The verdict on smart meter privacy, security and health concerns as UK smart meter rollout begins

  • 08 Jul 2014, 10:00
  • Ros Donald

Adapted from a blog originally posted in June 2012

Will the UK government's planned rollout of smart meters leave homes vulnerable to marketing companies desperate for us to overshare information about our most personal habits? Will an information grid linked to energy delivery systems be open to hackers, leaving whole districts vulnerable to disruption? Will smart meters really create a "spy in every home", as the Daily Mail has reported? We take a look at the risks.

Smart meters give people detailed information about how much energy they use and when. The theory is that this can help reduce bills, and level out peak-time stresses on the grid. As such, the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is promoting smart meters as a tool for helping the country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, and plans to ensure one is installed in every home starting this week.

Privacy: will my smart meter be able to track what I do at home?

The short answer is yes - as long as you're using electricity. Energy meters show which appliances use the most electricity so that you can plan energy use effectively. Because of the different ways that appliances use electricity, such data could, for example, reveal whether you use medical devices or baby monitors, or even show the TV programme you're watching. And obviously, it can give information on when you're in or out, or track when you toilet light goes on. So, technically, it might know when you are on the loo.

The Mail reported that this information will be "will be collected every 30 minutes and beamed from a box in the home to the central databases." Some groups are worried about this. The European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS), which tracks privacy issues in Europe, produced a report last week warning that smart meter rollout will " enable massive collection of personal data which can track what members of a household do". EDPS is concerned that patterns and profiles could be mined for marketing and advertising, or price discrimination, and is asking the European Commission to consider legislating to protect consumers.

It does sound pretty alarming. However, the government appears to have taken some of these worries to heart already, outlining plans in April designed to ensure consumers have control over how much data they share with suppliers and third parties. 

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We need proper research into the climate impacts of shale gas, says Royal Society, as the Committee on Climate Change warns over emissions from gas

  • 29 Jun 2012, 15:43
  • Robin Webster

Two reports published today about UK gas policy have sparked headlines - and simultaneously highlighted a disjoint in UK energy policy.

Royal Society: fracking ok...

The first, a joint effort by the  Royal Society (RS) and the Royal Academy of Engineering, is a review of the scientific and engineering evidence associated with fracking - the process by which shale gas is extracted - and whether those risks can be effectively managed in the UK. It was undertaken at the behest of the government's chief scientific advisor John Beddington.

In summary, the report concludes that the "health, safety and environmental risks" of fracking "can be managed effectively". The risks of underground fractures causing contamination of water supplies is identified as "very low"; seismic risks are "low" and the demands for water "can be managed sustainably".

This has prompted some enthusiastic headlines: " Fracking should go ahead in Britain, report says" (Telegraph), "Fracking safe with strong regulation" (BBC), " Fracking could get UK approval" (Independent).

...but what about climate change?

But just as the Environment Agency's head Lord Smith said fracking could go ahead in the UK - but only with  carbon capture and storage (CCS) - back in May, there is a caveat to the RS report. In this case the report doesn't address how shale gas could affect climate change.


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The Register reports climate poll inaccurately

  • 29 Jun 2012, 15:10
  • Freya Roberts

New polling on people's beliefs about climate change in Canada, Great Britain and the United States has been reported fairly straight up by  some, but not by  others.

The poll, by Angus Reid Public Opinion, is the latest in a series conducted at intervals since 2009 gauging public opinion on the causes of climate change.

For all the wrangling over public opinion on climate change, the polling suggests that the proportion of people who believe climate change is real and caused by humans has not changed decisively over the last 3 years. In the UK, the poll currently puts it at 43%, and suggests it has ranged between 38% and 47% of respondents over the past few years.

Interpreting the numbers

With that in mind, let's look at IT blog the Register's take on  the polling.

First, it writes:

"Fewer Britons than ever support the proposition that global warming is caused by human-driven CO2 emissions, according to the latest survey."

That's not true. The results actually suggest that 43% of those polled in June 2012 agreed with the statement "Global warming is a fact and is mostly caused by emissions from vehicles and industrial facilities".

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The Guardian jumps the gun on record June sea ice melt

  • 29 Jun 2012, 11:15
  • Verity Payne

The Guardian this week  reports that recent rapid melting of Arctic sea ice has seen levels reach a "record low for June". But it's premature to be heralding June 2012 as having record low Arctic sea ice extent before the month is even over, particularly as sea ice extent is not currently tracking at record low levels.

The Guardian article says Arctic sea ice "has melted faster this year than ever recorded before", under the online headline "Arctic sea-ice levels at record low for June".

This headline could be read in two ways. The first interpretation is that Arctic sea ice extent for the month of June is at a record low. But can we know that before the month is out? The second is that at some point in June Arctic sea ice was at a record low. But does highlighting a few days of sea ice behaviour best illustrate what's happening to the sea ice?


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Scientists respond to the Register on Antarctic ice shelf melt: ‘This is the equivalent of turning the statement “the cancer is not as bad as we thought” into “you don't have cancer”.’

  • 28 Jun 2012, 11:30
  • Ros Donald and Verity Payne

"Crafty boffins" have discovered "no ice is being lost at all" from the eastern Antarctic,  the Register claimed in delighted tones on Monday.

Is it right? Not if you take a look at the research discussed by the IT blog - which has quite the penchant for publishing skeptic takes on new climate science. In fact, the research's lead author of told us it reveals a slower melt rate than previously thought for one ice shelf - the Fimbul ice shelf in Antarctica, but doesn't contradict or undermine research which shows the continent losing mass.

