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Scientific Alliance Newsletter

10.03.2017
A report this week from Carbon Brief website gives a very rosy view of the UK’s emissions reduction policy. On the BBC website we see that coal collapse drives down UK carbon emissions, while in the Times, the identical message is presented under the headline ditching coal helps Britain beat climate change target. The FT emphasises that UK carbon emissions fall to late-19th century levels. There are more serious aspects to consider, but I can’t avoid noting the increasingly common use of the term ‘carbon emissions’, giving a somewhat inaccurate picture of clouds of soot rather than invisible...
24.02.2017
…as the song goes. Ideally, of course, we should try to be as objective as possible and understand the negatives as well. In reality, all too often we accentuate them instead. Despite life becoming better in so many ways, there seems to be an innate tendency to think that things are going downhill. Every civilization seems to look back to its golden days and worry about the downhill slide since then. Today, this is particularly true for environmental issues. Just as we categorise people as left- or right-leaning in their politics, or classify by class or income band, so we can place people on...
17.02.2017
In view of the apparent commitment by the world’s major economies to slash emissions of carbon dioxide in a bid to tune the climate to our liking, seeing a future for coal may sound perverse. Many commentators are warning of shareholders in fossil fuel companies taking a hit as the ‘stranded assets’ of coal and oil reserves plunge in value as demand dries up. Maybe that will happen at some future date, but there seems no danger of it coming to pass in the foreseeable future. Renewable energy – mainly wind and solar – is supposed to supplant fossil fuels over time to ‘decarbonise’ the...
10.02.2017
In May 2016, the last coal-fired power station in South Australia was switched off, as part of the state’s efforts to meet its latest (self-imposed) target of a 50% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2025. South Australia was hailed as a leader in climate change policy, with others sure to follow their example. Fortunately, there has been no rush, as it turned out that electricity prices soared and the state was hit by a number of serious blackouts within months. By August, we could read in the FT that Australian state’s power crisis sparks green energy backlash. Spot prices during July...
03.02.2017
Twenty years ago, genetic modification was a big issue across Europe. A single large, US-based multinational, Monsanto, had successfully tweaked soy bean plants to be tolerant to its ubiquitous herbicide, Roundup (brand name for glyphosate), found that American farmers were eager to save costs by growing Roundup Ready varieties, and saw no reason why European consumers should have any concerns about GM soy turning up on ingredient lists on supermarket shelves. How wrong they were. It turned out that consumers needed little prompting to be concerned about potential dangers lurking in their...
27.01.2017
A decade or so ago, cars of the future were to be electric, powered either by batteries or by fuel cells, using hydrogen. Major car manufacturers produced hydrogen-fuelled demonstration models, some hydrogen-powered buses were put into service and a handful of hydrogen filling stations were built. More recently, however, it seemed that batteries had won the race to provide motive power for the next generation of vehicles, as technology evolved and range became more respectable. But that doesn’t mean that the alternative technology doesn’t still have its supporters. One is Toyota, the world’s...
20.01.2017
Today sees the inauguration of America’s 45th President, Donald Trump. Before November 11, few people expected to hear those words, and a good number of people apparently still refuse to accept the fact. A series of protests are planned on inauguration day, but that is the sign of a free and democratic society. No matter how unpopular President Trump with some groups, he will be in office for the next four years and even opponents will have to live with that. The real question is what he can achieve in that time. Inevitably, political leaders cannot do everything they intend to or all their...
13.01.2017
Two common sources of renewable energy – wind and solar – are non-despatchable. That is, they do not necessarily provide a useful output when it is needed (on the other hand, they can be productive when the electricity is not needed). This is not necessarily the case for all renewables; biomass is an exception, but its use on a large scale is controversial and it has limited potential. Hydroelectricity falls somewhere between the two. In the right circumstances, it is fully despatchable, but only while there is sufficient water left in the reservoir to drive the turbines. Two other sources of...
06.01.2017
Apart from not having to go to work, the great thing about the Christmas and New Year holiday is that pretty much everyone else is away as well. That means coming back to a (relatively) clear desk, without new things having piled up as they tend to when we are away from our desks any other time of the year. There is an inevitable settling-in period of a few days at the beginning of January as we get up to speed and try to remember why certain things seemed so important in December. This break in the normal routine also gives us an opportunity to take a step back and look at important issues...
09.12.2016
Air pollution is a high-profile issue. Half a century ago, coal was still the main source of domestic heat and electricity. City buildings were covered in a permanent layer of soot deposited from the air, the rest being breathed in by residents and workers. In London, the Great Smog of 1952 was but the worst of a pattern of such events, but it led to the passing of the Clean Air Act in 1956. Since then, air quality in the UK capital and other major cities in the developed world has improved enormously, but pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and ozone, as well as microscopic particles (PM2.5...

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