Why listen to Bill Gates on How to Avoid a Climate Disaster!

Bill Gates is not a climate scientist. He’s not a politician. He has a “lot” of money and investments that could be seen as conflicts of interest. Why on earth should we listen to him?

We have been talking about climate change for as long as any of us can remember. Yet how much progress has been made to address the issue? We have placed a lot of responsibility on the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP), and they have met every year since 1994, but they are still talking. But how much consensus is there? We must thank Greta Thunberg for her activism and evangelizing; and she and millions of schoolchildren have been brilliant at bringing the climate issue to everyone’s attention. But have we managed to even start reducing CO2 emissions or restoring biodiversity? The straight answer is that “we” have expended a vast amount of hot air.

Some disclosure here. I have met Bill Gates twice in the noughties as part of my tech research work. Notwithstanding all the scurrilous social media conspiracies about him, Gates is simply a very, very intelligent guy with huge experience and expertise in communicating, organizing and managing solutions. I found him willing to listen closely, able to operate at broad strategic level at the same time as dealing with fine grained detail. He’s highly opinionated, decisive and an effective communicator, without being confrontational. The book very much reflects these character traits.

He starts the book with a really good way of characterizing the problem that we need to fix. He starts out by saying there are two numbers we all need to know about climate change. The first is 51 billion and the second is zero. Fifty-one billion is the tons of greenhouse gases the world adds to the atmosphere every year. Zero is where that needs to get to, to avoid some very bad outcomes. But he doesn’t dwell on the bad outcomes at all. He says it will be very difficult to achieve zero; the biggest thing our world has ever had to do, but it’s eminently possible.

Gates breaks the problem into 5 categories:
Getting around – (planes, trucks, cargo ships) – 16%
Growing things (plants and animals) – 19%
Plugging in (electricity) – 27%
Making things (cement, steel, plastic) – 31%
Keeping warm and cool (heating, cooling, refrigeration) – 7%

He introduces a very simple idea of the Green Premium, which I don’t believe is his idea, but he has certainly promoted heavily. The Green Premium is the differential the consumer or customer or user has to pay to adopt a green solution over a carbon emitting product or solution. So is it cheaper for the car owner to buy and run an EV compared to a conventional ICE vehicle? Or is it cheaper to generate electricity using solar than oil or gas? And what’s the end consumer impact? Gates admits that the answer is not always clear cut, for example the (low) price of gas in the USA makes EVs a difficult sale with a high green premium, whereas the reverse is true in Europe. But it’s an excellent model to start with.

Gates then spends time on each topic covering the solutions that either exist or those that it’s reasonable to assume we can innovate in the time we have. Note here, this total focus on solutions. Let’s look briefly at each of the five categories.

How We Plug In
Gates gives a good example where in the USA producing all electricity from non-emitting sources including wind, solar, nuclear, carbon capture etc is possible with a modest green premium of 1.3 to 1.7 cents per kilowatt hour. Roughly a 15% premium. The premium varies around the world and Gates discusses big issues such as China and Africa that are special cases, batteries, intermittency issues etc. He does make a fairly strong pitch for nuclear, referencing France that produces 70% of its power that way (yes really), but the key to his discourse is understanding different models for different countries with the green premium providing a good basis for developing strategy and solutions.

How we make things
For the sake of brevity Gates focuses on steel, cement, concrete and plastic. And how we use huge amounts of all of these which makes it the most polluting of all his five categories. Making steel you melt iron ore at very high temperatures in the presence of oxygen and coke (carbon). Making 1 ton of steel produces 1.8 tons of CO2. And this way we make a lot of steel very cheaply. There are other methods (generally referred to as green steel) but they are more expensive. So there’s considerable innovation needed here.
Concrete is even more difficult. In all these areas Gates covers opportunities for innovation and shows how these may have a green premium (fig below). So there’s huge research and innovation required.

How We Grow Things
In this area Gates details the problem but this is the weakest of his sections. I detect a strongly US centric approach to genetic modification, synthetic, non-fossil fuel based fertilisers and laboratory grown meat. He makes a good case for the need for innovation, but his direction would not go down well in Europe. Strikes me we Europeans should rewrite this chapter.

How We Get Around
Very interesting analysis here because the USA has very low cost of gas (diesel or petrol).
He includes several green premium analyses and uses these to suggest areas for R&D. See example below.

How We keep Cool and Stay Warm
Gates makes a strong push for heat pumps; no surprise. Also makes the very good point that while advanced countries like the USA and Japan are big users of air conditioning, as the world becomes warmer this will become a necessity in many countries particularly those nearer the equator. And this just increases the priority to decarbonize the power grids. And this makes it easy to calculate the green premium. And maybe using US based examples this looks not so easy. (below)

So Gates looks at what the premiums mean for typical US families, and again makes the case for R&D to leverage new or improved technology to make green options practical commercial options.
Gates spends a lot of time focusing on the issues in developing countries. He has great experience through his philanthropic work in health. It’s worth reading his case studies and understanding the conflicts between development aid and support and climate change. As people rise up the income ladder they do things that cause more emissions. Gates makes the point that we need innovations so the poor can improve their lot without adversely impacting the climate. And he’s very strong on arguing that the world’s poor didn’t create climate change, the first world did, but the developing nations are the ones that will suffer most.

