Saturday, January 24, 2009

Thoughts on the week

This is how I have spent the bulk of my time this week:-

1. Coppicing (see my previous post)

2. Transition Horsham – a productive meeting with two of my colleagues, Bilal and Andrew, some work to overhaul the website (my main role in Transition Horsham is Webmaster) and production of the latest draft of the constitution (very boring but necessary).

3. Getting to grips with the economics of Peak Oil – which is what I want to talk about first.

As I explained in a previous post (January 15), I was rather bowled over by Chris Martenson’s Crash Course. What impressed was its eloquence and clarity and the way it brought several strands of thinking together to create a compelling message. I reserved judgement on its soundness, needing time to examine in more detail what he was saying and to reconcile it to my current understanding of economics.

This week I started the reconciliation process. I like to study things using spreadsheet models – I spent the last twenty or so years of my working life mainly creating and working with spreadsheet models and I feel as if I can't live without them. The model I (rather presumptively) started to set up is of the world economy. It will be a grossly oversimplified model working with very broad aggregates but sometimes very simple models can be informative. I haven’t got far enough for it to be informative as yet but I can at least say what I’m trying to test.

The main argument of Martenson, as I understand it, is that economic growth cannot continue indefinitely because natural resources are finite. Technically, this is not necessarily true.

Firstly, it depends on how people want to spend their money. Suppose there developed a fashion for people to pay large sums of money to attend live readings by poets and these readings normally took place with small audiences in village halls and other neighbourhood premises. This sort of activity would hardly consume any resources but would contribute to GDP because people were paying for the privilege of attending. So a big switch in people’s preferences away from goods and travel towards non resource-crunching services, such as poetry readings, would allow economic growth to continue while the use of energy and natural resources declined.

Secondly, GDP isn’t just household consumption as we would normally understand it – it’s investment as well. Suppose that, as oil prices rose following Peak Oil, there was massive investment in renewable energy, paid for either out of taxation or from huge increases in the prices paid for energy by consumers. Higher tax or domestic energy prices would reduce household consumption in real terms unless, again, there was a big switch in preferences. However, the investment in renewable energy would create jobs and if this had the effect of reducing unemployment, this could mean economic growth. In other words, after Peak Oil, or after we start taking global warming seriously, everyday life might feel very different, and we might feel materially poorer, but economic growth, as measured by GDP, might continue.

There, in words, are the arguments I want to examine in the context of the Martenson thesis. However, economists are never happy to work in words alone – we feel compelled to back things up with some maths and this is what I am trying to do – specify a mathematical model and try running different sets of input data through it.

Now for some other thoughts on the week.

In my opening blog post I mentioned James Lovelock. This week’s New Scientist has an interesting feature on him. It suggests that in my opening blog post I slightly under-estimated the scale of the apocalypse that Lovelock is predicting – he puts the scale of the cull of the human population at 90% rather than 80% I mentioned.

Nicholas Stern, the economist, of Stern Review fame, also features in this week’s New Scientist.
If you read Stern’s article and the Lovelock interview together, you might get the feeling that economists and scientists live on different planets. I think Stern must take much of the credit for getting people to take climate change seriously – mainly with his argument that the economic cost of doing something about climate change is likely to be a lot less than the cost of doing nothing. However, I have always felt that what he offered in the Stern Review was some soothing mood music – yes, we need to do something about global warming but it won’t cost us all that much – think of it like the insurance premium you pay in case your house burns down. The Stern Review came out a few months after Lovelock’s The revenge of Gaia. Having read The revenge of Gaia first, I found the arguments around the Stern Review rather surreal – how on earth do you put a price on the risk of a 90% wipe-out of humanity?

However, I don’t know of any scientist who has come out explicitly in support of Lovelock’s prediction. As far as I could see, Stern was in line with the IPCC. I think James Hansen (Director of NASA’s Goddard Institute, also mentioned in my opening blog post) comes close. As it happens, this week I got to read a piece by him (and in this case his wife) that I hadn’t seen before, though it was published in The Guardian on January 1st.

Some of the ideas got a re-run in the The Observer last Sunday.

