There should be no one now who does not accept the fact that man-made factors are seriously impacting the environment. Specifically the pollution of the atmosphere which is then affecting our weather systems, in turn causing serious harm to people, flora and fauna all around the world.
It is no longer an issue of the impact of our need to use energy to survive within our current social systems and with the vast numbers of people populating this planet, but exactly what should be done to resolve this potentially disastrous situation.
We have been subjected to any number of measures which we enthusiastically embrace in our haste to do the right thing and to keep our halos shining, but are we really doing anything of merit? Are we really going to make any difference at all if we aim to carpet the country with windmills and solar cells, or drive our cars everywhere at 20mph?
If we are to believe the scientists who have been spouting these doom-laden messages of environmental catastrophe we also need to look objectively at how to resolve the problems and the sheer scale of the challenge necessitates a truly radical solution.
We have to break our dependence upon carbon fuels of any sort. Even if we do not accept 100% the theories of global warming and the greenhouse effect, we do know the profligate combustion of carbon-based fuels, whether fossil or not, has to be a major factor in the environmental pollution we face. We do have to acknowledge other factors, such as the sheer magnitude of energy usage and other forms of pollution, but carbon is accepted to be at the heart of the issue.
So any solution which still uses carbon fuels is clearly unsatisfactory. Furthermore, merely becoming carbon neutral is insufficient if we are to allow the earth to recover.
However we view this problem the scale and extent of it is very much a function of the number of people populating this tiny planet. As populations grow, and as they develop, they learn how to live longer and to survive in more and more hostile environments. In colonies such as cities, they use more and more energy to fuel this life-style. More heating, more air-conditioning, more transport, more industry, much of which comes as a result of the social and economic structures we have created.
As we seek to resolve environmental problems, we cannot ignore the impact any solution may have on the world's populous. If we neglect the consequential outcomes we are destined to swap one major problem for a much worse one. In particular we have to avoid global conflict and mass dislocation and famine in the developing world. We have to recognise the normal order of the world will lead to the poor and disadvantaged being those who pay the heaviest price for our 'progress'.
One thing that cannot be ignored in any future solution is the impact of changes in energy policy and their effect on the world's economy, which today is so inextricably linked to energy, and especially oil. Changes in our use and hence valuation of oil, will create huge shifts in power base throughout the world. Something that could be a good thing but will need careful management to avoid huge disasters. Something that could lead to major global conflict as nations fight to protect their interests.
What is it we need to achieve to begin to alleviate the pattern of pollution, to reduce our impact on the environment and to begin to reverse the changes we have made to the planet's ecosystem? We need to address three main areas of energy use: domestic and industrial electricity, ground transport and air transport.
We need to think in terms of replacing the generators and power stations of the national grid in order to supply vast quantities of cheap, efficient, controllable and clean electricity. There is no alternative to nuclear power if we are to achieve what is needed. The green solutions lack predictability and controllability, take up vast amounts of valuable real estate and are simply inadequate to the task. Even if we could harness all the incident wind and solar energy on the United Kingdom, we could not use it efficiently and we would need vast areas of land to permit storage for the times when the wind isn't blowing and the sun is not shining. Regulating supply according to demand would be impossibly difficult, and as a consequence, wind and solar energy are only really viable as small-scale supplements to the grid and certainly not as a replacement.
Because of a number of tragic accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima in particular, we naturally fear nuclear energy, but we also used to fear travelling above 30mph in a train. We readily accept the risks of petrol at fuel stations, explosive gas and high voltage electricity supplied to our homes, and many other similar threats, and we have done so by managing and controlling risk as far as possible. We must do the same for nuclear energy.
Proper research in nuclear technology will enable us to reduce the cost, raise the efficiency and improve the safety, but it will also open the future to plentiful supplies of electricity which in turn can be distributed and used in a host of ways. We can even envisage a time when we all have domestic nuclear power plants on the walls of our kitchens where our old-fashioned gas boiler used to be.
