Thursday, 13 December 2012

Home energy bills £100 higher by 2020 to pay for green technology but £600 higher by 2050 under dash for gas

The energy debate has suddenly become very politicised. You can almost define your politics on where you stand on wind turbines versus shale gas wells.

So the latest report from the Committee on Climate Change, the government's official advisers,  is welcome in pinning down some facts among a lot of wild conjecture.

It sets out in great detail the costs of "going green" or a "dash for gas" based on latest projections

The committee is forecasting home energy bills to be £40 higher in 2015 and £100 higher in 2020 to pay for low carbon renewables - a 10% increase on 2011 bills

But if we go for gas, the rising cost of imported gas from Africa and the Middle East and the rising cost of carbon after 2020  will push typical home energy bills £600 higher than a low carbon policy by 2050.

The main cause of rising energy bills since 2004 has been the rising price of gas (62% of the increase) and investment in gas and electricity networks (16%). Low carbon investment and energy efficiency has accounted for less than 10% of the increase.

The report also looks at the impact on the commercial and industrial sectors and finds that bills will rise 20-25% due to low carbon investment in wind turbines and the like by 2020. But the impact on consumers is likely to be a penny for every £10 spent on commercial goods and services and 6p for every £10 spent on industrial goods because energy is a low part of their overall costs.

CEO David Kennedy told me: "We quite often forget there is a benefit to investing in low carbon technologies so what we do in this report we look at what would happen if we just had a gas based power system.  What would you expect to happen to gas prices and to carbon prices given that we don't give up on climate change.

"We look at different scenarios and we project that in a gas based system you could be paying £600 more for the typical dual household compared to a low carbon system over the next decades. 

"You pay more now the £100 - but you are hedging against the risk of potentially very high bill impacts if we carry on with a gas-based system.

"There clearly is a timing issue.  If all you cared about was the next phase and you didn't care about the period beyond that then you would stick with gas but if if you take the long term view and you want to pass on an energy system to our kids which is fit for purpose it would be the low carbon system because that is the one which is resilient to the uncertainties.

"We don't want to leave our kids with debt but we also don't want to leave them with very high energy costs."

There is still all to play for - huge sums at stake and the long-term decisions on what energy system we go for won't be decided until the next parliament.

Mr Kennedy does not believe shale gas will be a "game changer" in the UK and Europe as it has been in America despite David Cameron's and George Osborne's enthusiastic support for it.

"Shale gas has a role to play potentially in the UK as long as you deal with the fugitive emissions when you explode the rocks and you don't leak methane out into the atmosphere. There are ways of dealing with that.  And then if you can sort out the earthquakes and the water supply and the anxieties of people then shale gas could meet peak demand in the country," Mr Kennedy said. 

"We think it is going to meet 10% of current gas demand so it is not so much that you would want to go with a dash for gas with it we haven't go enough to meet heat demand let alone demand from the power sector so any dash for gas would have to be on the back of imported gas."

The report - an update on last year's - dispels some myths put around in the press by political writers and political columnists.. Unfortunately energy and climate science seems to have entered the realm of tribal politics

Mr Kennedy said: "I think as the debates become more political it makes the role of our organisation more important because we do the evidence. That's why we have done this report on bills because there wasn't an evidence based discussion going on.

"People can debate but they should debate around the facts and not around conjecture and hyperbole.

"I sometimes check the columns when the Guardian puts something up on energy. There must be a bunch of people who sit round waiting for an article.

"Whatever the article is there is a kind of stock response and it quickly descends back to climate science.  It's people who are not climate scientists debating the finer points of climate science.

 "It would be funny if it wasn't so potentially damaging around a really important issue. But we will carry on trying to put the facts out there and hopefully we can have a sensible medium term sensible energy policy and economic strategy in this area."

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Half the population can't understand simple health advice

More than half the adult population can't understand routine health instructions given out by doctors and nurses and written  on medicines and posters.

Around 43% of people were not at the literacy levels to fully understand written words on cancer screening kits, doctors' letters, or child cycle helmets.

