Unstoppable Forces and Immovable Objects

“That’s my new house” – my Chinese tour guide gestured toward a row of featureless apartment blocks beneath our vantage point overlooking the river – “and that’s where I used to live.”  She showed me a photograph of a modest two-storey structure within the walls of the ancient city of Fengjie.  It presumably remains intact, albeit more than 150 metres underwater.

This stretch of the Yangtze – roughly 660km from Chongqing to Sandouping – is much less a river than a lake these days, thanks to the mind-blowing Three Gorges Dam.  My guide for the shore excursion of neighbouring Baidi Cheng – the White Emperor City, at the mouth of the still awesome Qutang Gorge – was among more than a million Chinese citizens forced to relocate prior to their homes being submerged by the rising waters.  If she was remotely bitter, it certainly didn’t show.

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Over many return visits since my two years living in Beijing from 2004, the Middle Kingdom has always left a deep impression or two.  It’s hard to grasp the scale and pace of development underway in China without experiencing it for oneself, but while still fresh – if that’s the word – from my most recent trip, I’d like to share some reflections that I hope will provide a glimpse of some of the changes in progress.

I have just returned from two weeks travelling overland in one of the country’s industrial heartlands.  Starting in Chengdu, Sichuan, the home Province of my travelling companion, we journeyed by rail to Chongqing before boarding a tourist ship that cruised down the now broad and peaceful Yangtze to Yichang, a few kilometres downstream of the infamous hydroelectric power station.

The relentless intensity of river traffic brought home that electricity generation was but one of the intended outcomes of this stunning engineering endeavour.  It may not even have been the most important one.  Previously, this was a notoriously difficult stretch of inland waterway, evoking the Symplegades – or Clashing Rocks – successfully navigated in Greek legend by Jason and the Argonauts.  Now, an endless stream of gigantic barges piled high with cargoes – notably mountains of coal – ply the becalmed waters.  Setting aside the grave environmental and social concerns related to the Three Gorges development – including landslides caused by increased physical pressure on surroundings and loss of agricultural land – one wonders about the net carbon impact of what is ostensibly a renewable energy project, given the enhanced flows of coal that have been made possible.

Countless factories and construction projects dot the river banks.  This region of China is well-known for its winter fogs, though it is easy to imagine that the precession of chimney stacks and their attendant columns of smoke – added to the sooty exhaust fumes of river traffic – contribute significantly to the dismal visibility, all the more disheartening in an area of exceptional natural beauty.  It struck me: this is what implausibly cheap consumer goods look like upstream in the supply chain, far beyond the horizon of cost-conscious consumers.  The juxtaposition of local fishermen in tiny sampans bobbing around in the slip-stream of industry lends a Dickensian flavour to the scene – A Tale of Two Rivers – and a vivid reminder, were it needed, of the inequality challenge confronting not only the developing world but many advanced economies, too.  As if to compensate for those dark satanic mills, dozens of new bridges that span the water have been designed with an aesthetical flourish rather than stolid functionality in mind.

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As for the dam itself, which we reached at midnight on the third day and passed in four hours via a sequence of enormous locks, the audacity it expresses can have few equals in the world.  As an aside, en route to China I met one of the challengers for the title of “world’s most audacious construction project” when stopping in Dubai for the weekend.  On arrival, I made immediately for the top of the Burj Khalifa, at 828m and 160 stories the world’s tallest building by some considerable distance.  Appropriately enough, it features prominently in the latest Mission Impossible movie.  The eye-watering extravagance shouts engineering hubris, but it is no less beautiful for that.

