Congratulations! You found my blog page, the internet can be a deep and dark place but you have ended up in the right location…
Providing you would like to know more on the politics behind climate change and energy policy!
With this blog I hope to voice some of my opinions and also some of the facts behind different policies. I will tell you what I think of these policies, and hopefully will give you the required information so that you can make up your mind of what you think of them as well.
The idea that climate change is causing sea level rise is something that has been on people’s minds for the past few decades. Over in the UK, sea level rise is not something that people readily notice, a bit of erosion here, a bit of deposition there, it’s just part of the coastal dynamics. Fly 10,000 miles around the globe to the Solomon Islands and the response is very different.
A story emerged in May 2016 stating that a few of these islands residents had moved to other islands due to the erosion of their own . This did not make huge headlines as this region of the Pacific often has refugees from natural disasters. The reality is that 5 islands had been lost completely between 1947 and 2014 and another 6 had been subjected to severe erosion as seen in Table 1. One of the 6 severely eroded islands (and the only populated one) is that of Nuatambu which has seen a 51% reduction in its habitable area and consequently has lost 11 homes since 2011 . This, albeit small displacement of people compared to the world as a whole is the first case in modern history of people being made ‘climate refugees’.
This got me thinking. We have just had the Paris agreement put into force and COP22 happened in November 2016, so did they take into account the Solomon Island’s?
One of the aspects of the Paris agreement is that ‘small island developing states may prepare and communicate strategies, plans and actions reflecting their special circumstances’ . This basically means that if small islands would like a strategy implemented, they need to research and develop it themselves. Asides from this, very little was done to address these communities.
One of the main outcomes of Paris that affected every ratified country was the decision to limit global temperature rise to ‘well below’ 2⁰C and to ‘strive’ to keep it below 1.5⁰C . This is all very well, but limiting the rate of global temperature increase to 1.5⁰C is not going to help these South Pacific Islands enough as some of which are experiencing 10mm of sea level per year . COP22 however seeming came to the rescue. It was decided that the whole problem surrounding the oceans could not be covered in a few days. Consequently, the ‘UN Conference on the Ocean’ was proposed, of which the introductory meetings are occurring today (15th of February) and tomorrow in New York in order to decide the agenda for the actual meeting on the 5th to the 9th of June 2017 . Politicians will have you believe this is a step forward, whereas I see this simply as a delaying of the inevitable. The fact is that for many Pacific islands it is just too late.
In early January of this year it was announced that the construction of a 11.6km2 tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay, Wales had made it through the planning stage . There was a very high level of acceptance for the project, with large amounts of support coming from the locals and the government, what with it being the first of its kind . This project seems too good to be true, but is this really the solution to getting Britain to meet its targets that have just come out of the Paris agreement in 2016  or is this going to be another case of the failed Severn Barrage? 
The proposed lagoon is going to be created by sucking up gravel and sand from Swansea bay and pumping it into high strength cylinders which are then stacked and covered in rocks. The seawater enters and leaves the lagoon through the turbine housing as seen in Figure 2 and, using a series of gates allows the plant to generate electricity 4 times a day.
I won’t go into technical details as there is a video here that covers all the aspects of the plant it a very detailed way. My big concern with this is why is it the first of its kind in the world, when all the statistics point towards it being the best renewable energy source ? Well, we are fortunate to have the 2nd largest tidal range in the Bristol channel with that of Swansea Bay being 7-9 meters,  meaning the plant would actually be cost effective. It would have an estimated life of 120 years , which at the end of that (unlike a nuclear reactor) parts could be replaced and the lifetime extended. The cost of the power it produces is also fairly low, with an estimated cost of £96.50 per MWh  compared to £92.50 per MWh for nuclear at nearby proposed Hinkley point C . This cost is slightly higher than nuclear, but it was announced on the 1st of February that the government would subsidise this (seeing as its renewable as opposed to nuclear) . The initial subsidy was £160 per MW over 35 years, but it’s now just under £100 per MW over 90 years . Most people would see this as a cut, and that is essentially what it is, but it means the plant will be producing subsidised power for 75% of its life as opposed to 30%. Whilst the energy will not be as cheap in the short term, over the course of its life it will be much more cost effective.
Going back to the Severn Barrage (in Figure 3), which was a proposed £30 billion tidal power plant stretching from Weston Super-Mare to Cardiff that would have provided 5% of all the UK’s electricity . This project was scrapped in 2010 due to the ecological impacts on the wetlands around the Bristol channel . The designers behind the Swansea Bay plant however, have located this lagoon in a way that neither the River Neath or Tawe flow into it. There are also plans to implement conservation schemes, including a lobster hatchery in the lagoon, but personally I cannot see these lasting. Overall, this development has huge potential, plus if it works, there are several other potential sites all located within the Bristol channel .
Well. Not exactly. But in another sense yes. Many of you will be familiar with the Gulf Stream and will know that it is responsible for bringing warm waters from the Caribbean to the UK and allowing for those summer swimming sessions in the Cornish sea. You might be thinking at this point ‘The Cornish sea is a bit cold anyway, surely global warming will make it a bit more bearable?’. Well actually, Climate Change could potentially do the complete opposite.
The image belowdepicts the ‘Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation’ or ‘AMOC’ which is essentially an ocean current that transports warm surface water from the equator to the North Atlantic and cold water from the poles down into the deep ocean where it returns to the equator, thus completing the cycle.
This circulation is the reason we benefit from the Gulf Stream (Top right in red) and consequently don’t experience -20⁰C winters like in Moscow, which is at the same latitude. This circulation is driven by the cold water (which is denser) sinking in the Arctic and so driving this ‘conveyor belt’ as one could put it. But it is not that simple!
