A geographical inspiration

A PhD is very much a marathon and, no matter how interesting or ground-breaking your research may be, maintaining momentum over three, or even four, years can be difficult.

Geographical inspiration - a Santorini sunset (Picture source: author's photograph).

Geographical inspiration – a Santorini sunset (Picture source: author’s photograph).

I began my university ‘career’ as a mature student, only embarking upon a BSc geography degree in my early/mid thirties, going straight onto an MSc in Environmental Management and Sustainable Development and, after a slight hiatus, embarking upon my PhD.

I recall one lecturer imploring us callow 1st–year Bachelors during one of those group lectures attended by the entire year’s intake – BSc physical geographers, BA human geographers, BSc geographers, BSc environmental scientists, BSc GIS-ers – that, during the course of our degrees, ‘you’ve got to do what you’re interested in, otherwise you’re wasting everybody’s time, especially yours’. Or something along those lines, anyway.

So I did. I managed to pursue several interests during the course of my geography degree, covering everything from cultural geography to post-socialism to vulcanology to quaternary environmental change. My dissertation was about the semiotics of the car.

It was during my MSc that I became further interested in, and pursued subjects on, the environment, climate change and low carbon mobility, with my thesis concerning the environmental impacts of football supporter transport.

I am currently in the final throes of writing up my PhD on socio-cultural regard for the car and the potential impacts of this upon an uptake of low carbon vehicles. Writing about cars and the environment, washed down with a large slug of philosophy – marvellous. At least, in theory.

Actually, it is marvellous – I wouldn’t swap it at all. I’ve spent the last three-and-a-bit years thinking, reading, writing on and around subjects I’m passionate about and, looking back, it’s been brilliant; throw in all the conferences and the contacts with other academics and postgraduates – in person and via the twittersphere – and it’s been a cracking experience. It hasn’t all been plain sailing though.

All postgraduate researchers struggle at some point, hitting practical, philosophical and analytical walls. These walls can take some climbing, and no matter how capable we are, or how immersed or interested in our research we may be, doubts can rise, morale can flag and confidence can wane.

I’ve suffered bouts of that recently, feeling a bit thick at times. I’m sure I’m not the only one. When you live 120 miles away from uni, it can all feel a bit solitary too.

Anyway, a week or so back, a picture appeared in my twitter timeline. It was a retweet by Bangor University’s geography department (@BUGeography) of a tweet posted by the geography department at St. Edmund’s School in Salisbury (@Stedsgeography).

And repeat... (Picture source: @BUGeography @Stedsgeography)

And repeat… (Picture source: @BUGeography; @Stedsgeography)

I retweeted it too. I don’t know where St. Edmund’s got the picture from, whether it was sourced or created, but thanks anyway guys. For some reason, @BUGeography’s retweeting of it woke me up a bit. Just in time for a run of colloquia and conferences, I’m adopting it as a mantra during my writing up – ‘this is my new jam’, as some would say.

So begone, doubt! I am a geographer. I am encouraging others to think a bit differently. I do know my stuff.

And, despite what you may feel sometimes, so do you.

I’m getting on with it – first full draft here we come!

Smog on the Seine

Well that lasted ages, didn’t it? On Sunday 16th March, it was reported in the Guardian that half Parisian motorists would be banned from driving their cars into the city because of the smog caused by high PM10 (particulate matter of 10 microns in size) levels and the prevailing weather conditions which had beset Paris over the last few days.

Traffic leaves Paris fuming (Picture source - telegraph.co.uk)

The environmental impacts of traffic – and of its amelioration – leaves Paris fuming (Picture source – telegraph.co.uk)

Air pollution from transport is a real issue, and Parisian authorities have pondered banning vehicles before – this time, though, they meant it.

Not all motorists would be banned – drivers of electric vehicles, for example, were still allowed to use their cars but internal combustion-engined cars would be permitted depending on whether their number plates were odd or even.

Free public transport and Vélib – the Parisian bike hire service – use was provided over the weekend, at some expense to the transport authorities, to dissuade people from using their cars and ameliorate the pervading air quality. You never know, perhaps one outcome of this measure is that more people may make use of these modes of transport in the future.

