Monthly Archives: March 2014

Osborne’s Climate-Blind Budget Will Hit Clean Energy and Give Coal a New Lease of Life

Geography academic Professor Catherine Mitchell discusses the implications that the budget will have for clean energy in this blog post.

The blog first appeared on IGov on 19 March 2014.

Hardly a month has gone by since David Cameron told MPs he believed man-made climate change is one of the most serious threats this country and this world faces. Yet the Prime Minister’s newly rediscovered climate convictions has already failed their first test – in today’s budget.

One of the few widely trailed measures which occurred today is the freeze to the carbon price floor  at £18 a tonne of CO2 rather than rising, as it was intended to £30/t CO2 by 2020. The carbon floor price – effectively an increasing annual tax on companies burning fossil fuels to generate electricity – was introduced by Osborne in 2011 and came into force in January 2013. The Chancellor said at the time it “re-affirmed” the aim to be “the greenest Government ever.”

By freezing the carbon price floor in George Osborne’s statement, the Chancellor is commending to the House a climate-blind budget that will provide a nice shiny path for coal by giving it a multi-billion pound rebate.

It is easy to point out the flaws of the carbon price floor. For a start, analysts believe a much higher carbon price – of around £40 per tonne of CO2 – would be required before the economics of coal are sufficiently damaged to incentivise a switch away from the dirtiest fuel – the main aim of this policy. It gives a windfall to existing nuclear power plants. And of course the costs of it will be borne by consumers, especially the most energy-intensive industries, whose trade body has lobbied Osborne for a freeze.

For these reasons, reforming or scrapping the measure is not necessarily a bad idea so long as an alternative, more effective, and affordable means of driving low-carbon investment was introduced to stand in its place. However, given Osborne’s announcement does not include the introduction of an alternative policy – it is merely a further extension of the rollback of what the Prime Minister reportedly referred to as “green crap”.

Without further measures the removal of the carbon price floor will have a number of alarming impacts. The first is to vastly improve the economics of coal-fired power generation. Coal is the dirtiest fuel used in electricity generation, releasing twice the amount of carbon as gas when burnt. According to the government’s own independent climate advisers, any credible plan for decarbonising our power supply sees the removal of all unabated coal plants by the mid-2020s at the very latest.

Osborne’s carbon price floor freeze is another unexpected present to the coal industry. Thanks to a combination of high gas prices, low coal prices, and ineffectual carbon price-setting by an impotent Emissions Trading Scheme, coal has recently made an unexpected comeback, becoming the largest source of power generation in the UK last year. However, not only will coal plants not pay a high carbon tax with the frozen carbon price floor but they are going to be further bolstered through the government’s capacity market which is coming into being as a result of Electricity Market Reform. This will provide payments – again paid for by consumers – to deliberately keep existing capacity online. These payments will enable coal generators to upgrade their power plants to meet EU directives on air pollution.  It was always assumed that the coal plants would not be able to find the £100s of millions necessary to upgrade their plants but now, thanks to capacity payments, they may well be able to do so. These coal plants may therefore be able to generate into the late 2020’s and beyond, and given the UK’s legal target for cutting carbon this is a disaster.

A further impact of the freeze will be an additional cost to deploying renewable energy technologies. The government’s scheme for providing support to renewables – the ‘contract for difference’ – essentially tops up the market-price of power to a pre-agreed level. Given the market price of power is driven up by the carbon price floor, freezing it would mean the level of financial support required to make renewable electricity viable is greater. At the moment, something called the Levy Control Framework sets a cap on the amount of money to be spent on renewable electricity. Freezing the carbon price floor will mean that between £120 and £160m a year in 2020 would either be cut from renewable energy support or have to be found from somewhere else. This is another blow to a clean energy sector which is already suffering from a lack of investor confidence, which is largely due to the government’s confusing signals on energy and climate.

Finally, the third major impact of freezing the carbon price floor is to act as a disincentive to investment in new gas generation. The government wants to see a wave of new gas-fired power stations for security reasons and, again, this is to be encouraged by the capacity market payments.  Since freezing the carbon price floor will mean more coal staying on the system in the 2020s, then this lessens the profitability of,  or need for,  new gas plants. A smarter and cheaper way of bringing forward investment in new capacity would be to regulate off our ageing coal plant, and instead use capacity payments for flexible capacity which fits with variable renewable electricity and the goals of our energy policy. This will mean promoting demand side response in our electricity markets, increasing our storage abilities and supporting new gas plants where necessary. This will both cut pollution and bring down the long-term costs of building new, cleaner power stations.