In defence of Three Gorges Dam, unlike the Burj Khalifa it is hard to label it as nothing more than a vanity project.  For starters, it is devastatingly ugly.  A few key facts: (1) Mao Zedong visualised the dam in a poem penned in 1956, titled “Swimming”; (2) its 18GW of hydroelectric power capacity is roughly equivalent to nine Hoover Dams; (3) were it operating in 1994 when construction began, it would have supplied around 12% of China’s power needs – but due to explosive demand growth it today represents less than 4% and is obviously declining each year; (4) the submerged area includes 13 cities, 140 towns, 1,352 villages, 657 factories & 30,000 hectares of cultivated land.  Construction is ongoing: the latest addition to the scheme is a ship elevator into which the “smaller” vessels (typically passenger ships of up to 3,000 tons – everything is relative) will be lowered or raised the full length of the drop that separates upstream and downstream waters, thereby shortening the crossing time from four hours to thirty minutes and debottlenecking the main lock system.

Another hour downstream from the dam we disembarked at nondescript Yichang, from where a four hour white-knuckle bus ride whisked us to Wuhan, the most important city in Hubei Province.  Together with Chongqing and Nanjing, Wuhan is one of China’s so-called “Furnaces” due to the sweltering summer climate endured by its 10 million residents.  Its location at the confluence of the Yangtze and the Han rivers, dividing the city into three parts – Wuchang, Hankou, and Hanyang (hence the composite name) – brought to mind Pittsburgh, with which I later learned Wuhan is officially twinned.  From Hankou to Wuchang on the short commuter ferry, I was impressed by the dozens of electric-powered bicycles and scooters crammed on board.  A recent estimate placed China’s e-bike population at 120 million; I briefly imagined the scene were all of those zippy two-wheelers powered by noisy two-stroke petrol engines.

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Moving on from Wuhan, the world’s fastest train south to Guangzhou averages 328km/h on the 968km journey, which annihilates comparable high-speed routes elsewhere in the world.  The new Wuhan Station embarrasses many modern airports in terms of scale, passenger facilities, and physical beauty.  A comparison with airports is apposite, since the station is situated some 50km from the city centre, thereby demanding close to an hour’s taxi ride in light traffic.  This came as a surprise – and a disappointment – to a European brought up to believe that the great advantage of rail over air travel is the convenience of journeying from one urban centre to another.  Still, I retain a conviction that rail travel is vastly less stressful and more enjoyable than flying.

Guangzhou, formerly known in the West as Canton, is regarded as China’s third city after Beijing and Shanghai.  If this status gives Guangzhou an inferiority complex, you wouldn’t know it.  The city’s proximity to Shenzhen and Hong Kong – soon to be connected with yet another high-speed rail line – give it a significant competitive advantage.  A stunning array of outlandish buildings have sprung up, including a striking waterfront opera house, all serviced by a spanking new – and already insanely busy – underground metro system.  Beijing’s development received an additional kick from the 2008 Olympics, while Guangzhou experienced a similar stimulus from the 2010 Asian Games, recognised as the second largest multi-sport event after the Olympics.

On leaving China from Guangzhou’s spotless – if mildly confusing – Baiyun International Airport, my overriding impression was that, despite everything I have read and experienced previously, it remains impossible to do justice in words to the sense of sheer momentum that exudes from this vast country of nearly 1.4 billion citizens, undertaking in two or three decades a transformation for which human history offers no precedent.  The industrial development that took more than a century in the US and Europe – with only a few hundred million citizens to consider – can offer some useful pointers, but direct analogies quickly break down due to the vastly different context in which humanity finds itself today.  For one thing, when E.L. Drake struck oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859, we hadn’t the faintest idea of the full consequences of embarking on a socio-economic development trajectory underpinned by two of our most primitive discoveries: fire and the wheel.

Where does it all lead?  Whether we like it or not, China’s future is our future.  My colleague Dirk Visser at CSPL South Africa begins his excellent systems pressures overview by referring to the movie The Dark Knight, in which the Joker sums up his relationship with Batman: “This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object”.  China creates an overwhelming illusion of the proverbial unstoppable force.  Is nature – or the hard, non-negotiable biophysical limits that nature imposes on all earthly life – the immovable object?  Apparently not, yet.