The electricity generated can be used directly to power trains, to charge batteries in motor vehicles, for heating and lighting replacing gas and oil and for all other applications using energy. In fact, whatever technologies we use we are going to need significantly more electricity and at the moment, that is a major concern for us in the UK. We are not now self-sufficient in electricity and currently buy in approximately 10% of our requirements from abroad. We will probably need at least twice, if not three times as much electricity generating capacity in the future, so this is probably our major priority in dealing with climate change.
Air transport is likely to remain challenging, with few if any technologies coming forward to replace the kerosene powered jet engine. However, it is not impossible that such a propulsion system will come about.
Hydrogen is the most fundamental elemental energy source. It is plentiful, light and when combusted it merely produces water. It has its hazards of course, as exemplified by the disasters of early airships. However, hydrogen fuel cell technology has been established and is in current use in cars in California in particular. Hydrogen can be refuelled quickly and easily, the fuel cells and the vehicle are not complicated or heavy and it should be quite possible to find ways of producing hydrogen from water using electrolysis once we have adequate supplies of electricity on hand. It also must have a greater potential for air transport if it becomes possible to develop a 'jet' engine of some sort using hydrogen. This must be more promising than a battery powered aeroplane.
Extinction Rebellion is having a huge impression upon people anxious to do what they can for the planet. Their protests are designed to pressurise authorities to act for the environment and to force through changes that reduce our emissions in the hope that we can actually do something to reverse the effects we have been creating. Their intentions are sound and their open concern, and even fear, are understandable, but we need to seek meaningful, realistic and achievable solutions that are genuinely going to improve the environment in a measurable way. Furthermore, we have a truly global problem and without collaboration and support throughout the whole world we cannot expect to have enough impact for it to be of any consequence. Here ER are correct in pressuring governments to act, but their tactics may well make it harder for them to achieve this.
ER are targeting various big businesses that profit from environmental damage, such as oil companies. They take the view that they are responsible for the destruction and should be forced out of business. However, undermining an already weak economy only makes it that much harder for governments to act as they need to invest huge sums in creating appropriate solutions. ER, like us all, have to accept that the transition from a carbon based economy to an alternative, environmentally friendly one must be undertaken with great care to avoid creating a situation for mankind that will be far worse than the future we face now. ER have to move on with their demonstrations from trying to raise awareness of the situation to pressing for meaningful solutions and changes and to be realistic about how to bring them about. They are, of course, right to be sceptical of politicians to act properly and especially in those countries that have been and continue to be, major contributors to the problem, such as the US, Russia, China, India, Brazil, etc. Some of these countries deny climate change, notably the US, to protect their own economies and their dependence upon fossil fuels.
Greta Thunberg is a very brave young woman who has captured the imaginations of vast numbers of those conscious of the need to bring this issue to the forefront of our leaders' minds. She has become a leader of the movement, almost by default, and she has moved to a position to lecture the worlds' leaders on climate change. Her recent traverse of the Atlantic Ocean was a fine publicity stunt and I have no doubt she will deliver a scalding message at the United Nations. However, is she the right person to drive through the proper solutions we need? Can she understand the issues we face to find a resolution here and is it possible she is being exploited by unscrupulous people riding on her popularity? Is this what ER is doing?
We are acutely aware of the on-going destruction of the rain forests. Exploiters in South America are clearing the trees to plant profitable crops in a situation completely out of control of the authorities who seem incapable or unwilling to prevent it. This is an issue around the world where extensive destruction of forestation is on going in Siberia, Canada, California, Africa, Indonesia etc. All this adds significantly to the climate change problem as the CO2 produced increases levels and the destruction of the trees removes the only devices we have for reducing CO2 levels in the long term.
If we are stop this sort of destruction the developed world must be prepared to help the developing world with their economies, farming and industry so that they have no need to destroy the rainforest, or they are strongly incentivised not to. This is an important global mission essential to the mission to reverse climate change.
The problem of plastic is one of those issues where well-meaning people are setting about trying to solve the wrong problem as they are desperate to show how much they care and how they can sacrifice things for the planet. This year, Glastonbury went plastic free and people had to queue 40 minutes to get water. It is so fashionable to be environmentally aware.