I was struck particularly by the work of CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research). Experts at CGIAR have developed large numbers of varieties of (so called) climate-smart crops and livestock. For example, maize that will survive drought conditions; other maize varieties that are resistant to pests, diseases and weeds; also new varieties of rice that are able to survive during periods of flood; and many more. I wonder the extent to which these are GM products?

The final chapter covers some interesting guidance on policy. Having reviewed some of the EU, UK and Irish legal and policy statements recently, I can see how the authors of those documents might benefit by spending some quality time reading Gates work. For example, there’s a really good section that speaks to the need to coordinate market development together with policy and technology so they work in complementary ways. Simply adopting a zero-emissions policy won’t work if you don’t have the technology or the companies willing to manufacture and able to make a profit.

We should by now be well past the talking and evangelizing stage. That we are not is deeply worrying. In this book Gates has provided a template here for all stakeholders to use. This work is far from perfect. It is strongly US centric, albeit with good coverage of the needs of developing countries. The agriculture coverage is very weak. There are some excellent techniques which should be used by everyone, such as the Green Premium, and the five areas. The focus on the 5 billion etc.
A very good read and very thought provoking.

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need

Bill Gates, Publisher : Allen Lane; 1st edition (16 Feb. 2021)

Posted in Carbon Footprint, Climate Change, COP26, Electric Vehicles, EV | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Have We lost the Covid19 Plot? A Case Study.

On the 15th February the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) issued an update on the risk related to the spread of new SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern in the EU/EEA. Here are some key quotes:

“Due to the increased transmissibility, the evidence of increased severity and the potential for the existing licensed COVID-19 vaccines to be partially or significantly less effective against a variant of concern (VOC), combined with the high probability that the proportion of SARS-CoV-2 cases due to B.1.1.7 (and possibly also B.1.351 and P.1) will increase, the risk associated with further spread of the SARS-CoV-2 VOCs in the EU/EEA is currently assessed as high to very high for the overall population and very high for vulnerable individuals.

Modelling analysis shows that unless Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) continue, or are strengthened in terms of compliance during the coming months, a significant increase in COVID-19-related cases and deaths in the EU/EEA should be anticipated.

Although vaccination will mitigate the effect of replacement with more transmissible variants, and seasonality could potentially reduce transmission during the summer months, easing measures prematurely will lead to a rapid increase in incidence rates, detection of severe cases and mortality.”

Whilst there is some evidence that vaccination programmes in Israel, the UK and Ireland are leading to reduced infection, it’s clear from the ECDC report that variants represent a clear and present danger. We know that mutations (and hence variants) occur where there are high numbers of cases and transmission and that levels of both are high in most countries at present. Further modifications to vaccines takes between 6 weeks and 6 months to manufacture, and that excludes production!

My conclusion is that unless we do something different now, we may lose this battle and be battling the pandemic for at least another year! I came across a report in Le Monde on South Korea that has mounted an effective campaign against the virus, without trashing citizens’ rights. The following is loosely based on the original report in French.

South Korea and Covid19:

In one year, the virus has killed only 1,400 people in South Korea, the first country to be affected after China. Researcher Eric Bidet deciphers, in a forum in the “World”, a strategy based on transparency in information and on the strict isolation of patients.
Just one year ago, the city of Daegu (2.5m inhabitants) was severely affected by Covd19. This was the first outbreak of the virus discovered outside China. Schools across the country were closed immediately and did not reopen until September. Daegu’s entire population was confined for a few weeks. One year later, Korea has just over 1,400 deaths for less than 80,000 cases of Covid-19. Yet, except for very temporary and very local measures, Korea has never confined its population or closed its borders or businesses.

How can we explain such success in the face of an epidemic which, almost everywhere else, has resulted in much more restrictive measures and considerable damage and some irremediable? First, South Korea learnt much from the MERS epidemic in 2015 ansd had put strong public health policy and management in place. Second, the relative success reflects a capacity to adapt and quickly take measures widely accepted by the population, including relaxing administrative procedures authorizing the marketing of products or devices for testing people.

Third, there was great concern for transparency of information and decision-making. Fourth there was huge emphasis and discipline placed on the isolation of patients in order to stop the spread of the virus. Having a public agency dedicated to epidemic management with broad powers has been essential.

This approach guaranteed the effectiveness of the dedicated measures, accelerated their implementation and helped generate great confidence among the population. It also helped to strengthen the legitimacy of the government, as demonstrated by the wide success of the ruling party in the parliamentary elections last spring.
Yet, except for very temporary and very local measures, Korea has never confined its population or closed its borders or businesses. We might conclude the Korean strategy offers a remarkable balance between equity and efficiency while preserving the freedoms of the greatest number of citizens.

