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The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To Planet Carbon

Posted on Posted in Chairman’s Blog

Douglas Adams’ ‘Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’ begins with his hero, Arthur Dent, belatedly realizing that a fleet of bulldozers is about to demolish his house to make way for a by-pass. As Dent sits down in front of the bulldozers, an alien fleet of spaceships pounces. The aliens are putting a by-pass through the galaxy, which will take out Planet Earth altogether and render Dent’s concerns utterly inconsequential.

Today, the inhabitants of Planet Earth, preoccupied as they are with political and financial upheavals and turf wars of all kinds, are facing a similar existential threat that is poised to totally eclipse their current concerns. It is called ‘man-made climate change’. Even now, regardless of our present-day action or inaction, the atmosphere above our earth is dangerously and unstoppably damaged by the carbon we have emitted without thought for its cost. This ongoing damage is called our ‘carbon inheritance’ and it is changing beautiful Planet Earth into uninhabitable Planet Carbon.

Historically speaking, our carbon inheritance began with Newcomen’s steam engine in 1712, at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Since then, it has been building up in our thin atmosphere with each tonne of fossil fuel we burn. About two-thirds of Newcomen’s CO2 emissions are still there, 300 years later. This ever-growing accumulation will remain for hundreds of years, come hell or high water – both, actually: because of global warming, heat waves and forest fires are on the increase, and sea levels are rising.

What’s to be done? Switching from fossil fuels to renewables such as solar and wind might seem the obvious answer, but can they, without fossil-fuelled, backup power plants, provide sufficient, secure, reliable energy for when it is dark or the air still? And are there unaccounted-for CO2 emissions in such ‘green’ solutions?

In order to make this assessment we needed to determine, scientifically, a carbon price that was directly attributable to CO2 emissions – and without regard to politics. As such, it’s actually the only carbon price that really matters. Having achieved this, we now use that price to carry out carbon auditing of power sources – coal, gas, wind, solar, nuclear, biomass, tidal – and of transportation – trains, planes, ships, motor vehicles (including electric vehicles: the electricity has to be generated somewhere) – so that all carbon emitters can be assessed on a ‘level playing field’.

Our recently published carbon audit of Hinkley Point C Nuclear Power Station[1] is a case in point, where we compare the gas and wind power alternatives. The audit shows that the carbon cost alone of the equivalent gas fired power plants approximates to the entire lifetime costs of Hinkley. Worse still, when comparing the costs of various combinations of wind with gas-backup, the maximum gas to wind percentage for cost parity with Hinkley is 12%. More than 12% would again exceed Hinkley’s costs. Would the UK National Grid judge 12% of gas-backup adequate to cover the risk of insufficient wind blowing in wind farm areas?

Unless we can come up with renewables that don’t require fossil-fuelled backup then, the nuclear option is today’s clear winner for a future of clean electricity. Technology has moved on from the last century disasters of ‘Three Mile Island’, and ‘Chernobyl’. Those undeniably dreadful events took place in the infancy of the nuclear power industry. Even ‘Fukushima’ this century failed not through any fault of its nuclear reactor. It failed because the tsunami breached the diesel backup power to the cooling pumps.

PAL has made carbon pricing, based on the actual cost of loss and damage attributable to manmade climate change, a scientifically defendable reality. If we want to make properly informed decisions that deal effectively with climate change, we must measure up projects for the true comparative cost of their carbon impact. Otherwise we simply continue to sit in front of the ‘bulldozers’, thumbing our smart phones, while beautiful Planet Earth becomes uninhabitable Planet Carbon.


Bruce Menzies, Chairman, Predict Ability Ltd (PAL)

© Copyright Predict Ability Ltd 2017. All rights reserved.

[1] Predicting The Price Of Carbon: How to crack the climate change code for good, by Richard H. Clarke, Supplement 1: Hinkley Point C Nuclear Power Station Enhanced Carbon Audit LCA Case Study, by Edward J. Coe and Richard H. Clarke, Predict Ability Ltd, 2016.

Bruce Menzies

Author: Bruce Menzies

Bruce Menzies is Chairman and co-founder of PAL. He founded Global Digital Systems Ltd that won the Queen’s Award For Enterprise 2011. Bruce is co-author of six books on geotechnics and geology, one of which won the British Geotechnical Association Prize 2002. He holds doctorates from the Universities of London and Auckland, and is a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To Planet Carbon was last modified: January 4th, 2019 by Bruce Menzies

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