Analysis

Newsnight and the Daily Mail ponder the effect of low solar activity on the climate

  • 17 Jan 2014, 15:40
  • Roz Pidcock

Update - 20th January: The Daily Mail has  written up the story this weekend, covering some very similar ground. The main thing to remember is that scientists think the effect of lower solar activitity will be regional rather than global.

Colder winters in Europe aren't inconsistent with a world that's warming up on the whole. See  this guest blog post from Professor Mike Lockwood for a clear explanation of what scientists think is going on.

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Last night, BBC's Newsnight delved into a question that seems to fascinate the media. A six-minute report entitled "What's happening to our sun?" asked how much a drop in solar activity could affect the climate here on earth. The answer from scientists is very little.

We've written about this issue  many times. We recently had a  guest blog by Professor Mike Lockwood - solar scientist at the University of Reading - about the many myths, misconceptions and misnomers about the sun's influence on climate.

It's well worth a read. But here's a summary of the key points.

A declining sun

Back in the 17th century, the sun went through a period of prolonged low activity, called the Maunder Minimum. This coincided with the beginning of what's become known colloquially as the Little Ice Age, when parts of the northern hemisphere cooled by as much as two degrees Celsius. (Incidentally, read Mike Lockwood's  blog for an explanation of why it wasn't a 'Little Ice Age" at all.)

Scientists think the next low point in solar activity could be low enough to rival the Maunder Minimum, which often leads to the question of whether we could see a return to freezing conditions. In the Newsnight report, Rebecca Morelle asks:

"Does a decline in solar activity mean plunging temperatures for decades to come?"

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Cameron "gets the balance about right" on climate change and extreme weather

  • 10 Jan 2014, 15:05
  • Roz Pidcock

With the very worst impacts of the recent storms beginning to tail off, Prime Minister David Cameron waded into the media debate this week by appearing to connect the dots between climate change and recent "abnormal" weather.

Some newspapers suggested Cameron's comments aren't backed by the facts, but a close look at what he said shows his comments to be uncontroversial, scientists say.

Stormy weather

The heavy storms hitting Britain in recent weeks attracted a lot of media coverage. Some   commented on potential links with climate change, but most left the topic well alone, and one or two flatly  dismissed the idea of a connection between the weather the UK is experiencing and any wider climate change.

During Wednesday's Prime Minister's questions, Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron suggested the recent weather in the UK was a "destructive and inevitable consequence, at least in part, of climate change". Asked whether he agreed, David Cameron replied:

"I agree with you that we are seeing more abnormal weather events. Colleagues across the House can argue about whether that is linked to climate change or not. I very much suspect that it is."

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Labour's £4 billion energy price rip-off claim: Investigating the data

  • 03 Jan 2014, 14:35
  • Mat Hope

Credit: EdinburghGreens

It may be a new year, but the energy debate has picked up where it left off in 2013. Yesterday, the Labour party accused the 'big six' energy companies of overcharging their customers by a total of  £4 billion.

Labour's announcement was met with consternation by the energy industry, however. Industry group, Energy UK, says companies pay "the most competitive price they can" for electricity, and the party's numbers don't paint  a "true picture" of the cost of energy. But market regulator, Ofgem, says it  can't scrutinise Labour's claims because it doesn't have  access to data companies say is too commercially sensitive to share.

So how did Labour conclude households are being ripped off? We delve into its data to try and shed some light on a notoriously opaque issue.

Breaking down the £4 billion

Labour says the big six energy companies are paying considerably more for electricity than their smaller competitors, and passing that cost on to consumers.

The party backs this up by comparing the wholesale cost of electricity - which the big six pay to generators before selling on to households - with the price small suppliers pay. As the wholesale cost of electricity makes up about  60 per cent of an average household's bill, it's important that suppliers are getting the best deal they can.

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Fracking the UK won’t reduce emissions, government report says

  • 18 Dec 2013, 14:20
  • Mat Hope

Is the UK on the verge of a domestic oil and gas boom? Newspapers are excited about the prospect following the release of a new government report. But while the government is keen it's still unclear how much onshore oil and gas the UK has, and what impact it could have on the UK's emissions.

Yesterday, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) published  plans to open up large parts of the UK to oil and gas exploration. That includes exploring for shale gas, which is extracted through a controversial process known as fracking.

The report claimed the UK could soon have as many as 120 frack pads scattered across the country - with some significant social and environmental impacts.

Impacts

The government maintains shale gas could be a significant part of the UK's energy mix in the future. But while the British Geological Survey has identified potentially large resources in the north of the country, it's still uncertain how much companies will be able to access.

The government's new report considers two scenarios: 'low' and 'high' activity. In the former, only 50 licenses are expected to be granted. But the government hopes that by offering to open up a large portion of the country, demand will be much higher - 150 licenses.

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Could burning coal under the sea provide 200 years of ‘clean’ energy?

  • 16 Dec 2013, 15:45
  • Mat Hope

Credit: US Department of Energy

The government claims it's on a mission to clean up the UK's energy system. You could be forgiven for thinking that means an end to coal power - the most polluting energy source of all. But, thanks to new technology, the government hopes there's a new, 'clean' way to keep using coal.

Writing in the  Telegraph this weekend, Algy Cluff, chief executive of energy company Cluff Natural Resources, says 'underground coal gasification' could "provide a vital energy solution and produce abundant and cheap gas for generations". The prospect has piqued the government's interest, and energy minister Michael Fallon has  established a working group to explore its feasibility.

But is it too good to be true?

What is underground coal gasification?

