Archive for category Environment

Blowing in the wind

Today, The Times claims that “Wind farms paid to close on windy days”. Unfortunately, because of the paywall, I can’t actually see the article to comment on it. Luckily, the Daily Mail has written their own version of the article (direct link), based on The Times‘s investigation. Yay for churnalism!

Wind farms were paid £25million not to produce electricity when it is ‘too windy’ last year, figures revealed today.

There was a staggering 13,733 per cent rise in the payments on the year before.

Turbine operators are ordered by the National Grid to shutdown to avoid too much power being produced during gales.

These payments are based on something called the “transmission constraint agreement“. In a nutshell, transmission constraint agreements are paid to power stations of all types – not just wind turbines – when demand is low. The reason wind farms get the bulk of the payments seems to be because it’s easier to shut them down – you simply apply the brakes. Coal and gas on the other hand can’t be shut down as easily – you need to keep them hot so they can start up again when demand returns, and this wastes fuel.

First of all, the claim that it represents a “staggering 13,733 per cent rise” is rather misleading. According to this article in the Telegraph, an initial trial run took place in May 2010 – involving just two wind farms shutting down for one hour – but it looks like the constraint scheme didn’t start properly until much later – either at the end of the year or at the start of 2011. Comparing full operation with a trial run is ridiculous.

Secondly, The Mail claims that

National Grid, a public company, have never before admitted how much is spent getting wind farms to close.

… except as we’ve just seen, they “admitted” it back in 2010.

There is a good point buried in this – as Ofgem, the office that regulates energy generation points out, the power companies themselves set the constraint payments, and the rates they tender are currently more than they’d be paid, per megawatt, to actually generate power. This is a perfectly reasonable argument, but simply attacking the idea of constraint payments, as The Mail seems to be doing, is ridiculous. The electricity system always needs to be in balance, and as long as the people who transmit the power aren’t the people who generate it, these payments will unfortunately always be necessary in some form.


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James Delingpole uses quack medicine to prove carbon dioxide is harmless. Er…

(Hat tip to @rbhinkley for pointing out the original article)

Imagine a world where CO2 was not a deadly poison in need of urgent regulation by the European Union and the Environmental Protection Agency but a hugely beneficial trace gas which helped plants to thrive… If you’ve read [Delingpole's tastefully plugged book] Watermelons – or indeed hung around this column for any length of time – you’ll know that that world already exists.

So begins James Delingpole’s latest blog post. Let’s start with the slightly less obvious problem here: governments do not control carbon dioxide because it is a poison, they control it because it has damaging effects on the environment. Whether or not it’s poisonous has no bearing on climate change.

Secondly, carbon dioxide is poisonous. It’s not poisonous at the levels you’ll find in the air around you, assuming you’re reading this from a reasonably well-ventilated room, but at a concentration of around 3% you’ll start to feel drowsy, and as the concentration increases you’ll quickly suffer sensory impairment and eventually black out and can even die. Your body does need a tiny bit of carbon dioxide in the blood, otherwise you suffer what’s known as hypocapnia, but that’s not caused by environmental CO2, that’s caused by hyperventilating (it’s a big problem with divers, which is why you shouldn’t take short, hard breaths before diving).

So why does Delingpole want to claim otherwise? Well, he’s discovered something called the Buteyko Method – supposedly a way of breathing which increases the amount of carbon dioxide in your body, supposedly curing collapsed lungs, ME, MS, depression, arthritis, asthma, emphysema and even Crohn’s disease.

The only evidence Delingpole gives that it works? Well, it works for him. Fair enough – controlled breathing techniques are widelyknown to reduce stress, and if that helps him personally then fine. But remember he’s a journalist – surely before he sells it to his readers (and it does read like a sales pitch – he lists the locations of upcoming workshops… £375 workshops) he should find some concrete evidence that it works – and, crucially, that it has anything to do with CO2?

There’s not much research into whether it works, unfortunately, and a lot of it doesn’t seem to be fantastic quality. Still, here’s a quote from a review paper looking into the method (in particular, its effect on asthma):

Buteyko’s theory relating to carbon dioxide levels and airway calibre is an attractive one, and has some basis in evidence from experimental studies. However, it is not known whether altering breathing patterns can raise carbon dioxide levels significantly, and there is currently insufficient evidence to confirm that this is the mechanism behind any effect that [Buteyko Breathing Technique] BBT may exert. Further research is necessary to establish unequivocally whether BBT is effective, and if so, how it may work. (emphasis mine)

Doesn’t sound fantastic. Maybe the paper “Strengths, Weaknesses, and Possibilities of the Buteyko Breathing Method” will be more promising.

