Thursday, 19 February 2015

Odds and ends

Hydrogen has been an object of some research recently.

It is no magic bullet. Pres. Bush did it a great disservice by presenting it as the answer to the USA's energy problems many years ago. The expectation has stuck, though the aspiration was always highly suspect.

But R&D has continued, and there are numerous developments which suggest that creative approaches to energy requirements can (and already do) result in positive results for the climate.

In case anyone is wondering, I don't have the historic expertise of a Joe Romm, but I do think his prejudices are based on assumptions which no longer apply, in both engineering and sustainability terms. So here it is: the time has come to review the case for hydrogen within the greater energy debate and place it in context.

There are several reasons for doing this, but foremost is the recent announcement that the Tokyo Olympic village will, post Olympics, become a 'Hydrogen Town'. This is (broadly) an extended community whose varied energy needs are met primarily by hydrogen. Japan has already run a similar pilot project, in Fukuoka. There is an extensive plan for a project in Ulsan, Korea.

Alongside these civic developments are important ones in industry - Hyundai and Toyota both have hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs, or FCEVs) in production. California (along with many European countries) is developing a hydrogen fuel network - albeit a bit slowly. But before we get carried away, this blog, being focussed on cars, makes relevant points in a nice style, pro and con, about using hydrogen instead of Gasoline (petrol) or batteries.

Don't be misled into thinking I am promoting hydrogen as a 'better solution' than renewable energy as things stand. But it seems clear to me that many promising and imaginative developments already exist which demonstrate the potential of using it into the future.

There are several features of hydrogen which I particularly like. 

First, assuming a renewable energy source to hydrolyse it from water, it is amazingly 'clean' in environmental terms. It has been observed that some people may resist 'hydrogen' because of a historic (and incorrect) association with hydrogen bombs. If this refers to you, please be clear, there is no connection whatsoever. Hydrogen as an energy storage and usage solution is incredibly clean and has no link with nuclear tech.

Second, it is a scaleable solution. Not only can factories produce it, or utility-scale energy companies, but domestic-scale plant is already available; that is, a solar or wind installation which can hydrolyse, store, distribute and manage it for an individual property. It is not cheap (yet), but as an off-grid, isolated community or property solution, it offers autonomy from dependence on an unreliable supply chain.

Third, it is flexible. It can be used to heat homes, power cars, drive trains or power stations, generate electricity or whatever.

Fourth, it is often generated from excess capacity in other systems, whether it is an industrial process or excess generated capacity of renewable resources. In other words, rather than being seen as an alternative to these, it should more properly be viewed as an 'additional bonus', in the sense that energy which has been generated but would otherwise be lost to the system ('dumped') can instead be stored in a readily useable form.

The difficulties I do have with hydrogen is that a great deal is already created and almost all of it is already processed and used, for example, in the UK, by BOC. Increasing hydrogen generation to point where it makes a difference to the global energy mix requires a very large uptake in technologies and opportunity realisation. This concern feeds into a more practical concern about current and future cost of energy, which cannot be ignored since it is on a scale which affects national economies.

The observant reader will note that there are projects in the Far East, Europe, Canada, but not in oil-rich countries like the UAE. The USA is an anomaly in that present needs are being met cheaply, but future energy security is a real issue of concern for planners and long-term strategists. There is certainly a limited will to expend resources in catching up with other countries, though should the technology and solutions prove viable, no doubt the USA will catch up rapidly.

My final though might properly be included much higher up the article, but for commercial reasons I am reluctant to discuss this in detail. The implementation of hydrogen fuel cells into rail infrastructure could be one of the more interesting, viable and sustainable solutions of all, but of this, more (maybe) later.

Friday, 16 January 2015

What's going on?

There's no accounting for folk. At the start of 2014, give or take, there were 13,000 paid-up members of the Green Party in England and Wales (The autonomous parties in Scotland and Northern Ireland are effectively the same party, with the same principles, their existence being in part a function of the principles of decentralisation and local engagement).

One of the reasons I joined up, apart from the very obvious one that this was the only political organisation the UK which takes climate change seriously enough to incorporate it into most parts of its manifesto, was that by September 2014 the party had grown to over 20,000 members and was polling better than previously - around 4-5% in the national polls.

During the time that I've been involved, helping out with the local group with PR and fundraising, the party has grown steadily, and opinion polls have rated it anywhere from 5 to 10% on various occasions.

Then, earlier this week, on National TV News, there was coverage of the discussion in Parliament over the protocols for the leadership debates due to be aired in the lead-up to the General Election in May. David Cameron had said he would participate unless the Greens were represented, as a party which was often polling above the Liberal Democrats, who are a part of the current Government, and have representation at all political levels.

