Tuesday, 27 January 2009

"Greener" Cars

Peter Mandelson yesterday unveiled a package to support the UK automotive industry. It was stressed that this was to support the industry in its changeover to "greener" cars such as plug-in hybrid and electric cars.

Plug-in cars have great potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, there remains the question of how the electricity to power them is produced. Certainly with our current infrastructure, while the cars themselves are not producing problem emissions as long as they are running on the battery, the power stations which supply the charge for the battery are, often burning fossil fuels such as coal and gas to produce electricity. With the expected growth in renewables, this may cease to be a problem. If a "smart-grid" is used, it is even possible that plug-in cars could act as storage batteries for solar and wind-generated electricity, selling power back to the grid at times when demand is excessive or the turbines are not turning.

However, a major issue which must be addressed if electric cars are to be a truly viable resource is the battery material. Car manufacturers plan to replace the NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) batteries in their electric cars with Li-Ion (Lithium ion) batteries in the near future. While they can be recharged many more times than NiMH batteries, Li-Ion batteries are far from perfect, as anyone who has ever owned a laptop computer for more than a year can testify. Although re-chargeable, they hold an ever-decreasing charge over their lifetime until they are beyond practical use and must be disposed of and replaced.

It takes 1 million tonnes of lithium metal to make 5.3 million tonnes of lithium carbonate, which is what goes into Li-Ion batteries. Data from the US Geological Service (bit.ly/2LcRUd : based on a 1976 National Research Council report) says that global resources of lithium are about 14m tonnes, although Keith Evans (who worked on the original 1976 report) gives an abundance of 29.79m tonnes (http://www.worldlithium.com/AN_ABUNDANCE_OF_LITHIUM_-_Part_2.html). Even the more optimistic estimate doesn’t seem like nearly enough to keep our electric cars on the road for any length of time, especially as Li-Ion batteries are also used in other machines.

In 2007 global lithium carbonate demand was 93,000 tons, up 7.4% year on year, and China's battery output reached 33.4 billion, with an export volume of 25.168 billion: (source http://www.researchinchina.com/Htmls/Report/2008/5619.html). The Times reported on November 6 2008 that Japanese car manufacturers and electronics firms were adding lithium extraction and mining operations to their portfolios, indicating that they foresee increasing demand. Assuming that the US Geological Service’s figures are correct, this gives us less than 70 years worth of lithium, unless there is an improvement in mining and extraction methods in the meanwhile. But even then, this hardly constitutes as reliable a resource as, say, wood, which can be re grown more or less indefinitely.

There are several actions we might take to reduce emissions without over-exploiting our limited natural resources.

  • To avoid overexploitation of lithium, there could be greater investment in alternative transport: to move freight, we might, for example, use high speed electric trains powered by renewably generated electricity instead of trucks.

  • We could consider prioritising the needs of cyclists and pedestrians over those of drivers in our urban planning: this would encourage more people to leave their cars at home.

  • Taxation could be used to shift costs, reflecting the true inherent costs of petrol, for example, (while reducing income tax). This would increase the cost of car use which would encourage the use of alternative means of transport.

  • Mining and processing operations should be carried out with respect for the environment, the workers and the local population: this would almost certainly raise the costs of production and therefore the cost to the consumer, encouraging more careful use of our resources as well as raising the standard of living of the miners to an almost acceptable level.

Car manufacturers appear to view the Li-Ion car as a stop-gap while they attempt to develop completely different technology, probably hydrogen fuel cells. As a potentially cleaner fuel than fossils, this is a laudable aim. However, plans should be made to ensure that the Li-Ion car, which will inevitably become redundant, can be fully recycled and will not be the cause of yet more pollution at the end of its life.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Mind the gap...

Recently, there has been much talk in the media about the necessity of slashing carbon dioxide emissions by 80% relative to 1990 levels by 2050. At the same time, coal fired power stations and airport expansion have been promoted. We are seeing here a significant gap between the rhetoric and the reality of our policy makers' approach to tackling climate change.

There is a similar gap in the perception of environmental issues in the general population. On the one hand we have a radical element in the green movement which predicts the total collapse of industrial society and a return to a kind of neo-pleistocene existence, and on the other hand the climate change deniers and the "business as usual" or the "small cosmetic changes will be enough" believers. In between these two extremes, the rest of our population ranges from the genuinely well-informed to the frankly clueless, passing through the well-intentioned but ill-informed and the gullible on the way.

