Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Developers and politicians failing to protect against climate-related flood risk

Flooding in Germany

With five million Europeans under threat of increased coastal flooding, policymakers – under pressure from persistent demand for low-cost development on the coast and inland – lack understanding of flood risk reduction and management, according to several new pieces of research.

This is a version of an article that appeared on 13 April in The Fifth Estate.

European homes are at risk from flooding from two directions: on the coast from sea-level rise and storm surges; and in floodplains and valleys from run-off during periods of extreme rainfall.

New analysis detailed in journal Earth’s Future shows that the five million Europeans currently under threat from once in a century floods (like those experienced in May last like) could face the same risk once a decade by mid-century and every year by the end of the century, as the climate continues to change.

The research is the first to take into account not only sea level rise due to warming temperatures, but also the impacts of climate change on tides, storm surge and waves when estimating future flood risk.

The authors used observations of the different factors plus climate models to estimate how each factor might change along the coastlines of Europe under different greenhouse gas emissions scenarios.

They found existing coastal protection structures were not up sufficient for protecting the five million homes most vulnerable under high-end warming scenarios.

Governments and building owners in these areas therefore face a stark choice: increase defences or move. Developers need to wake up to the risk of continuing to build in these areas and planners need to question whether approvals should be granted for development. Insurers will need help if they are to continue to provide cover. And property owners are likely to see the value of their properties drop.

Which areas will face the worst potential damage?

Seas are rising worldwide by about 3.2 millimetres a year, though rates vary from region to region because of local land rise and subsidence. If greenhouse gas emissions aren’t curbed, global seas could rise on average by 0.52 metres up to 0.98 metres by the end of the century, according to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

In Europe, the North Sea region is projected to face the highest sea level rise – nearly one metre under a high emission scenario by 2100 – followed by the Baltic Sea and Atlantic coasts of the UK and Ireland. Sea level rise is the main cause of the flood risk, but even more intensive extremes of weather along most of northern Europe will also generate significant local effects.

Least affected will be southern Europe, with the exception of a projected decrease along the Portuguese coast and the Gulf of Cadiz, offsetting sea level rise by 20-30 per cent.

This conclusion confirms the result of a separate report from 10 years ago that the regions most prone to a rise in flood frequencies are northern to northeastern Europe, while southern and southeastern Europe show significant increases in drought frequencies.

The cost will be in the many billions. Storms Desmond, Eva and Frank, which battered parts of Britain between early December 2015 and early January 2016, caused damage estimated to cost insurers £1.3 billion (AU$1.66b) in claims. Multiplying this throughout Europe under the above scenario will see potential costs in the many billions.

Thomas Wahl, who studies coastal flood risks at the University of Central Florida, calls the research “an important step in the right direction and, to date, the most comprehensive analysis of changes in coastal extreme sea levels under climate change for Europe”.

Flood resistant homes?

As I covered in February, the British Building Research Establishment has developed a flood-resilient home designed to be able to resist floodwaters up to a depth of 600mm. In addition, the home features a number of innovations aimed at reducing the damage and disruption caused should floodwaters actually penetrate into the interior of the house.

But this type of development isn’t necessarily helpful. Another paper published recently in Science of The Total Environment found that while combined investment in property-level flood protection and sustainable urban drainage systems could certainly reduce surface water flood risk in times of extreme rainfall, the benefits could be outweighed by continued development in high-risk areas.

The researchers examined surface water flood risk in London, looking at how risk reduction could be achieved by homeowners and government, and the role of flood insurance and the new flood insurance pool, Flood Re, in the context of climate change.

Flood Re is a levy system in the UK agreed between the government and insurance companies to provide flood insurance coverage to homeowners who would otherwise be ineligible for it because of where they live.

Simulations showed that the scheme helps to provide affordable insurance, even under climate change but will face increasing financial pressure as the frequency of incidents increases.

The researchers say that if the intended transition to risk-based pricing is to take place then a determined and coordinated strategy will be needed to manage flood risk, something that isn’t currently happening.

This will involve a number of measures, including the provision of incentives for householders to make their homes flood-resilient, putting limits on new development in risky areas and installing neighbourhood-scale resilience infrastructure such as sustainable urban drainage systems.

The limits of land management

Other known broader scale methods of reducing the impact of extreme rainfall events include river restoration and tree planting. These aim to restore processes that have been affected by human activities such as farming, land management and house-building.

However, more research shows that although such measures can play a valuable role in flood prevention, a lack of monitoring means their true potential remains unclear.

