Avoiding climate clangers in Copenhagen

Solid science has to underpin any environmental initiatives, both governmental and corporate, that claim to address energy, emissions, and climate change issues, RSC boss Richard Pike says, and we must teach teenagers how to spot the climate clangers now.

vienna public transport

Three current supposedly “green” initiatives highlight the problem, Pike says.

First, Brits are being encouraged to drive five miles less each week. But a back of an envelope calculation shows that this will reduce the UK’s carbon footprint by just 0.3% not the significant amount the government claims.

“Each car travels around 10,000 miles a year, or 200 miles each week, so that the reduction in fuel is about 2.5%. However, passenger cars represent only around one-eighth of the country’s carbon footprint, which accounts for the very small overall saving,” Pike explains.

A second example is the manufacture of gas-to-liquid (GTL) kerosene from natural gas for air transport. This will reduce sulfur and particulate emissions, but the process is incredibly energy-intensive.

“Typically, for every tonne of carbon dioxide emitted by a plane, another 0.7 tonnes rises over the Middle East where the GTL fuel is made, so that the total global effect is over one and a half times the emissions of conventional jet fuel,” points out Pike.

Thirdly, average tailpipe emissions of carbon dioxide from new vehicles are to be capped at 130 grams per kilometre (g/km) from 2012. But, for manufacturers to plan their models and production lines, electric cars will be deemed to have zero emissions, even if (as in the UK) most of the electricity used will have been generated from fossil fuels.

Claims for the green credentials of all three examples of green initiatives, and there are many others are often folly. Initiatives must be assessed across the whole life cycle and across all energy and resource inputs and outputs. Pike adds that political decisions made with inadequate scientific or behavioral evidence will inevitably lead to unintended consequences. The same perspective should be applied to the talks in Copenhagen. Let’s just hope they’ve got a team of scientific advisers willing to stand up to the political shenanigans.

Ironically, as plans to maintain Silverstone as the home of the British motor racing Formula 1 Grand Prix and a major guzzler of gas talk of a seventeen-year deal, might we expect the politicians in Denmark to take such a long view?

“Without the right direction and regulatory framework, backed by an understanding of the science and non-science issues, vested interests will continue to provide solutions, unchallenged, over the forthcoming decades that seem persuasive but are actually unsustainable or have little impact.

More discussion at the RSC’s blog – http://www.rsc.org/blog

  • Copenhagen summit: How climate change will shape these lives (guardian.co.uk)
  • Earth much more sensitive to global warming than thought (telegraph.co.uk)
  • Copenhagen must be a turning point. Our children won’t forgive us if we fail | Gordon Brown (guardian.co.uk)
  • “Climate Express” to Copenhagen lowers footprint (seattletimes.nwsource.com)


  1. Climate Clangers! Great phrase. I suspect another big clanger lurking out there has to to do with purchasing a green, ecofriendly new car while discarding an old gas guzzler. While I strongly favor reducing our carbon footprint, what does the balance sheet for this transaction look like? The power to simply move the new vehicle (electric or hybrid), must still come largely from fossil fuels, even figuring a big improvement in efficiency over the old one. More of concern is the energy required for the steel, glass, plastic, rubber, etc needed to manufacture the new one. At what point is an energy tradeoff seen between the continued inefficient use of the old machine and the high cost of the new one? Wouldn’t we be a lot better off delaying the new car and putting that energy into creating non-carbon based power infrastructure?

  2. I’ve been saying that for years David. There was a government-funded financial “incentive” to replace one’s old car with a nice shiny new one here in the UK last year, I suspect that was more to do with manufacturers lobbying to sell their vehicles than reducing carbon footprint. There’s no way replacing an old car regardless of emissions while driving provides a net CO2 reduction, if one considers the whole of life equations for bother vehicles involved.