Big and dumb or small and smart? UK energy and climate policy at a crossroads once more

Energy efficiency is of central importance in meeting a raft of the UK’s infrastructure demands, as well as its climate targets. Ambitious energy efficiency implementation minimises the cost and maximises the benefits of decarbonisation. It addresses fuel poverty, enhances productivity and competitiveness, creates and supports quality jobs, improves energy security and boosts GDP, and can render potential ‘white elephant’ investments on the supply side unnecessary.

Energy efficiency’s track record speaks for itself. In homes, gas and electricity demand has fallen by 21% and 13% respectively since the peak of 2004. This despite there being over two million more households, higher indoor temperatures, and more lamps and appliances in each home. Thanks to insulation, efficient boilers and appliances, energy bills were £500 lower in 2017 than they would have been without energy efficiency improvements since 2004. With residential energy efficiency policy having slowed to a crawl in 2015, and the rate of insulation down 95% compared to 2012, there is now a real risk that these trends reverse. This risk must be overcome, and energy efficiency’s enormous remaining potential – which could slash household energy demand by 50% – realised.

Given energy efficiency’s central importance, the Government’s ambition for home energy renovation in its Clean Growth Strategy – for all homes to achieve an Energy Performance Certificate rating of C (on the A to G scale) by 2035 – is a good start. However, policy and investment to achieve it is severely lacking. The annual investment needed from public and private sources to 2035 is £5.2 billion. Public investment in 2017/18 was £0.7 billion. This draws in little to no private investment and there are no plans to change this amount or the way in which it is invested, leaving an annual gap of £4.5 billion.

Thought and practice on how to effectively drive greater demand for energy efficient renovation – including by harnessing the £27.6 billion market for housing repair and maintenance – is well established and needs to be acted on in the UK. In a new report out today, case studies of peer countries France, Germany and the Netherlands – and a case study of Scotland owing to its own advanced approach – demonstrate combinations of policies and public investment that are far more effective at raising renovation rates and unlocking more private investment.

Considering the UK has substantial energy efficiency policy capability and experience spanning decades, these case studies inspire the belief that the UK must be capable of doing better. But it will require a greater commitment of public capital investment and better-organised delivery to achieve.

Now is an important time to capitalise on momentum for greater ambition. Some incremental policy steps are being taken by Government following the Clean Growth Strategy’s publication last October. In March, the retail finance sector, through the Green Finance Taskforce, made strong recommendations to Government that would enable it to mainstream the financing of home energy improvements.

Crucially, the National Infrastructure Commission, having established energy efficiency as one of its priorities, has a unique opportunity to make big picture recommendations for greater energy efficiency investment as part of its first five-yearly National Infrastructure Assessment to be published on July 10th, 2018.

It must inspire Government to follow up with a more coherent and ambitious approach that treats energy efficiency as a national infrastructure priority and weaves in those steps the Government is already taking, including in response to the Green Finance Taskforce’s work. This encompasses:

  1. Confirming energy efficiency as a national infrastructure priority, with clear governance arrangements, targets, a long-term action plan and funding, as in Scotland;
  2. Additional public capital investment of £1 billion per year to 2035 – much of it supporting low income households – that can help unlock £3.5 billion of private investment, closing the £4.5 billion gap;
  3. Adequate incentives for ‘able to pay’ homeowners and landlords, such as lower Stamp Duty for more energy efficient homes and 0% interest loans;
  4. Robust regulation, strengthening over time towards an EPC rating of C, that requires some homeowners to take action and inspires others to plan and invest for the future;
  5. A long-term approach to delivery in which local authorities play a core role in tackling fuel poverty, creating demand and growing local supply chains;
  6. Strong advice provision and quality assurance and safety standards.

What is the prize, aside from meeting our climate targets in the most cost-effective way, of doing so? Everyone gets to live in a safer, more comfortable home that is cheaper to run: quintessentially ‘no regrets’.

Pedro Guertler is a Senior Policy Adviser at E3G, an independent climate change think tank. You can read the full report here.

The views expressed in the article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.

 

Getting the UK electric vehicle sector into the fast lane

British car manufacturing history is dominated by iconic vehicles like the original Mini and the Jaguar E-Type. Both are recognised and associated with British manufacturing across the world. The only electric vehicle (EV) produced in the UK is the Nissan Leaf, not a brand high on the list of cars people know Britain makes. Nor do people see the UK as a leader in the EV revolution, that credit goes to California, the birth place of Elon Musk’s Tesla.   

The Prime Minister, Theresa May, wants this to change by “cement[ing] the UK’s position as a world leader in the low emissions and electric vehicle industry”. This aspiration has been joined by a commitment from Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, to phase out fossil-fuelled car sales in the UK by 2040. Unfortunately, neither will be enough to put Britain in the lead. But moving forward the ban on petrol and diesel cars ten years, from 2040 to 2030, would be a game changer.  

We need a strong EV market at home

The UK is somewhere in the middle of the pack in the global EV market. In 2017, Germany overtook us for the first time in EV sales, and China manufactured over half of all EVs worldwide. At the same time, other countries are committing to more rapid phase-outs of fossil fuelled cars, with Norway planning a 2025 phase out and Scotland setting a 2032 target. A 2030 UK target would help to strengthen the domestic market, supporting UK based EV manufacturers to grow and bringing down costs.

Green Alliance has quantified the benefits. More rapid phase out of petrol and diesel vehicles will have health and environmental benefits: cutting carbon dioxide emissions, air pollution and noise pollution. Economic upsides would be a reduction of the UK automotive trade deficit and halving oil imports by 2035. Estimated oil cost savings associated with a drop in vehicle imports could be as high as £6.63 billion a year by 2035.    

