Archive for May, 2010

Transition to a Green Economy 2

Friday, May 28th, 2010

Before I talk about where can we get 187GW of low-GHG capacity, I think it is worth outlining the carbon cost of all the methods.  The numbers below are for the complete life-cycle of the plant, from extraction of raw materials an fuel through to decommissioning costs:

  • Coal:  >1,000g/kWh.  800g/kWh can be achieved with gasification technology.  200g/kWH may be possible with Carbon Capture and Storage.
  • Oil: 650g/kWh.
  • Nuclear: ~5g/kWh
  • Wind: ~5g/kWh
  • Wave and tidal:  25-50g/kWh.  High due to large amount of steel required
  • Solar-cells: 58g/kWh.  High due to extraction of silicon from sand.

For bulk generation, I’m going to rule out water and solar-cells as they are significantly worse than both nuclear and wind.  For small local systems, solar-cells are useful; I’m less convinced by wave and tidal.

This leaves nuclear and wind as the two low-GHG options.

There are two options for new nuclear power stations: the AP1000 and the EPR (the ACR-1000 and the ESBWR were initially considered but the proposing companies withdrew them from consideration).  The AP1000 and the EPR have both completed phase 3 assessments by the government and both have moved to phase 4 (completion June 2011) with recommendations for design changes.  For now, I’m going to look at the numbers for the EPR because it has a higher capacity (1650MWe versus 1154MWe) and is European.

For offshore wind, the largest wind-turbine is 10MW, from Sway in Norway.  Most other large turbines (onshore and offshore) are in the 5MW range.

Before you moan that I’m obviously pro-nuclear because of how much detail I provided compared to the amount for wind, I did this because nuclear power is contentious!  Wind is not contentious and there are several suppliers.

There are three extreme scenarios for generating the full 187GW from low-GHG sources: all-nuclear and all onshore or offshore wind:

  • Using the EPR would require 114 reactors.
  • Using 10MW offshore wind would require 18,700 turbines (covering roughly 1,000 square kilometres).
  • Using 5MW onshore wind would require 37,400 turbines (covering roughly 2,000 square kilometres).

Hopefully this demonstrates that both approaches have issues!  With nuclear, the main issue is public concern over safety; with wind, public concern about aesthetics.

That feels like enough for now (and I need to go to work:-)).  Still to come: cost, sites, and transition from current situation, carbon sequestration, etc.

Transition to a Green Economy

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Given our commitments to moving to a “carbon free” economy, I thought I’d take a break from Europe and look at some of the implications of this.  I think they are much bigger than people realise.

Let’s start with the big picture. 65% of our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are from three sources: electricity generation (28%), non-electric heating and hot-water (16%) and transport (21%).

There is one more large contributor, which is combustion and other processes in industry which accounts for a further 19%, but I have no idea what to do with this so for now, I’ll ignore it!

Conversion of electricity generation to low-GHG sources is an obvious target, and non-electric heating and transport can also be reduced to almost zero by use of low-GHG electricity sources.

So what does this mean for electricity generation? By 2012/13, the UK aggregate power station capacity will be ~95GW.  Of this, 10% will be nuclear (9.5GW) and ~4% will be wind (~4GW).  The remaining 86% (~82GW) will be from high-GHG sources (which accounts for that 28% figure above).

To cover the requirements for non-electric heating and transport, we would probably need to double our aggregate electricity generation capacity.  This is a difficult calculation to make as the differences in efficiency are difficult to assess.  For example, petrol or diesel engines are considerably less efficient than power stations, but replacing them with either battery power or hydrogen adds other inefficiencies.  So I’ve made the simple assumption that these roughly cancel out.

This doubling of capacity means we will need an additional 95GW of low-GHG sources in addition the to conversion of 82GW to low-GHG sources.  Also, the 9.5GW of nuclear needs replacement soon.  In total, over the next 20+ years we need to build ~187GW of low-GHG capacity.   This is an immense task!

To give you an idea how big, our biggest power station (Drax) generates 3.9GW, so we need to create roughly 50 times this in low-GHG capacity!

I’ll talk about the options in the next post.  Suffice it so say for now that I think nuclear is very much on the table.