This was a response to the statements first by the BBC then OFCOM, that the Green party was a minority group and therefore didn't justify the same rights of coverage as the 'major' parties, which include both the Lib Dems and UKIP.

The public response has been somewhat unpredictable to say the least. We aren't renowned for our political engagement in the UK - only a very small percentage of the population is a member of a political party compared to 50 years ago, and a long tradition of disgust and disenfranchisement has left many indifferent to the process.

Over the last two-and-a-half days more than 7,000 people have become members of the Green Party. So many that the party's website has crashed several times (probably slowing the rate of growth).
On Wednesday, after the TV coverage, more than 2,000 signed up. Yesterday, more than 3,500 joined.

As of 2:40pm today, the number of people who are members of the Green party of England and Wales is just short of 40,000, a number almost certain to be exceeded by day's end. On Wednesday, the Scottish and Northern Irish groups counted around 8,350 members (three times as many as in early 2014). It is likely that combined membership will exceed 50,000 by the end of the week.

You may not be impressed by these numbers, but to place them in context, there was a large surge of membership last year for UKIP (which has since slowed), and it currently has a bit less than 42,000 members. The Lib Dems have around 44,500 members (though it is known that some of these may be lapsed memberships which are still being counted).

Which all means that where, just a year ago, there were only two-and-a-half political shades of grey in the UK spectrum, today there are six parties who are likely to have an impact on our next Government and its structure and policies. Four are Grey, one is Scottish (the SNP has massively increased membership in the wale of the Scottish independence referendum, to almost 100,000 members), the third is a bright shade of Green.

One of the absolute essentials to saving the planet in some form of civilised sustainability is that politicians do more than pay lip service to green issues. This is a change which has to happen now, if we are to have a future which our children can look forward to:

It's no longer sufficient to simply whinge about how everything is going to pot and why doesn't someone do something about it. Many people are working hard to plan for a more sustainable future and at many levels good work goes on. But this is a big problem which needs big responses and only politics (and the corporates) can deliver on these levels. In order to gain leverage to promote action by politicians we need them to realise that inaction will cost them votes. The great the number of obviously environmentally concerned voters there are, the better the chance that change will occur.

By joining a local political group, whether or not it's a Green party, you are registering your engagement and increasing the value of the principles which you wish to see pushed up the agenda. It's another thing we as people can do to move collectively towards greater sustainability. So why not do it?

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

What I have (not) been doing

Both of my regular readers will have noticed the paucity of commentary here in the past several weeks. There are a number of causal factors, but the main one is that I have been a bit busy doing other things, like this:

Since we're at the year end and such things have associated traditions, I thought it would be a chance to catch up with what has been going on during the year and what I have done to 'do my bit'. The most obvious change is an increase in my level of direct political engagement. 

For several years it has been easy enough to feel engaged in the process of advocating for action on climate change by blogging and commenting on blogs and media, but the motivation to continue with this has declined a bit, because there are now so many good blogs, with so much good science, that one's own voice tends to get lost in the maelstrom. The other aspect is that in the UK, while there is still some crass denial, especially amongst the government, and thus some advocacy, in particular to combat the pernicious GWPF, by and large the argument seems to have settled into a broad acceptance not only of the facts of AGW but also of the need to actually do something about it.

In September, I finally cracked. During the course of my work as a renewable energy consultant I deal on an every day basis with people's uncertainty about climate change science, and of course their uncertainty about the viability of renewable energy. As a result of this I sensed a change in perception of our global problems and local solutions over time. A friend in the USA declared the intention to go to the Climate Action March in New York and, being a sympathetic type, I thought it was about time I did my bit, so went to Knaresborough. 

That day was transformative because of chance. The march had gathered some supporters but not a large contingent, and there were suggestions that it should be abandoned. I stood on a park bench and said something about why I was there and that I was going to go to the town hall and make my point in solidarity with others around the world. Everyone cheered, then we all marched down the road, disrupted the traffic in a polite, British way, and made a lot of noise, in a very un-British way. Even the drivers going by were appreciative and supportive and everyone who went along seemed to have a good time. Most importantly, we made our point there and then.

This made me realise that there was still work to be done: plenty of people were concerned about action on climate change, but there seemed to be a shortage of leadership and purpose. A few words and some rhetoric later, instead of a follower, I had become a leader of the march. Inspiring me in part were two people from the local Green Party who had turned up with several others to make their voices heard, along with my NY chum who had an altogether more extravagant experience on the day. Within the week I joined the Green Party of England and Wales.

