Sunday, January 25, 2009

data emissions emissions data

The investment bank Morgan Stanley is planning to build a massive 'data centre' (big building full of computer servers) in the north of Scotland, powering it by tidal energy.

At 150 megawatts, it dwarfs all other tidal-turbine power on earth. It's less than a year since the first megawatt-scale tidal turbine went onstream in Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland.

The Morgan Stanley turbines won't be connected to the grid, just have a private cable. This means it'll be up and running quicker, but not really part of national plans to reduce dependency on fossil fuels.

The Guardian piece about it contains a terrifying number

A spokesman at the Department for Energy and Climate Change said: "Data centres are significant users of energy, they are responsible for 3% of electricity use in the UK and this is expected to double by 2020."

As we're sat here at our computers, what emissions are we generating? A recent news report tells us Google is especially carbon intensive.

A typical search through the online giant's website is thought to generate about 7g of carbon dioxide. Boiling a kettle produces about 15g...

According to Gartner, an American research firm, IT now causes about two per cent of global CO2 emissions and its carbon footprint exceeded that of the world's aviation industry for the first time in 2007.



Thanks to Mish (see Comments below), we've got hard evidence to debunk that 7g figure.

I was careful to say above that the figure is 'a recent report telling us', and to link to it which in turn links to Google's refutation.

I realised it was citing one figure (albeit from a Harvard study, which I thought was probably credible), but then they cited

A separate analysis by John Buckley, of, a British environmental website, put the CO2 emissions of a Google search at between 1g and 10g

which added weight to it.

However that whole report in the Telegraph appears to have just copied what the Sunday Times had said. And that, in turn, appears to be a load of made-up bollocks, as TechNewsWorld report

The study's author, Harvard University physicist Alex Wissner-Gross, says he never mentions Google in the study. "For some reason, in their story on the study, the Times had an ax to grind with Google," Wissner-Gross told TechNewsWorld.

"Our work has nothing to do with Google. Our focus was exclusively on the Web overall, and we found that it takes on average about 20 milligrams of CO2 per second to visit a Web site."

And the example involving tea kettles? "They did that. I have no idea where they got those statistics," Wissner-Gross said.

The Sunday Times has had to hang its tail between its legs and be unequivocal. Now they've put a bit at the top of the story.

We are happy to make clear that this does not refer to a one-hit Google search taking less than a second, which Google says produces about 0.2g of CO2, a figure we accept.

So why did the Sunday Times do this? Back to Alex Wiesner-Gross.

The short answer is, it's a really easy way to sell papers. Google is a very successful company and it's a very easy way to get readership by making grandiose claims about them.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

keep death off the roads - the prequel

My last post considered the idea of a socially acceptable killing-to-fun ratio for various activities, especially cars. John B's post I quoted wasn't the first one to ponder the issue.

Between December 1943 and April 1947 George Orwell was a columnist for Tribune, having a good old rant about whatever bothered him. Speaking bluntly with a dry wit, constantly confronting power and yet unafraid of upsetting those who felt they should be his allies, there are more than a few parallels with George Monbiot.

In November 1946, Orwell considered deference to the motor car.

One interesting example of our unwillingness to face facts and our consequent readiness to make gestures which are known in advance to be useless, is the present campaign to Keep Death off the Roads.

The newspapers have just announced that road deaths for September dropped by nearly eighty as compared with the previous September. This is very well so far as it goes, but the improvement will probably not be kept up - at any rate, it will not be progressive - and meanwhile everyone knows that you can’t solve the problem while our traffic system remains what it is.

Accidents happen because on narrow, inadequate roads, full of blind corners and surrounded by dwelling houses, vehicles and pedestrians are moving in all directions at all speeds from three miles an hour to sixty or seventy.

If you really want to keep death off the roads, you would have to replan the whole road system in such a way as to make collisions impossible. Think out what this means (it would involve, for example, pulling down and rebuilding the whole of London), and you can see that it is quite beyond the power of any nation at this moment. Short of that you can only take palliative measures, which ultimately boil down to making people more careful.