 Casesfrom Isolation  
Daily Change521536796
Tests Performed6,303,214   
Tests Concluded6,232,494   
Positivity Rate1.4%   
Current South Korean Data as of 12am on February 18, 2021

ECDC 15th February: SARS-CoV-2  increased circulation of variants of concern and vaccine rollout in the EU/EEA, 14th update

Emerging COVID-19 success story: South Korea learned the lessons of MERS

Le Monde on South Korean Experiences (French)

Posted in Coronavirus, Covid19, lockdown, Pandemic | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

My Personal Experience Highlights How Brexit has thrown a Spanner into Smooth Running 21C Businesses

In my post of the 2nd February I reported on how I needed to get a replacement for my primary computing device – a Microsoft Surface. I won’t bore you with the details, but Microsoft agreed to take some responsibility for the problem and agreed to give me either a refurbished device or discount on a new one. I decided on a new one and they said it would be delivered in 3 days. It was very shortly thereafter I discovered the replacement would be shipped from the UK and lo and behold the shipping status revealed  “The package is delayed due to a Brexit related disruption. We are adjusting delivery plans as quickly as possible.” After two weeks I spoke to Microsoft and told them I wasn’t going to wait for the UK to hire the 50,000 (sic) customs inspectors needed to get the UK’s import export businesses back up and running. I knew there were hundreds of thousands of shipments sitting in the UK waiting to be cleared. I asked Microsoft to return the device to their warehouse and give me a refund. Then I would reorder a device from another location.

This is condensing numerous calls to the shipper UPS and Microsoft over the last few days to try to get them to talk to each other and for Microsoft to agree to refund me. In the end I went into the online order system and requested a “return”. Even though the order hadn’t been delivered to me, the order was sitting in the UPS warehouse at Stanford-le-hope, and this galvanized the system into action. UPS were notified and the status was reset to “waiting for return instructions”. So, Microsoft then told me what they were unable to previously, that my refund would happen automatically as soon as the device was received back into the Microsoft facility. It was rather obvious from these conversations that Microsoft wasn’t accustomed to shipping problems.

I then mentioned to Microsoft that I would reorder, but would make it a condition that the new device must be shipped from anywhere else but the UK. By this stage, this must have been the umpteenth Microsoft person I had spoken with, and she said. “Oh, I’m afraid we can’t do that! When we take an order there is no option to allow us to specify where the order will be fulfilled from.” In fact, the originating Microsoft location is decided by their shipper UPS, presumably to optimize shipment cost and time.

I was pretty shocked at this. I said, “So do you mean that UPS accepted my order knowing full well that it would not be delivered on time? That the initial 3 day estimate was fiction? Also if that’s the case, is UPS continuing to accept orders to be shipped from the UK to Ireland and possibly other EU countries from the UK?” The answer was equivocal. “Well all I can say is that we Microsoft do not have any control over shipment logistics at an individual order level”.

I should explain. Microsoft has a worldwide sales and support system. You call Microsoft and you can get an agent that may be located in any part of the globe. The system works; from personal experience I can say that the technical and sales expertise is excellent, and it works well. What they have done is created a global logistics system that assumes everything works smoothly. From my own experience I can tell you, no one from Microsoft came to advise me there was a problem with delivery time. Nor it must be said UPS. Microsoft clearly operated on the basis that delivery was outside their area of interest, probably because up until January 2021 the customer supply side did indeed work like clockwork.

The lesson to draw here is that if someone throws a spoke in the wheel of a huge well-oiled system, it’s highly likely that chaos will be the outcome. And indeed, a casual read of media reports (see below) on post Brexit trade confirms this.

My own experience has been purely accidental. I would never knowingly have placed an order for a relatively high value item knowing it was sourced from the UK post Brexit. And from the “Microsoft system” perspective it wasn’t relevant. But now it is.

And my experience is clearly one of at least hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of disrupted transactions. Every one of them is someone’s nightmare. However, I doubt very much that it will cost Messrs Gove and Johnson any lost sleep. And down the line it probably won’t lose them any votes either.  

For what it’s worth, I shall remain a Microsoft customer, but when I get the refund I shall use a local tech retailer. They are selling the same model for just €20 more than my discounted price from Microsoft. And I will click and collect! No shipper needed.

Irish consumers warned parcel delays from UK sites will last months

‘Can’t cope’: After Brexit, UK border customs system hits limit

Logistics giant DPD pauses U.K. to EU parcel shipments, amid post-Brexit customs chaos

Irish freight industry warns of Brexit threat to supply chains

Firms halt deliveries from UK to EU over Brexit border problems

Exports to EU down 68 per cent since Brexit, say UK hauliers

Posted in Brexit, Brexit Britain, Digital Transformation, Personal Technology | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Question: What’s the Connection Between Climate Change and Brexit?

Easy, both are man-made problems, they are both slow burners and have been looming for years and they will both cause unpredictable problems that will run and run. Of course, climate change will be many orders of magnitude greater impact, but you get the idea!

At the start of the year I ordered a DVD drive from what I thought was an Irish supplier. Silly me without giving it a lot of thought, I ordered the drive from a .ie site. I was surprised when I received the delivery tracking details indicating UK origin. I was lucky that time – the value of the shipment was less than €50 and the package arrived as scheduled. Last week I had to order a new PC from Microsoft. It wasn’t planned but I had a hardware failure out of warranty, and Microsoft were good enough to accept some liability and gave me a good deal on a replacement. Speaking to the Microsoft agent she confirmed there were no shipping problems and said the delivery was confirmed for three days from order. Well the delivery didn’t happen, and when I tracked the shipment, I found it was sitting in a warehouse in the UK with a status of, “The package is delayed due to a Brexit related disruption. We are adjusting delivery plans as quickly as possible.” Three days later the status changes to delivery in three days. I’m not actually desperate for the delivery I have good backup, but I have a vision of a warehouse and supply chain in crisis mode, giving customers’ some palliative information to keep the situation from crashing altogether. Before confirming the order, I did discuss with the agent that the shipment would be free of any additional customs, tax and other charges, but that’s now in the back of my mind. And this is not a €50 purchase! See below . . .

