Uncharted Territory

July 29, 2009

Confident in Copenhagen?

Filed under: Energy policy, Global warming, International climate deals — Tim Joslin @ 8:04 am

I’ve been thinking that, rather than just add them to my thousands of Firefox bookmarks, I should start to flag up interesting articles which catch my eye.

I can’t help but agree with Gideon Rachman’s pessimistic comments in the FT. He notes:

“The Indians and the Chinese have so far refused to accept binding targets on CO2 emissions. Even if they change their position during the Copenhagen negotiations – and that is far from certain – that will come at a price. The proposed deal is that rich countries essentially bribe poorer countries to cut emissions and adopt cleaner technologies. China has proposed that developed nations should all agree to contribute 1 per cent of gross domestic product to help poorer nations fight global warming.

Now imagine that you are Mr Obama trying to sell a deal like that back home. The US is running a budget deficit of 12 per cent of GDP. The Chinese are sitting on the world’s largest foreign reserves. The president would have to ask the American people to write a large cheque to China to combat global warming – while simultaneously praying that the Chinese graciously consent to keep buying American debt to fund the deficit. It does not sound like a political winner.”

Quite.

Rachman’s comments are echoed by the latest FT report today – subtitled Countries at odds over climate change – of the facts on the ground in the ongoing G2 dialogue.

There’s general agreement that the US’s own legislation to reduce its own emissions lacks real bite. A report from the National Academies of Science also suggests a lack of real ambition. CNET’s commentary notes:

“In assessing the transportation sector, the study’s authors concluded that petroleum will continue to fuel the country’s cars and trucks in the next three decades, although maintaining domestic petroleum production will be challenging. Once again, the best near-term option to cutting oil consumption is better vehicle efficiency.

Making liquid fuels from biomass, such as wood chips, and from coal with carbon capture and storage could replace about 15 percent of today’s fuel consumption. But both approaches still have significant technical barriers. Also, there are potential environmental problems from using large amounts of land for biofuels and coal-to-liquid fuels would increase emissions without carbon capture and storage, according to the study.”

Sounds to me like they’ve reached a “conclusion” which doesn’t in fact follow from their own analysis. That’s the scientific establishment for you!

What’s needed is not technologies like CCS and biofuels to shore up today’s fossil-fuel-based energy-supply technology, but a paradigmatic change – a technological revolution, disruptive innovation – to most probably an almost entirely electricity-based energy system. Transport, buildings, industry all powered by electricity generated by renewable and nuclear technologies. Replacing what’s current with current perhaps. Yes, it’s a big job. But then so was building all the fossil-fuel infrastructure. That is virtually all less than 40 years old, so surely we can replace it by 2050. Just get on with it!

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July 13, 2009

Maggot Madness

I was more than usually bemused by this report on the Cambridge Evening News website.

“Horrified pensioner Anne Flack, of Chartfield Road, Cherry Hinton, felt revolted when she found maggots crawling in the bottom of her black bin after it was emptied this week.”

“Another city resident, Joscelyn Carroll, of Sleaford Street, who has previously found maggots in his black bin, said: ‘I find it ridiculous that with ever increasing council tax they cannot provide a weekly rubbish collection in this heat.’ ”

[My emphasis].

Whilst I very much agree with the sentiment that the bins should be emptied weekly – I’ve even said as much en passant to my local Cambridge Councillor – the issue is (or should be) the green bins. We have black boxes for papers, newspapers and cans; blue boxes for plastic bottles; collection points for batteries; charity shops for old clothes and crockery; procedures for dealing with fridges (even if these would fit in a black bag! [obliquely referencing Doug’s recent anecdote]) and other electrical goods; green bins for garden and kitchen waste as well as cardboard – that is, for those with no biology qualifications, practically everything that could support the typical maggot lifestyle; and black bins for everything else, which should be eff all.

So, the Cambridge Evening News reader might well wonder, why aren’t Anne Flack, of Chartfield Road, Cherry Hinton and Joscelyn Carroll, of Sleaford Street following the instructions of the Cambridge Soviet to the letter? Aren’t they putting their food waste in the green bins? As well as compostables (including “all kinds of cardboard”), I dutifully separate out bottles (glass and plastic), paper, tins and even batteries. There’s absolutely nothing in my black bin to support a maggot-dominated ecosystem. It contains little but inert packaging, much of it the same plastics as in the recycled bottles (not forgetting shiny Christmas wrapping paper – future civilisations millennia hence will wonder at the purpose of this least degradable of all human artefacts). Incidentally, guess why they only recycle plastic bottles? Because the sorting machine can only deal with rolly things! (Pointing out the absurdity of this was the substance of my letter to the Councillor).