Add in some maths and the figure rises to a staggering 61%, the first survey to look into the problem in England  has found.

More than three out of four - 78% - cannot understand the most common measure of obesity, a Body Mass Index (BMI) chart which ranks obesity levels on measures of height and weight.

The study of 16-65 years olds in England was presented to MPs in the House of Commons last week.

Professor Gill Rowlands, who led the research, told me there was a "mis-match" between the level health information was pitched at and the literacy and numeracy abilities of the population.

She told me: "I was staggered. I am a GP in an inner city practice so one of the reasons for me doing this was to find what people were understanding. I was just staggered by the extent of the problem.

"I spend quite a bit of my time with people bringing in material to show me or letters they have received from hospitals and saying to me what does it say?

"There is one bit of caution in that the percentage of people who could not understand it does not mean they could not understand or use it at all because people do  ask a family or friends if they don't understand.

"So people do have coping strategies but there is no doubt if it is tricky for people to understand some people don't bother,  other people are too embarrassed to ask, and others will have to spend far longer on it than they would otherwise have to."

Examples of materials sampled and ratings: 1

Level of difficulty of health material
% unable to effectively understand the information
Number of English adults 16-65 years unable to effectively understand the information
Instructions to calculate a child’s dose of paracetamol
Readability: 14-16 years (GCSE C or above)
Maths: 5-7 years
15 million
Instructions for fitting a child’s car seat
Readability: 14-16 years
Maths: 7-9 years
15 million
Instructions for using a bowel cancer screening kit
Readability: 11-14 years
Maths: 11-14 years
17 million
Calculating the Body Mass Index Chart
Readability: 14-16 years
Maths: 14-16 years
27 million

"We sampled across a range of activities so there was stuff about promoting good diet and exercise, there was stuff about preventing illness, having flu jabs and taking part in cancer screening. What to do if you get sick - how to manage an illness and there was also a section on public safety - things like how to fit a child's  car seat and how to fit a cycle helmet. It took a really wide range of material."

The team rated the difficulty of the material, the readability and the maths difficulty, against the English Skills Qualification Framework .

Then they looked at the literacy and numeracy skills of England's population from last years national skills survey which was run by  the Department  of Business and Skills and got people to do literacy and numeracy tests.

Professor Rowlands, of London South Bank University, said: "We measured like with like. We said: This is the difficulty of the material what proportion of the English population have got the skills to be able to understand and use them. 

"And that is where we found this gap. We found some of the health material just had text in it, just written information, and for that 43% of the population nationally were not at that level.

"And if you bring in any kind of maths - which is obviously quite common in health - then the proportion of people who could not really understand it goes up to 61%.

"Another example was bowel cancer screening and again 41% would not be able to completely understand those instructions.

"One of the things which really struck me was that it was an across the board issue whatever angle you looked at most of the material that was coming out was at a level that was above the level of the skills of the people that needed to use it."

Some may say the study is a damning indictment of modern education. Professor Rowlands thinks health information could be brought into English and Maths teaching. But the easier short-term solution is to make health and safety instructions much simpler and easier to understand.

"The problem is the mis-match between the complexity of the health materials and the skills of the people who need to use them. So the two approaches should be to reduce the complexity of the materials or to support people to develop more skills.

"It is simply quicker to get the health service to write their information more clearly. But in parallel we have got to support the development of literacy and numeracy in order that people can use them for health.

"There is important work to be done to look at people over 65 which hasn't been surveyed yet. When I look at some of my older patients they are on several different drugs they have different colours and they have to be taken at different times of day it can be very complicated.

"The other group which has an issue is the lower income groups. They could do with closer access and support to be able to get access to health information and then evaluate it - see if it is right for them - and go and find someone to talk to about it.

Previous research in the US has shown that people with low health literacy levels have poorer health, are less likely to engage in cancer screening programmes and are less likely to be able to manage illnesses such as diabetes, heart problems and asthma.

