After the explosions

Few of us can be unaware of the recent events of 11-12 March this year when an earthquake on the 9.0 scale produced a 23 feet tsunami in Northern Japan, which then led to explosions and fires in the reactors at the Fukushima Power station. The 8600 people dead are a terrible example of the power of natural events to devastate and destroy lives.

P1020798 Only a year ago Europe and other parts of the world were affected in a different way by the dust cloud from an eruption in Iceland (See stunning photos of this), which closed airports, grounded planes and left thousands of people stranded and unable to return home. These two events are a reminder that our global climate is fragile and may be changing in ways we cannot predict.

Below is a rare picture taken exactly a year ago. It captures vapour trails from planes in the skies above south Manchester immediately after the ban of flights from the nearby Manchester International Airport was lifted. The picture above taken yesterday shows the sky from the same position. Note this year there is thick foliage on the trees whereas last year these same trees on the same day were bare. No wonder it’s being predicted this will be the hottest April since records were started.

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UK green investment falls

Remember those pictures of David Cameron, the Leader of the Opposition as he visited snowfields in Spitzbergen, biked through the streets of London and promised us that under the Conservatives he would make Great Britain a Green Britain? How much has been achieved as we approach the first anniversary of the Coalition Government coming into office?

The first year is always difficult for any Government, as it seeks to get on top of the business. So it would be unfair to expect too much in terms of new programmes for reducing our carbon emissions and helping to improve the environment. But maintaining a steady ship and setting out clear plans for the future would be reasonable.

In December we were treated to the announcement from Chris Huhne, Energy and Climate Secretary of a major shake up which would place low carbon technologies at the heart of the Coalition’s energy plans. (See Guardian 17 December 2010) Off shore wind farms and wave power would be given priority and there would, according to the Minister be a ‘once in a generation chance to rebuild our electricity industry’.

The announcements were welcomed but how much had really changed? Was this really a game changer or just soothing words?

The answer was to come from an unexpected source. Last month the Pew Trust, a highly respected American research institute produced a survey of progress made across the G20 countries in investment and development of alternate technology and low energy industries which can help to meet targets set for carbon reductions.

The general picture was encouraging with several countries making major advances. China and Germany were 1st and 2nd in the list, spending respectively $54 billion and $41 billion but Britain had slipped in 2010 in just one year from 3rd place to the 13th, with investment dropping from $11 billion to $3.3 billion. Even India was now spending more.

windfarm_cumbria The Pew Trust was clear about the reasons for Britain’s failure. There had been “a sharp decline in offshore wind energy investments and uncertainty surrounding [government] policy.”

This is a critically important area for meeting the UK’s own targets and for developing new industries. Investment not cutbacks is required but it is unclear whether the Chancellor recognizes this. Let’s hope the Prime Minister remembers the point of his bike rides.

Fracking comes to Britain

We are not always first with the news, but this time we’ve been out in front with the fracking story. Yesterday the Guardian had a valuable Special Energy Report by Fiona Harvey, “Shale Gas: is it as green as the oil companies say?”

Fracking, the method employed to obtain this gas, is a new concept for us here in the UK, but if you think you may have heard about it before, it may well be you read about it in our blog last December, Comparing the Catskills.

frack1 Fracking is an extraction procedure developed initially in the US and now being heavily promoted by a range of oil companies, keen to produce shale gas from rocks in the UK and across Europe. It involves pumping deep into the rock millions of gallons of water with added chemicals.

The effect of this is to fracture the rock and allow the collection of gases from within the rock. The illustration opposite is from a US film Gasland, with a good FAQ section which was made by film maker Josh Fox to draw attention to the nature, widespread use and dangers of fracking.

In the US and recently in France the practice has been fiercely opposed by many local groups because of worries about the impact this action will have on underground water supplies. There is also concern that the evidence used by the oil companies does not support their conclusions and that the adoption of these methods, will not only leave us dependent on finite supplies, but will also set back the drive for renewable green energy sources for the future.

US Courts & the environment

Tuesday’s New York Times had an interesting leading article, “The Court and Global Warming” on a development quite separate from the Federal Government’s efforts to reduce the present US financial deficit of $14.2 trillion.

As I reported last year, individual States and cities in the US are able to take actions to promote sound environmental practices and have often been less constrained in what they can achieve. As in the case of California, they have also found themselves in opposition to energy and fuel companies, which are major polluters in the country.

This week an action brought by seven separate states comes before the Supreme Court, which will adjudicate on the States’ claim that six separate energy companies should be responsible for curbing their harmful greenhouse gas emissions.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), created by the Obama administration, has decided that the emissions are harmful to health and the States argue that this justifies their legal case demanding action by the companies to limit the emissions. It should not be necessary for them to wait until an initiative on this front has been taken by the EPA.

The initial response of the court appears to be sceptical about the Court’s standing in the matter, but it will be fascinating to see what finally transpires.

Robin Hood taxes and CO2

In Seattle this last week, we’ve seen two developments, which may turn out to be important straws in the wind. I’ve been blogging over the last two years on the difficulties of achieving global reductions in carbon emissions and gaining multinational agreement to policies, which promote energy efficiency. Rich countries are seen as talking up their own efforts while being unwilling to put resources into helping developing countries tackle the massive problems they face.

The world financial crisis has now brought draconian cuts, growing unemployment and even national governments being bailed out. Efforts to create new green industries in a number of countries have been cut or watered down. After the Copenhagen and Cancun conferences, has the steam gone out of efforts to reduce our carbon footprint? In the US, the biggest producer of greenhouse gases, the Obama administration has lost control of Congress and according to its detractors, has lost too its resolve to fight for a better cleaner environment.

Well maybe there’s a grain of truth here. But the fight to sort out the current US deficit budget – which saw Congress threatening two weeks ago to close down the Federal Government – has brought a new urgent focus to the debate.

With the Presidential re-election due in two years time, Obama delivered on 13th April a deft assault on the Republicans’ position with a well-crafted argument for a more balanced budget. A key section of his speech on paying inter alia for clean energy is below, with the full speech available here.

“One vision has been championed by Republicans in the House of Representatives and embraced by several of their party’s presidential candidates. It’s a plan that aims to reduce our deficit by $4 trillion*** over the next ten years …. Those are both worthy goals for us to achieve. But the way this plan achieves those goals would lead to a fundamentally different America than the one we’ve known throughout most of our history…. (involving) A 70% cut to clean energy. A 25% cut in education. A 30% cut in transportation ..”

“…. this is a vision that says even though America can’t afford to invest in education or clean energy; even though we can’t afford to care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about it. In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90% of all working Americans actually declined. The top 1% saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. And that’s who needs to pay less taxes? They want to give people like me a two hundred thousand dollar tax cut that’s paid for by asking thirty three seniors to each pay six thousand dollars more in health costs? That’s not right, and it’s not going to happen as long as I’m President.”

Importantly he was not a lone voice in demanding increased taxes as well as cuts, for just a day later the Finance Ministers of the G20 countries received a letter signed by 1000 respected economists arguing that the banking sector had been responsible for the finance crisis and urging a small tax on financial transactions, which could raise billions of dollars for development. See Guardian 13 April 2011 for the story and full letter. This action was both technically feasible and morally right, the economists concluded.

Will it wash with voters in the US and elsewhere? One answer comes in today’s Seattle Times, which quotes a recent McClatchy-Marist poll, reporting that two thirds of Americans favour a tax increase for the wealthy. This is good news for anyone concerned to see reductions in environmental pollution and global warming.

*** NOTE: One Trillion dollars = One million million dollars = $1,000,000,000,000