Ready, Steady, COP!

This blog first appeared on the website of think tank and strategy consultancy SustainAbility

I have just shaken off the biggest hangover of my entire life.  It lasted for about 9 months, triggered by spending 3.5 days living a feral existence, sleeping rough outside a Gentleman’s convenience, with no change of clothes, no shower and – as the BBC’s World Service broadcast to my mother’s chagrin – not even a toothbrush.  As the end drew near, I even caught myself foraging in bins behind the kitchen for an out-of-date pre-packaged salad (bliss!).  Juxtapose this tragic image with the likes of Sarkozy, Merkel, Zapatero and Rudd swishing past me in a melée of advisors and journalists, and you could be forgiven for assuming that my hangover was chemically-induced.  Alas, no.  It was an apparently normal reaction to the debacle that was COP 15.  

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”

They tried to make me go to rehab…

At Chatham House last week, I found myself in the company of numerous COP veterans girding their loins, preparing to once again contemplate the UNFCCC process.  Everyone I spoke to had also experienced the post-COP tremors, and decided – consciously or sub-consciously – in favour of maintaining their grip on sanity by taking a break from the circus.  As with everything else in life, a football analogy is never far away.  The vast majority of match-going supporters reach the end of every season thoroughly exhausted, looking forward to a well-earned rest to lick the wounds inflicted by another disappointing season.  Yet magically, as July turns to August, that familiar but inexplicable sense of optimism triumphs over common sense, and we simply can’t wait to get back on that emotional roller-coaster!

So it is with the UNFCCC, now heading for its 16th Conference of the Parties to be held in Cancun towards the end of this year.  We listened with renewed intensity as an impressive array of speakers and panellists from the worlds of politics, business, academia, and civil society outlined their hopes, fears, and realistic expectations for COP 16 and beyond.  And here’s the rub: if Copenhagen did nothing else, it injected a healthy dose of realism into those who yearned for a global, comprehensive, legally binding climate treaty for the post-2012 era.  Plenty of clichés were trotted out – Rome wasn’t built in a day, we lost the battle not the war, focus on the doable – but I was left with a sense that this was more than empty rhetoric: there was a tangible appetite among the Chatham House delegates to roll up sleeves and get stuck into what remains an unprecedented political, economic, social, and environmental challenge.

Sweet Sixteen?

Admittedly, the broader context for COP 16 is not good: the euphoria of Obamania has well and truly subsided and the US remains unable to enact any meaningful climate legislation – what can we expect from BRICS in response?  European governments are slashing public expenditure to a degree unseen for generations – the UK’s Department of Energy & Climate Change is under budgetary pressure despite not having been in existence when the government’s spending baseline was set.  Citizens everywhere are understandably more concerned about covering rents and mortgages than paying more for someone else to reduce their carbon footprint.

On the other side, Climategate paradoxically helped strengthen the scientific case for human-induced climate change: complacency in the field of climate science has rightly given way to the highest standards of rigour and discipline, and the outlook remains bleak.  A hard core of climate dissenters persist, but their numbers are vanishingly small.  “Natural” disasters this summer in RussiaPakistan and China – within days of one another – dominated the world’s media.  As ever, it is difficult to attribute a single extreme weather event to climate change, but the rising frequency and severity are persuasive indicators that we are on an alarming trajectory.  It is still possible to keep the rise in average temperatures below the 2°C threshold, but only just.

China continues to invest in renewable energy at a breathtaking pace.  We all know the legend of the “coal-fired power station every week”, but are we equally aware that China builds as much wind capacity each year as the entire UK?  Indications that China is already contemplating domestic CO2 cap-and-trade legislation should be an object of shame for the US, Canada, Australia, and a source of optimism for those convinced that a price on carbon is the best way to mobilise the clean energy revolution.