The letter reinforces my feeling that economists and scientists are living in different worlds. This open letter to Michelle and Barack Obama is rich in ideas and one of them is the denunciation of the notion, dear to economists, of cap-and-trade schemes. Economists like them because, in theory, they are an economically efficient way of capping things – those who value and are prepared to pay most for what is being capped get to consume it. Others, who value it less, do without. However, Hansen maintains that in practice cap-and-trade systems aren’t working and are mere “greenwash”. His alternative is “tax and dividend” – a hefty carbon tax which, instead of going into government coffers, is simply redistributed to the population.

It’s an interesting idea which chimes with some of my own half-formed thoughts about life in a post-growth economy. Many people in the past (such as the Canadian Social Credit movement of the 1930s) have put forward the idea that every household should receive a substantial basic income as of right and that earnings from work should be in addition. It’s an attractive idea in principle, particularly at times of economic recession when earning a living from work for many people isn’t an option. However it’s very difficult to get the figures to stack up without what look like impossibly high rates of taxation. I would like to find time to generate a few scenarios to see if there were any way the idea could work – but don’t hold your breath.

Sorry – again not very much about my personal energy descent – the big picture interests me too much.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


I've just spent a couple of days coppicing. This is part of an energy descent that I share with Deb, my partner, and her mother whom she looks after. A couple of months ago we had a wood-burning stove installed in her mother's room. It's brilliant - though the main benefit may be in keeping Deb's mother warmer rather than saving oil. However, it's nice to know that we are now equipped with an efficient way of keeping warm that's independent of fossil fuels.

A bit more explanation - I've been with Deb for nearly six years now. She, and her mother and nephew live in a big, pretty but draughty old farmhouse a couple of miles south of Horsham, West Sussex. I am gradually making the place a bit more draught-proof, mainly by putting budget secondary glazing over the leaky windows (more of that in a future post).

I still have a flat in London, in which I spend about half my time. A later part of my energy descent will be to sell or let out my flat in London and move myself entirely to Horsham. I think that's still some time away.

The house at Horsham has several hectares of land attached, which are used for grazing horses. Along the boundary are lots of formerly-coppiced hazels and dotted around are a few ash trees (young and old), some magnificent old oaks and a few field maples. I reckon there may be enough trees capable of being coppiced to keep the new stove supplied, perhaps along with the occasional fallen branch from the mature oaks and ashes. I'm hoping also to grow some more ashes from seed.

I'm feeling pretty whacked - I'm working entirely with hand tools. It's my way of keeping fit - I've never fancied going to a gym particularly as you normally have to pay for the privilege. What is more, I love it - maybe it reminds me of my days as a boy-scout when felling trees was one of the main ways in which we made ourselves useful.

The hand-tools thing is not to save energy - I reckon the energy involved in running a chainsaw would be miniscule compared with the energy "harvested". I'm just trying to avoid the trouble and expense of acquiring a chainsaw, the protective gear and the tuition in operating it safely - if there is such a thing as a safely-operated chainsaw.

I'm currently working on my second hazel. I did my first the week before last and I pollarded rather than coppicing it - that is I cut the stems about 1.5 metres above ground level. This was because I was afraid that deer and rabbits would kill off the new shoots if they started from near ground level. As an added precaution, I've stacked up brushwood around the tree to help hide it from deer, though it won't keep the rabbits out.

With my second tree I'm doing a full coppice - ie cutting down to about 200-400 mm above the ground. When I've finished, I'll use some of stems and the brushwood to create a "dead hedge" which I hope will be an effective screen, barrier or deterrent against the deer. I should know by next year's coppicing season whether it's safe to do a full coppice or whether I should stick to pollarding.

This photo shows where I was a little way into the coppicing the second tree. The tall cut stem is still waiting to be cut down near the ground. I do practically all the cutting in at least two stages. The first cut is a metre or so up off the ground to remove most of the stem. This is often an untidy cut because the leverage of a long, heavy stem splits the stem. The final cut removes only a small weight of timber and so it's much easier to get a clean cut, which I presume is important for keeping the stem healthy.

