Article - Issue 20, August/September 2004

How to save the planet – some helpful advice

Sir Eric Ash CBE FREng FRS

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Some helpful advice

Our presence on the planet has been a mixed blessing for the Earth – greenhouse gas emissions have certainly impacted on our environment. But have we really damaged the planet to the point where we need to ‘save’ it? Ash discusses how human habitation has affected Earth and, just as importantly, how we have affected ourselves.

The Fleming Centenary Lecture: Abridged version 1 July 2004, UCL

Some of the problems humans have caused result mainly in self-inflicted damage. The AIDS epidemic and nuclear war can wipe out large numbers of the population. However, these problems only really afflict the human race rather than damage the planet. Seen from the planet’s point of view, a reduction in the rate of human population growth is a clear benefit, and, since the half-life of the radioactive nucleotides is only a few tens of thousands of years, for a planet that has already celebrated its 4500 millionth birthday, such excess radioactivity is not much to worry about.

Changing the climate of the planet, however, is a different issue and should be taken seriously. But are we changing the climate? In 1995 The Economist (1 April 1995) dismissed threats to climate change as highly improbable. They reasoned that if any remedial action was required it would be expensive. It would be better to wait until the end of the 21st century, by which time the world GDP (the world’s wealth) would have increased by a large factor so that any remedies to climate change would then be much more affordable.

The Economist tends to have strong views that are not always correct. But in July 2002, (6–12 July 2002) it changed its position and devoted an issue to global climate change and identifying CO2 as public enemy number one. There was of course no reference to their earlier views.

The greenhouse effect

The cause for all the excitement is, of course, the greenhouse effect and the change in global climate, which it is alleged to engender. The global climate is an immensely complex system – arguably the most complex that scientists have ever had the temerity to study. But the greenhouse effect that appears to be driving the changes is essentially a rather simple phenomenon. It has to do with the visible and ultraviolet part of the spectrum, which can penetrate the atmosphere very well. The infrared part of the spectrum is strongly absorbed by many molecules, such as water. The Economist has already identified CO2 as public enemy number one.

The phenomenon was convincingly demonstrated by John Tyndall, the celebrated 19th century physicist. Most articles attribute the discovery of the greenhouse effect to a Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius in 1896. In fact, John Tyndall fully understood the greenhouse effect as a result of his own researches. In a Discourse he gave at the Royal Institution in January 1861, he presented quantitative results on the absorption of infrared by both water and carbon dioxide. He also showed that strong absorbers are also strong radiators. The Arrhenius contribution, over 30 years later, really amounted to the recognition that CO2 emitted by burning coal might enhance the greenhouse effect.

The question we face now is to what extent the burning of fossil fuel is leading to a general global warming phenomenon. The answer, which for many years was debatable, is now clear. The threat of global warming is very real and the consequences for humanity potentially disastrous.

Just over a year ago the government published a White Paper on energy policy (Our energy future – creating a low carbon economy, February 2003). It included an introduction by the Prime Minister fully in support of the need for urgent action. Surely The Economist and the PM cannot both be wrong. There is indeed a threat to global climate and it is rather more solidly based on a vast amount of research by the world community of scientists.

One example of the projections that stem from observation is the reduction in Arctic ice cover, which is now very evident, and for which the models predict its virtual elimination by 2080 (see Figure 2).

The White Paper on energy policy was unequivocal in its acceptance of threat and the need to counter it. Its introduction states that

we therefore accept the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s recommendation that the UK should put itself on a path towards the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions of some 60% from current levels by 2050.

This implies a stronger commitment than has been proclaimed by other countries and is of course in the starkest contrast to the position of the Bush administration.

We should, however, remember that the USA is a federation of States, each of which retains a considerable measure of independence. Several of them – Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, and California – are suing the Federal Government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) because ‘[i]n the face of continued inaction, we, at State level have no choice but to use the remedies available to us to fill the void left at the Federal level.’ More recently, eight more States (New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont, California, Iowa and Wisconsin) have now filed lawsuits against large US power companies to force reductions in carbon dioxide emissions (Joanna Chung, ‘States file suit to cut levels of CO2’ The Times, 22 July 2004, p. 7).

The UK has shown admirable leadership in what is arguably the most important single issue of our times. Of course one has to add that it is just a little easier to be bold about 2050 than for the more immediate future.

The White Paper recognises the enormous scope of the energy universe; that it is inextricably entwined with the policies advanced by other countries and, indeed, the whole world; and that the problems it throws up are of horrendous complexity. One needs a good deal of optimism just to embark on the task of forming a strategic policy. There is, in fact, a lot of optimism in the government White Paper, which states that the government aims ‘to supply 10 percent of UK electricity in 2010 from renewables’ but with the significant caveat ‘subject to the costs being acceptable to the consumer’ and that:

[the government] will work internationally to promote regional stability, economic reform, open and competitive markets and appropriate environmental policies in the regions that supply most of the world’s oil and gas – Russia, the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America.

