Category Archives: sustainability

Slow progress replacing 150 year old infrastructure

Photograph of salvaged section of original gas mainThe Liverpool Gas Light Company was formed in 1816, just as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere started to rise above the pre-industrial revolution level of 278 ppm. A rival Oil Gas Company was formed in 1823 and became the Liverpool New Gas and Coke Company in 1834. The two rival companies merged in 1848. Last year a piece of cast iron gas main from around this period was salvaged while replacing a gas main on the Dock Road in Liverpool. It was date-stamped 1853. For the last month, works have been underway to replace the original gas main in our street which appears to be of a similar age. The concept of gas-fired central heating using pressurised hot water was developed in the 1830s by Angier March Perkins [1838 US patent], amongst others; but did not become fashionable until the 1850s which coincides approximately with laying of the original gas main in the road outside our house. There is a cavernous coal hole under the pavement (sidewalk) in front of our house which would have been used to store coal that was burned in fireplaces in every room. So, we can deduce that the house, which was built in the early 1830s, did not initially have gas-fired central heating but that it could have been installed sometime in the second half of the 19th century, just as the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere started its exponential increase towards today’s level of 412 ppm [monthly average at Mauna Loa Global Monitoring Laboratory for August 2020].  Carbon dioxide represents about 80% of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the US EPA, and heating of commercial and residential properties accounts for 12% of these emissions in the US and for 32% in the UK.  Hence, before our house is two hundred years old, it is likely that we will have converted it to electrical heating in order to reduce its carbon footprint.  We have made a start on the process but it is pointless until our power supply is carbon neutral and progress towards carbon neutrality for electricity generation is painfully slow in the UK and elsewhere [see ‘Inconvenient facts‘ on December 18th, 2019].

You can check live carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation and consumption using the ElectricityMap.

Inconvenient facts

The latest UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid, which is holding its closing session as I am writing this post, does not appear to have reached any significant conclusions.  Unsurprisingly, vested interests have dominated and there is little agreement on a plan of action to slow down climate change or to mitigate its impact. However, perhaps there is progress because two recent polls imply that 75% of Americans believe humans cause climate change and roughly half say that urgent action is needed.  This is important because the USA has made the largest cumulative contribution to greenhouse gas emissions with 25% of total emissions, followed by the EU-28 at 22% and China at 13%, according to the Our World in Data website.  However, the need for urgent action is being undermined by suggestions that we cannot afford it, or that we will have better technology in the future that will make it easier to act.  However, much of the engineering technology that is needed to remove fossil fuels from our economy is already available.   Of course, the technology will be improved in the future but that is always true because we are continually making technological advances.  We could replace fossil fuels as the energy source for all of our electricity, buildings and heating (31%) and for most of our industry (21%) and transportation (14%) using the technology that is available today and this could eliminate about two-thirds of current global greenhouse gas emissions. The numbers in parentheses are the percentage contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions according to the IPCC. Of course, it would require a massive programme of infrastructure investment; however, if we are serious then the subsidies paid to the oil and gas industry could be redirected toward decarbonising our economies.  According to the IMF, that is approximately $5.2 trillion per year in subsidies, which is about the GDP of Japan.  The science of climate change is well-understood (see for example ‘What happens to emitted carbon‘ and ‘Carbon emissions and surface warming‘) and widely recognised; the engineering technology to mitigate both climate change and its impacts is largely understood and implementation-ready; however, most urgently, we need well-informed public debate about the economic changes required to decarbonise our society.

Sources:

Mark Maslin, The five corrupt pillars of climate change denial, The Conversation, November 28th, 2019.

United Nations Blog, The drive to a conclusion, December 13th, 2019.

Sandra Laville, Top oil firms spending millions lobbying to block climate change policies, says report, The Guardian, March 22nd 2019.

Footnote: The videos ‘What happens to emitted carbon‘ and ‘Carbon emissions and surface warming‘ are part of a series produced by my colleague, Professor Ric Williams at the University of Liverpool.  He has produced a third one: ‘Paris or Bust‘.

