Archive for the ‘Green’ Category

The Book

Red Plenty is a fictionalised history, or possibly a work of hard historical science fiction, which covers what it describes as the “fifties’ Soviet dream” but which might be better termed the Soviet sixties – the period from Khrushchev’s consolidation of power to the first crackdown on the dissidents and the intervention in Czechoslovakia. This is a big book in a Russian way – it’s always been a science-fiction prerogative to work with the vastness of space, the depth of history, and the wonder and terror of science and technology, but it’s also been fairly common that science-fiction has had a bit of a problem with people. The characters who re-fire the S-IVB main engine for translunar injection, with nothing but a survival pack of big ideas for use on arrival, tend to vanish in the cosmos. At its best, this has given the genre a disturbingly calm new perspective – chuck out your literary chintz, the rocket equation will not be fooled. At worst, well, OH NO JOHN RINGO.

Red Plenty covers a lot of big ideas, some serious hardware and even more serious software, and great swaths of the Soviet Union. But you will also need to be prepared to meet quite a lot of difficult but rewarding people, rather like the geneticist character Zoya Vaynshtayn does at the party Leonid Kantorovich’s students throw in Akademgorodok. In that sense, it has a genuinely Russian scale to it. The characters are a mixture of historical figures (as well as Kantorovich, you will spend some time in Nikita Khrushchev’s interior monologue), pure fictions, and shadow characters for some historical ones. (Emil Shaidullin roughly represents Gorbachev’s adviser Abel Aganbegyan; Vaynshtayn the historical geneticist Raissa Berg.)

So what are they up to?

Rebooting Science

Kantorovich, a central figure of the book, is remembered as the only Soviet citizen to win a Nobel Prize in economics, and the inventor of the mathematical technique of linear programming. As a character, he’s a sort of Soviet Richard Feynman – an egghead and expert dancer and ladies’ man, a collaborator on the nuclear bomb, and a lecturer so cantankerous his students make a myth of him. Politically, it’s never clear if he’s being deliberately provocative or completely naive, or perhaps whether the naivety is protective camouflage.

A major theme of the book is the re-creation of real science in the Soviet Union after the Stalinist era; biology has to start up afresh, economics has to do much the same, and everyone is working in a large degree of ignorance about the history of their fields. Some things simply can’t be restarted – as Spufford points out, despite all the compulsory Marxism-Leninism, even genetics hadn’t been erased as thoroughly as independent Marxist thought, and nobody in charge was willing to even think of opening that particular can of worms. On the other hand, the re-opening of economics as a field of study led to what the biologists would have called an adaptive radiation. Pioneers from engineering, maths, biology and physics began to lay spores in the new territory.

Comrades, let’s optimise!

The new ecosystem was known as cybernetics, which was given a wider meaning than the same word was in the West. Kantorovich’s significance in this is that his work provided both a theoretical framework and a critical technology – if the problem was to allocate the Soviet Union’s economic resources optimally, could it be possible to solve this by considering the economy as a huge system of linear production functions, and then optimising the lot? The idea had been tried before, in the socialist calculation debate of the 1920s, although without the same mathematical tools.

This is one of those events whose significance has changed a great deal over time. The question was whether it was possible for a planned economy to achieve an optimal allocation of resources. The socialists thought so; their critics held that it was impossible, and elaborated a set of criteria for optimal allocation very similar to the ones that are familiar as the standard assumptions in the economic theory of the firm in perfect competition. These days, it’s often presented as if this was a knockout argument. From the firm in perfect competition, we hop to Hayek’s idea that a market economy is better at making use of dispersed, implicit knowledge. Basta. We won.

The socialists weren’t without intellectual originality. In fact, they did actually formulate a mathematical rebuttal to the firm in perfect competition – the Lange model, which demonstrated that optimal allocation was a possibility in theory. The Hayekian critique wasn’t considered that great at the time – it was thought a much better point that the barrier to effective planning was a practical one, not a fundamental one. And even then, it was well known that the standard assumptions don’t, actually, describe any known economy. It would simply be impossible to process all the data with the technology available. Even with the new tools of linear optimisation, who was going to do all those sums, especially as the process is an iterative rather than a formal one? Stalin and Hitler had their own way of solving these arguments – no man, no problem – and the whole thing ended up moot for some time.