A twin track approach to phase out by 2030

2030 is only 12 years away, so the UK needs to move quickly. We propose a twin-track approach to get there building on two key cost points: whole life and upfront costs.

The first track focuses on shifting government and private fleets from internal combustion vehicles to EVs, until EVs achieve upfront cost parity, expected in 2022. EVs are already cost effective for fleet managers who can take advantage of their lower lifetime operating costs. Private fleets make up over half of all new sales in the UK, and it is estimated that EVs could save company car owners £7,400 over three years.

Once upfront cost parity has been reached, the focus can shift to the second track, managing the phase-out of diesel and petrol cars run by the wider population. By introducing a zero emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate, domestic manufacturing can be aligned with demand. If this mandate is combined with clean air zones, similar to London’s ultra-low emission zone, it will help to boost EV sales among those driving into cities regularly.

Whether all of this means the world will start to associate Britain with EV manufacturing remains to be seen, but it would be an excellent start for a nation aspiring to lead the revolution.

Bente Klein is a Policy Assistant at the environmental think tank Green Alliance

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue

 

 

 

Plastics and climate change: unwrapping the evidence

As numerous organisations, institutions, and individuals announce plans to go ‘plastic free’ - or at least reduce their plastic use - momentum around the issue of plastic waste, much like plastic itself, has not gone away.

With the Government considering further measures, such as banning plastic straws, it is worth examining in depth the wider environmental implications of moves towards a more ‘plastic free’ society.

Through their connection to fossil fuels – in both production and transportation - plastics make a significant contribution to man-made climate change, accounting for 6% of global oil demand and rising US methane emissions from associated gas extraction. Yet the interaction between tackling the twin problems of plastic waste and plastic’s contribution to climate change is potentially more complex than first appears.

Plastic pollution and climate change

Plastics are produced through ‘cracking’ and refining fossil fuels, whereby the fossil fuel - either gas or oil – is broken down into constituent hydrocarbons and re-forged into plastic resins.

The production and transport of plastic causes carbon emissions, although estimates vary as to the exact carbon footprint of plastic, in line with variation in production methods. The Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable, a coalition of global beverage companies working to improve sustainability in the sector, estimated that one 500ml plastic water bottle (about 10 grams) has an average total CO2 footprint of 82.8 grams. For context, the production of four plastic bottles produces approximately the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as travelling one mile in a medium-sized petrol car.

Turning to the emissions from the general production of plastic resin, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has put forward an estimate of over 1.15 grams CO2 equivalent greenhouse gas emissions per gram of plastic resin produced. If transport and other associated emissions are included, plastic resin causes roughly 1.5-3.3 grams of greenhouse gas for every gram produced in total.

Plastic production has risen from 2 million tonnes in 1950 to 381 million tonnes in 2015, with only 9% of plastic discarded since 1950 estimated to have been recycled. Production is set to increase substantially, reaching 34,000 million tonnes by 2050.

Rising plastic production will exacerbate both the problems of litter and climate change. By 2050, the plastic industry is predicted to account for 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. With around 8 million tonnes of plastic ending up in the oceans every year, this not only represents a significant hazard to the marine species and human health, but considerable wastage of resources and inefficiency.

Recycling and a circular economy

Recent studies have suggested that plastic alternatives, such as paper bags, have a significantly higher energy footprint than those created from virgin plastics. In contrast, emissions from recycled plastics are significantly reduced relative to both paper and virgin plastic production, generating significant energy, financial, and resource savings. This fact bolsters the much broader case for a more efficient, 'circular economy' approach.

A circular economy is an alternative to the traditional, linear, 'make, use, dispose' structure, with resources (defined in terms of materials, water, energy and carbon, as well as natural and social capital) kept in use and at their highest value for as long as possible, reducing waste and improving efficiency.

Its main advantages include energy savings and insulation from potential raw material supply and price shocks. The Environmental Services Association suggested that a more circular economy could increase UK GDP by £3 billion a year, with a 2011 study for the Government suggesting £23 billion of economic benefits from low or no cost improvements available to businesses in the UK.

In terms of plastic, a circular economy approach emphasises recyclability, with a particular focus on increasing recyclable packaging and infrastructure. However, the extent of possible plastic recycling is limited, with some estimates suggesting only a maximum of between 36-56% could be recycled at current technology levels. Likewise current UK recycling rates have recently stalled, with some plastic items - such as the notorious disposable coffee cup - not easily recyclable and rejected by variable local recycling guidelines.

But achieving a perfect circle is difficult, with potential leakage into the environment particularly concerning for plastic, given its adverse impacts on marine species and ultimately human health. This underscores the need to develop and deploy biodegradable plastics and alternative materials.

Alternative materials

Biodegradable plastics include a broad range of materials - some biological and others petrochemical based - which can undergo 'normal' thermal decomposition into different compounds.

However, such materials are significantly more expensive to produce than standard plastics. Likewise in some cases they require specific conditions in which to safely decompose, with 'biodegradable’ not necessarily the same as ‘compostable’. As a result, they do not necessarily eliminate litter-based pollution problems, meaning that demand reduction policies, as well as measures to encourage less harmful alternative materials, should be considered.

Alternative materials such as cotton or stainless steel both have significant energy footprints. Their main advantages are their long-term reusability and the low risk they present when accidentally introduced into the ecosystem. 

