Category Archives: environment

Winter == this morning

This morning we had a sufficiently hard frost for much of town to be dressed in white.

Why am I remarking on such a perfectly normal thing?  Because it’s no longer normal.  We’re a thoroughly maritime climate, meaning we get neither cold winters nor hot summers.  But twenty years ago we’d have had our first such frost sometime in November, and the coldest days would remain below freezing all day.  Indeed, the government in the 1980s introduced a “cold weather” payment to help pensioners, which was triggered when the temperature maximum remained below -2 for several consecutive days (I forget how many).

And now, a first visible frost comes only in February, and is pretty much gone by 11a.m.  No wonder things like English wine are becoming mainstream!


UK constitutional brokenness rears its ugly head

That the UK constitution is horribly broken is no news. The Liar spent his first few years in office playing with it like a twelve-year-old with his toys. His own party (among others) told him it was broken, and Tam Dalyell famously posed the Westlothian Question.

Now it appears to be leading towards a crisis. First, the Brown government makes some serious-sounding announcements about long-overdue improvements to a horribly-broken energy policy. The EU backs it up by imposing legally-binding targets on us.

Then the Scottish parliament refuses both nuclear and wind power developments. While as a matter of geography, Scotland is much better-suited than other UK countries for clean energy generation.

So, what does that mean? The EU’s target for the entire UK falls by default entirely on England? Or England-and-Wales, if the Welsh assembly graciously accepts inclusion.

In a sense, that’s no bad thing: it imposes much tougher targets on England than the EU negotiators intended when they gave the UK such unambitious targets. But as a matter of principle, it’s clearly wrong, and it will certainly fuel justified resentment.

Perhaps that’s the Scottish Parliament’s game plan. Where they’ve been given power without responsibility, they’re going to exercise it to raise resentment, and with it support for proper independence. Once they have independence, it all becomes clear again. In this instance, if the EU had set England and Scotland each its own target instead of a collective UK one, we wouldn’t have this problem.

Blooming in the desert.

Sunday Evening. Time to be the barroom bore.

Leading scientists have proposed that we should put giant tubes in the ocean. The idea is that nutrients will rise up the tubes from the ocean depth, giving rise to algal blooms at the surface. The nutrients are moved by wave power, and the algal blooms will grow on solar energy, absorbing substantial amounts of CO2. If the plan goes ahead and is successful, it will no doubt only be a matter of time before someone proposes a method to harvest the algal bloom for biomass energy.

This plan, like any other, has a downside: algal blooms are hugely damaging to existing marine ecosystems. It could also precipitate large-scale climate events of its own if, for example, ocean currents are affected. But it appears nevertheless likely to be of net benefit on balance, just as, for example, wind, hydro, and nuclear energy are. Since there’s vastly more ocean than land (let alone land under a benign climate), it looks much better than current biomass schemes which involve similar damage to large areas of land. Another factor in its favour is that the existing ecosystem it displaces is not as dense or as productive as areas of rainforest being cleared for biomass.

So here’s another proposal. Let’s requisition some of the Earth’s poorest ecosystems for production of algal bloom and biomass. Specifically, the deserts. Where there’s very high sunlight for energy, and ample minerals to nourish the bloom. All it needs is water.

This is not about irrigating the desert. That’s a tradition that goes right back to the cradle of civilisation, for example along the Nile. Neither is it relevant that many such schemes have proved unsustainable, leaving ghost towns (or cities) where an irrigated area has deteriorated over time. In any case, freshwater sources that could be harnessed for irrigation are already under huge stress.

The only water source sufficient to pour onto the desert on any scale is the sea itself. That’s going to require a lot of energy to move vast quantities of water, maybe with something like an array of giant archimedean screws. My suggestion is that *potentially* we get back a lot more than we put in. That’s on the premise that it enables growth of rich biomass, maybe indeed huge algal blooms (though not of course existing land-based vegetation) if we create saltwater lakes. Thus the Earth’s most barren and unproductive lands become a carbon sink powered by the immensely fierce desert sun, and a biomass source.