Computers: a technical fix

But if it had been impossible to run the numbers with pen and paper in 1920, or with Hollerith machines and input-output tables in 1940, what about computers in 1960? Computers could blast through millions of iterations for hundreds of thousands of production processes in tens of thousands of supply chains; computers were only likely to get better at it, too. Red Plenty is about the moment when it seemed that the new territory of cybernetics was going to give rise to a synthesis between mathematics, market-socialist thinking, and computing that would replace GOSPLAN and deliver Economics II: True Communism.

After all, by the mid-60s it was known that the enormous system of equations could be broken down into its components, providing that the constraints in each sub-system were consistent with the others. If each production unit had its own computer, and the computers in each region or functional organisation were networked, and then the networks were….were internetworked? In fact, the military was already using big computer networks for its command-and-control systems, borrowing a lot of ideas from the US Air Force’s SAGE; by 1964, there were plans for a huge national timesharing computer network, for both military and civilian use, as a horizontal system cutting across all the ministries and organisations. Every town would get a data centre.

The Economics Fairy Strikes Again

But, of course, it didn’t happen. There’s a good paper on the fate of the Soviet internetworkers here; Spufford has a fascinating document on the end of indigenous general-purpose computer development in the USSR here. Eventually, during the 1970s, it became increasingly obvious that the Soviet economy was not going to catch up with and outstrip anyone, let alone the United States, and the Austrian economists were retroactively crowned as having obviously been right all along, and given their own chance to fail. Spufford frames the story as a Russian fairytale; perhaps we can say that in fact, economics is the fairytale, or rather the fairy. Successive groups of intellectuals have fought their way through the stacks of books, past the ideological monsters, and eventually reached the fairy’s grotto, to be granted their greatest wish. And it’s always the same one – a chance to fail.

Why did the Soviet economists fail? Red Plenty gives a spectacular sweep through the Soviet economy as it actually was; from the workings of GOSPLAN, to the management of a viscose factory, to the world of semi-criminal side payments that actually handled the problems of day-to-day survival. In the 1990s, the descendants of one half of the socialist calculation debate swept into Russia as advisers paid by the Thatcher Foundation. Arriving on the fairy’s magic cloud, they knew little of how the Soviet economy worked in practice, and duly got their opportunity to fail. The GOSPLAN officials of the 60s were reliant on data that was both completely unreliable, being the product of political bargaining more than anything else, and typically slightly less than a year out of date. And the market socialists were just as reliant on the management of Soviet industry for the production cost data they needed to make sure all those budget constraints really were consistent.

That’s a technical explanation. But there are others available. Once communism was achieved the state was meant to wither away, and not many of the people in charge of it were at all keen on this as a pension plan. Without the power to intervene in the economy, what was the point of the Party, again? Also, what was that stuff about letting people connect computers to the telephone network and pass messages from factory to factory? Where will it end? The central government, the Politburo, GOSPLAN, STAVKA – they would never accept it.

Another, more radical, is that the eventual promise of Red Plenty was to render not so much the top of the pyramid, but the middle management, redundant. The rapid industrialisation had created a new management class who had every intention of getting rich and staying that way. (This was the Yugoslavs’ take on the Soviet Union – the new class had simply taken over from the capitalists.) What would happen to their bonuses, and their prerogative to control the planners by telling them what they wanted to hear?

And yet another is that the whole project was flawed. Even if it was possible to discern the economy’s underlying cost-structure, write the software, and optimise the whole thing, how would this system deal with dynamic economics? How would it allocate investment? How would it cope with technological change? It’s no help to point out that, in fact, a lot of the questions are nowhere near being solved in any economics.