The longer life-span of reusable items therefore goes some way to mitigate the short-term drawbacks of higher energy consumption. Additional carbon emissions can in turn be mitigated through the continued decarbonisation of the electricity supply and the development of carbon capture and storage technology.

Supply and demand

As shown by BP's announcement that the plastic reduction drive has the potential to reduce oil demand, it is clearly possible to tackle both problems simultaneously.

Environmental policymakers should be wary of unintended consequences. As policy and media attention continues to focus on how to address public concern over plastic pollution, its concurrent impact on climate change should also be a primary consideration. A joined-up - not single-issue silo – approach, therefore, is essential.

Philip Box is a researcher at Bright Blue

Can aviation be sustainable?

The UK has the largest aviation network in Europe, contributing more than £22 billion to the UK economy and directly providing hundreds of thousands of highly-skilled jobs. It ensures the links that enable people to work, to learn and to explore the world.

In 2016 over 250 million passengers travelled on an aircraft in the UK, and further growth is expected over the coming years. However we recognise that our activities impact the global and local environment. If we are to grow, we must do so in a sustainable way.

Sustainable Aviation is a coalition of airlines, airports, aerospace manufacturers and air navigation service providers working together to achieve sustainable growth, reduce noise and CO2 emissions, improve air quality and secure the benefits to society that aviation undoubtedly brings.

At the end of 2017 we launched a report outlining the progress we have made over the previous two years. It showed that we have successfully disconnected UK aviation’s rate of growth from that of carbon emissions and are on track to delivering our target to halve net CO2 emissions by 2050, compared with 2005 levels.

How will we achieve our targets?

Technology will play a central role. The UK is a world leader in aerospace manufacturing, and since 2005 470 new, more fuel-efficient aircraft entered service with UK airlines, saving at least 20 million tonnes of CO2. We have seen a further 2% increase in aircraft fuel efficiency since 2014. UK aerospace manufacturers are continuously investing in the cutting-edge technology for the even more fuel-efficient aircraft of the future.

Sustainable aviation fuels also have the potential to play an important role in achieving the UK’s ambition to reduce carbon emissions from transport. Our road map identifies the potential for a 24% reduction in aviation carbon dioxide emissions, the generation of £265 million in economic value and the creation of 4,400 jobs in the UK over the next 15 years, with between five and 12 operational plants producing sustainable fuels by 2030. Many of these initial sustainable fuels can be made from waste products, including non-recyclable household waste, offering the potential to address two issues at once.

Our airspace is little changed since it was designed in the 1960s. It does not allow us to maximise the innovative technology that is on today’s aircraft. Since 2014, 90,095 tonnes of CO2 have been saved through incremental changes to the structure of UK airspace. However, a wider, more fundamental redesign is needed to enable a reduction of up to 14% in CO2 emissions.

Market based measures will also support the delivery of our target. Between 2012 and 2015, six million tonnes of CO2 emissions reductions were made by UK airlines through the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS). Our members have also long been advocates of an industry-wide carbon deal for aviation, and fully support the new carbon offsetting scheme for international aviation (CORSIA) agreement reached by the UN body, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). It means that from 2021, airlines will be required to pay to reduce CO2 emissions through qualifying offset projects around the world, capping net CO2 emissions at 2020 levels.

Our vision for the future

Over the course of this year we will set out our vision for aviation in 2050 and beyond, looking at the innovative and emerging technologies on the horizon which could have a potentially transformative effect on our industry, including electric-hybrid aircraft.

Ours is an innovative and vibrant industry, and we continue to explore new thoughts and ideas from both within and outside.

We can’t achieve sustainable growth without the support and action of government. The industrial strategy and aviation strategy are good opportunities for government to take a proactive approach in this area. We urge the government to be ambitious and positive about what the industry can achieve, and how it can continue to support our economy.

Dr Andy Jefferson is Programme Director at Sustainable Aviation

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue

End of the line? Phasing out diesel-only trains

Last week, the Government announced its the ambition to remove diesel-only trains from the tracks by 2040. With public concern about air pollution and transport’s contribution to climate change continuing to rise, we consider the different options for phasing out diesel trains and some of the benefits.

Cleaning the tracks

Diesel trains contribute to both air pollution and climate change, with 29% of trains in service on the UK’s rail network currently running on diesel. Overall, the transport sector has largely failed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions as part of efforts to tackle climate change. In rail specifically, greenhouse gas emissions have risen by 30% since 1990 in absolute terms. Similarly, significant levels of harmful air pollution have been recorded both on-board, and in the vicinity of, diesel-only trains. In fact, when in 2015 London Paddington station was in breach of healthy pollution limits, the air quality inside the station was found to be significantly worse than outside.

In this context, the Rail Minister Jo Johnson MP’s speech this week challenged the rail industry to publish a long-term strategy - aimed at facilitating substantial pollution and emission reduction - by the autumn of 2018. Government policy has for a long time aimed at the full electrification of the rail network, whereby conventional engine-based propulsion is replaced by electric – both overhead and third-rail – traction systems. However, such plans have had a troublesome journey.

Electric dreams

In 2009 the then Labour Government announced the first large-scale electrification plans, including schemes on both the North West and the Great Western main line. The Coalition Government continued these proposals, modifying them to include the Midland main line and other schemes.

However, in June 2015 the Secretary of State for Transport paused the Trans-Pennine and Midland main line electrification schemes. Both were subsequently resumed in September 2015 with delayed completion dates. It was argued that the focus should be on delivering the Great Western upgrade on time and on budget.

