27 Jun 2013

Obama's climate speech for beginners

The amazing thing about this speech was that it was made at all. It lasted for nearly 40 minutes, consisting of 6,000 words. The transcript is here. Arguably, it's four years too late, but maybe it's a sign of the times that the excruciating climate wars are coming to and end. Or am I being naive (again)?

• So what does he talk about for 40 minutes?

The speech is strong on the background, strong on the science and strong on pointing out that previous bits of environmental legislation were passed into law with bi-partisan support. 1970's Clean Air Act went through the senate unopposed and then went through the House of Representatives with just one vote against. It was signed into law by a Republican president and strengthened later by another. But then it didn't threaten Big Oil, or at least not directly.

• You are suggesting that the strength doesn't last?

About halfway through, he starts on what an opportunity climate change mitigation can be. Here he begins to sound a bit desperate. Try this. A low-carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come. And I want America to build that engine. I want America to build that future -- right here in the United States of America. That’s our task. Stirring stuff, but the moment American politicians start going on about how great America is, I begin to have my doubts.

• And the meat? Where's the meat?

Not good.

1) He fudges on the Keystone pipeline decision. Passes the buck to the State Department which is currently evaluating whether it is in the national interest. I bet it is.

2) He backs fracking. His only caveat is that he calls it a transition fuel.

3) He backs more renewables but says nothing about funding mechanisms.

4) He commits government to buy 20% renewable electricity by 2020 - but doesn't define renewable - so it will probably be biomass, me thinks.

5) Makes vague commitments to encourage energy efficiency, but nothing like a Green Deal, as far as I can see. Maybe that's a good thing in itself!

6) Makes some federal funding for flood defences and water development projects - claiming this is mitigation work.

7) Nuclear power gets just one mention in the whole speech We're building the first nuclear power plants in more than three decades -- in Georgia and South Carolina but doesn't say whether he approves, nor does he show any interest or backing for new nuclear technologies.

8) Stresses that he's involved with international co-operation with China, India and Brazil. Comes up with the unintentionally funny line: my administration will redouble our efforts to engage our international partners in reaching a new global agreement to reduce carbon pollution through concrete action. So good news here for Portland Cement manufacturers!

9) Promotes Gina she’s terrific McCarthy at the EPA, and bewails the fact that she is being blocked at every turn by the Republicans. I like this line: We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm.

In truth, these are very weak measures indeed and make our own (hopelessly split) UK government look like the Green Party in comparison. But the significance of all this is that he made this speech at all, that he has put climate change back on the agenda in the USA for the first time since the credit crunch.

It's amazing to reflect that the anti-climate change campaign has been so successful over the past few years that the US President gets saluted as a hero for merely delivering a speech which mentions there might be just a small problem with carbon dioxide, whilst also giving the OK to a pipeline for exporting Canada's tar sands and also bigging-up fracking. No doubt, the Tea Party Republicans will be up in arms at the outrageous interventionist policies Obama is promoting, but secretly they must be delighted that the agenda has moved so far their way that a speech such as this is seen as a milestone.

24 Jun 2013

Every chart tells a story...

Ben Adam-Smith (@BenAdamSmith) alerted me to this chart which he stumbled upon whilst researching the vexed issue of density. Every good chart is designed to tell a story (and back it up with facts and statistics) but that doesn't mean they aren't capable of leading you down the garden path. And this is a good example of one that does.

The chart sets out to show how greedy Americans are when it comes to energy and how the very design of their cities further exaggerates this largesse. 18 cities are compared on the basis of their energy usage per head and this is mapped against their population density. The result? The seven American cities are the seven largest energy hogs and also the largest land hogs. At the other end of the spectrum, the three Asian cities, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore, are not only the three most energy efficient per capita, but also the three most densely populated.

QED? The more densely populated a city, the more energy efficient it is. That, at least is the conclusion we are being drawn to here.

But is it true? Let's dig a little.

First thing that stands out is that the x axis and the y axis are comparing apples with pears. The key metric we are being asked to look at is the energy consumption per head. If we did this and this alone, we would have just a single line populated with 18 different cities, with Houston at No 1 spot with score of 75 and Hong Kong at No 18, with a score well below 10. Now that is already a remarkable observation. People living in Houston consume around ten times more energy per head than people in Hong Kong. This tallies with available national statistics on energy and CO2 emissions, though China no longer has such a low score. I suspect this chart is a few years old now and that Hong Kong's score would now be noticeably higher. But that's not the point.

The chart then adds another axis showing the population densities of each of the 18 cities. Now this too is interesting as it draws us to the conclusion that the American cities are groundhogs and the Asian cities are space efficient, though note that two of the Asian examples chosen, Hong Kong and Singapore, are island city states and neither has that much space to expand so they are almost bound to be space efficient.

My main nitpick is that these two observations which, in themselves, are demonstrably true are not necessarily connected, let alone causally related. They may be, they may not be. But the very fact of graphing them against each other draws us to the conclusion that a connection is there and it's a strong one. Indeed, it draws us to the conclusion that population density is the major factor in determining energy usage. And that dense development patterns are therefore a good thing — inherently sustainable even — and that in future development should take place on this sort of basis. Hong Kong good: Houston bad.