Of course, no-one knows (as they say) what happens to the waste in the green bin. One suspects the answer is that it goes somewhere similar to the contents of the black bin – landfill, incineration or a layby on the A14. I find the idea that the waste from everyone’s green bins is pure enough to grow food in to be rather implausible.

Here’s what the Council has to say by way of “clarification”:

” ‘Despite rumours, there is no public health risk associated with putting food waste in green bins in Cambridge and it is completely safe for people to do so.’ ”

Que?, as Manuel would say. Rumours? What rumours? Can you catch swine flu or something from this “food waste”? The green bins are intended for food waste, not just garden waste (hey, wouldn’t it be better if those with gardens maintained their own compost heaps, anyway?). At least that’s what Cambridge Council have been telling me for the last 5 years.

“The council’s advice is to get a kitchen caddy – which is free for Cambridge residents – to collect food waste in the kitchen. Wrap all food waste in paper, rinse off food packaging, and keep wheelie bin lids closed.” [NSS* on the last bit!].

Thanks for letting me know before. But what exactly is a “kitchen caddy”? I use an old plastic food container – the kind the Council won’t recycle. It seems to do the job.

And here’s the screamer:

“Residents are also encouraged to put food waste in their black bin one week, and green the next, to get a weekly collection of food waste.”

Unbelievable. What are we saying now? After all this, it doesn’t really matter what goes in what bin?

—-
Maybe this is a good time to mention that the whole national recycling strategy is, of course, entirely misconceived. Government should simply take steps to create a market for recyclables (e.g. by acting as the buyer of last resort) so that suppliers to recycling companies buy the stuff off us (maybe via enterprising school-kids). Every newspaper, bottle, tin, potato peeling and so on that is recycled saves the landfill or other disposal cost so recycling could even be subsidised, though I’m convinced that, once established, the recycling industry would be profitable. And what’s more, you might find people clearing the bottles, cans and other trash from Parker’s Piece for nothing!

Give people clear incentives to do the right thing and we don’t need to try to run our lives on the basis of contradictory local council diktats.

*NSS = No Sh**, Sherlock! – of course!

Bring Back BBC Bias!

Filed under: BBC, Cricket, F1, Media, Sport — Tim Joslin @ 10:13 am

With so much sport to choose from, it takes something special to grab my attention – genuine rivalry, perhaps, like the Ashes. Or a special individual. I happen to think Lewis Hamilton is a driver of exceptional talent. My interest in F1, like that of millions of others, was rekindled when he burst on the scene.

I was therefore fuming when Hamilton’s McLaren suffered a puncture on the first corner of yesterday’s German GP, leaving him in last place for the rest of the race. Like millions of others I was interested to know exactly what had happened.

I was rather puzzled that Hamilton appeared to lose it at the first corner and not only ran wide but, at first sight, must have collided with another car (Raikonnen’s Ferrari was the candidate) on rejoining the race. OK, there’s a bit of “My boy can do no wrong”, about it, but such errors would be very uncharacteristic for Hamilton, who, as I said, is pure raw talent.

Sure enough, the plot soon began to thicken. It was announced that the Australian Red Bull driver Mark Webber, who ended up winning the race, was under investigation for an incident at the start. The BBC’s “expert pundit”, former under-achieving Scottish driver David Coulthard (if you’ve followed that Wikipedia link, then, like me, you’ll have been reminded that Coulthard’s last racing team was – you’ve guessed it – Red Bull) immediately announced that Webber had done nothing wrong. His comments suggested that his basis for this was that he “hadn’t seen a collision”.

At this stage we hadn’t seen any clear replays, so Coulthard clearly believes that he has the ability to monitor exactly what is happening over a few seconds to 20 cars speeding away from the start of a GP. No-one else can do this, especially whilst simultaneously commentating, so Coulthard is clearly superhuman and deserves every penny of the millions he earnt not winning many races.

Replays soon confirmed that Webber had in fact side-swiped Barrichello’s Brawn going into the first corner. Webber admitted in the post-race interview that he thought Barrichello was on the other side of him! Lucky he wasn’t on a public road, or he’d be facing a dangerous driving charge. Miraculously, the collision had little effect on Barrichello or Webber’s cars. On another day, though, Webber’s mistake would have taken out half the field.

David “Superman” Coulthard’s opinion was, of course, unchanged by the visual facts of what had happened.

Webber received a drive-through penalty, which was insufficiently severe to prevent him winning the race. What sort of sport is this becoming? When I used to watch, the penalty was a 10 second stop, as well as a drive-through.