Experts led by Dr Simon Dadson of the University of Oxford compiled evidence on natural flood management, published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

It shows that measures to restore natural floodplains by “making room for the river” – for example by removing flood walls and other obstacles – do indeed reduce flood water levels.

But Dr Dadson cautions: “One of the main problems decision-makers face is that differences between catchments make it difficult to transfer evidence from one location to the other – and we don’t yet know whether the effects in small catchments can be extrapolated to larger ones”.

He adds: “What we’ve found is that when it comes to natural flood management, there are some interventions for which there is very strong evidence, but these tend to be in small-scale river catchments.”

For measures such as tree planting that aim to change the way rainfall runs off the land, the evidence of the impact on flooding is mixed.

“Natural flood management can help if implemented well in carefully chosen locations, and it can bring important benefits to landscapes and wildlife, but it’s not a silver bullet for the problem of flooding,” Dadson says.

He recommends that policymakers establish more systematic large-scale surveys and monitoring programs, and feed natural flood management into planning at the catchment scale.

With governments therefore lagging behind in their response to the increasing rate of risk rise to property from flooding, perhaps the best advice occupants can take is simply: move to a less risky location.

David Thorpe is the author of a number of books on energy, buildings and sustainability. See his website here.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Trump, Putin and a new "axis of fossil fuels"

When Trump and Putin finally meet, we could well see the emergence of a new axis of resurgence for the fossil fuel industry.

A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin said a week last Friday that the Russian leader is keen to meet with US President Trump. That now seems an age ago, since Trump's U-turn on Syria.

It seemed likely then that the meeting would be soon. But when they do finally meet, as they must, even if they don't have policy on Syria and the Ukraine in common, there's something else on which they do share much: a love of coal, gas and oil.

A pre-sarin-attack-in-Syria version of this article appeared on April 6 on The Fifth Estate.

Both Trump and Putin support this industry – and the mining industry in general – and deprecate climate change and the Paris Agreement.

People close to the powerful Russian oil community say that both countries see energy cooperation as one of the few common grounds to move the strained relations forward.

Putin and Trump have much in common on the topic of energy. As InsideClimate has pointed out last year:

Russia is the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. Yet the plan it submitted under the Paris agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 is one of the weakest of any government and actually permits Russia to increase carbon pollution over time. The Paris Agreement went into effect last November, but Russia is the only major emitter that has not ratified it. Instead, it has laid out a timetable that would delay ratification for almost three years.

Trump’s climate-sceptic appointee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, has not confirmed whether the United States will remain in the global climate change pact.

Artic exploration

The meeting looks likely to happen in Finland once it assumes chair of the Arctic Council. This is significant because the Council is a forum for discussing access to the mineral rights of the sea-bed within the circle.

Due to climate change (which Trump does not believe in) and melting of the Arctic sea-ice, more energy resources and waterways are now becoming accessible.

Both leaders want access to the vast reserves of oil and gas known to exist there. Their desire is vigorously opposed by environmentalists. Putin’s government famously imprisoned Greenpeace activists in 2013 for protesting about Russian oil exploration in the Arctic.

Igor Yusufov, Tillerson and Russia

Igor Yusufov, Russian energy minister (2001-2004) who presided over the privatisation of the industry is now, oddly, head of US$3 billion energy investment Fund Energy. This fund does deals in oil and gas projects with the likes of US oil service multinational Halliburton.

Yusufov has issued a statement supporting greater cooperation between the two superpowers. He believes that Russia and the USA will discuss the development of coal production and corresponding technologies. Russia is in possession of the world’s second largest coal reserves.

Yusufov has known Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, formerly head of ExxonMobil, since 2002. He is enthusiastic about Tillerson’s involvement in building bridges between the two countries – and forging links on energy.

Tillerson has been involved in Russian energy projects since January 1998 when he took over ExxonMobil’s operations in Russia and the Caspian Sea region.

ExxonMobil and Gazprom did very well out of Tillerson’s involvement in Russia. Both sides will be hoping this success can be repeated.

In connection with the ongoing suspicions about Mr Trump’s connections to Russia, and the degree of support he received from Mr Putin, John McCain, a senator from Arizona, has said he is “very concerned” about Tillerson’s 2013 acceptance of Russia’s Order of Friendship from Mr Putin.

The man Tillerson will be talking to is foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, whom Yusufov speaks admiringly about and says “also possesses a profound knowledge in energy”.

Trump will be jealous of Russia’s achievements with its coal industry. Contrary to the state of affairs in the US, which he wants to reverse, in the last five years Russian coal production increased by 12.7 per cent. Yusufov attributes this to the benefits of privatisation.

