Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The need for a master plan

Gaining public acceptance for climate change mitigation efforts

We presently do not have a proven tool that quantifies the environmental impact of various electricity generation systems. And without it, we cannot take well-founded decisions concerning our energy future. That is one of the conclusions in the paper Environmental Effects of Electricity Generation by The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) (see former post). Current discussions about the Severn barrage (see former post) and the construction of a wind park on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland (see article in the Sunday Times) illustrate in practice how urgently such a tool is needed.

These cases also show that such a decision tool alone will not be enough to guarantee that we are taking the best available measures to mitigate climate change. There is also a need for a European structure in which such a decision tool can be applied.

Emotional resistance

As the IET paper makes clear, the environmental impact of renewable energy is not zero. If we want to apply renewable energy generation on a scale comparable to fossil fuels, what ever form it takes will have a significant impact in terms of aesthetics, land use, and the eco-system. Consequently, renewable energy projects will continue to face increasing ‘Not-In-My-Backyard’ resistance at the same time they are gaining in their contribution to global energy needs. An undeniable, tangible effect in someone's backyard today will always have greater personal impact than a global, complex phenomenon that occurs over the course of a century or more.

Countering such resistance can be accomplished in two ways. The first is elevating the emotional rhetoric ever higher to dramatize climate change as leading directly to the end of world (see former post). The second one is more durable but also more difficult: use rational arguments that stand like a rock. Make sure that the complex global phenomenon is as clear to people as the nose on your face, and propose a mix of solutions that is undeniably the best we can do. The former is what Al Gore did in the movie An Inconvenient Truth – at least in its best moments, since the movie was not completely free of over-dramatization either. Unfortunately, Gore keeps surprisingly silent about solutions.

Searching for the best available solutions

Regarding the Severn barrage, an answer to the following questions might go a long way towards convincing local populations, bird watchers, and other environmentalists: Have all other measures for reducing CO2 emissions been considered? Are there no effective measures available at a lower price? Will building the barrage actually lead to a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions or will it only be used to increase energy consumption? Presently, there is no clear answer to these questions. The UK government needs to be able to state unequivocally that ‘We are making maximum efforts to stimulate energy efficiency, since this “fourth fuel” has the least environmental impact. We have thoroughly investigated which of the possible measures will have the least financial, environmental, and social cost in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including the Severn barrage. With this barrage, we will be able to close down 2,000 MW of coal-fired power plants, leading to a CO2 reduction of x tons a year.’ In short, building this barrage should be part of a master plan — preferably pan-European — that can be explained and proven to the general public that it is the best available solution for mitigating climate change.

Complex market mechanisms

The idea of a master plan with executive power, however, contradicts the philosophy of a liberalized market.

If the UK government acted strictly along the lines of the liberalized energy market, it

  • Could force the market to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
  • Should leave it completely up to the market how to achieve these reductions
  • Should of not grant a permit to build the Severn barrage, since that would affect state-protected nature reserves

In short, it would ask the impossible of the various market players and stakeholders, since the dilemma of local versus global impact would not be solved.

The third way is to design a master plan that indicates the measures with the least financial, environmental, social cost, but to leave its execution to the market. That is to set up market mechanisms that work in such a way that the least cost for the market players coincides with the least cost for society. Those mechanisms however are virtually guaranteed to be highly complex, so complex in fact that it will be difficult to gain the support of a broad public. Have you ever tried to explain the Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) or the green certificates system to laymen? Moreover, there is no guarantee that those mechanisms will function as desired, as proved by the failure of the ETS (see blog post EU emissions trading scrutinized). And as the Severn case illustrates, it is very difficult to incorporate all required considerations (up to and including eco-diversity and local tourism) into such market mechanisms.

Making the solutions as clear as the problem

Thanks to missionaries like Al Gore, the broad public is today convinced that climate change is real. But before people will be willing to undertake the efforts necessary to mitigate the effects, they will need the assurance that those efforts are part of a clear, generally acknowledged master plan, for which all available measures have been investigated and the options with the least cost to society clearly identified. As long as there is no such plan implemented, some people will keep on reasoning that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and decisions like the one on the Severn barrage will be impossible to take in a satisfying manner for all parties concerned.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Finding good sites for wind turbines is not so easy

Wind farms in England and Wales are failing to generate the predicted amount of electricity

A study by the Renewable Energy Foundation shows that England and Wales are not windy enough to generate electricity at the rates projected for them. Government targets are based on wind farms running at 30% of capacity. But most farms in England and Wales are generating only around 25%. The two poorest performers have rates of no more than 7.7% and 8.8% respectively.