But my problems are minor compared to what’s going on in the real world. I give you a couple of quotes from the Guardian 23rd January, . . amid claims from Boris Johnson that its people and its businesses were now free to live and trade as they wished – UK companies that export to the EU, and EU ones that send goods here, are beginning to realise that the reverse is true. And so are their customers. . . . It’s not just the British fishing crews famous musicians, . . . rather it is millions of hard-working people running, and employed in, less romantic and exotic small businesses who are feeling utterly let down and wondering if their companies will even survive.

Take Andrew Moss, managing director of small company Horizon, based in Cambridgeshire. The last three weeks, he says, have been a living nightmare. “Soft Brexit – there is no such thing. This is horrific,” he says. “We celebrated the Brexit deal with champagne over Christmas but when we woke up and realised that this car crash was happening, we thought, oh my God!” The problems he has encountered since 1 January are many, including more forms and several extra Brexit-related charges for exporting into the EU that will eat into profit margins. But even worse, he discovered from customers in Europe that they were being asked by couriers to pay VAT upfront on the goods he was sending to them – as a condition, in effect, of getting customs clearance – and the customers, unsurprisingly, were refusing. I am certainly worried I may get this message any day now, and of course, I will refuse to pay and insist on a credit from Microsoft, or better a shipment from an EU location.

Then in the last 24 hours we have heard that there are emerging problems in the Northern Ireland ports; workers involved in carrying out customs checks are coming under threat from “unknown sources”; the NI government and the EU have withdrawn their staff for safety reasons. Now this feels like it’s a political powder keg just waiting to blow. Let’s hope cool heads will prevail.

Brexit has been part of our lives for the last four years. Like Andrew Moss we might have thought it would go away, and while we would have to adjust to the new realities, this would soon settle down. We did expect some difficulties at Dover but we were reassured that this would be temporary. Little did we think there’s a whole host of issues that are going to emerge; and clearly the full extent of the turbulence is yet to be understood. We have some way to run.


Coda: The delivery date of my Microsoft shipment has now gone out to the 8th February. I spoke to Microsoft Ireland, and no surprise I was passed to a UK office who handle all Microsoft Ireland sales! That’s how close the UK and Ireland operations are. I was told a) the Brexit related shipment issues are a known problem and it will be all down to UPS. Microsoft can do nothing. and b) that the addition of VAT for EU shipments is again a known issue and that Microsoft commit to pick up that cost. When the shipper requests the VAT payment, they are asking customers to pick up the cost and they will credit back immediately. All very time consuming, and while it may not break the Microsoft bank, it might be very serious for smaller companies such as my case study above. I just wonder how long it will take before the Microsoft Ireland Sales operation broken out of the UK and established as a standalone entity in Ireland?

Posted in Brexit, Brexit Britain, Climate Change | Tagged | 1 Comment

Are We Using Technology to Get us out out of the Covid19 Mess?

Here in Ireland we are recovering from Lockdown 3, case load is reducing but the hospitals and entire health service is incredibly overloaded. There is real concern that new variants may be more serious, transmissible etc, and not covered by the vaccines.

Yesterday our government announced new travel restrictions, essentially enforcing mandatory quarantine for arrivals into the country arriving from certain countries, or travellers without a negative PCR test. But there is an outcry from all sides; too little, too late; not sufficiently detailed etc etc. And it’s true it will take time consuming legislation. And various stakeholders such as the Garda are indicating monitoring home quarantine just won’t work. Again for legal and health and safety reasons.

Now we all know that politicians in general are mostly not individuals with deep expertise. And they and their civil servants are certainly not experts in responding to crisis situations with new systems and processes. And I’ll bet this is the same in many countries around the world. And we probably all share the same issues. We need to keep our countries open as much as possible to protect supply chains and essential business. But we really need to stop individuals bringing the virus, particularly increasing numbers of variants into the country. Some countries have solved this by mandating quarantine in a government facility. But here in Ireland there are so many legal and health and safety problems that it would probably take months to establish. So here the government has elected for mandatory quarantine, but at the individuals place of residence or a specific address.

My thinking is pretty simple. We can solve the monitoring problem tomorrow! Implement a second arrival form for all airports and ports immediately that gets the individual to give details of their phone, post code where they will isolate, and credit card and signature agreeing to be monitored and accepting a charge (of whatever the penalty is) if they move beyond the postcode. The government needs to get a very rapid agreement with telecom companies to log movements on those phones and a simple process to securely pass the phone numbers to the telcos. This would be a VERY simple system to implement immediately. Given the individuals’ agreement there are no GDPR or civil rights issues involved.

If we can log individuals’ movements by their mobile phone to track missing persons or criminal suspects, and most countries do, there is no reason why the setup could not be implemented literally immediately because the individual would formally accept to be monitored as a condition of entering the country.

Use the technology.

Posted in Coronavirus, Covid19, Digital Transformation, lockdown, Pandemic, Personal Technology, Travel | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Democracy is not a fragile flower still it needs cultivating.