But the only palliative measure that would make a real difference is a drastic reduction in speed. Cut down the speed limit to twelve miles an hour in all built-up areas, and you would cut out the vast majority of accidents. But this, everyone will assure you, is ‘impossible’.

Why is it impossible? Well, it would be unbearably irksome. It would mean that every road journey took twice or three times as long as it takes at present. Besides, you could never get people to observe such a speed limit. What driver is going to crawl along at twelve miles an hour when he knows that his engine would do fifty? It is not even easy to keep a modern car down to twelve miles an hour and remain in high gear—and so on and so forth, all adding up to the statement that slow travel is of its nature intolerable.

In other words we value speed more highly than we value human life. Then why not say so, instead of every few years having one of these hypocritical campaigns (at present it is ‘Keep Death off the Roads’—a few years back it was ‘Learn the Kerb Step’), in the full knowledge that while our roads remain as they are, and present speeds are kept up, the slaughter must continue.

Monday, January 19, 2009

keep death off the roads

Last summer, in what may or may not have been called Operation Fish-Barrel, police were on the southbound M5 looking for cars going to Glastonbury and searching them for drugs. Two people who got caught with their stash were given 12 months in jail.

Taking drugs at Glastonbury, those guys were no real danger to anyone but themselves, and even then their biggest injury risk would probably be sore ribs from hugging each other too hard.

It can be argued that they knew the law and chose to break it so should be prepared to take it on the chin.

Except that the same thing's true of speeding drivers. I have to wonder, in the time the police were searching that car on the motorway, how many speeding drivers were going past?

The same cops were ignoring the speeders in order to catch a smaller number of criminals whose crime, more importantly, was less of a threat to innocent people.

As a society we have decided that the enormous threat from cars is worth the death they cause, but not the smaller threat from taking recreational drugs.

As John B says

If something provides sufficient net quantities of fun, it is easy to see that we do rate it as worth the death of one or several innocent people. How’s that? Easy. Such beneficial-only-because-fun activities that kill the innocent and non-consenting as funfairs, fast cars, aviation, skateboarding, allowing men out at night, swimming pools and serving margarine to kids are both legal and socially acceptable.

Hence, society (here meaning 'everyone who is capable of even the most basic level of moral debate') agrees that if enough fun is provided, the deaths for fun trade-off is acceptable. The only moral question left is over the necessary fun-to-killing ratio.

But still, we limit the fun. There are safety laws around dangerous items such as guns, funfairs, swimming pools and motor cars. Those who flout them are greeted with public opprobrium, with the curious exception of speeders. Those same Mail-Express newspapers that use the word 'criminal' to imply a total lack of personal worth are ferocious in their defence of the criminal activity speeding.

Witness the recent hoo-hah about the Commission for Integrated Transport’s report into the use of speed limiters, a sat-nav system that knows where speed limits are and makes your car obey them.

For several years trucks have been limited to 56mph, with a resultant drop in accidents. Why not extend this to cars? The Commission says we could introduce them voluntarily – maybe offering incentives such as a reduction in car tax – and see how we get on.

The evidence is certainly compelling. Mandatory speed limiters would reduce injury accidents by 29%. It would be most effective on roads that have cyclists and pedestrians. In other words, this isn’t about taking away people’s right to risk their own safety; it’s about reducing their ability to injure others.

That statistic conversely means that it would affect accident reduction less on motorways. However, there it has a different reduction in the deadly effects of cars. Whilst obeying speed limits on normal roads would deliver no real difference in CO2 emissions, if motorway drivers stuck to going under 70mph they'd reduce their carbon emissions by around 6%.

The AA attacked the idea, with their president Edmund King saying

Many may worry that a voluntary Government system may lead to a Big Brother compulsory system that tracks us as well as our speed.

Sorry, but since March 2006 they've been doing exactly that. CCTV cameras across the country are networked, covering all motorways and main roads as well as towns, cities, ports and filling station forecourts. The system reads 35 million number plates a day and stores the details for two years on a police computer.