Incidentally, the "bible" to which I look for guidance on how to do all this is Woodlands: a practical handbook, by Elizabeth Agate, published by BTCV. Being of a parsimonious disposition, I tried but failed to find out all I needed by surfing the web. I console myself for having had to shell out £14.95 with the feeling that BTCV is an organisation well worth supporting.

I'm interested to find out how much of Britain's energy needs could be met through this sort of coppicing. I did a rough calculation the other day which suggested that, just to meet current domestic energy consumption (ie heating, hot water and electricity for homes) would require something like twice the land area of the UK to be given over to coppiced woodland. I need to check and refine my calculation and my source data but the result, if roughly correct, doesn't surprise me. Each potential source of renewable energy - wind, wave, solar, tidal, biomass etc. - seems to offer only a tiny proportion of our present consumption. Reducing our national carbon footprint by 80% will require action on a very broad front.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Yesterday's post,

I've had some feedback from yesterday's post. One correspondent thought my final paragraph was over-optimistic. Lots of people, not just shopaholics and conspicuous consumers, would find giving up flying, for instance, a very real sacrifice. I agree - some important qualifications were missing from my final paragraph.

Giving up flying was fairly easy for me because in recent years I never did much flying anyway, I can easily get to a Eurostar terminal and I don't have family the other side of an ocean. If I lived in Scotland or the north of England, I think giving up flying would have been a much bigger step for me than it actually was.

Incidentally, when I make rules for myself (eg about not flying), I aim for 80% compliance, so don't be too shocked if some time over the next five years you catch me boarding an aircraft - it won't be my first bit of backsliding.

Which brings me to today's big news - Geoff Hoon's announcement of the go-ahead for the third runway at Heathrow. This confirms that there is a huge gulf between my understanding of the threat of climate change and Government's. I don't think for a moment that the runway will ever be built. It seems inconceivable that wiser counsels won't eventually prevail. I could rant at length about that decision but I won't - it's not strictly relevant to my own energy descent.

My view that the runway won't be built is strengthened by a website on which I have just spent four hours:- It has utterly blown my mind and my judgement may be affected for the next few hours or days. Whereas my post yesterday advocated that we change our lifestyles radically in order to lessen the risk of catastrophic climate change, Chris Martenson's course explains with crystal clarity why those radical changes are inevitable anyway. Because of the coincidence of the debt crisis with Peak Oil, he implies to me that the present recession actually represents the final ending of our present profligate lifestyle. Whether we like or not, what lies beyond the present recession won't be the renewal of economic growth in the developed world but an enforced transition to a simpler lifestyle and economy. There may be fatal flaws in his argument, but I haven't spotted them yet. Highly recommended, even if he's wrong.

In any case this is bang in line with the thinking behind Transition Towns - "Climate change makes this carbon reduction transition essential ... Peak oil makes it inevitable" (see

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

My energy-descent blog

The idea of doing an energy-descent blog came from Bilal Rehman-Furs of Transition Horsham. Transition Horsham is one of the Transition Initiatives aimed at stimulating action on a local basis to tackle the threats of Peak Oil and climate change. In this blog I hope to set out how I am reducing my carbon footprint and also my “take” on the science and economics behind my energy descent.

One purpose of this blog is to stimulate a response. I can’t speak with authority on Peak Oil or climate change – but I’m passionate about understanding the threats better and acting on them. I hope that people more knowledgeable than I am will correct me where I seem to be up the spout. I hope also that fellow activists and students of the issues will find useful pointers for their own investigations.

Let’s start with a bit of background.

Peak Oil and Gas

Until recently I was sceptical on Peak Oil. I’m old enough to remember the early days of the Club of Rome and its original report The limits to growth, first published in 1972, with its prognostications of resource depletion. The book was later discredited in the public eye – perhaps wrongly ( I became convinced by arguments that the normal price mechanism – Adam Smith’s invisible hand – would guarantee a smooth transition to a world without cheap oil. Until now this has been the conventional wisdom, but it is now being questioned by some expert opinion.