In the UK, only the wind farms in Scotland and those on the Orkney and Shetland isles run above 30% of capacity. But those sites face other problems. They are far from the main consuming areas, so significant amounts of electrical power are lost in transmission. Moreover, they are often located in ecologically sensitive areas. One example is the projected wind farm on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer-Hebrides. The site is controversial since it is located near important bird sanctuaries (see article in the Sunday Times).

This illustrates how difficult it has become to find acceptable sites for wind farms in Europe. The Renewable Energy Foundation has concluded that the most effective sites for wind energy are off-shore near major cities.


Article on Telegraph.co.uk

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

HAPPY NEW (and sustainable) YEAR!

A historic turn?

The only way to detect historic events in your own life-time is to live to be well beyond 100. We may not be that fortunate (from an academic point of view), but it seems reasonable to assume that the publication of the Stern-Review late 2006 was a significant milestone on the road to a sustainable world. An event that may be regarded as historic in creating an understanding of the climate problem, an awareness of the opportunities and a political platform for action.

Understanding the problem

The magnitude of the climate change, in terms of the effects, the speed of the change and the inevitability was made perfectly clear (see figure), but also that it is possible to pull the brakes.

(click image to enlarge)

It became clear that no region of the world will be un-touched, though some will be hit harder. Those that may enjoy a brief period of perceived improvements in climate may have to face more frequent storms and flooding later. In short - there is no escape!

The opportunities

The most hopeful part of the Stern-Review is when it declares that a fairly small investment (1% of the world GDP) will enable us to avoid a huge recession with loss of some 20% of the world GDP (not to mention loss of lifes and land). This is extremely important because the debate has up till now tacitly assumed that the Business-as-usual, BAU, alternative did not have any negative impact on the economy. One could say that we have compared the future with the past instead of comparing two different futures.

Even more important and hopeful is when the review declares that the economies that first understand the challenges will be the winners in the new industrial setting to produce, install and use climate-friendly, low-carbon products. They will be the suppliers to a huge and growing world-market, estimated to be at least 500 Billion USD a year worldwide.

The political platform

The Review has generally been positively received and forms the starting point for several international actions both in the EU and in G8, which is very appropriate since it puts heavy emphasis on the need for international co-operation. Nevertheless it is possible to detect some different attitudes in the reception

1. The denial, which is no surprise since there is an entire industry to deny the need for a change. There have also been some lame attempts to say that there are more important problems than climate change to tackle. A strange attitude since e.g. water supply that is mentioned is one of the problems that is aggravated with climate change. There have also been attempts to attack the economic analysis on the ground of comparing long-term effects. A sort of standard discussion, which however that review has studied in great detail. This criticism seems rather to be liturgics than serious.

2. The hope (and declaration) of a quick technology fix. Mostly expressed as a wish for more (and new types of) nuclear power and of Carbon Capture and Storage, CCS-technology. These technologies should quickly and with little disturbance just kick-in and save us from all evil. Often expressed in editorial articles in major newspapers affiliated to political parties. In the same papers there is often expressed a worry that the new reports are proclaiming doomsday and are scaring people. A legitimate reaction that people may either overreact or block themselves away from the problems.

The reaction could also be interpreted as a nostalgic wish for yesterday and a hope that there will be saviour for a life-style that is hard to question and harder to depart from.

3. Retarding. Business-associations react more positively but are asking for some more time to adjust themselves and especially not to be the only or the main loser of the game. There will certainly be a difference between branches. Some will lose, some will lose more but some will gain.

4. Repressive acceptance, which is probably what most of us are feeling. "Yes we understand, but what should I do, when should I do it and how much?". We may easily understand that week-end shopping-trips across Europe even at cheap flight-prices are not a sustainable idea, but how about driving for a pick-nick at the sea-side?

5. Take the action-road, and accept that small steps in the beginning are OK. We may have to understand that quality life-style and quantity is not compatible. We may have to ask ourselves the question Kofi Annan put when he has read the Stern-Review: As Climate Changes - Can we?

After all it would be natural for anyone of us to go through all these stages in a process to cope with reality and come to a conclusion. But as they say: "Today is the first day in the rest of our life" - So let us start now!

A Happy New Year - Your first in the new sustainable era!