Tackling Climate Change Part 1- Fossil Fuels

Climate change is something we can no longer ignore, but how can we change our behaviour, will it make any difference, and what might it actually mean for the way we live our lives? I’m no scientist, and I’m certainly not an expert, but (as ever) I have plenty of opinions on the subject and will share a few of them over the next few blogs.

Transport is the developed world’s bête noir. We are literally addicted to fossil fuels to get us about in our cars, on buses or in the air. Everything we eat or wear has travelled by road, air or sea – sometimes thousands of miles. But it’s not just transport. Our homes are mostly heated with oil and gas. Many of us use gas to cook with, and it’s easy to ignore domestic consumption of fossil fuels because it’s “invisible” to us. The gas is piped straight to our homes; we don’t need to store it or refill it. The only indication we have of how much we’ve used is the bill, and even that doesn’t give us an idea of actual quantity. How much is £100 worth of natural gas? A balloon full? A swimming-pool full? I have no idea, do you?

So how do we eliminate fossil fuels from our lives without returning to the Middle Ages? The answer seems to be (largely) by increasing our reliance on electricity. But that in itself is problematic – as we’ll see later on we are going to need bucketloads of the stuff before we can adequately replace fossil fuels with it and, although we are getting cleaner and more renewable electricity, there are still an awful lot of coal fired power stations around the world.

In the City

I’m going to stick my neck out here and say that, if you live in a city, you probably don’t need a car on a regular basis. Public transport works well in cities, and a car is often more hassle than it’s worth. One of the many things I liked about Berlin when we visited (and I’ve noticed this in other European cities too) was the sheer number of cyclists. Not the lycra-d up speed freaks with super-light racing bikes that I see so many of in London, terrorising everyone including other cyclists, but normal-looking people in normal clothes going about their business. The fewer private cars we have in our cities, the more room there is for the cyclists, and hopefully the less intimidating it becomes. To be fair, there has been an exponential rise in the numbers cycling around London, but they’re jostling for position with all the other traffic and it’s not a particularly harmonious setup. Cities are also well served with railways, metro systems and sometimes trams – all of which are already powered by electricity and produce very little pollution at the point of use.

So if we accept that you don’t need a car if you live in the city, and you can easily hire one when you do, what about other forms of road use in cities? What about lorries, vans and buses? Cities need goods delivered just as much, probably more, than rural areas. We can’t just take all the lorries off the road – there would be carnage! The rail network works well for hub-to-hub movement, but lorries are still required to get the goods to the initial hub, and from the destination hub to the final location. Lorries, by their very nature, need massively powerful engines so that they can haul their heavy loads about the place without causing massive tailbacks wherever they go.

Battery technology, as it stands now, is not going to help with lorries in my opinion. By the time you added enough batteries to allow an articulated truck to pull itself up a reasonable incline, and have a usable range, the thing would weigh so much it would smash the surface of every road it went on. Fuel-cell technology might work – there are certainly a few hydrogen powered buses silently creeping around London – but I don’t know whether it can be scaled to produce the power an artic needs. Some cities only allow lorries in at night. While this doesn’t reduce the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels, it is a step in the right direction in terms of making a city a safer place for cyclists during the day. Maybe some hybrid model could work in the short term- where the trailers were delivered to a depot outside the city by a diesel lorry, but the final part of the journey was carried out at night using fuel-cell tractor units. Why not go the whole hog and redesign the buses in such a way that the tractor units could power them by day, and then move goods by night?

For buses the technology definitely exists already. As I mentioned earlier hydrogen buses are already on our roads, and London also has a number of battery powered buses too, although I have no idea what the range of those is like. I’m sad that the new Routemaster bus has been summarily dropped though. I thought that was a superb piece of design, and it must be possible to fix the battery problem mustn’t it? However, clever as they are, they do still rely on diesel, so I’m going to suggest hydrogen is the overall answer here.

