The steep path to 1.5 degrees

Another good post from Jeremy Williams on the challenge we face in remaining within 1.5 degrees of global warming…

Make Wealth History

At the Paris climate talks last December, the international community recommitted itself to keeping below two degrees of global warming, with a stretch goal of 1.5 degrees. We’ve already had one degree of warming, so 1.5 is a much tougher target. As I’ve mentioned before, the difference between the two is much bigger than the fractional increase in heat. Climate change does not progress in a nicely orderly and linear fashion. Incidences of extreme weather are likely to double between 1 and 1.5 degrees, and double again between 1.5 and 2.

For some parts of the world, that’s the difference between climate change that they can adapt to, and conditions that are unliveable. Cue the evacuation of low-lying islands, and a new crisis of climate migration. The impact on crop yields would be much more serious, and perhaps most striking – at 2 degrees we are likely to completely lose…

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How Islabikes are embracing the circular economy

Make Wealth History

Islabikes is a British company that specialises in children’s bikes. Their USP is that they go the extra mile in designing bikes for the particular needs of smaller riders. Their bikes are notably lighter than their competitors, and every part has been appropriately scaled down – no regular sized brake levers or chains used to save money. That makes them more expensive, but if you’ve come across the brand before, the chances are that it was from an enthusiastic parent and customer. My sister is one such enthusiast, and she passed on the news of their latest venture.

Having reset the standard for children’s bikes, the company is now tackling sustainability. Through their Imagine Project, they are shifting towards a distinctively circular economy business model. One aspect of this is to start leasing bikes, with Islabikes maintaining ownership of the bikes and the raw materials used to make them…

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How rewilding can help to stop floods

Make Wealth History

Every year flooding costs Britain around a billion pounds. As the climate warms and extreme weather events become more frequent, floods could be more common and more expensive. Severe floods in 2015 have prompted a debate about how to address this growing problem, with the government publishing a new National Flood Resilience Review last week. It looks at key infrastructure sites to protect, flood responses and defences. While it touches on land management, one thing it doesn’t investigate much is the opportunity to let nature prevent floods for us.

rewilding-floodsThat’s something Rewilding Britain have been working on, and their new report explains the idea. How Rewilding Reduces Flood Risk describes the processes of natural flood management, and shows that they work.

One of the key principles is that flooding causes havoc in towns, but the water has all come in from the country. To prevent it building up too fast…

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Fracking: Let’s just end this nonsense

By Jon Crooks

I recently wrote to my Labour MP to express my serious concern that the government could soon overturn Lancashire Council’s locally made decision to reject fracking. Whilst I pointed out that such a decision would set a deeply worrying signal for future fracking decisions, the argument I was making in the main was around the principle of whether local councils should be able to make planning decisions like this without interference from Westminster.

My MP kindly responded and dedicated a couple of lines to say that she shared my concern that ministers may overturn locally made decisions to reject fracking.

However, she chose to dedicate the first four paragraphs of her response to a justification of her support for fracking itself. She was at pains to caveat that support, but nonetheless she did seem to be justifying it on the grounds that:

  1. 80% of our homes rely on gas for heating

  2. 30% of our electricity comes from gas fired power stations and we will still need flexible power to help manage peaks in demand, and projections from National Grid expect gas to continue to play a vital role for many years to come.

  3. Since 2004, the UK has become a net importer of gas

I have recently completed a good deal of research on the role of gas in the UK and so I wanted to respond to those three points. I took them in reverse order.

‘Since 2004, the UK has become a net importer of gas’

I am familiar with the ‘energy trilemma’, which is made up of environmental sustainability, energy security and affordability. Let’s take affordability first. It has been well documented that even if we do find a sizable supply of gas under our feet, it would have little or no impact on the price of gas on the wholesale market. I would challenge anyone to convince me otherwise given how the wholesale market works.

So what we are really talking about here is an energy dilemma between energy security and environmental sustainability.

Let’s look at energy security next. First thing to mention is that we have been a net importer of gas for 12 years, as suggested, and nothing much has changed over the last 6 years. In fact, we were relying on a higher proportion of imported gas in the years 2010 – 2013 than over the last couple of years. Whilst one could raise an eyebrow at the thought of imported gas from Qatar, most of our gas comes from Norway who have significant reserves and are a close and friendly neighbour.

The fact of the matter is, the way the wholesale gas market works, we are simply buying contracts based on whatever is cheapest on that particular day, or even that particular second, based on a range of factors. The bottom line is that there is no perceived threat to the supply of gas on the European gas markets, it’s political spin.

What we are really talking about here is GDP. This simply comes down to a trade off between increasing GDP for UK plc vs. environmental impact. In this regard, on the second page of my MP’s letter she actually went on to say that:

“we need a clean, secure, low-carbon future in the UK not a dirty fossil fuel one. The government’s latest report states that the cost of gas generation in 2025 will be higher than the cost of both solar and onshore wind so we need to question why the government is trying to lock us in o a fossil fuel infrastructure for the next thirty five years rather than backing the clean technologies of the future.”

Yes, absolutely! She went on to mention jobs and environmental safeguards. Jobs will be generated in whatever energy sector we decide to pursue. There are no shortage of green jobs in clean energy.

In terms of environmental safeguards, let’s specifically talk about climate. You may have seen recent reports on figures – based on Met Office data – prepared by meteorologist Ed Hawkins of Reading University, which show that average global temperatures have already been more than 1C above pre-industrial levels for every month except one over the past year and peaked at +1.38C in February and March.

Keeping within the 1.5C limit set in Paris in December will now be extremely difficult, say scientists, given these rises. These alarming figures will form the backdrop to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change talks in Geneva which have now commenced, where scientists have begun work on outlining ways to implement the climate goals set in Paris. Dates for abandoning all coal-burning power stations and halting the use of combustion engines across the globe – possibly within 15 years – are likely to be set.

You will have no doubt heard of Dr James Hansen from Columbia University, the former NASA scientist credited with first bringing the issue of climate change to the fore. In his blog earlier this year he spoke of some very bad news on atmospheric methane. He revealed as follows:

“Methane amount in the atmosphere was stable from 1999 to 2006, but growth resumed in the past decade and accelerated more sharply in the past two years. Although the reasons for resumed methane growth remain to be accurately quantified, the largest methane source is fossil fuel mining and leakage, and the United States seems to be the greatest contributor. The timing and location of renewed methane growth suggest hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of shale formations as the primary cause…”

He goes on to put the increased methane (which is far more potent a GHG than CO2) into context in terms of meeting our obligations under the Paris Agreement. Hansen says:

“It had appeared in 2000 that, with a rising price on carbon, it might be conceivable to follow a course …which would yield a maximum global warming of about 1.5°C.  … the global GHG growth rate is now far above the 1.5°C scenario and diverging from it. So is it even conceivable that this growth trend can be reversed…? The answer is: we have no choice… we need to forgo the fruits of the “fracking” revolution. The signature of U.S. fracking on global methane is only too clear, including the added acceleration of the past two years in which 55,000 additional fracking wells were drilled…”

I don’t know about you, but ‘energy security’ (by which we mean a boost to UK GDP) doesn’t seem quite as important in the context of such a planetary emergency.

