Category: Climate Change: Technology and why it matters


In my last post, I talked about the need for electric cars that symbolise innovation, the cutting edge, etc. etc. Electric cars that car fanciers can relate to.  At the other end of the spectrum, of course, is the need for cars that are practical for families without boy racers (or indeed girl racers in). As a strikingly normal, practical car for the everyman the Ford Focus Electric has a chance of being that car, the spiritual successor to the Model T.

The Ford Focus Electric

The Ford Focus Electric seems to be somewhere in between: it’s still a presentable car but it’s takes a big step towards that market of electric cars for ordinary people. Ford has always been the make favoured by the practical driver rather than the flashy: my Dad, for instance, drives serious Ford estate cars with lots of boot space for family holidays. Ford’s place in history was secured, of course, by its provision of a car for the masses, the Model T, in 1908.

It’s difficult to see what the uptake will be at this stage: there’s the classic chicken-and-egg problem with electric cars that the infrastructure will only be built if there is demand for it (or expected demand), while the demand for the cars will only survive if there are places to charge them. The European Commission have recently outlined plans to get petrol cars out of city streets by 2050, in part with governments taking the lead in providing infrastructure . For the market to rise to this challenge, however, it needs big symbols that electric cars are on the way. Ford’s decision to step into that market may send a clear signal that the big guns of car manufacturing are taking the electric car seriously. As I’ve argued previously, rising oil prices from middle-east conflict and unrest may also prove a boost to such technologies.

The Chrysler GEM Peapod. Plays on its uniqueness rather than its normality

I am also pleased to see they’ve stuck with the design of their existing ordinary, nice-looking cars. With the greatest respect to some of the other pioneers in this field, lots of electric cars are frankly wierd-looking in a way that it’s difficult to get over. A blog on treehugger.com Ford’s move to normality this as a bold strategy, moving away from the model of selling eco-friendly cars that make a statement about their own uniqueness. Meanwhile a CNN blog has criticised Ford for “coming to the eco-party late”, near a year behind its rivals, but perhaps this reflects a more mature product: according to their PR, the Ford Focus Electric is also “designed to offer sufficient range to cover the majority of daily driving habits”, in this case about 100 miles. It is also good to see they’re aware of and seeking to tackle the problem.

Ford have already dabbled in hybrid cars, such as the upcoming C-MAX Energi. (I hope am not the only person who finds the use of an “i” in the brand name “Energi” slightly tiresome.) I find hybrid cars an interesting and slightly odd market because it is so dominated by the Toyota Prius, which somehow managed to tie itself entirely to the concept of hybrid cars in the public mindset much as “hoover” became synonymous with vacuum cleaner. (The example I always think of with this is the episode of The West Wing where Josh Lyman, the White House’s Deputy Chief of Staff, is photographed crashing an SUV into a Prius, a fantastic symbol of arrogant anti-environmentalism that they then have to manage the fallout from.)

As far as I know there isn’t a fully electric car that has that kind of dominance yet. Or maybe there is among car fanciers and it just hasn’t filtered down to sane people grownups me yet. Will Ford be able to roll out the definitive, yet reassuringly normal electric car, the model T for our generation? Time will tell. Good luck to them, say I.

I have a come up with a brilliant way for the James Bond franchise to play its part in the low-carbon revolution, keep Bond at the cutting edge of technology and stir up some public interest in the next film along the way.

Pierce Brosnan as Bond, with Aston Martin

The electric car is many things, but cool is not one of them. The technology may be improving, the ethical case strengthening and the marketing picking up, but petrolheads, the Jeremy Clarkson brigade, can’t quite bring themselves to take an interest. Now Electric Cars like the Tesla Roadster (my personal favourite, though at £88,000 a little outside my current budget) even look fantastic. Fundamentally, however, no matter how good the electric car becomes, a certain segment of the population won’t be able to take it seriously.