Well it’s been one hell of a ride! I remember talking to a good friend and colleague almost exactly four years ago. He lives in the greater DC area and does a lot of government business, so I listened hard. He said, “Don’t worry, our institutions are strong. There are many, many checks and balances that stop rogue actors.” And in the last few days I have been mulling over those words. In the end he was right, but you have to conclude that if a rogue president appoints rogue actors at all levels of government, as officials and judges the system only works if those actors have greater integrity than the president. And thankfully in key situations they did.

In the end the judiciary came through. The Supreme and other courts, notwithstanding having been stuffed with Trump appointees, held the line of truth vs wild conspiracy. Like many, I listened to the phone call between Trump and his mad cronies and Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state with amazement. Astonishment that Trump was so ignorant, unprepared, unable to talk detail. Awe that Raffensperger simply held the line of truth and integrity calmly and quietly without bending one inch.

In the end the real problem was the widespread compromise of social media that persuaded a very significant proportion of the electorate that the election had been won fraudulently. As we know it doesn’t take many bad actors to spread lies, and social media inherently reinforces confirmation bias. Conspiracy theories are widespread and if individuals get most of their information via ungoverned tv and social media, plus the president of the USA also provides powerful confirmation, then wild ideas will become de facto truth. Doesn’t matter what the officials, courts or the real subject matter experts say, if all your contacts believe the world is flat, well that’s it. And of course, it’s not just the USA that has been infected with this disease, it’s also in many other countries also.

So, while we can breathe a sigh of relief that the USA is returning to some basic level of sanity, we know the country is still completely divided and holds fundamentally different belief systems. That’s what happens if you put a rogue actor in a position of power.

I have written about the question of social media governance on numerous occasions over the years. While we have seen “self-governance” from Twitter and Facebook based on breach of corporate Terms and Conditions such as incitement to violence or worse, this is clearly not a good or long-term solution. I reiterate the need for a governance and standards body that guides and adjudicates on all aspects of social media services. I recommend we go back to basics; we don’t unleash drugs or automobiles, financial services or other consumer products and services onto the public without trials and regulatory controls in place. Yet over the past couple of decades we have all participated in an enormous social experiment which has had huge impact on many aspects of society, not least the integrity of our democracies. It’s time to ask legislators, social scientists, and technology experts to advise on how we govern both existing and new products and services.

Coda: I stopped using Twitter in 2016. Apart from its most infamous user I couldn’t stand the inherently rude, bullying and trivializing nature of the platform. I don’t intend to return, I can live without it. I believe the world will be a better place if the most powerful person on the planet is not capturing the attention of the world on a minute by minute basis.

Posted in Biden, Democracy, Digital Transformation, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Governance, Technology Platforms, Trump, Trust | Tagged , | 1 Comment

We Need to Talk About (Irish) Agriculture

This morning I listened to a radio clip about the Irish peat industry. Peat harvested from local bogs has been used for centuries for cooking and heating in Ireland. Throughout the 20th century, peat was prized as a source of rural employment and an alternative fuel for heating and electricity generation during disruptions to coal supply in World War I and II. Peat harvesting was viewed as a patriotic endeavour. A way of life rather than a commercial project.

But given well known environmental issues with peat burning, the end down of the peat industry was accelerated last year and the two peat burning power stations shut down at the end of 2020 saving at least 1.25 million tonnes of carbon each year. For the past 80 years the industry has been a major employer in the midlands. Now there is a major effort to rewild the peat bogs and create new forms of environmentally friendly employment and industry. This closure has been a long drawn out, highly emotive process for the entire midland’s community, but it was always inevitable.

The Irish Agriculture industry is in a somewhat similar situation. Whilst the industry accounts for a relatively small (less than 2% and declining) proportion of GDP, it is responsible for over 30% of all Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions and unacceptably high levels of pollution. The industry is of course at the heart of Irish country life. It employs some 110,000 people and is central to local communities countrywide. Whilst closure is not even remotely considered, the agriculture industry will need to accept a similarly dramatic level of change over the next 30 years.

The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine published a Roadmap towards Climate Neutrality in December. Responding to the report in the Irish Times, sustainability analyst Dr Hannah Daly of UCC commented, “Cows emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas with a very strong global warming impact. Globally, methane from agriculture and fossil fuels has been responsible for the two-fifths of the 1 degree of global temperature rise that has already taken place as a result of human activities.” She continued, “Ireland is the fourth highest per-capita emitter of methane from agriculture in the world, and emissions are 15 per cent higher since 2011, driven by dairy output and abolition of milk quotas. The roadmap does not even reverse this recent rise in emissions”.

Essentially the report has a vision of “stabilising methane emissions and a significant reduction in fertiliser related nitrous oxide emissions, leading to an absolute reduction in the agricultural greenhouse gas inventory by 2030”. The ICMSA “Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association” were scathing about the report saying, “. . . featured page after page of likely new duties, regulations, and costs on farmer primary-producers without even once mentioning the reformation of margins in what he described as “an economically broken and environmentally destructive supply-chain to the consumers”.

