief, 2018]

And worldwide, the latest IEA energy statistics show similar trends worldwide. While overall energy consumption and fossil fuel consumption is still growing, that rate has slowed considerably. Furthermore, only counting OECD countries, there has been a decline, both in overall energy use and in fossil fuel use since 2010. Now while some of this can be explained by sluggish economic growth, but mostly it is down to improvements in energy efficiency standards (of the sorts the brexiters dislike) means there is simply less of a demand for energy in OECD countries. Also it is now clear that the renewable energy industries has turned a corner and has gone mainstream. As I mentioned in a prior post, it has seen record growth levels in recent years and falling costs.


Figure 3: Energy consumption (TPES) for OECD countries between 1971 & 2016 [IEA, 2017]

And, as in the UK, the big loser worldwide has been coal. Coal ain’t king anymore. Overall its slumped, with an 11% drop in production over the last 3 years. And that rate of decline appears to be accelerating if anything. While competition with renewables is part of the problem, as recent figures suggest coal will struggle to remain price competitive, even in the absence of subsidies (remembering that fossil fuels are also heavily dependant on subsidy). But natural gas is also cheaper than coal as well.


Figure 4: World wide coal production [IEA, 2017]


Figure 5: Levelised cost of energy, without subsidies [Lazard, Dec 2016]

The oil and gas industry has had a bit of a mixed last few years. On the one hand, yes they are kicking coal in the shins. There’s been some growth in the industry and oil prices, while low, they are above historical levels (adjusting for inflation). However said growth has been sluggish and very limited (and in truth a lot of it relates to the transition from coal to gas). And, as I discussed in a prior post their CAPEX expenditure has skyrocketed. Currently the oil industry is showing a rate of return on investment that averages out at 10%, against the more historical margin of 20-30%. In short, they are having to run faster and faster just to stand still.


Figure 6: Historic oil prices adjusted for inflation [Macrotrends, 2017]

And there appears to be not much in the way of light at the end of the tunnel for the fossil fuel industry. Overall, in its 2017 world energy outlook, the IEA still expects further economic growth (in line with expected population growth) to mean energy demand will continue to grow worldwide, but at a much slower pace. But within OECD countries it will be relatively flat. While they anticipate fossil fuels will still dominate the energy industry, they also expect any growth in consumption to be much more gradual, probably no higher than 0.8% growth per year. And again, demand for fossil fuels will likely drop within OECD countries.


Figure 7: The IEA’s WEO estimated mix of electricity production by 2040 [IEA, WEO 2017]

By 2040, the IEA expect at least 40% of electricity worldwide to come from renewables, with coal virtually collapsing to negligible levels. And they also expect electricity to increasingly become one of the main components of final energy consumption, particularly given the recent growth in electric cars. And to be honest, I’d argue that if anything the IEA is underestimating renewables. As an organisation, they’ve repeatedly been behind the curve when it comes to predicting renewables growth (I still recall someone from the IEA saying trying to get above 40% renewables in Scotland was quote “stupid”…. Scotland is currently averaging at about 60% from renewables).

Now while its still a case of doing well, but we need to do better, even so all of this is going to have a number of significant of long term implications. Firstly, the link between economic growth, GDP and energy consumption has clearly changed. There’s still some correlation between the two, but its no longer as strong and the energy component doesn’t have to come from fossil fuels anymore. I recall back in the 2000’s how one economists went so far as to suggest that economic growth was IMPOSSIBLE without continued growth in fossil fuels. And thus, the position of treehuggers promoting renewables was to commit the West to economic collapse, poverty and soviet style food queues. LOL!

Of course this green stuff = communism conspiracy theory still holds sway with many conservatives, hence the strongly anti-environment stance adopted by the Republicans and the Tory party. Although as someone who actually knows renewable energy exec’s, I can tell you commie’s they ain’t. Most I know drive around in a Lexus (or if they really want to match the stereotype, a Tesla) and live in a large house…with a large spouse. They saw an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of an industry with a large future growth potential and they took advantage of that. That, I think you’ll, find is how “capitalism” works. Sticking with outdated policies long after the market has moved on, as is the current policy for Trump (with coal) or the Tories (with nuclear), well that’s kind of what communism looks like.

And it also means that by trying to prop up coal (or in the case of the UK, nuclear) governments are just delaying the inevitable. When Trump promised all of those coal miners they’d get their jobs back, he was conning them on a massive scale. Not only is that impossible (indeed the coal industry is now complaining that Trump’s tax bill is going to screw them over), as coal will struggle to compete with renewables (even if he pulls out of the Paris accords), but they are also competing with natural gas. Effectively the only way that the oil and gas industry can grow now is by eating the coal industry’s lunch. And that’s basically been what the natural gas industry has been doing for the last couple of years.