Studies with the Buteyko Method have found that resting carbon dioxide levels do not change after Buteyko training despite reported improvement in symptoms


Ok, how about a study from the same author, “Investigating the Claims of Konstantin Buteyko, M.D., Ph.D.

The results revealed a negative correlation between BHT and ETCO2 (r = −0.241, p < 0.05), directly opposite to Buteyko’s claims.

[ETCO2 is end tidal CO2, the amount of CO2 released at the end of a breathing cycle]

Or how about this large, randomised controlled study* – again into its effects on asthma.

This study, which we believe to be the largest randomised controlled trial and the first to use a global assessment of asthma control as a primary outcome in a non-pharmacological intervention in asthma, failed to show a difference between the intervention (Buteyko) and control (physiotherapy) groups.

Oh dear.

Even Wikipedia, refuge of the lazy journalist, points out that there is no evidence that the CO2 theory is correct and there’s little medical support for the technique!

Where does that leave us? There’s not much evidence that it works, no evidence that it increases CO2 levels, and indeed, some evidence that it may have the exact opposite effect. Does it help with asthma? Perhaps, although apparently no better than any other breathing method. Does it prove that CO2 is unequivocally good for you? Of course not.

* Although as the researchers point out, it was not blinded – which makes the fact that it didn’t work even more striking.


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Will driving at 80 mph help the economy? Statistics say… probably not

Last week, the Transport Secretary Phillip Hammond announced plans to raise the speed limits on motorways from 70 mph to 80 mph. This, he claimed, would:

“generate economic benefits of hundreds of millions of pounds through shorter journey times.”

Never mind the debates about safety and the environment, let’s look at this one argument. So, does a shorter journey equal a more economic journey? The problem is that cars need more fuel to travel faster, and so the faster you go, the worse your fuel efficiency is. Statistics that go right up to 80 mph are hard to find for some reason – the big US government study for example only went up to 75 mph – but according to the calculator at MPG for speed (better sources always appreciated), driving at 80 mph uses about 15% more fuel per mile than driving at 70 mph.

So, lets do some maths! For the sake of simplicity, we’ll assume every single journey on the motorways is work-related. The actual figures will be lower, especially on weekends and holidays.

At 70 mph, it takes 51 seconds to drive 1 mile. In this time, a car with a claimed “highway” fuel efficiency of 40 miles per gallon (roughly as efficient as a modern hatchback like a Ford Fiesta) will use about 0.11 litres of petrol. At the current average pump price, that’s 15 pence of petrol.

At 80 mph, you cover that same mile in 45 seconds, saving you 6 seconds. On the other hand, your car is now 15% less efficient. According to the calculator, your 40 MPG car is now doing just 28.8 MPG, using around 0.13 litres of petrol to cover that mile, so the fuel to travel that distance cost you about 18 pence.

Spending 3 pence to save 6 seconds is equivalent to spending £18 to save 1 hour. The average median wage in the UK is far lower than £18 an hour (currently, it’s £12.50 per hour for full-time workers (PDF))* – in other words, if you drove at the speed limit to get to/from work, the money you’d be spending on petrol would mean most people would actually lose out (people who car-share would be in a better position, but few people car-share to work).

All the extra pay taken home by workers would simply end up going straight to the petrol companies – and when the government is trying to increase consumer spending, that’s the last thing the economy needs.

(Oops, forgot to mention that this post bears a debt of inspiration to this xkcd comic.)

* Thanks to Lukeablancas in the comments for pointing out that I’ve gone for the median wage. The median wage is good for working out what this means for the average person, since it’s unaffected by extremes, but if we’re looking at the country as a whole, the mean wage might be better – this will take high-earners like company bosses into account, as well as people who work in short but intense shifts, like some freelancers. In 2010, the mean wage for men was £16.00 per hour and for women it was £12.92 per hour (annoyingly the government hasn’t released the combined figures for men and women, but assuming there are roughly equal numbers of both in work the average wage overall is £14.46 per hour). Either way, on average people will end up losing out.


Climate denial and another stupid anti-BBC story


THE BBC was criticised by climate change sceptics yesterday after it emerged that their views will get less coverage because they differ from mainline scientific opinion. [...] It said coverage should not be tailored to represent a “false balance” of opinion if one side came from a minority group.