Opinion Formation

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Given what I just wrote about Europe and the task we face in turning opinion around on Europe, I thought I’d better talk about opinion formation: who swings public opinion, and how they do it.

It is widely accepted (see this for example) that there is a two-step process in opinion formation; rather than being directly affected by the media, people are more influenced by exposure to each other.  In particular, a small group of “opinion leaders” (perhaps <10% of people), who have highly-connected social networks, are critical to the process.

So who are these opinion leaders?  Interestingly, even popular bloggers only have roughly the same influence as columnists; opinion leaders generally exert their influence by direct interpersonal contact.  Opinion seems split on whether there is anything “special” like education, class, or profession about opinion leaders, but it seems safe to say that they are well-informed on the subject in question, have large interpersonal networks, and talk about the subject!

So – if like me – you want to swing opinion, research the topic and talk about it.  But be careful: I have a dreadful tendency to bore-for-Britain once you get me started:-) And I’m sure this has a pretty negative effect on opinion formation!

Parliament, European Style

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Let’s start with a question.  Do you know who your MEP is?  Some among you will immediately notice a problem with that question: MEPs are elected using a proportional system (the D’Hondt version of party lists), so you have more than one for your region.

Another question.  Presuming you are a Liberal Democrat and have found an MEP you like in your region’s delegation, what party is they are a member of?  No, not Liberal Democrat.  I mean what European party do they represent?  Like me, did you have to google to discover it is the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party and that  they are part of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe?

And another.  When you voted, which party was your first choice?  Liberal Democrat, right?  So not the party your first choice will sit with in the European Parliament!

I’m sure some of you reading this knew the answers, but if you’re here, you’re probably an activist.  The average voter almost certainly can’t answer these questions.  Which highlights a very significant problem for the European Parliament.  To be a democracy, you need a demos – a pan-European pool of voters, voting on common issues.  Right now, people vote on national ideology and party, not for pan-European political parties; there is no European demos.

Worse than this, though some are ardently for or against Europe, the vast majority of voters are apathetic.  This is illustrated by turnout at European elections which was an abysmal 34.7% in 2009.  That UKIP have 12 out of 78 MEPs shows that a fair proportion who turned out to vote did so as a protest.

For a party that largely supports Europe (but I must stress wants significant reforms), this can’t be good news. We face a massive challenge between now and the next European elections in 2014.  While it is not realistic to create a true European demos in four years, we must make voters care.

We must make the common sense case for Europe – that there are things done better together than apart – and show the relevance to voters’ everyday lives.  We must also stress our desire for reform.  Critically we must debunk the myths; I addressed the size of the bureaucracy in a previous post but there are others, not least the myth of an all-powerful European super-state.

There are glimmers of hope.  Some European parties are starting to campaign on a Europe-wide platform, with common issues.  That we are in government, though with a largely eurosceptic party, will help.  It gives us a better platform to highlight the achievements and also to demonstrate that our support for Europe is not blind: we want significant reform, including repatriation of some powers (for example the Working Time Directive).

On reform, simple application of political liberalism and economic liberalism throws up some obvious targets: the Common Agricultural Policy is deeply economically illiberal; the Commission, though the engine room of the EU, fails almost every test of democratic accountability; and much of EU social policy is better addressed nationally.

In some ways, Conservative euroscepticism will help us.  EU institutions have undergone what feels like a perpetual revolution; with The Coalition commitment to referendums for any new treaties or for further transfer of power to Europe these institutions have a chance of stability.  With stability, they should (with help from us) become more familiar to voters and help dispel the myth of labyrinthine complexity.

In summary, we must:

  • Make the common sense case for Europe
  • Debunk the myths that surround Europe
  • Ensure the stability and accountability of European institutions
  • Demonstrate our desire for (and ability to) reform by working with the Conservatives; delivering one significant reform must be our minimum target!

Back to some questions.  Who introduces legislation?  Not the parliament; the European Commission has legislative initiative and proposes all legislation.  This and the relation of the Commission to the other bodies later.

The European Council

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

The structure of the European Union‘s political institutions is odd.  There are three institutions which hold the executive and legislative power, headed by a fourth, the European Council, which has no formal powers!