‘30% of our electricity comes from gas fired power stations and we will still need flexible power to help manage peaks in demand, and projections from National Grid expect gas to continue to play a vital role for many years to come.’

A report by the UK Energy Research Council in February 2016 suggested that there was only limited scope for new gas fired power stations. The report argues that after 2025, if the carbon targets are to be cost-effectively met, the use of gas in power stations would need to decline, especially if they were not fitted with CCS. This would raise questions as to the economic viability of investing in these gas-fired stations, rather than low- or zero-carbon power generation, in the first place.

The UKERC report concluded that gas is unlikely to act as a cost-effective ‘bridge’ to a decarbonised UK energy system.

‘80% of our homes rely on gas for heating’

The influential think tank Policy Exchange, in a recent report, said that lack of progress on the decarbonisation of heating could “make or break the UK’s carbon plans”. It suggested a new strategy based on a more balanced set of priorities and technologies – incorporating substantial improvements in energy efficiency, more efficient gas appliances, greener forms of gas (synthetic gas or ‘green gas’ rather than natural gas obtained through ‘fracking’), and alternative heat technologies could deliver an 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050.

Nick Hurd MP himself in the Paris Agreement climate change debate on 7th September hinted that the Government’s Emissions Reduction Plan, due out by the end of the year, will focus on reducing emissions from heating and transport.

There can be no doubt therefore that demand for gas in domestic heating will have to fall quickly over the coming decades, before any new source of gas becomes available from ‘fracking’, even if ‘fracking’ is actually viable.

I finished by asking my MP to now please join Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn and Greater Manchester Mayor candidate, Andy Burnham in calling for a ban on fracking. It is deeply unpopular, a huge distraction to what we should be focusing on, it will take years to set up this whole new fossil fuel industry, which could prove to be very costly to our climate and our commitments under the Climate Change Act, whilst failing to deliver cheaper bills.

Gas is already plentiful on the European wholesale market (indeed the world can’t burn what has already been accounted for and remain within 2C of global warming) and demand in the UK will continue to fall as we decarbonise our electricity and domestic heating sectors.

I asked my Labour MP not to side with the Tories, who are far too close to the fossil fuel industry, and instead support a clean energy future instead and come out in favour of a ban on fracking.

Can we install enough renewable energy to meet demand?


By Jon Crooks

With a review of the proposed Hinkley Point C power station in Somerset due next month and repeated promises of more detail on the UK’s broader energy policy by the end of the year, this final blog in the series looks at whether we can install enough renewable energy to meet current and growing demand for electricity through the electrification of other sectors within the time frame needed and asks, do we need new nuclear power stations like the one proposed at Hinkley in Somerset? 

As mentioned in the first blog of this series, recently published figures from the new Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) showed that the renewable energy share of the electricity sector was up 5.5 percentage points from the previous year to 24.6%. This is great news, make no mistake. As Carbon Brief summarised in their review of these figures:

“Wind, solar and biomass all contributed to the rising share of renewable electricity. Onshore wind generation increased by 23% on a year earlier, while offshore wind and biomass grew 30% as new windfarms were completed and Drax continued its conversion from coal to wood pellets.”

It’s clear therefore that we are already replacing coal with solar, wind and biomass. If this can become a trend (a 5% increase in share each year), then a move from 25% in 2015 to 30% in 2016 is possible, which if we then extrapolate over the next 15 years would mean 50% of our electricity generation could come from renewable energy by 2020, 75% by 2025 and by 2030 we would be getting all our power from renewable sources. We just have to keep building capacity at the current rate. Don’t we?

Increased urgency

Recent figures – based on Met Office data – prepared by meteorologist Ed Hawkins of Reading University show that average global temperatures have already been more than 1C above pre-industrial levels for every month except one over the past year and peaked at +1.38C in February and March. Keeping within the 1.5C limit will now be extremely difficult, say scientists, given these rises.


These alarming figures will form the backdrop to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change talks in Geneva this month, when scientists will start to outline ways to implement the climate goals set in Paris. Dates for abandoning all coal-burning power stations and halting the use of combustion engines across the globe – possibly within 15 years – are likely to be set.

The transport sector has seen an increase in demand, driven by cheaper oil prices, and if we are to switch all our transport to electric power over the next 15 years, demand for electricity will clearly increase if all else remains constant – though it is worth pointing out that a battery-powered vehicle is approximately five times more efficient than a petrol-fuelled vehicle.

The same applies to heating and cooling of buildings, where we must move away from fossil fuels quickly and this will mean an significant element of electrification will be required.

This means that we will either need to step up the current pace of building renewable energy capacity to meat the increased demand, look to build new nuclear power stations or greatly improve energy efficiency. So what is the answer?

Nuclear power

22% of our electricity currently comes from nuclear reactors, but the UK’s nuclear power stations will close gradually over the next decade or so, with all but one expected to stop running by 2025.

Several companies have plans to build a new generation of reactors and I’ve long thought that we need this to happen, even if just as an insurance policy against not being able to decarbonise through renewable energy alone. But a number of things have emerged recently to change my mind. I’m now convinced that nuclear power is not the answer.

Firstly, nuclear energy results in 9–25 times more carbon emissions than wind energy, due to the mining, refinement, and transportation of nuclear fuel; the much longer time involved in building a nuclear facility (approximately 4 times longer than wind or solar facilities); and larger building footprint.

Secondly, I think we can and will move faster in terms of renewable energy deployment. Whilst my crude calculation above assumed a 5% increase required year on year to meet current demand, the reality will be more exponential as we have already seen:


Source: DUKES 2016 Chapter 6: Renewable sources of energy

We’ve already seen a further acceleration in investment activity since the signing of the Paris Agreement at the end of 2015 and the more money that flows into renewable energy projects, the more the price falls, the more it then becomes an even more attractive investment, and so on. Can you look at the above graph and see this playing out any other way?

UK Case studies

A report, produced by the RSPB (pdf),  concluded that approximately four times the UK’s current final energy consumption could be generated from renewables, with low ecological risk.  Of particular interest, their results showed very high potential for offshore wind technologies with low ecological risk, generating up to 5,673 TWh/ year – equivalent to almost three and a half times the UK’s final energy consumption in 2014.

The Centre for Alternative Technology prepared a plan (pdf) entitled Zero Carbon Britain 2030, which was updated in 2013.  The report details a comprehensive plan through which Britain  could reduce its CO2-equivalent emissions 94% by the year 2030 (for all sectors, not just electricity generation).  The report proposes to achieve the final 6% emissions reduction through carbon sequestration in forests and peatlands.