The reason? The car, in its petrol-driven form is deeply embedded in US-UK culture. The Beach Boys did not sing “Little Electric Deuce Coope”. There were no electric cars in The Fast and the Furious (and The Fast and The Furious 4: She’s Electric seems unlikely somehow). In Thunder Road Bruce Springsteen sings of getting out of small-town America and the likely fate of young men left behind: “They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets”. If he sang that now about those little nippy smart cars he would sound ridiculous. While Chevrolet have now expanded into electric cars, the image also doesn’t quite sit with the Chevrolet Volt – the industrial heartland of America is still characterised by petrol. And James Bond does not drive an electric car. I think we all suspect, deep down, that if he did he would find it much less easy to attract women with the speed and reliability he does. Besides which, Aston Martin, Bond’s car of choice, has dismissed the possibility of going electric.

But James Bond is the perfect vehicle (pun not intended) for showcasing the electric car. Bond always has the latest technology: that’s a big part of what the franchise is all about. Electric cars can be sold to the Bond audience as the latest, best, most high-tech thing. Best of all, it doesn’t have to be based on reality: I could be wrong here but I very much suspect that no-one has yet invented a car that can be steered by a mobile phone (and if they did it was after watching Tomorrow Never Dies not before) but Bond can have one because the audience understands that MI6 are ahead of the curve on this one. So Bond’s electric car can have limited range. He can hack into power lines on the road to charge it. It’s all fair game. And Daniel Craig’s masculinity will go a long way to making the electric car a thing of desire.

Daniel Craig as Bond, also with an Aston Martin

So how will this benefit the Bond franchise? Because putting Bond in an electric car will be highly controversial. There will be headlines and endless online comment pieces and blogs. The diehard petrolheads may all complain down the pub, but they’ll go and see it and all their friends will pick up on the buzz and want to know what’s going on and will go and see it too.

It’s a long road (again, pun not intended) to building up the electric car in the public eye, a task that falls partly to improving technology and partly to cultural change. An electric bond car would, however, leave the market shaken, if not stirred.

In the news today was a proposal to make companies operating nuclear energy in the UK liable for clean-up costs of up to £1.01 billon in the event of a accident, up from only £140 million at the moment. Lib Dem Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne also proposes to allow more types of claim to be made in such circumstances. It is absolutely right for the government to make this change and stop distorting the market as it does now.

Huhne: In favour of building more nuclear plants, but raising the insurance costs

I will come clean here: I am a fence-sitter on the issue of nuclear power. The more I look into it the more complicated and unclear it becomes. I tend to conclude that it is not a power source to be dismissed completely, but mostly is not worth the cost. This may, however, change with technological improvements.

It is, however, unhelpful for nuclear power to be given an unfair market advantage. When its maximum liability level is low it has a huge implicit subsidy: government is then effectively agreeing to clear up the mess from any nuclear disaster. If nuclear energy becomes a bigger part of the UK’s (or the world’s) energy supply because its real costs are being covered by the government, then that is due to a misjudgement on the part of policymakers.

This is not to say all energy subsidies should be opposed, quite the opposite. The cards should be stacked heavily in favour of giving renewable energy an advantage, so the technology is developed swiftly. Subsidies to renewable energy sources are essential to develop areas like wind and solar power to a competitive market position. At present they have an unfair disadvantage simply because however good the fundamental ideas are, they haven’t had the years of development that fossil fuel and nuclear industries have. Adopting the most effective and efficient renewable generation is key to developing a sustainable economy in the long-term.

There is another key way of making the energy market better reflect energy production costs, and that is smart grids. At present less predictable sources of energy like wind are effectively discriminated against by a grid that is designed to move energy in a fairly unsubtle way. High-quality smart grids can allow power companies to monitor the electricity going through all of its power lines in real-time and have much greater control of where the power goes. Electricity inefficiency costs the world dearly: according to IBM the world’s current grids “lose enough electricity annually to power India, Germany and Canada for an entire year” This control makes the reliability challenges of renewable energy much easier to overcome: if there isn’t enough power generation in one area, it can be moved from elsewhere. Smart grids would still have benefits for other energy companies, but would level the playing field still further.