In November 2016, delays to works on four areas of the Great Western line were announced. Subsequently, in July 2017, some electrification works were cancelled altogether between Cardiff and Swansea, between Kettering, Nottingham and Sheffield, and between Windermere and Oxenholme. It was argued that greater capacity and environmental benefits could be achieved without the substantial cost and disruption associated with full electrification works by deploying new bi-modal trains. Bi-modal trains are hybrids capable of running on both electricity where overhead cables are available and diesel where they are not.

A change of track?

Although approximately 34% of Britain’s rail network was electrified in 2015-16, experts are sceptical about the potential for full electrification. Electrification coverage has increased over 2017 and into 2018, yet has clearly suffered major set-backs, primarily due to rising costs.

The Rail Minister’s speech last week reaffirmed this change in policy direction away from complete electrification, promoting the use of bi-modal models and the potential of hydrogen-fuelled trains. Train manufacturer Alstom has recently tested hydrogen trains in Germany, whose only waste product is steam. The attention on this new train technology supports the growing interest in hydrogen as a low-carbon fuel. Existing research suggests that by repurposing the gas network to use hydrogen the UK is well-placed to become a global leader in this area, with the Government announcing new investment in hydrogen infrastructure.

As highlighted in the recent industrial strategy white paper, the Government also supports the long-term goal of developing the battery storage industry in the UK, given its importance to the future energy system. Battery-powered, electric-traction ‘hybrid’ trains could support this economic ambition, with the Northern franchise expected to deliver such trains on the Windermere branch from 2021.

Counting the cost

Underpinning debates about these delays have been conflicting claims about the costs and benefits of electrification. The National Audit Office (NAO) has been highly critical of several aspects of electrification, particularly the optimistic cost and productivity savings. For example, the initial £1.7 billion cost of electrifying the London to Cardiff line was revised up to £2.8 billion in the Hendy review. Initial estimates of the economic benefits - such as £100 million a year for the South West region through reduced journey times and added seating – have subsequently been viewed sceptically.

By contrast, delays to track upgrades also carry costs. Both the NAO and House of Commons’ Transport Select Committee have pointed to the additional costs for rail companies - and subsequently the customer – from investment uncertainty, continuing to run inefficient diesel trains, and the necessity of switching to interim, bi-modal, solutions.  

Alongside cost, the benefits of reducing diesel usage to public health and the environment are substantial. Fully electric trains produce virtually no toxic air pollution at the point of use and provide a 20-60% reduction in total associated CO2 emissions relative to old diesel-only models, a figure falling constantly as electricity decarbonises.

By contrast, bi-modal train models are estimated to lower particulate matter pollution by 90% and nitrogen dioxide emissions by 50-59%.  Relative to old diesel-only trains, new bi-modal models would reduce total associated CO2 by approximately 12-30% by cutting diesel usage by 40-50% and improving engine efficiency.

Conclusion

With air pollution and climate change both significant issues of concern to the public, this week’s ministerial announcement, even if less ambitious than the previous policy of full electrification, should be welcomed.

Philip Box is a researcher at Bright Blue

Tackling the waste plastic epidemic

One cannot have missed the increasing concern surrounding waste plastic in the last few months and weeks. The good news is that the first step towards solving a problem is to recognise it as an issue in the first place, and it seems that this ongoing environmental crisis is now starting to get the publicity it needs.

The scale of the problem

The bad news is that the more articles appear on the subject, the more it becomes clear that the problem is even bigger than first realised. As recently reported by Sky News, a lot of the UK’s plastic waste is recorded as recycled when it is exported, regardless of what actually happens to it when it reaches its destination. This issue is only likely to worsen as China, previously the recipient of two thirds of the UK’s plastic waste, was due to ban imports of waste plastic as of January 2018.

With the national average recycling rate having stalled at 43% and even the fate of plastic which is exported for recycling uncertain, it is clear that we have to produce fewer single-use plastic items. According to the BBC, 480 billion plastic drinks bottles were sold globally in 2016 and given that each bottle will take around 450 years to biodegrade, production of these items is far outstripping our ability to dispose of them.

Changing behaviours

As with single-use plastic bags, changing public behaviours will be key to solving the problem. Though businesses and public buildings in the UK are already legally obliged to offer free drinking water, popping in and asking for a refill for your reusable water bottle can feel a bit cheeky if you are not buying anything else.

Fortunately, there is a growing initiative, spearheaded by a group called City to Sea in Bristol which aims to set up free refill stations nationwide. The Refill campaign already has 1,600 drinking water stations across the country which you can locate using the Refill app. Now Water UK have joined the campaign with a view to widening the network to include tens of thousands of high street shops and cafes by 2021. Crucially, the scheme will make it clear that people are welcome to refill their bottles via window stickers and a location marker on the Refill app.

The plastic bag tax demonstrated that uptake of single-use plastic items can be successfully discouraged. After a five pence tax on thin-gauge plastic shopping bags was introduced in October 2015, their use dropped by over 85% in six months. A similar tax on all single-use plastics (including packaging and take-away cartons) is being considered by the Treasury, whilst a plastic bottle deposit scheme has also been suggested. This could see around 20 pence added to the cost of drinks sold in disposable plastic bottles, which would then be refunded when the bottle was returned to the point of sale for recycling.

Germany introduced just such a scheme in 2002 and it has since helped them achieve the highest rates of polyethylene terephthalate plastic bottle returns and recycling in the world, with rates of 97-98% being reported. In addition to this, 80% of Germany’s recycling is done domestically, avoiding the kind of uncertainty which currently surrounds the fate of Britain’s exported waste plastic.

