Power, policy and piranhas: Martin Bigg on energy

The following blog was written after I attended the Policy Cafe event in Bristol in May 2015. The original blog can be found here:

When it comes to energy solutions, we need to be like Martin Bigg’s favourite fish; the piranha. Why do we need to be like a flesh-eating aquatic animal to get these solutions? Because being passive isn’t working.

Such was the closing message of Bigg’s talk at the Bristol Politics Café in the kitchen of The Station. Bigg’s talk entitled ‘Energy generation, use and denial’ was a well-integrated combination of academic analysis and challenging chit-chat about the UK’s energy enigmas.

While his concluding remark was engineered to influence our future actions, Bigg cleverly began with the UK’s energy past. He walked us through the history of UK energy supply, intertwining the physical processes of production with the bureaucracy and politics.

This technique highlighted how energy has been manipulated time and time again to fulfil regulations and financial expectations. Coal fired power stations built in the 1970’s are still producing today, requiring a string of expensive modifications in an attempt to meet the demands of the modern day.

In addition, the audience was introduced to facts and figures representing current energy demand. Two things struck me as disturbing. Firstly, how small our green energy contribution is, and secondly, how coal power stations are used to fulfil our energy needs.  Many coal stations are paid huge government subsidies to remain on standby to provide energy at peak times. What is absurd is that coal power stations are the least efficient to start and stop when compared to other forms of power generation, so why are we using them?

What was more interesting, was Bigg’s presentation of green energy supply. He showed the audience real bids for green energy. Solar was the cheapest, followed by onshore wind. Offshore wind was one of the most expensive but it is the scheme the government is investing most in. The utterly nonsensical nature of the process was brought on in part by environmentalists concerned about the impact of onshore wind farms on local wildlife, particularly bird life. In reality, Bigg pointed out, CO2 emission are far more damaging to bird populations through acidification of wetlands than through wind farms.

What was reassuring, however, was that the green energy, at peak production was able to compete economically with the products of hydrocarbon-guzzling plants. The main issue was what to do when the wind stops blowing and the sun goes down. Here, Bigg admitted, there is the need for further research and development into effective energy storage.

The event was meant to not only be a talk but a discussion, and the strength of opinions bounced around the room was evident. Much of the discontent was channelled into the up-coming elections, particularly that green policies are not playing a bigger role in the political football preceding 9 May 2015. Hopefully, discussion such as these can only help expand the dialogue amongst green-minded voters in the Bristol area in the hope that a less passive attitude may start to take effect in future green policy making.

Bristol 2015 Student Day: Young people’s ideas for the future

In  April 2015 I attended a student day for the University of Bristol organised by the festival ideas. The corresponding blog is below. The original blog can be found here:
The Bristol Student Day for the Bristol Festival of Ideas was all about the future. Cabot Institute director Rich Pancost opened the day with the remark: ‘This is your planet, it is no longer my generation’s’. What he says is true; young people are soon to inherit positions as policy makers, CEOs and decision makers. Student’s visions for the future may soon become a reality, so what are their visions?

Bristol 2015: Student Day at At-Bristol. Organised by Bristol Festival of Ideas

The student day was orchestrated to produce a dialogue for the University of Bristol and UWE student’s opinions on some of the planet’s greatest problems. The thoughts generated will become part of Bristol’s message to the world in at the COP21, a global sustainable innovation forum in Paris later this year.

The discussions ranged from local cycling routes to global overpopulation. The breadth of topics covered meant discussions oscillated between worldwide concerns and university-based issues.  Regardless of scale, the prevailing desire was for increased suitability for the future generations.

On a university level the participants expressed discontent with the institution’s reliance on fossil fuels with many agreeing they would like to see increased investment in sustainable energy for their organisations. Financial returns from green energy may be long term but if any institution can expect longevity it’s a university- why should their energy solutions not reflect that?
Waste reduction was an additional point for local improvement with participants venturing ideas such as a ban on single use coffee cups and increased recycling opportunities on campus. There was no shortage of creative ideas, the main issue was implementation and education; how can young people convince their less green-minded peers that such schemes are essential? Food waste was of additional concern, with unanimous support for schemes such as the Bristol Skipchen. The desire to see projects such as this affiliated with the university was a common vision.

