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This blog makes liberal use of AB's journals, letters, travel notes, and other sources.

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Sunday, 7 February 2016

Smoke and Mirrors

The UK government has committed itself to significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions as part of a global strategy to tackle climate change. One element of this reduction is the conversion of a major power station (Drax) from burning coal to biomass. The claim that this is in fact beneficial is open to doubt.

The Drax power station is the largest in the UK and generates between 6 and 7% of the country's electricity. It was built to generate electricity by burning coal, but over the last 10 years has been undergoing a conversion to burn biomass instead. Biomass is organic, plant-based material sourced from forests, forest residues, and dedicated energy crops that are not suitable for other uses.(1)

Coal is a fossil fuel and is a stock of carbon captured from the atmosphere by ancient forests. Carbon flows back into the atmosphere as CO2 when coal is burned thus increasing the stock of greenhouse gases and contributing to global warming. Biomass also contains carbon which has been captured by trees and other vegetation from the atmosphere, and carbon is released when it is burned. However, proponents of biomass use argue that overall significantly less harm arises from its use. In fact some would go so far as to say it is 'carbon neutral'. This claim is largely based on an assumption that biomass is waste material from sustainable forests which regenerate and recapture the CO2 from the atmosphere returning it to the stock held in the biosphere.

Drax claims that 122 kg CO2/MWh (kilogrammes of carbon dioxide per Mega watt hour of electricity generated) is emitted in its biomass units. It compares this to coal emissions of around 1,018 kg CO2/MWh and gas at around 437kg.(2) The Drax biomass conversion is part of the reason the UK's coal use fell below 50 million tonnes in 2014 and this contributed to a 9.7% reduction in UK carbon emissions in 2014, a record for a year with a growing economy.(3) The UK government is so committed to the Drax project that it has guaranteed the conversion cost (4) and is using the data to claim to be reducing greenhouse gas emissions.(5) However, significant questions have been raised regarding the methodology for calculating the impact of biomass burning. For example Biofuelwatch, an independent organisation providing information about the environment, claims that biomass is as harmful to the atmosphere as fossil fuels.(6) An independent analysis of biomass impact in the USA concluded that “for biomass replacement of coal-fired power plants, the net cumulative emissions in 2050 are approximately equal to what they would have been burning coal”.(7) A report by one of the UK government's own departments concluded that “the energy input requirement of biomass electricity generated from North American wood used by the UK in 2020 is likely to be significantly greater than other electricity generating technologies, such as coal, natural gas, nuclear and wind.”(8) A thorough investigation by Climate Brief, a UK-based website covering the latest developments in climate science, came to the conclusion that it was impossible to determine, on the available evidence, if biomass was or was not helping to solve climate change.(9)

The evidence is unclear because there is no standard methodology in use which takes account not only of the direct emissions from the power station but factors like forest growth rates, how much of the biomass is 'waste', what time scale to use, transportation, and what environmental impact the trees would have if not harvested. What is clear is that the directors of Drax, and indirectly the UK government, are using the most favourable assumptions when making their calculations and thus showing significant benefits. This is important not just for this project but because similarly questionable schemes may be operating worldwide throwing into doubt claims about progress in tackling global warming.


(1) Drax website -frequently asked questions http://www.drax.com/biomass/benefits-of-biomass/#sthash.x8x18tvD.dpuf See also diagram at the end of this paper

(3) Drax website policy statement http://www.drax.com/biomass/sustainability-policy/

(4) Department of Energy and Climate Change website https://www.gov.uk/government/news/drax-biomass-backed-by-uk-guarantee

(6) Biofuelwatch website - frequently asked questions http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/2013/biomass-faq-2/#C6

(8) Stephenson and McKay Lifecycle Impacts of Biomass Electricity July 2014 https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/349024/BEAC_Report_290814.pdf

Friday, 5 February 2016


Sometimes books just let you down. Or I suppose I should say that it is the authors who somehow just can't maintain their high standard every time - how horrid of them!

I just managed to get to the end of "The Difference Engine" but it was a close run thing. I nearly gave up with only about thirty pages left to read, which would have been a record for me I think. This was a novel which started well and went downhill; steeply downhill as it got towards the end. I had been drawn to it, having read "Neuromancer", by the author's name, and also by its reputation as a 'cyberpunk' novel - sounded fascinating. Additionally it was labelled as an 'SF Masterwork'. The fact that it was a collaboration with someone else (Bruce Sterling) should have rung alarm bells - in my experience when a well-known author collaborates it seems to be a case that he has run out of ideas and is lending his name to someone else whose book it is in fact. But maybe I am wrong.