In combination with a wider, well-advertised network of refill points, a tax or deposit scheme could be the mechanism for effecting the genuine change in consumer habits necessary to stem production of single-use plastic bottles.

Smell the coffee

There are other areas, however, where eliminating single-use plastic is not proving as straight forward. A recent proposal to apply a similar levy – dubbed the latté levy – on single-use coffee cups has not been well received by the industry.

Disposable coffee cups are clearly an issue as, despite being mostly paper, they have a polyethylene lining to make them waterproof. Currently, there are just three recycling plants in the UK that can separate the paper from the plastic lining, clearly not enough when 2.5 billion disposable cups are used every year in the UK. In fact, only 1% of disposable coffee cups are ever recycled.

As with bottled water, swapping single-use containers for reusable mugs would seem to present a way forward and moves are already being made to reward customers for using them. This month, Pret A Manger announced it was doubling the discount it offers on hot drinks for customers who bring their own mug, from 25p to 50p. Even whilst levies on disposable coffee cups remain at the proposal stage, evidence suggests that consumers are already changing their habits with sales of barista-standard reusable cups reaching a quarter of a million in the UK in the last three months of 2017 alone.

It is important that all aspects of the industry are keeping up to date with the potentially rapid shift in consumer behaviour. United Baristas have identified planning law as a particular area where legislation is seemingly at odds with the move towards more environmentally friendly practices.

It turns out that a lot of coffee shops in the busiest ‘A1’ sites are subject to planning laws requiring at least 50% of their sales to be of products consumed off site. Measures to reduce the number of single-use cups, such as the 25 pence levy could impact take-out sales, and lead to a higher percentage of customers sitting in. Ultimately, this could put some coffee shops in breach of planning regulations, putting the business at risk. The irony here is that the higher the percentage of take-away coffees a shop currently sells, the less likely they are to find themselves in breach of the law – so the worst contributors to the disposable cup problem get off most lightly.

Cleaning up

Clearly, all aspects of consumer behaviour have to be examined and factored in to any changes in the law. But what can we do as individuals to speed up the rate of change and make a difference to the plastic waste epidemic?

Well, since it seems that since much of the plastic exported for recycling is not actually recycled, and the facilities do not exist on the scale required to deal with the number of disposable coffee cups we use, simply putting your waste in the right bin may not be the answer – we have to use fewer of these items. Get a reusable water bottle, get a reusable coffee cup with a lid, and buy fewer products with unnecessary packaging. We can talk all day about changing consumer behaviour but at the end of the day, those consumers are us, and our individual actions make a difference.

For the most committed amongst us, there are also ongoing initiatives that you can join to help clean up the plastic that already contaminates our beaches. The Marine Conservation Society, for example, runs regular Beachwatch beach cleaning events up and down the country, so find your nearest event, don your wellies, and get involved.

Matthew Pavli is writing for Aqua Cure. The views expressed in the article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue

In hot water: how climate change is affecting the oceans

Perhaps as a result of the nation being gripped recently by the stunning images of Blue Planet II, more and more attention is rightly being afforded to the world’s oceans – and the environmental problems which afflict them. Given the vastness of the oceans, the challenges they face are numerous. Yet one threat, climate change, appears to be particularly acute.

Our species’ centuries-long reliance on fossil fuels to produce energy, as well as trends in animal agriculture and other polluting industries, had emitted greenhouses gases into the atmosphere and changed the planet’s climate. These greenhouse gasses, like carbon dioxide and methane, trap heat close to the Earth’s surface, which have been behind the steady rise in global temperatures.

The impact on marine ecosystems

A changing climate has exhibited itself in several forms across various habitats. One serious manifestation for oceans, however, has been the problem of acidification. This refers to the steady alteration of the chemical composition of seawater, triggered largely by more and more carbon dissolving into the oceans. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the pH balance of surface ocean waters has fallen by 0.1. Whilst this may seem insignificant, because the pH scale is logarithmic it actually represents a 30% increase in acidity.

One of the most widely understood impacts of ever more acidic oceans is the effect it can have on organisms known as ‘calcifiers’. These are animals such as crustaceans, molluscs, and corals which use calcium and carbonate ions to build shells and exoskeletons around themselves. But acidic oceans dissolve calcium carbonate, so when the pH level drops, the ability for calcifiers to maintain themselves – let alone grow and prosper – becomes all the more difficult. In addition to this, research has found that successful fertilisation rates for some calcifiers decrease in acidic waters.

Coral reefs are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world. Yet warmer waters present an existential threat to them – with experts claiming that the Paris Agreement’s commitment to 1.5℃ being the only way to save coral reefs. When the waters in which corals are found get too warm, they expel the algae which give them their renowned vibrancy, and turn white. This ‘bleaching’ does not mean the coral is dead, but without the algae corals find it more challenging to survive, and consequently often do die off as a result. Moreover, scientists have observed numbers of certain organisms which predate on corals – such as crown-of-thorns starfish – unsustainably flourishing in warmer waters, which further adds to the struggle to survive for corals.

As the climate warms, and the ice caps melt, sea levels inevitably rise. Indeed, over the past century, it is thought that the global mean sea level has risen by between four and eight inches. Even more worryingly, the rate at which it is has been rising over the past 20 years is double that of the preceding 80.

The consequences of rising sea levels for marine wildlife are multifarious, and will almost certainly result in the destruction of habitats vital for semiaquatic animals. Sea turtles, for instance, which depend on beaches to lay their eggs are one particularly vulnerable species. But one report claims that as many as 233 already endangered species will become further threatened by rising sea levels.