It's an oft held criticism of American cities are that they are so large that they encourage car use — "LA is a great big freeway." In contrast, compact cities are walking cities, and they also make public transport more cost effective because there are more potential passengers within walking distance of each bus or metro stop. All true and good. And therefore transport energy costs are likely to be high in megacities which were developed after the advent of car use and cheap oil. Which is the point the graph is making. But transport costs are not the only energy costs. What about heating? And air conditioning? And manufacturing? And public buildings? Maybe, just maybe, American cities have more of these as well. Not to mention bigger houses. In fact, I'm sure they have all of these features, all much bigger than Asian homelets. I'm pretty sure you could chart energy consumption against average house size, or average incomes, or number of doctors per head of population, and get almost exactly the same looking chart.

This is because Americans are, by and large, rich, certainly when compared to Asians and it's this factor which tends to give rise to space-hungry grid-iron street patterns, high levels of car ownership and heavy energy use per head. Their wealth also developed in a world of cheap energy in which no one gave more than a passing thought to how much energy they used, and a world of cheap land too, so it's hardly surprising that their cities developed as they did.

In conclusion, it's not that this chart isn't accurate or even that it draws false comparisons, but that it's making an observation that tells us about the historical development of cities and dressing it up as lesson for us to learn about tomorrow's cities and developments.

What I'm getting at is that a chart like this gets used as a manifesto to justify high density development when in reality it is just a bit of social history. You could, if you wanted to, create a low density, low energy neighbourhood: think green ribbons stretching across the countryside with everybody having a passivhaus on a one-acre plot and a bus up and down the lane every ten minutes. Or you could create the densest, most energy hungry development imaginable: think of the Candy Brothers' One Hyde Park, 86 apartments in central London in which, apparently, hardly anyone actually lives.

So the moral from all this? Just because cheap energy leads to low density development, it doesn't follow that high density development will result in low energy use.

13 Jun 2013

The strange case of the missing Building Reg

I can distinctly remember sitting in the audience at Ecobuild this year (March 5 - 7) listening to Don Foster, whose is a DCLG minister (official title Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Department for Communities and Local Government) saying "It'll be May at the latest."

What was he talking about? And why didn't it happen?

He was talking about publishing the final version of the energy efficiency regulations for buildings in England, known to all as Part L. Part L has been in existence since 1976. Every few years, it gets uprated to reflect changes in the energy landscape and, to a lesser extent, changes in technology. In 2006, Yvette Cooper, who was then the minister in charge of building regs, announced the Code for Sustainable Homes and, with it, a timetable for future Part L upgrades. These being 2010, 2013 and finally 2016.

2016 was seen as the holy grail of energy efficiency, the zero carbon house. It was assumed at the time that the Code for Sustainable Homes and the building regs would come into alignment at this point. 2010 and 2013 were to be stepping stones along the way. Part L, in particular, was in the hot seat here. Unlike the Code for Sustainable Homes which was mostly voluntary, Part L is mandatory.

Now Part L revisions have always been subject to a fair amount of lobbying. The product manufacturers love the revisions because they get to sell more kit (think insulation) and more expensive kit (think boilers and heat pumps). The housebuilders hate them because they have to pay for all this gear. Part L revisions start life in draft form which is subject to consultation. The final version of Part L is habitually late and this in itself causes lots of niggly problems because no one is up to speed by the time the new regs come into effect.

In order to address these issues, the government has published a timetable showing when the building regs will change. All well and good, and very responsible and grown up. The 2013 Part L is due to come into force on October 1st this year and, by convention, the regulation should be published some months ahead of the enforcement date, for obvious reasons. Hence the question to Don Foster back in March which prompted his response about a May publication date.

So why have we got to June 13th without the new Part L? Final versions of Part L have been late before but never this late. This late is ridiculously late. It's all very well lobbying and carrying out base political manoeuverings, but there must be some one in a position to say "Time gentlemen please." After all, it's only a building regulation. You can argue till the cows come home about whether a wall U value should be 0.18 or 0.17 or 0.16, but the world isn't going to come to an end whatever the outcome.

The strange thing is that the most contentious aspect of this revision (it was in the draft version), the requirement for consequential improvements, was dealt a death blow last year by the Daily Mail's Conservatory Tax campaign. All those in favour of toughening Part L have conceded that this proposal is dead in the water and will not be part of Part L 2013. So it seems unlikely that there is much behind-the-scenes lobbying going on here.

What else could they be arguing about? Well we still don't have a definition of what a zero carbon house should actually consist of. But that is an argument that can wait till the 2016 version of Part L. 2013 was only ever to be a stepping stone.

There has been a debate about adopting Fabric Energy Efficiency Standards or FEES. The draft version made a good case for so doing, if only because they are much easier to understand than the existing metrics for overall energy performance of new builds. But I can't really see this as a reason for holding up publication.

So could it be the Treasury, up to their usual tricks in trying to subvert the green machine? Possibly. Part L is certainly a green leaning regulation, and a tougher Part L would be more expensive to implement, which the Treasury doesn't like. But the added cost is hardly a game changer: it will add, at most, a few hundred pounds to the cost of a new house. Delaying Part L publication will arguably add rather more, because the manufacturers won't be able to tool up in time to produce Part L 2013 compliant kit. On balance, it seems unlikely that the Treasury is that bothered about Part L.

So just what is going on behind the scenes? I have no idea. I can only surmise that Part L's non-appearance is symptomatic of a non-functioning department in the midst of a non-functioning government. The novelty of a coalition government, and the optimism that accompanied it, is now long dead.