In terms of energy production, the ZCB report proposed to provide 100% of UK energy demands by 2030 from renewable sources.  In their plan, 79% of electricity demand is supplied through wind (72% from offshore turbines, 7% from onshore), 3% from wave, 6% from tidal, 8% from solar, 3% from geothermal and 1% from hydroelectric.

Scotland in particular already has a significant share of the European wind energy market and high winds recently boosted renewable energy output to provide 106% of Scotland’s electricity needs for a day.

The government has just given planning permission for the Hornsea Project Two offshore wind farm. This project could be the largest in the world when completed and have a capacity of as much as 1.6 GW located off the east coast of England. That’s half the capacity of Hinkley in one wind farm.

Dong Energy has recently stated that it is ready to offer the U.K. more offshore wind power should Prime Minister scrap construction of Hinkley nuclear power plant.

“We would be able to further accelerate and expand the build out of offshore wind should there be such a need,” Dong’s Chief Executive Officer Henrik Poulsen said. “Of course, that’s entirely leaving those decisions to the U.K. government.”

Building more offshore wind farms is key to driving down the cost of the renewable energy technology, according to Poulsen, head of the Danish utility, which is the world’s biggest offshore-wind-farm developer.

Energy efficiency 

John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, recently argued:

“The less we use, the easier the problem is to solve. If all street lights were switched to LED bulbs we could take half a GW of demand off the grid with ease. If all homes did the same, we’d save 2.7GW of power at peak use – that’s nearly the equivalent of Hinkley by just changing the lightbulbs.”

In both the RSPB and ZCB studies, it was assumed that the UK would implement ambitious energy saving measures and significantly reduces overall energy demand. Measures such as improvements in the energy efficiency of lighting and appliances and significantly improved insulation in buildings, so that less energy is wasted. The RSPB assumed that by 2050, the UK’s final energy demand would be reduced by more than a third and ZCB suggested it could be reduced by 60% by 2030.

“A low-carbon future is essential. So is energy security and affordable energy. If we are to deliver on all three, there is a huge investment opportunity across renewable energy, interconnectors, energy storage, smart grids and energy efficiency.” –John Sauven, Greenpeace UK


I would like to see the UK Government publish a comprehensive plan, similar to that produced by Zero Carbon Britain that not only sets the goal of net zero emissions by 2030, but paints a picture of what that that will look like in terms of UK energy mix and crucially what policies will be put in place to get us there.

Businesses and investors, crucial to delivering the technology, innovation and capital required to meet this challenge are looking to government to show the way. Here are a few suggestions from me for starters:

  1. The construction of Hinkley nuclear power plant should be scrapped.
  2. Instead the government should give the go-ahead to the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon project, which will provide cleaner, cheaper energy in more abundance and for longer.
  3. No new gas power plants should be given the go-ahead
  4. Primary focus to be on additional offshore wind deployment at a scale sufficient to replace any closing coal plants. The Government’s Renewable Energy Roadmap highlights a potential deployment by 2020 of up to 18 GW of offshore wind (compared to installed capacity at the end of 2015 of 5.1 GW). This would correspond to around 17 per cent of the UK’s net electricity production (compared to 4.8% at the end of 2015), which is OK. But we need to be more ambitious and target 25 GW of offshore wind capacity by 2020 and 50 GW or 50% of our electricity production from offshore wind by 2025.
  5. Financial support for small-scale rooftop solar and community energy projects based on wind, solar and hydro schemes to ensure they are viable and lead to a steady increase in uptake, with subsidies and grants available for energy storage and smart appliances also made available.
  6. Energy efficiency needs to be made a top government priority with re-implementation of the zero carbon homes policy to ensure all new housing is net zero carbon from 2020 and a plan put in place to deliver energy efficiency across the UK’s existing housing stock through a combination of incentives and penalties that gradually improve energy efficiency ratings over a 10 year period.

The above is just a start and will need to dovetail with other strategies in other sectors, delivering zero carbon transport, changes to how we heat our buildings and changes to industry, agriculture, the level and make up of our consumption of food and products, and policies that reduce waste and transition us to a more circular economy.

Watch this short video from Zero Carbon Britain and support the cause:

We can have 100% renewable energy and still have ‘baseload’ power

With a review of the proposed Hinkley Point C power station in Somerset due next month and the promise of a detailed strategy on the UK’s broader energy policy by the end of the year, this second of three blogs this week looks at ‘baseload’ power.


Let’s first remind ourselves of the longer-term perspective in terms of the UK’s low-carbon transition:

“The UK’s fifth carbon budget, recently passed into law, will require the power sector to be largely decarbonised by 2030. Meanwhile, the Paris Agreement on climate change means the UK has pledged, along with almost 200 other nations, to almost completely decarbonise all energy use soon after mid-century.” – Carbon Brief

That means we need to get almost all our electricity from zero- or low-carbon sources by 2030 and start making inroads into other sectors by then too; such as electrification of transport, heating and cooling systems and reduced emissions from industry, agriculture etc.

Focusing first on the electricity generation sector, which makes up the highest proportion of GHG emissions and will underpin the electrification of other sectors therefore clearly makes sense.

So can it be done? There are two main perceived challenges:

  1. Can we install enough to meet current and growing demand for electricity within the time frame needed?
  2. Whether renewable energy alone can provide sufficient ‘baseload’ power

‘Baseload’ power

‘Baseload’ (24-hour per day) demand has become widely-accepted as one of the challenges faced as we transition to 100% renewable energy.  After all, the wind doesn’t blow all the time and there’s no sunlight at night.

Gas-fired ‘peaking’ plants are often used to buffer the intermittency of industrial-scale wind and solar inputs to the grid. As such, it is argued that we may need substantial amounts of grid-level energy storage as well as a major grid overhaul as wind and solar power become more dominant in the share of electricity generation. But will this really pose a challenge? Here are four reasons why it shouldn’t…

#1 Addressing intermittency from wind energy

Wind power is currently the cheapest and most abundant source of renewable energy in the UK, but is said to present the challenge of dealing with the intermittency of wind speed.  Nevertheless, as of 2014, wind already supplied 39% of Denmark’s electricity generation.

Although the output of a single wind farm will fluctuate greatly, the fluctuations in the total output from a number of wind farms geographically distributed in different wind regimes will be much smaller and partially predictable.  Additionally, over the longer term (month by month) in many regions, peak wind production matches up well with peak electricity demand.

UK wind seasonality

Monthly wind output vs. electricity demand in the UK (UK Committee on Climate Change 2011).

#2 Distributed energy resources (DER) and home and business storage

Secondly, storage will play an increasing role. Distributed Energy Resources (DER), such as roof-top solar, are small-scale power generation sources located close to where electricity is used (e.g. a home or business) and provide an alternative to or can supplement power that comes from the grid. DER is a faster, less expensive option to the construction of large, central power plants and high-voltage transmission lines. Furthermore, it offers consumers the potential for lower cost and energy independence.