But the AA and the other motorist groups didn't make a fuss about that. It's not the surveillance they fear, it's the fines. It's not about our collective liberty, just the motorists' money.

More to the point, the limiters can and do work without any logging technology. It does not mean an increase in government surveillance.

The Daily Mail tories hate speed cameras calling them 'a blatant tax on the motorist'.

Well yes, as they target motor vehicles they tax some motorists. However, as they only target speeding vehicles they are a more accurately a tax on motoring crime. Fines for speeding are no more a general tax on motorists than fines for headbutting are a tax on people with foreheads.

Speed cameras are installed where there have been several serious accidents. Their primary purpose is not to catch speeding motorists and tax them, it is to discourage drivers from speeding through blackspots. That is why they usually have bloody great big signs warning a driver as they approach.

Personally, I think this has a default of ceding the rest of the road network to speeding. I don't see why they don't have a vast amount of hidden speed cameras elsewhere. Those who obey speed limits would never be penalised. As the Conservatives always say when infringing liberties, the innocent have nothing to fear.

In those circumstances the politicians are usually bringing in some anti-terrorist legislation. As the brilliant performance poet Danny Chivers has pointed out - in rhyme, no less - Mount Snowden kills as many people as terrorism. Whereas in the UK cars kill as many people as the 7/7 bombings every week. Even the appalling massive toll of the Madrid bombings pales when you find out that the same number of Spaniards are killed by cars every ten days.

Infringing on the right to criminally kill cyclists, pedestrians and other road users is something I can live with.

Friday, January 16, 2009

heathrow is go, kingsnorth no?

as aviation minister, I learned two lessons about the aviation industry. First, its demands are insatiable; secondly, successive Governments have always given way to them.

- Chris Mullin MP, House of Commons, 28 November 2002

So, after numerous delays in the face of opposition from all parties including Cabinet ministers, the go-ahead for Heathrow's third runway has actually gone ahead.

The UK's largest source of carbon emissions is to grow massively. This, then, is the best use for nine billion pounds that the Cabinet can think of. Kudos to John McDonnell MP for greeting the decision with a response so strong that he got slung out of parliament and suspended.

Aside of the way it utterly shreds any hopes of hitting the government's targets for carbon cuts, the decision is another contribution to Labour getting a pasting at the polls next time.

A survey conducted by Greenpeace last May showed that 18 of the 44 Labour MPs in London were opposed to a third runway. A separate ICM poll, published by Greenpeace earlier this week, suggests Labour would lose the London constituencies of Battersea, Ealing Central and Acton, Brentford and Isleworth, and Hammersmith if the plan went ahead.

Almost a quarter of voters polled said they would be less likely to vote Labour if the third runway plans were given the green light, according to the ICM poll

So why would they do it? Jackie Ashley says

The most cynical explanation, which I have heard buzzing around in the past few days, is simply that ministers who know they have lost the next election are cosying up to the business interests that may help them out in the private sector afterwards.

New Labour has close links with BAA, and the big-business lobby for Heathrow may still be in a position to offer cushy jobs, recession or not. Loth as I am to admit there might be a shred of truth in that, it wouldn't be the first time favours done in government have been repaid afterwards.

That's not just about New Labour sleaze. Let's remember that the Conservatives are just the same.

Just ask Norman Tebbit, one of the privatisers of British Telecom who - shazam - magically and coincidentally ended up on the private company's board.

Or Stephen Dorrell, architect of the railway privatisation, who ended up with a £100,000 a year 'part-time directorship' of Stagecoach, the company that ran Southwest Trains. Ran it so badly that they cut staff to maximise profits, then found they hadn't got enough drivers for their trains so cancelled loads of services.

The Conservatives have changed since then though, right? They've got a tree logo so they must be all environmentally conscious these days. They are clear about their opposition to the third runway.

Shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers told BBC Radio 4's Today any government environmental promises would be shown "to not be worth the paper they are written on" and said her party would cancel the project if they win the next general election.

