Saturday, October 30, 2021

COP26 Too Many Numbers

What is 3?

Mathematician: The third positive integer.
Physicist: A value between 2.5 and 3.5.
Engineer: Three’s three but let’s call it ten to be on the safe side.

Charles Darwin included no numbers whatsoever in his The Origin of Species. Good science does not have to include numbers. Today one would have difficulty finding a piece of writing about climate science that is not peppered with numbers. If it is a scientific paper the numbers will usually be accompanied by measures of error and probability ranges, but these are usually ignored by journalists reporting for a lay audience, often leaving values with too many significant figures, giving a spurious degree of precision.

Forecasting, especially the future, is always difficult and models are always wrong, though some can be useful. The ‘Butterfly Effect’, whereby small changes in initial conditions can produce large changes in outcomes, is well known. Less well known, but more dangerous, is the ‘Hawkmoth Effect’, caused by unknown errors in the model that result in unknowable errors in model output. Wisdom must be applied when dealing with any numbers derived from modelling, as Erica Thompson explained in her Escape from Model-Land.

Unfortunately, in climate science errors are not evenly distributed between good news and bad. If tomorrow’s weather forecast is for 1mm of rain, there is little scope for error on the sunny side, just 1mm. But on the wet side the possibility range of error is boundless.

The most frequently mentioned number is 2.0 (1.5 is already for the birds), the number of degrees centigrade of global heating that the Paris Agreement said we should not exceed. It is an arbitrary number, no more special than 1.9 or 2.1, plucked from the air as thought, by some, at the time, to be a danger threshold. It is a rise since an arbitrary date, and one over which there is disagreement, some favouring the beginning of the industrial age and others favouring 1880, which hides the earliest anthropogenic heating. The global temperature is not a number that can be read from any thermometer. Rather it is an average of thousands of measurements from instruments distributed across the planet, calculated after weighting for local factors and known errors. It does not well reflect actual temperature change experienced by people. Land temperatures have risen faster than over the oceans, the Arctic heats faster than the tropics. Changes in the frequency of extreme weather events are not reflected in this average, yet it is extremes that kill. There is no way to relate that 2.0 figure to actual detriments. We don’t have any direct quantitative link between the average global heating number and storms, floods, droughts, plagues and wars. We just have a qualitative idea that the hotter it gets the worse it will be.

COP26 is very much a numbers based exercise, with countries declaring what steps they intend to take and when they might take them. We know it will all be too little and too late to avert disaster for many, yet it will be built on a great edifice of meticulously calculated ‘carbon budgets’ that imply perfect knowledge of the link between emissions, temperature rise and harm. We do not possess that knowledge.

We have only a very hazy appreciation of the effects of the many potentially big feedbacks in the climate system and some have not been factored into the COP26 discourse at all. Take, for example, greenhouse gas emissions from thawing of Arctic permafrost. It is happening today, with a mere 1.2 degrees of global heating and will continue for centuries. The rate of thawing and consequent emissions will increase as global heating proceeds. If all the nations achieve what they promise and more, and the temperature rise is constrained, the permafrost will still keep thawing, adding more greenhouse gases, undermining the best laid plans and making nonsense of all those calculations that contributed to the Nationally Determined Contributions. The scale of this problem may be equivalent to the emissions of a major economy, USA, China or the EU, and continuing far into the future. Big numbers but not counted.

So what to do? Put the numbers aside. Tell our governments to stop negotiating on the basis of numbers but instead put all their efforts into avoiding burning any more fossil carbon. Each has to do everything they can without looking over their shoulders to check they are not doing more than others. Lead, don’t follow.

If there’s one thing to read next it’s the State of Cryosphere 2021 report, particularly chapter 4, Permafrost. There are some numbers, but not so many that it becomes unreadable.

Thursday, October 28, 2021

COP26 Has Failed

Failed? But it hasn't even begun yet! And anyway, what does success of failure mean?