Soviet History

One view of the USSR’s history is a succession of escape attempts. The NEP of the mid-20s, Nikolai Voznezhensky’s term at GOSPLAN in the 1940s, the Soviet 60s. Each saw a real effort to get away from a political economy which was in many ways a wild caricature of the Industrial Revolution, screwing down the labour share of income in order to boost capital investment and hence industrial output, answering any protest against this with the pistol of the state. As well as trying new economic ideas, they also saw surges of creativity in other fields. They were all crushed.

Arguably, you could say the same thing about perestroika. The people who signed the Alma-Ata protocol to arrange the end of the Soviet Union and the dismissal of Gorbachev were not, in fact, heroic dissidents, but rather career communist bureaucrats, some of whom went on to become their own little Stalins. Spufford says in the endnotes to Red Plenty that part of the book’s aim is a prehistory of perestroika – one view of the characters is that many of them are developing into the people who will eventually transform the country in the 1980s. Green politics was an important strand in the great dissident wave, right across the USSR and Central Europe; Zoya Vaynshteyn’s genetic research, which turns up some very unpleasant facts, is a case in point. Valentin, the programmer and cadre, is going to retain his self-image as a bohemian hacker into the future. Another Party figure in the book is the man who refuses to get used to violence, which will also turn out to be important in 1989.

Anyway, go read the damn book.


Did you know that each successive generation of German high-speed trains has had air-conditioning plant built for higher temperatures? The trains from the early 90s handle a temperature range from -20 to +32 degrees Celsius. Those from the mid-90s, -20 to +32, but if necessary they can exceed that. The ICE Type 3 handles temperatures up to 35 degrees, and the ones still to be delivered up to 40. And the next class? They’re planning for 45 degrees. Apparently the International Railway Union standard is going to be revised upwards.

gaseous Goodhart

China’s top climate change negotiator wants the Chinese export sector to be excluded from their targets, and “consumers to pay” instead. This is not good news.

For a start, the tactics. It means accepting the principle of letting some special interests off. We know, after all, that there will be the mother of all lobbying wars about this, all wanting their pet interest group to be left out. Therefore it’s best to hold a firm line as long as possible, minimising the damage. Also, even if this isn’t just special pleading, the output (no CO2 target for much of Chinese industry) is identical to the effects of special pleading. So it’s worth treating it as such until proven otherwise.

After all, if it proved to be honest, you can always make a gracious concession later; but you can’t take back concessions you made earlier so easily.

Secondly, there is no end to this argument. If they claim a right to export all they like and bill the customer for the CO2, then for this right to be effective, they must also have a right to import capital goods – machine tools, Siemens power stations, that kind of stuff. Wham, half the German engineering sector wants a note from mum too. What about the primary exporters? And come to think of it, if it’s the consumer’s fault, some of that responsibility must rest with the people who lent them the money…which for the dollar zone was the People’s Bank of China, State Administration of Foreign Exchange.

More seriously, it’s a really bad idea on the substance. The mechanism of action is something like this – imports containing a lot of embodied CO2 would be taxed and would cost more, so people would buy less carbony ones, and Chinese exporters would stop producing so much CO2. But it’s a very long set of tongs; too many moving parts. Unless the energy used in the product is a hell of a lot, the tax component won’t be that great compared to the range of prices for that kind of product. The exporter might not notice, or might attribute the drop in sales to something else.

Just taxing fossil fuel at the point of sale, already, has the huge advantage that it falls directly on the user, who has the most control over how much gets used, and it’s explicitly and unmistakably down to the fuel.

Further, how many SKUs (Stock-Keeping Units – individual products) does the Chinese export sector produce? It’s got to be in the tens of thousands at the least. Under this proposal, each one would have to be carbon-audited accurately and regularly and assessed for taxation on that basis. It is far from clear whether the importing state or the exporting state would do this. Just taxing fossil fuel, already, involves less than a dozen SKUs, which happen to be bulky, smelly, heavy, or black and dusty, and therefore difficult to hide on a big scale.