Alongside DER, batteries will play a key role. Batteries won’t only replace petrol tanks in cars over the next decade or two, they will also make it into our homes and businesses to store electricity from rooftop solar panels or from the grid. The electric car company Tesla announced its entry into this market last year, unveiling a suite of low-cost solar batteries for homes, businesses and utilities; “the missing piece”, it said, in the transition to a sustainable energy world.

Wall-mounted, with a sleek design, the lithium-ion batteries are designed to capture and store up to 10kWh of energy from wind or solar panels. The reserves can be drawn on when sunlight is low, during power cuts or at peak demand times, when electricity costs are highest. The smallest “Powerwall” is 1.3m by 68cm, small enough to be hung inside a garage or on an outside wall. Up to eight batteries could be “stacked” in a home.

The batteries will initially be manufactured at the electric car company’s factory in California, but will move production to its planned “gigafactory” in Nevada when it opens in 2017. The Nevada facility will be the largest producer of lithium-ion batteries in the world and it is hoped its mass-production scale will help to bring down costs. It is not the only battery storage system on the market, but the Powerwall boasts a relatively high storage capacity, a competitive price, and the heft of investment and excitement generated by Musk’s vision.

Also unveiled last year was a larger “Powerpack”, which is a 100kWh battery block to help utilities smooth out their supply of wind and solar energy or to pump energy into the grid when demand soars. Approximately two billion Powerpacks could store enough electricity to meet the entire world’s needs, which may seem like an insane number, but as Musk said: “this is actually within the power of humanity to do.”

#3 Reducing baseload demand

Thirdly, it is about timing. It is now widely recognised that we will need to start timing our energy usage to better coincide with the availability of sunlight and wind energy and in order to smooth out peaks in demand, and demand response technologies, such as smart grids, smart meters and smart appliances are already stepping up to the task.

Smart grids are energy networks that can automatically monitor energy flows and adjust to changes in energy supply and demand accordingly. When coupled with smart metering systems, smart grids reach consumers and suppliers by providing information on real-time consumption.

This will help to better integrate renewable energy by combining information on energy demand with weather forecasts to allow grid operators to better plan the integration of renewable energy into the grid and balance their networks.

The incentive to individuals and businesses is price driven. With smart meters, consumers can adapt – in time and volume –  their energy usage to different energy prices throughout the day, saving money on their energy bills by consuming more energy in lower price periods when renewable energy is more abundant or demand is lower. Smart grids also open up the possibility for consumers who produce their own energy to respond to prices and sell excess to the grid.

Energy companies have already started installing smart meters in homes in England, Scotland and Wales. Every home in Britain will have a smart meter installed by 2020.

Smart appliances will also play a part. Domestic appliances can offer a range of options for load-shifting, including delaying the start of washing or dishwashing cycles, intermediate interruptions of operation of appliances, or the use of refrigerators and freezers for temporarily storing energy.

#4 Renewable ‘baseload’ sources

There’s more to renewable energy than wind and solar!

Some renewable energy sources are just as reliable for ‘baseload’ energy as fossil fuels and nuclear, if not more so (coal and nuclear in particular can not be turned on and off quickly as and when required).

Types of ‘baseload’ renewables will differ depending on the particular environmental conditions around the world. For example, bio-electricity generated from burning the residues of crops and plantation forests, hydro in countries like Norway, concentrated solar thermal power with low-cost thermal storage (such as in molten salt) in countries like Spain, Morocco and Australia, and geothermal power all provide ‘baseload’ power.


It is estimated that tidal power could generate around 20% of Britain’s requirements and Scotland and the UK generally are seen as world leaders in tidal energy research. Sunshine, wind and waves vary with the weather, but tides still rise and fall and the flow can be safely harnessed in and out. There are great practical challenges associated with this form of hydropower and only around twenty sites in the world have been identified as being ideal locations for large scale tidal power arrays, but eight of these sites are to be found in Britain.

The Severn, Dee, Solway and Humber estuaries are all potential sites for tidal energy generating barrages in the UK, while Islay and the Pentland Firth are to host tidal turbine arrays. The Pentland Firth, the narrow run of water between the north-east tip of Scotland and the Orkney islands, is possibly the best place in the world to generate electricity from the movement of the tides. It is estimated that around 8 TWh could be generated by tidal power in the Pentland Firth, representing 8% of total UK electricity consumption.

Additionally, in his autumn statement last year, George Osborne flagged up the prospect of a tidal lagoon power project in Swansea Bay, only to put it out for review when the price of oil and gas came down. The start-up cost for Swansea Bay stands at £1.3bn compared to £18bn for Hinkley Point C. The planned productive life of the lagoon would be more than 100 years compared with 60 years for Hinkley. Over the years, with rising output from larger lagoons around the coast, tidal input to the national grid could match Hinkley nuclear in cost and quantity.


Certainly a controversial form of renewable energy, but it will play a part. Last year, Drax burned pellets made from nearly 12 million tonnes of wood, more than the UK’s entire annual wood production. 98% of their wood was imported; the vast majority from the southern US and Canada.  Whilst many NGOs claim that this is leading to forest destruction for electricity, which is disastrous for the environment and the climate, Drax insist that they  have a policy of driving fuel procurement activities through a set of sustainability principles and the pellets all come from waste cuttings, residue from sawmills, ag waste etc. and that the supply chain is independently checked and the whole process carbon neutral.

Carbon Brief produced a report last year investigating the use of Biomass in the UK, and Drax in particular, which demonstrated just how tricky this argument is.  I think it’s fair to say that the jury is still out, but it was providing 5.5% of our electricity in 2015).

#5 Interconnectors

One final way to allay fears around ‘baseload’ power is by linking to other countries’ transmission systems. By doing this the National Grid can increase the diversity and security of energy supplies, facilitate competition in the European market and help the transition to a low carbon energy sector by integrating with renewable sources in other countries . Consider Norway for example, which produces almost all it’s electricity from hydro, providing access to a secure ‘baseload’ supply.

National Grid’s transmission system is already linked by interconnectors to the transmission systems of France (which derives about 75% of its electricity from nuclear energyand The Netherlands. In addition to jointly owning and operating the England-France and England-Netherlands interconnectors, National Grid are developing proposals on a number of other interconnector projects.

