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.

SONY DSC

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.

SONY DSC

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.

36692936-Wuhan_bikes

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.

China’s alternative to an American addiction

This blog first appeared on the Mail & Guardian Thought Leader website

Last week saw the launch of BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy, a rich seam of energy industry stats that journalists, analysts and academics will spend many hours mining for nuggets of data that support their chosen narratives.  The Financial Times led with “China becomes leading user of energy” – hardly a revelation to even the most casual industry observer, though undoubtedly a pleasing melody to those in the US who point to the rise of the Middle Kingdom as a reason to forestall domestic action on climate change.  

Noteworthy in BP’s latest tome is that crude oil remains the number one source of energy, contributing just over one-third of the global total.  In terms of growth, China again leads the way, increasing its consumption by 860 000 barrels a day, or 10.4% over the previous year.  Of course, in per capita terms, China’s oil consumption pales in comparison to the world’s largest economy: at 2.5 barrels per person a year, the average Chinese citizen consumes nine times less oil than its American counterpart.  Nevertheless, China’s growing thirst for oil represents a direct threat to US economic supremacy.  America may have been the first – and remains by far the largest – oil addict in the global village, but as others increase their appetite for the drug – the supply of which is increasingly concentrating in the hands of a relatively few volatile countries – the US must eventually face the prospect of weaning itself.  The only plausible alternative is to brace for military conflict.  

An urban legend goes that early in 2003 while Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld fumbled around the Oval Office for a catchy moniker with which to rally the nation ahead of their planned invasion, they came up with “Operation Iraqi Liberation” – an obvious riff on the Iraq Liberation Act signed into law by Clinton in 1998.  Just in time, one sharp-eyed White House aide piped up that the initials spelled “OIL”, which was possibly too brazen even for the Bush administration.  With that, “Liberation” was dropped in favour of “Freedom”.  Mission accomplished.

As a thought experiment, let us suspend our voices of cynicism for a moment and imagine – as the urban legend would have us do – that the US-led invasion of Iraq was chiefly concerned with securing oil, specifically the world’s third largest reserves after those sitting beneath the deserts of Saudi Arabia (uncomfortable allies) and Iran (sworn enemies).  Indeed, the number one oil-consuming nation on Earth – reliant on imports for roughly two-thirds of its annual demand – has a strong vested interest in the affairs of the Middle East petrostates.  The Carter Doctrine leaves little room for doubt: the Persian Gulf region is vital to the interests of the US and will be protected “by any means necessary, including military force”.  Put simply, without cheap transport fuels moving people and goods across the urban sprawl and vast interstate network – themselves products of the nation’s now dwindling domestic petroleum bounty – the American economy grinds to a halt.  

Perhaps Jimmy Carter’s 1980 State of the Union speech was nothing more than Cold War posturing, designed to make the Soviets think twice before extending their Afghanistan incursion further westwards to the oil fields of the Gulf.  Taking Carter’s words out of their historical context is unfair; America wouldn’t really go to war over another nation’s natural resources, would it?  Dick Cheney provides a clue when, during his stint as chief executive of Halliburton – shortly before assuming the vice-presidency under Bush Jnr – he addressed an Institute of Petroleum conference in London: “Oil is unique in that it is so strategic in nature. We are not talking about soapflakes or leisurewear here. Energy is truly fundamental to the world’s economy. The [first] Gulf War was a reflection of that reality.”

As the occupation of Iraq winds down (US troops are supposed to withdraw by the end of this year) we might well ask ourselves: was it worth it?  In 2008, economist Joseph Stiglitz put the true cost of the Iraq war to the US at about $3 trillion; more recently he concluded this figure was probably too low.  For the sake of the exercise, we will avoid hyperbole and assume the original estimate of $3 trillion puts us in the right ball park.  Is that a lot?  To provide a sense of scale, consider that since the invasion kicked off in March 2003, the US has burned through roughly 60 billion barrels of oil at a cumulative cost of about $3.5 trillion.  That’s an extraordinary amount of money literally going up in smoke – it’s remarkably close to Stiglitz’s estimated cost of the war – but we are no closer to assessing whether the US will get a decent payback.  