Much of the increase is due to open-cast mining, which has lax environmental controls – another (non)-policy favoured by both Trump and Putin.

The end of the Paris Agreement?

Yusufov says that Russia is concerned about the likely slowdown in global demand for coal due to the Paris Agreement. But its Energy Ministry still forecasts an increase in production to 425 million tons in 2020 and to 480 m tons in 2030.

How does this square with being a signatory of the Paris Agreement? It doesn’t. Russia says one thing and does another. This is its form of Orwellian “doublethink”.

An example is Yusufov’s statement: “We see [the Paris Agreement] as a cornerstone of the future environmentally conscious world. At the same time we clearly understand, that at this stage the Russian economy would not survive without hydrocarbons our companies explore and produce.”

At least Russia is honest about wanting to have its climate cake and eat it.

As with the West’s misplaced faith in carbon capture to achieve this dual end, Putin believes in nanotubes. He mentioned them in Paris prior to the climate change conference. He said that these Russian-made fibres, one billionth of a metre in diameter, will “cut Russian CO2 emissions by 160-180 million tons”.

Russia currently emits 2322 Mt CO2 a year, or 5.4 per cent of global emissions.

In the US last week, Trump signed an order – which would need to be passed by Congress – rolling back former President Barack Obama’s climate change policies, including the Clean Power Plan to slash carbon emissions from power plants.

This would damage the United States’ ability to meet its Paris commitments.

Only the U.S. Congress stands between this emerging alliance and the goals of the Paris Agreement.

The world will be watching this summit more closely than it has watched any summit in the last few years.

David Thorpe is the author of a number of books on energy, buildings and sustainability. See his website here.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Why does the UK have lower energy bills but rising fuel poverty?

Note: A version of this piece first appeared last week on The Fifth Estate.
Average fuel bills have fallen and investing in energy efficiency does not need to push up energy bills according to new research from the UK’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC). Yet a recent debate in the Houses of Parliament on fuel poverty shows that ministers still lack the necessary political will to tackle its scale and are complacent about the effect of their efforts.

The UK ranks 14 out of 16 western European countries for fuel poverty, and ranks bottom for the proportion of people who cannot afford to adequately heat their home.

Yet household energy bills have fallen since the Climate Change Act was passed – despite fears expressed at the time that measures to tackle climate change would push bills up.

So why has fuel poverty slowly been creeping up? The fuel poverty gap, which is a measure of the difference between a household’s energy bill and what it can afford to pay, increased from £235 in 2003 to £371 in 2014, according to Rebecca Long-Bailey the Labour Party Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Real wages have fallen over the last decade since the banking crisis and the austerity politics era begin. That's part of the picture. But there is more.

Compared to Sweden. Britain’s winters are mild yet due to good insulation of homes levels of fuel poverty in Sweden are about half those of the UK. A typical Swedish wall is three times more energy efficient. So what is going on in the UK?

Why have fuel bills fallen?

Graph: Changes in annual energy bills from 2004 to 2008 and from then to 2016.
“Changes in annual energy bills from 2004 to 2008 and from then to 2016.” Source: CCC analysis. Estimates are for the average dual-fuel household with gas heating. 2016 estimates are based on consumption of 3,550 kWh for electricity and 13,500 kWh for gas. Note: 2004 is the first year for which comparable data is available to allow comparison over time.

Fuel bills in Britain have fallen not because of energy prices falling or homes being better insulated but because more energy efficient goods are on the market. This is in line with patterns found in Australian energy consumption.

Although the cost of measures to deliver a cleaner, low-carbon electricity system have added around £9 a month to the typical UK household energy bill in 2016, this was more than offset by a cut of over £20 per month due to reduced energy demand mainly from more efficient lights and appliances (according to the CCC’s fourth independent assessment of the impact of carbon budgets on energy bills).

This assessment finds that typical households which use gas for heating/hot water and electricity for everything else, paid (in real terms) £115 less per year for energy in 2016 than they did in 2008 when the Climate Change Act was passed. The total annual bill includes just over £100 to pay for decarbonisation measures.

Improvements in energy efficiency have saved the typical household around £290 a year since 2008.

This is largely due, as Green MP Caroline Lucas pointed out in the Parliamentary debate, not to the refurbishment of homes but to a European Union directive – the Ecodesign Directive – which, she said, is projected to produce average annual savings of £153 by 2020 – 20 per cent of the average annual energy bill.