And every manufacturer would have a fine incentive to lie about the CO2 emissions associated with their product; if you can bring yourself to put melamine in the milk, you can surely lie about your electricity bill. It’s the worst Goodhart’s Law violation I’ve seen for a long time.

But here’s the really weird bit. Whether the CO2 tax is applied at source as a fuel tax or a cap-and-trade system, on crossing the border like a tariff, or at the point of final sale like VAT, the economic upshot is essentially the same; goods subject to it would cost more than goods not subject to it, and goods subject to it that contained more CO2 would cost more than ones with less.

Either yer man is hoping that the importing states wouldn’t bother to impose the tax, or else his argument is actually indistinguishable from the one he’s trying to shoot down – that there should be a tariff on goods from states that don’t implement a CO2 tax.

Alternatively, he’s just talking his book, setting a negotiating marker in a cost-free fashion. In which case, time to pick it up and run it back.

If this leaves you in need of an optimism fix, have a look at this GSFC feature. The “shorter”: ozone depletion would have made it unsafe to go out in the sun for as long as five minutes essentially everywhere by 2065, but we, ah, fixed it. (Via German ScienceBlogs; if you speak German there’s also a fascinating interview with Paul Crutzen here.)

I’m about to propose something to make Daniel Davies cry. Specifically, it’s a solution to a problem we currently deal with by a cash transfer through the tax and benefit system. But I think I’ve made a good case that trying to deal with high energy prices by paying the poor to burn more energy is not sensible, except perhaps as temporary relief of the symptoms. Instead, I suggested, why don’t we pay them to insulate, or to install £1,895 air-source heat pumps, and get rid of the problem; after all, we subsidise the rich to do these things to their property. And I suggested that, if we’re too stingy or the government is short of cash, we could use the money now paid out as winter fuel payments.

Terrifyingly, there’s a chance someone might pick up on the idea – because it turns out they’ve got one like it in exciting America. Surely it’s got to be good. The Californian municipality in question is offering loans to carry out energy-saving improvements, to be paid back through property tax. I’m not quite sure how it works, although here are more details; but it seems to be restricted to homeowners, and I’m far from sure if the repayments are additional to the property tax you’d already pay or not.

My brilliant scheme has the distinction that, rather than the user repaying it, it’s repaid from the benefits they would otherwise claim. In a sense, it capitalises the stream of WFP cheques over ten years. Government gets to save on the benefit payments over and above the amortisation period of the heat pumps or insulation; the recipient gets to save hugely on heating; and society saves three to four units of energy from gas for every unit of electricity the heat pump uses. (The technology is wonderful.) And it hits the cheapest way of saving bulk CO2.

Here are some numbers. The two main groups of WFP recipients get £200 and £300 respectively; this is currently planned to go up quite sharply. (Another reason for my brilliant scheme is that tying bits of the government budget to prices that might rise without apparent bounds is stupid.) To be conservative, and also because I could have tried harder, here are some data from 2006. £1.98bn was spent. Elsewhere, it looks like 11,407,000 individuals received money, but the relevant number is a number of buildings not people. It seems 8 million households received WFP, which is a fair enough proxy. That gives us an annual payout per premises of £247.50; with a full-heating ASHP at £1,895, that’s a bit over seven and a half years to pay it off.

We’ve already got a list of recipients, and we write to them every autumn. Obviously there are people who don’t want to be bothered, and probably they are right, so we’ll give them the choice of fuel payments or [whatever silly name our friendly local special advisor comes up with]. Given the usual take-up rate for optional benefits, I’d reckon the pressure every year should be manageable enough; but if we felt militant enough we could make it voluntary-but-automatic.

One question I’d raise against myself is why this pensioner obsession. Don’t a lot of them own their homes? What about children? Well, for some reason they are the only group in our society we find it necessary to give special help with their energy requirements. Minister, I am a mere technocrat. I don’t bother my head with these things…but you might want to look at the numbers for some of the in-work benefit schemes.