Currently I am the local group's press and publicity and fundraising officer and may stand as a paper candidate in the local elections in 2015. I'm also giving input to the central party's policy discussions on defence and energy (two separate strands, not one). So now I am busy on the facebook page I generated, writing for the local press, and will shortly be blogging elsewhere for the local group. Our (small) membership has grown over 60% since September, but there is a lot of work to do.

This has been my most relevant action during 2014. Engagement in AGW and the ethics of climate and the environment has become more focussed on politics, and more direct. This, along with the plans for the next few months, will probably keep me from blogging more than occasionally here, and more often contributing here: .

Enough about me and the blog. Have a jolly nice time over the next few days of the holiday, and please accept my best wishes for you and yours in 2015. I'll catch up with you later.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

is Doomerism doomed?

Republicans take over the running of the USA in yesterday's mid-terms and no doubt there will be those who feel that this is it; the beginning of the end.

Any chance that the USA will contribute meaningfully and positively to next year's Climate Summit, already identified as being crucial to the well-being of us and our planet, is probably vanishing pretty fast. And without strong positive input from the USA, there isn't likely to be unilateral movement from other key players in the climate policy debate.

A lot of people are already pretty downbeat about where humanity is going vis-a -vis the planet and Nature, and this is more fuel to the fire of underlying doom-mongering, that the end of civilization as we know it has come a step closer, a step sooner.

It's good that lots of people are now aware of the many issues which arise in relation to a changing climate and are worried about what the future might bring. It's less good when people promote the idea that we might as well give up any hope of progress and work on the basis that we are, fundamentally and inevitably, fucked.

This isn't just because of the 'negative waves' which rebound from such consciousness, though. There is a very tricky problem, which connects environmental doomerism to its political antithesis, objectivist libertarianism.

The assumption of many people who write, blog or produce journalistic pieces on Climate is that the readers all agree and understand that the future which is being projected in social terms is self-evidently 'Bad', or 'Evil', or otherwise morally unacceptable. Speaking personally, I find it enormously worrying that the human victims of climate change around the world are barely considered in considerations of many bloggers and writers, when in the end, the consequences of an unmitigated warming of the planet will be comparable to the Holocaust (there, I said it).

The problem is, that whilst our 'friends' and online audience will agree with us that the moral implications are appalling, it is likely that our opponents will be inclined to think the complete opposite. How could this be?

You need to understand the underlying 'vision' of Randian and Objectivist Libertarian Philosophy. The ideal society envisioned by these world-views is one in which a minority (the meritocratic plutocracy of intellectuals - consider the conflicts there) is the only meaningful object of value and benefit, at the cost of the unwashed, illiterate, worthless majority. The Libertarian world exists to satisfy the needs of the empowered individual, to permit that person's liberty to pursue meaningful intellectual activity and behave responsibly in making decisions which impact on others (without giving those ignorant others a say in what they think is good for them).

So, a world of the near future in which millions of Africans, Asians, South Americans, Poor people, vulnerable populations, all are at great risk, and likely to suffer and die, is not necessarily a 'bad thing'. Because it means there is more to go round for the deserving/empowered/justified. Because it means that the 'natural order' of society as envisioned by the unspeakable Rand may come to pass.

Under these conditions, it's very hard to see what the point of being 'doomerist' could possibly be. Your opponents are singing from a fundamentally different song-sheet, and your natural allies, who push for mitigation and adaptation to preserve and protect future generations, well, they just get depressed.

Maybe the mid-terms are just more evidence that we are too stupid to save ourselves from the 'big crash'. Maybe it is clear that Business As Usual has too much inertia to stop it. But this is not going to stop me for fighting for a better, more just, more equitable, more sustainable world. I'm going to keep fighting for this in whatever small ways I can. Because it is the right thing to do.

You are likely, reading this, to agree with me that the kind of future scenarios painted in the IPCC summary report are things we don't want to happen, that are morally unacceptable. So, what do you want to do about it? If its wrong, you can choose either to give up and hope it doesn't hurt too much when it comes, or perhaps imagine that you will somehow miraculously find the means or luck to survive the coming breakdown of civilization and be part of a new, better re-creation of the Next Social Order, or you can stand up for your principles and say to yourself; "No, this is wrong, and I'm going to fight it. I'll write to my local press and TV stations, my politicians and representatives. I'll be active in local environmental campaigns and, if necessary, stand in the streets and shout about injustice. I'll campaign for better answers and make as much damn noise as I can make."

Sometimes, the realities of politics, human society, human nature, come and bite us on the ankles. Even more reason to get back up, dust ourselves down, and get on with what we believe must be done.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Do I have Ebola Virus or a Hangover?