The object is to prevent global heating and the way to do that is to stop emitting greenhouse gases. A big part of what happens at COP26 is that governments present their 'Nationally Determined Contributions' (NDCs). And this is where the failure sets in. The whole panjandrum is wrongly framed. Almost 200 countries will be saying what they hope to do to reduce their emissions and when they hope to do this. It is all too little, too late, and too slowly.

The new climate denialism, rife wherever one turns, is the idea that limiting heating to 1.5 degrees is achievable. It isn't. And yet Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK's Chief Scientist, said it was still achievable though we will have to "fly a bit less". That's about as much use as saying that singing Happy Birthday while washing one's hands will prevent a pandemic.

Here is the nonsense that Vallance and his international colleagues have come up with: Statement by International Senior Scientific Advisers ahead of COP26

The best meme doing the rounds of social media is this:

We're not even reaching for a mop. What we have is almost 200 countries each with their own tap and plughole. They are coming to Glasgow to tell us at what speed they are going to turn the tap off and whether they intend to ease the plug a little bit to let some water seep out.

What the climate crisis requires is that all countries turn off their taps immediately and pull their plug out. 413ppm CO2 needs to be pushed back below 350. But next year it will be 415 and the year after it will be 417. That's why COP26 has failed.

Unfortunately there are bad consequences if we all stop burning fossil carbon by Day 1 of the COP. Machines in hospitals will stop working and lorries won't deliver food. People will die.

So what COP26 should be doing is having nations determine and declare the maximum possible rate of emission reduction that is commensurate with their citizens not actually dying. The taps need to be turned off almost completely and the plugs fully pulled out straight away. Then we can can watch the water go down to a safe level.

When we see the Keeling Curve turn downwards we can start measuring success, but while it continues to rise we can be certain we are failing.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Nuclear Theddlethorpe 05

In Part 03 of this blog series about the proposal for a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) for high and intermediate level nuclear waste at Theddlethorpe or some other location in eastern Lincolnshire, I outlined the geology.

Let's have a quick recap and reminder to help people make their arguments. The purpose of a GDF is to ensure that the waste and any radioactive particles that eventually escape the containers do not reach the biosphere at the surface for a long time, 100,000 years or more, despite climate change, sea level rises, glaciations or earthquakes.

Rock suitable to store nuclear waste must be impervious. That means that water must not be able to flow through it. Chalk, limestone and sandstone are as much use as a wet sponge but clay, shale and mudstone are good. It's not that water can't flow through such rock, given enough time, but the rate is measured in millimetres per year so a few hundred metres of such rock does the job.

Such rocks do occur under the Lincolnshire Marsh and in the inshore area off the coast. There's the Jurassic age Oxford Clay. This is the layer that the French propose to use, but it is much thicker in France. More usefully there is the older and lower Mercia Mudstone Group of Triassic age. This would be the most likely target for a depository here. Just off the coast of Cumbria this same rock is much thicker and so better suited there. It is close to Sellafield, as it conveniently happens.

The most important aspect of Lincolnshire's geology is the existence of oil and gas at various horizons in the Jurassic, Triassic and underlying Carboniferous rock, which also contain the Coal Measures. In some places it occurs in high enough concentrations to be exploited in today's commercial situation and with today's technology. In the far distant future, under unforeseeable economic conditions and with technologies that we have no knowledge of, a future civilisation may seek to exploit these fossil carbon resources and in so doing inadvertently breach the waste depository's barriers that were designed to stay unpenetrated for hundreds of thousands of years.

That's why a GDF must not be built at Theddlethorpe or anywhere else on the Lincolnshire Marsh. It is our duty to place our dangerous waste where there is the least likelihood of it posing a danger to our far descendants. All other arguments are secondary.