Anyway, on Monday 17th, less than 24 hours later, the Guardian was reporting that the ban was to be lifted because air quality levels – along with the weather forecast – had improved. The exercise had been a success.

Had it really been that successful? Both the article and the perceived wisdom from reader comments suggested that Parisians would routinely flout the ban, with some quoted in the article that a €22 fine was worth paying – indeed over 3,500 drivers were penalised. Had conditions really improved that quickly, or was this a response to public reaction?

It seems one thing that the ban had achieved, if only for one day, was reduced congestion. As for air quality – well, if it had improved sufficiently then, if nothing else, the one-day ban has provided a graphic illustration of the nature of traffic pollution and of the difference a transport modal switch can make towards the health of our cities. Of course, it may also be that weather conditions are better placed to disperse excess air pollution, allowing the turning a blind eye to traffic pollution. Again.

After all, it was reported that even those who had complained about traffic pollution were still prepared to use their cars, citing their essentiality. What does this say about our mobility demands and expectations, our mobility rights?

In my last blog post, I pondered the ethics of a similar, longer term, banning of older petrol and newer diesel vehicles from London’s ultra low emission zone (ULEZ), however necessary it may be, noting that if we are to promote a truly sustainable low carbon automobility, a draconian disenfranchising of ordinary motorists is not the best way to go about it. In a consumer society, it seems meeting the environmental imperative is a PR exercise in itself. We need to bring motorists with us.

The car is ingrained into our way of life; it has utterly shaped our landscapes. However, perpetual prevarication over air quality and emission measures may well have left us with no alternative but to apply such stark automotive sanctions. The environmental imperative isn’t going to go away, and we have to consider what price we put on our respiratory health; are we really prepared put our cars and our mobility before our ability to breathe?

Auto ban?

Measures to curb transport emissions in London – such as the congestion charge – are nothing new. But the latest reported proposals go much further.

Autocar magazine has reported that moves are afoot to extend London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone and sanction the banning of older petrol and diesel cars from the centre of London.

They also note that, although such measures are still subject to consultation, an informal vote late last year to ban pre-Euro6 compliant diesel cars (those registered before 2014!) and pre-Euro4 compliant petrol cars (before 2005) won great support.

In considering such proposals, London would be following other European cities in restricting the movement of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles; Paris, for example, has previously proposed banning vehicles of a certain age, about which I’ve mentioned some cultural unease.

I’ve blogged before about air pollution resulting from our use of the car, and how electric vehicles can play a part in ameliorating this. In a blog for a postgraduate conference competition held under the auspices of the Tyndall Centre, a climate change research unit, I noted that while plans to lower the CO2 threshold for London Congestion Charge exemption from 100g CO2/km to 75g CO2/km may be justifiable –  even necessary – to achieve the air quality we all deserve, they run the risk of being seen as draconian, potentially disenfranchising motorists who want to do, or thought they were already doing, the right thing by driving lower-carbon ICE cars.

Exhausting... (Picture source: Wikipedia)

Exhausting… (Picture source: Wikipedia)

In my Tyndall Centre blog, I noted that true societal change comes from the bottom up, and that the social and cultural significance of the car means that an automotive bottom-up impetus need to be fostered if a true low carbon automobility is to be fomented. With this in mind, I felt the reduction from 100g to 75g CO2/km was a huge step, requiring the acquisition of vehicles beyond many motorists reach.

The latest reported proposals, however, at a stroke run the risk of disenfranchising far many more people than might the Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (ULEV) emission threshold proposals, from classic car enthusiasts to petrolheads to motorists on a budget for whom newer low-carbon, hybrid or electric vehicles are simply not an option (especially in such straitened times as these).

So why consider such drastic action now? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the EU is taking the UK to court over ‘persistent air pollution problems’, specifically nitrogen dioxide (NO2) levels. Exposure to such levels comes mainly from traffic and, in London, are perhaps a corollary of increasing numbers of diesel vehicles being driven in the capital as a means of achieving sub-100g CO2/km mobility so as to avoid the congestion charge; certainly diesel cars account for half of UK new car sales.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, lowering emission thresholds is obviously a good thing environmentally. However, in concentrating on CO2 emissions and using them as the basis of a fiscal instrument, other emissions – such as nitrous oxides (NOx), hydrocarbons (HC) and particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) – have seemingly been forgotten. It may be that the threat of legal action has spurred the powers that be to do something about air quality in the capital and, in the face of possible sanctions, they would appear to have panicked.