The carbon price floor price is a bad policy. Freezing it is a popular move with heavy industry, but it is very short term thinking. An amendment to stop capacity payments to coal plants was already defeated during the reading of the Energy Bill. That was bad enough. This additional windfall to coal plants really shows what this Coalition care about – and that is not the environment or consumers.

Getting children involved in science

Peter Vukusic is a Professor of Biophotonics at the University of Exeter, and helps coordinate science and outreach universities for the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences. He discusses how he helps get children involved in science and why it’s important for us all.

Take a minute to think back to your childhood, and some of the moments that stand out in your memory. Peppered amongst the landmark events of birthdays, Christmas and school days, do you recall gazing into a clear night sky and seeing millions of dazzling stars, watching a classic steam locomotive journeying along Brunel’s South Devon railway lines, or searching for the thousands of tiny life forms that make their home in the shrubs and trees of your back garden or nearby countryside?

As children, we are blessed with an instinctive curiosity towards the world around us, and we are encouraged to explore our surroundings and discover the rich diversity that both our natural and manmade environments provide.  Yet somewhere, along the journey into adulthood, many of us lose our fascination with these still mesmerising aspects of our neighbourhoods and surroundings.

You may be asking why I have taken you on this short trip down memory lane. What you have perhaps unwittingly carried out is essentially a potted history of your love affair with science.  Think back again to those memories and think about how many relate to science in some way or another – that steam railway was a marvel of contemporary engineering, trying to calculate how many stars illuminate the skies above us is a fundamental questions for astrophysicists, while even board games such as Top Trumps rely on a embracing statistical analysis.

In short, the influence of science on our everyday lives is evident pretty much wherever you look. We are fortunate to live in a part of the UK blessed with not only a rich biodiversity, but also a varied landscape ranging from the rugged moorland landscapes to the majestic Jurassic coastline. Meanwhile, Britain’s position as a cradle of invention has mean that we take so many incredible innovations and developments, from the railways to television and radio, and even the internet, almost for granted.

Yet if we are to continue to lead the way in innovation and new technology, there needs to be a sea change in our attitudes towards science. The next technological breakthrough won’t be possible without the passion, perseverance and skills of the scientists, mathematicians and engineers of tomorrow. Put simply, it is time to kick-start a quiet revolution to place science at the heart of the next generation.

Friday 14 March marked the start of the National Science and Engineering Week, which aims to give children the confidence to question the environment, develop basic scientific theories, increase their observational skills and, perhaps most importantly, have fun while they do so. A huge number of fascinating events and opportunites have been going on to support this. If we can enhance the skills and attitudes towards science in our children now, it is far more likely to stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Here at the University of Exeter, we are already passionate about sharing our knowledge and enthusiasm for science with the local community. Throughout the course of the year our staff run a series of outreach events designed to encourage children of all ages to think about what science means to them, and what opportunities it can provide as they start their journeys through adulthood. For example, the University of Exeter Medical School hosts the exciting “Men in White”, event, which allows Year 9 students from schools across the region to experience what working in a research laboratory is really like. Meanwhile, colleagues from our Penryn Campus in Cornwall run the hugely successful Science in the Square event, as part of Falmouth Week, where families can come and learn more about insects, space, ocean life and much, much more.

We believe events such as these are the perfect way in which we can give something back to our local community, but just as importantly by allowing children to become scientists for the day, we will sow the seeds to produce the next generation of scientists.

In recent decades the lure of science has perhaps been lost to many. The government has recognised the importance of attracting students into science, and last year announced that science and engineering teaching at UK universities will receive a £400 million boost. It is a welcome decision, but is not a total solution to what has become a longstanding problem. Instead, it is up to all of us to make a difference. If we can rediscover our passion for trying to understand the world around us, to marvel once again at the exceptional feats of engineering and technology that we see and use daily, to nurture our natural desire to observe, question and learn, then we can encourage those around us too – and who knows, perhaps discover the next Brunel, Tim Berners-Lee or Professor Stephen Hawking right here on our doorstep.

How Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou turned a marginal position into a professional strength

Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou is a woman and an atheist working in an area that is traditionally the domain of men of the cloth. So, in recognition of International Women’s Day we asked her to tell us how she turned her marginal position into a professional strength.

After teaching and researching at the University of Oxford Francesca joined Exeter’s Department of Theology and Religion in 2005 and is now Head of Theology and Religion, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion. She was also appointed to a personal chair in 2011. Her research interests lie in the biblical traditions and religious practices most at odds with Western cultural preferences.

Alongside her academic work Francesca also engages in numerous media activities, including presenting the 2011 BBC 2 TV documentary series Bible’s Buried Secrets, she is often a talking head in documentaries and regularly appears on radio and TV discussion and debate shows…   

“When people ask what I do for a living, they’re often surprised when I tell them I’m an academic in a Theology and Religion Department. Apparently, I don’t ‘look like a theologian’.

I’d like to think this says more about people’s assumptions about the discipline, than their assumptions about me. But in some ways, they have a point: traditionally, the study of theology and religion has been undertaken by men of the cloth; indeed, theology is one of the oldest university disciplines in the West.

But while a number of today’s scholars have come to the field by means of religious motivations, my journey has been very different.

For some academics, career highlights tend to include heavy-weight publications, winning research grants, securing promotions, or building a public profile which extends beyond the confines of campus.

My achievements in all these areas naturally mean a great deal to me, but in many ways, one of the most significant highlights of my career remains getting to University and completing my doctorate.

My interest began with my Greek heritage. As a child, I loved the stories about the deities of ancient Greece, but as I studied both Classics and Religious Studies at school, I grew increasingly curious about religion. I couldn’t quite understand why the Greek gods and their various Western peers had lost their hold on humans, only to be replaced by the god of the Bible – a god who seemed so similar to the gods of Greece, and yet was treated so differently (and so much more favourably) by scholars. So I decided to do a Theology degree.

My time as an undergraduate at Oxford confirmed my suspicions: the god of the Bible was treated differently because this was the god of Western culture. This was a god who was supposed to ‘belong’ to all of us, to whom we were all believed to belong. The majority of my fellow students and lecturers seemed to share this view. Many of them couldn’t understand why an atheist like me would want to study Theology. At times, I often felt marginalised and judged. But there were a handful of academics at Oxford who not only supported me, but actively encouraged me to voice my differences, and to bring my ‘outsider’ perspective to bear on my studies. So I decided to do a Masters, and then a doctorate.

By this time, I was specialising in the Hebrew Bible – the ancient collection of texts known as ‘Tanakh’ in Judaism and the ‘Old Testament’ in Christianity. Looking back, my doctoral thesis engaged my outsider’s perspective by exploring the religious practices of those the biblical writers condemn as idolatrous, rebellious deviants: I wrote an historical rehabilitation of one of the villains of the Hebrew Bible, King Manasseh, and argued that one of the religious crimes of which he is accused, child sacrifice, was actually a high status, acceptable ritual, performed in honour of the god of the Bible, Yahweh.

Whilst my interest in the morbid aspects of ancient religions has endured, perhaps the more pervasive legacy of getting to university and completing my doctorate is the personal empowerment that journey brought me. Finding confidence in being the ‘odd–one-out’ in a discipline which remains heavily dominated by religious men of one sort or another is a skill I learnt as a student – and one I still value today. It’s not always easy being ‘the atheist’ in the fields of theology and religion. And, as is well known, neither is it always easy being a woman in academia. But finding the confidence to turn a seemingly marginal position into a professional strength is one of the career successes of which I’m most proud.”

The amalgamation of medical information could revolutionise health research

The furore over the NHS scheme to amalgamate medical information risks overlooking the fact that it could herald the future of health discovery and tailor-made care, argues Professor Steve Thornton, Dean of the University of Exeter Medical School.

Here, he outlines how the changes would help revolutionise health discovery, and would particularly benefit the South West, which is already at the forefront of research into tailor-made care. 

Have you received a leaflet about a new NHS scheme on linking up your medical information between care providers? Did you stop to stop to look at the relatively small print telling you it contains “important information about your health records”, or was it scooped up and binned, amid a pile of pizza delivery takeaway menus and discount supermarket offers?

If you haven’t yet seen it, you soon will, and it’s really worth spending the time to understand how your anonymised personal information will be used, as part of a scheme which is absolutely integral to our ambitions for a healthcare revolution, and working towards tailor-made healthcare solutions to match each patient’s needs into the future.

