UK attitudes towards climate change and emissions reduction

A recent UK Department for Transport (DfT) survey provides useful data on attitudes towards climate change and on cutting emissions. The fieldwork was carried out in August 2009 and so will not incorporate any effects from the recent criticisms of the IPPC and the revealing of a large number of emails written by CRU scientists at the University of East Anglia. The most interesting feature of the DfT research is that it continues to show that a very substantial majority of people believe that the climate is changing but that relatively few are prepared to welcome potentially painful changes to lifestyle, such as cutting the number of flights taken. The percentages of people suggesting high levels of concern about global warming are generally down about 3-5% since 2006.

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The Committee on Climate Change shouldn't have answered the question it was asked

The UK government asked the wrong question. It demanded that the Committee on Climate Change calculated how much air travel can rise without causing an increase in aviation emissions. Not unsurprisingly, the CCC answered by saying that the number of trips could rise at the same rate as efficiency improvements in air travel. The Committee said that emissions per passenger will fall by about 1% a year, and so travel could rise by about this amount. No shocks there. By 2050, the CCC opined, the number of passengers taking trips from UK airports can rise to 370 million a year, up from 230 million today. The maximum possible number of new passengers at Heathrow from the addition of new runway and sixth terminal is about 60 million. Hoorah, said the industry, there's space for the expansion. Unsurprisingly, the press misinterpreted the Committee's report and said that it had 'approved' the government's plans for the airport. By answering the government's disiningenous question, the CCC has lost some of its impartiality.

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Ten ways to start reducing your carbon footprint

If you buy just one new appliance in 2010, make it a really efficient fridge-freezer. The improvements in the energy use of the best fridge-freezers have been really impressive in the last few years. If you have an old refrigerator, it may be responsible for as much as a sixth of your electricity bill. A good new machine might use less than a half as much power, particularly if it is not too large. A second benefit is that by choosing to buy a really efficient refrigerator you will be sending a clear signal to the manufacturers that energy consumption matters. An impressive new web site – – allows you to compare the electricity used by almost all the appliances currently in UK shops. You can make well-informed choices from your computer.

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Is energy efficiency really cheaper than switching to renewable energy sources as a way of cutting carbon emissions?

Let’s face it: energy efficiency is boring when compared to the (relative) excitement of developing new sources of low-carbon electricity or heat. The popular science magazines are full of articles on new forms of solar panel and the latest designs for wind turbines. Improving the insulation of ordinary homes, shifting to LED lighting or increasing the take-up of heat pumps rarely command the attention of editors.

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The human brain is made for environmental complacency

Most governments in the developed world were elected on platforms that promised aggressive policies on greenhouse gas emissions. The reality has not matched the commitments made. The reasons for this are multitudinous and no one should ever underestimate the difficulties of weaning advanced societies off the use of cheap and convenient access to fossil fuels. But in addition to the standard reasons for slow progress we can see a large number of obstacles that spring from human psychology. In particular, some of the resistance to aggressive action on climate seems to spring from mental attitudes that may have helped us survive as a species in the past. Perhaps politicians intuitively recognise the existence of these barriers. So they continue to say that climate change is the most important problem facing humanity at the same time as adding new runways to the local airport or sanctioning the development of new coal-fired power stations.

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Republic of Maldives: a plan for carbon neutrality

The Maldives will be the first country to be overwhelmed by the effect of climate change. The republic is a collection of coral atolls with maximum heights of one or two metres above sea level. Climate change is increasing worldwide sea levels and the atolls will probably go underwater by the end of the century. The 300,000-400,000 people who live on the Maldives are not responsible for global warming. Their emissions per head (even including aviation fuels for incoming international tourism) are less than a seventh of typical European levels.

Many countries have set ambitious targets for the reduction of carbon emissions. The government of the Maldives seeks to encourage this trend by going one step further with a plan for near carbon neutrality within ten years.

This is an immensely challenging target. Chris Goodall (author of this blog) and Mark Lynas, the prize-winning climate change author, were asked to provide a short outline of how it might be achieved and what it might cost.

In the rest of this note, we show our calculations. We will be the first to acknowledge that this work is incomplete. Although it was tempting to conduct fieldwork in some of the most attractive island resorts, we did our analysis using publicly available information and with help from officials attached to the Maldives government.