So this isn’t about the BBC muzzling anyone, it’s about making sure that the BBC isn’t giving fringe ideas disproportionate amounts of time. It doesn’t just refer to climate change, either: the BBC Trust report (PDF) also refers to the BBC’s coverage of MMR, where giving undue weight to the idea that MMR caused autism even after science had conclusively proved otherwise on caused a public health disaster, and of the safety of GM food. Climate change is just another example of an area of science where a few loud voices have drowned out the actual science.

So, who’s in uproar?

Lord Lawson, chairman of the sceptical Global Warming Policy Foundation, said the fact that carbon dioxide levels were rising leading to global warming was not under dispute. However, he added, its extent and effect could not be explained by majority scientific opinion alone. [...]

The foundation’s director, Dr Benny Peiser, said the report would lead to biased coverage of climate change and stifle any real debate. [...]

Dr David Whitehouse, the foundation’s editor and a former BBC science correspondent, said the corporation had “lost the plot” when it came to science journalism.*

Yes, every single “sceptic” The Express quotes is actually a member of the GWPF thinktank. The Express does not quote any independent sceptics, any actual climate scientists, any sci-comms experts – in fact, it doesn’t quote anyone else except for an anonymous BBC spokesman.

So there are two possibilities here. Either The Express has been spectacularly lazy in putting this story together, or they’ve just been fed this story by the GWPF and have published it unthinkingly.

Well, funnily enough this press release went up on the GWPF website just yesterday.** What good timing.

* Dr Whitehouse’s full comment bears quoting here:

He said the corporation was “grouping sceptics with deniers” which would result in a lack of valid scientific input to its reports.

He said: “A sceptic is not a denier, all good scientists should be sceptics. The BBC has got itself into a complete muddle.

“In seeking to get the science right it has missed the journalism which is about asking awkward questions and shaking the tree.”

I think the BBC needs to investigate whether the royal family are all shapeshifting lizard aliens from Alpha Draconis. Sure, there’s no evidence for it, and the people who believe it are an extremely fringe group, but journalism is about ASKING AWKWARD QUESTIONS and SHAKING THE TREE.

** The GWPF claim that the independent report was a “damning indictment” of the BBC. Indeed, it was so damning that the author made these caustic remarks:

One thing should be made clear: BBC science broadcasting is seen as of high quality and is much praised for its accurate and impartial approach, its breadth, and its professionalism. Comments from the submissions made to this Review show how widespread is this opinion.


The BBC is to be commended for the breadth, depth and professionalism of its science coverage. I was impressed by its treatment, which has shown real progress over the past decade or so.

Ouch for the BBC!


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“If ancient folklore is to be believed”

Daily Express headline: RAIN TODAY COULD LAST FOR 40 DAYS

Actual story: “BRITAIN could be heading for a washout summer if ancient folklore is to be believed. Legend says that showers today, St Swithin’s Day, mean 40 days of rain to come.


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The scientist’s not for turning

Scientists! What are these mysterious creatures? Well, The Independent (and, with the help of copy-paste, The Mail) certainly doesn’t know!*

Global warning: Scientists in U-turn as they claim extreme weather and climate change are linked

Experts have reversed their opinion after more than 20 years of reluctance to blame greenhouse gas emissions for extreme weather

Climate change is inextricably linked to the extreme weather that has wreaked destruction all over the world in the last ten years, scientists now claim.

Experts are convinced of a legitimate link between the two after more than 20 years of reluctance to blame greenhouse gas emissions for the heavy storms, floods and droughts which have made global headlines.

The controversial U-turn is a radical departure from the previous standpoint and was made by a new international alliance of climate researchers from around the world.

You hear that? All the scientists! All of them! Every single scientist used to say that extreme weather and climate change weren’t linked, then overnight, they all did a U-turn and now they all believe they are linked!

Of course not, don’t be ridiculous. While most scientists will never say that any given event was definitely caused by global warming (after all, no-one can say for sure whether, say, Katrina would have happened without climate change), plenty of researchers have published papers in reputable, peer-reviewed journals connecting climate change to hurricanes (Emmanuel 2005 (PDF), Webster et al 2005, Mann and Emmanuel 2006 (PDF)), flooding (Schrieder et al 2000, Christensen and Christensen 2003 (PDF)), heatwaves (Stott et all 2004, Diffenbaugh et al 2007 (PDF)), and pretty much every other form of extreme weather you can imagine. The connection between climate change and extreme weather is still debated, but there are certainly plenty of scientists have published research indicating the two are linked.