The report also sees virtue in innovation:

We will encourage firms to innovate and minimise costs and deliver better quality goods and services.

This is of course encouraging for all those who are grappling with the problems. We know that the world energy need will rise by a factor of between 3 and 5 over this century. We have to produce most of the present energy consumption and then the needs of the much larger projected world requirements without emitting any CO2. Engineers have a task that, by any of the measures of the past century, is fully challenging. We know some of the ways in which the problem can be addressed.

Renewables and nuclear

The prospects for renewables providing a good part of the answer are excellent. The nuclear option does not seem to be a practical answer to the totality of the world energy problem for this century. On the other hand, it would be wrong for the UK to diminish the reliance we place on nuclear. We should replace the aging Magnox stations with modern, much more efficient, and even safer, reactors; governments worry that this would be a vote-loser. They just might be wrong. A recent MORI poll on this issue is rather revealing (see Table 1). The engineers – the present generation and those to come – will work with passion to save the planet. But the framework within which they can act is inevitably set by government.

The role of government

The White Paper advocates a series of policies designed to encourage energy conservation and efficiency, the development of renewable energy, security of supply, and progressive reduction of fuel poverty. Since these policies inevitably thread their way through almost all aspects of our lives, there is always a risk that they can prove to be less than wholly coherent. Running through just a few of the government actions over the last few years illustrates the problem. Looking at these actions from just one point of view (the reduction of greenhouse gas emission) we can try to characterise each as being either good or bad and come up with something like this:

  • Government commitment Good

  • 1995 Petrol Escalator (5% pa) Good

  • 2000 Escalator Abandoned Bad

  • 1997 VAT 5% on Domestic Fuel Bad

  • Non Fossil Fuel Obligation Good

  • NFFO for non viable schemes Bad

  • The Renewables Obligation Good

  • Buy out from RO Bad

  • 2001 climate change levy (CCL) Good?

  • But CCL taxes Energy – not C Bad

Some contradictions are of course inevitable. If you need to have regard to CO2 emissions, economics, political imperatives, international relations and on top of all that perhaps some ministerial personality traits, there isn’t going to be a nice clean answer. Nonetheless, the search for an underlying simplicity is not a waste of time.

A control engineer would approach the problem by imposing a penalty on CO2 emissions – irrespective of who is the emitter or why it is taking place. In Whitehall this approach could be viewed as simplistic, perhaps even naïve, because it does not immediately encompass the myriad of problems and situations it affects.

This difference in approach can be illustrated by an analogy. If we wanted to decide what happens when a white snooker ball hits a red one, the scientist would say:

Conservation of energy and conservation of momentum – and the answer drops out.

The Whitehall approach to this problem may look something like this:

  1. The interaction between the two balls derives from the Coulomb force between the electrons near the surface of each ball.
  2. We should therefore solve Schrödinger’s equation to see just how they interact.
  3. The result will be a deformation of both balls during the period of the encounter, which needs to be calculated.
  4. The subsequent relaxation of this deformation will decide where the balls go next.
  5. One should of course also include any possible effect stemming from the different colours of the balls – colour is always a sensitive issue.

With regard to the emission of greenhouse gases, it is not suggested that by imposing a financial penalty on their emission the problem has been thereby solved. However, the universal application of such a penalty provides a foundation on which other policies would stand.

The fundamental problem about greenhouse gas emission is the fact that, currently, the process of emitting these gases into the atmosphere is free to the polluter. But as we have seen it is very far from being free for the planet and its inhabitants. If we made it sufficiently expensive we would no doubt succeed in reducing the amount emitted. To an engineer the immediate reaction would be to impose a penalty on the undesired element – the emission of greenhouse gases – i.e. to tax the emission. That indeed is the principal conclusion reached in the Royal Society Study ‘Economic Instruments for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions’ [Policy Document 26/02 (London, The Royal Society, November 2002)]. Since most of the emission of CO2 comes from the burning of fossil fuel the tax could most easily be imposed on the basic fuel when it is purchased by the power stations, the oil refineries or the chemical industry. It is recommended that it should be universal – it should apply to all fossil fuel usage including domestic fuel, transport, and particularly air transport and that:

  • control of emission of CO2 can be effected at a lower overall cost by the application of an economic instrument, such as a carbon tax, than by a system of regulation

  • a carbon tax should be collected ‘upstream’ (on the purchase of fossil fuel)

The purchased fossil fuel is responsible for 96% of the total emission. It is therefore very easy to collect it and to ensure that no one escapes the charge. There is no need to measure and monitor the actual emissions from individual plants.

But this raises a political problem. If one imposes the charge up-stream, it means that domestic fuel will cost more, and in the absence of any remedial measures, the number of fuel-poor will increase. To the government this is a show stopper. But this is just the point where current government policies become obscure. Protecting a vulnerable portion of the population from suffering fuel poverty is a social problem. One should solve social problems by social means.