Somewhere, a little swamped by the coverage of the (finally) capped oil leak, have been two other environmental stories in the last couple of days, one dry but important, one inspirational.

On the one hand, a UN-backed report tells us that renewable energy has grown steadily. To lift directly from the BBC:

The authors said the year was “unprecedented in the history of renewable energy, despite the headwinds posed by the global financial crisis, lower oil prices and slow progress with climate policy”.

One of the forces propelling the sector’s strong showing, they added, was the “potential to create new industries and millions of new jobs”. (BBC Website)

A different, Swiss-made manned solar-powered plane. Ok, the aesthetics could use a bit of work...

Good to know, and good context to the second story, that a small, solar-powered sports plane has completed a 7-day flight. Now perhaps I’m getting too excited about this, but, a solar-powered plane! I’m not normally one to get excited about technology or new machines, but this one I can get on the wavelength of. At this point we’re just talking about a tiny, unmanned plane (although there have also been short, manned flights) and no doubt we have years, probably decades, to wait before this becomes a commercial technology carrying the masses through the skies, but its potential as a symbol seems to me to be huge. Wind farms carry a lot of baggage with them, solar panels on the ground are very rarely glamorous or beautiful, but the idea of a solar has a kind of excitement factor to it. It’s easy to imagine fleets of beautiful, silent solar planes with huge wings flying through the sky. It’s futuristic, and not in a kitsch way. I highly recommend a google image search for solar-powered planes: this latest story is, of course just one of many developments of this kind, and the machines are mostly a good-looking bunch.

Somewhere in the last fifty years flying has turned from a glamorous pursuit, a symbol of the future and living at a fast pace, to something morally dubious and done by the packed-in masses with Ryanair or EasyJet. Surely there is something left in that original fantasy of taking to the skies to give this idea the kind of thrill that most renewable energy innovations or energy efficiency drives just don’t have. I would be sorry if this happened in a vacuum, but coupled with the UN report which places this story in an optimistic big picture, this feels like a good omen. I hope there are artists, writers, songwriters out there taking note.

For many of us, flying less is one of the most difficult behaviour changes to envision in a world with, say, high carbon taxes. Some of those most concerned about global warming also believe strongly in the value of a smaller world, myself included. This theme is excellently covered in the song ‘Flying’ by highly political folk-pop group Seize The Day, who I think it’s fair to say are slightly to the left of Gandhi reading the communist manifesto while on crack. This was written by a member of the group to show that she, while having stopped flying herself, understands the positions of their friends who still do. Climate change is not an easy subject to write songs about, but they manage it by making it highly personal (and, indeed, slipping in some fantastic vocal harmonies).

“I discovered so much of who I am

Sitting in deserts in the sand

Nothing and no-one to get in the way

No bills to pay

I love lying in the sun and swimming in warm sea

I don’t want to think about all the places I may never see

Living is hard but flying is easy…”

(from “Flying” by Seize the Day)

Your blogger aged 19, taking advantage of a smaller world by learning the facts of Mongolian nomadic life in the Gobi desert

And this from climate change activists! For anyone who has gained a lot from international travel, (or, indeed, from high quality international imports), the appeal is obvious. For now, many of us are ready and willing to push for local products and cut down our travelling. But hope is a powerful thing.

The PR angle seems to me to be this. “While personal efforts to reduce our carbon footprint are still essential, and the questions posed about our society by the environmental issues it causes remain, it’s looking like technology could make everyone’s lives a whole lot easier. We’re seeing more innovation, more jobs, and some outright excitement, including the possibility of flying up towards the sun, powered by the sun.”

