Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Population blues

Okay, I know I am hardly the first (or even the millionth) to comment on this, but I was on a website today which had some population growth stats and they were terrifying. For example Pakistan has gone from 36 million people in 1950 to 157 million in 2005. It has more than quadrupled in 55 years. To put than in perspective, if the UK had grown at the same rate it would now have a population of 233 million!

Pakistan is far from alone. Over the same time dozens of countries have seen a similar expansion. Egypt has gone from 21 million to 74, and is on course for 125 million by 2050. Nigeria from 30 million to 158 million, and heading for 300 million. No wonder they are struggling!

These kind of expansions have happened before, for example in Europe during the industrial revolution, but they were starting from much lower bases. In the 1700s, France was one of the most populous countries in the world, with around 20 million people.

This is truly the elephant in the room of the environmental and development issues. For understandable reasons the international community has been loath to comment on such unsustainable growth (anti-colonialism, politics etc), but that has to change. 

What is the answer? I don't know, but for a start we can start to discuss it. It is often said that the only thing which reduces population growth rate is economic development and improved life expectancies. There is a lot of truth in this, but cultural factors also play a role.  We need to be able to have a robust and honest discussion about this, or we have a very bleak and crowded future ahead of us.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Climate Camp in London next week

I would just like to remind anyone who checks this of the upcoming Climate Camp in London, which begins on Wednesday the 26th at a mystery location in London...

I have no illusions about climate camp, but what it occasionally lacks in cold logic and unity it makes up for in enthusiasm and positivity, and has managed to build itself into one of the most important social and environmental events in the UK, spawning spin offs around the world from Australia to Korea.  It is a protest movement and meeting space, nothing more and nothing less, but it is a good one. It has energized activists and the media, it has put issues like the new coal power station at Kingsnorth at the top of the agenda. It has showed admirable maturity in the face of police aggression, and won, causing the metropolitan police to humiliate themselves with their own actions. If you are around London during the camp I urge you come on down, even if just for a few hours. Make some contacts, make some plans. You probably won't agree with everything you hear, but at least you will know they care. There is no place for pointless cynicism. 

Another reason why we need an integrated environment policy

There was a recent article in the Guardian which mentioned that a wind farm built on top of a peat bog might actually contribute carbon to the atmosphere as the carbon stored in the peat would be released into the atmosphere (they were talking about large developments in Shetland and Caithness). This reminds me of a bit in an article I wrote three years ago for Renewable Energy World magazine which mentioned this very fact. 

Indeed, I look at this as simply one more example of the urgent need for a comprehensive and integrated climate change and renewable energy policy, incorporating planning, energy, transport, biodiversity, fisheries etc.... Such a policy is obviously a huge task, but the first thing we need to realise is that we cannot be lassaiz-faire about this. It will not work. The market is great at generating efficiency in a game with set rules but it cannot be left to deal with issues as important at this. We need to plan and guide our wind farms far more carefully than we are at present, never forgetting why we are doing it.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Swine flu

Uggg... seems I have swine flu. Posts when better.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

A comment on Vestas

Dare I say anything about the occupation of the Vestas wind-turbine blade factory on the Isle of Wight? As with many things I have very divided feelings on this. On one hand I wish the staff at the factory all the best in getting their jobs back. I also think that they are doing a valuable service in highlighting the poor state of the UK’s renewable energy industry and the gap between the rhetoric and reality of the new ‘green economy’. With luck their actions will spur the government to support and invest in other renewable energy facilities around the country so that they can be grown and helped before they get to the point of closing down. It may also be that they have been treated badly by the government and the company. So in that sense I support them.

However, I do have some concerns with the statements I have heard calling for the plant to be nationalised. I am not defending Vestas, as I don’t know the detail of what they promised, but nationalising a Danish-owned plant which makes wind turbine blades for particular types of turbine would not necessarily be helpful, and could cause real problems for the UK if it were to try and encourage other companies to locate here. The government would be effectively stealing the technology developed by the company, with potentially long term consequences. Even if we nationalised it, and got the technology, I understand we would then be left with a plant which produces 40-metre blades for the V82 turbine, one which is not commonly used in the UK, and not used offshore (all of these blades were exported to the US). In the process we would presumably scare away any companies which develop and build blades more suitable to the UK’s needs. We would still need to buy the turbines from Vestas in Denmark in any case.

That is not to say that if the protestors and government change Vestas mind and get them to invest in a new plant then that would not be a good thing. It would. Perhaps though, what we should be calling for is an end to support for fossil fuels and far greater investment in renewable energy research, development and deployment. This will develop home-grown companies and encourage established ones to set up here. Perhaps the Isle of Wight will be a good home for this, in recognition of the role it is playing? We might also do well with a dedicated renewable energy bank or bond system.

If we are to have a nationalised wind turbine industry, it must be built - it cannot be simply achieved by buying up a few assets from a Danish company, particularly one which supplies a quarter of the world’s wind turbines and which we will need to work with in the future to realise our offshore ambitions.