The ICMSA have highlighted the biggest problem with Irish agriculture. Ireland exports about 90 per cent of its dairy and beef and half its pig meat. In 2019, dairy exports earned the country €4.9 billion, beef exports were worth €2.24 billion and pig meat exports €514 million. (Irish Times). Essentially, we are exporting cheap meat and dairy and living with the pollution that causes, especially from reactive nitrogen which pollutes water supply, greenhouse gas emissions, ammonia in the air and eutrophication of lakes and rivers. Yet the Irish farmers are not adequately remunerated.

Farm incomes are highly variable and complex. But the average family farm income in 2019 was €23,933 down 24 per cent on the 2017 average of €31,374. The dairy sector does better with an increased milk output, with an average income of €66,570. However, we are all aware that while dairy farmers have significantly increased herd sizes over the past few years, they have also had to invest massively in robotic milking systems, leaving most of them with considerable debt to service.

The Department of Agriculture roadmap for supposedly for the next 30 years is also very inadequate in that a) it assumes there will be a market for its products and b) it assumes productivity and biodiversity will not be impacted by climatic conditions. We all know the weather is changing. Over 15 years ago farmer neighbours explained to me how the changing pattern of prevailing winds (away from South West) caused them huge problems, particularly in timing herd movements or field management activity. Also, the clear shift in rainfall patterns with longer periods of drought followed by short periods of intensive rainfall which respectively require costly irrigation and soil management as rain dilutes nutrients and causes pollution as nitrates are washed into rivers and the sea.

Buried in the Department’s report is reference to organic farming. There is a roadmap action item to increase the current area under organic production to 350,000 hectares by 2030. The total utilised agriculture area in Ireland in 2016 was 4.8m hectares, which suggests the Department are aiming to establish 7% of farming land under organic management. This should be read in context with the EU guidelines of 25% by 2030.

The change to organic farming referred to by the Department doesn’t correlate the action to the other issues to be resolved. Organic farmers all know that the problems faced by most Irish farmers are because of the chemical intensive practices that literally destroy the soil and make use of massive quantities of chemical fertilisers that kill all the micro and macro organisms in the soil, that leaves the crops defenceless against all manner of predators, pests and diseases, and therefore requires that the farmer use chemical pesticides. Organic farming is not a fad for the trendy; it’s a complete system that creates living soil that facilitates and enables healthy crops and animals and produces the highest quality, pollution free products.

We need to stimulate and encourage a conversation about where farming needs to go. This shouldn’t be about keeping as close to the status quo as possible, rather about how to establish genuinely high-quality farming that is inherently pollution free. The big roadmap questions to be asked are:

  1. Why wouldn’t we aim to make Ireland self-sufficient in food?
  2. What model would allow a self-sufficient Ireland to remunerate its farmers properly?
  3. Would incentives for localisation of food supply, (farmers markets, local produce to supermarkets) provide better income to farmers and reduce overall emissions.
  4. What percentage of existing farmland is necessary to support a self-sufficient Ireland?
  5. What proportion of the 4.8m hectares could we rewild? What level of sequestration and emission reduction would this provide?
  6. Why export food? If we had to pay (2050) carbon tax on the export supply chain, would it still be economic?
  7. Why shouldn’t producers be localised as Co-ops? Give control back to farmers?
  8. Should we not limit output to maintain or increase rewilded areas?
  9. As consumers transition away from meat and dairy, and as rainfall and drought periods both increase, how should we plan to evolve our farming systems?

    Irish agriculture is at a crossroads. The Department of Agriculture is locked in the past and manifestly cannot see beyond the status quo. If it tinkers around the edges of the existing model the industry will emulate the peat industry, shrink and largely die. However, we do have a great resource in the large number of younger farmers who have excellent qualifications and understanding of the science, in ways their fathers never could. They are more than capable of transitioning to a radically different future. It’s vital that leaders are allowed to emerge that can see a roadmap not just to 2030, but to 2050 and beyond. And the EU is encouraging that radical path.

EU Organic guidelines https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_20_1548

Posted in Carbon Footprint, Climate Change, Economic Model, Organic Farming | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Spotlight on Climate Bill (Ireland)

The Irish government published it’s first climate change bill in 2015. This was superseded by the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2020. This post records my initial review of the combined bills.   

  1. I couldn’t find a single document! There is a 2015 bill and the 2020 Amendment. So, you must read both at the same time. Sounds a little thing, but these are legal documents and it makes it harder than necessary. I suspect lazy civil servants or deliberate obfuscation. Not a good start.

    The documents are not designed to communicate, so I started by developing a very simple concept model. It’s self-explanatory.

2. A couple of definitions:

a. “Carbon budget’ means, in relation to one or more greenhouse gases, the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions that are permitted during the budget period.

b. Parameters, Constraints and other Matters for Consideration relate to a catch all requirement for “Minister and the Government shall have regard to the following matters” which is a long list of possible constraints. More on this later.  

3. When the term budget is mentioned, the first thing I look for is who is responsible. If you don’t have clearly, legally defined responsibility, it is likely the budget will be ignored. In my revised model below, I have added a link between Budget and Responsibility.

So who is responsible for some element of the carbon budget? I suggest making climate improvements needs wide awareness and responsibility which should include state bodies, semi state bodies, commercial and non-profit organizations as well as individuals. Of course, the responsibility and accountability will be highly variable. But we might have policies such as:

a. All enterprises and organizations over €Nm turnover to publish annual update of their Carbon footprint as a web service that can be accessed as public domain information and in annual accounts.

b. Calculated footprints to be published for each taxable business unit by geography and specific consumer products and services. E.g Electricity companies publish total and per Kw by service type.

c. Individuals to be given tools to understand their carbon footprint and made aware of opportunities and incentives to improve.  