This research suggests the same may be true in England. More than two thirds of people, 67%, who said they were in poor health also had poor health literacy levels while only 36% of those in good health had similar low literacy levels.

The research was sponsored by MSD, known as Merck in the US and Canada, which has been pushing low health literacy as an unmet health need for ten years. Researchers will now look more closely at inner London and northern England, where the problem is worst.


Monday, 3 December 2012

C02 emissions continue to rise but who is listening?

There was a note of exasperation in the quote by Professor Corinne Le Quere in the press release from the University of East Anglia.

She was commenting on the latest projections for the annual rise in C02 emissions for 2012 which are estimated at 2.6% reaching a record high of 35.6 billion tonnes

The rise means global emissions from burning fossil fuel are 58% above 1990  levels, the baseline for the Kyoto Protocol and the figures were released during the United Nations Climate Change talks in Doha and well below what is needed to limit climate change to 2C by the end of the century.

Professor Le Quere, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and  professor at UAE, who led the research, said: "These latest figures come amidst climate change talks in Doha. But with emissions continuing to grow. it's as if no-one is listening to the entire scientific community.

"These are huge changes in the path of emissions. We are following a very  fossil intensive society where we produce energy. And if that continues into the future then the scenario of climate change that we are on leads to 4-6 degrees of climate change by the end of the century. This is huge changes in climate.

The latest analysis by the Global Carbon Project is published in the journal Nature Climate Change with the data released at the same time by the journal Earth System Science Data Discussions.

The biggest contributors to global emissions in 2011 were China (28%), the United States (16%), the European Union (11%) and India (7%).

Emissions in China and India grew by 9.9% and 7.5% on 2011, while those of the United States and the European Union  decreased by 1.8% and 2,8%.

This year's figure is given a 68% confidence but is in line with the average 3% rise in emissions since the turn of the century.

In 1750 the C02 concentration in the atmosphere was an estimated 278 part per million. Now the figure stands at 391.4 ppm.

There is an undisputed link between carbon in the atmosphere and global temperatures.

Professor Le Quere told me: "We know that greenhouse gases are the fingerprints of climate change. There are lots of fingerprints in things like the oceans that these are changes in climate forced by greenhouse gases. There is uncertainty but that is more about how much climate change there will be for given emissions."

This year's projected 2.6% rise is based on economic data so is less reliable than the confirmed average 3% rises in the previous decade. In fast-developing countries like China and India it can be difficult to get fully accurate economic data on the actual growth.

So, if carbon emissions are rising steadily why isn't temperature following? Climate sceptics point to little or no rise in the last ten to 15 years.

Professor Le Quere told me: "The temperature and the climate  is very variable year to year and there is a lot of variablity in the climate which you don't have in the emissions..

"This year the temperature record which has just been published makes this the ninth warmest year on record but the record is 163 years long. So to be the ninth warmest year is actually right there at the top. There is no doubt that the temperature of the decade from 2002 to 2012 was warmer than the previous decade by 0.15 to 0.2 degrees so there is no doubt that the long-term is that of warming."

Deforestation and land use change added about 10% to the emissions but has been stable for the last two decades showing "great progress" she added.

The scientists say that to keep to 2 degrees of warming by the end of the century we need to have peaked in global emissions by 2020 and then reduce by 3% a decade.

On present trends that's a big ask.

But they say previous energy transitions in Belgium, Denmark, France, Sweden and the UK have led to emission reductions as high as 5% each year over decade-long periods, even without climate change policy.

"We are not taking at the level of action which is needed at the moment. The level of action is much below what is needed to limit climate change to 2 degrees," Professor Le Quere said.

Whether, or not, you believe in climate change the scientific evidence for it continues to build with increasing consistency.

I believe sceptics have made a mistake in trying to rubbish the science and make unfounded claims about scientists making things up and being involved in conspiracies.

There is a legitimate political discussion  to have about how important climate change is to the world and how much we should spend to mitigate it now - rather than paying later.

But claiming the scientists have just simply got it wrong looks more and more like a dead end street.