  1. Belgium – In February 2015 National Grid Nemo Link Limited and Elia, the Belgian Transmission System Operator, signed a joint venture agreement to move ahead with the Nemo Link – the first electricity interconnector between the two countries. When completed the interconnector will provide 1 GW of capacity – enough to power half a million homes. It’s anticipated that Nemo Link will go into commercial operation in 2019.
  2. Norway – Further plans to connect to Norway to take advantage of their immense supply of hydropower via another subsea power cable, supplying a further 1.4GW – enough to power nearly three quarters of a million UK homes. National Grid and Statnett, the Norwegian Transmission System Operator, has signed the ownership agreement which signals the start of the construction phase for the 720 km interconnector between the UK and Norway (known as NSL).
  3. France – Plans are underway to construct a second subsea power cable, which will supply enough electricity (1 GW) to power two million British homes and is intended to be up and running by 2020
  4. Denmark – the Viking Link is a proposal to build a high voltage direct current (HVDC) electricity interconnector between Bicker Fen in Lincolnshire and a substation at Revsing in southern Jutland, in Denmark. It is expected to be operational by the end of 2022.
  5. Iceland – A capacity of 1 GW is being investigated, with desk studies ongoing to establish feasible converter sites, onshore and offshore High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) cable routes, and landing points. It is expected that the landing points for the cable will be in Northern Scotland and South East Iceland. The project is currently projected to be operational from 2027

The first two of these projects (with Belgium and Norway), in which agreements have been signed to signal the start of construction, will together provide 2.4 GW of capacity, the equivalent of more than 5% of UK power generation capacity.

European Union Case Study

The European Renewable Energy Council (EREC) prepared a plan for the European Union (EU) to meet 100% of its energy needs with renewable sources by 2050 (that’s all sectors, not just power generation), entitled Re-Thinking 2050.  In 2050, the proposed EU energy production breakdown is:  31% from wind, 27% from solar PV, 12% from geothermal, 10% from biomass, 9% from hydroelectric, 8% from solar thermal, and 3% from the ocean.

EU Renewables

EREC report breakdown of EU energy production in 2020, 2030, and 2050


Arguments that renewable energy isn’t up to the task because “the Sun doesn’t shine at night and the wind doesn’t blow all the time” it would seem are overly simplistic.

There are a number of renewable energy technologies which can supply ‘baseload’ power and the intermittency of other sources such as wind and solar can be addressed by interconnecting power plants (and even countries), which are widely geographically distributed. The use of battery storage and evening out demand through smart technology will also play a part.  Numerous regional and global case studies – some incorporating modelling to demonstrate their feasibility – have provided plausible plans to meet 100% of energy demand with renewable sources.

However, many if not most of these rely on significantly reducing the amount of energy we consume as well as switching to renewable energy sources. Energy efficiency is therefore likely to play a significant role in achieving our targets.

Can we install enough renewable energy to meet current and growing demand for electricity through the electrification of other sectors within the time frame needed?

Do we need new nuclear power stations like the one proposed at Hinkley in Somerset? 

This will be the subject of the last in this series of blogs on UK energy policy out tomorrow…

Are new gas-fired power plants the ‘bridge fuel’ to a low carbon future?

By Jon Crooks

Over the course of the next three days, I’m going to produce a series of three blogs examining the prospects for UK energy policy. By this I specifically mean the power sector (how we generate our electricity). In this first one I’m looking at the role of gas power plants


As ever, it’s worth first looking at the longer-term perspective in terms of the UK’s low-carbon transition. In this respect, the good news is that 2015 saw record contributions from low-carbon sources to the electricity generation sector, as Carbon Brief recently concluded, but the UK still relies on fossil fuels for 54% of its power generation needs.

“The UK’s fifth carbon budget, recently passed into law, will require the power sector to be largely decarbonised by 2030. Meanwhile, the Paris Agreement on climate change means the UK has pledged, along with almost 200 other nations, to almost completely decarbonise all energy use soon after mid-century.” – Carbon Brief

With this in mind, Amber Rudd’s announcement last November that power generation in the UK from coal would be phased out by 2025 and the principle replacement would come from new gas-fired power stations, raises some serious questions. A report from the UK Energy Research Centre (UKERC) in February 2016 asked a similar question:

“Can gas, by substituting for coal, act as a ‘bridging fuel’ to a low-carbon UK energy system and, if so, how much gas use does such a bridge entail, and over what period of time?”

The advantages are clear. Natural gas has significantly lower CO2 emissions on combustion per unit of energy delivered than coal or oil. Also, as building  experts at EC Harris point out, Combined Cycle Gas Turbine plants (CCGT) also combine the benefits of proven technology, flexible load capacity (their output can be adjusted relatively quickly to meet demand) and being relatively predicable in build and cost.

The other key argument is that CCGT can be used to improve security of supply during the period where low carbon technology is being developed and it can be used to meet peaks in demand, even when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

Historic trends

Looking back, the substitution of coal by gas in the UK’s energy system has been happening since the 1980’s, as this diagram shows:


Thirty two CCGT plants were given the go ahead between 1990 and 2013.

Current trends

The report by UKERC in February 2016 suggested that there was some scope for this to continue:

These substitutions meant that by 2014 the share of coal in UK primary energy consumption had fallen from 40% in 1970 to 16%, while gas use had increased from 5% to 47%. Of the remaining coal use in 2014, nearly 80% was in the electricity sector. Replacing this immediately with 30 GW of CCGTs, operating at the 40% load factor that was the average for such power stations over 2010-2014 could reduce emissions by over 80 Mt CO2-eq per year. This is a significant reduction, exceeding the emission reductions required under the 3rd carbon budget covering the period 2018 to 2022.

You can see the attraction. However, the report goes on to say:

“After 2025, if the carbon targets are to be cost-effectively met, the use of gas in power stations would need to decline, especially if they were not fitted with CCS… This would raise questions as to the economic viability of investing in these gas-fired stations, rather than low- or zero-carbon power generation, in the first place.”

The UKERC report concluded that gas is unlikely to act as a cost-effective ‘bridge’ to a decarbonised UK energy system. Their analysis showed that gas could only act as a bridge from 2015-20 and is…

…more likely to provide a short-term stop-gap until low- or zero-carbon energy sources can come on stream. 

However, according to recently published figures from the new Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS), we can see that renewables share of the electricity generation sector was up five percentage points in 2015 while coal-fired power generation continued to plummet.

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Source: Electricity: Chapter 5, Digest of United Kingdom Energy Statistics (DUKES)

Electricity generated from coal reduced in market share by a massive 8% from 30% to 22% and gas remained relatively steady. The winners were the renewables sector, increasing its share from 19% to 25% and nuclear increasing from 19% to 21% as some capacity came back on line. The take home message from this is clear. Based on current trends, renewables is successfully filling the gap left by coal, not gas.

Methane leakage

Whilst CO2 emmisions from gas-powered plants may be lower than coal, methane leaks could mean that gas emerges worse than coal in emissions terms overall. Global methane emissions have been rising continuously since 2007.

The Aliso Canyon gas leak in California, which was eventually plugged after nearly four months trying to contain it, brought new attention to methane. The gas is roughly 86 times as potent as carbon dioxide as a driver of climate change over a period of 20 years, or 35 times as potent over the span of a century. The Aliso leak spewed enough methane into the atmosphere to equal the greenhouse gases emitted by more than 440,000 cars in a year.

In fact, an emphasis purely on long-term solutions and mid-century goals can obscure the fact that the worst effects of climate change may become irreversible if we don’t take aggressive action now. Controlling methane emissions is said to be the single most important move we can make to alter the near-term trajectory of climate change. Methane emissions cause one quarter of the increased warming we are currently experiencing. 