But it needn’t have been like this. If the current political administration had taken wider air quality issues more seriously, then ‘persistent’ air quality breaches cited by the EU may have been avoided and draconian measures such as completely banning older cars – therefore compromising the mobility of many less well-off motorists – might not be being considered. At least, not just yet.

The banning of older vehicles may not come to pass. On the other hand, it may have indeed come to this, with the environmental imperative now demanding drastic action. Either way, it seems that an environmental complacency has meant the ethics of low carbon automobility becoming ever more problematic.

Ne’er the twain…? Environmental dissonance at the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show

The biannual Frankfurt Motor Show opened its doors last week showing the latest offerings and previewing the latest concepts from car manufacturers. However, despite an apparent low carbon zeitgeist, was Frankfurt 2013 as green as it seems?

Thanks to the wonders of the internet and the twittersphere, one is able to find out plenty of information about the latest models and concepts from motor shows from afar, and almost as they happen. In this respect, the 2013 Frankfurt Motor Show was no exception. This year’s show seems to have embraced notions of low carbon mobility and featured many hybrid and electric concepts and launches. While this is excellent news, a seemingly Janus-like tendency to look backwards was also apparent.

Charging forward

Two cars I’m really interested in, partly because of their innovation and partly through their providing the style and status that electro-mobility and hybridity sorely needs, are the BMW i3 and i8. Possessed of a distinctive architecture and construction, the i3 perhaps redefines the possibilities of a city/small family car, and while some have critiqued its looks, to me its styling is intelligently distinctive; it might sound odd, but it just looks ‘clever’, if that makes any sense. The i3 is available as both a pure electric vehicle (EV) and a range-extender, and seems a relative bargain considering its cachet, status and, to me, semiotics (if just over £25,000 after the plug in car grant can be deemed a bargain).

As with the i3, the looks of the i8 are unconventional, futuristic and are just the job for a sub-brand that indeed looks to the future. It is powered by a 1.5 litre 3-cylinder engine and a battery pack with a range of just over 20 miles and, if nothing else, can act as a real ‘halo’ car for hybridity. Along with the i3, the i8 shows that there is more to low carbon automobility than hair-shirts and planet saving; at around £100,000, it is a tad pricey though.

Volkswagen entered the EV fray with the e-Golf and e-up! models. While they would appear to have been adapted from existing internal combustion engine (ICE) models, as opposed to the Renault/Nissan approach of dedicated EV  models such as the Zoe and the Leaf, it is reported that the up! at least was designed to adapt to EV propulsion. As much as I enjoyed the EV experience of the Leaf and the Zoe, the conventional internal combustion-engined VW up! also appeals greatly (I really enjoyed driving its Škoda Citigo sibling at the SMMT test day in May, where I also drove the Zoe for the first time) and, as a Lancashire lad, ’appen I could find myself being drawn to the e-up! on the strength of its name alone!

The various applications and technologies of hybridity, along with a concomitant reduction in emissions, suggest that the recognition of, and need to act on, climate change – what I call the environmental imperative – is being addressed by major car manufacturers across all market segments. Toyota are well known for their hybrid approach to low carbon automobility, and showed their Yaris-R hybrid concept, and while seeing such hybrid high-technology applied in a more glamorous way can only enhance the image of hybridity (as with the BMW i8), I can’t help but think that a hybrid version of their GT86 coupe would be more of an everyday hybrid halo car than a modified supermini – and reports suggest that one may not be too far off either. Other sporting hybrids on display included the Honda NSX and Porsche 918, while hybridity has also been applied to luxury cars, as illustrated by the Mercedes Benz S500 hybrid, and with remarkable effect, according to official figures at least. At a more prosaic level, an innovative approach to hybridity – Peugeot’s hybrid air system – was showcased in the Citroën C-Cactus concept and will become available in due course.

