Archive for July, 2021

COP26: Is hope an option?

July 30, 2021

Click for  larger version. The graph shows the Mauna Loa record of atmospheric carbon dioxide since 1959 in black. The dotted lines are extrapolations of the trend from each decade, the 1960s, 1970s etc. Also shown are the dates meetings of the COP – the Conference of Parties to the UN framework convention on climate change and the dates of the scientific assessment reports.

Friends, at the end of this year the UK will host ‘COP26’ in Glasgow. And a recent e-mail from a friend in California caused me to ask myself this question:

  • Did I genuinely feel even a scintilla of hope that COP26 would mark a turning point of any kind in our attempts to stop global warming?

After reflection, my answer was – genuinely and sadly – “No”. Please allow me to explain.

Reasons for despair

This reflection was initiated by a particular slide in a presentation (130 Mb pdf available here & Peter Wadhams. TEDX talk here). I have reproduced the essential features in the graph at the top of the page.

It shows the monthly averages of measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration at the Mauna Loa laboratory in Hawaii since 1959 – the so-called ‘Keeling Curve‘. The data shows seasonal wiggles, but also a continuous rising trend.

Every ppm rise corresponds to roughly 7.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide lingering in the atmosphere.

I have fitted a straight line to the data from each decade – 1960’s 1970’s etc, and then extrapolated these lines to 2040.

These extrapolations make clear that not only has the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere been increasing, but also the rate at which it has been increasing has also increased decade on decade.

  • In the 1960s, carbon dioxide concentrations were increasing at 0.77 ppm/year.
  • By the 2010s, carbon dioxide concentrations were increasing more than three times faster, at 2.37 ppm/year.
  • The only decade in which there was essentially no acceleration in the levels of carbon dioxide over the previous decade was the 1990’s. This was reportedly due to the chaos which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Also shown are the dates of the 25 previous Conferences of the Parties (COPs) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Additionally shown are the dates of the six IPCC Assessment Reports summarising the state of scientific knowledge about Climate Change.

Looking at these data together offers a sobering perspective.

If one were feeling uncharitable, one might argue that the previous 25 COPs appear to have made no difference whatsoever to the growth in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration.

And one might then conclude that a priori, COP26 would be similarly unlikely to make a difference. If one then recalled that the diplomatic wizard Boris Johnson was hosting the event, one’s hopes might fall yet further.

And if you feel despair or anger then I think these are perfectly understandable responses.

But in fact I think the previous COPs have had an effect. But the fact that they have failed to stop further increases in carbon dioxide emissions – is testament to the difficulty and complexity of the challenge we all face.

Reasons for hope

Although I despair that COP26 of the UNFCCC will make any progress, I am not without hope. Progress is being made on many fronts.

  • Electricity generation is being transformed by cheap and abundant renewable solar and wind generation.
  • Transport is being electrified at a rate I would not have imagined possible.
  • Renewable energy technologies for space and water heating both domestically and industrially are available off-the-shelf.
  • Consciousness of the need for changes to what we eat and the concomitant changes in agriculture has never been higher.

Some of these developments are local to the UK, but many are global, involving re-deployment of tens of billions of pounds of capital every year.

I would wish for more and faster, but it seems to me that real change has begun.

However the connection between the years of activity at the UN COPs and action visible on the ground is sometimes not clear – but I think it is there.

  • In the UK, solar and and wind generation were not initially cheaper than gas and coal. The electricity they generated was subsidised for many years, and the justification for this was that we needed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. And our participation in the UNFCCC process was the political backstop that allowed a policy which increased electricity prices.
  • The electrification of road transport is occurring now because of the existence of Elon Musk. Corporations such as GM and Nissan had vastly more resources and time but were corporately unable to give up their profits from ICE vehicles. Once Musk showed that electric cars would be better than ICE cars in every respect, the corporations responded in fear. But despite this striking triumph of free enterprise, government backing for this change has been essential. So-called ‘carbon credits’ from other car companies formed a critical income for the Tesla in its critical early years. And the political framework behind this subsidy was the UNFCCC process.
  • On the ground, almost every dwelling in the UK will require some kind of modification. And the most powerful agents of this change will plumbers and builders who I expect will be thin on the ground at COP26. However the scientists and politicians who will attend COP26, will create policies (such as banning new gas boilers) that will allow manufacturers to invest money to develop new products (such as heat pumps and insulation) that will allow builders and plumbers to effect change on the ground.
  • The consciousness of the need for change is hard to gauge, but I think in the last 20 years it has been enormous. Part of this comes from the scientific work (paid for from public funds) that has made clear the reality of Climate Change and the impact of activities such as farming. This has generated public concern at a level that allows politicians to make unpopular choices – such as raising taxes on particular activities or products.