Our supply chains for oil and gas are now looking fragile and we can no longer be confident of this smooth transition. Today, much of Europe is shivering with cold because of a dispute between Russia and Ukraine, through which most of Russia’s supply of gas to the rest of Europe passes. As I write, the flow of gas from Ukraine to the EU countries is completely blocked. According to BBC News, the EU gets 25% of its gas from Russia and 80% of it passes through Ukraine. By 2010 Britain is expected to be importing about a third of its gas supply but this is expected, on present trends, to increase to 80% by 2020 as supplies from the North Sea dwindle (see the 2007 Energy White Paper). This will presumably make us as dependent on Russian gas as many other European countries are now.

The real cost of oil may be much higher than what we pay for it as consumers (see I don’t think for a moment that we would have invaded Iraq in 2003 if Iraq was not part of the oil-rich Middle East. Whilst we have paid a huge price in taxes to fight for our access to Middle Eastern oil, many thousands of Iraqis have paid with their lives, as have hundreds of British and American soldiers.

Britain faces a mounting balance of payments deficit on energy. This will now be exacerbated by the fall in the value of sterling against the US dollar. As I write, the pound stands at $1.45. A year ago it was nearly $1.96. The drop in value of the pound increases the cost of dollar-priced imports by a third. This raises interesting questions for the future of the British economy. Once we emerge from the credit crunch and the ensuing recession, will financial services go back to being a money-spinner? How is Britain going to pay its way in future? Part of the answer could be through increasing our self-sufficiency in energy – both by using less and producing more from renewable sources.

Climate change

On climate change I have never been seriously sceptical. A few climate scientists, such as Fred Singer and Richard Lindzen dispute the strength of the evidence for human-induced climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) speaks in measured terms of very serious risks. James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute, thinks that the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (FAR) is already out of date in the light of recent discoveries and that the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is already dangerously high. James Lovelock, FRS thinks we are heading for out-and-out catastrophe involving an 80% cull of the human population.

I can’t take sides in a scientific debate – my knowledge of the climate science and science in general is too limited. From my perspective, the existence of some possibly respectable climate sceptics reduces the probability of seriously unpleasant consequences of climate change but does not eliminate it. I think Chris Rapley, former Director of the British Antarctic Survey, put it rather well just over a year ago:-

“Suppose you’re taking your granddaughter on to an aircraft and the stewardess says, “Welcome on board. By the way, there is a one-in-a-hundred chance the wings will fall off.” You certainly wouldn’t put your granddaughter on there. Well, my granddaughter sits on the planet, as we all do. If there’s a one-in-a-hundred chance that we might be inviting some pretty unpleasant climatic future, then I think we need to try and take some measures to avoid that.”

If there is even a 1% probability that things will turn out as James Lovelock predicts, then I think that calls for very serious measures to combat global warming.

Economic implications

At the moment, a battle seems to be going on in the corridors of power about the plan to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport. This issue puts into sharp focus the divide between two ways of looking at climate change.

Some people seem to regard action on climate change as a series of technical fixes around a future that looks fundamentally like “business as usual”. We may take all sorts of action – erecting wind turbines, building tidal barrages, encouraging combined heat and power, insulating lofts and so on – but, according to some Government thinking, people will be flying more than ever before and we will need to cater for that. Lifestyles will not radically change – only the technology that supports them.

The other line is that climate change poses such a serious risk that in the developed world we need quickly to cut our emissions by 90-100% and that this can’t be achieved by technical fixes alone – we need to re-order the way we run our lives and our economy.

I belong to this second school and I’ll try and justify my position with facts and figures in future posts. I can’t promise I’ll always be in this school – I may well become aware of evidence that will change my views. My beliefs are based on what I know now.

I believe that economic growth should no longer be a primary aim of economic policy. The primary aim should be to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases drastically and quickly and for most of us this will mean substantial changes in lifestyle. There will be far less motoring and flying, far less spent on consumer goods and far more investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Many existing jobs will disappear and new jobs will be created. Many of us will spend much more of our time growing our own food and engaging in other activities that don’t involve buying things. When we travel, we will travel more slowly.

For shopaholics and those whose egos depend on conspicuous consumption, things will look grim. Many more of us will enjoy the challenge of building a new, low-carbon lifestyle. We will feel materially poorer but happier as we discover new pleasures in a slower lifestyle that leaves us more time for our friends, families and local communities.

That’s enough for today.