Naturally, food was an issue close to the heart of many students and discussion quickly progressed to agriculture. Organic food was considered a luxury for personal health purposes, but its environmental benefit was surprisingly contentious. Many students believed that large scale, non-organic, industrialised farming is more energy efficient and produces fewer emissions, while others believe smaller organic farms are the future of agriculture.

The boundaries of the discussion were pushed both mentally and geographically as the day progressed.  The younger generation’s global responsibilities were also high priority for discussion. Overpopulation in the developing world is putting strain on resources- how can Bristol students help? Food waste reduction was high on the list of solutions, as well as the universal need for more environmentally attractive power solutions, from the first to third world.

The enthusiasm of the participants to build a better, greener and more sustainable future made the discussion both interesting and beneficial. If there is one thing the day has shown, it’s that young people have the desire for long term solutions. After all, it is the millions of small ideas such as the ones discussed in At-Bristol that will shape the future for us all.

My ‘Climate Shock’ from a talk by Gernot Wagner

In March 2015 I attended an event organised by the Bristol Festival of Ideas. The below blog relates my experience. The original blog can be found here:

Sadly, the climate change rhetoric can sometimes feel a bit like the announcements at an airport; a little monotonous and irrelevant. Most of us have been guilty of tuning out, turning a blind eye and continuing with our life thinking the announcement isn’t really for us; we’re getting a different flight.

Sitting down for the hour long talk by Gernot Wagner at @Bristol on Tuesday evening was a little like hearing the last boarding call when you’re at the other end of the airport in a day dream. It was a shock.

‘Climate Shock’ was an hour of uncomfortable truths and mind boggling economics. As a scientist I am regularly exposed to the raw figures: Temperature in degrees, CO2 in parts per million, mean sea level increase. Never before had I been faced with the human implications of climate change in such stark and uncompromising terms.

The talk was run by Bristol Festival of Ideas and supported by the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute and slotted in comfortably with Bristol’s position as green capital of the Europe. Gernot Wagner walked us through his recent book ‘Climate shock’, co written with Martin Weitzman. At each turn of the page (or change of the slide) there was a new, fresh perspective on the climate change debate. Instead of seeing the problem and solution in science, Wagner saw it in economics.

With the cool detachment of a mathematician, Wagner attempted to communicate the uncertainties in our climate change predictions. Despite a considerable accumulation of knowledge, we are still powerless to predict the exact effect on our fragile planet. Wagner pointed out that, should temperatures rise by 6 degrees, the effects would be catastrophic. We are only a fraction of the way down the slippery slope of temperature increase and despite an escalation in extreme weather we still aren’t digging in our heels and climbing back up. With any other predictable, large-scale disasters we work tirelessly to insure and mitigate. Why, Wagner asked, are we not doing the same for climate change

$0.40

Using economics to convey the potential impacts, Wagner stated plainly that for every $1 we spend on CO2 producing activities, it is actually costing us $0.40 in future damages. We are already a planet in debt.

Wagner’s solution was atypical. Instead of sending us forth from the room as eco warriors, recycling like our lives depended on it, he emphasised a different message. He said the way to mitigate global warming is to harness the economic power of supply and demand.

$150

His case study was Sweden. He introduced it with a single figure: $150.

This is the Swedish tax on each ton of CO2: as the price of CO2 went up, demand went down. Now, Wagner claimed, Sweden is nearly carbon neutral. His argument is that policy is the way to save the world- far more so than individual effort.

The realism of his suggestions made his talk fascinating. For the first time I not only grasped the terrifying toll that climate change is taking, but also felt hopeful that there might be a solution. While the solution might be unpopular in our short sighted capitalist society, it is absolutely essential for maintaining long term economic stability.

The moral of the story? The best investment you will ever make is in our planet.