Weston-super-Mare, 4th January 2016
Recent local press reports (Bath Chronicle, Chew Valley Gazette) have trumpeted the news that Ben Howlett MP (Bath) and James Heappey MP (Wells) have been assured by Andrea Leadsom, Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change, that North East Somerset and the Mendips are not in the ‘shale prospective area’ and that there is “no frackable shale gas to be found” with Mr Howlett adding that “I am delighted to find that Bath and the Mendips do not have frackable shale gas under the surface and is therefore safe from the risk of fracking”.
However these statements miss the point that the primary hydrocarbon of interest to the gas companies in the area is Coalbed Methane (CBM) not Shale Gas. The previous licence holder for BANES/Mendip, UK Methane, said in its PEDL 227 relinquishment report (September 2015) that:
“The licence is still possibly prospective for:
The latest maps of Andrea Leadsom’s own department (updated 21/12/2015) show that more than 1,000 square kilometres of the West Country have just been licensed for onshore oil and gas exploration including the Somerset-Wiltshire border, the Forest of Dean and the Somerset coast from Clevedon to Minehead – despite none of these licenses being in the shale prospective area. At the time of the 14th Onshore Licensing Round UK Methane were still sitting on the Mendip PEDL so it couldn’t be put forward for consideration.
Despite what Andrea Leadsom has said there is nothing stopping the Bristol-Somerset coalfield being licensed yet again in the next licensing round for exploration of CBM. It is worth noting that the safeguards to shale gas fracking in the Infrastructure Act 2015 do not apply to CBM including surface drilling in protected areas such as AONBs and World Heritage Sites and fracking at depths as shallow as 200m.
So this good news story rings rather hollow. Nothing has changed except a larger area of Somerset is now licensed for oil and gas exploration than ever before.
Dr James Hansen, former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s most prominent climate scientists, has just said of UK’s dash for fracked gas – “Well, that’s screwing your children and grandchildren. Because if you do that, then there’s no way to avoid the consequences [of] multi-metre sea-level rise. But we can’t do that and that’s what the science says crystal clear. And yet politicians pretend not to hear it, or not to understand it” [hear it all here]. This is rather relevant to Somerset seeing as the whole coast from Clevedon to Minehead is both being licensed for fracking and much of it is close to or below the current high tide level, which is considerably higher in the Severn Estuary than other coastal areas around the UK thanks to its geography.
Legally protected wildlife habitat in the Estuary is already being squeezed between rising sea level and the hard sea defences that snake around the coast, with new habitat having to be created through managed retreat at the cost of tens of millions of pounds – Steart Marsh. The Department for Energy and Climate Change is also having to ensure that sea defences at Hinkley Point are bolstered to prevent them being undermined by the rising tide.
A grotesque tautology is now in play whereby the sea level is already rising and protected wildlife habitat is being lost, having to be replaced at great cost, at the same time the area is being licensed for fracking that will result in more cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, leading to more sea level rise and more habitat loss and expense – all within plain sight of a nuclear power station and the site of the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon. You really couldn’t make it up. Nor could you make up the job description of the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change who (thanks to the Infrastructure Act) is now simultaneously responsible for both reducing carbon emissions and maximising the use of domestic fossil fuels without carbon capture and storage, i.e. maximising them.
Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for the Chew Valley and climate sceptic, has said that it is a choice between “cheap energy” and “living in the stone-age” – a false dichotomy that ignores environmental costs and fossil fuel subsidies. He says that we should only adapt to climate change (I thought he denied it? Ed.) rather than mitigate further change by reducing emissions, suggesting that we take a leaf out the the Dutch book by building the sea defences higher and higher – as the Dutch “have done for hundreds of years”. He selectively forgets that historically the Dutch drained their land using windmills, an option not available in England as Mr Rees-Mogg has played his part in ending onshore wind – the least costly renewable energy. Another conundrum for the Secretary of State – how to deliver carbon reduction targets at least cost whilst at the same time closing down the least cost renewable option? – onshore wind.
So, as a politician does Mr Rees-Mogg pretend not to hear what science is saying about the climate (“the quasi religious Green movement” with its “environmentalist obsession”), or does he simply just not understand it? Perhaps he is listening too much to Christopher Booker’s climate myths rather than spending any time engaging with science and people like James Hanson, who not only understands the science but who also advocates a market solution – another thing (surprisingly) Rees-Mogg doesn’t bother with unless massive fossil fuel subsidies are included. Ask a NASA scientist – or any of the 97% of climate scientists who have published and expressed a position on global warming.