Jamie Zawinski links to a campaign to have a Californian sewage works renamed after George W. Bush. I disagree, strongly. Who on earth would associate something as civic, egalitarian, and useful as sewage treatment with the Commander Guy? Not just that, but it’s a publicly-owned sewage plant, part of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Hunter S. Thompson thought Richard Nixon should have been flushed into the Pacific through the sewers; he didn’t confuse the sewer with the shit. As he so wisely said, politics is the art of controlling your environment.

Yer man knows better: like this.

Whilst we’re on the subject of public works, by the way, may I point out that hitting up Centrica with a windfall excess-profits tax would be completely stupid if the intention is to fund a pre-election sweetie special winter fuel payment. The causes of high natural gas prices are well known – we used the North Sea gas to screw the miners and get Lord Wakeham a seat on the Enron board, and now we’re stuck with a lot of gas-fired power stations and noninsulated Victorian buildings, while the import infrastructure consists of three pipes, two of which pass through about six middlemen before getting to the big tap next to Vladimir Putin.

Even if Chris Dillow’s perfect power ponies plan had a chance of being put in effect, it still wouldn’t actually solve the problem. Just giving people more money to spend on expensive fuel doesn’t actually get us any more fuel or any more heating; in fact, in so far as the recipients spent the money on fuel, it would go right back to the gas merchants.

What would help would be to use the money to, ah, fix the problem. I therefore refer everyone to my proposal to upgrade every home in the kingdom as close to passivhaus standard as possible, starting with the poorest (say, current fuel payment recipients as a kickoff). Of course, there are a lot of buildings around that you can’t do much to (see above), so instead we could fit air-source heat pumps. Strangely enough, there is actually a small government project that already does this in the Yorkshire ex-coalfield, which has a lot of houses built on the assumption coal would always be very cheap, with poor people in them. And here’s a bloke in Sheffield who makes them.

Well, actually he doesn’t; in fact he imports cheap ones from China. But this does mean that he can supply one big enough to provide your space heating as well as hot water for £1,895 + VAT; which is less than the government’s existing Low Carbon Buildings Programme grant. So yes, we are already giving away enough money per LCBP grant to buy one outright. The only problem is that LCBP grants are directed at people who own their homes and care about selling them in the future. This excludes, of course, precisely those people who can’t afford their gas bill and usually live in houses with the insulating qualities of a mankini. Further, the price is now in the rough area where the existing value of winter fuel payments could be capitalised over a reasonable period of time – so it could be close to budget-neutral.

You want a workable, egalitarian, green policy for this autumn, Gord? One that actually combines wonkosity with bashing? Or you, Nick? It’s become almost routine to read about the search for ways to combine bottom-up development and environmental protection in Africa, say – but perhaps we should apply some of the same thinking here. It is, after all, very much the case that society offers solutions to the problems of the rich but only relief from the problems of the poor.

Back in 2004, this blog went to the European Social Forum – we weren’t that impressed, but we did call it “the Caesar’s Palace of Ranting”. I’m not sure what the equivalent for the UKUUG’s OpenTech 2008 would be; there was plenty of ranting, but a sight less committee wank, more practicality, even if no-one can answer the question of what any of this stuff stands for. I ran into, among others, Liz Henry, most of MySociety, the author of Spyblog (who has some damn good war stories), various readers including Duane Griffin, and a small galaxy of assorted hackers, militants, gawpers, freaks and mutants. Good People, as the Doctor would say.

And they are, too; even if the live demonstration of the ViktorFeed didn’t happen due to the lack of a routable IP address (or even working connectivity for that matter), there was the loan of another laptop when OpenSUSE didn’t want to speak to the projector. When I’d finished the show and dealt with all the questions, I was faced with at least two offers of colocated server capacity, and the services of at least three professional software developers, as well as an interview for the BBC World Service, a spare USB key, and a pint of lager. All of which would have come in handy the night before, when I foolishly attempted to change something in the code after midnight and borked the whole thing, forcing me to get up at six the next morning to fix it.