It’s not just ‘on the road’ where low carbon vehicles are increasingly making their presence felt. The crucible of motorsport has long been an arena in which automotive technology has been trialled and honed, and another electric innovation on show at Frankfurt was the Formula e racing series, in which electrically-powered single-seat racing cars will compete in a global racing series, much like Formula 1 is now. It’ll be interesting to see how Formula e takes off and to see if and how the ‘affect’ it engenders compares to more conventional motorsport.

Talking of sport, not everything that piqued an interest or raised a smile from this year’s Frankfurt Motor Show was necessarily futuristic; indeed, one of my highlights is perhaps a case of going back to the future. The Caterham Seven 160 is the newest version of the enduring British sports car and harks back to its simplistic roots in mating a small engine to a lightweight car, in this case a 660cc Suzuki engine. Small, light, simple, fun and no doubt low emission, I approve. I really want a crack at one of these.

A SUV-ocating obesity?

It wasn’t all greenness and light at Frankfurt, despite the profile of electro-mobility and hybridity being higher than usual. Take the controversial Jaguar C-X17 sports utility vehicle (SUV) concept for example, one of the highlights of the Frankfurt show.

Why controversial? Well, there has been some debate among enthusiasts as to whether a marque like Jaguar should even be considering such a car, much as there was when Bentley unveiled their EXP9F concept last year. To me, it’s not the fact that the C-X17 is a Jaguar that is an issue – as a styling exercise, it’s neatly executed and clearly a Jaguar. No, what rankles me, despite the technology behind its lightweight aluminium construction which will permeate to other Jaguars in time, is the fact that the C-X17 is yet another SUV or ‘Chelsea Tractor’ and, as such, seemingly represents yet another four-wheeled snub to both the environment and other motorists.

Jaguar weren’t the only SUV offenders; far from it. Audi presented the Nanuk concept, a 2-tonne, 2-seater 5.0 litre V10 diesel-powered 4WD sports car concept which begs the question ‘why?’. The Nanuk concept at once encapsulates profligacy and aggression – this is the environmentally challenged 21st century isn’t it? Whither ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’?

Other manufacturers positing SUV concepts at Frankfurt included Kia, Suzuki and Lexus, whose LF-NX concept was, er, certainly striking; even emergent manufacturers from China were getting in on the SUV act. The irrationality of such vehicles, especially in environmentally challenging times, illustrates how an appreciation of the car can extend beyond its mere utility, and I often wonder what a shift to SUVs and ‘Crossover’ vehicles like the Nissan Juke, for example, might say about car buyers, and why/how did they become perceived to be desirable? The answer would provide an interesting insight into how we ‘consume’ the car and what it might say about society today.

That SUVs and Crossovers have a greater environmental impact than comparable conventional cars is unequivocal, and the absolute and/or relative extra size and weight of SUVs necessitates increased energy inputs, whether embedded in their construction and/or in terms of their propulsion. Despite Land Rover offering hybrid versions of its Range Rover and Range Rover Sport models, and BMW also touting a hybrid version of its X5, the profusion of these type of vehicles would still appear to be an environmental anathema and could almost make one think ‘what environmental imperative?’ (I’d be intrigued to see if the drivers of hybrid SUVs feel any sensations of ‘greenness’).

It is heartening to see low carbon vehicles and their technologies being increasingly promoted at international motor shows (even if some of the emission and economy figures claimed by manufacturers seem to highlight the limitations of the official New European Driving Cycle (NEDC) test) and it may not be too long before EV and hybrid vehicle launches outnumber those of purely ICE vehicles. However, I fear that the plethora of SUVs on show at Frankfurt suggests that all this technology will merely permit running to stand still as far as emissions are concerned which, given the potential of these technologies, would be a tragedy.

Morgan a feeling…

This post began as something to write about during a blogging workshop which was held at Coventry University a week or so ago under the auspices of the Guild of Motoring Writers (GoMW) and co-hosted by Automotive Journalism lecturer Andrew Noakes and GoMW Breakthrough Blogger of the Year Keith Jones. However, as it was about a rather special automotive  experience, I thought I’d better give it a polish and post it.  