New CCGT power stations

As UKERC have pointed out, if new gas-powered stations are to be built, they will need to operate on lower and lower load factors, which is something that investors will doubtless take into account in their decision whether to invest. This means that new gas-fired power stations, like nuclear, needs significant and long term government subsidy in the form of future returns if they are to be built.

GE Power and DF Energy are building a new gas-fired power station in Carrington, Greater Manchester for Carrington Power. The 880MW power plant will enter commercial operation  in 2016 following the three-year construction period and will generate enough electricity to supply the needs of around a million homes. This is new fossil-fuel infrastructure, capable of operating well into the 2030’s, long after we should have decarbonised our power sector.

In contrast, perhaps reflecting the new realities, newer projects may be struggling to get off the ground. Energy firm Carlton Power was awarded a subsidy contract by the Department of Energy and Climate Change last year to build a new 1.9 GW  plant at Trafford in Greater Manchester – big enough to supply power to 2.2 million homes. The £800 million plant was due to start generating in October 2018, but Carlton Power has said it can no longer meet that date and has so far failed to secure financial backers for the project to go ahead at all, and this despite government subsidy.


Why waste taxpayers money on long-term subsidies of this kind when it is proven that renewables are already taking up the majority of the lost coal-powered capacity and we won’t even be able to make use of these new gas power plants beyond 2025-2030?

Yes, we need baseload power to iron out the fluctuations in supply from wind and solar, but this can be achieved in other ways.

Much will depend on other developments in the wider energy system – such as new nuclear, the scale of renewable energy deployment and the availability of key technologies, but these developments are already taking place.

Whilst the debate around what should make up our energy mix in the future will rage on and the UK Government must not back down from its commitment to remove all coal-fired power generation by 2025, equally, policy makers must think very carefully about how best to replace that capacity. A further ‘dash for gas’ may provide some short term gains in reducing CO2 emissions, but it would not be the most cost-effective way of doing so and methane leaks could represent a far worse problem.

In the upcoming second blog of this series, I will begin to consider whether a transition to 100% renewable energy is possible without building any new fossil fuel or nuclear capacity… 

Yes, population does matter, but we need to focus on individual consumption

By Andy Hunter-Rossall

We are consuming resources at an unsustainable rate. That is hard to deny. Earth Overshoot Day is a great way to visualise this over-consumption. Falling on 8th August this year, we can imagine that everything we consumed before that day – the fossil fuels we burned, the trees we felled, the food we ate – could all be replenished, sequestered, or otherwise “coped with” by the Earth if we spread that consumption over a year. But for the rest of the year – from the long August days of our Summer holidays, through to the ringing in of the New Year – everything we consume now represents the quantity of our over-consumption. The amount we’d need to cut out in order to reach some notion of sustainability.

This over-consumption is having real consequences. We are releasing carbon dioxide in to the atmosphere at a much faster rate than it can be absorbed, dangerously altering the chemical make-up of our planet and having drastic impacts on the climate and on ocean acidity. We are cutting down forests at a rate of about 50,000 square miles per year [1], and creating a global mass extinction, with extinction rates between 1,000 and 10,000 times the “background level” [2]. We are filling up our oceans with 8 million tonnes of plastic waste each year[3].

So we agree that as a global society, we need to consume less. We could consume less in total by each of us individually taking responsibility for consuming less, and by the governments, public services, corporations and other organisations that consume on our behalf also consuming less. We could also consume less globally if there were fewer humans – fewer humans means less consumption. That seems fairly obvious. This is the driving principle behind the campaign group Population Matters, and behind David Sanderson’s recent guest blogs for The Green Economy.

I don’t doubt any of this, but I do have two major concerns about focusing on population as the solution to our environmental problems. The first is that focusing on population may not be an effective use of resources for those of us concerned about environmental degradation and destruction. The second is that it may lead to a scape-goating attitude where we think that environmental problems are the responsibility and concern only of countries with large or rapidly growing populations.

So why might population growth not be a useful focus for our campaigning energies?

Birth rates are already coming down. Not because of concerns about global population, but as a consequence of female emancipation, education, access to family planning and reduced infant mortality rates. The animation below, created using, show how fertility has changed over time (vertical axis). Note here that fertility is measured as the number of children per woman. Each circle represents a different country, with the size of the circle representing the population. The colour represents the region of the world (yellow: Europe, red: Asia and Oceania, green: Americas, blue: Africa), and the horizontal axis represents infant mortality (deaths per 1,000 births).

Fertility vs infant mortality, 1800 to now

In 1800, all countries had high infant mortality rates. As we move in to the 20th century, improvements in medical care lead to significant drops in infant mortality, starting with the richer countries. As infant mortality rates become more diverse, the link with fertility can be seen. Improvements in contraception in middle of the 20th century lead to significant drops in fertility, until we arrive in 2015 when the vast majority of the world have fertility rates of between 1 and 3 children per woman. The UK fertility rate has dropped from about 5.0 in 1800, to about 1.9 now. In India, the birth rate has gone from about 6.0 to about 2.4 in the same time. There are still countries with high birth rate, largely in Sub-Saharan Africa, but even here mixed progress can be seen, with Uganda’s fertility dropping from 6.8 children per woman in 1800 to 5.7 now, whilst Djibouti in the same time dropped from 6.3 to 3.3 children per woman.

The point here is that vast progress is being made in the name of global development, economic development and humanitarianism – will the environmental perspective of lowering fertility as an aim in itself lead to any concrete improvements to ongoing successful programmes?

The other reason campaigning to reduce global population may not be an effective use of time is that  some population growth is now inevitable. Even if the birth rate leveled off now – that’s the total number of children born each year – the population would continue to increase until mid-century as larger cohorts age and replace smaller cohorts. There are far more 45-60 year olds alive now than 60-75 year olds, for example. This is partially because some people die before reaching this older age bracket, but much of the difference is because more people were born 45-60 years ago than 60-75 years ago. In 15 years time, therefore, even if the global birth rate levels off, we will expect a higher population. Factor in increased life expectancy in many countries, and some population growth seems completely inevitable. This concept was explained brilliantly by Hans Rosling in his documentary series “Don’t Panic” – see the links below for this recommended documentary on global development and population [4].

The quantity of this population growth, however, is not inevitable and, as David Sanderson points out in his article “Should we be worrying about the global population”, the UN’s projections for population by 2100, with a confidence of 95%, is between 9 billion and 14 billion people, and whilst there is an obvious difference between 9 billion and 14 billion, even the 9 billion figure could be very worrying. The Earth is not currently coping with 7 billion inhabitants – how will it cope with 9 billion? Not only that but the Earth is largely struggling to cope because of the lifestyles of the richest nations – the world could cope with many times more people eating a vegetarian or vegan diet than a typical US diet, for example [5]. As countries get richer, they inevitably want “Western lifestyles” – cars, cheap flights, the latest gadgets, and meat and dairy with every meal. The Earth could not cope with 2 billion people leading the lifestyle of the average American [6], so arguing about 9 billion vs 14 billion seems academic unless we tackle this extreme consumption.