The leader was even more stark

"What business needs to recognise is that the third runway is just not going to happen," said Mr Cameron. "There is such a coalition of forces against it. There's such an environmental case against."

London's Conservative mayor Boris Johnson appealed to his Labour counterparts in the London Assembly

I hope you will all join me in deprecating this government's plans to build a third runway, which would drive a coach and horses through our attempts to reduce C02 emissions

The bit they're not trumpeting so loudly is Johnson's support for building a whole new airport on the other side of London. This would satisfy many of the concerns about noise, demolished villages and other local impacts on the more well-to-do, but the carbon emissions will be as bad or worse than a third runway at Heathrow.

No matter, they'll primarily impact on people who are poor, not very white and a long way away.

If there's anything positive to be taken from this announcement - beyond the fact that it may still be defeated by legal challenges and Tories and whatnot - it's that it may make it harder for the government to push ahead with that other great climate assault, Kingsnorth power station.

Frankly, if it's an either/or choice then that's the way I prefer it; far better to go with aviation and lose coal burning than the other way around.

Kingsnorth would be the flagship for a new wave of coal stations, burning for up to fifty years. If the plans for Kingsnorth are spiked, it'll be all the harder for the ones queuing up behind it to get through.

The government's projected figures for a doubling of airport use by 2030 would obliterate any chance of serious carbon cuts. Even if we did everything else in the most carbon-responsible way, the government's projected aviation expansion would exceed our carbon 2050 carbon targets.

But whilst we may build the capacity for such growth, it is highly unlikely to happen. Unlike other forms of transport, there is no alternative fuel for aircraft. Airport use will be decimated when cheap oil disappears. Believe what you like about exactly when that'll be, but there's no credible voice that says it'll be past the mid-century and it may well be starting now.

The age of cheap oil will be over long before Kingsnorth 2 and the other 21st century coal power stations got decomissioned, whereas the age of cheap coal will romp onwards thought the next century and beyond.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

geoengineering 'ethically unsound' says geoengineer

Last month I went to a Cafe Scientifique talk by Dr Alan Gadian. He's part of a team with Mike Smith at the University of Leeds and John Latham who are experimenting with cloud-seeding.

Their idea is that if you whoosh up great quantities of sea water into the air then the salt crystals will encourage clouds that reflect solar energy, thereby reducing the amount of heat trapped by greenhouse gases.

The big problem with this and other climate geoengineering projects is that they allow an escape route for the carbon emitters. Desperate to do anything other than reduce our energy consumption and attendant emissions, they fired off the decoys of climate denial, followed by carbon offsets and biofuels. Anything to distract us, to give us the hope that there'll be some swift, simple magic bullet.


The geoengineering schemes that reflect the sun have a very serious problem. They mean that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will keep rapidly increasing. This will have serious impacts on plantlife but seemingly more serious is the impact on the oceans. It will cause them to acidify, killing the coral reefs and making many species unable to properly form shells. This isn't taking out one or two species, this is hacking out a huge length of the food chain. The knock-on effects scarcely bear thinking about.

Dr Gadian said that the scheme, should it work, would require £1.5bn worth of whooshy boats. All things going well they'll make the desired sort of clouds, although the might make the wrong ones and actually dissolve the present level of reflective clouds and make the situation worse.

He told us that it's not that dangerous a plan because sometimes 'clouds are naturally like that'. Hmm, taking something that naturally occurs and increasing the amount of it in the atmosphere, that's not a problem is it? Can anyone say 'carbon dioxide?'

Dr Gadian says his scheme is less risky than other reflection schemes as if anything untoward is discovered it's rapidly switch-offable. All artificially-induced clouds should be gone within two weeks of the boats stopping their work.

The problem is that by then it may be too late. Not only are there the unforeseen side-effects and having to get someone who's invested over a billion dollars to admit they're wrong and take a massive loss squarely on the chin, but more importantly there's what hasn't happened. We haven't cut our emissions because we were banking on this scheme. To stop making the clouds is to allow more sun in and let all the emissions from the time when we chose the scheme to the swithc-off date heat the climate.