Donald Trump’s recent suggestion to simply take the oil as compensation for the cost of the invasion makes sense from a narrowly-defined financial perspective.  According to BP’s latest data, Iraq’s oil reserves measure 115 billion barrels, which would keep the US ticking over for 16 years at current rates of consumption.  Translated into dollars at today’s oil price, Iraqi reserves are worth some $12 trillion, not including the cost of development. Now it starts to look more interesting: that represents a four-fold return on the investment!  Except of course that Trump’s proposition – a bit like a burglar justifying the theft of your home cinema system as recompense for the outlay on his crowbar, eye-mask, striped T-shirt, and hessian sack bearing the word “Swag” – is morally reprehensible to any right-minded human being.  

Setting aside grand larceny, perhaps another way to think about it is this: how else could the US have spent $3 trillion to address its eye-watering dependence on oil, simultaneously the cause and the result of decades of foreign policy negligence?  It is remarkable to ponder that for every man, woman and child in the US a whopping $10 000 could have been invested in measures to avoid oil consumption, such as developing the type of safe, clean, efficient and effective mass transit solutions that many European and Asian citizens enjoy, or investing – as China has – to establish a world-leading electric vehicle industry that by its nature is independent of oil, and by its far-sightedness will probably eat America’s lunch in the coming decades.  

Instead, during the 8 years of the war, US citizens set fire to some 1.15 trillion gallons of motor gasoline, much of it in obese “sports utility vehicles” with fuel economy ratings that should be a source of national embarrassment and would have finished Detroit were it not for the federal bailouts of 2008.  It was only fair: Washington was complicit in the predicament that Motown found itself in after years of profiting from feeble business-as-usual energy policy, while Beijing was busy plotting a domestic automotive industry based on electricity.  The astounding fact is that while it remains political suicide for a US administration to consider a meaningful tax on gasoline – thereby encouraging more frugal driving habits – it is politically acceptable to place at risk the lives of young American soldiers in the Middle East in order to secure flows of the very oil that it is impossible to tax back home.  

Impossible to tax transparently, that is.  The $3 trillion cost to the American taxpayer of projecting military force in Iraq translates to a phantom tax of $2.69 on every gallon of gasoline consumed in the US since 2003 – effectively doubling the average pump price to more than $5 a gallon over the period of the war.  To put it another way, if instead of agreeing to invade a sovereign state Congress had slapped a 100% tax on gasoline back in 2003, its citizens would be no worse off financially and the federal coffers would have been boosted rather than drained to the tune of $3 trillion.  With most Europeans already paying north of $8 a gallon of petrol and diesel, it is both difficult to sympathise with the American motorist and easy to appreciate why Europe’s automotive fleet is twice as efficient as that on the other side of the North Atlantic.  

Of course, all of this is simply a thought experiment based on the notion that Operation Iraqi Freedom was all about the oil.  To swallow that, you would have to believe the words of every US president since Lyndon Johnson, one by one gravely warning of the national security implications of dependence on foreign oil, while successively failing to offer any plausible means of addressing it beyond securing more resources at home and abroad.  

For the majority of global citizens living in the developing world, a straightforward question demands a straightforward answer: should we seek to emulate the oil-drenched model of economic development pursued by America and its allies for the last century and a half, thereby embracing a doctrine of expensive military interference in faraway desert lands?  Or might China – for all its shortcomings and pressing development challenges – offer a less dystopian vision of the future?  Returning to the BP Statistical Review we discover that not only has China surpassed the US in total energy consumption, it is also now the world’s leading generator of carbon-free electricity from wind turbines.  With its planned 45,000 km of high speed rail by 2015, burgeoning renewable energy sector and more than 120 million electric bicycles plying Chinese roads today, it is for good reasons that we are increasingly refocusing our attention from west to east.  