Image result for difference engine gibsonAnyway, I liked the premise of this book - an alternative history of Victorian England - and the introductory female character seemed interesting, but she soon disappeared to be replaced by a series of two dimensional characters who failed to gain my enthusiasm. It seemed to me that the authors had researched the Victorian period in a fairly superficial way and had thrown into their melting pot every personality and situation they could think of, then mixed it all up and finally worked a story in. Obviously I didn't expect it to be convincing in the sense that a contemporary novel would be, but fewer ingredients and more attention to development would have been good. As for the sex scenes!! I seem to recall from "Neuromancer" that Gibson alluded successfully to sex without actually getting into gory detail, and succeeded admirably by doing so. I can only assume that it was the work of the collaborator that gave us these rather crass interludes.

So, for me an opportunity missed and a great disappointment. Not that I have given up on Gibson, but I shall avoid any further collaborations.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016


I don't know if I have ever read a war novel before, and I can't say what attracted me to this book when I saw it on the shelf in my local library. Maybe the name? I wondered what a Swiss mountain might have to do with the Vietnam war. And then the usual commendations on the back cover made me think this might be a little different. And I was looking for something out of my usual range of reading, so why not give it a try?

Image result for marlantes matterhornThe story follows Mellas a young 2nd lieutenant drafted into the war in Vietnam. He is an educated and thoughtful man, inclined to self-doubt and introspection, by no means a typical war hero. And in fact there are no heroes in this book, though there are many acts of heroism - on reflection, maybe they are all heroes? Visceral is the word that comes to mind when I try to encapsulate the novel to myself. Marlantes makes no concession to the reader's sensibilities, cultural background or moral framework, but the result is, for me, a work of stunning authenticity. As the novel progressed I found myself becoming accustomed to descriptions of squalor, casual violence, racism, cynical disregard for normal standards of behaviour, self-serving behaviour, and simple human suffering - just as, no doubt, troops in combat become inured to all these things. I started to wonder if in fact, given the same circumstances, my response would be any different? I now feel confident that it would not be and I doubt in fact if I would cope even so well as these young men do. And that is a key point - these are essentially boys, thrown into a conflict they do not understand, with no objectives they can relate to, and lacking any moral certainties. It is remarkable to me that any of them emerged still sane. I have, until now, been fairly sceptical about the concept of post-traumatic stress affecting veterans of war- I just had no idea until I read this book what war consisted of!

Marantes describes the action in the book so matter of factly and in such chilling detail that it can only be based on his own experience. maybe the writing is an exercise in catharsis for him? But this is not by any means an all-action gung-ho adventure; far from it. All the characters, at various points, reflect on their own and their comrades behaviour and their vulnerability is apparent beneath the veneer of cynical language. Their fear is tangible, their devotion to each other and their unit remarkable, and their occasional acts of bravery are inspiring. Mellas eventually comes to realise that only by making the best choices he can for his comrades in their particular situation can he make any sense of his life - wider responsibilities are irrelevant.

This is a novel set in the Vietnam war, but it could be about any war anywhere. It really should be compulsory reading for all politicians who have the power and responsibility to choose whether or not to contemplate warfare. It is a worthwhile read for anybody who has never been in battle, in fact for anybody who is interested in human nature.

Friday, 22 January 2016

What are the impacts of climate change near you?

The British Isles are perched at the western edge of the Eurasian land mass and experience a temperate climate, dominated by the influence of the Atlantic Ocean. British people are notorious for talking about their weather, which is extremely changeable, but rarely think about climate. This paper will however argue that there is clear evidence that the climate of the British Isles is changing and that the impact of this change can be seen now in the behaviour of the natural world. It will be suggested that there is evidence of a northward 'drift' in species range and that this tendency is likely to continue for the foreseeable future as the world warms.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), a highly reputable wildlife organisation, in a report published in November 2015 (1) highlighted the following points:
  • Wildlife will only be able to follow suitable climate if there is enough appropriate habitat available. One third of Europe's bumblebee species could lose 80 per cent of their current range by 2100.
  • In the North Sea, climate change is impacting on sea conditions, with knock-on changes in plankton communities. Climate change is a factor in the 70 per cent decline in kittiwake populations in the UK.
  • As the climate changes, wildlife is having to move to follow suitable conditions northwards. As a result of these range changes, species are colonising new areas.
The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which gives independent evidence-based advice to the UK Government, reported (2) that:
  • The increase in average temperatures experienced in the UK over the last few decades has already had a noticeable impact on wildlife.
  • New species are arriving in southern Britain from mainland Europe and many groups of native species are steadily shifting their distributions northwards to remain within their viable ‘climate space’
  • Some species may experience a shrinking in the area of suitable climate space. This is particularly the case for mosses, which mostly favour wet and cold conditions.
  • Wildlife will only be able to benefit from expansions in climate space if there is enough habitat in the right area and in good ecological condition to colonise.
These may seem to be inconsequential effects when set against global issues like rising sea levels and increased extreme weather events, but they are not because they reflect what is almost certainly happening worldwide to wildlife populations. The main point is that climate change impacts directly on wildlife, often in unpredictable ways.