Even if it doesn't affect weather in the least and even if altered cloud cover has no adverse ecological effects, this will be used to delay real action. It means if it doesn't work well enough we're stuffed. It means we permit - we actually choose to cause - all the other effects of spiralling quantities of CO2 in the atmosphere.


Dr Gadian said it mightn't be that much really, because that his scheme mightn't be long-term, it could be 'just for ten years or so until we change'.

This is the central lie of the geoengineering lobby. They cannot argue that their ideas are safer or more effective than carbon cuts, so they argue that they're just a stopgap until we make such cuts.

The time it takes to develop, test for effectiveness and the very high degree of safety, and then scale up and deploy any of their schemes is at least as long as it'd take to make serious carbon cuts. And who do we think would invest billions of dollars in a scheme that's trying to be as short term as possible?

The investors will want something back for their money, and the benefits of any climate geoengineering will almost certainly be sold as 'carbon credits' to the polluting industries and nations. It will not be done in tandem with emissions cuts but instead of them. Geoengineering will not be a tool of mitigation but of exacerbation.


Dr Gadian's grasp of the threat from carbon emissions was graphically illustrated by the astonishing declaration that 'my biggest fear is that we will run out of fossil fuels in two or three centuries'.

If we get to the point of actually running out of fossil fuels as opposed to abandoning them then the mere running out will not be our biggest problem.

If it gets to that stage then, given the ecological devastation and our inability to wean ourselves off fossil energy, it would truly be a case of 'would the last species on earth please turn out the lights?'.

Dr Gadian plainly said that humanity will burn all the fossils it can, so geoengineering is necessary to mitigate this inevitability. Like him, I'm old enough to remember another certainty of global politics, the inevitable nuclear war with the Soviet bloc. Those who treat these things as certainties make them more likely, when in fact they are avoidable.

To move ahead with geoengineering is to divert efforts from elsewhere, it is giving up on the pressure, education and resistance that can still prevent those emissions. The geoengineers' main purpose is to be a tool of those who wish to continue burning fossil fuels.


He fell back on the standard fossil-enthusiast's argument that 'we can't tell China and India that they can't have our standard of living'.

This is bollocks. Firstly, they can sit there saying 'why should we cut back when you won't?'. Everyone is using everyone else's inaction as an excuse for their own.

As a medium sized industrialised country nobody is better placed than the UK to be the leading light in showing that a swift transition to a low-carbon economy is possible. And as the nation with the greatest historical responsibility for carbon emissions, we are also the most morally obliged to be the leader in the solutions.

And all this is before we start to point out that Chinese per-capita emissions are half of ours, and that figure, in turn, is before we take into account that around a third of their carbon emissions are from manufacturing goods for export. Much of 'their' emissions are just us outsourcing ours.

There is no need for China and India to unswervingly follow our path, instead they can leapfrog the high-emitting decades and go straight into what the 21st century should look like.


Dr Gadian says Met Office disapprove of the cloud-seeding plan. He sarcastically suggested that it was because the idea came out of a university and it threatens their supremacy. Nothing to do with the fact that the Met Office do have a large and leading role in concern about climate change as opposed to a scientist who readily admitted that he isn't motivated by concern for the climate but is primarily concerned with finding out how clouds are formed.

The issue is too important to let such head-in-the-sands be charged with solutions, and certainly too important to let such infantile catty attitudes have any part in dismissing as august a voice as the Met Office.

That this scheme will undoubtedly be used to distract us from cutting carbon emissions; that it will not be a short-term precursor to responsible action but an excuse for long-term emissions; that it will allow carbon emissions to assault marine biodiversity that could lead to major extinction events and threaten food supplies for many species and peoples; that they haven't even asked people in Chile where they're doing their experiments what they think; all these things make it an outrage and something to be opposed as strongly as we oppose new runways or coal power stations.

His final words on the subject haunt me. After I named those reasons why the scheme is so wrong Dr Gadian said, 'I agree, it's ethically unsound'.

