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Scientific Alliance newsletter 23rd March

Comment on topical environmental issues

Reality kicks in

Last week, the government published its draft Climate Change Bill – the first attempt to make carbon emissions reduction targets statutory –  to a euphoric reception. As we said then, now comes the hard part. This week, there was an opportunity for Gordon Brown to use his last (barring last-minute surprises) Budget speech to keep the momentum going and demonstrate the Labour party’s commitment to environmental issues. Not surprisingly, few commentators expressed much enthusiasm for the green(ish) measures proposed. Feet are being placed firmly on the ground again.

There are a few nods towards reducing emissions. Fuel duty will rise by an additional  2 pence per litre, on top of increases already planned. This will reinforce the UK’s dubious honour of having the highest fuel prices in Europe, with little obvious effect on our use of the roads. Simple economic analysis is evidently not valid in this case, but it does give an opportunity for increased tax revenues in the name of environmentalism. Equally, steep rises in road tax for cars with high CO2 emissions will in themselves do little to discourage ownership. The popularity of 4x4s (although we should remember that not all of these have high fuel consumption, and not all vehicles with high emissions fall into this category) will, like all fashions, decline. In this case, it is likely to be driven more by a combination of perceived social acceptability and the cachet of driving hybrid or other efficient cars. It certainly seems that green is the new black.

As further evidence of the government’s approach, see the following quote from the Times on 22nd:

The Chancellor announced a review of the vehicle and fuel technologies needed to “decarbonise road transport” over the next 25 years. The review will be led by Professor Julia King, vice-chancellor of Aston University, who will work with Sir Nicholas Stern, author of the recent government report on climate change.

Mr Brown unveiled a tax incentive for company car drivers to switch to vehicles that run on 85 per cent bioethanol made from plants. He also proposed to end an employee car ownership scheme loophole that lets drivers avoid higher company car tax on gas guzzlers.

On one hand, they take a broad picture (although perhaps not broad enough; a re-run of the Stern review is likely just to point to how to encourage uptake of bio-fuels rather than look more radically at how people might travel), but on the other they provide an incentive which looks good on paper but is unlikely ever to affect more than a tiny proportion of drivers and will have effectively zero effect on total emissions. In similar vein, subsidies to homeowners wanting to install micro-generation facilities will rise from a tiny £12m annually at present to an equally inadequate £18m over a three year period. Hardly radical thinking.

Despite the fine words, there is as yet little evidence of them being matched by significant new policies, probably because the government genuinely does not know what it can do which would make any real difference without affecting its re-election chances. Hopefully, we will see some open and rational debate on the options when the draft Climate Change Bill is eventually put before the House.

Flights of fancy?

And to illustrate the disconnectedness of policy in a wider, international context, the new “open skies” agreement for trans-Atlantic flights, due to come into force next year, raises some important issues. By opening up competition, there is projected to be an economic benefit of £8bn because fares will be lower. This has been welcomed by the EU. On the other hand, it is also expected to increase passenger numbers by 26 million over the next five years. Since air travel has become the bête noire of environmentalists in recent months because of its supposed contribution to climate change, and as politicians are actively discussing ways in which its growth might be curbed, this seems to be yet another case of unresolved conflict between economic growth and environmentalism.

But the truth, as we know, is rarely pure and never simple. Lower fares would mean fuller, more efficient flights. More profitable airlines would invest in newer, less thirsty aircraft. The net effect could be a reduction in carbon emissions per passenger.

Technology and climate control

There has been several reports recently of a number of “geo-engineering” concepts which could be used to control climate to some extent. The logic is that, if carbon dioxide levels cannot be stabilised as many people would wish, alternative solutions would be needed. Many of the ones proposed would have the effect of shielding the Earth from a small proportion of the Sun’s radiation, so counteracting the warming effect of CO2.

The simplest (and most easily reversible) proposal is to build a fleet of unmanned ships, powered by the wind, which would spray large quantities of seawater into the atmosphere to increase cloud cover. By deploying them in Arctic latitudes during the northern hemisphere summer, they could reduce the melting of sea ice. This, in turn, would help to reflect more sunlight and minimise temperature rise. The fleet would then perform the same role in the Antarctic during the southern hemisphere summer (not that this might be popular with all: many parts of the SH have already been experiencing cool summers).

Other suggestions include seeding the upper atmosphere with sulphate aerosols (come back, acid rain, all is forgiven) and sending millions of small, reflecting spacecraft up to the inner Lagrange point, where it is possible to keep them in a constant position relative to the Sun and Earth.

All of these, of course, have their disadvantages, although they would be potentially feasible. The important point is that they illustrate the role of human inventiveness. For every problem, there are multiple possible solutions, and those which work are not always the obvious ones. Encouraging innovation without picking winners is usually the best way forward.

Microbial climate control?

Craig Venter, the American scientist and businessman best known for producing the first map of the human genome at the same time as the publicly-funded Human Genome Project, now has a programme underway to uncover unknown microbial genetic resources in the oceans. His group has reported the identification of millions of new genes from marine bacteria, sampled during a two-year circumnavigation by the Sorcerer II expedition.

The genetic resources of the oceans remain largely untapped, but it is known, for example, that marine microbes play a major role in nutrient recycling, and some species of diatoms are responsible for capturing carbon dioxide and transferring it to the deep ocean. If atmospheric CO2 is found to be a major driver of average global temperature, then a better understanding of such organisms may lead to a way to harness this effect and sequester carbon biologically. Another example of inventiveness, which may or may not prove useful, but should certainly be encouraged.

The Scientific Alliance
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