Some people argue that since a GDF can never be 100% secure, it should not be built anywhere. But don't let the perfect be the enemy of the possible. The nuclear waste is currently in temporary storage and in various states of security. Some of it may be an accident waiting to happen. Delay in permanent burial only adds to the risk of a near-term accident. Delay also pushes the problem on to the next generation, who did not agree to the creation of the waste n the first place and should bear no responsibility for it's care. We must deal with our problem, now, and in the best way we can conceive. 

There is little reason for delay. A good enough site has been identified (the Mercia Mudstone Group rocks of the Irish Sea Basin, inshore south-west Cumbria). The whole process that RWM are engaged in just creates a ten or more year delay in spending the billions of pounds required to construct a GDF, and is, of course, the Treasury's preferred option as it makes the spending somebody else's problem, while their backs are covered in case of accident by appearing to be addressing the matter now.

An often stated argument is that the GDF should be sited somewhere remote. This is a poor argument. It implies acceptance of the idea that a GDF might not be safe. If it isn't safe it cannot be built. Anywhere. Nowhere remote enough for an unsafe facility exists. Even somewhere that looks remote today may not always be so.

There are good geological reasons why the Outer Hebrides would be a suitable place. The Lewisian Gneiss is our oldest, hardest, most stable, most impermeable rock. It is similar, geologically, to the sites chosen by Finland and Sweden for their depositories, unlike the soft-rock options available in England and apparently favoured by RWM.

People may consider the Outer Hebrides to be remote (the good folk of Stornoway probably have a different perspective) but it may not always remain so. If global heating continues on its current trajectory (and there's precious little evidence that it won't) then we may see a rise in average global temperatures of 3 to 5 degrees. The west coast of Scotland may become the 22nd century's New Riviera, the most densely populated part of the world, with the EU Parliament relocating to Stornoway once the re-United Kingdom's membership application has been accepted.

Thailand Today, Tobermory Tomorrow

See also previous part to this series:


Thursday, October 21, 2021

Gas and Heat Pumps

First, let's quickly dispel the myth that heat pumps only work on well insulated buildings. Of course all our homes should be well insulated and then we'd hardly need any heating at all but this is not peculiar to heat pumps.

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), which operated in a somewhat haphazard fashion and particularly benefitted wealthy people who already owned large houses, ends in March 2022. The Government has announced a new scheme to subsidise, to the tune of £5000 grants, the installation of heat pumps. It appears that the funding so far allocated would only reach some 30,000 homes but it is claimed to 'pump-prime' the industry. 

The Government demonstrates, almost daily, its ability to do the wrong thing or, when it does do the right thing does it too little and too late. The transition away from methane (aka 'natural' gas) to a fossil carbon free future is today's prime example.

Heat pumps do make sense. They allow us to gain three or more times the heat than one would get with an electric heater, but the issue is how best to deploy the technology at scale across our housing stock.

A significant, but largely ignored, issue is what happens to the gas distribution network. What reduction in total demand would make the system uneconomic to maintain?

That problem could be delayed a while if the government's grant scheme were first to be targeted at properties that are not connected to the mains gas grid. That's a large proportion of rural homes. This has the additional benefit of targeting mostly homes currently heated by oil, which is more carbon intensive than gas.

New builds should not be connected to the gas grid. Adding to the future problem makes little sense.

Then the roll-out of gas to heat-pump conversion should be conducted street by street, area by area. It would require 100% grants but the efficiencies of scale would be considerable and the gas grid could then be shut down one section at a time, reducing the running cost as the industry contracted.

The key ideas in this piece were sparked by comments by C
hris Vernon

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Nuclear Theddlethorpe 04

In Part 02 of this mini-series on the proposal to site a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) for nuclear waste at Theddlethorpe, I explained why the policy of Radioactive Waste Management (RWM) precludes the use of this location.

Nonetheless RWM and Lincolnshire County Council have agreed to set up a 'Working Group' to pursue the proposal. This begs the question, why would they pursue something which cannot happen?