So despite the unpromising trend in the graph at the head of this article, and despite my very low expectations of COP26. I am still not entirely despairing.

In the end, climate change is a threat to every country on Earth and the UN processes provide a framework – albeit highly imperfect – for humanity to act. Ultimately, a world where COP26 (and 27 and 28…) takes place offers more possibilities for change than a world without those meetings. And this is true even if a particular meeting is disappointing.

My hope

My hope is that before I die I will  look up the data from Mauna Loa and see a reduction in the slope of the curve.

So that when I extrapolate the data from the 2020s, it will be shallower than the slope from the 2010s.

I daren’t hope to see the curve flatten, but I hope my children will live to see that, and then eventually to see it fall.

This would still commit us to a great deal more Climate Change in the coming century, much of it which will be very bad.

But to have collectively and deliberately changed the slope on the Keeling curve would be a sign to all humanity that we have begun to take care of our own planet. And that the age of fossil fuels was ending.

Our Old Car is Dead. Long Live The New Car!

July 28, 2021

Click for larger image. Our old and new Zafira cars

After 20 years and 96,000 miles, our 2001 Vauxhall Zafira is close to death.

We bought it for £7000 when it was three years old in 2004. Back then it was all shiny and new, but over the last 17 years it has developed a very long list of faults.

Alexei Sayle once said of his car: “When one door closes, another one opens.”. This was one of the faults our car did not have. But it did have a feature such that: “When one door closes, all the electric windows operate simultaneously.”

Over the last few weeks the engine has begun making horrific noises, the engine warning light is on permanently, and there is an acrid stench of burning oil in the cabin.

After much deliberation, we have replaced it with a closely similar car, a 2010 Zafira with only 52,000 miles on its ‘clock’. The new car lacks our old car’s charmingly idiosyncratic list of faults, but what can you expect for £3,200?

In this post I would like to explain the thinking behind our choice of car.

Do we need a car?

Strictly speaking, no. We could operate with a combination of bikes and taxis and hire cars. But my wife and I do find having a car extremely convenient.

Having a car available simplifies a large number of mundane tasks and gives us the sense of – no irony intended – freedom.

Further, although I am heavily invested in reducing my carbon dioxide emissions, I do not want to live the life of a ‘martyr’. I am keen to show that a life with low carbon dioxide emissions can be very ‘normal’.

So why not an electric car? #1: Cost

Given the effort and expense I have gone to in reducing carbon dioxide emissions from the house, I confess that I did want to get an electric car.

I have come to viscerally hate the idea of burning a few kilograms of hydrocarbon fuel in order to move myself around. It feels dirty.

But sadly buying a new electric car didn’t really make financial sense.

There are lots of excellent electric family cars available in the UK, but they all cost in the region of £30,000.

There are not many second-hand models available but amongst those that were available, there appeared to be very few for less than £15,000.

Click for larger version. Annual Mileage of our family cars since 1995 taken from their MOT certificates. The red dotted line is the Zafira’s average over its lifetime.

Typically my wife and I drive between 3,000 and 5,000 miles per year, and we found ourselves unable to enthuse about the high cost of these cars.

And personally, I feel like I have spent a fortune on the house. Indeed I have spent a fortune! And I now need to just stop spending money for a while. But Michael: What about the emissions?

So why not an electric car? #2: Carbon Dioxide

Sadly, buying an electric didn’t quite make sense in terms of carbon emissions either.

Electric cars have very low emissions of carbon dioxide per kilometre. But they have – like conventional cars – quite large amounts of so-called ’embedded’ carbon dioxide arising from their manufacture.

As a consequence, at low annual mileages, it takes several years for the carbon dioxide emissions of an electric car to beat the carbon dioxide emissions from an already existing internal combustion engine car.

The graph below compares the anticipated carbon dioxide emissions from our old car, our new car, and a hypothetical EV over the next 10 years. The assumptions I have made are listed at the end of the article.

Click for larger version. Projected carbon dioxide emissions from driving 5,000 miles per year in: Our current car (2001 Zafira); Our new car (2010 Zafira); and a typical EV. The dotted line shows the effect of grid carbon intensity falling from around 200 gCO2/kWhe now to 100 gCO2/kWhe in 2030.

For an annual mileage of 5000 miles, the breakeven point for carbon dioxide emissions is 6 or 7 years away. If we reduced our mileage to 3000 miles per year, then the breakeven point would be even further away.