The final reason that focusing on population may not be an effective use of campaigning time is that changing population dynamics is a slow process, and any glacial progress that is made may be wiped out by a failure of antibiotics pushing up infant mortality, or by financial crises leading to a baby boom, or any number of other factors that are largely out of campaigners’ control. In the best case scenario, where we can have an impact on the population, maybe achieving a plateau of 9 billion by 2100, we could already have irreversibly destroyed our oceans, rainforests and climate by then. We need solutions now. So we need to tackle consumption of the richer nations.

But surely we can do both? Surely we don’t have to choose between campaigning on population growth and consumption? This brings me on to my second concern about focusing on population; the potential for scapegoating, or “othering” the problem. By focusing on population, it is easy for people with small families to point to those with large families as the problem. It is easy for countries with small populations to point to those with large populations as the problem. And it is easy for those with stable populations to point to those with increasing populations as the problem. Focusing instead on the consumption per capita, the ecological footprint of each individual, leads to a complete paradigm shift. Through the paradigm of individual consumption we can think about what would be sustainable for each person, and work towards this at an individual and aggregate level. This leads to the idea of contraction and convergence – rich nations will need to do more to bring down their consumption, whilst all nations aim for a common goal of sustainability. The paradigm of populations leads to very different conclusions, with the focus being taken away from high consumption countries and shifted on to countries with large populations or high birth rates, effectively ignoring the responsibility of many of the individuals who are leading the most unsustainable lifestyles.

In summary, yes, I think we can agree that population does matter, and we should continue with global development initiatives which reduce fertility by improving infant mortality rates, improving opportunities for women, and increasing access to family planning. But given the already unsustainable levels of consumption, the inevitability of some population growth, the already declining birth rates, and given the glacial speed and potential futility of campaigning for lower populations, I would conclude that the efforts of all concerned environmentalists would be best spent in making changes to our wasteful consumerist lifestyles, rather than trying to reduce populations.

So with a focus on consumption rather than population, here they are, my top 4 priorities for creating a sustainable society:

  • Moving away from fossil fuels. 80% of all known fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. A radical programme of energy efficiency, increasing renewable energy capacity, improving energy storage technologies, and lifestyle change will be needed to replace our dependence on cheap oil.
  • Moving away from meat and dairy consumption. Meat and dairy require more land, more water, and more fossil fuels than a vegetarian diet. The Earth can support far more people on a vegetarian or vegan diet than on a typical “Western” diet. As an aside, there is a growing body of evidence that the diet that is best for the planet may also be the diet that is best for our health [7].
  • Creating circular economies. We can’t continue extracting raw materials, creating disposable goods and then filling up our oceans and landfill sites with our debris. We need to find new methods of production which are circular, with reuse, repair and recyclability designed in to products.
  • Equality. More equal societies care more about sustainability. This is one of the surprising findings of Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson in their seminal book The Spirit Level, which also found that more equal societies do better on a wide range of social indicators. In more unequal societies people try to “keep up with the Jones’”. The same is true on a global level, with developing nations wanting to “keep up with the Americans”. I find it hard to envisage a sustainable society which has such incredible levels of inequality within countries or between them as we have today [8].

AIbEiAIAAABECKHo45WWzJPW3wEiC3ZjYXJkX3Bob3RvKig1ZjM4NmYyYmQxMDA2MGE3NTlhZTI4ZWZkMTFjYzY1NDZlMTRkOWJmMAENyP3iAjRa0U22UU0lzNsunyXX_wAndy Hunter-Rossall is a maths teacher in Oldham and the secretary of Oldham & Saddleworth Green Party.








[8] (lecture 3)

Does the economy need a growing population?

By Dave Sanderson

The final blog in our series this week from Dave Sanderson to mark World Overshoot Day

It all depends on who you ask!

The view of most mainstream economists in the 21st century (so-called ‘neo-classical’ economists) is that a growing population provides more workers and thus more production and also more consumers, so Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will increase, and that this is a good thing. Indeed, during the industrial revolution in Europe and the USA, this appears to have been the case, as GDP grew, infrastructure such as railways and drains became widespread and the foundations for national prosperity were put in place.

But not everyone would agree. Many people in 19th century British factories worked very long hours, were poor and lived in awful accommodation. They didn’t share in the new wealth. And this is the case today, in countries such as India and Nigeria. Population may increase, GDP may increase, but if GDP increases by the same or a smaller percentage, GDP per head decreases so on average people become poorer. GDP / head is thus a much better measure than simple GDP.

The availability of investment and other materials also matters. There may be more workers but if the resources are not there to increase production (land, raw materials, investment etc), there might be a serious shortage of work and many people become poor. Land in particular is a fixed asset. We cannot make any more. So if more land is used for factories and offices, there is less available to grow food or to build houses on.

The majority of newly created wealth may be captured by a small elite (eg in a dictatorship), leading to serious inequalities and no benefit for most people. An increase in GDP or an increase in population are not the same as an increase in well-being for the majority.

Some politicians argue that immigration (or indigenous population growth) is essential to maintain standards of living when an increasing proportion of the population are ageing and thus no longer in work. These additional people can work in business, making money to support the elderly. This is lazy thinking, of course. These young workers will have children, who will need supporting. And the workers will eventually become old themselves, so requiring more workers to support them in turn. It becomes a pyramid scheme, always requiring more people to keep it going, until it eventually collapses.

Development economists like to point out that a fast increasing population offers the possibility of a ‘demographic dividend’ for a limited period of time. Forty per cent of the population of the world’s least-developed countries (LDCs) is under the age of 15, and the total population of these countries is expected to double by 2050. This poses great challenges, but if countries can lower fertility rates and reduce population growth, it also provides a great opportunity for accelerated economic growth, as measured by GDP.

The term “demographic dividend” (DD) refers to the accelerated economic growth that a country can achieve when the proportion of its population that is of working age is greater than the proportion of its population that don’t work (children and the elderly). This frees up household and state resources that can be invested to generate economic growth rather than supporting dependents. In order to achieve a DD, countries with rapidly-growing populations need low fertility rates, a healthy and educated population, female participation in the labour force and a positive investment climate and appropriate infrastructure.

A number of current developed countries have achieved a DD during their journey to their current affluent status but many currently undeveloped countries seem to be a long way from achieving the four criteria above. In other words, a DD is theoretically attractive but if a country encourages its birth rate to boom to try to achieve this, it seriously risks ending up with much bigger problems than it would have had otherwise.