Secondly, this so-called U-turn isn’t even a U-turn! Instead, what a panel of climatologists called Attribution of Climate-Related Events (ACE) is looking at various extreme weather events over the last century – tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, droughts – and working out whether climate change has made these sorts of weather more likely.** They are not yet saying that climate change has increased the risk of extreme weather, they’re still researching whether it could have! The scientists quoted by The Independent (and subsequently by The Mail) do say that they think climate change is causing severe weather, but as far as I can tell, these scientists have always made this connection. Peter Stott for example connected heatwaves to climate change back in 2004 (see the paper above), and Kevin Trenberth connected drought to global warming in the same year (PDF). Neither of these scientists has, as far as I can tell, U-turned.

Incidentally, the best rated comments on both articles are firmly denialist and, on The Mail‘s site, any comments that are pro-climate science have been downvoted (The Indie only lets you “like” comments, not dislike them). Good to see the astroturfers out in force.

* I’ve picked on The Mail largely because they’ve used words like “U-turn” and “reversal”. The Independent‘s coverage still makes the mistake of talking about scientists like we’re all one big hive mind, but at least they state that the previous opinion connecting climate change to extreme weather was “equivocal”.

** ACE formed in early 2009, so I’m not sure why they’re being reported as if they’re brand new.



Nuclear cover up? Probably not

The Guardian‘s website is at the moment leading with yet another story about leaked emails: Revealed: British government’s plan to play down Fukushima.

What dastardly scheme was the government up to?

British government officials approached nuclear companies to draw up a co-ordinated public relations strategy to play down the Fukushima nuclear accident just two days after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and before the extent of the radiation leak was known.

Internal emails seen by the Guardian show how the business and energy departments worked closely behind the scenes with the multinational companies EDF Energy, Areva and Westinghouse to try to ensure the accident did not derail their plans for a new generation of nuclear stations in the UK.

I’m not sure “play down” is really the right phrase to use here. After all, this appears to be the relevant part of the worst email:

We need to quash any stories trying to compare this to Chernobyl – by using the facts to discredit.

Is that “playing down” Fukushima, or putting it in perspective? This email was sent long before the worst of the damage was known, at which point Chernobyl comparisons would have been gross exaggerations.

Yet over and over again, the Guardian seems to forget that this was written when there was little information available, and the reactors still appeared to be intact:

The business department emailed the nuclear firms and their representative body, the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), on 13 March, two days after the disaster knocked out nuclear plants and their backup safety systems at Fukushima. The department argued it was not as bad as the “dramatic” TV pictures made it look, even though the consequences of the accident were still unfolding and two major explosions at reactors on the site were yet to happen.

Well yes, there were serious explosions that resulted in radiation release, but they hadn’t happened when the email was sent. What was the civil servant* supposed to write?

The nuclear industry, like any industry that tries to balance profit against public good (see: transport, healthcare, media, communications), is often pretty hard to defend, but to be honest, it doesn’t come across too badly in the emails.

Sometimes they seem a bit dickishly entitled – Westinghouse probably didn’t win any points for emailing the government to object to Nick Clegg’s choice of wording in a speech – but most of the time, no matter how The Guardian spins it, it’s hard to see PR collusion in EDF offering to be “sensitive” to events in Japan in decommissioning old plants, the government explaining its new build policy, or Westinghouse discussing changes in reactor design to improve earthquake safety. I certainly can’t see what’s wrong with organising a conference to discuss how to “maintain confidence among the British public on the safety of nuclear power stations” with “factual and scientific evidence”.

In fact, given that nuclear new build is a government policy being carried out by private companies, it’s hard to see how the government could have made any statements about British nuclear power without talking to the nuclear industry.

A few emails discuss the PR response, but apart from the one from the unnamed civil servant, who fair enough does seem a bit too gung-ho about nuclear power, they make it clear that the government’s position is distinct from the industry’s, and refuse to join the industry in making a joint response (for instance, check out the email “Re: Nuclear Lines – Messaging” on page 15, sent March 14, 10:31, and any other email in that converstaion).

If a reservoir had collapsed, and the government emailed water companies for comment and to discuss preventing public panic, would that be news? Probably not.

If a train had crashed, and the government invited representatives of train operators to discuss the impact on the future of the railways, would that be news? Probably not.

So when the government discusses the future of the nuclear industry with the nuclear industry following a nuclear disaster, why is that news?

* Incidentally, the civil servant’s name has been redacted, but according to the BIS, it’s someone pretty minor, not a minister or someone with power over policy. So that’s not really a “government plan” then, is it?

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