All posts by Robert Wilson


What We Lack Is Cliché

“We can only avoid catastrophic climate change if we reduce our dependency on fossil fuels – we’re already on track for four degrees warming, which will be impossible for human society to adapt to. We have the technology to prevent dangerous climate change. What we lack is the political will of our leaders to strongly champion renewable power and energy efficiency.”

- Friends of the Earth’s executive director Andy Atkins in response to the latest IPCC report.

No, Guardian: Greenhouse Gas Emissions Have Not Doubled In The Last Decade

Do we really need leaked IPCC documents to tell us what we already know? Apparently the Guardian thinks so.

Today they have a story about how a leaked IPCC report shows that “Greenhouse gas emissions grew nearly twice as fast over the past decade as in the previous 30 years.” Is this news? If I wanted to find out how much greenhouse gas emissions have risen over this period it is incredibly easy. No IPCC leak is necessary. I could simply have a look at the UNFCC data, or perhaps the Edgar data set, or CDIAC. All of these data sets will tell you what this IPCC leak tells you. In fact there is no need for an IPCC leak to tell us this, you could simply look up research that the Guardian itself has reported on multiple occasions.

Is this journalism? Poking through a leaked IPCC report to find a statement of the obvious and publishing it as news?

Perhaps as a follow up we will have a story about how a leaked IPCC story shows that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are in fact increasing, or that rain is a particular feature of the climate of Scotland.

And the headline is particularly delightful: “UN: greenhouse gas emissions nearly doubled in first decade of 21st century.” No they did not. The growth in emissions doubled. Naturally the Guardian’s environment website editor has not picked up the error and is tweeting it, as is the author of the original story. Is such innumeracy part of the training for the modern journalist?

We are inveighed to keep emissions below a certain level, but we cannot make the effort to get the growth in emissions accurate to within even a factor of two. What hope is there?

However when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions the Guardian is particularly sloppy. Their environment editor recently reported atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reaching a record high as carbon dioxide emissions reaching a record high. These of course are fundamentally different things. Even if carbon dioxide emissions fell next year atmospheric carbon dioxide levels would keep going up.

When it comes to climate change the numbers really do matter. Gigatonnes, terawatts, trillion cubic metres. Such orders of magnitude demand care, not sloppiness. But unless that sloppiness is being made in the Daily Mail, and not the Guardian, no one does any complaining.

Solar Planes: Showing Us What We Cannot Do With Renewable Energy

Observing the endless stream of nonsense and wishful think uttered in the name of sustainability is often enough to make me wonder why I continue to think, let alone make observations, about this whole business. Today the Guardian provides me with yet more annoyance, a predictable event perhaps.

Solar planes. Yes, that thing again. Last year a Swiss guy flew across America in a time that would not have impressed Benjamin Franklin all that much, but he did it in a solar powered plane. This would make it a planet saving endeavour, not a totally mis-appropriate use of energy technology.

And here he is this week, telling us about his effort to fly one of these things around the planet:

“It’s not the easiest way to fly around the world, but probably the most spectacular to attract the awareness … to show what we can do with renewable energies.”

This is an inversion of reality. Solar powered planes do not show us what we can do with renewable energy, they show us what we cannot do. Instead of pointing this out environment journalists provide fawning coverage. Easy copy, and easy reading. Meanwhile Britain continues to burn far more coal, and far less gas, to produce electricity. Perhaps that story will be covered tomorrow.

The size of solar farms

I have been rather busy with my day job modelling plankton, so have been neglecting my column at Energy Collective. But my first piece in a month is available for those interested in the size of power plants. I look at the size of Ivanpah solar farm in California, the world’s biggest.

Hopefully I can get another one out next week looking at the decline of coal in Britain in the last century. A fascinating subject, but no doubt it will have a readership of one.


Sucking CO2 out of the air using bio-energy. A bad idea.

The Guardian reports today that the next IPCC report might suggest using biomass to suck CO2 out of the air, burn the trees for electricity, and then shove the CO2 under ground. Naturally these reports are full of assertions by various concerned parties, but numbers are glaringly absent.

So, here is a very straightforward calculation that can test the limits of biomass. Globally we consume fossil fuels at a rate of almost 15 terawatts, that is 15 trillion watts. Possible yields of bio-energy are relatively well understand. Without massive improvements through genetic engineering we cannot get anything above 0.5 watts per square metre. This 0.5 watts per square metre is achieved partly through subsidising bio-energy with fossil fuel based fertilizers and machines such as tractors.

100% biomass energy would require something like 15 trillion divided by 0.5 square metres. In other words 30 million square kilometres. This is roughly two times bigger than Russia. It is also six times bigger than the Amazon Rainforest. It is also around 20 times bigger than the area of the planet that is currently forest plantation.

So, converting all global forest plantation over to quick growing trees so that we can harvest them to generate electricity could offset perhaps a couple of years of growth in global carbon dioxide emissions. And this assumes that biomass is carbon neutral, a questionable assumption.

Clearly this is not much of a solution to anything.

A fine idea: ban onshore wind farms and promote solar in Sunny Britain

Britain is one of the windiest countries on the planet. Unfortunately it has a rather large number of nimbys. Hence the Conservative now seems to be considering pledging to ban onshore wind farms.

So, the renewables to promote will be offshore wind – rather expensive – and solar – rather ineffective given the dogged nature of Britain’s clouds and latitude.

This then is the biggest problem for decarbonisation. The technologies that are the most effective for quick cuts in carbon emissions are also the least politically correct. Few people like nuclear or onshore wind. But stick a rather ineffective solar panel on a suburban roof in England and no one will complain. The UK should abandon its climate targets now for we are reaching more and more for ineffective tools.