Also the coal miners are, if you’ll pardon the pun, the canaries in the coal mine. They are seeing the impact of these changes to the energy industry first. But eventually, these changes will spread to the oil and gas industry as well. Continuing energy efficiency improvements, a growing market share for renewables and disruptive technologies like electric cars, will all make the high levels of CAPEX within oil and gas simply unsustainable. An oil price rise could help, although that would have the negative impact of making renewables an even more attractive option.

And lower profits and fossil fuels becoming a more risky investment also has financial implications. Pension funds have long been heavy investors in oil and gas as they see it as a “sure thing” which delivers good returns. If that should change (and its already starting to happen) and they jump ship and invest in renewables instead, then that’s a large chuck of the oil and gas industries investment capital gone.

So at some point a process of “rationalisation” (read sacking people) will start to sweep through the oil and gas industry. There is little point in a company spending billions finding oil you are never going to drill, nor drilling for oil when you are going to lose money on every barrel you pump. So the industry will probably start to downsize itself to match future projected demand, much as the coal industry started to do a few decades ago. In short, now would not be a good time to be starting a career in the oil and gas industry. How will you address a petroleum geologist in a few years time?Could I get fries with that?”.


Figure 8: Deaths per TWh by energy industry [media matters, 2013]

So all that Trump (or the Tories) are doing is delaying the inevitable. If you actually want to help impoverished miners in West Virginia, how about instead of giving them false hope, invest in re-training programmes, so they can get jobs in other emerging industries… such as the renewable energy industry. And instead of blocking renewable energy, encourage it (preferably in places like West Virginia). Renewables has been consistently a much more effective job creator than coal, oil or gas. As well as being a safer industry to work in, with better pay.

For, as I noted earlier, while renewables are growing rapidly and its clear this isn’t some fad that will run its course and then die off again (like bitcoin). Renewables are still not growing nearly fast enough to prevent dangerous climate change.

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The Great Tax Experiment


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At the core of the republicans tax plan is the notion that if they cut taxes for the wealthy, there will be a trickle down effect and we’ll all be better off. But when you ask for any hard evidence of this, they’ll usually go quiet for a bit, mumble something about Reagan (who, as I discussed in a prior post put uptaxes, oversaw three recessions as well as the biggest decline in real wages in history), then change the subject.

Well actually, as Richard Reich points out, we’ve actually been conducting a tax experiment in the US going back over many years now. He compares the state of economies like California (which has relatively high state taxes) to economies like Texas and Kansas (who have very low taxes). And suffice to say, the results of this “experimentare at odds with everything that conservatives say…

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Christmas time news round up


I’ve been away for most of the Christmas/New Year period, so I thought I’d do a round up of somethings that caught my eye over the last month….

The block


Roy Moore losing the special senate election in Alabama to Doug Jones was certainly welcome news. However the fact still remains that 650,436 voters thought having a kiddy fiddler as a senator was okay with them. Indeed such was the narrow margin of his loss, Mr Snowflake is now appealing the result and calling for a re-vote. One assumes the state motto of Alabama should really be “Pedo’s welcome” and the state mascot should be Pennywise from IT. If Gary Glitter ever gets out of jail, we know where we can send him.

And the bulk of those who voted for him would be self described “value voters” (try not to laugh), who also voted…

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The sadopopulist agenda behind brexit


The EU looked on last week with incredulity and disbelief, as an agreement they’d thrashed out with Theresa May, which would have settled the first round of brexit talks was torpedoed at the eleventh hour, apparently by the DUP, a small fringe party in Northern Ireland. As I’ve mentioned in a prior post, the UK’s reputation is taking a battering from these brexit talks. To many in the EU it seems like the country is unable to make any sort of decision, even when you’ve got the PM in the room (remind me, when exactly did we elect Arlene Foster as PM?). As one German newspaper put it “Brexit is the biggest political nonsense since the Roman Emperor Caligula decided to appoint his favourite horse as consul”.

david-davis The EU showed up for talks on day one with well thumbed piles of documents, the British have one…

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Shameless hypocrisy and the cult of fantasy


Well you do have to hand it to the republicans. If you are going to tell a lie or con someone, better to go for the big con. And so we have their tax plan, that will give billionaires a massive tax cut, yet put up the taxes on middle income Americans (after a brief interlude of 4 years). At the same time it will blow a massive hole in the US government budget, causing the deficit to skyrocket.

dfe79bd2-d709-11e7-bbec-65aecb903036-1536x1048 A pair of liberals (Jeff Sessions and some chicken little called Paul Ryan) spread fake news about the dangers of deficit spending

Exactly how much higher the US deficit will rise to is unclear, some say $1 trillion another report estimates $1.7 trillion (against a current deficit of $440 billion, so a doubling or quadrupling of the deficit). Suffice to say this makes a mockery of the GOP mantra

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