Are we starting to ‘get’ the oil question?

This article first appeared in the South African business newspaper Business Day on 7th April 2011

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.  A little less than three years ago, within the space of a few weeks, oil prices hit a record $147/bbl, Lehman Brothers collapsed into the largest bankruptcy in history, and the global economy fell into a ravine from which it has scarcely emerged.  A recent article by Jacob Weisberg in Slate magazine discussed the cause of the economic crisis by examining “the 15 best explanations for the Great Recession”.  Surprisingly, the price of oil did not feature in that long list of persuasive explanations.  It’s surprising because in the prevailing economic system oil is the economy.  

As unrest in North Africa and the Middle East enters a fifth month since the first sparks of the Tunisian Revolution last December, oil prices are starting to dominate the political discourse.  In the UK, Energy Secretary Chris Huhne warned of a 1970s-style oil shock that could cost the UK economy £45 billion over two years.  Closer to home, last week’s Financial Mail cover story on oil – the three letters that threaten economic growth – argued that a sustained high oil price threatens to completely stall the global recovery.  

Until quite recently, many economists and the mainstream financial media didn’t seem to ‘get’ the profound significance of oil.  True, it was widely acknowledged that economic slowdowns – particularly in the United States, the largest oil consumer on earth – tended to be preceded by spikes in the oil price.  But the clear correlation between high oil prices and recessions did not, in itself, prove any causal relationship.  As far as 2008 was concerned, surely Wall Street’s wizardry and former US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan’s laissez-faire approach to regulation were the real culprits.  Surely the rising oil price was just another ‘derivative’ of the bewildering world of credit default swaps and collateralised debt obligations.  Better still, by pinning it on these suspects we could even appear to be clever by pretending to comprehend the unintended consequences of ‘innovative financial products’.  

Though we live in an increasingly fast-moving, interconnected and complex world, it remains a truism that the simplest explanations are often the best ones.  First, consider that the economy is ultimately about the movement of people and stuff.  Expressed as GDP – the market value of goods and services produced – it is difficult to envisage economic activity taking place to any great extent without people and things moving around.  Whether it’s raw materials being hauled from the point of extraction to a processing plant, or from there being distributed onwards to retailers, whether it’s customers accessing goods, or employees getting to and from their places of work, very little of our globalised economic system functions without motorised transport.  

Second – and here’s the rub – worldwide, 95% of the primary energy that moves people and stuff from place to place – in cars, vans, trucks, buses, trains, boats, and aeroplanes – comes from a single source.  Transport is uniquely dependent on oil, meaning the economy is uniquely dependent on oil, or rather on the liquid transport fuels – such as diesel, petrol (or gasoline), kerosene – that we obtain from oil refineries.  So when the oil price goes up, the price of transport fuels increases and virtually everything that counts towards economic activity is impacted, either directly or indirectly.  Of course, in the case of oil companies, rising oil prices have a beneficial effect, at least in the short term… more of which later.  

Intuitively it’s easier to understand this effect on the cost of physical goods that actually get shipped around.  But why should high oil prices impact the service economy, and aren’t advanced economies more service-oriented than ever?  Again, the simple answer may be sufficient for our needs.  As household transportation costs increase – and, crucially, they are inelastic because most of us cannot or will not change our abode or place of work according to the forecourt price of petrol – all discretionary expenses experience downward pressure.  Food bills climb as oil-dependent agricultural commodities track the price of crude, an effect exacerbated by the gasoline substitution potential of corn-based ethanol in the US.  Debt repayments are more or less fixed, give or take fluctuating interest rates.  What remains is a shrinking domestic budget: quieter shopping malls, fewer evenings at the restaurant, one less trip to the hair salon.  Economic activity experiences a general slowdown – this is the very definition of recession, and not an ‘innovative financial product’ in sight.  