Our work shows that near neutrality is possible, but expensive. It will take at least $1.1bn for this small island state. The Maldives imports almost all its fuels in the form of refined oil products. Rates of financial return to the investment therefore depend largely on the price of oil. If expectations of future oil prices exceed $100 a barrel, we judge that the plan is sufficiently attractive to be financeable by international institutions such as the World Bank.

Comments on this work will be very gratefully received.

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Does an economic depression mean slower progress towards green objectives?

We didn’t make much progress reducing emissions when times were good. Will the looming depression makes things worse or better? The discussion of this issue, at least in the UK, tends to be superficial. The only question asked seems to be ‘will people buy less eco-bling when times are hard?’

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Alok Jha of the Guardian wrote about Air New Zealand’s trial of jet fuel based on jatropha berries. This note looks at the percentage of the world’s land area that would have to be devoted to the crop in order to provide for the total needs of aviation, an industry that uses about 5% of the world’s oil.

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UK energy demand

Elizabeth Kolbert looked at the Swiss 2,000-Watt Society project in the /New Yorker/ of 7 July. Her interviewees provided estimates of the energy use of the typical Swiss inhabitant. The figures added up to about 5,000 watts. To be clear, this means each person is responsible for about five kilowatts of continuous energy use. This includes home electricity and gas, personal transport, industry, and office. To keep us in the ease and comfort we have got used to we are consuming, directly and indirectly, enough energy to keep two electric kettles boiling continuously, or driving a fuel-efficient car four hours in every day. This article looks at the composition of energy demand in the UK. The figures are then broken down by sector and by fuel. The numbers are used in the introduction to /Ten Technologies to Save the Planet/ (Profile Books, November 2008), where I try to assess whether we are likely to be able to use technology to reduce fossil fuel demand substantially.

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Heathrow expansion

The government announced that it was minded to allow Heathrow to expand. A new runway and sixth terminal will increase capacity from 480,000 to 702,000 flights. The government’s consultation documents – totalling hundreds of pages – did not provide an estimate of the impact on CO2 emissions. In this article, we offer a tentative figure of about 16m tonnes as the potential maximum impact of the proposed expansion. After multiplying by 2.7 to account for the other pollutants created by aviation, the increase takes the total UK emissions from aviation up to 144m tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

Another piece in this newsletter discusses Gordon Brown’s statement in the same week that total UK emissions from all sources may need to fall to no more 155m tonnes by 2050.

The disjunction between government policies on aviation and climate change is startling.

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Video conferencing: at last a good alternative to travel?

Video conferencing has been around for a surprisingly long time. AT&T ran the first call in 1927. Since then, pundits have been consistently predicting that video conferencing was just about to take off. They have been wrong for eighty years. Why should we believe the techno-optimists now?

In the last year, several companies have launched video conferencing products that provide an experience similar to real meetings. The quality is surprising and even sceptics have begun to see the advantages of using a meeting room for an hour rather than spending three days going to Hong Kong and back. Cisco’s Telepresence product is generating enthusiasm that is tempered by the enormous costs of setting up the equipment and providing the bandwidth. But the company says that prices will fall dramatically over the next few years.

Is this going to be enough to get people out of planes? The signs are good. Even low bandwidth alternatives suitable for home use are getting praise from the experts. So if Cisco doesn’t make video conferencing work, Bay Area start-ups like VSee will probably start eating into the market for lower cost products.

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The Soil Association and air freight

Only 1% of imported organic food comes by air. But the Soil Association says that air freight ‘can generate 177 times’ the CO2 of shipping. Air transport is necessary for some fruit and delicate vegetables which provide a vital source of income in some poor countries. The Association was caught in a dilemma. It didn’t want to give its valuable imprimatur to foods that caused climate damage but neither did it want to impoverish poor tropical communities.

It carried out a detailed and thoughtful consultation with stakeholders. It seems a model of its kind. The consultation produced a consensus that air freight was only acceptable if the products were farmed in a way that brought development to the local community. In essence the Association is saying that only ‘Fairtrade’ products will be able to carry its valuable label. It won’t be enough just to meet the ordinary standards for organic agriculture.

Peter Melchett, the policy director of the Association, said that the ‘results of our very widespread consultation show that most people in the North and the South say that they only support air freight if it delivers real environmental and social benefits. The linking of organic and ethical or Fairtrade standards does that’.

The Soil Association will now move to ratify this decision, which went against central government advice, at least as expressed in a recent speech by a minister.