Success is a journey, not a destination

Realistically, then, what can be achieved in Cancun?  With last week’s Climate Change 2010 conference operating under Chatham House’s eponymous “rule”, I’m not able to attribute quotes directly to sources, but what I can do is distil what I heard into a few key deliverables against which we might judge COP 16 as a success, or failure.  

  1. Overarching need is to re-establish trust among Parties through transparency on financing, and transparency on actions/progress
  2. Agree a long-term global goal under the UNFCCC – building on the Copenhagen Accord’s 2°C threshold – and a establish a process to review progress
  3. Formalise mitigation pledges submitted in the aftermath of COP 15 and give clear direction on measures needed to realise them
  4. Put in place mechanism for measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) of mitigation actions
  5. Agree a framework for adaptation and establish a new global finance fund to ensure oversight of financial flows
  6. Create infrastructure needed to deliver funds to the point of action on adaptation and mitigation, and establish a global registry
  7. Establish a robust framework for reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD)

Ultimately, Cancun will be judged a success according to progress in each of the above areas, and not on the delivery or otherwise of a single, comprehensive, legally-binding global treaty (or perhaps worse: the “promise” of such a treaty at South Africa’s COP 17 next year, thereby raising expectations and pressure to pre-COP 15 levels).  As for carbon markets collapsing if we don’t get a treaty in place for 1st Jan 2013, this is patent nonsense.  The EU’s emissions trading scheme (EU-ETS) is the key to carbon market continuity – it will continue in a strengthened form regardless what happens under the auspices of the UNFCCC.  

Me, I’m going to take a year off from COP attendance.  I can’t face the UN accreditation process, draconian entry procedures and secondary pass system, the fact that most non-governmental observers will be kept well away from the action, presumably to save government delegates from the awful sight of rough sleepers in the conference centre.  And anyway, we’ve got Aston Villa that week, and I think this could yet be our season.  

Big Oil’s electric shock

This article first appeared on the website of Better Place

A great indicator that disruptive innovations are nearing the all-important tipping point is when powerful incumbents start peddling nonsense masquerading as facts, to sow doubt about the viability of the emerging technology or business model.  There’s nothing particularly sinister about this.  By scrambling to erect roadblocks to new market entrants that threaten their hegemony, oligopolies are only doing what comes naturally to an organism under attack by an existential threat.  And if your job is to find, extract, refine, distribute and sell liquid fuels, then electric cars certainly qualify.

I’m thoroughly heartened when I read statements from Big Oil about the “many barriers” that must be overcome before electrons can make a significant dent in a mobility sector dominated by petroleum.  Heartened because as recently as two years ago I would have been hard pressed to find any commentary at all from the oil majors about transport electrification.  Back then, the tune was all about the prospects for second generation biofuels and the supposed holy grail that is hydrogen.  But today, barely an eyebrow is raised when senior executives from the likes of ExxonMobil or Shell claim that electric cars hold genuine future promise, but not before we decarbonise the power supply.  In other words: “You EV guys are very well meaning – and we wish you well – but until the world stops burning coal, allow motor manufacturers to continue tinkering with incremental efficiency gains while we drill, baby, spill!”.

The decarbonised grid storyline is becoming the new conventional wisdom.  And like much conventional wisdom, when examined closely it turns out to be patent nonsense, though on the surface it appears reasonable.  We begin to understand why it is flawed when we examine what I call the Four Truths that we can hold to be self-evident.  They hold whenever we elect to set fire to carbon-based fuels in order to benefit from motorised kilometres:

(1) Large is better than small

Megawatt (MW) scale plants are able to run hotter, therefore more efficiently, than the kilowatt (kW) scale engines that power motor cars.  This truth has its roots firmly in the basic laws of thermodynamics, which are not subject to revision.

(2) Constant load is better than variable load

Combustion facilities have an optimal operating efficiency that is achievable more or less continuously in a power plant.  In vehicles, the engine speed is seldom constant, as it is dictated by the variable driving conditions.