Unlike the geological information I outlined in the previous blog, which can all be independently verified as reliably factual, what follows is largely my conjecture, and may be wrong. I look forward to being shown why these conjectures are false, but until then they remain my best guess as to where the truth lies.

It is easy to see the position of Lincolnshire County Council. They are as squeezed for revenues as any local authority, following the closure of the Theddlethorpe Gas Terminal the business rates have recently been lost, and the Council risks criticism if they do not actively pursue opportunities for economic development, particularly in an area of multiple social deprivation. The costs of pursuing the proposal will be met by RWM and there is a further incentive of 'up to one million pounds' for the local community if a 'Community Partnership' is set up, rising to £2.5m if investigations go beyond the desk-top stage. LCC have been told they can withdraw at any stage and that eventually the GDF can only be built if there is community support. They must think there is nothing to be lost and a chance of substantial gain to be made by going along with the process. Of course the idea that councillors would cynically take the money now whilst intending to withdraw from the scheme later must be ruled out as unconscionably unethical.

It suits the LCC to ignore the geological realities that I outlined in Part 02 or to pretend not to understand them. Or perhaps they actually don't understand them, but ignorance is a poor excuse.

The position of RWM may be more complex. It is hard to know just where in the hierarchy of governance any particular decision is made, 10 Downing Street, The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) or RWM. What we do know is that RWM know that Theddlethorpe is unsuitable. The British Geological Survey told them. And so did I!

My first conjecture is that somewhere down the hierarchy RWM have been told to pursue some number of sites that are sub-optimal and have little chance of becoming the final choice. The advantage to the Government of such an approach is that demonstrates that communities are being listened to. At each rejected site the Government will be able to show that the case was made but that the community did not want it and therefore the proposal was withdrawn. It is democracy in action, championed by the caring, listening Government.

My second conjecture is that the Treasury has a role. Dealing with our nuclear waste legacy is a fabulously expensive task, almost all of the public not appreciating just how expensive. A notable feature of the whole GDF process is how long it is forecast to take. It took me less than half an hour of reading, refreshing my knowledge of Lincolnshire geology, to realise that a GDF could not be constructed here, yet RWM are talking in terms of many years, perhaps a decade, before a decision on Theddlethorpe is finalised.

As we know, 70 years worth of nuclear waste is in temporary storage, mostly at Sellafield with about 20% of it at some three dozen sites scattered over the country. Some of the temporary storage is in a parlous state, in some people's opinion best described as an accident waiting to happen. Permanent safe disposal in a GDF is a matter of some urgency. So why take the decisions in such a slow, drawn out manner?

The current work of RWM has two distinct advantages for Government. It shows that something is being done, the authorities are on the case, actively addressing the issue of nuclear waste that is our common concern. Secondly, it does not involve spending much money for quite a long time.

RWM's work, investigating a handful of potential GDF locations, only costs a few million pounds a year. From the Treasury's point of view the money that flows through the 'Community Partnerships' would largely need to be spent anyway, through local government, and will be mostly worthwhile investments, so hardly counts as a cost at all. But once a final decision on GDF locations is made and the go-ahead is given, then spending quickly ramps up by at least two orders of magnitude.  Headline figures will now be given in fractions and multiples of billions, not millions.

The choice presented by the Chancellor to the Prime Minister is this: either we take ten years going through the motions of careful and thorough search for the best way to deal with the nuclear waste, spending a few million pounds per year. or we actually get on with the actual job of dealing with the waste now at a cost of a billion pounds per year. Just now, what with other things going on in the economy, it is easy to see why kicking this particular can down the road to a time when the current Chancellor and Prime Minister are retired, must look the more attractive option.

Of course all the good folk who work at NDA and RWM, whose salaries depend on believing this is the best course of action, will believe that this is the best course of action.

I borrowed this picture from the RWM website. It shows the former Conoco Theddlethorpe Gas Terminal and when it was closed I was much relieved at the loss of light glare spoiling the night sky. Long may we view the stars.