This is of course thoroughly experimental, and I’m neither a biologist nor a civil engineer. Assuming the engineers can solve the logistics, the most obvious risk is that the areas used experience such huge buildups of salt that they become like the dead sea (or even like conventional irrigation that turns bad). To avoid that implies ongoing management of the chemical balance of the desert schemes.

Or a biological alternative. Can genetic engineering help evolution on a little by combining fast-growing algae with extremophiles that thrive in a challenging environment?

Here in Europe, we’re a major energy consuming area. We have the research capabilities and the money. And just to the south, we have the world’s biggest desert! The EU, or indeed individual countries within it, should get together with an appropriate North African country and embark on a major research programme. That needs to be managed in a politically sensitive manner, so that it’s clear that the African country (or countries) will (also) see substantial benefits if the experiment is successful.

Too little, too late

The government appears to be finally approving a new generation of nuclear power generation, albeit only (at most) to update our existing power stations, within the existing sites. I’m sure that story isn’t over, but at least it seems to have moved on from Blair waffle-but-build-more-pollution hypocrisy. Taken together with plans for serious investment in wind power, it could be the beginnings of political will to start to fix our badly-broken energy policy.

This is beginning to look like a huge “told you so” moment, as topics that got you labelled a nutcase just a few years ago (and in my case for over twenty years) become popular:

  • The naive “green” view we need to focus on energy conservation, not [foo] power generation. Wrong: we need to focus on both energy conservation and better generation.
  • The naive “green” view we don’t need nuclear, we need renewables. Wrong, we need both nuclear and renewables, at least for the short to medium term.
  • The knee-jerk view, nuclear energy is armageddon. Yes, it presents problems, but the reason they seem so big (and even more so why the cost is relatively high) is because we (rightly) insist on solving those problems. Trouble is, burning fossil fuels is massively worse than anything nuclear energy presents, and its problems are quite simply unsolvable.
  • The “biofuels can save us” fallacy is finally being exposed as a fraud, as production and use of biofuels has become a reality.

It’s anti-nuclear idiocy that has prevented me joining any of the mainstream “green” organisations all my adult life. I’ll take up the anti-nuclear cause when and only when we’ve stopped all carbon-burning in both power generation and transport, and have viable alternatives. Unfortunately that won’t happen in my lifetime, as it implies a massive population decline, and I can’t expect to survive the kind of catastrophic circumstances that will lead – sometime – to that decline.

Even more unfortunately, we continue to subsidise energy in many ways, thus killing off economic incentives to be more efficient in the marketplace – both R&D in technology, and sustainable lifestyles. That, and overpopulation, are the hardest political nettles to grasp.

Waste disposal

OK, I have a dead lightbulb.  I bought a new one, and read on its little box that I should dispose of it carefully.  Not throw it out with my regular household waste.  At the same time, I’ve had to replace the batteries in my radio (for the first time this century, I believe).  Ditto.

Don’t these things come under electronic waste disposal regulations these days, meaning that someone is under an obligation to take them off my hands?  I looked at the council’s website for clues, and found none.  Their feedback form asks for such extensive information I thought it almost easier, and potentially more satisfying, to go round in person and harangue someone.

So I’ve just been.  I put the stuff I need to be rid of in a small carrier bag, and went round to complain of the absence of information, and point out that most such waste is almost certainly going straight into standard household dustbins, and hence landfill.

FWIW, they told me I can take such waste to the Crowndale facility.  I expect for most people, that means a car trip, and hence more pollution than you save by not throwing the stuff in standard domestic waste.  Yeah, right.

I also took the opportunity for a rant about the absurdity of how they recycle glass.  The lady I spoke to took the bait, and started telling me about washing all those difficult jars in hot water and detergent.  Good grief, she’s probably doing more damage washing them up than sending them to landfill!

I don’t expect it’ll do any good (except in that they took the rubbish off me).  But it can’t hurt, either, if someone gives them a hard time about it.

