30 November 2009

China's CO2 Cuts

As governments ready themselves for next week’s Climate Change summit in Copenhagen, China announced that it would cut its CO2 emissions for each unit of GDP by up to 45% by 2020 compared to 2005 levels. That is significant. The Chinese government always takes a long time to come to a position on policy, but once a decision is taken implementation follows swiftly.

Not a moment too soon for China’s gasping and spluttering population who have lived in one of the most polluted parts of the planet since its largely coal-based industrialization took off. All 10 of the world’s 10 most polluted cities are now in China, according to a recent survey published in Forbes Magazine. Air pollution accounts for almost 0.7 million premature deaths in China each year, according to the World Health Organization.

China is the world’s largest consumer of coal. It is third in the world in term of coal reserves, behind the United States and Russia. As coal fired power plants produce cheaper electricity in terms of dollars and cents than the greener alternatives, they are not going away anytime soon.

Construction work on China’s first clean coal plant, employing carbon capture and storage, started this summer. Reportedly, the plant will cost about $1billion. Four CCS plants are being discussed for Britain and an experimental plant, using an oxyfuel boiler, started operation in Germany last year. The International Energy Agency estimates that 100 CCS plants will be needed by 2020, up to 850 plants by 2030 and 3,400 plants by 2050. CCS technology is a priority for China and India who have made it clear they are not going to sacrifice their economic development for a greener planet. The good news is they are willing to collaborate with the rich countries on bringing their CO2 emissions down.

Just where the money will come from for CCS and the other measures needed for the survival of the species will be hotly debated at Copenhagen. Meantime, we can be certain that coal fired power plants, like this one in Datong, China, will be around for a very long time.

24 November 2009

Slow water

This is a term that I had not heard of before but it was mentioned on this morning's Today Programme on Radio 4. The interviewee had not heard of it either. But we all know what its about - the slowing down of water runoff during heavy rain to help reduce flooding. Sadly, no amount of  flood water management would have saved Cockermouth from 2 metre high flood waters, but its something that urban planners need to think about as monsoon rain becomes more common in the UK!

So what can we do to slow down the run-off of water into drains and water courses. Well quite a lot. Starting with green or living roofs that take up a lot of water and release it slowly. Water can then be directed from roofs into temporary storage areas. This way it does not get contaminated with pollutants from the street and can be put to more use. The sedum roof on the left is on the Norfolk Wildlife Visitor Centre at Cley Marshes. Not only do the plants take up CO2, but they absorb water and provide excellent insulation. Any water draining off is collected and stored.

On the ground the pavements can be permeable - that involves using surfaces that allow the water to penetrate rather than run straight off into the drains. A couple of years ago designers at Hampton Court has some great ideas for front gardens that has permeable surfaces to reduce run off. They used gravels, grills, and permeable hogging to create an attractive, yet totally practical urban front garden. 

12 November 2009

Zoo in my garden

Africa, and by extension Schoenmakerskop where I live, is not for sissies. Transporting and installing the fish pond in the garden was easy and a lovely little eco-system developed over a few weeks.

What was really exciting was to monitor the creatures that discovered the pond. One of the first visitors was the Brown Hooded Kingfisher, a terrestrial kingfisher that is supposed to hang around the veld and eat lizards and whatever else it fancies. They wiped out the fish population it two days. The Natal Green Watersnake was welcome too, iridescent green and non-venomous. The Painted Reed Frogs are very small, delicate with dark pink on the under parts (a designer’s masterpiece) and their high pitch whistle which, while deafening, is bearable.

The bad news was the Raucous Toad. My frog guide describes the call as “rasping quacks repeated constantly. About two per second.” I don’t know if you have ever tried sleeping about 5 meters from rasping quacks that are repeated twice a second. Also you can multiply the rasping quacks by the number of toads present. Duck quacks can be comforting in the distance but a machine gun like rasping quack is too much for any relationship to bear and that is why on most evenings this time of the year I spend quality time with my toads. I am armed with a torch, bucket and braai (barbecue to you) tongs. Catching toads is not easy. There are predators that target them (mainly snakes) and if you are not careful all you get to see is ripple in the water where the toad dived.