Global warming as we know is causing the melting of the polar ice and is effectively diluting the sea salt around the Arctic. This, combined with the increase in sea temperatures associated with global warming means the Arctic waters are considerably less dense than they should be. If this water continues to have its density reduced it may stop sinking into the deep ocean and could stop this ‘conveyor belt’ entirely. Not only would this stop us enjoying the Cornish sea in summer, but it would have similar effects across the whole globe by stopping the Thermohaline Circulation (the name for the big ‘conveyor belt’ that exists across the globe) as a whole. This might not seem like a big deal, but if you think of the ocean’s currents in the same way as the blood of a human you begin to realise that if they stop moving, the earth (or human) is as good as gone!
As if this couldn’t get any worse, but the deep sea ocean currents are also responsible for the long term storage of carbon, mainly from carbon dioxide (CO2). Carbon dioxide dissolves easier in cold than warm water, and the ‘conveyor belt’ allows for this continuous uptake as the carbon is circulated around the globe in the same way a conveyor belt would work. Remove this circulation and the carbon uptake is significantly reduced, leaving the remaining carbon to add to the global warming effect.
So, is it going to happen? Well, the science is still uncertain but in my opinion there is a fair chance that it is already happening. The ‘switching off’ of the oceans currents is not something that is going to happen overnight but is more likely to be a gradual process where the currents slowly get weaker and weaker before eventually shutting off completely. So we are not going to lose our Cornish summer breaks just yet, but if we continue the way we are with fossil fuel consumption, the unthinkable could happen.
On the 11th of January 2017 the Dutch transport company NS (Nederlandse Spoorwegen) announced that 100% of its trains, and therefore all of the trains in the Netherlands run on renewable wind power . When I read this I thought, ‘If the Netherlands can do this, then why can’t Britain, the windiest country in Europe?’
The obvious answer would be to build more turbines, but this is not the case. Firstly, the Dutch train transport sector is considerably smaller than the British with an annual consumption of 1.2 billion kWh of electricity . Whereas in the UK, only 51% of the trains have been electrified with the remainder still being run on diesel or coal . I used some calculations and consequently worked out that the electrical equivalent on the UK’s railways is over 12.1 billion kWh per year as of 2015 . Using this information and data from the European Wind Energy Association  on turbine output and efficiency we can determine that in order to power the entire Dutch railroad system only 200 turbines will be needed, of which the country currently has over 2,200 . The UK on the other hand would need approximately 2033 turbines of which there are already 13,614 in place as of 2015 .
That was quite a lot of numbers, but it illustrates my point of why there are no immediately obvious reasons of why the UK cannot keep up with the Netherlands in providing sustainable public transport. However, I personally believe it’s to do with the current infrastructure in both countries. The majority of the UK’s railroads are designed for diesel trains and so do not have the overhead cables directly supplying electricity plus many of our trains run on inefficient diesel engines. The cost of electrifying these rails is huge, with £4 billion being put aside in 2014 to convert just 11% of existing railways .
In a post-Brexit world where the UK’s economy is potentially facing difficult times, the electrification of the railways is probably not the department of transports biggest issue. The Dutch have been working towards this goal of 100% renewable train electricity for over 10 years, and consequently have been developing the infrastructure as they go along. I guess this means that the UK still has a long way to go.
The concept of a vehicle that runs on pure electricity is something that has only just arrived in mainstream news in the last decade, with more efficient and faster designs being brought out every year. At the forefront of this new technology is Elon Musk’s company Tesla, which is bringing out the newest version of the Tesla Model 3 in mid-2017. For people wanting to reduce their carbon footprint, this vehicle with its 215-380 mile range (depending on battery size) that emits zero emissions seems like the perfect solution .
However, most people are not aware of the hidden environment costs behind such vehicles. The Model 3 may not have internal combustion, but it still relies on electricity generation through other means, which in the UK is predominately fossil fuels. As of the 20th January 2017 the UK produces 66.55%  of its electricity through coal and gas-fired power stations. Using statistics from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) we know that in order to produce 1 kWh of electricity 0.07 gallons of petroleum has to be burnt, or just over 1 pound of coal in a power station . Therefore, in order to charge one of these new *Tesla’s you will need between 4.2 and 7 gallons of fuel to be burnt:- this gives the vehicle an average of 53 miles per gallon (mpg). This is poor for something that’s supposed to be ‘environmentally friendly’ when comparing it to the similarly designed petrol Jaguar XE which averages 55mpg .
The fuel consumption per mile does vary between vehicles, but one factor that cannot be overlooked is the requirement of rare earth metals in an EV’s construction. All commercially available EV’s run on lithium-ion batteries which are extremely powerful, and most importantly, lightweight to ensure a high-efficiency. As well as lithium there are also large amounts of neodymium and dysprosium used in the vehicles assorted lightweight components which again have huge environmental implications through their extraction . Currently, ownership of such vehicles is low in the UK, with just over 1% of road users owning a fully electric vehicle. Nevertheless, at the current rate of growth, lithium and neodymium usage is expected to increase tenfold before 2050 . This brings me onto my final point of where these rare metals are going to come from. Lithium is not the easiest mineral to obtain as it has to be extracted in a process that involves pumping water deep into the ground and then refining the end product. Not only does this refinement require high amounts of energy but it also produces a lot of mine waste in the process .
The fact is, when it comes to EV’s, it is highly dependent on where the vehicle is made and used. In countries that rely on a lot of renewable energy sources the only large environmental cost will be the raw material extraction. However, an EV in many of the worlds developed and developing countries is simply not an appropriate solution to reducing your carbon footprint at the moment . So I guess for the time being you will have to stick with your Jaguar XE…. What a hardship!
*The Tesla Model 3’s specs are yet to be released, the above stats are for 2016’s ‘Model S’.