Just under eighteen months ago, I was afforded the opportunity to do something that anyone with a fluid ounce (or is that millilitres these days?) of petrol in their veins should do: along with a cohort of automotive design and journalism students from Coventry University, I popped down to Great Malvern in Worcestershire and visited the Morgan car factory.

Actually, you don’t need intravenous petroleum to appreciate Morgan – you can visit out of a sense of history, or of culture, or an appreciation for craftsmanship and style. Indeed, as you pass the factory on Pickersleigh Avenue, you somehow sense that Morgan isn’t a typical 21st century car maker, and the tour doesn’t disappoint as you are taken into a world of craft automotive manufacture, with a little high-technology thrown in.

Office furniture (Picture source: authors photograph).

Office furniture (Picture source: authors photograph).

Split into two groups from the outset, my particular group did the tour backwards – sort of – beginning in the despatch shop where customers’ cars are lined up for delivery, before going to see where the bodywork is fitted and engines are installed. Our next port of call was the body frame workshop, which is a particular delight as your senses are first assailed by the smell of wood and sawdust. And then you see – some sat upon trestles, some resting on the floor – the legendary ash frames, the architecture that will become a 4/4, a Plus-4 or a Roadster, and you begin to ‘feel’ the essence of Morgan (incidentally, contrary to popular belief, it is the body frame – and not the chassis – of a Morgan that is made of wood). It was in this workshop that we were all given wood, in the shape of an offcut with which we were presented as a souvenir by our guide. Anywhere else, and such an offcut would just be an odd-shaped bit of wood; but this is Great Malvern and so it was much, much more than a piece of misshaped arboreal detritus. I still have it.

In the frame (Picture source: authors photograph).

In the frame (Picture source: authors photograph).

Then it was over to the trimming shop where seats are fitted and dashboards installed, before proceeding to the facility where final checks are made – we didn’t get to see the paint shop – and then heading to another building where the neo-iconic 3-Wheelers are made. We only saw the final stage of this, but it was enough for a few pictures and a ponder over my next lottery win. I’ll probably need more than a tenner though.

Three wheels good... (Picture source: authors photograph).

Three wheels good… (Picture source: authors photograph).

Cars are more than just machines, and Morgans are more than just cars. They are innately anthropocentric. Whether it is the bespoke customer specifications or even just their hand-made nature, there is so much in the cars that is, for want of a better word, ‘people’ – a personality, perhaps. From a geographical and sociological point of view, there is an essence, a nature, an ‘affect’ to Morgan – both car and company – that is unique. It produces, and is, a feeling that is almost tangible.

One aspect of my PhD is concerned with the notion of the ‘affect’ of the motor car – an automotive affectus, if you will – and considers how the way that we ‘consume’ the car may impact upon the uptake of low carbon vehicles. Although a visit to the Morgan factory may provide a heightened sense of this, I believe that we all somehow ‘feel’ the car in a way that is manifest in the car we drive, even if we don’t realise it, and that the ‘consumption’ that in/evokes these feelings is a key yet overlooked aspect of the environmental impact of the car. Can we make the leap to a low carbon automobility? Do we even want to?

Before my factory visit, I’d always thought Morgans were okay – old-fashioned, six-year waiting list and all that – but I came away from Great Malvern wanting a Morgan – any Morgan – so much it hurt. Traditional style, modern technology and just so much essence imbued into the cars; what’s not to like? There’s even an electric one – christened the ‘Plus-E’ – knocking around somewhere; I wonder what that’s like to drive?

The factory visit is thoroughly recommended – check out the details on the Morgan website. You know you want to.

A conference pair

I’m not sure if academia has a conference season as such but I’ve had the pleasure of attending and presenting at not one, but two postgraduate events over the Easter period.

The first of these events was the Royal Geographical Society Postgraduate Forum (RGS-PGF) Mid-term Conference, which was held at the University of Birmingham from the 25th-27th of March. An early highlight was being greeted with “You’re the car guy!” at registration – I must have made some kind of impression at last year’s RGS-PGF. Post-registration, the first evening of the conference consisted of a wine reception, plenary welcome speeches and an impromptu curry somewhere in Selly Oak, which went some way to setting conversations and affiliations for the next couple of days.