People have stopped using plastics, especially single use plastics, because we have seen clear evidence of our plastic waste being dumped on the beaches, in the rivers and seas in East Asia in particular. We can be sure there will be many other examples we are not aware of. However it is not the use of plastic that is the issue here, it is the disposal. Clearly what is happening is cash strapped local authorities are contracting out the 'recycling' of plastic (and presumably other waste) and turning a blind eye to the fact that the waste is being shipped to the other side of the world and dumped. The solution is easy. We should under no circumstances allow our own waste to be exported anywhere. We should take full responsibility for the recycling or disposal of it all.
The plethora of new electric and hybrid vehicles would imply that battery powered transportation is the future. Car manufacturers such as Tesla have been hugely successful selling their up-market, luxury, zero-emission cars and mass-produced vehicles such as the Toyota Prius and the Nissan Leaf have been embraced fully by those wishing to limit the impact of their vehicles on the environment. All car manufacturers today offer electric vehicles, some fully electric, some hybrid using a petrol engine as back-up and to provide adequate range.
Notwithstanding the fact that some of the electricity they use to charge their batteries in the first place is likely to have been generated by the burning if carbon fuels such as oil, gas or bio-mass, it is inescapable that we will depend upon electricity to power our vehicles of the future. The question remains: while we need a means of storing the electrical energy in our vehicles, are batteries the solution? The Government certainly believes so as it has been actively supporting battery technology
Using batteries to store the significant energy used in our vehicles we have to get the requisite charge into them. Where charge is current x time, the quicker the charge, the higher the current needs to be. Consequently, it will always take a finite time to charge a vehicle, even though we can anticipate advancements in battery technology providing batteries of higher capacity, lighter weight and capable of charging at much higher currents, we still have the basic limitations imposed by physics.
Whatever technology is used to store energy significant electricity generating capacity is required to provide for these vehicles, so if we have huge numbers on the road the capacity of the grid would have to be increased substantially. Already our grid is over-stretched and incapable of meeting present demand. In fact we have to buy in electricity from foreign neighbours via cables under the sea. That is a problem which will only get worse if we have to move to electricity for cars, buses, lorries, trains, etc. This is however, a problem we have whether we use battery technology or any alternative.
If we widely adopt battery technology are we in danger of making Lithium the currency of the future, replacing oil? Can we commercially source enough Lithium? Are we seeing parts of the world such as The Lithium Triangle of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina, being exploited for their Lithium deposits? Will we find newer battery technologies?
All in all, batteries are a good method for storing energy on a small scale for lightweight, handheld applications such as mobile phones, but not as suitable for very high-capacity applications such as transport which require such huge numbers of Li-Ion batteries. A far better method would be to store the energy using Hydrogen, which can be generated off-line using electrolysis and which produces no pollution. Hydrogen is used in hydrogen fuel cells to produce electricity, a technology already well-established. Hydrogen is light, it can be extracted from water, which is its only product when it is used for generating electricity. We can re-fuel using hydrogen very quickly and with adequate electricity supplies, we can straightforwardly produce hydrogen from water using electrolysis. It is highly environmentally attractive and it is not beyond imagination to believe that future generations of aero-engines could use hydrogen as fuel. It has its challenges of course. It is very thin so it is hard to store and it is very inflammable and explosive, but these are not insurmountable issues. In fact, hydrogen fuelled cars have been in use in California for many years now.
With sufficient, low-cost electricity provided by new generations of nuclear power plants yet to be developed, providing the electricity, we could look forward to a truly zero-carbon future. All we need is a bit of vision.
This Government is totally inadequately supporting these vital technologies for the future: nuclear and hydrogen. While you can buy and fuel Hydrogen cars in California, there is no initiative in place in the UK to promote such a radical solution, which will be so much better than batteries. The Government is doing nothing to create the necessary infrastructure for hydrogen and even for battery powered vehicles where there remains a serious shortage of charging stations and no proper standardisation to make it easy, cheap and straightforward to use electricity in your vehicle. A lot more needs to be done here in managing the progress of the necessary new technologies.
This is an opportunity for us. We are innovators and we can solve the various technical problems we might face, but we need foresight and courage to invest. It is here we should be able to turn to our leaders to make it happen. We can really lead the world in nuclear and hydrogen technology and in due course reap the benefits of it commercially as well as environmentally by selling the technology to the rest of the world.
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