4. The bill identifies just two types of policy, climate and social justice. It’s notable that the social justice policy type was absent from the 2015 bill, and we can imagine that the Green party now in power had a hand in promoting this important category. But, why not go further and identify critical policy types.

First, the very absence of overall emissions reduction targets is astonishing. Simply stating climate neutral economy by the end of the year 2050 is not helpful. Is this net or gross? What intermediate staging? Targets for every 5 years? Why not emulate Sweden and state 2045? Then there are more detailed policy types. I suggest adding at the very minimum: taxation, incentives, governance, etc

5. Section 3 (3) states, “For the purposes of performing their functions under sections 4, 5 and 6 the Minister and the Government shall have regard to the following matters” which is then followed by a list of what I have modelled as Parameters, Constraints and other Matters for Consideration. If these items are sufficiently important to put into legal text, there should be explicit requirements stated. For example “the special economic and social role of agriculture” is a time bomb that, if left unchanged will potentially compromise implementation of the entire plan.   

6. The functions of the Advisory Council are indicative of split responsibility. Lessons might be learnt from NPHET. Also from the UK which has a very strong, independent statutory body. The emphasis of the bill is overwhelmingly about how members are selected and the function of the Council is covered in just a few short lines at the end of a long section.

Revised Model

In summary, very disappointing. I will continue and review some other countries. I note the UK, Sweden and NZ have done good work in this area, and will do some comparisons.

Posted in Carbon Footprint, Climate Change, Governance | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Renault Zoe 2020 – Report on EV In General Use

I ordered a new Zoe Iconic R110 50Kw last December. We were extremely lucky to be able to test drive the only new-model car in the country at that time, so we had hands on experience pre ordering. I decided not to wait for the VW ID3 because a) much higher price and b) risk of going with a brand-new model and technology. We were impressed that the Zoe at that stage, was the best-selling EV in Europe. With Covid19, factory closure and all that we eventually picked up the Zoe in early July.

I won’t repeat the generally good comments of all the motoring journalists who have tested the car. It is an exceptionally good car for its size. Fast, very stable and good handling, comfortable, great tech, excellent range. Cheaper than all the competition! We have now done some 4000 Kms and are very familiar with the car and EVs in general. I’ll address the points that journalists doing short tests don’t generally cover or often get wrong!

  1. Normal Range: Most important – the effective range seems to average 350 – 360 in good weather. On longer runs we use Eco mode and you need to get used to it and drive smoothly. Be prepared to kick Eco on and off as necessary. I use the Kw/100 Kms meter a lot – and manage to get the average down below 15 or lower. This allows you to manage the real range and understand how and when to adjust driving style. This might sound a bit geeky, but I can report my wife handles this brilliantly and she’s no geek!
  2. Winter Range: When the temperature is 5 degrees or lower the real range drops drastically. Plan on at least 30% drop.
  3. Reliability: A personal friend gave me a strong recommendation on Renault. He switched to them a couple of years ago and couldn’t be more positive. When we had the car for just a few weeks a driver coming out of a side turning drove straight into the near side of the car. Massive bang! Fortunately, no one was hurt, and the vehicle was driveable. The Renault dealer and engineer were fantastic in response and attention to detail. They took just 3 days to fix the car as good as new. More generally the car doesn’t leak in the rain and is very solid.
  4. Usage: The car is a super mini – it has excellent front seat space. The rear seats would be for occasional use or children only. However, the boot is excellent – it is deep and easily accessed. I often keep the back seats down and that space is very usable for larger loads.
  5. Gear shift: Several journalists have criticised the gear shift. Specifically, they dislike the D (drive) B (Recovery) toggle feature. I can understand if someone is just driving the car for a few hours they might not even realise it’s a toggle operation. In real usage it’s easy to use and highly effective.
  6. Technology: I was worried about the VW ID3 because there were reports that software engineering was a big problem. That’s no surprise – the EV tech is considerably more complex than your fossil fuelled vehicle (FFV) including battery and range management, program setting etc. I will admit it took a few days to get it all on board, but the Zoe tech works, mostly. I don’t use programmed charging as I don’t need it at present, but the app and car integrate very well indeed. At one stage the app gave up and froze. I simply deleted the app and reinstalled. No problem.
  7. Carbon footprint: I had been concerned about the full life cycle carbon load because of the high (carbon) cost of battery materials and production compared to FFVs.  However I understand Renault is actively managing the battery recycling process, not just for rental batteries.
  8. Running cost: I charge from a home charger which is the most economic. Basically the normal household rate of €0.17 per Kw (corrected from original text). I have monitored the metered charging process and it’s unsurprisingly totally predictable cost. I haven’t triggered off peak charging as I now have a smart meter installed and the ESB have announced there will be new plans early in 2021 that take advantage of the smart meter capabilities.  I have signed up with ESB Connect and it works just fine. I am also registered with EasyGo that is a very useful directory (at least in Ireland) of charging points and critically their status and availability. I don’t yet have servicing costs, but the Renault engineer indicated 12 month check costs are very low (think around €100) because of low number of moving parts.  
  9. General comments: Range anxiety does go away very quickly when you have the data. It’s similar to managing gas (diesel/petrol) but different. So, you need different numbers in your head – Kw/100 litre, and forecast range. Having a home charger is really important if you have the space and parking proximity. I normally charge when I get to 110Kms remaining range and charge to 80%, unless we have a longer journey the following day, in which case I will charge to 100%. But this is very much the exception.  Covid19 notwithstanding we are doing early thinking about holidays, meeting up with the family on the continent, and will happily take the ferry (to keep the carbon load down) and drive across Europe. With good planning, the Zoe will handle that happily.   