(3) Stationary is better than mobile

In practical terms it is far easier to manage, collect, and process combustion emissions from stationary plants than from mobile vehicle tailpipes.

(4) Few is better than many

The greater the number of emissions sources, the harder it becomes to do anything about them.

Notice that truths (1) and (2) relate to energy efficiency, while (3) and (4) are all about emissions control – this is why (1) and (4) are not merely different ways of expressing the same point.  And what should we conclude from these truths?  It is better to burn fuel – be it coal, crude oil, natural gas, or biomass – in hundreds of large, stationary power plants running at constant speed rather than millions of small, mobile internal combustion engines running variably.  Put differently, all else being equal electricity beats liquid fuels on energy efficiency and emissions control.

The real killer for Big Oil is that for years we’ve been led to believe that petroleum was too valuable to turn into electricity.  It’s true only if your core business is shackled to the liquid transport fuel paradigm.  From an energy efficiency, energy security and environmental perspective, crude oil is far too valuable to waste in automobiles.  The same goes for coal, natural gas, and biomass.  Biofuels – the tenuous lifeline of the liquid fuel company – break against the rocks here.  Far better to convert the biomass into heat and electricity to displace dirty coal.

So back to the conventional wisdom.  Let’s imagine a world in which 100% of our primary energy comes from fossil fuels.  Electric mobility wins, hands down.  But of course, we don’t live in such a world.  The world we live in has a steadily decarbonising electricity supply, while oil majors are forced to exploit ever-more exotic and energy-intensive forms of black gold.  They’ll have a helluva job making diesel or gasoline from wind turbines and solar panels.

How Green are Electric Cars?

This article first appeared on the Energy Bulletin website

I have been reading and watching with some bemusement a number of stories appearing in the British press and on television this past week on the subject of electric cars.  The media interest is largely a reaction to the UK government’s recent announcement of plans to provide cash incentives to buyers of plug-in vehicles, designed to stimulate the market for highly efficient vehicles.  A number of articles, some of which have hot-links from the ODAC website, have ‘experts’ variously dismissing the environmental benefits of electric cars as fiction, claiming their mass adoption will cause blackouts, or accusing the government of a cheap gimmick.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of the proposed stimulus package, its lack of sophistication should not be allowed to undermine the fact that electric cars are fundamentally a good idea.  Shifting transport away from liquid hydrocarbon fuels towards electricity can make a significant contribution to the twin challenges of climate change and energy security.

Frequently repeated is the lazy sound bite that “electric cars are only as green as the electricity they run on”.  Sounds obvious, doesn’t it?  But it neglects the fact that based on today’s UK electricity mix – still heavily reliant on natural gas and coal – electric cars can cut CO2 emissions in half compared with conventional mechanical vehicles running on petroleum.  Even taking into account transmission and distribution losses, it is always more energy efficient to burn carbon-based fuels – coal, oil, gas, and biomass – in large stationary power plants running at constant load than it is to waste additional energy converting them into liquid transport fuels and then burning them in small mobile internal combustion engines running at variable speeds. 

In a Daily Telegraph article, one expert was quoted as saying that modern diesel engines can achieve 45% efficiency.  This is an extraordinarily optimistic estimate, especially considering that automotive engines are seldom running at optimal efficiency but instead are subject to cold start energy losses, frequent short journeys, stop/start urban driving conditions, idling at traffic lights and in queues, fast acceleration and hard braking, all of which combine to reduce the practical efficiency of the mechanical powertrain to around 20%.