Outside the City

In the countryside everything is reversed. There simply isn’t the population density to make large-scale public transport viable. Bus services in rural areas have been in decline for years, and I don’t believe government subsidy is ever going to provide an adequate bus service outside towns and cities. Cars are a must. So what can we do here?

The solution to date seems to focus on battery power, whether that be in a totally electric car or a petrol/electric hybrid. Leaving aside the well-known issues, such as range anxiety, a lack of charging points, and the time it takes to recharge a battery powered car, I believe this is also the wrong approach from an environmental perspective. The raw materials required to make these powerful batteries come from huge mines around the world, often in relatively inaccessible places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo. The mining and transportation of these materials has a big impact on the environment, and we’re yet to discover what plans there are for disposal of these batteries when they come to the end of their life. Batteries are not easy to recycle. If you have off-street parking it’s relatively easy to charge the car, but if you don’t (and many don’t, even in rural areas) then you’re going to have to run a cable from your house across the pavement to your car – assuming you can park outside your house. This doesn’t seem very practical, for all sorts of reasons.

To me batteries are just too inconvenient compared to fossil fuels, and I also think we’re storing up trouble when they inevitably lose their ability to hold a charge and have to be disposed of. So I’ll stick my neck out again and say this isn’t the future.

There was an article in my newspaper recently that stated that all new domestic boilers would need the ability to run on hydrogen by (I think) 2030. The problem with hydrogen at present is that it’s not readily available. But this ruling shows government intention to make hydrogen a mainstream source of domestic heat in the UK, so why not join up the thinking and look at hydrogen fuel cells for private cars as well? Yes, you still need a lot of electricity to produce it, but the advantages over battery power appear to me to be overwhelming. No range anxiety – you can simply fill up as you do now. No battery disposal either; from my limited reading a fuel cell will work for as long as you supply the fuel with no degradation so the cell should easily last the life of the car.

I know that some of the Japanese manufacturers have toyed with hydrogen and, if you ignore the current supply issues, it appears to work well. It’s plentifully available and reusable.

Air Travel

As things stand, there is no viable alternative to fossil fuels where aircraft are concerned. Airlines are experimenting with different fuels, and manufacturers are making their aircraft more and more fuel efficient. We can make conscious choices about how often we fly, but we need to accept that it’s not going to go away soon. But even still there are little changes we could make that could have a surprising impact.

Jet engines are at their most efficient when in the cruise part of the flight, and at their worst on the ground. At congested airports such as Heathrow and Gatwick, it can often be nearly an hour after pushback before the flight actually takes off. For all of that time the engines are running inefficiently and burning tons of unnecessary fuel. Why not redesign the system so the aircraft are moved by tugs on the ground, and only start the engines when they are about to enter the runway? It’s a small thing but the fuel savings, and reduction in pollution, could be immense.

Other Issues

This is already a longer blog than I’d anticipated. I just wanted to highlight some of the difficulties we have with transport, and suggest some innovative ways we might tackle them. There are loads of other questions to think about that aren’t covered here, such as:

  • The models suggested here might work well in a developed country, but what about the developing world, where they don’t have the resources to make the huge investments required? Climate change is a global issue, requiring global solutions.
  • This is all going to require an exponential increase in the amount of electricity we use. How are we going to generate that in an environmentally friendly manner?
  • Whichever way we go – battery or hydrogen – large-scale infrastructure change is going to be needed to make it viable. We’ll either need charging points, like parking meters, at every car parking space, or a full network of hydrogen refuelling points. Who is going to fund this?
  • If we all use batteries then there will also need to be a massive upgrade of the National Grid. In its current form there are areas (allegedly) where just two cars charging on the same street could cause supply issues.
  • The world economy has revolved largely around oil for most of the latter part of the 20th century, and the 21st. What will be the impact on our economies of adopting a different model?

Whatever we do, we have to accept that we need to move away from fossil fuels as much as we can, and as quickly as we can. My fear is that, in our haste, we aren’t thinking strategically enough or imaginatively enough yet. We have an opportunity to reinvent the way we look at transport in a radical way – let’s not miss it.

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