As it turns out, having met Francis Irving, I’m probably going to be assimilated by MySociety, or at least my project is. I was also very interested in some of the green/geek crossover projects – I missed the session on solar power and IT, but I did get to the AMEE presentation on their automated carbon dioxide profiler and Hotmapping’s show of their IR surveying work, intended to classify buildings by the rate at which they lose heat. Apparently they’d already found one urban cannabis farm.

And BT Osmosoft’s TiddlyWiki – a wiki in a single file – may not sound all that much; but I really liked the idea of a zoomable, pseudo 3D interface for wikis. I’m quite keen on the idea of using this to organise contacts – who puts their friends in alphabetical order after all?

Two items on Wired make me think. In the first, our attention is called to a project at Loughborough University that’s making robots build houses, spraying concrete and gypsum on formers. The encapsulated air makes for very high insulation R-values. But what it reminds me of is my dad, who once said one of the reasons why he didn’t go into Harrowell & Sons, Building Contractors was the pain involved in buying a forklift to handle palletised bricks.

It wasn’t that long ago. The second deals with the revival of modular, prefabricated buildings. Apparently, according to the US Energy Information Administration, prefabbing a building reduces the energy involved by 40 to 50 per cent. If the components are packed with structural insulation, then, well – you’re not far from a Passivhaus right from the start.

I remember working on buildings in northern Australia, where the vernacular materials are lengths of windmill bore casing, corrugated iron, and any timber that will stand the insects. It was amazing how quickly a really nice structure could go up, and how obvious it seemed to have double skins, a large air space beneath the building, and the like. And you could adapt the building with a screwdriver and a saw. Now, if you had insulation between the skins rather than air, well…

This pissed me off all week. Yesterday, the world’s biggest container ship, M/V Emma Maersk arrived in Felixstowe on her first trip from China to Europe. There has been a degree of pre-Christmas hype about this sailing, revolving around the notion that she is packed with nothing but Christmas presents-to-be. This may be a little off target, as Marc Levinson notes in his history of container shipping, The Box: only one-third of containers transiting Long Beach in 1998 contained consumer goods, the rest being stuffed with intermediate inputs to some industrial process or other. It is, however, an interesting culture echo – Peter Davidson mentions in The Idea of North that Holland is the only country in Europe where Saint Nicholas/Father Christmas doesn’t come from the north, instead coming from Spain on a steamship.

Anyway, Green MEP for the South-East, Dr. Caroline Lucas is furious about the arrival of the Emma Maersk.

“”These are the goods that Europe used to make. We are faced with a country that has an almost absolute advantage in an increasing number of sectors. This a triumph for multinational capital, not for Chinese workers who, as well as suffering from some of the worst labour exploitation on record, are also losing jobs at a phenomenal rate,” she said.

The real cost of the goods that the Emma Maersk is bringing in should include the environment, the markets destroyed in developing countries and the millions of jobs lost.”

The enviroment, eh? According to the Department of Transport, a container ship uses some 0.12MJ of energy per kilometre and a truck as much as 1.2. Plugging in the numbers for a wholly notional trip of 10,000 KM, and noting that the Emma‘s capacity is given as 14,500 TEU=7,250 trucks, we get energy usage of 83,333MJ for the ship with a full load. But if the trucks only go 50 kilometres away from the docks, they have already hugely exceeded that. 7,250×1.2=8,700. Multiplied by 50 that’s 435,000MJ of energy use – and that isn’t even as far as London.

Further, I struggle to see why poorer people in China should be made poorer in order to repatriate low-value manufacturing industries. After all, what kind of a tariff would it take to make Chinese products uncompetitive? I can’t see this happening without big wage cuts for the prospective European workers. After all, though, presumably it won’t be Lucas’s south-eastern constituents who are asked to take a pay cut and a worse job. It’ll be the, ahem, working class.