Underground coal gasification (UCG) involves drilling down into coal - normally deep underground - then igniting it. The resulting gas then runs up another borehole and is collected on the surface, as the diagram below shows:

 

underground coal gasification diagram

Once the gas is collected, companies can use it to run power stations, or convert it into transport fuel. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology can be added, reducing the process' emissions, and making it relatively 'clean'.

As such, the government now sees the "exciting pot

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Could Arctic summers be sea ice-free in three years’ time?

  • 12 Dec 2013, 12:41
  • Roz Pidcock

Climate change is causing a long-term decline in Arctic sea ice, and scientists expect the Arctic Ocean to be largely ice-free in summer at some point this century.

But is that broad prediction too complacent? This week, the Guardian claimed scientists working for the US Navy believe summer sea ice could disappear as soon as 2016, based on the results of a sophisticated new computer model.

But having looked at the research, it turns out the 2016 prediction is from an older, simpler model, and isn't the US Navy prediction of what's going to happen in the Arctic. It's also much sooner than most polar scientists would suggest.

An ice-free prospect

Arctic sea ice is declining by nearly four per cent per decade, according to the  latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The loss is particularly noticeable at the end of summer, when the ice reaches a seasonal low.

Arctic _sea _ice _summer

Average extent of Arctic sea ice in summer (colours represent different datasets). Source: IPCC 5th Assessment Report,  Summary for Policymakers (p8)

The change has  wide-reaching consequences, so when it might happen is an important question.

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Will the 'big six' profit from lobbying to keep homes energy inefficient?

  • 03 Dec 2013, 15:30
  • Mat Hope

Credit: Cdpweb161

Energy companies  lobbied the government to cut 'green levies' from bills, and yesterday they  got their wish. But now the government has announced it will be  reforming a number of energy efficiency schemes, do the 'big six' stand to profit?

The Times this morning  reported that the policy rollback could mean companies reap the rewards of selling energy that would not be needed if energy companies were made to stick to their efficiency targets. The news is likely to be poorly received by consumers and politicians who have lambasted the industry for making what some see as excessive profits in recent months.

The government says the changes aren't a sop to the big six, however. It maintains that the policy changes will save as much energy as the previous package. We take a close look at the numbers.

£360 million extra revenue

The government has announced it will  relax the requirements of an energy saving scheme that obliged energy suppliers to subsidise home insulation for low-income households - known as the energy company obligation (ECO). The Times reports that companies will be able to sell an extra £360 million worth of energy due to the changes.

The headline figure comes from energy efficiency industry group, the Association for the Conservation of Energy (ACE). It argues that because the programme is being cut, less homes will be made energy efficient, and energy companies will profit from the overall increase in energy use.

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Mail on Sunday's £300 billion 'eco bill' claim is almost double government estimates

  • 02 Dec 2013, 16:45
  • Mat Hope & Ros Donald

401(K)

The government has today announced households would be paying  £50 less for energy next year - good news, says climate skeptic journalist David Rose in the  Mail on Sunday. But before everyone rushes out to spend their newly-recovered funds, they should hear the bad news: The paper says households will still be expected to foot a £300 billion "eco-bill" due to the UK's climate legislation.

But that headline figure is almost double what the government says will need to be spent to modernise the UK's energy system.

'Eco-bill'

Rose says the government's latest announcement is small fry compared to the bigger costs associated with governments obligation to decarbonise. He says the main reason bills are going to go up in the future is because the government is going to have spend big to reduce emissions.

That's because MPs passed a law in 2008 which obliges the government to reduce the UK's greenhouse gas emissions. He says the Climate Change Act requires the government "to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide by 15 per cent from their 1990 level by 2020".

That's not true. The government is legally required to reduce emissions by considerably more than this - 80 per cent cut by 2050, which implies a  42 per cent reduction in 2020 according to government advisors, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

 

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Energy companies’ network costs estimate 10 times larger than Ofgem’s

  • 22 Nov 2013, 15:00
  • Robin Webster

Government plans to upgrade the electricity and gas grid could add as much as £180 to energy bills over the next decade, according to a report promoted by the energy industry last week. But energy regulator Ofgem suggests the cost could be less than a tenth of that. 

At its  annual conference last week, industry body Energy UK presented the conclusions of a report that suggests the costs of transporting electricity and gas will increase by more than 50 per cent by 2020. 

The claim comes from financial services company  UBS. Ofgem - which sets controls on the amount of money network operators can charge suppliers to use the grid, projects that network costs will go up by just a fraction of UBS's prediction, however.  

How network costs work 

Energy suppliers pay to transport electricity and gas around the country using the electricity networks and the gas grid. The money is paid in the form of rent to the companies that own the grid. 

 

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Can coal be compatible with emissions cuts?

  • 18 Nov 2013, 15:50
  • Mat Hope

Poland is hosting two international meetings this week, with seemingly contradictory goals: It is convening the latest round of international climate talks at the same time as giving industry a platform to claim increased coal use is compatible with climate goals.

Environmentalists have  criticised the Polish government for the scheduling clash, accusing it of allowing the the climate negotiations to become framed on the coal industry's terms.

Carbon budgets

The Polish government today released a joint statement with industry group, the World Coal Association (WCA), saying:

"There are many misconceptions about coal and its environmental impact. Many believe that the use of coal is incompatible with meeting the challenge of climate change. We disagree."

The organisation calls on governments to implement policies encouraging the immediate rollout of "low-emissions coal combustion technologies" - meaning any new power plants would be built to the most state-of-the-art specifications. It says development banks should find a way to help developing countries pay for the more efficient - but more expensive - new plants.

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