What the stewards didn’t investigate, though, was what happened next. Webber bounced off Barrichello, and – no doubt shocked to have found a car already there as he headed to the apex of the first corner – also steered left where Hamilton happened to be going round his outside. It turns out Webber clipped the McLaren forcing him off the track and giving him the puncture that cost him the race.

But the Beeb’s narrative was what a “brilliant performance” by Webber. Sorry, I expect sports coverage to reflect at least some of what I feel about the event, not construct some dumbed-down narrative. Webber was lucky his car wasn’t wrecked after playing dodgems at the start; lucky F1’s punishment regime is a joke; lucky not to find himself behind Hamilton and Barrichello at the start (and vulnerable for a lap or two to Kers-powered overtaking moves by the Ferraris and Kovalainen’s McLaren); and lucky too, as it happened, that Brawn screwed up a Barrichello pit-stop, relegating the closest rival to the Red Bulls to 6th. Maybe there’s a reason the “brilliant” Webber had not won any of his previous 129 GPs.

Not only is the Beeb happy to give Webber more credit that he deserves, they are also apparently happy to do down the British talent:

“Hamilton had fancied his chances of scoring a podium finish after qualifying fifth – and a fuel-corrected third fastest.

But after benefiting from his Kers power-boost system to contest the lead with Webber and Barrichello going into the first corner, Hamilton missed his braking point and ran wide.

He got a puncture and rejoined last where for some reason the McLaren, which has a major aerodynamic upgrade this weekend, did not show the pace it had on Saturday.”

What’s this “fancied his chances”? Subtext: “but got egg on his face”, eh? And “benefiting from Kers”? – with the implication that he doesn’t deserve it. But he should benefit. The car has to carry the Kers gear around the track! And McLaren have made design compromises to put it in the car. And probably budget compromises too – working on Kers rather than other aspects of the car (only McLaren and Ferrari have effective Kers systems). I expect they thought F1 was serious about including this “green” technology, and that it wouldn’t be quietly dropped as is being done next season. And Hamilton was so far behind (he had to limp to the pits with his puncture) that there was no point flogging it. There may also have been other damage to his car.

Yes, much of posterity will believe this latest poor result was purely Hamilton’s fault. Anyone using the Guardian’s archive will get the same impression as at the BBC:

“Lewis Hamilton had a bad day after being forced into the pits shortly after the start with a puncture. He made a strong start from fifth but ran wide after turn one. He returned to the track but was bumped from behind almost immediately.”

Independent readers will see Kimi Raikonnen slurred by name:

“As for Lewis Hamilton, on a day when he and McLaren felt their year of woe would potentially end with a podium, he could not have anticipated it would end so disastrously and in such swift fashion.

From fifth on the grid, and aided by a push of the KERS button, the world champion made a storming start.

As Webber and Barrichello played dodgems, Hamilton appeared poised to take full advantage, only to overcook it and run wide into the sharp first-corner hairpin.

Returning to the track in fifth place, Hamilton’s right-rear tyre was punctured by the front wing of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari, which was not to be the only incident of the day involving the Finn.”

Raikonnen has been wrecking a lot of other drivers’ races lately, but not Hamilton’s on this occasion.

Whilst the Independent is happy to report what a BBC commentator guessed had happened, the Times actually bothers to get it right:

“Defending world champion Lewis Hamilton finished 18th and last after an attack on the opening lap saw him involved in a collision with Webber that cost him a puncture.

Webber bashed into Barrichello’s car on the run from the start to the first corner, a collision for which he was punished with his drive-through penalty, but he overcame that with a dazzling drive to victory.”

After this, I woke up this morning expecting to hear the BBC revelling on England’s remarkable escape in the First Ashes Test – listening to the last overs of this had rather raised my spirits. But no, Auntie had decided “the angle” was supposed England delaying tactics. It did seem England had overstepped the mark (though part of Strauss’s explanation – trying to ensure the players out there knew how long they had to last – is very plausible), but this had no effect on the match – the Aussies lost no overs. The rule was 15 overs or an hour’s play whichever is the longer. Can anyone imagine the Aussies (or any other Test side) allowing the bowlers to achieve more than 15 overs in the last hour in similar circumstances?

Look, BBC, I pay my licence fee because – oh, sorry, you’re a monopoly – anyway, I expect what British viewers and readers would consider balance. Winning a GP after playing dodgems at the start is not “brilliant”, and to deserve to win a Test you actually have to look like being able to take the last wicket. If I want the Aussie angle, I’ll find out how to get their coverage over the internet!

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