What on Earth is a Green doing talking the crudest and most aggressive 1980s Tory’s book? We must slash labour costs to compete with China! Keep slashing! Until we’re cheaper than the Chinese! Presumably, Dr. Lucas hasn’t given up the rest of the Green platform, which (rightly) wants a massive reconstruction of the UK’s transport infrastructure, power grid and housing stock. But any such drive to bring back toy assembly jobs would compete directly with infrastructure projects for short-supply trades – an electrician wiring a new factory can’t simultaneously work on an offshore wind turbine.

Charlie Stross predicted, years ago, that environmentalism might split into an anti-technology faction and a “green extropian” one. I think he is right. There is a more fundamental fault line here than the famous realo/fundi divide of the 1980s, which was more like the traditional debate on the Left between democratic change and revolution. On the one hand you have the Worldchanging crowd, who are solution-focused and technophile, on the other you have a spectrum of PR greens from Diddy Dave Cameron to Greenpeace (a great week they chose to try to shut down Didcot power station, no?), the remaining 70s/80s social-revolutionary types, and the increasingly nasty U.S-based apocalypse bunnies. I predict that the media-activists will be forced to choose, that the WC/Worldwatch ones will see their ideas sucked up into the mainstream, where they will have to watch closely that they do not become a figleaf for inaction, and the extremists will shade into the far right at the edges. I also second Blacktriangle’s point here, who quotes the director of the Met Office Tyndall Centre complaining of the demand for “environmental drama and exaggerated rhetoric”. I always thought some of the founding ideas of the Green movement were basis democracy and citizens’ right to know, not debate-framing trickery and bullshit.

The serious stuff over, what about some gratuitous ship porn?

Emma Maersk

Update: To answer a comment, my point about Dr Lucas and labour is that she does not make clear, or does not realise, that making Chinese goods cost-prohibitive would go beyond what could be done with a tariff – a new industry would sprout overnight taking goods out of boxes and putting them back in to disguise their source. As the cost of capital and capital goods is probably equal, and the cost of land far higher in Europe, something has to give. The something is wages.

The Guardian carried a large excerpt from George Monbiot’s coming book this week in which he launched a formidable attack on aeroplanes, on the grounds that they are indefensible in terms of climate change. I find it hard to work out his logic. For a start, if you get the data, you’ll find that, when you interpolate the emissions from aviation fuel uplifted from the UK, it makes up 5.5 per cent of the UK’s CO2 emissions. (Comparison – electricity generation is 30 or so, road transport a quarter)

Now, if you accept his premise that it’s even worse than the climatologists say, you would think that we need immediate and massive cuts in CO2 emissions. But even if aviation were abolished tomorrow, we’d still have 94.5 per cent of the way to go. You can’t get around the big systems – only changing them can deliver, and only changing them can deliver quickly. But it’s worse than that: as he points out, nothing is more difficult in this sense than replacing aviation fuel. Plug-in hybrid deployment, wind, solar, marine, biomass and perhaps nuclear power, insulation and heat-pumps can fix all the other sectors, could even get to zero (the chemical industry might in the long run go negative). A lot of this is mature technology. A lot of it would probably be economically beneficial, rather than a sacrifice.

So why would you go for the hardest problem first, especially when it only represents 5 per cent of the problem?

He doesn’t help his case by talking nonsense, either. Quote: “As far as aircraft engines are concerned, major new efficiencies in the next 20 years are a pipedream.” Well, not really. Propfans exist, and reduce the fuel burn by some 30 per cent, independently of changes to aerodynamic design (10 per cent in the near term) and efficiencies in air traffic control (up to 12 per cent). This is pretty cool, too, as is this.

Chinese wind power!

I commented a while ago on a post at Worldchanging that we hadn’t seen anything yet, and wait until the Chinese started making 5MW wind turbines. Well, look what’s happened. Vestas starts up a joint venture factory, Repower managing another, capacity growth running at 66 per cent annually. Crystal ball team – whoops – analyst house predicts that the government target of 30GW installed capacity by 2020 will be bust by over 90 per cent – 54 being more like it.

Maybe they’ll soon be building these. In other news, Ireland gets a big electricity storage system using flow batteries to stockpile wind-generated power. It’s not Chinese, but it’s cool.