The stock of CO2 in the earth's atmosphere has now reached 400 ppm (3) and the flow of emissions continues to exceed storage, so CO2 will increase in the medium term, whatever action occurs on emissions, and global warming will continue. Looking at the evidence for Britain, the Department of Energy and Climate Change reported (4) in 2013 that the spring of 2011 was the warmest such season on the long standing Central England Temperature (CET) record and the year was the second warmest. During the 20th century, the annual mean central England temperature increased by about 1.0 °C. The last decade was exceptionally warm in central England, on average about 0.7 °C warmer than the 1961-1990 average. The temperature increase in Britain was actually slightly above the global increase for the same period.

The natural world is a system of incredible complexity, even in a group of small islands such as Britain. Feedback in the system operates at multiple levels which makes prediction of consequences very difficult if not impossible. We can say for sure that Britain will get warmer but what the direct effects on wildlife, and the indirect effects on humans, will be, we cannot say.

In conclusion this paper has shown clear evidence that temperatures in Britain are rising as CO2 increases globally, and that this is having an impact on wildlife. The impact will continue, and the consequences may get greater, for the foreseeable future. Adaptation is taking place but the rate of change may be too fast for some species. The consequences of change are unpredictable because of the immense complexity of the natural ecosystem. Changes seen here in Britain are a microcosm of changes which people can expect to impact on them worldwide.


(1) “Climate Change: a hot topic for the UK's wildlife and public”. November 2015 on the website of the RSPB at http://www.rspb.org.uk/news/details.aspx?id=409213

(2) “Preparing for the Impacts of Climate Change on the UK's Natural Environment” by David Thompson, Committee on Climate Change, December 2015. On the CCC website at https://www.theccc.org.uk/2015/12/02/preparing-for-the-impacts-of-climate-change-on-our-natural-environment/

(3) “ A Global Milestone: CO2 passes 400ppm” by Brian Kahn at Climate Central on the Climate Central website at http://www.climatecentral.org/news/co2-400-ppm-global-record-18965

(4) “Central England and Global Surface Temperature” A report of the department of Energy and Climate Change, August 2013 on Government website at https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/229814/surface_temperature_summary_report.pdf

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Climate literacy

Image result for Burch Harris climate
I have been reading a powerful and important book called "Understanding Climate Change: Science, Policy, and Practice" by Sarah Burch and Sara Harris. It introduced me to the concept of climate literacy which seems to me to be a very useful one. As I understand the concept it is not only about having information on climate change, its causes, effects and consequences, but having an understanding sufficient to critically examine claims, assertions, speculations, and proposed responses. In other words a climate literate person is in a position to actively contribute to the ongoing debate and advocate action. It is regrettable that much discussion on this subject, apart from the scientific community, seems so far to have been ill-informed or partisan, or both.

Those who are climate literate know that we are now well beyond the stage of demonstrating human culpability in global warming. The issues to be confronted now are mitigation and adaptation. Can anything be done to reduce the rate of warming and bring it to a halt sooner? Given that warming will continue in the medium term, whatever action is taken, how may human societies protect themselves from its harmful effects? These are questions upon which scientists are uniquely qualified to advise and it behoves politicians to heed their advice.

In their book, Burch and Harris assert that "Tackling the climate change challenge requires the creation of a compelling vision of a desirable future, not just recapturing a mythical past or 'tinkering around the edges' of our current development path." This seems to me to be a rather profound insight as it speaks directly to what we know about human nature - people rarely change their behaviour in response to threat; they need to have a clear view of how they personally will be better off. A huge shift in cultural tectonics is needed but when has the world ever been better placed, given the ubiquity of modern communications, to achieve such a shift?