The European Council is comprised of the heads of government of each member state and meets at least four times a year.  It also includes the President of the Commission (non voting), and the High Representative often attends the meetings.  The European Council is headed by the President of the European Council who holds the position for two and a half years.  The first President, Herman Van Rompuy, took office on 1 December 2009.  It will be interesting to see how this role evolves; will it become the defacto President of Europe?

Essentially, the European Council defines the EU’s policy agenda.  As it has almost no formal powers it does this only through the influence of its members. That is, the leaders of the member states.

The European Council highlights the tension within the EU between intergovernmental cooperation and supranational power.  At present the European Council exerts power almost totally through intergovernmental cooperation.  Its formal powers are limited to the appointment of its President and resolution of issues referred to it by the Council of the European Union (also known as: the Council of Ministers,  the Consilium).

Oddly, the High Representative (for Common Foreign and Security Policy) has more executive power within the EU than the European Council itself.  The High Representative runs, among other things, the EU’s fledgling diplomatic service, the European External Action Service.

The other three institutions are the European Commission, the Council of the European Union, and the European Parliament.    The legislative procedure is slightly odd: the Commission presents legislative proposals to both the Parliament and the Council of the European Union which then negotiate a common draft which must be agreed by both the Council and an absolute majority in the Parliament.

A quick aside on terminology.  As there are two Councils: the European Council and the Council of the European Union,  I will abbreviate the Council of the European Union to “the Consilium” but will always use European Council in full.

I will discuss the Consilium, the Commission and the Parliament in future articles, so that’s it for now.  This entry has been rather dry but it has helped me understand the structure.  By way of apology, I’ll try to debunk one myth.

Everyone thinks of the EU as a bureaucratic leviathan, mired in multilingual paperwork.  The reality is rather different, and only around 20,000 eurocrats work directly for the Commission which is approximately half the number as work for Birmingham City Council!

That is slightly misleading.  If you add in all the agencies, expert committees, the Council Secretariat and the people who are employed in the member states by EU institutions, the total number rises to around 170,000.  But that is still small when compared to Her Majesty’s Civil Service which employs over 500,000 people (excluding Northern Ireland and the Diplomatic Service which are counted separately).

In contrast to the myth, the EU is a very lean organisation.

Europe, Community and Common Interest

Friday, May 21st, 2010

Though founded to ensure peace and stability in the aftermath of World War II, the European Union is now much more than that.  At its simplest level, it is founded on the principle that there are things we can achieve better together than separately.

To extend the concept of a hierarchy of communities I’ve used before, we are in some senses members of a european community.  I don’t use this in any formal sense or with reference to the former name of the EU, but only in the sense of a geographic community with common interests.  It should be self-evident that we have common interests, at minimum in preserving the european environment.

However, history plays a role.  A hierarchy of community headed by the nation-state is familiar territory to us all, but extension beyond this gets tied up with issues of nationalism and sovereignty.  It was easy for nations like France and Germany who had just experienced turmoil, invasion and occupation to understand that there should be some form of supranational european community.  But this is much more difficult for other states, particularly the UK and Sweden, which have been largely isolated from invasion and occupation.  This is reflected in the eurosceptic stances of both and it should be noted that neither have joined the Euro.

So presuming there is a pan-european community, what are its common interests and what are the areas where europe as a whole is a better agent than individual nations?

  • Common standards for human rights
  • Free trade and free markets, including freedom of movement of people, services, finance and capital
  • The environment
  • Supra-national infrastructure: roads, rail, air, power, water, etc
  • Common external relations where there are shared foreign interests and concerns
  • Representation at the UN, WTO and other “world” bodies

I could go on but I think this list makes the basic point for european coordination. But should this be intergovernmental cooperation or a supranational organisation with coercive (legal) power over nations?  Human rights, free trade and free markets present the clearest case for a supranational organisation.  Here it is critical that nations must not be allowed to impinge on the rights confered by liberalism (in all its aspects) and that legal power to prevent nations practising, say, torture or unfair trade is required.

I contend that there is a good, common-sense case for a supranational european organisation with legal power over its member states.