On the day of the conference itself, a quintet of Coventrians represented both the Department of Geography, Environment and Disaster Management and the Applied Research Centre for Sustainable Regeneration (or SURGE). My presentation about the background and some early findings of my research was one of five in the Transport, Mobilities and Movements session and, thankfully, was seemingly quite well received, prompting a couple of questions and the odd chuckle too. It’s the way I tell ’em, apparently.

The conference must have taken some planning, with 81 presentations over 19 sessions on the day itself, plus a session with 15 poster presentations. With so many presentations and posters, there was something for everyone, which is as it should be – after all, geography is everything and everything is geography. With up to five sessions within each of four ‘blocks’ throughout the day, some clashing was inevitable, though there were plenty of interesting presentations to be had over the day, ranging from Confucian environmental philosophies to the human, material and natural geographies in Svalbard.

Huge thanks and congratulations must go to Megan Ronayne, Colin Lorne and their team – it was a frankly corking postgrad conference, and it was great to catch up with folk from last year’s RGS-PGF again, and to meet new people too. Next year’s hosts have got a very hard act to follow.

The second event in this conference mini-season was the Tyndall Centre ‘Climate Transitions’ PhD Conference, held at Cardiff University on 3rd-5th of April, and was a very cosmopolitan affair with students from universities all over Europe in attendance. Proceedings were opened with a brilliant lecture by Professor James Scourse of Bangor University on observations and evidence of climate change, which was followed by a session of 26 poster presentations. With 11 paper and 15 speed presentations taking place over just 4 sessions – Land & Water, Energy & Emissions, Coasts & Cities and Governance & Behaviour – it was possible to attend every session, three of which were held on the second day, along with a talk about science communication (particularly blogging) given by Dr Warren Pearce of the University of Nottingham. The second day culminated in a dinner debate about fracking, with speakers from Friends of the Earth Cymru, the Tyndall Centre and a pro-fracking body called No Hot Air, which was … interesting, shall we say. In the end, hands raised in favour of, or unsure about, fracking were rather in the minority.

A souvenir of my adventures (Picture source: authors photograph)

A souvenir of my adventures (Picture source: authors photograph)

My turn to present opened the final day of the conference in the Governance & Behaviour session, where I gave an ever-so-slightly amended version of presentation I’d given at RGS-PGF the previous week. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of questions asked and comments received afterwards, and really quite chuffed at my presentation being one of four ‘best in session’ winners at the conference prize-giving afterwards, netting me a £25 Amazon voucher. The ‘best in conference’ prize deservedly went to Alexandra Gormally from Lancaster University for her presentation about community-owned renewable energy generation in Cumbria.

It was great to meet lots of new people at Climate Transitions and, again, thanks and congratulations must go to the organising committee at Cardiff University – Catherine Cherry, Erin Roberts and Sam Hubble – who, under the auspices of the Tyndall Centre, organised a brilliant and wide-ranging event. An imaginative aspect of the conference was the provision of dedicated mugs to be used during breaks between sessions, and which we were told we could take home afterwards – a brilliant idea!

PhD research can be a solitary experience (especially if one lives 120 miles away from uni…), and I find that the great thing about conferences like RGS-PGF and Climate Transitions is meeting so many other students to learn about each other’s research, share experiences and chew the academic fat, even if I do feel a bit thick sometimes. As postgrads, we’re perhaps all kindred spirits, with the same problems and same joys inherent within PhD research, and coming together at conferences like RGS-PGF and Climate Transitions is palpably uplifting – indeed, the ‘fizz’ of ideas and potential around Birmingham and Cardiff was almost tangible. It was all very inspiring, reassuring and (re)affirming; re-energising, even.

And so, suitably re-energised and with morale duly boosted after two conferences in a fortnight, I feel like I’m more than ready to get back to work – well, maybe just after this next brew in my new mug…

Palm oil facepalm

The environmental imperative suggests that generating electricity from renewable energy sources as a means of reducing carbon emissions is an obvious course of action. But might some renewables end up costing the earth?

In December last year, I wrote a post expressing concern at Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) Secretary Ed Davey’s decision to proceed with plans for the fracking of shale gas reserves in the UK, not only because of the environmental problems therein, but also lest it detract from investment in renewable energy technologies such as wind, wave, tidal and solar power.