Click for larger version. Projected carbon dioxide emissions from driving 3,000 miles per year in: Our new car (2010 Zafira); and a typical EV. The dotted line shows the effect of grid carbon intensity falling from around 200 gCO2/kWhe now to 100 gCO2/kWhe in 2030.

However, we are a low mileage household. If we drove a more typical 10,000 miles per year then the breakeven point would be just a couple of years away. Over 10 years, the Zafira would emit roughly 12 tonnes more carbon dioxide than the EV.

If we took account of embodied carbon dioxide in a combustion engine car, i.e. if we were considering buying a new car, the case for an EV would be very compelling.

Click for larger version. Projected carbon dioxide emissions from driving 10,000 miles per year in: Our new car (2010 Zafira); and a typical EV. The dotted line shows the effect of grid carbon intensity falling from around 200 gCO2/kWhe now to 100 gCO2/kWhe in 2030.

So…

By replacing our old car with a closely similar model we have minimised the cognitive stress of buying a new car. Hopefully it will prove to be reliable.

And however many miles we drive in the coming years, our new car will reduce our carbon dioxide emissions compared to what they would have been in the old car by about 17%. And no new cars will have been built to achieve that saving.

Assuming that our new car will last us for (say) 5 years, I am hopeful that by then the cost of electric cars will have fallen to the point where an electric car – new or second-hand – might make sense to us.

Additionally, if the electricity used to both manufacture and charge electric cars increasingly comes from renewable sources, then the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions associated with driving electric cars will (year-on-year) become ever more compelling.

However, despite being able to justify this decision to myself, I must confess that I am sad not to be able to join the electric revolution just yet.

Assumptions

For the Zafiras:

  • I used the standard CO2 emissions per kilometre (190 and 157 gCO2/km respectively) in the standard government database.

For the hypothetical EV

  • I took a typical high efficiency figure of 16 kWh per 100 km taken from this article.
  • I assumed a charging inefficiency of 10%, and a grid carbon intensity of 200 gCO2/kWhe reducing to 100 gCO2/kWhe in 10 years time.
  • I assumed that the battery size was 50 kWh and that embodied carbon emissions were 65 kg per kWh (link) of battery storage yielding 3.3 tonnes of embodied carbon dioxide.
  • I assumed the embodied carbon dioxide in the chassis and other components was 4.6 tonnes.
  • For comparison, the roughly 8 tonnes of embodied carbon dioxide in an EV is only just less than the combined embodied carbon dioxide in all the other emission reduction technology I have bought recently:
    • Triple Glazing, External Wall Insulation, Solar Panels, Powerwall Battery, Heat Pump, Air Conditioning

I think all these numbers are quite uncertain, but they seem plausible and broadly in line with other estimates one can find on the web

 

COVID 19 Wave#3: How is it going?

July 27, 2021

Click for a larger image. Logarithmic graph showing positive caseshospital admissions and deaths since the start of the pandemic. The blue arrows show the dates of recent ‘opening’ events. See text for further details. The green dotted line shows an extrapolation from the first week of June.

Friends, I last wrote about the pandemic almost a month ago on 29th June 2021. There I quoted myself from 4th June as saying that

I don’t think [Wave#3] can kill ‘hundreds of thousands’, but it could easily kill ‘thousands‘ and cause serious illness in many more.

I estimated that

by the end of June we would exceed 10,000 new cases per day and approach 40,000 per day at the end of the school term“.

I then pointed out that aside from more death and serious illness and we would be rolling the variant dice. I then concluded:

“the recommendations [on what to do] were … obvious, but that writing them down was pointless, because the Government just doesn’t care!

Today

Today (26th July) I see that at the start of July cases exceeded my estimates. Using a retrospective 7 day average cases peaked on 21st July with 47,000 cases per day.

But since then, the number of positive cases has been falling.

Click for a larger image. Logarithmic graph showing positive cases since the start of the 2021. The blue arrows show the dates of recent ‘opening’ events. See text for further details. The green dotted line shows an extrapolation from the first week of June.

Daily hospitalisations and deaths have continued to rise, but if this data really indicates a meaningful decline in viral transmission, then they too will peak shortly.

I am puzzled.

This is great news, but it is not what I expected. And it lifts my spirits to know that something – anything – appears to be spontaneously improving!

Sudden changes in number of daily cases like this have previously coincided with distinct changes in behaviour: lockdowns or similar. But this recent fall coincided with the calendar date of the nominal ending of pandemic restrictions!

The cause of this change in the trend of the number of daily cases would have happened a few days prior to that. But what could that cause be?  Well I don’t know, but here are six thoughts.

