Category Archives: Uncategorized

Britain’s GHG emissions are down 8.4%. And more than half of the reductions were due to the weather

Tracking year to year changes in greenhouse gas emissions can be problematic. It is incredibly easy to read too much into what happens in a single year. And this can go in two directions.

Consider coal in China. Last year, China’s coal use declined (officially that is, but we can’t trust China’s coal statistics that much). If you are naive, you would believe that China has reached peak coal. This view is somewhat delusional given that China has over 100 gigawatts of coal power plants under construction.

So, what are we to make of the fact that Britain’s GHG emissions declined by 8.4% last year? Continue reading

A carbuncle on public life is about to be exposed

Prince Charles is a man with reactionary and often outright sinister views. So, there is nothing better than the news that the Supreme Court has decided that the letters he has written to ministers must finally be made public.

We might finally find out just how dreadful this man’s private opinions are. Continue reading

Why do people call climate change a religion?

Here is a linguistic oddity. When climate change “skeptics” start attacking belief in climate change, they will often claim that climate change has become some kind of religion.

This use of language is worth de-constructing. “Religion” is being used pejoratively. But why is this?

Let’s consider the reverse. Have you ever heard someone use the word “science” pejoratively?

“Belief in reincarnation has become like a science”; “belief in the Virgin Mary is no longer religious, it is a science”. Somehow it lacks pizazz, and it simply ends up lending credibility to absurd beliefs. Continue reading

ActionAid is not for or against GMOs but……..

But is a wonderful word. Try this. “I support free speech, but…” The but is always followed by rather clear evidence that the person does not support free speech.

A new example comes from ActionAid. Continue reading

Academic Science in a book shop. Spot the error!

Here is the Academic Science section in a branch of Waterstones in Glasgow. Can you spot the outrageous addition?


China’s coal economy is about half a century behind the US and UK

Here is a simple rule for the development of an economy’s energy system, a rule that seems to be followed almost everywhere:

Coal is eventually used more or less exclusively for two things: making electricity and making steel.

Take Britain.

In the early 20th century, almost all of Britain’s energy came from coal. If you travelled, you did so on a steam train. If you heated your home, it was by burning coal. If gas was used to light the streets of London, it was gas derived from coal. The factories of the workshop of the world were driven by the steam engine.

Today things are different. You can only travel by steam train on a handful of heritage lines; more or less no one heats their homes with coal; and the use of “town gas” – as it was called – ended decades ago. Coal is basically used to make electricity and steel.

And the same story can be told for America.

But, it cannot be told yet for China. Only half of the coal consumed in China is used to generate electricity, compared with over 80% in Britain and America. In fact, China is approximately half a century behind Britain and America.

Here is a figure I’ve created using historical statistics for Britain, America and China:

Coal_CompositionA couple of things stand out. First, electricity made up the majority of coal consumption for the first time in 1970 and 1963 in Britain and America respectively. Second, the rate of increase is much slower in China today than it was in Britain and America half a century ago. In 1990, China used 25% of its coal for electricity production. Two decades later it was 50%. In contrast, in 1960 Britain used 25% of its coal to produce electricity; but this had increased to 75% two decades later.

The rate at which China is modernising its coal economy therefore appears to be slower than it was in America or Britain. This is likely a result of the lack of readily available natural gas, which played a key role in the reduction of coal use in Britain and American industry. China remains highly dependent on the direct use of coal in industry.

However, in some respects China has fully modernised its coal economy. For example, it no longer has steam trains. Surprisingly, there were more steam trains than diesels in China until 1990:

TrainsAnd, as you see in the time series above, China is further modernising by transitioning from diesel to electric trains.

This, of course, is a return to coal. The prime mover of China’s railways was the steam engine; then it was the diesel engine; and now increasingly it is effectively the steam turbines of China’s coal power plants.

Note on data

Historical US statistics are from EIA. UK statistics from DECC. Statistics for China are taken from the China Energy Databook. Data plotted using ggplot2 in R.

Costa Rica: a mythical land that does not use fossil fuels

I don’t read Quartz much, probably for good reason. Their basic fact checking abilities appear to be shockingly bad. Here are excerpts from the last two things I have read there.

First up, from a story about coal use in China,

slowing the growth of CO2 emissions, in China and globally, will not be enough to stop runaway climate change, a tipping point at which our atmosphere could change unpredictably. To avoid reaching that point, scientists believe that we should avoid crossing a concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere of 400 parts per million. Before the industrial revolution, CO2 levels were at 280ppm; they have already since risen to 382ppm.

This story told use that we must avoid atmospheric CO2 emissions exceeding 400 ppm. Well, we already have. Of course, it would have helped if the journalist who wrote the piece had checked the year – 2006 – he took the information from.

And today, there is a story about how Costa Rica is “now running completely on renewable energy”:

Thanks to some heavy rainfall this year, Costa Rica’s hydropower plants alone are generating nearly enough electricity to power the entire country. With a boost from geothermal, solar, and wind energy sources, the country doesn’t need an ounce of coal or petroleum to keep the lights on. Of course, the country has a lot of things going in its favor. Costa Rica is a small nation, has less than 5 million people, doesn’t have much of a manufacturing industry that would require a lot of energy, and is filled with volcanoes and other topographical features that lend themselves to renewable energy.

Nonetheless, it is both a noble and significant feat for a nation of any size to eschew fossil fuels completely.

So, there you go. Costa Rica does not use fossil fuels. How did they achieve this, and how can everyone else copy them?

This made me curious. According to Expedia, I can book a 7 day holiday in Costa Rica. This will involve travelling from Heathrow Airport and arriving at Costa Rica, in a plane made by Boeing and powered by kerosene, a fossil fuel.

Hold on. Perhaps Costa Rica has not eschewed fossil fuels completely. Easily available statistics will tell us a more accurate story. Let’s try CDIAC’s data for carbon emissions from the combustion of the fossil fuels Costa Rica has eschewed. Here is the most recent data.

costaSo, you see this mistake made. It’s an old one. We use fossil fuels for all kinds of things. Heating our homes, driving cars, flying planes, shipping tooth picks from China. Yet, a lot of media coverage seems to believe we only use them for generating electricity.

And the Quartz story provides us with another example:

Denmark, which gets 40% of its energy from wind, wants to ditch fossil fuels completely by 2050.

More accurately, Denmark gets 40% of its electricity, not energy, from wind. But this is an old story.

So, here is a very good rule of thumb:

If a news story tells you a country gets X% of its energy from renewables, it really means that it gets X% of its electricity from renewables.

I believe this rule of thumb is as reliable as the one about the sun coming up each morning.