Like most nascent industries (and even some established ones), the renewables industry is in receipt of government subsidy, and this subsidy takes the form of Renewable Obligation Certificates (ROCs) which are issued by Ofgem to energy generators who in turn sell them to suppliers to meet their own obligations.

It may well have escaped your notice that, in the House of Lords last week, a cross-party scrutiny committee considered the Renewables Obligation (Amendment) Order 2013 (read from 4pm), a motion proposed by DECC which largely concerned the latest round of gradual phasing down of the level of ROCs used by the government to support the renewables industry. Such phasing down is perhaps inevitable, as the costs of renewable technologies decrease over time as they are increasingly rolled out – so far, so uncontroversial. However, one aspect of the Amendment which has brought controversy concerns the place of biofuel in power generation.

Coming to a power station near you? (Picture source: bloomberg.com)

Coming to a power station near you? (Picture source: bloomberg.com)

Now I’ve long been of the opinion that, when it comes to transport, the use of biofuels rather smacks of clutching at straws, in that it detracts from land which could (should?) be dedicated to food crops and which, in turn, could potentially impact upon the supply, security and price of food. Not only that, but the energy expended in the refinement of crops into fuel renders them rather less carbon neutral than it is commonly claimed. Besides, surely crops are better used for fuelling people rather than vehicles?

Biofuel, or biomass, can take several forms, ranging from firewood in domestic wood burners to manufactured wood pellets used in industry. I must admit that the use of biomass as a means of a larger scale electricity generation is something I hadn’t really considered, although the Amendment suggests that it could provide up to 30% of the UK’s renewable energy, equating to ~4% of total energy. The Amendment also included the introduction of ‘support bands’ for existing coal-fired power stations to convert, wholly or partially, to biomass generation, along with an announcement of a 400 megawatt cap on new biomass ‘plant’ or generation. I’m not sure exactly how much this kind of generation comes to, but the proposal is causing some concern, largely due to the spectre of palm oil.

Palm oil is widely used in many domestic household and food products, and the problems wrought by deforestation – climate change, sustainability, biodiversity and habitat loss – as rainforests are cleared to make way for palm oil plantations are well documented, and it has been reported that some agencies have expressed their concern that the measures proposed in the Amendment could make deforestation even worse. For example, a post by the Sumatran Orang-utan Society (SOS) claims that the Amendment’s proposed biomass cap would be high enough to double imports of palm oil into the UK. This claim is entirely plausible as it is reported that officials at DECC say they would be unable discriminate against palm oil – the cheapest liquid biofuel, according to SOS – subsidies, lest it impacts upon other biomass sources they want to encourage. But if Germany and the Netherlands can remove palm oil subsidies, why can’t we?

DEFRA and DECC seem at odds over endangered species (Picture source: independent.co.uk)

DEFRA and DECC seem at odds over endangered species (Picture source: independent.co.uk)

This is madness. In their efforts to reduce carbon emissions here, DECC are seemingly ensuring that they actually increase them elsewhere, all the while establishing monocultures and destroying habitats. SOS also point out that, with almost impeccable timing, DECC were potentially committing the habitats of endangered species to 20 years of development (the length of time that ROCs are guaranteed for) just two days after the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) became part of a one-year campaign promoting awareness of endangered species. You couldn’t make it up.

That’s not all. On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last Wednesday morning, energy minister John Hayes debated the matter with Professor Sir David King, the former chief scientific advisor to the government (listen from 2:39:40 to 2:46:14) and, in defending the biomass proposals, Mr Hayes seemingly demonstrated a profound ignorance regarding sustainability matters. As I listened to the programme, I was amazed to hear him denounce concern over food production as a “detached, bourgeois view” and stunned to hear him glibly declare that “we’ve been chopping up trees and burning them since man began”. So that’s alright then!

On the basis of this performance, one wonders what hope the environment has with someone like John Hayes in office. His appointment seemingly illustrates the disdain and/or ignorance of this government regarding the environment – I wonder if Mr Hayes could be replaced by one of the orang-utans displaced by the government’s misguided renewables policy.

Incidentally, the motion was passed: greenest government ever?