Under the headline 'Antarctic ice shelves not melting at all, new field data show'. the Register says:

"Twenty-year-old models which have suggested serious ice loss in the eastern Antarctic have been compared with reality for the first time - and found to be wrong, so much so that it now appears that no ice is being lost at all."

But what did the "boffins" do, and were their conclusions as dramatic as suggested?


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Enthusiastic climate science communicator? Come and work with us

  • 27 Jun 2012, 12:00
  • Carbon Brief Staff

Update 18/7/12: Please note the application period for this position is now closed.

  • Do you have expertise in the earth sciences or climate science?
  • Do you have experience communicating about scientific issues?
  • Do you want to contribute to the accurate reporting of climate science?

The Carbon Brief is a blog that aims to foster a more accurate and informed debate about climate change and energy in the UK. We comment on and factcheck stories about climate science and energy issues that appear in the media and online.

We promote accurate reporting of climate science in our role as fact-checkers and also by reporting on new developments. We also aim to provide a clear and well referenced resource for anyone wishing to report on or learn about climate and energy issues.

We are looking for someone with a background in climate science or a related field and an enthusiasm for communicating science to be our new science communication officer.

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Cutting methane emissions could give us an extra decade to deal with climate change

  • 26 Jun 2012, 16:00
  • Christian Hunt

Could cutting methane emissions now could give us an extra decade in which to reduce carbon dioxide emissions? That's the conclusion of Peter Cox, a professor of climate system dynamics at Exeter University, who outlines why in this recent TEDx talk. 

Cox believes we could "feasibly" cut manmade methane emissions by 40%. Because methane is what he calls a "sensitive control" on the total amount of carbon dioxide we can emit in the future while staying below a certain amount of global warming, that could provide more time to undertake the challenging task of reducing carbon dioxide emissions. 

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Why are new estimates of emissions from tropical deforestation lower?

  • 26 Jun 2012, 14:25
  • Freya Roberts

A new study has suggested that emissions from tropical deforestation could be lower than previously thought. So what's changed? Were older estimates wrong, and if so, what might this mean for the future of the planet's atmosphere?

New measurements from satellites

The new estimate comes from improved satellite measurements of how tropical forest cover is changing. This ability to estimate forest loss from orbit is relatively new, and allows scientists to calculate emissions from deforestation with greater certainty.

By comparing older and newer satellites images showing forest cover, scientists are able to work out two things: forest cover and the amount of biomass in an area. Assessing the amount of ground covered by trees alongside the amount of biomass in an area tells you about the amount of carbon stored in that area - the 'carbon stock', and this lets researchers roughly work out the amount of carbon released through deforestation.

This study, and others in recent years, calculate gross emissions - making no assumptions about what the land is used for afterwards and how this affects overall changes in emissions from deforestation. This removes uncertainty in the calculation, but it makes it tricky to compare new estimates to older studies, that did look at land use change.

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Has the law caught up with science in North Carolina?

  • 25 Jun 2012, 17:00
  • Carbon Brief staff

A new bill that would prevent planning authorities from being guided by scientific predictions about sea level was passed in North Carolina last week. But now it appears the bill may have been defanged, just as new research is published that says the state and others on the East Coast are in a sea level rise 'hotspot'.

So what's going on? Here, we summarise the latest somewhat ridiculous tussle between US climate scientists and legislators over scientific research.


There was outcry over the  decision by state legislators to approve a bill which would  'all but outlaw' projections of sea level rise made by the state's scientific commission, in favour of a lower estimate put forward by a group representing local developers.

The bill has been seen as an attack on scientifically-informed policy making, and following some rather scathing coverage of the decision, last Thursday a North Carolina legislative committee met to reconsider, according to the  Huffington Post.

There was a degree of rollback: Committee chair Pat McElfraft told HuffPo that amendments to the contentious bill will include requiring more sea level studies by the Coastal Resources Commission, which gives planning permission to new projects, over the next three to four years. 

There will also be no law dictating that calculations may only be based on historical trends, as was suggested in the original bill - which would have put  sea level rise by 2100 at just 20 centimetres

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Polling indicates belief in climate change has risen - so why does the Sunday Times describe it as 'cooling off'?

  • 25 Jun 2012, 15:00
  • Robin Webster

Last year the Sunday Times decided not to report the results of a survey it commissioned, which showed that  a majority of the British public supports an expansion of renewable power. 

Now, it has apparently repeated the trick, polling people over their belief in climate change and attitudes towards different energy sources, and then only reporting half of the results - and those with a very particular spin.

Belief in global warming 

The results of the survey, undertaken on  21st-22nd June  this year, are reported in a pull-out fact box in  yesterday's Sunday Times

Under the headline ' Cooling off', the Sunday Times announces: "Less than half the public believe climate change  is man-made, according to a new poll." It adds: 

"The YouGov survey  for The Sunday Times reveals just 43% think human activity is making the world warmer. This compares with 55% when the same question was asked in 2008. The number who believe the world is not becoming warmer has risen from 7% to 15%."

We turned to the  full version of the study as reported by YouGov to see if there was any more detail, and found some interesting results oddly absent from the Sunday Times piece.

In its report on the survey, rather than comparing climate change belief with statistics from 2008 as the Sunday Times has done, pollsters YouGov compare the results with the last time they asked the questions in 2010. 

The comparison actually shows that more people now think the world is warming because of human activity than in 2010. (4% more). Slightly more people also think that the world is becoming warmer - but not because of human activity (2% more). Compared to 2010, slightly fewer people think that the world is not warming (3% less).

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