Anyone doubting the importance of liquid transport fuel to the health of the prevailing economic system – and therefore to maintaining social cohesion and political stability – need only recall what happened in the UK in September 2000.  Truckers and farmers protesting the relatively high pump price of diesel staged blockades of refineries and fuel terminals.  Diesel and petrol supplies slowed to a trickle as the public queued at forecourts to top up their tanks “just in case”.  Within a few days, 90% of filling stations were bone dry, just-in-time supply chains unravelled and people were fighting over loaves of bread among bare supermarket shelves.  The UK had staged a compelling if entirely accidental social experiment.  

Conclusion: five days of petroleum separate an advanced civilisation from savagery.  Note that we didn’t even run out of oil, we merely panicked!  

Returning to the companies that maintain our oil flows: perhaps uniquely in the global economic village, they do rather well when oil prices are on the up.  For instance, in 2008 – the year in which oil spiked to $147/bbl – ExxonMobil posted an annual profit of $45 billion, the largest in corporate history.  That same year, oil companies accounted for six of the seven largest global corporations, as measured by revenues.  (The outlier was Wal-Mart, an enterprise utterly symbolic of the economy’s dependency on relatively cheap and free-flowing transport fuel.)  

In this context, it should not surprise anyone that oil companies are somewhat reluctant to allow the Oil Age to draw to a graceful conclusion, as the transport system inevitably electrifies to become several times more energy efficient and compatible with the full range of sustainable renewable energy sources.  Not vested in the electricity generation game, oil companies continue to lead us astray.  BP recently argued that biofuels are “the only game in town”, the only major way to decarbonise road fuel, possibly contributing around 12% of the road transport fuel mix by 2030.  Or to put it another way, within twenty years if BP have their way the transport sector will be only 88% dependent on oil.  

BP is missing the point, of course.  The question is not only how we can decarbonise the transport sector, rather it is how we can achieve this while meeting the primary objective: gaining independence from oil.  How can we divest ourselves of turmoil in the politically fragile oil exporting regions of the world, and insulate our economic and social stability from events over which we exercise no control?  Ultimately, independence from oil means getting off liquid transport fuels, which won’t be achieved by shifting to 12% biofuels over the next two decades.  

To paraphrase BP, electricity is the only game in town.

Turning a New LEAF?

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

History may record Monday 29th November 2010 as a date of uncommon significance.  Not because the UNFCCC COP-16 opened in Cancun with barely a murmur, in stark contrast to the media circus that engulfed Copenhagen twelve months previously.  Not because of the embarrassing disclosure of the US embassy cables, and their broader implications for international diplomacy.  And not because – in a deliciously ironic twist of fate – the USA was drawn to open its campaign against North Korea in next year’s football World Cup (women’s edition).  

On Monday 29th November 2010, the European motoring press announced its Car of Year for 2011.  The Nissan LEAF is a family-sized battery electric car that will travel 100 miles on a charge.  It goes on sale early next year, and is billed as the world’s first affordable, mass produced zero emission car.  The LEAF – a jumbled acronym meaning “Leading Environmentally Friendly Affordable” – beat forty internal combustion engined vehicles to claim the annual accolade, the first time in 46 years that an electric car has won the award.  Previous winners include the Porsche 928 – hardly a paragon of fuel efficiency – and in more recent years the more frugal Toyota Prius.  

A pivotal moment in the 100+ year history of the automotive industry?  Time will tell.  At the Detroit Auto Show in January, the winner of the North American Car of the Year will be announced.  On the short list is the eagerly-awaited Chevrolet Volt, an extended range electric vehicle with the potential to transform Motown and the notoriously inefficient US market.  If it wins, it could spark the revolution.  

When Modal Shift Goes Bad

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

London, Tuesday 7th September

08:20 – I arrive at my local bus stop on Haverstock Hill in north London, and wonder why there are some twenty people waiting there instead of the usual three or four.