  • Thought#1: Could we have reached something close to herd immunity? At least in the key groups amongst whom the pandemic is spreading. I don’t think this is the case, because if it were, I would have expected a much more gradual change in the number of daily infections.
  • Thought#2: Could this be an effect of the ‘pingdemic’? After such a pedigree of failure, could it be possible that the number of people requested to isolate has become so large that viral transmission is really being restricted? Well it ought to be having some effect, but again I would not have expected such a sharp change.
  • Thought#3: Could a substantial part of the rise have arisen during the Euro 2020 matches? The final was on July 11th and so we might perhaps expect that cases arising from that might peak about a week later (July 18th) and then decline sharply.
  • Thought#4: Could it be something to do with the hot weather?
  • Thought#5: Could it be something to do with changes in Schools?
  • Thought#6: Could it be that people are avoiding taking a test even if they think they might be ill? Since all retractions have (nominally) been lifted, perhaps people’s sense of civic duty has changed?

Or could it be some combination of these things?

What next?

It is worth pointing out that the number of daily cases is still high based either on either an international or a historical comparison. So the UK part of the pandemic is not over, and there is a continuing risk of new variants. And a continuing threat to the millions of immuno-compromised people.

But this decline in daily cases is really welcome. However since I don’t know why it has happened I can’t really imagine what will happen next.

If I had to guess, I think I would expect the rapid decline to be temporary. I think daily cases  will fall to a still high level, perhaps a 10,000 cases per day, but hopefully less. And then I would expect daily cases to either increase again or decrease, but much more gradually. But that is just a guess.

So in the coming weeks I will be looking to see if the hospitalisations and deaths show the same peak in  cases, and then trying to discern the ongoing trend in cases.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy summer (or winter) safely wherever you are.

Not-blogging: What I did on my holidays

July 25, 2021

 

View from our holiday cottage,

Friends! Hello again.

I have been on holiday in delightful Kent, visiting many of the same attractions I visited last year, and a few new ones.

I have also been busy not-blogging.

Blogging about a topic forces me to clarify my thoughts.

And similarly not-blogging allows me to avoid clarifying my thoughts. Which has been a relief.

I did notice the extreme weather events world-wide and the pandemical nihilism in the UK, but it has been a blessing to not have to focus on these events too closely.

While away I…

  • Enjoyed the kindness of strangers and reflected on how steadfast this was in even the most difficult of times.
  • Noticed how tough the pandemic has been for small businesses, and reflected on my own good fortune.
  • Required no cash at all not even once in even the smallest of establishments and reflected that cash will soon become extinct.
  • Gazed in wonder at Canterbury Cathedral and reflected on the enduring power of martyrdom.
  • Visited the Brogdale National Fruit Collection and reflected on how hard it is to buy British Fruit even in the Garden of England.
  • Discovered an airfield unmarked on the OS map and reflected on the pleasure of discovery.
  • Saw many beautiful flowers and plants and reflected on their resilience and perfection.
  • Noticed how different country foxes were from from their town cousins: country foxes have beautiful coats and run like the wind when they spot you.
  • Visited Leeds Castle and reflected on the unimaginable wealth of Lady Bailey – an heiress of an ESSO founder who used the vast estate as her weekend retreat. And I thought about the storms my children will endure as a result of that companies success.
  • Visited Rochester Castle and was astounded by this carcass of a skyscraper with astonishing views.
  • Visited Chatham Dockyard and reflected on how different the world was now from my father’s world which transported him to North Africa and Burma.
  • Visited Teapot Island Museum and reflected on the way in which this non-native plant (tea was apparently smuggled from China and planted in India) had led to (amongst other things) a bizarre form of cultural expression.
  • Spent time with my children and reflected on my great good fortune.
  • Realised that after 96,000 miles and 20 years of neglect, our car was about to die. The stench of burning oil highlighted my appreciation that its carbon-based effluents were polluting the planet.
  • Walked through wheat fields and reflected on wonder of my daily bread.
  • Ate fish and chips on the beach in the rain and reflected on how English I feel while still not disliking other cultures.
  • Saw wind ‘farms’ at sea and solar ‘farms’ on land and reflected on the sheer wonder of their engineering and the hope for a non-polluting future that they embody.

And I let all this and more wash over me.

And after returning to a heatwave that I believe may have extended beyond Teddington, I enjoyed solar-powered air conditioning at home – even as I slept – and allowed these memories and reflections to ferment in my dreams.

I have put some pictures below and after my non-blogging indulgence, I will be back blogging very shortly

I hope you too can have a holiday of sorts.

Pictures

Click the images for larger versions.


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