There are other significant, common drawbacks with the mainstream, neo-classical economic argument, although there are sometimes potential solutions:

Increasing consumption leads to resource depletion, which in turn limits consumption unless alternative resources can be substituted (as they often are, at the moment, via innovation),

Increased consumption leads to increased emissions and waste, hence the rise of reuse, repair and recycle initiatives and the circular economy. Regulation is frequently put in place to limit emissions,

Increasing population requires the building of additional infrastructure, such as schools, hospitals, roads, water supplies and sewers. The cost of doing so absorbs much and sometimes all of the extra GDP generated, leading to economies ‘running to stand still’ with no net benefit to their people,

Biodiversity is falling fast, as is the total biomass of non-human, non-domesticated animals and plants. Nature reserves and biobanks are attempting to conserve genetic diversity as many wild species are thought to have the potential to provide materials of benefit to people (pharmaceutical products for example),

Loss of the eco-system services provided at no cost to humans by nature are often hard if not impossible to replace. These range from pollination of crops by wild bees to prevention of coastal erosion by mangroves, carbon capture by peatlands to the emotional benefits of peaceful and beautiful places.

Hardly anyone talks about the likely economic effects of decreasing populations. Yet in an overcrowded world, this is worth thinking about. Population increase is not pre-ordained. Anyone (in a free society) can decide not to have children or to just have one or two. A change of culture in a society, a change of behaviour in a population could thus rapidly alter the population. What might happen? GDP would no doubt decrease, but GDP per head may well not.

A  UK focused 2015 paper by the charity Population Matters listed many benefits that could be had. These include economic benefits such as full employment, rising wages and increased incentives to increase efficiency and productivity. The need to keep expanding infrastructure would end, enabling the money to be spent on other things. Food, water and energy security should increase as demand falls, while quality of life should improve, with less traffic congestion, noise, pollution and pressure on public services. House prices would fall, increasing affordability. Carbon emissions would decrease, slowing climate change, wildlife would have more space and in general sustainability would become much more achievable.

So there is significant interplay between the changing number of people and economics but whether you see population increase as a benefit or not probably depends on whether you are a politician or economists or a normal person lower down the hierarchy.

Dave Sanderson is a retired economic development professional, active in many areas of sustainability. He is deeply involved with Greater Manchester TreeStation, is on the Board of the Woodland Trust’s Smithill Enterprise Hub, helped found the Saddleworth Hydro Scheme, acts as a Woodland Creation Champion, monitors bird populations for the RSPB and BTO and is an active member of the charity Population Matters.

To find out more about how population growth and sustainability impact the planet, and get involved.


Should we be worrying about the global population?

By Dave Sanderson

The second of three guest blogs this week from Dave Sanderson to mark World Overshoot Day, 8 August 2016

Immigration featured highly in the recent Brexit debate but much less was said about the overall population of Britain. And very little is ever said about the rapidly increasing global population, despite it being one factor behind increasing immigration to Britain, Europe and the USA. Clearly, the number of people on the earth cannot grow forever, so should we be concerned?

Let’s look at the current situation. As of June 2016, UN data shows the global human population was 7.33bn. The ten most populous countries are:

1. China 1,373,541,278   6. Pakistan 201,995,540
2. India 1,266,883,598   7. Nigeria 186,053,386
3. United States 323,995,528   8. Bangladesh 171,696,855
4. Indonesia 258,316,051   9. Russia 142,355,415
5. Brazil 205,823,665   10. Japan 126,702,133

The UK population is 65.1m, making it the second most populous country in the EU after Germany (80.7m) and greater than third placed France with 64.7m. The total population of the 28 EU countries is 738m, 10.05% of the global total.

It is interesting to see how population is changing over time. Again the UN provides the numbers:


The global population is currently growing rapidly, at about 80m / year but with very different rates of growth in different countries. These latest (2015) UN population projections were published in 2016, referring to data from 2015. They predict higher world population figures than the previous set did. In a nutshell, the current world population of 7.3 billion is expected to reach 8.5 billion by 2030 (16% increase), 9.7 billion in 2050 (33% increase) and 11.2 billion in 2100 (53% increase). These are the median figures and small changes in fertility now could lead to higher or lower figures in the future. 

Several very striking points are made in the UN report which we must think about carefully as they will affect us all. Half of the world’s population growth is expected to be concentrated in nine countries: India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, United Republic of Tanzania, United States of America (USA), Indonesia and Uganda, listed according to the size of their contribution to the total growth.  So the world’s biggest consumer, the USA will have significant population growth, with dire consequences for our environment.

Ten African countries are projected to have increased by at least a factor of five by 2100: Angola, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Somalia, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania and Zambia. How very poor, hot, dry and weakly governed countries with small economies like Somalia, Mali and Niger could sustain a population 5 times as great as they have now is very hard to imagine. A humanitarian crisis (famine, war etc) seems inevitable and millions may die or emigrate if they can. A very good reason to ensure that national and international aid programmes focus on provision of sex and female health education, provision of free contraception etc…if the local governments will allow that.

Europe is predicted to see a fall in its indigenous population. Indeed, in June 2016 data showed that for the first time, deaths exceeded births in the EU. Yet the report also says that rich countries will increasingly become a magnet for economic migrants from poor countries with fast growing populations; overall EU population is still growing for this reason, leading to significant political and economic effects. According to the UN, most of UK population growth will come from immigration in future. It would seem unlikely that this net in-flow (net, because a smaller number of people migrate in the opposite direction) can be stopped as nations perceived as wealthy and liberal will be an irresistible draw to ever increasing numbers of young people in poorer nations desperate to better themselves. Many developed nations have ageing populations and some say they need young immigrants to help maintain economic growth and standards of living. Yet that is an unsustainable ponzi-scheme argument, as those young immigrants will themselves age, so will need more young people to support them etc etc. As the UK Brexit vote demonstrated, most people (not just in the UK) don’t want more immigration as it is perceived to dilute social cohesion. There is thus a need for a pragmatic, data-driven debate about this to arrive at a wise and practical way forward.

These figures ARE worrying. Today humanity uses the equivalent of 1.6 planets to provide the resources we use and absorb our waste, according to the Global Footprint Network’s Overshoot Index . Obviously we only have one Earth. A bigger population makes solving existing problems (political, economic, social as well as environmental) worse and the issues harder to deal with. As Sir David Attenborough said on January 17 2016 ‘It seems to me that every one of the ills of the past 200 years – hunger, famine, loss of identity, forests disappearing, loss of dignity, overcrowding, loss of countryside – it’s all to do with increased population…Anywhere that women have control of their bodies and education and are literate and politically independent, the birth rate falls.

This surely is good reason for Governments (and all political parties) to place this issue at the heart of policy making and strategies. And, as Sir David points out, the solutions are well known.

Dave Sanderson is a retired economic development professional, active in many areas of sustainability. He is deeply involved with Greater Manchester TreeStation, is on the Board of the Woodland Trust’s Smithill Enterprise Hub, helped found the Saddleworth Hydro Scheme, acts as a Woodland Creation Champion, monitors bird populations for the RSPB and BTO and is an active member of the charity Population Matters.

To find out more about how population growth and sustainability impact the planet, visit and get involved.