 

Citizens of the world

Last week in Liverpool, we hosted a series of symposia for participants in a dual PhD programme involving the University of Liverpool and National Tsing Hua University, in Taiwan, that has been operating for nearly a decade.  On the first day, we brought together about dozen staff from each university, who had not met before, and asked them to present overviews of their research and explore possible collaborations using as a theme: UN Sustainable Development Goal No.11: Sustainable Cities and Communities.  The expertise of the group included biology, computer science, chemistry, economics, engineering, materials science and physics; so, we had wide-ranging discussions.  On the second and third day, we connected a classroom on each campus using a video conferencing system and the two dozen PhD students in the dual programme presented updates on their research from whichever campus they are currently resident.  Each student has a supervisor in each university and divides their time between the two universities exploiting the expertise and facilities in the two institutions.

The range of topics covered in the student presentations was probably even wider than on the first day; extending from deep neural networks, through nuclear reactor technology, battery design and three-dimensional cell culturing to policy impacts on households.  One student spoke about the beauty of mathematical equations she is working on that describe the propagation of waves in lattice structures; while, another told us about his investigation of the causes of declining fertility rates across the world.  Data from the UN DESA Population Division show that live births per woman in the Americas & Europe have already fallen below the 2.1 required to sustain the population, while it is projected to fall below this level in south-east Asia within the next five years and in the world by 2060.  This made me think that perhaps the Gaia principle, proposed by James Lovelock, is operating and that human population is self-regulating as it interacts with constraints imposed by the Earth though perhaps not in a fashion originally envisaged.

 

Planetary Emergency

Global energy budget from Trenberth et al 2009

This week’s lecture in my thermodynamics course for first-year undergraduate students was about thermodynamic systems and the energy flows in and out of them. I concluded the lecture by talking about our planet as a thermodynamic system using the classic schematic in the thumbnail [see ‘Ample sufficiency of solar energy‘ on October 25th, 2017 for more discussion on this schematic].  This is usually a popular lecture but this year it had particular resonance because of the widely publicised strikes by students for action on climate change.  I have called before for individuals to take responsibility given the intransigence of governments [see ‘Are we all free riders‘ on June 6th, 2016 or ‘New Year Resolution‘ on December 31st, 2014]; so, it is good to see young people making their views and feelings known.

Weather-related events, such as widespread flooding and fires, are reported so frequently in the media that perhaps we have started to ignore them as portents of climate change.  For me, three headlines events have reinforced the gravity of the situation:

  1. The publication earlier this month of a joint report by UNICEF and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health that air pollution in the UK so high that it is infringing the fundamental rights of children to grow up in a clean and safe environment; and, under the Government’s current plans, air pollution in the UK is expected to remain at dangerous levels for at least another 10 years.
  2. The warning earlier this month from the Meteorological Office in London that global warming could exceed 1.5C above pre-industrial levels within five years.  In my lecture, I highlighted that a 2C rise would be equal to the temperature 3 million years ago when sea levels were 25 to 35m high; and, a 1m rise in sea level would displace 145 million people globally [according to Blockstein & Weigmann, 2010].
  3. The suspension of construction of the new nuclear power station on Anglesey by Hitachi, which leaves the UK Government’s energy strategy in disarray with only one of the six planned new power stations under construction.  This leaves the UK unable to switch from fossil-fuelled to electric vehicles and dependent on fossil fuel to meet current electricity demand.

I apologise for my UK focus this week but whereever you are reading this blog you could probably find similar headlines in your region.  For instance, the 2016 UNICEF report states that one in seven children worldwide live in toxic air and air pollution is a major contributing factor in the deaths of around 600,000 children under five every year.  These three headlines illustrate that there is a planetary emergency because climate change is rapidly and radically altering the ecosystem with likely dire consequences for all living things; that despite a near-existential threat to the next generation as a consequence of air pollution most governments are effectively doing nothing; and that in the UK we are locked into a fossil-fuel dependency for the foreseeable future due to a lack of competent planning and commitment from the government which will compound the air pollution and climate change problems.

Our politicians need to stop arguing about borders and starting worrying about the whole planet.  We are all in this together and no man-made border will protect us from the impact of making the planet a hostile environment for life.