Overall rating: 4.5. Recommended.

Posted in Carbon Footprint, Electric Vehicles, EV, Renault Zoe | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Remember we still need to save the world. Let’s re-energize and refocus Climate Actions in 2021.

In my blog, Happy XMAS (War is Over?) I discussed how the pandemic knocked the air out of all other priorities, and the pressing need now to reprioritize specifically climate change as the really big impending catastrophe. And I posed the question, “Should we simply return to what was normal in 2019? Or do we have a one-time opportunity to leverage not just the accidental reduction in emissions, but to learn from our experience of disaster?”

This last year we have all been following the Covid19 numbers – the cases, the R0, the hospitalization and sadly the deaths. I’ve no doubt that we will continue this in 2021, but I suggest we need to focus everyone on a new set of numbers. Specifically, we all need to become very familiar with the Carbon Footprint, our own personal load, our family’s, our business, our country’s etc. Not surprisingly Climate matters have dropped off the agenda. Even if we hadn’t been so preoccupied with Covid19, let’s be honest we have all become bored with Climate Change. It’s been going for so long, there’s nothing new to say and frankly until it arrives, it’s not news. And the interminable international meetings that all result in failure to agree because vested interests won’t act leave us cold. And even when there are huge wildfires, floods or hurricanes, the scientists say as ever, well Climate Change has some level of impact on the severity or frequency, but we can’t be more specific.

So, what’s changed? Firstly, we have all become more sensitized to the idea that our lives are not running on rails. It doesn’t take much to thoroughly wreck our lives, our livelihoods in an instant.  Second during lockdowns many of us have been tuned into David Attenborough, whose gentle but persistent demonstrations have shown us how we ourselves are causing the natural world to collapse!

Just stop and consider which type of catastrophe might just arrive into your life without notice – wildfire, flood, drought or absence of potable water, food shortages caused by crop failures caused by all of the others, pollution or unbreathable air, massive increases in migration from affected areas, economic collapse caused by all of the others and so on. Climate change is insidious because it’s happening all the time all around the world and we become desensitized to the news stories. But every day somewhere in the world people like us are being made homeless, sick or dying. You might like to check out the New Humanitarian site on Environment and Disasters.

So, we all need to engage with the new number – Carbon Footprint. We need to use this in our lives to make decisions about whether or how we travel, what we purchase, from where . . . .

Also in my blog post , Happy XMAS (War is Over?) I proposed that we need an app that allows everyone, individuals, businesses, schools, clubs, governments etc to measure their own carbon footprint. The amount of CO2 they are producing on a daily, weekly monthly and yearly basis.  It needs to be reasonably accurate; not like the apps you can currently download that are just puerile. The app needs to integrate businesses, government departments and individuals so the performance of my electricity supplier is reflected in my own personal footprint. And we all need to be able to use the app on a daily basis to record and monitor how we are doing.

I would like to see governments getting everyone energized and engaged in Climate actions. For example:

  1. All businesses over €1m turnover to publish annual update of their Carbon footprint as a web service that can be accessed as public domain information and in annual accounts. Calculated footprints to be published for each taxable business unit by geography and specific consumer products. E.g Electricity companies publish total and per Kw by service type.  
  2. Governments to establish carbon inspectorates to assess and challenge published footprint data.
  3. Governments to develop sector specific carbon incentives and taxes based on carbon footprint targets and achievements. These could be applicable to businesses and individuals.

In effect I’m proposing that there needs to be both carrot and stick. If we, particularly businesses, but individuals also, reduce our carbon load we should benefit from lower taxes or rebates. And if particularly businesses increase carbon load, we should be taxed more heavily.

The carbon load should also be, excuse the pun, “fully loaded”. In other words, let’s take the example of a meat producer that exports meat products to China, the producer should be responsible for the carbon load incurred by the entire supply chain. In this way we are changing the Climate Agenda – to engage individuals who adapt their spending to reward companies that are reducing their carbon load and enabling individual consumers to do same. And at the same time raising the level of attention and awareness that causes governments to introduce new policies, incentives and taxes to encourage climate friendly behaviour and highlight climate damaging behaviour.

Finally, we should be deeply sceptical about the much heralded COP26 Glasgow Climate Conference, postponed from 2020 to November 2021. Apart from the nauseating sight of Boris Johnson pretending to save the world, we should expect the big countries to agree on some compromise that is a) way too late to stop the world exceeding 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, and b) allows them to kick the can down the road yet again. We need to energise climate actions in a highly effective way, engaging ordinary people that causes and enables governments to make more courageous longer term decisions.  

Posted in Carbon Footprint, Climate Change, COP26 | Tagged , | Leave a comment