The major crime of our culture is that we know what we're doing but we do it anyway.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

geoengineering: biodiversity kerplunk

'Geoengineering' is the term for vast schemes that alter the earth's natural systems. There are a load of them being suggested as a solution to climate change.

Hugely expensive, of doubtful effectiveness and with colossal risk of destructive side-effects, they should be being dismissed outright. But as the climate crisis looms larger and we really really don't want to cut our emissions, even the craziest ideas are becoming credible.

I've just published a new article at U-Know called Geoengineering: Biodiversity Kerplunk

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

more from gaza

In addition to Tales To Tell, the blog from Gaza mentioned in my previous post, there's another blog done by an International Solidarity Movement volunteer called In Gaza.

Sunday, January 04, 2009


Some thoughts on the Israeli action against Gaza.

Firstly, the defence used by Hamas and their supporters that the rockets fired into Israel haven't killed many people misses the point.

It's not that there have been 15 or 20 Israelis killed. It's that 3,000 rockets have been fired. They may not be weapons of mass death but they are certainly weapons of mass terror. Can you imagine what it must be like knowing you're within range of those rockets?

This, though, does not in any way justify the Israeli action. When the death toll is 100 Palestinians for every Israeli, this is disproportionate retaliation; it is a war crime.

When at least a third of the casualties are unarguably civilians, this is collective punishment; it is a war crime.

Why are Hamas missiles terrorist action deserving of war crimes yet Israel's extra-judicial killings of Hamas politicians isn't even worth mentioning?

The idea that Hamas weapons are cruelly placed close to civilians is horseshit of the highest order; when one and a half million people live in an area the size of the Isle of Wight, where the hell is the area away from civilians?

And can people stop saying Obama is any kind of hope? In July he was asked if he thought Israel should negotiate with Hamas.

I don't think any country would find it acceptable to have missiles raining down on the heads of their citizens.

The first job of any nation state is to protect its citizens. And so I can assure you that if - I don't even care if I was a politician. If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that. And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.

He didn't say if the same thing applied to Palestinians suffering Israeli missiles.

He defended Israel's attack on Syria and avoided answering whether he'd support similar Israeli action against Iran. He did, though, warn of the dangers of Iran getting nuclear weapons.

Whatever remains of our nuclear non-proliferation framework, I think would begin to disintegrate. You would have countries in the Middle East who would see the potential need to also obtain nuclear weapons.

That started happening when the first middle eastern country got nuclear weapons. But shhh, let's not mention them. When the US government commissions reports into the weapons of mass destruction of other countries, there's always one omission.

The agencies provide their assessment of programs in Iran, North Korea, India, Pakistan and others, but Israel (and Egypt) are omitted. This pattern is repeated across the board.

For example, the 2003 report on the ballistic and cruise missile threat from the National Air and Space Intelligence Center lists 18 nations with missiles, including U.S. allies Bulgaria, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Yemen, and Egypt — but not Israel.

Yet, Israel is the only nation in the Middle East with nuclear weapons and an array of medium-range missiles that could deliver them.

The US government gives billions of dollars a year in military aid to Israel. Obama will continue that. Having the US as arbiter is like watching Northwich Victoria play Manchester United and saying it'll be fair if Alex Ferguson is the referee.

While those of us over here vent spleen on blogs and have our marches - including the inspired shoe-throwing at Downing Street - we know that the Israeli government is unaffected. So does it make any difference? Largely not. But yes it does, if it emboldens some to take practical action.

In August a group of international activists including Holocaust survivors loaded a boat with the kind of essential supplies the Israelis were blocking and sailed it to Gaza. After a hair-raising game of bluff with the Israeli navy, they broke the illegal Israeli sea blockade and delivered their cargo.

Once there, they sailed out with Palestinian fishing boats (the Israeli military had been illegally attacking them in Palestinian waters).

One of their number is there again now as part of the International Solidarity Movement, going to where it's most useful as a human shield (the idea being that the Israelis are less likely to commit atrocities with internationals there). There is - and be warned, it is harrowing stuff - Tales To Tell, a blog from the thick of it.