08:27 – We watch as the 168 bus approaches over the brow of the hill and, without hesitating, continues past us at great speed.  Annoyed, I realise the bus is totally packed, the lower deck full of standing commuters.

08:32 – Of course, today is the day of the London Underground strike!  Over a 24 hour period, roughly 3 million tube journeys will be forced above ground.

08:38 – The next bus arrives – there are SPARE SEATS!  We fight our way on board, every man, woman and child for themselves.

09:08 – My usual 20 minute ride has already taken 30, and we are not yet half way.  Frustrated by glacial progress, I alight just north of Euston station, and decide to walk.  (Note to self: given the rate Greenland is slipping into the Arctic Ocean, need to stop using “glacial” as an adjective meaning “extremely slow”.)

09:10 – Roads jammed solid with stationary cars, buses, taxis, trucks all burning petroleum, belching poisonous fumes.  The acrid air tastes like Leipzig, circa 1988.  Thousands of cyclists struggle manfully along narrow “cycle lanes”, thin strips of tarmac demarcated from the motorised traffic by a flaking stripe of white paint.

09:11 – Hopelessly inappropriate for urban commuting, Range Rovers and other “sports utility vehicles” appear unable – or unwilling? – to stay out of the cycle lanes, causing cyclists to mount pavements in order to progress.

09:12 – I notice that not only are the roads chocca, so are the pavements!  And not only with occasional cyclists – others like me are bailing out of their immobilised motor vehicles and taking matters into their own hands (or rather, feet).  Hurrying along, scarcely avoiding several head-on collisions with grumpy Londoners, I am suddenly transported from pre-unification East Germany to modern-day Beijing.

09:15 – I spot a Modec electric delivery truck.  Stationary, silent, consuming no energy, emitting nothing but the exhalations of the driver (hey, that’s CO2, don’t you know!).  It does nothing whatsoever to relieve the congestion, but if only all these stationary vehicles were electric, I might be able to breathe!

09:19 – One minute short of an hour, my quest is complete as I arrive at SustainAbility’s office in central London.

09:20 – I pause briefly to wonder: is this what it’s like, every day of the year, to live in Atlanta, GA?  I rarely use the tube – opting instead for buses and bicycles – but God am I grateful to the 28 million people who do.

Adaptation = Survival

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

Riding home recently on a “Boris Bike“ – so named after London’s inimitable mayor, Boris Johnson, credited with conceiving the new bicycle sharing scheme – I witnessed a phenomenal collision between two riders that resulted in one of them flying several feet through the air at head height.  Spectacular! Moments earlier, I had felt a prescient discomfort as I rode behind the perpetrator of the accident that was about to happen.  Just as I am ultra-wary when I see motorists maneuvering half a ton of steel while speaking on a mobile phone wedged between shoulder and crooked neck, as I approached this chap in his late 30s – wobbling around on his Boris Bike like a 3 year old – I decided to give him a very wide berth as I overtook.  He was apparently enjoying himself as his front wheel invited him to randomly explore the full width of the road ahead.  On hearing the surprisingly loud collision behind me, I turned in time to see a Lycra-clad helmet-wearing cyclist launch from his mangled racer in a graceful arc towards the road surface.  Ouch!

Apart from feeling immense sympathy for the poor victim, my thoughts turned to what can happen to us when our environment suddenly changes.  If this seems an unlikely mental leap, I should explain that I’m currently engrossed in a fabulous book called Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzalez that explores, among other things, how human beings respond to unexpectedly changing circumstances.  Gonzalez recounts the tale of MP William Huskisson, run over and killed by George Stephenson’s famous Rocket steam locomotive on its maiden journey along the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830.  Until that moment, it is conceivable that Huskisson’s only experience of locomotion had been the humble – and relatively slow – horse and cart.  Perhaps he was so taken aback by the dawning railway age that his survival instincts failed to prepare him for this sudden change in his environment.