I feel hot. my head aches, I'm sweating, my muscles and joints ache, my throat is sore, and I can't seem to move. Am I sick?

The planet is warmer than it used to be, has heavily polluted oceans and atmosphere, is experiencing sea-level rise and Arctic sea-ice decline, is losing forests and biodiversity, seems to be experiencing more extremes of weather (in impact, if nothing else). Is it sick?

There are good reasons why doctors accumulate evidence before proceeding to diagnosis, even while sometimes treating symptoms. Two things are important: context and range of symptoms.

Why context? Take the first example. If I've been working as a nurse in a hospital in Liberia and I exhibit the symptoms described, one potential diagnosis which requires evaluation is the Ebola virus. Which would be bad.

On the other hand, if I played rugby yesterday in heavy rain, in the scrum, drank ten pints of beer afterwards during a lively singalong in the clubhouse, then walked home, and haven't been anywhere near West Africa or anyone who has been there recently, I might well describe the same symptoms to my doctor, but the diagnosis is most likely to be that a) I'm hung over, b) I'm too old to play serious rugby in the scrum and should know better - how do I expect my body to react? and c) Even if you are too drunk to feel it, walking home in just a shirt in forty degrees may have stimulated a reaction.

It is not just important to look for the context, it is essential. To answer the question 'why' requires proper investigation.

Why range? If I describe just one of those symptoms, say a sore throat, with none of the others, there could be several explanations or diagnoses, but hundreds can be eliminated because the symptom is not tied to any others. A sore throat and a headache might suggest a head cold. Add a temperature and aching muscles, perhaps influenza. Even with a large range of symptoms, placed into a context, a likely explanation is reasonably easy to find.

So, to Climate and the internet. There are very good reasons why it is important to gather evidence for a range of global conditions before attempting a diagnosis. Isolating one element is not very helpful, and cannot provide enough information on which to make any secure conclusions. One way to check out the 'records' is to use the IPCC assessment summaries, since they provide a reduction to readable size of a huge amount of very diverse information.

But you will very often see people arguing about, for example, whether the global temperature record is reliable, or if it is showing that the world is warming, or if the physics of AGW is a reasonable explanation. The reason that many of these people try to focus a reader's attention on any one of the possible 'problems' with the world and attempt to cast doubt on it's validity is because anyone who looks at the big picture cannot possibly be fooled.

As soon as anyone with a reasonable degree of intelligence looks at the range of evidence- the symptoms of the health of the world's natural and human systems - it becomes clear that there are a lot of bad signs in all sorts of places, that there are long-term persistent trends in many diverse measurements (the distribution of beetles, the volume of Arctic sea ice, global ocean temperatures, etc etc) -in other words, that the World is sick.

So it is extremely rare to see any genuine 'climate sceptic' looking at all the evidence. Or any of the evidence. Most often, what you will see is a recycled meme picked up second hand and spouted without thought as demonstration (as often as not) of a person's political or metaphysical world-view (okay, I'm being generous here).

So here is a suggestion. When you read a comment stream or argument on the web, ask yourself - is there more than one 'symptom' at question, or a 'single issue' focus? If someone is insisting on dealing with a specific 'fact' (often, these are actually false anyway), ask yourself (or them) whether they are seeing the big picture.

It's not about whether this year is warmer than last year in Alaska, or whether there is more or less ice than the long-term average this year in the Arctic, or whether any one scientist or another is correct. It is, and you know it is, much, much bigger than this.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Emergent Properties of World Views

One of the strange things about politics is that a large proportion of the voting populus seem to make voting decisions based on intuition and 'broad understanding', which is like ignorance, but with a better accent. 

This doesn't make voters dumb - just (frequently) indifferent. Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that people learn fairly early on where their 'interests' lie, and where their own world view coincides with the range on offer in their local political spectrum and, having established whether they are more or less liberal or society-oriented, conservative or libertarian, in their morals, standards, ethics and norms, they then stick with their decisions and go for what works for them. On the assumption that the real differences between political ideologies play out in action terms as smallish differences, we tend to get lazy and, eventually, fixed in our ways.

Having an interest in being a bit more rational than this, relying on intuition to guide my choice of representative, I thought it would be worth laying down a few 'policy guidelines' and working out where my actual knowledge and understanding take me in terms of who to support. So, today's post lays out a couple of thoughts about each of a number of issues, then reaches a conclusion about what this implies about 'my' politics.

Energy: pro-renewables, anti-fossil, dubious about nukes and scathing about  fracking.

Climate change: mitigation and adaptation are real and present necessities for future well-being.