With my dissertation due to be finished in a month on Monday I promised myself less blogging. But some blogs just write themselves…

Superfreakonomics: caused a freak out in the popular discussion of climate change

Superfreakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner has stirred up more comment than many books focusing specifically on climate change. It’s semi-official, I’ve been researching the number of references to various climate-change-related books and films in broadsheet newspapers since 2008 and my figures at this stage show more mentions of Levitt and Dubner’s work than of all of James Lovelock’s put together (in the period January 2008 to June 2010) in climate-change-related contexts. Admittedly, the vast majority were in the Guardian, but still.

The section of Superfreakonomics on climate change is not bad though a little prone to stating points that are fairly well known already (e.g. methane is a stronger greenhouse gas than CO2) as if they are EXCITING NEW DISCOVERIES FROM BRILLIANT FREAKONOMICS ANALYSIS! Apparently Al Gore exaggerates to get his message across and the media tend to report things in an overly dramatic manner. What next, evidence that environmentalists tend to worry about climate change and that endangered species of bears tend to defecate in woodlands? I’ll allow them all that, though, in the name of popularising the discussion.

It gets interesting, however, when they start talking about geoengineering, their proposals to deliberately manipulate the climate to counteract the effects of climate change. Their case is as follows

  1. Anthropogenic climate change is a very real problem, although over-hyped by the media and particularly Al Gore
  2. Tackling it by reducing CO2 and other greenhouse gases (mitigation) is very expensive, but effective geoengineering could be much cheaper. Injecting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere could stabilise the climate at a cost of $250 million, compared to the Stern Review‘s $1.2 trillion
  3. There are uncertainties and risks of side effects, so technologies should have cautious test runs
  4. The aforementioned injecting sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to simulate the cooling effect of volcanoes is the most promising method, but cloud seeding, spraying seawater into the atmosphere to create more, cooling clouds, should also be considered

Perhaps surprisingly, many climate change activists and writers are ardently against geoengineering. Here, for example, are the key points of a New Internationalist article on the subject, and the growing campaign against geoengineering solutions.

  1. “Unproven scientific ‘fixes’ for global warming are a major threat to the planet”
  2. Injecting sulphur into the atmosphere to mimic volcanoes is dubious: “Such volcanoes have occasionally cooled down the atmosphere before. Unfortunately, they can also cause monsoons to weaken and fail, intensifying hunger in the tropics.”
  3. The actors involved in geoengineering propositions are largely unaccountable and not subject to due process: one scientist has already started in Russia. A Friends of the Earth International spokesman argues: “The same countries and companies that have neglected climate change for decades are now proposing very risky geoengineering technologies that could further disrupt the weather, peoples and ecosystems. We simply don’t trust them to do so equitably.”

An unmanned cloud-seeding ship, floated as a possibility by Superfreakonomics and the preferred approach of Bjørn Lomborg

Myself, I am cautiously in favour of geoengineering being explored. I do accept the principle that kicking-off large-scale climatic change is a risky process full of potential unintended consequences, but given the scale of potential climate change damages, we should absolutely do our homework on this one. Perhaps the solution lies in a variety of small-scale geoengineering projects coupled with mitigation and with adaptation to some level of inevitable climate change.

A thorough and accountable process for testing and investigating geoengineering projects seems like a necessity, but a poor process does not mean a poor idea. There is a risk, admittedly, of side-lining mitigation in favour of geoengineering, when until geoengineering can be proved to work, mitigation of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions should continue at full steam. Like most people, I am not in a position to assess the viability of geoengineering technology, but we should absolutely be giving it a chance. There is no question of not saving the planet, but its better still if we can save the planet money along the way.

P.s. I’m very suspicious of cloud-seeding, also the preferred geoengineering method of Bjørn Lomborg (see his article for the New Statesman). Everything I hear about the physical science of clouds stresses uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty. The uncertainty bar in the 2007 IPCC report dealing with clouds as a cause of climate change is huge (see “cloud albedo effect” on the bar graph on the relevant page of the IPCC website). This is not a reason not to try, but bear that in mind.