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Newsletter 10th November 2006

- Chaotic world of climate truth - European power blackout/IEA report - Air travel of the future

Chaotic world of climate truth
This was the headline for last week’s piece in the Green Room series from the BBC (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6115644.stm). It presents an interesting viewpoint from Mike Hulme, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Despite being very much in the mainstream of climate change research and believing that the evidence points to continued warming and negative consequences, Professor Hulme criticises those activists who have contributed to the present media hype. He has himself been criticised because he refuses to contribute to the frenzy of overselling.
 
In his own words: “Climate change is a reality, and science confirms that human activities are heavily implicated in this change. But over the last few years a new environmental phenomenon has been constructed in this country - the phenomenon of "catastrophic" climate change. It seems that mere "climate change" was not going to be bad enough, and so now it must be "catastrophic" to be worthy of attention.”
 
He believes that the effect will lead to a depressed, fearful society. And so it may, but there is an equal chance that it will lead to the majority of people dismissing what they recognise as over-zealous, doom-laden messages. Public fears are readily stirred up, but die down soon enough if there is not seen to be any real and current substance to them. The net result is that people take each new scare less and less seriously and ultimately do not take real issues seriously either. It turns into a classic case of crying wolf.
 
Of course, occasional overemphasis to get a point over is something we are all guilty of. But a sustained period of “it’s even worse than we first thought” and “we’re all doomed” is simply not good. It makes people cynical and even less trusting. Honest, open debate is always the best option.
 
European power blackout/IEA report
A power failure in Cologne last Saturday had far-reaching consequences which highlight the need to take energy security seriously. A power overload in one part of the German network caused blackouts affecting millions of people across seven European countries. Fortunately, power was quickly restored, but the resulting chaos shows only too clearly how vulnerable we all are.
 
How appropriate, then, that the International Energy Agency released its latest report (World Energy Outlook 2006) just a few days later. Energy demand is projected to increase by 53% by 2030. This is the IEA’s “business as usual” scenario, where 83% of the new generating capacity would, on current trends, use fossil fuels. They compare this with an alternative “cleaner” future, where government policy has reduced growth in energy demand by 10%, and a change in the generating mix (particularly with a large increase in nuclear capacity) cuts 16% from the additional carbon dioxide emissions in the first scenario.
 

On the face of it, this is all good, sensible stuff. It reduces our use of fossil fuels, and substitutes the only proven technology which can provide guaranteed baseload capacity. But if we look beyond the headlines, this would still see a very large increase in carbon emissions in a generation’s time, exactly what climate change activists are saying would lead to catastrophe, and even the more measured Professor Hulme would be very concerned about. What will eventually happen, we can’t say. But the conflict between the need for energy security and current path of climate change policy becomes more marked every day.
Air travel of the future
This week saw the public launch (if that’s not an inappropriate word for something that hasn’t flown yet) of the outcome of the Silent Aircraft Initiative (http://www.cambridge-mit.org/research/sai). This is a Cambridge-MIT Institute project, the Institute itself being a government-funded collaboration between two or the world’s elite science universities: Cambridge and MIT.
 
The SAI brought together a range of researchers and students from both sides of the Atlantic with the aim of designing a mid-range aircraft which, although not exactly “silent” could not be heard above normal ambient noise from the airport perimeter on take-off or landing. This would require a massive reduction of 25 dB in the noise produced, and some innovative approaches have been taken to achieve this.
 
The most noticeable difference is the shape: effectively a wide, flat body with short conventional wings and no tailplane. Engines of novel design would be mounted at the rear, above the body, with considerable shielding to dampen noise. Conventional flaps and other control surfaces would be replaced by much quieter, deformable leading and trailing wing edges, and the undercarriage would be partly enclosed. All the tests conducted indicate that this would meet the noise reduction targets, while at the same time reducing fuel consumption.
 
There are, of course, considerable risks associated with such a novel design, and the chances of it being built in its current form are probably slim. Nevertheless, many of the design principles could well be incorporated in other, less radical aircraft of the future. Boeing and Rolls-Royce have collaborated and taken an active interest in the project.
 
It is reassuring to see that innovation is alive and well in the transport sector, and we can expect to see some exciting developments in years to come. Once again, we see that change is not set forever on some linear path: disruptive technologies provide new opportunities. They solve today’s problems, while almost certainly creating others for future generations to tackle. That is the nature of progress. Personal transport, by whatever means, is likely to look distinctly different by mid-century.