A lesser appreciated consequence of increased ocean temperatures is the effect it has on ocean currents. These currents influence aquatic animals’ migratory patterns, which can disturb ecosystems, as well as dispersing the nutrients vital for life below the waves. Changes in them, therefore, may starve areas of biodiversity of the nourishment necessary to sustain life.

The human cost

Whilst the impact of climate change on the globe’s seas and oceans is tragic enough in its own right, it also poses significant costs which will be borne more directly by humankind, too.

Coral reefs, for instance, are valuable sources of medicinal learning – with drugs to treat cancer, arthritis, and asthma having already been developed from resources found in corals and surrounding ecosystems. Evidence has shown that coral reefs also act as barriers to ocean waves and storms, which provides protection to millions of people the world over. Of course, pristine coral reefs also attract tourists – and are estimated to be worth over £25 billion a year globally, with that money often going into some of the most economically challenged parts of the world. Climate change, and ocean acidification, therefore, imperils all of that. Indeed, it is thought that the Great Barrier Reef is now beyond repair because of this combination of threats.

Changing ocean temperatures which alter currents can also have negative ramifications for people. Ocean currents have two significant roles in the global ecosystem. It has already been considered how they serve as a nutrient dispersal mechanism, shifting food for aquatic species up from the depths and then around the oceans. Warming waters which can decelerate these currents, therefore, could spell bad news for fishing communities who find themselves with fewer fish to catch.

Ocean currents also have an influencing role in local climates. Whilst they do not effect global temperatures per se, currents do facilitate the movement of heat – such as from the warm equator to temperate Britain, East America, and Europe. This partly explains why certain regions on the same latitude experience different temperatures. Were this process to slow down or cease, such aforementioned locations could see their localised temperatures change. 

For many good reasons, some of the most populous cities can be found next to the sea – Shanghai, Miami, and Rio de Janeiro to name but a few. Yet, faced with rising sea levels, their coastal locations could be their very downfall. One estimate places the figure at risk from rising sea levels, and the increased flooding and intensified storms associated with global warming, just shy of two billion individuals.

Conclusion

Seas and oceans cover almost three-quarters of the Earth’s surface. Though often thought to be harsh and uncompromising environments, they contain fragile ecosystems, and have intimately felt the effect of anthropogenic climate change. The future consequences of this are hard to predict, however signs are already beginning to show the costs – for humans and wildlife – of climate change for our oceans.


Eamonn Ives is a researcher at Bright Blue

The challenges of using evidence-based approaches to make effective transport policy

We know that walking and cycling are great ways to keep fit and prevent harmful pollution. Yet we also know that, for a variety of reasons, people aren’t always keen on them as a means of getting around. Sustrans is the charity that’s making it easier for people to walk and cycle. We're working with families, communities, policy-makers and partner organisations across the UK to encourage active travel.

We pride ourselves on basing our activities in support of active travel on a solid evidence base. We were very proud to have our work featured in a recent UN report as an example of good practice at the science-policy interface. But the connection between evidence, policy, and investment decisions in transport is sometimes hard to fathom.

Despite the strength of evidence on the benefits associated with walking and cycling (primarily relating to public health benefits of increased physical activity, but also in other areas such as reduced emissions, and improved air quality), it remains challenging to secure significant investment in active travel. The balance of policy and investment is heavily skewed towards ‘big infrastructure’ and technological innovation.

Some of the constraints that seem to dictate this poor translation of evidence into practice include: i) the limitations of cost–benefit analysis mechanisms; ii) too much faith in technological quick-fixes; and iii) the adherence to predict and provide policies. These constraints result in funding decisions such as a £15 billion Road Investment Strategy in England, whilst local streets receive very little funding for infrastructure that makes them better spaces for people to use.

In theory, UK transport investment decisions are made on the basis of economic appraisal and cost-benefit analysis. Newly published research on cost benefit analysis is clear about the gaps. Weaknesses in forecasting, disregard for benefit distribution and equity, and the application of dubious techniques (for example, valuing small time savings, and discounting) all bring into question the veracity of an approach that works within the realms of similar projects (for example, comparing one road scheme with another road scheme). But how does one treat a local walking and cycling network in relation to a road building scheme in this context?

The misplaced optimism in the technological quick-fixes of the future is also an area where huge evidence disconnects can be observed. A big part of the emphasis on investment in transport research and development is focussed on, for example:

  • Electric vehicles – without recognition that on the one hand carbon emissions from energy generation are displaced (from the tailpipe to the power station chimney) rather than eliminated, and on the other hand 45% of particulate matter from traffic comes from brake and tyre wear (as distinct from fuel combustion), so poor air quality remains an issue.
  • Autonomous vehicles – despite the lack of any evidence about either consumer demand or the impact on traffic patterns.
  • 'Mobility-as-a-service’ provision – with scant regard for the fact that for many companies entering the market are doing so with the object of consumer data harvesting, rather than through any concern about mobility and accessibility.

The major risk is that we lose sight of what might already be possible. A new paper from a network of European cities and regions cooperating for innovative transport solutions on the future for autonomous vehicles expresses concern about the social distribution of impacts, and also concludes that  “if a transport authority wishes to pave the way for fewer private vehicles, bold planning decisions could already be made today to accelerate the uptake and dependence on public transport, cycling, walking.”