The electric motor is a vastly more efficient – and reliable – device in principle than the internal combustion engine.  To get the picture, we need to compare two vehicles sharing the same platform but utilising different powertrains.  This way, we can eliminate variables such as vehicle size and aerodynamics which complicate comparisons from one vehicle platform to another.  I reviewed the US Department of Energy website devoted to vehicle fuel economy and found that in 2003 the electric variant of the Toyota RAV4 was 4.9 times more energy efficient over the standard test cycle than its petroleum-powered equivalent.  4.9 times!  Note also that Toyota’s aim was not to build an energy efficient vehicle per se, but to comply with California’s “Zero-Emissions Vehicle Mandate” (the RAV4-EV used nickel metal hydride batteries, which are less efficient than modern lithium batteries that will power the new generation of electric cars).  In other words, Toyota achieved this factor ~5 efficiency advantage almost by accident! 

Putting this efficiency advantage into context, we can apply the carbon intensity of any given energy source to see what the effective life-cycle emissions would be.  Imagine a run-of-the-mill pulverised coal plant generating power with approximately 1,000 gCO2/kWh.  Factor in grid losses of around 6%, and the electricity at the plug socket contains roughly 1,064 gCO2/kWh.  Meanwhile, petroleum-based fuels contain around 300 gCO2/kWh, taking into account the efficiency of a typical oil refinery.  On this basis it looks as though petrol is better for the environment than coal-fired electricity.  But when you apply the energy efficiency advantage of the RAV4-EV (i.e. 1,064 divided by 4.9), the relative carbon intensity of energy at the wheels is 28% less than the petrol version.  Diesel engines are typically around 25% more efficient than petrol engines, all else being equal.  This means the RAV4-EV charged with electricity from a run-of-the-mill pulverised coal plant would still be marginally better in terms of CO2 emissions than its diesel-powered equivalent. 

But no country, not even China, has exclusively coal-fired electricity.  In Britain, a diverse range of power generating technology means that electricity drawn at the domestic socket emits around 520 gCO2/kWh on average.  On this basis, an electric RAV4 would produce two-thirds less CO2 per mile driven than the petrol version, and half as much as a comparable diesel.

Furthermore, once all those CO2 emissions have been concentrated from millions of vehicle tailpipes into a relatively few stationary point sources, then they lend themselves to a future in which we can capture and lock away the CO2 underground.  Personally, I cannot imagine carbon capture and storage (CCS) from moving car tailpipes, but I can envisage CCS from large stationary power plants situated near suitable geological storage locations.

Further still, electric vehicles can actually help to accelerate the penetration of renewables such as wind and solar power, because one of the limits to renewable electricity generation is storage of energy from intermittent sources.  With millions of electric vehicles connected to the grid we will have created a massive distributed energy storage facility, in the form of automotive batteries.

The more important point is this: if we are to avert catastrophic climate change, then the power sector will need to steadily decarbonise because it represents the single largest source of CO2 emissions.  The good news is that we know how to decarbonise the power sector; we have a range of technologies and policy measures at our disposal and all that’s lacking is a globally inclusive international treaty to put an effective cap on emissions.  In this respect, it is sensible to take: “Power decarbonisation over time” as one of our starting assumptions.

Contrast this with the liquid fuels sector, in which the carbon intensity is heading northwards as oil companies are forced to exploit more energy-intensive forms of liquid hydrocarbon (e.g. oil sands, oil shale, coal-to-liquids, etc.).  Biofuels – even when produced sustainably with real greenhouse gas benefits – will struggle to make up the difference. Oil is going to get dirtier.  And if the worst of electricity (i.e. pulverised coal) compares favourably with the best that petroleum has to offer (i.e. conventional diesel), then over time the advantage of electric vehicles can only increase.

Finally, there is much to be done in redesigning the entire transport paradigm, e.g. through modal shift from private cars to mass transit, encouraging more walking and cycling, and improving urban planning practices to eliminate demand for transport.  Electric vehicles are not a panacea to cure all transportation ills.  However, the clear energy efficiency advantages of electric vehicles, not to mention the crucial energy diversification potential (energy security frequently trumps environmental security in policy discussions), make them a very important part of the solution as we move toward a sustainable energy future.