The easiest way to catch them is when they are in the act and the bonus is you can catch them two at a time. If you don’t get them early enough the pond is filled with strings of spawn. I probably hold the world record for the greatest number of Raucous Toads in one evening. There were 9 and it was not easy.

Life is tough for toads. The Kihasi Spray Toad is in critical danger of extinction because of a dam built on the Kihasi River. Seems they live in the spray zone of the falls and the new dam and a fungus disease has reduced their number so drastically that the last 500 or so have been taken into captivity for breeding programmes. The Raucous Toad is not in danger of extinction – every morning I carry my bucket to a nearby swamp and release my captives.

And yes toads are generally unloved. Some of their names like Raucous, Guttural and Snoring Toads suggest that they are too noisy. The descriptions of some of the other species’ calls like “Gaa, gaa, gaa” (Sand Toad), “rasping squawks, one per second” (Karoo Toad), raucous rapidly trilled bray (Flat-Backed Toad), “deep pulsatile snore of 1 second” (Leopard Toad), “very deep muffled booming sound” (Red Toad) and “short nasal rasping” (Pigmy Toad) shows how hard we have it. Perhaps they should have been named after music. The Moonlight Sonata Toad is an unlikely name but there is room for the 1812 Overture Toad and the Led Zepplin Toad makes perfect sense at one o’clock in the morning.

9 November 2009

Nuclear power stations - 10 sites proposed

The UK government has finally approved sites for 10 new nuclear power stations, which are Bradwell, Braystones, Hartlepool, Heysham, Hinkley Point, Kirksanton (shown above), Oldbury, Sellafield, Sizewell and Wylfa.  The proposed sites at Dungeness in Kent, Kingsnorth, Druridge Bay and Owston Ferry were ruled out. Before final planning permission is granted, the power stations have to prove that they are capable of disposing of their radioactive waste safely. Not surprisingly, there has been and will continue to be vocal opposition to the advancement of nuclear power in the UK. WWF, FOE and the Sustainable Development Commission claim that the issue regarding radioactive waste has not been resolved. The Sustainalbe Development Commission suggested that the govenrment would be better investing in small scale, smart power generation. 

The Government has a problem - a huge black hole in electricity generation that will become apparent in about 2015. Even if  construction on these power stations started tomorrow they would not come online for many years, The current generation of nuclear power stations about to be mothballed, but nothing has been planned to replace them,although the Govenrment has had plenty of time to do something about it.  The Government estimates that about 60 GW of new  genenrating capacity will be needed by 2025, with 35 GW coming from renewables. That leaves 25 GW to find from conventional generation capacity. But to meet the objectives in the Low Carbon Transition Plan, the UK will have to reduce emissions from power generation to almost zero by 2050. So the extra 25GW of power can't come from fossil fuels, its going to have to come from nuclear.

Meanwhile, just across the channel are the nuclear power plants of France which generate more than 70 % of the country's electricity.  The French are proud of their nuclear power industry which has created many jobs. There,  nuclear energy is seen as being clean and safe. And of course, the UK benefits too, as French electricity flows through our national grid when demand exceeds supply. The US are taking a fresh look at nuclear power too,  and Barack Obama has stated that nuclear energy will play an important role in electricity generation. More than  25 nuclear power plants have been approved, the first to come online in 2016. China and India are pro nuclear power, and each has plans to build 50 plants. 

So, is nuclear energy good or bad from an environmental point of view. That's tricky. From a carbon emissions point of view it represents a source of clean energy, although there are emissions associated with the extraction of uranium which is a non renewal energy source. On the other hand, it produces radioactive waste which we can't really deal with at the moment, other than bury it in the ground and forget about it for hundreds of years. However the nuclear industry is working hard to developing techniques to recycle the spent uraniun rods, which still contain 85 % of their energy and if this is successful, one of the biggest arguments against nuclear energy will be removed. 

Climate change is upon us and despite all the things we are doing, we are not ready to make the switch to a low carbon lifestyle. So I see nuclear power as a necessary evil. Its a stop gap remedy that may help us to beat climage change but something to be replaced as soon as possible.