Are we really too late to stop the earth warming by 2 degrees centigrade? Are we really facing sea level rises of 12m? How will these and other changes affect food, water and energy security for us all? While answering these questions with absolute certainty may well be impossible, I would argue that our policies regarding all environmental issues should be strictly based on the most recent, properly peer-reviewed scientific evidence, with wider dissemination of data so that the information is easily available to all. Of course, information by itself is useless to those without the skills to interpret it accurately, so easy access to education in critical skills is an intrinsic part of the solution.

Faced with a generally well-educated population able to regard their pronouncements with a critical eye, extremists at either end of the spectrum would find it difficult to persuade many to believe their inflated claims. It would also be easier for a well-intentioned government to push through sorely needed environmental legislation: legislation which will inevitably make our lives less comfortable and which, in the face of a poorly-informed populace, would be a sure-fire recipe for a government's growing unpopularity and ultimately loss of power at the next election.

We all need to be able to seperate the reality from the rhetoric. A well-informed populace able to identify the difference between policies which are based on good science and those which are based on ideology or political expediency is a populace which can insist that its long-term interests and those of its descendents are prioritised. It is a populace which can be part of the solution, rather than just part of the problem.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Where are we focusing our resources?

I was reading Lester R. Brown's Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to save civilization. Using a value of 210 US dollars per ton of sequestered carbon, he calculates the cost of afforesting 171 million hectares in order to sequester carbon, conserve soil, reduce flooding and provide firewood over ten years at around 20 billion US dollars per year. Citing a Congressional Research Service study by Vatenfall and Belasco (2007) on the cost of US military operations in the "war on terror," Brown points out that this afforestation would cost less than 2 months of US occupation of Iraq (presumably each year).

I began to wonder what emissions are produced by UK activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also what this involvement is costing the the country in financial terms. It would be interesting to calculate how much could be achieved with these funds were they to be diverted instead to combatting climate change. In order to find out, I have put a Freedom of Information request in to the MOD, asking about both emissions and financial cost: I will let you know the result if/when I get a reply.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Third Runway at Heathrow

The proposed third runway at Heathrow got its long expected approval today, in spite of much protest and questioning.

  • A recent report co-written by the Sustainable Development Comission and the Institute for Public Policy Research called on the government to completely rethink its aviation policy.
  • Research by the Tyndall Centre (K, Anderson, A. Bows & P. Upham (2006)) shows that if the industry is allowed to expand as predicted, aviation alone would threaten the ability of the UK to meet its target of an 80% cut in carbon emissions by 2050.
  • The EU environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, has also expressed concern that if expansion goes ahead the UK may breach mandatory EU targets on nitrogen oxides which come into force in 2010.

All that before we even take into consideration the impact of high-altitude emissions released by aviation.

It is claimed that this expansion will bring many economic benefits to the UK. However, a report by CE-DELFT (CE-DELFT (2008) The Economics of Heathrow Expansion) questions the validity of the study used by ministers to assess the economic benefits of a third runway. It demonstrates that the official figures overestimate both the number of jobs generated and the value brought to Britain by extra business travellers.

The first most popular destination for travellers from Heathrow is Paris and the fourth most popular is Manchester, both of which can be reached by rail, which is much less carbon intensive.

With the economic downturn already affecting passenger numbers, and with solid grounds for concern that peak-oil may have a significant impact on the future viability of air travel, it seems increasingly unlikely that the benefits of this project could outweigh the costs.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Peak Oil in 2020?

On 15th December 2008, The Guardian newspaper reported a George Monbiot interview with Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Authority (IEA). You can watch the full interview here http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/video/2008/dec/15/fatih-birol-george-monbiot. Birol explained that for the first time the IEA had actually researched decline rates in the world's largest 800 oilfields: as a result, the IEA is now predicting peak oil around 2020! Why is this not headline news daily? With so much of our society based around cheap energy (especially oil) we need to be doing something about this right now! Instead, the UK government seems determined to push ahead with "development" projects like the expansion of Heathrow and Stanstead airports, which will increase demand for oil-based fuel. The disastrous rush to coal and nuclear energy is their response to this scarcity, but these pose real problems for the future, both in terms of climate change and in terms of safe disposal of nuclear waste. A better strategy might be to invest in decentralised renewable energy solutions, such as microgeneration and small-scale combined heat and power (CHP)plants. It would also help if the government stopped subsidizing the airline industry with public funds; the companies would then have to pass on the real cost to the consumer, which would discourage casual jaunts. As someone who has family overseas, I am as eager as the next to see them more frequently. I know there is no substitute for meeting them face to face, but video-conferencing is increasingly accessible, and costs less in hard cash and to the environment. Let's make the best use of the modern technology we have and stop relying on out-moded technologies which are not only well past their best-before date but are actively poisoning us and our posterity.