A carbon tax collected up-stream is the simplest approach, but it is not what is happening at the moment. Instead the UK is participating with the EU Emissions Trading Scheme – EUTS – due to start in January 2005. Each of the member nations will be allocated a permit to emit a prescribed amount of CO2 based on the previous agreement in the Kyoto protocol. Each nation will then, in turn, allocate segments of the allowance to individual industries and enterprises.

One possible way in which individual enterprises might have been granted an emission permit is if these permits were to be auctioned. One would then establish a price for the emission of a quantity of CO2 – and in this respect it could have the same beneficial impact as a carbon tax. Unhappily most nations are simply allocating permits on the basis of past emissions – and this includes the main part of the UK allocations. It amounts to rewarding those who have emitted most CO2 in the past by allowing them to continue to do so.

The fervour with which individual nations approach the task is also rather variable. So, for example, the Kyoto target for Italy for 2010 was to be 6.5% below the 1990 level. On current projections it will in fact be 8.7% above that level. There are a number of nations who have not yet produced their allocation proposals, which were due in March.

So far so bad! But there is another feature of the EU emissions trading scheme, which is very popular with politicians but is largely a snare and a delusion. It is the idea of trading. If one can reduce one’s emission below that allowed by the permit granted, one can sell the excess to another organisation that finds it cannot operate within the allocated permit.

Let us look at a simple example of how this might come about. We have two process industry ventures, A and B. Both need a boiler to raise the steam. Both of the boilers are old and inefficient. Replacing the boiler with a new one will significantly reduce the emission of CO2. The boiler in A is in an out-building connected to the process structure by just a couple of pipes. It is easy to remove the boiler and replace it all in 24 hours. B is not so fortunate. Their processing system grew around the boiler. To take it out they would have to dismantle the plant and be out of action for months. Clearly it will be advantageous for A to replace their boiler with some of the emission saved and sell permits to B. And it will be advantageous for B to buy them rather than go through the trauma of replacing their boiler right now. So the good news is that one will have reduced the cost of saving some emissions.

However, how widespread is the disparity in the ability to reduce emission? And how long will this disparity last? After all, boilers don’t live forever. If not this decade then the next they will have to be replaced – and of course then one will have an added incentive to install the most efficient. The benefit from such legitimate trading may be limited in scope and limited in its duration.

The real profit, which can be derived from trading, is if there are permits given to an institution or a country that would not be used. They can then sell such permits but with absolutely no benefit to the reduction of emissions. There is a perception that the EU emissions trading scheme will suffer from this brand of ‘hot air’ emission reduction.

The word trading is used as a brand, almost as a slogan – it is in the title of the EU scheme. It often features in government reports and ministerial speeches. Trading sounds like a positive profitable activity – whereas the word tax is of course immediately recognised as a loser.

And yet a carbon tax need not dent our standard of living, need not make us less competitive. Using a carbon tax as a base for government energy policy and then making whatever adjustments are needed to give the system time to adapt is better than putting energy, social and industrial issues all into one pot and then stirring vigorously. It is a more cost effective option – a conclusion on which there is a wide measure of agreement amongst economists who have studied the problem.

One study [Robert Rebetto and Duncan Austin, The costs of climate protection: a guide for the perplexed (World Resources Institute, 1997)] underlines this conclusion. Suppose we succeed in imposing economic instruments so that there is a fixed price for the emission of CO2. Suppose further that the money collected from the emitters is recycled into the economy. What is the probable impact on the GDP? Of course it depends on the price charged for the emission and the consequent reduction in CO2 emission that is achieved.

The remarkable conclusion is that for a reduction of 25% the consequent change in GDP is in the range –2% to +2%. For a reduction of 90% the damage to the GDP is estimated to be in the range of –1% to –4%/ Now the trend in the increase in GDP is about 2% per annum. So the –4% suggests that, at worst, the price for a 90% reduction in CO2 would be the loss of two years worth of the increase in our affluence.

What would be needed to embark on the suggested course? It would naturally have to be a gradual process for both national and international reasons. But if the government were to adopt the principle that there is a cost for emitting CO2 irrespective of who is doing it, and that the thrust of future government policy would be towards an acceptance of this principle, that would be a giant step forward.

So how well are we saving the planet? Not too well. The good news is we have achieved what is now approaching an international consensus that there is a problem to be resolved. The Kyoto accord is at least a demonstration that nations are prepared to discuss and negotiate the problem – though it is widely appreciated that even if ratified by most nations it will lead to only a miniscule reduction in emission.

Governments need to appreciate that they will not succeed if they deviate too far from the simple principle that there must be a cost to the emission of CO2 whether it is industry transport domestic aviation that is the source. It requires political courage to move towards this goal.

Further reading

Full details of the government’s White Paper on energy policy can be found at www.dti.gov.uk/energy/whitepaper.

Professor Sir Eric Ash CBE FREng FRS

Ocean Power Technologies, INC.

Eric Ash is an electrical engineer whose research interest is primarily in physical electronics. He has spent some of his career in industry, a portion in the Electrical Engineering Department of University College London, and then as Rector of Imperial College. More recently he served as the Treasurer of the Royal Society, where he was involved with energy policy issues.

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