That “Democrat” Word

Friday, May 21st, 2010

Before I move on the Europe, I realised this morning that I haven’t talked about the word “Democrat” in the name of our party. Is it just a redundant hang-over from the merger of the Liberal party and the SDP in 1988?

In many senses, I think it is, but in one important sense I still think it is vital. Though political liberalism has democracy at its core, it does not really talk about pluralism and representation.

We live in a plural society where there is a broad spectrum of opinions. “Democrat” stresses the point that this range of opinions should be expressed fairly and proportionally at all levels of government. Unless and until we achieve the political (and electoral) reforms required, we still need that word.

Many are upset that we haven’t got any form of proportional representation from The Coalition. Personally, I am happy (and surprised) at the level of reform in the agreement. Though we can point at examples across Europe and the rest of the world where proportional systems work, I think it would be irresponsible of us to impose a proportional system until we demonstrate that coalition government works in this country. Now is our opportunity to do just that!

But what about “fairness” and “social justice”? Don’t they also require that “Democrat” word? I don’t think so; they are embodied in the concepts political and social liberalism. I’m much more comfortable with social liberalism than I am with the Labour concept (which we inherited through the SDP) of “social justice.”

The reason is not the policies they imply: they both need a tax system with variable rates depending on income and they both need a benefit system. Where I think they differ is in motivation. To me, “social justice” is entangled with Fabian concepts of redistribution, a feeling that somehow wealth is bad, and a feeling that education is somehow subsidiary. Social liberalism is about ensuring everyone is free from poverty, has housing and healthcare, and (most importantly) education. It is about ensuring everyone is free (and has the opportunity) to earn to their maximum ability. We should have no issue with the rich or even the super-rich; but we should not allow people to live in poverty and ignorance, unable to enjoy their freedoms.

The Labour approach has left us with a benefit system littered with poverty traps and huge disincentives to work. These poverty traps have also fostered an ignorance trap where young people feel unable to exploit their educational opportunities because of the loss of benefit to their parents.

I would like to see a radical reform of the entire benefits structure. I don’t know what the ideal system should look like. I just know the current system is awful.

The European Union

Friday, May 21st, 2010

This is a topic where Liberal Democrat thinking and policy is widely misunderstood, so over the next few days, I want to write a series of entries covering aspects of this.  If I get the time, I want to cover:

  • How the EU actually works.  The press and politicians have colluded in demonising the EU, so exposing the myths is important to our case for Europe.
  • How liberal principles apply to thinking about the EU.  In particular, the tension between internationalism and political liberalism is important as they tend to push things in opposite directions.  I don’t mean to imply that personal, economic and social liberalism are irrelevant to the EU, but I think their impact on our thinking is more obvious.
  • What our policies towards Europe and its various institutions are.  Again, I think exposing the myth of blind belief in the EU is important.
  • How The Coalition impacts our ability to reform the EU.  In particular, how eurosceptic are the Conservatives and in what areas will this euroscepticism help or hinder reform.

I suspect I might bounce around these topics as I think they are deeply intertwined.  This will also be a bit of a learning exercise for me: though I have fairly strong views on Europe, I have never applied any liberal (or other) political thinking to these views.

Right, I’d better start writing the first one!

Housing and the “green” Economy

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

It occurs to me that housing policy could help us move to a greener economy and could help achieve carbon targets.  I’d propose that new housing be built from sustainable materials wherever possible.  So what does this mean?  I think the primary effect would be to encourage timber buildings.  So long as the timber comes from sustainably farmed southern temperate or tropical softwood this would over time, sequester (capture and store) large amounts of carbon.  My own house has been successfully storing tonnes of carbon for four centuries!

Why the restriction to southern temperate or tropical softwood?  Largely because large areas of forest lower the albedo in regions that get snow in winter, increasing net insolation.

Social Cohesion Revisited

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

After I wrote about the “Big Society” there was some debate about what I said about pubs and cheap supermarket booze.  Well, it seems the coalition agrees with me on this issue:

  • We will ban the sale of alcohol below cost price.
  • We will review alcohol taxation and pricing to ensure it tackles binge drinking without unfairly penalising responsible drinkers, pubs and important local industries.

And on the other side of the issue, there are of course measures to ensure licenses can be reviewed (and revoked) and measures to discourage under-age drinking.