Wealth: Each of us should be able to enjoy the benefits of our labours and sustain ourselves and families on a living wage. Taxation should be proportional to earnings. Corporate welfare (profit) should be subservient to general welfare (health, well-being, pollution, etc.). 

Animals & Nature: The general principle is that all of Nature needs protection from exploitation, abuse or harm and that utilitarian measures of least harm should guide actions.

Health: universal healthcare for all, as much as possible free at point of need.

Transport: for local transport, support best local low-carbon solutions, personal or public systems, seek improved solutions for trade/goods transport & logistics.

Other matters:

Personal liberty: each individual retains all rights over their own body and how they choose to use it. Freedom of religion where it does not conflict with the above. Freedom of expression where it does not do harm to the above. Freedom to conduct trade where it does not harm the above or Nature. The right to own property (but land??)

Personal responsibility: inherent in each right of liberty is the responsibility to support or permit the rights and liberties of others and the duty to protect such liberties on the behalf of others as well as oneself.

Looking at these 'principles of a decent society', and then comparing them with the avowed policies and practices of various political parties, I found that the Party which came nearest to sharing my world-view in the UK was - the Green Party. This surprised me, since I am not a vegetarian or vegan, don't fight for animal rights, and though I try to live sustainably, I don't live 'morally'. Till I realised that my assumptions about Greens were based on my own, lazy habits of thinking. I used to be a liberal, have never been a conservative, don't like libertarians at all, and am dubious about socialism, less because of its intentions than its history.

So, by chance, I have discovered that I am, after all, in my tweed and Barbour, public school education, ethical and concerned 'gentle' liberalism, a closet hippie*. Which, on reflection, is fine by me.

The point here being, by actually comparing the values espoused by political groups rather than assuming their prejudices from habit, I have learned something useful about myself and the world. Next time, I'll be voting Green.
*note: spelling changed out of respect :)

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Virtuous Circles – a trillion dollar business opportunity that might help save Society

I was quite surprised the other day when an American friend, who is quite active on climate and environment issues, responded to my references to the Circular Economy with 'what's that?'

Since a good proportion of this blog's readers (by the analytics) come from the USA, and since it is anyway a growing, rather than a well-understood concept/practice, I thought a quick introduction might be helpful.

Because the idea is, to my eyes, an important one. As Walter Stahel, the person accredited with first defining 'cradle-to-cradle' industrial process models describes it, this is a paradigm shift in the way we not only do business, but also in the way we understand our relationship with the world as an economically active society.

The basic ideas behind it are summarised on wikipedia, here. The idea is that products and services are designed from the outset to cycle back into their own production processes, creating a system which replicates Nature, by turning what was once called 'waste' into 'reusable material'. It is a long way, almost the opposite to, the idea of a Consumption Economy, which takes resources, makes products (with built in redundancy), then dumps the cast-off.

Not only is a Circular economy (and businesses operating on circular economy principles) hugely better for the planet (since finite resources are used much more efficiently, vastly reducing the dependence on new resource exploitation), but it is also potentially hugely profitable, to the tune of perhap a trillion dollars added to the value of the Global Economy. This alone makes it worth exploring more deeply.

One of the current champions and leaders in the field is a foundation with an implausible central figure, the gamine, 5'2" heroine of global sailing, Dame Ellen Macarthur. There is a nice article on her and her work on euronews, here.

In 2010, this extraordinary person, having conquered the World's oceans and broken numerous records along the way, and having become the youngest Dame in modern history and a Companion of the Legion d'Honneur, put competitive sailing to one side and launched the Ellen Macarthur Foundation (here), designed to promote a Circular economy.

So, some basic resources for you, if your interest is piqued:

 This provides a summary of the main ideas and links to other material. is a core set of reports, compiled with McKinsey, giving detailed information and a considerable amount of inspiration - all three reports are free to download. is one example of a media outlet, The Guardian (UK), both supporting and informing on various initiatives and actions around the World.

The underlying principles are powerful enough that the EU, by 2012, announced that it would be looking at using these concepts to inform future policy decisions. Perhaps it is time in the USA for similar initiative and corporate engagement.

Why this, here, now? Because we are fairly clear that Business as Usual is a really, really, bad idea, for Nature, the environment, poor people, climate change, social order and the future of human society - and this is more than an idea, it is a considered and sophisticated new operating model for a sustainable and healthier society, which might help us turn the corner from what looks like an impending crisis, with real world examples, case histories, financial analysis and substantial corporate engagement.

Hopefully, this will have given you some reason to hope - yes, I think we do need an international agreement to mitigate CO2 emissions, but I also think that our resourcefulness and initiative will move us, step by step, towards the goal of a better kind of world, on the way.