The adherence to predict and provide policies is a further misguided constraint in transport planning. In crudest terms, we look at past travel demand patterns, and we assume that the future will need ‘more of that’. This disregards any possibility of change, whether it be travel demand management, changing lifestyle patterns (for example, fewer younger people than ever own cars or even driving licenses), or even technological shift. The current Roads Investment Strategy does not reflect Government policies on environment and public health, does not align with changing societal patterns, and largely ignores the possible future automation of the fleet. A recently published research paper goes so far as to question whether continued adherence to predict and provide reveals an underlying, if unstated “real policy of car provision … and is the result of the influence of a powerful roads industry lobby”, whilst also noting that road building has little impact on economic activity, and cannot be relied on to kick-start the UK economy.

The net effect of these constraints is an evidence-policy-investment disconnect.

This disconnect in transport policy plays out very emphatically in air quality, where contradictions across policy areas introduce the risk of overall policy failure: pollution policies are not effectively integrated; transport policies either disregard air quality implications or are too heavily focussed on distant-future technology-led solutions; and health policies are too heavily focussed on remedial ‘cure’ work, rather than prevention. The continued investment in road ‘improvement’ does not seem to align well with other aspects of policy on air quality.

These contradictions need to be resolved if we are to have a coherent transport strategy. The effective application of evidence is crucial in enabling this to happen. Sustrans believes that active travel should lie at the heart of that transport strategy.

Dr Andy Cope is the Director of Insight at Sustrans

 

 

 

 

Grounds for taxation?

The British have long had a love affair with coffee. In our homes, at work, and on our highstreets, we collectively drink approximately 55 million cups of it a day. Yet, the nation’s caffeine compulsion is manifesting itself as a mounting environmental problem, largely through the way in which most coffee cups are difficult, if not impossible, to recycle.

In light of this fact, the Environmental Audit Committee has recently recommended that the Government should introduce a minimum charge of 25 pence on disposable cups, to be paid for by the consumer on top of the price of their beverage. The ‘latte levy’ has been touted as a good way of tackling the problem of disposable coffee cup waste – much in the same way as England has seen a dramatic fall in the use of plastic carrier bags since the introduction of a five pence charge in most shops in 2015. The question is, will it work?

Any rational economist will say that, for most goods at least, as the price of something goes up, the demand for it goes down. A consequence of this is that people will probably look for substitutes – as was observed with the rise in ‘Bags for Life’ after the first plastic bag charges were introduced in the UK. The logic goes, therefore, that by explicitly taxing people for the cup into which their coffee is eventually poured, they will invest in reusable cups to avoid the new charge.

All froth?

There could be two reasons which prevent the latte levy from being as successful as the plastic bag charge in terms of cutting down on waste. First, at the essence of an on the go coffee is convenience. One buys a coffee, drinks it, and disposes of the cup accordingly. Indeed, the majority of disposable coffee cups are consumed whilst people are ‘on the move’. The alternative of carrying around a reusable cup, both before and after one wants a coffee, seems somewhat conflicting with that notion of convenience. 

Admittedly, sales of reusable coffee cups have increased since the Government first hinted at the introduction of a charge on disposable cups – and not least because the Environment Secretary, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, has given one to each of his colleagues in cabinet. Whether or not they get used, however, is another question.  

Interestingly, one scheme in Germany recognises the fact that not everyone remembers, or perhaps wants, to carry reusable cup around at all times. Instead, a network of over 100 businesses have agreed to a system whereby scheme members receive their beverage in a reusable cup, which can then be returned to a participating shop once empty. The shops then wash the cups, ready for their next use. The cost of the scheme is a negligible €1 per member, and is regarded as being very successful.

Second, where the plastic bag charge works, and the proposed latte levy may not, is that using a cup – disposable or otherwise – is an intrinsic part of grabbing a quick coffee. In other words, the need for the cup is unavoidable. The same is not necessarily true of plastic bags when out shopping; one can buy multiple items and get away without needing a bag. Indeed, ‘beating the system’ and dodging the small levy is something much more readily available to the would-be plastic bag buyer than the coffee cup consumer.

Extra measures

Therefore, one could conclude that whilst the latte levy may bring down some of the current levels of waste seen around disposable coffee cups, more thought might be needed to get a handle on the problem. On this point, two areas of concern need to be looked at.

First, there is the issue of recycling. Due to manufacturing methods, the vast majority of coffee cups are not recycled. In the whole of Britain, only three specialist recycling centres exist which can process coffee cups – which explains why less than 1% of the 2.5 billion coffee cups used per year in the UK get recycled. However, there are companies which have developed cups which are more easy to recycle, and major coffee chains are apparently in talks with them to adopt the more environmentally friendly packaging. It is overwhelmingly likely that making disposable cups more easily recyclable will be crucial in cracking down on the remaining instances of non-reusable coffee cup use. 

Second, recyclable or not, disposable coffee cups contribute greatly to total littering in the UK. This is a point which the Environmental Audit Committee raised itself in its report. The Environment Minister, Thérèse Coffey MP, made clear that the UK needs to improve its on-street ‘binfrastructure’, simply to give people the opportunity to dispose of their coffee cups more appropriately. At the moment, less than half of all councils provide on-the-go recycling bins, which doubtlessly explains why half a million coffee cups end up as litter on the ground every day in the UK.

Conclusion

The Government has an ambition to crack down on waste, and as part of that has disposable coffee cups firmly within its crosshairs. If it does adopt the recommendations of the Environmental Audit Committee to introduce a latte levy – a measure which Gove has described, incidentally, as “exciting” – it is imaginable that coffee cup waste will fall: due to reduced effective demand, and consumers switching to reusable cups.