Wind power (and how not to do it)

The government has announced a serious programme of building offshore wind farms to supply a significant proportion of our energy needs. For the first time in a political generation, this is not obviously-empty bullshit, but looks like a real announcement. So let me join with everyone else in welcoming it.

However, I must express some reservations about the plan. Apart from practical problems like engineering and maintenance (which I’m sure can be solved – eventually), there are a couple of serious problems.

The lesser of these is the inevitable law of unintended consequences. Some idiot has already described the plan as powering all the UK’s households energy by wind. So householders, anxious to massage their consciences, will tell themselves “my energy use is now sustainable”, and cease to think about constraining it. But that only really affects those few households that are doing anything more than empty tokenism in the first place.

The more serious problem is that it has no economic basis. For the time being, and perhaps throughout the construction, the immediate cost of providing this wind power exceeds that of burning hydrocarbons. So the work will be driven by government rules and incentives. History has demonstrated clearly that free markets are altogether better than command economies for efficiency and innovation. Yet here is the government, commanding let it be so.

The government understands about markets They will create a competitive market, as they have done in other areas of public expenditure, from construction projects, to weapons procurement, to schools and hospitals. So where’s the problem?

The problem is that it’s a narrow micro-market. Sure, it’ll drive efficiency and innovation in the business of building and operating offshore wind turbines. But it will do nothing for out-of-the-box “big picture” ideas: in fact, it will actively lock them out, if they don’t happen to fit neatly in the defined micro-market. That’s the same underlying straitjacket that afflicts the command-and-control economy.

I refer the reader to my sketch Alice in Business for a story of how a marketplace in a narrow sector stimulates incremental optimisations at the expense of a radical order-of-magnitude improvement.

It’s not possible at any price to clean up fossil fuels to the standards we rightly impose on the nuclear industry (one could say, the true cost would be infinite if we did). The proper way to bring in large-scale development of renewable energy is to make fossil fuels pay a more realistic cost for the damage they do.

Governments can do that through taxation: indeed, I have argued for a major reduction in taxes on individuals and companies, with the shortfall being made up by taxing destruction and use of non-replaceable resources. Adjust taxation every year, and make it clear to everyone that this will continue for as long as we are burning any fossil fuels, and suddenly the free market will drive huge investment in renewable energy, including offshore wind.

That’s the real market, where Big Ideas can compete on their merits, and not be squeezed out by narrow constraints.

A political generation ago, John Major’s government did that, albeit just in one market sector. But instead of broadening it to encompass power generation, the present government killed off his good work. While the wind power programme is welcome, it’s no substitute for stimulating the market.

Water shortage?

Went round Burrator Reservoir on the bike today. It’s one of our main water sources. And in November – traditionally the wettest time of year – it should be pretty full. But it isn’t. Instead, the water level is startlingly low.

We still think of this as a wet year, after about 6-7 weeks of exceptionally high rainfall in June and July. But the past three months have been back to something more normal: predominantly dry, with occasional wet days. Still, nothing unusual, except that it should be relatively dry in peak wet season.

That leads me to suspect that the underlying cause may be more one of demand than supply. People are using more water than ever before. That’s worrying. It’s a trend that’s not going to reverse with variations in the weather, but is going in one direction only. And after a season when noone had to water their gardens or irrigate their farms through the summer.

One more reason to emigrate?

Postscript: googling for a nice link to Burrator Reservoir, I found these photos from November 2003, a very dry year. The photographer notes that the water was exceptionally low. It’s a little higher today, but not much. Other photos, such as this panorama from December 2000, show it at more normal levels.

Disintegrating plastic!

I’ve heard of plastics that are supposed to degrade.  But I hadn’t expected to witness it myself.

I keep plastic carrier bags for re-use.  They live in the cupboard under the sink, along with other re-usable containers and a few cleaning materials. I re-use the carrier bags when I go to the local shops, or take my old bottles and cans for recycling.

So today I was looking for old bags ready for their last use (‘cos they were going to get too dirty to re-use afterwards), and looked at the back of the cupboard.  And there amidst the bags was a pile of flakes, from an old co-op carrier bag that had disintegrated.  Nearby was a second bag that was just beginning to disintegrate.