In the case of my cycling anecdote, the appearance of thousands of Boris Bikes on London’s roads in the last few weeks has introduced a rather exciting random element to navigating the city streets: numerous spirited folk who probably haven’t been in the saddle for their entire adult lives.  I’m expecting a string of early casualties, both cycling novices and other road users coming into contact with them.  Paris went through a similar experience when it implemented its own bike share scheme three years ago.

In the future, adapting to our changing environment will be – as it has always been – critical to our survival.  This of course means adaptation to the impacts of climate change, resource depletion, water scarcity, migration, etc.  But it also means adapting to the technologies and systems we develop in an effort to mitigate those impacts.

Take electric vehicles.  It’s now almost universally accepted that their high energy efficiency and compatibility with the full range of sustainable carbon-free energy sources make EVs an essential piece of the sustainability puzzle.  But already one of the unique selling points of electric vehicles – that they’re incredibly quiet and therefore reduce noise pollution – has been portrayed as a grave danger for pedestrians, in particular the blind and partially sighted.  In response, Nissan is fitting a synthesiser to its forthcoming LEAF EV, to warn bystanders of its impending arrival.

I have to question whether implementing technology fixes atop technology fixes might be distracting us from the larger challenges facing us: we need to redesign our urban landscapes so that low-impact mobility modes that already exist (walking, cycling, and mass-transit) are preferred by the majority because they’re safer, cheaper, nicer, and more convenient than higher-impact alternatives.  At the same time, we will inevitably need to behave differently in order to thrive within our changed environment.  And along the way, we need to be prepared for a few bumps in the road. 

Electric Vehicles: Keeping it Real

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

Last Tuesday I met with a group of MEPs from The Greens / European Free Alliance (EFA) at the European Parliament in Brussels to discuss the electrification of the transport sector. Following on from my recent guest blog on the Better Place website, I take their interest – and the thrust of the conversation – as another indicator that electric vehicles are moving into the mainstream. The MEPs present – including Claude Turmes and Satu Hassi, both of whom are clearly very knowledgeable on the topic – evidently have concerns that special interest groups are using the bright prospects of electric vehicles to avoid addressing the larger challenges associated with transport sustainability.

Let me restate my position on this: if we clicked our fingers today and electrified the entire automotive fleet of the world – approaching one billion vehicles – we would still be faced with a horribly unsustainable transport sector. We would still have inefficient use of vehicles, too many unnecessary journeys in vehicles that are unnecessarily large, a desperately under-utilised asset base, ugly urban landscapes designed for motorists rather than citizens, chronic under-investment in public transport, growing congestion and associated loss of economic productivity, not to mention a commensurate rise in stress levels. Cars are sold to us on the promise mobility, but in city centres they increasingly deliver immobility.

I could continue, but the larger point should be clear. Electric vehicles are inherently highly energy efficient and compatible with a carbon-free sustainable renewable energy system. But they don’t in themselves solve the broader transport challenges mentioned above. However, by acknowledging the fact that electrification of transport can dramatically improve the energy efficiency and carbon footprint of this uniquely problematic sector – not to mention help tackle urban air and noise pollution – we are not arguing against addressing all of those other important sustainability issues. Similarly, the fact that the nuclear industry vocally advocates the electrification of mobility does not mean that opponents of nuclear power must also oppose the widespread roll-out of electric vehicles.

Electric vehicles – not only cars but also bicycles, vans, and mass-transit modes of mobility – are vital if we are to achieve the objective of the Copenhagen Accord and stay below 2°C of global warming. This will require complete decarbonisation of the energy system by 2050, which means no more fossil fuels burned in mobile applications.

We need to elevate the debate above the creation of false dichotomies, the drawing of ideological boundaries around transport electrification that suggest “pro-EV” equates to “anti-investment in public transport”, to take one example. Unless we manage to maintain an intellectually honest dialogue, we risk throwing the baby out with the bath water.

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.