Yet, to think that success seen with the plastic bag charge will similarly be realised as the result of a latte levy may be premature. More work on developing recyclable cups, and providing more bins for people to dispose of their cups in, may also be required if the Government is to confront Britain’s coffee cup conundrum.

Eamonn Ives is a researcher at Bright Blue

Blowing in the wind: are kites the next big step for renewable power?

To most people in Britain, kites are probably things of a childhood pastime – perhaps conjuring up memories of hours spent on less-than-tropical beaches. Yet, the very same principles which underpin kite flying are now being touted as a serious and exciting means to generate renewable electricity.

As with other forms of electricity generation, kites capture energy and use it to rotate a turbine. Each kite has a steel tether which is attached to a turbine, and as a kite harnesses wind energy, it ascends up into the sky. This in turn spins the turbine, which generates electricity. Kites often operate in tandem, with one rising and the other falling at the same time, which ensures energy generation is more constant. In addition, some kites will have rotor blades attached to them which generate electricity, too, in the same way that traditional windmills do.

A technology with the wind in its sails

Given that they both harness the wind as their source of power, kites are often compared to conventional wind turbines when assessing their potential to be a viable method of producing electricity. However, as beneficial for the environment as wind turbines are and have been for the UK, it would appear that kites could offer several potential advantages.

To start with, consider that the strength of the wind – and hence energy generation potential – steadily increases with altitude, with high-altitude winds having twice the velocity of ground-level winds. Moreover, not only do winds blow more forcefully at higher elevations, they do so more predictably, too. Combined, these two facts mean that kites can exploit a stronger and more reliable stream of energy to convert into electricity, relative to turbines on the ground or out at sea.

Another compelling argument in favour of kite generated energy is cost. We know that renewables like solar and wind turbines have, especially recently, seen their costs fall dramatically due to improved economies of scale and technological learning. Yet companies who are in the kite energy sector believe their blossoming technology has the potential to be even cheaper.

Kites use fewer materials in production, are cheaper to build and set up, are easier to maintain once running, and have the potential to last longer. If as a result of stronger and more predictable winds they produce more energy too, then they effectively become all the more inexpensive because of the crucial cost per megawatt hour of energy produced equation by which all generating technologies are judged. Indeed, one kite energy company believes it could install a 100 megawatt capacity wind farm and begin delivering electricity significantly less expensively than £44.50 per megawatt hour.

As with any new technology, however, kite energy generation must be able to transfer its promising potential on paper into the real world. Cost estimates such as the one cited above are certainly eye-catching, but need to be backed up by hard evidence gathered through doing. At the moment, regulatory uncertainty abounds, and investors would want to be sure that any money they put into the hitherto commercially untested technology is not too much of a gamble.

That kites use fewer materials relative to wind turbines also has important environmental consequences. Often made from carbon-fibre, kites do away with literally thousands of tonnes of infrastructure associated with conventional wind turbines – the massive blades and tower, plus the concrete foundations, for instance – thus meaning that they require fewer resources to fabricate, and hence contain less embodied energy. Indeed, the steel and concrete used to build wind farms are some of the most energy and water intensive production materials around – although it must be said that they and other renewables like solar are still much less carbon intensive, relative to conventional fossil fuelled power stations.

Another key selling point for kite generated energy is that kites can be deployed in a wider variety of locations, often where other forms of generation could not be. Conventional wind turbines are limited as to where they can be placed because they must be able to reliably tap into ground windspeeds of at least five meters per second. Consequently, this rules out much of the land across the world. However, higher altitude wind speeds are considerably more constant – regardless of the location 500 or so meters below, where the kites would be anchored. In addition, because of their nature, kites could operate in locations where it is unviable to erect conventional wind turbines because of complex terrain, for instance.

Interestingly, one location where kite energy wind farms could be constructed is on the offshore pilings on which current wind turbines – soon due to be decommissioned – stand. As modern wind turbines are now much larger, the existing pilings have effectively been rendered redundant, and thus replacement ones would have to be (relatively more energy and resource intensively) built, should newly proposed wind farm projects get the go ahead.

Possible turbulence?

Despite impressive credentials, kite energy is not without its drawbacks. From a safety perspective, some have expressed concern about what happens should a kite’s tether snap. Furthermore, others have pointed out the natural susceptibility to lighting strikes which kites will have, flying so high up in the sky. This could not only damage the kite itself, but more importantly knock out the small but vital computers in the kite which control it. 

Yet perhaps the greatest challenge with which kites could possibly be faced will be securing regulatory permissions to ascend to such high altitudes. It is not hard to imagine authorities expressing hesitation over agreeing to a series of kites being deployed anywhere close to residential areas, or airspace in the proximity of flightpaths, for instance.

The almost inevitable opposition from the small but vocal minority who already campaign against wind turbines on visual grounds could be a final stumbling block for kite generated electricity. Indeed, it is foreseeable that kites could engender even more opposition than conventional turbines – for whilst some claim that kites in full flight will be virtually invisible, even an ardent believer in renewable energy may not relish the idea of a network of cables extending hundreds, even thousands, of feet up into the sky.

Conclusion

Conventional wind turbines have undoubtedly helped the UK in reducing carbon emissions and decelerating climate change through the way in which they have provided a clean alternative to dirty, fossil fuelled power stations. In the years since their inception, the turbines have become more efficient, and the blades that power them ever bigger. Despite this, it is not unreasonable to look at the developing sector of kite technology and think that the future of renewable energy generation might lie a little higher above our heads than first imagined. 

Eamonn Ives is a Researcher at Bright Blue