Not sure how that happens.  There was no sign of biological degrading (rotting/mould).  The cupboard is dark, and wouldn’t get sunlight even when open.  It doesn’t even get wet in there.  The only thing that might be expected to provoke degradation is short bursts of moderate heat due to the pipes bringing water to the sink above.

These co-op bags are pretty good when new: more robust than those from some other suppliers.  In future I’ll have to select them over others for early reuse, while they’re still intact.

Little boxes yet again

After two years of building and associated working, the little boxes across the road look as if they might finally have someone moving in, maybe by the end of the year. There’s now an estate agent’s board at the entrance (a narrow passage off Paddons Row), and peering in at it, the front no longer looks like a hard-hat area.

But still the works go on. Right now there’s a big trench in the garden area, and four men laying pipes. Earlier in the week it was big white pipes, today it’s copper pipes. And it’s noisier than it’s been for a while, with digging and cutting equipment. The trench appears to go right in under the building! I was half-wondering if any of the pipes might have been concerned with heat-exchange, but that would be too sensible for a real-world builder.

Meanwhile the roofs look a bit like a miniature wildflower meadow. Except everything is too thin: the soil (whatever it is) is about as rich as a gravel drive, so the meadow is thin and scraggly, and not half as pretty as the real thing. With all the yellow flowers, there ought to be lots of butterflies and bees, but I don’t see very many. But there must be insect life, ‘cos the birds are there to eat them.

Web sites that suck: UK Gov carbon calculator

I just tried the UK govt’s “carbon calculator” (as reported here). In brief, it’s horribly broken, at the taxpayer’s expense. So I found the feedback link to email them a little rant.

I have three comments on this site. First, about the calculation itself, and secondly about the presentation.

The calculation makes no sense to me. First, it asks questions about the house, including energy bills, and tells me:

Your CO2 Result for your home is 0.42 tonnes per year.

It then proceeds to ask about appliances, and tells me:

Your CO2 Result for your appliances is 0.82 tonnes per year.

(Minor comment at this point: it completely excludes the effects of my shopping or working habits).

Now, my usage of all those appliances is *included* in the electricity bills, which were *already* part of the first calculation. Since the appliances in question are clearly domestic (e.g. fridge, cooker, telly, computers), it makes no sense at all to separate them from the total gas and electricity consumption figures.

This leads to my second point: your “FAQ” is hard to read. Firstly, it lacks an index or quick overview. Secondly, its author has failed utterly to grasp the basic principles of HTML markup, and consequently has produced text that is a strain to read – at least for my middle-aged eyes (though I expect it looks good on the author’s own PC).

In support of the above assertion, and before moving to my third point, I should perhaps briefly present my credentials to criticise the site at a technical level. I am widely acknowledged as an expert in a range of web technologies. I am a published author, developer of the “Site Valet” suite of QA and Accessibility evaluation tools, and for several years served as Invited Expert with the Worldwide Web Consortium in their Quality Assurance and Accessibility activities.

Having thus introduced myself, let me introduce the first principle of developing a website: follow the basic standards!

Analogy: If the electrician who wired my house had installed a system that would work with a Hoover but not with an Electrolux appliance, I would be rightly aggrieved. But of course, the electrician follows basic interoperability standards, so there’s no question of that kind of incompatibility.

Developing a website is exactly the same. But your calculator fails so badly as to make it completely unusable in at least two of my browsers, including my first choice (Konqueror; also known as Safari in Apple’s own-badge packaging). Even in Firefox it is extremely rude, messing about with my browser window.

This level of brokenness does not happen merely due to time and budgetary limitations. It takes an order of magnitude more effort to mess it up so badly than to produce a simple, working site (the calculator itself is very simple). Furthermore, there is a *separate* flash 8 version for those who might prefer to treat it as entertainment. The so-called HTML version I used is supposedly the simple fallback.

In brief, please get a competent web developer for a day, and stop pouring taxpayers money into some entertainment-industry wannabe’s self-indulgence.