This has been so successful that it has led to the virtual phasing out of all inefficient goods, including household appliances, boilers and windows, below the A rating since the energy rating label for goods was introduced 20 years ago.

It has encouraged the development of ever more energy efficient products. Consumer surveys show that about 85 per cent of European citizens look at energy efficiency labels when they purchase products.

The European Commission last week therefore decided to replace the current confusing A+++ to G labels for products by a clear and easier to use A to G labels to make energy labels more understandable.

Once this is approved by the European Parliament and the Council, product registration and public databases will be provided to make it easier for people to compare the energy efficiency of household appliances.

Fuel poverty and policy

But still fuel poverty is rising.

A household is said to be living in fuel poverty if its income is below the poverty line and it has higher-than-typical energy costs.

On 21 March, British MPs debated fuel poverty. The minister responsible for energy reminded everyone that in 2014 the Government adopted a target for England for improving the homes of all fuel-poor households to a band C energy efficiency rating by 2030. Along the way they are to be improved to a band E rating by 2020 and to a band D rating by 2025.

Only 7 per cent of fuel-poor households currently live in a band C rated property – most in much worse homes. Improving E, F or G-rated homes to band D can reduce energy costs by an average of £400 a year.

This is a lot more than the money saved by switching appliances to the most efficient, however much that helps. Besides, the poorest people cannot afford to buy new appliances.

A revised Act of Parliament that obliges energy companies to refurbish customers’ homes is about to see 500,000 homes improved over the coming 18 months. This is an extension of the Electricity and Gas (Energy Company Obligation) (Amendment) Order, which will prolong the Energy Company Obligation scheme from 1 April 2017 to 30 September 2018. It is well overdue and its tardiness has created uncertainty in the industry.

Seventy per cent of the support available under the Act will be directed at low-income homes. However there is currently no clear indication of what will happen to the obligation after 2018.

New private rented sector regulations will target the least efficient F and G-rated properties from 2018 by requiring landlords to improve those properties to at least a band E.

But is this enough?

The failure of policy

There has been an 88 per cent fall in the number of measures taken to retrofit homes since 2010 as a result of government policies, according to Long-Bailey.

Policies to date have failed to support the development of a large-scale sustainable market for energy efficiency investments.

The Association for the Conservation of Energy believes this is “because there has been a lack of a stable and long-term framework within which the energy efficiency supply chain can develop its market. Energy efficiency policies have proved susceptible to decisions driven by short-term political priorities”.

The Committee on Climate Change estimates that 4.5 million cavity walls remain un-insulated, 10 million easy-to-treat lofts could benefit from additional insulation and seven million solid walls are still without any insulation.

The case for further government intervention is clear, but the political will to spend money on this area is lacking.

The economic benefits of insulating homes

It’s not just about bills. It’s about human health and winter deaths, of which 8000 were said to occur last winter due to fuel poverty. But if that fails to persuade MPs to take action there are financial arguments too.

Analysis by consultants Frontier Economics suggests that the net present value of investing in insulating homes could be as valuable as the High Speed 2 rail link being backed by the government. It sees this type of investment as an infrastructure priority.

Opposition parties Labour and the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalists are united with the NEA that the National Infrastructure Commission and the UK Government must act on the strong case for domestic energy efficiency to be regarded as a hugely important infrastructure priority.

A further report by Cambridge Econometrics found that for each pound spent on insulating homes £1.12 is generated for the Treasury and £3 for the economy in GDP, and 42 pence is saved by the NHS.

The future effect of climate change targets on electricity bills

If it will not cost – but benefit – the taxpayer, will it cost the bill payer?

Graph: Central estimates for changes in annual household energy bill from 2016 to 2030.
“Central estimates for changes in annual household energy bill from 2016 to 2030.” Source: CCC analysis. Estimates are for the average dual-fuel household with gas heating.
The CCC calculates that the gradual shift towards low-carbon electricity could add a further £85-120 a year to a typical bill by 2030 if further policies to meet UK climate objectives are put in place, but that further improvements in energy efficiency have the potential to deliver even more savings for households in future (around £150, or more if wholesale costs continue to rise). That’s a net benefit to consumers of at least £30.

It points out that, “There is also a range of opportunities for business arising from the transition to a low-carbon economy. The UK low-carbon economy already makes up 2-3 per cent of GDP and employs hundreds of thousands of people.”

Jesse Norman, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), concluding the debate on fuel poverty for the Government, called their target to reduce fuel poverty “ambitious”.

But seen in this context it does not appear nearly as ambitious as it could be.

David Thorpe is the author of a number of books on energy, buildings and sustainability. See his website here.