As the Paris Climate Conference started up thousands turned out for the Bristol Climate March at the weekend including Frack Free Chew Valley whose banner arrived from the Chew Valley by peddle power. According to the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research shale gas can’t meet our long term energy carbon intensity target even with Carbon Capture and Storage – which George Osborne effectively cancelled last week.
To explore how scientists know that climate change is happened we here republish an informed article by Professor Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London.
In the interest of balance alternative views are available including this article in the Telegraph in which Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for the Chew Valley, argues that we should end the “environmentalist obsession” with the “quasi religious green movement” and (on the bases that fossil fuels have no external costs to society) burn more fossil fuels seeing as “Coal is plentiful and provides the least expensive electricity per megawatt, while fracking may provide a boon of shale gas“.
His evidence for dismissing science based climate concerns includes the fact that “The Romans expected the world to end in 634 BC owing to a prophecy involving twelve eagles” – but didn’t.
The Paris climate conference will set nations against each other, and kick off huge arguments over economic policies, green regulations and even personal lifestyle choices. But one thing isn’t up for debate: the evidence for climate change is unequivocal.
We still control the future, however, as the magnitude of shifting weather patterns and the frequency of extreme climate events depends on how much more greenhouse gas we emit. We aren’t facing the end of the world as envisaged by many environmentalists in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but if we do nothing to mitigate climate change then billions of people will suffer.
Greenhouse gases absorb and re-emit some of the heat radiation given off by the Earth’s surface and warm the lower atmosphere. The most important greenhouse gas is water vapour, followed by carbon dioxide and methane, and without their warming presence in the atmosphere the Earth’s average surface temperature would be approximately -20°C. While many of these gases occur naturally in the atmosphere, humans are responsible for increasing their concentration through burning fossil fuels, deforestation and other land use changes. Records of air bubbles in ancient Antarctic ice show us that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are now at their highest concentrations for more than 800,000 years.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presents six main lines of evidence for climate change.
The continued burning of fossil fuels will inevitably lead to further climate warming. The complexity of the climate system is such that the extent of this warming is difficult to predict, particularly as the largest unknown is how much greenhouse gas we keep emitting.
The IPCC has developed a range of emissions scenarios or Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs) to examine the possible range of future climate change. Using scenarios ranging from business-as-usual to strong longer-term managed decline in emissions, the climate model projections suggest the global mean surface temperature could rise by between 2.8°C and 5.4°C by the end of the 21st century. Even if all the current country pledges submitted to the Paris conference are achieved we would still only just be at the bottom end of this range.
IPCC, Author provided
The sea level is projected to rise by between 52cm and 98cm by 2100, threatening coastal cities, low-lying deltas and small island nations. Snow cover and sea ice are projected to continue to reduce, and some models suggest that the Arctic could be ice-free in late summer by the latter part of the 21st century. Heat waves, droughts, extreme rain and flash flood risks are projected to increase, threatening ecosystems and human settlements, health and security. One major worry is that increased heat and humidity could make physical work outside impossible.
IPCC, Author provided
Changes in precipitation are also expected to vary from place to place. In the high-latitude regions (central and northern regions of Europe, Asia and North America) the year-round average precipitation is projected to increase, while in most sub-tropical land regions it is projected to decrease by as much as 20%, increasing the risk of drought.
In many other parts of the world, species and ecosystems may experience climatic conditions at the limits of their optimal or tolerable ranges or beyond. Human land use conversion for food, fuel, fibre and fodder, combined with targeted hunting and harvesting, has resulted in species extinctions some 100 to 1000 times higher than background rates. Climate change will only speed things up.
This is the challenge our world leaders face. To keep global temperature rise below the agreed 2°C, global carbon emission must peak in the next decade and from 2070 onward must be negative: we must start sucking out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Despite 30 years of climate change negotiations there has been no deviation in greenhouse gas emissions from the business-as-usual pathway, so many feel keeping global warming to less than 2°C will prove impossible. Previous failures, most notably at Copenhagen in 2009, set back meaningful global cuts in emissions by at least a decade. Paris, however, offers a glimmer of hope.
This is an updated version of an article first published in November 2014.
Mark Maslin is a Professor at University College London, a Royal Society Industrial Fellow, Executive Director of Rezatec Ltd, Director of The London NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, and a member of Cheltenham Science Festival Advisory Committee. He has received funding in the past from the Natural Environment Research Council, the Royal Society, DIFD, FCO, Innovate UK, Carbon Trust, UK Space Agency, European Space Agency, Leverhulme Trust, WWF, RICS, British Council, and CAFOD.