In the same press release it also announced a move to involve the Carbon Trust in providing a ‘footprint’ for organic foods (please see the article on organic food and carbon emissions in Carbon Commentary Newsletter #1). It said it would move towards carbon labelling of organic foods (please see the article on Tesco and Wal-Mart in Carbon Commentary Newsletter #2 for reasons why we think this is a mistake).

In a slightly surprising move, it also announced that it would seek to ‘actively encourage people to eat less meat’. Since beef cultivation is an important source of emissions, this makes good sense, but the Association is taking a risk by suggesting people should change their diet.

It also intends to review whether heated glasshouses are appropriate recipients of organic labels. This last point is well overdue. The carbon footprint of a food from a Dutch heated glasshouse is likely to be far greater than an air-freighted equivalent grown in the tropics.

The Treasury's Pre-Budget review

The Pre-Budget review in early October disappointed green activists. Environmental measures formed a small fraction of the government’s initiatives. It doesn’t look as though Alistair Darling sees climate change as one of the priorities of this administration. But there were two important commitments: a revision to Air Passenger Duty (APD) and (via BERR) a competition to run a commercial-scale carbon capture project. The APD proposal attracted most attention. The government intends to change the duty so that it is levied on aircraft movements and not on individual travellers. Commentators, and the two main opposition parties, have long suggested that this would be a sensible change. Carbon Commentary disagrees. The proposed revision cannot be implemented without infringing international treaties on the taxation of air travel. The chancellor’s proposed consultation will eventually conclude that APD should remain substantially as it is now.

In the article, we briefly analyse the effects of APD and also show that the duty imposes an effective tax on airlines that is greater than would be levied if air travel were fully included in the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

The BERR Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) announcement was worryingly unspecific. It did not even bother to mention a figure for the value of the financial support. It also upset some major companies by only allowing entries for the competition from a limited range of technologies. The government is extremely vulnerable to the charge that it is back in the business of picking winners.

CCS is an extremely important part of any strategy for national reduction of emissions. The UK should be throwing far more money at research and development into the various forms of CCS. The simplest and quickest way to get innovation in CCS would be to include carbon storage as a technology that qualifies under the renewable obligation rules. We need to remove the difference between the financial treatment of renewable power generation and carbon capture. Both achieve the same outcome and both should have the same reward.

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Straws in the wind: The Lib Dems' climate change paper

Both the Conservative and Lib Dem parties have produced position papers on climate change in the last few weeks. The Conservative document is over 500 pages long but contains very few specific proposals. To be harsh, it is little more than a prolonged agonising over whether the climate change problem can be addressed using conventional free-market mechanisms. The Lib Dem paper is a tenth of the length but does contain the outlines of a coherent set of policies. This article analyses the Lib Dem proposals. It shows that the Lib Dems are prepared to use the price mechanism to choke off increasing demand for aviation. The party also contemplates extending the Emissions Trading Scheme beyond the 50% of the economy currently covered. On the other hand, it makes completely clear that it has no intention of raising the prices of energy and fuels to domestic consumers.

Although the party presents itself as the only UK political institution ready to grasp the need for an economy-wide carbon price that will bring down emissions by 30% in 2020, the detailed proposals are far less radical. In the material that follows, I try to tabulate the Lib Dem ideas, focusing on whether they use price, regulatory fiat or pious hope as the proposed means of emissions reductions. As in the Conservative paper, estimates of the costs and benefits of their policies are almost completely absent from the Lib Dem paper. It is a shocking commentary on British politics that no major party is prepared to quantify exactly how it proposes to shift taxes towards polluting activities and away from other sources.

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Tyndall Centre report on aviation and emissions trading

In early September, researchers from the Tyndall Centre in the UK put out a report that said that incorporation of the airline industry into the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) will not provide significant incentive to cut emissions. The big polluters today are paying about €20 per tonne for their emissions. When aviation joins the scheme in 2012, this price would add about €5 for a flight to Barcelona. Tyndall argues that the EU and national governments cannot escape the conclusion that the ETS is not enough and that aviation must be constrained by other fiscal or legislative measures as well as by inclusion in the carbon tax net. Tyndall has acquired an excellent reputation for its informed and passionate stance on aviation. Broadly speaking, its view has been that continued expansion of aviation is incompatible with the tight emissions targets that the EU and other bodies have set for the years to mid-century. It has consistently said that by 2050 unconstrained air travel will be using up most of the total carbon emissions that the world can allow itself. Aviation expansion will drown out emissions reductions in other areas.

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