This month, NHS England decided to delay the amalgamation of information from sources such as GP surgeries and community hospitals, after a survey revealed that two thirds of those polled had not received the leaflet informing them of the changes. Equally worryingly, 80 per cent of GPs felt that they did not grasp the changes well enough to explain them to patients.

Nothing is more personal than medical records and clearly, everyone needs to understand how the new scheme will affect the storage of their information, and how it will be anonymised and used. It’s absolutely right that they should have the chance to opt out – a choice which is built into the system. But if you have ever donated to a charity which researches any of the major health problems of our time, such as cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, you should think twice before you rule yourself out of the new system.

Of course funding is crucial to enable research, but equally as vital is access to large-scale datasets which can help us identify what’s really going on in a population. Looking at diseases on this massive scale can help us understand the causes in individuals, and that in turn can lead to the development of treatments designed specifically to treat that cause, rather than a more broad-brush approach which can be less effective, and can leave people enduring unwanted side effects.

At the University of Exeter Medical School, our scientists are already world-leaders in this type of work, with diabetes among our particular specialisms. We work extremely closely with clinicians, and our newest research centre is a partnership with the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust, based on the hospital site. This close collaboration at the spectacular Research, Innovation, Learning and Development (RILD) building, which fronts onto Barrack Road, means we have an ongoing dialogue, so our research directly addresses patients’ needs and innovation pervades treatment.

Our recent discoveries include identifying new genetic causes for neonatal diabetes, which affects babies when they are less than six months old.

The new building also houses the Exeter 10,000 project, funded by the National Institute for Health Research, where more than 7,000 people living around Exeter have already signed up to be part of medical research. They undergo a series of simple tests, and their data is then anonymised, and can be analysed by scientists looking for patterns in populations.

This is an incredibly valuable resource, but if we could do it on a national scale, we could have a much clearer idea of these patterns, and that would help us to target our research, which ultimately aims to find new treatments.

Analysing existing large, connected, and anonymised datasets has already enhanced medical knowledge. One example is research using a database of 7,500 people, which assessed  a particular anti-clotting drug prescribed in patients with heart disease.

Before this study, it was difficult to assess the long-term effects of the drug because it was prescribed after patients left hospital and the GP data was not easily analysed because it is not currently stored in a way that can be studied.

Looking at joined up hospital and GP data showed  there was an increased risk of further heart problems if the GP did not prescribe the medication within the first three months of the patient leaving hospital; the medication was stopped within a year of the patient leaving hospital; and in older patients. This understanding changed the way doctors prescribed this drug, and undoubtedly saved patients from avoidable complications. We can only imagine what other life-saving revelations we could uncover if data was shared on a larger scale.

For health watchdogs, monitoring this information can also help identify patterns of how healthcare is delivered, to monitor fairness across the country, and to pick up any warning signs about the impact of prescription drugs.

The NHS now has a job to do to communicate this message in a way that will reach every household, and perhaps that is a greater task now that the headlines generated by this poll have fuelled suspicion. It is essential that people are aware they have a choice, and can access clear information on how their data will be used. But, questionable communications aside, this scheme could actually provide the key to a whole new era of personalised healthcare – a factor much of the media furore has overlooked entirely.


The recent flooding can help improve our flood defences

Professor Dragan Savic FREng is the co-director of the Centre for Water Systems, and Professor of Hydroinformatics at the University of Exeter; here he discusses what important questions have arisen from the recent flooding.

The dramatic events that have consumed the South West in recent weeks offer perhaps the greatest understanding of how devastating flooding can be to people and communities. However, with conditions continuing to deteriorate across the country, now is not the time for apportioning blame.

Instead, the main focus at this time should rightly be on helping those affected and on protecting lives and livelihoods. Yet this current, extensive flooding should also raise a number of serious questions in us all, both as individuals and members of a wider society.

The first question we should ask, perhaps, is why we cannot seem to provide total flood prevention. After all, we do not face the frequent and devastating monsoons and widespread flooding that affect many developing countries in South East Asia, for example, while our continental neighbours in the Netherlands seem to offer tangible evidence as to how hard engineering can provide ‘total flood control’, by forcing back and so keeping out the river and sea waters.

However, the Dutch are well aware of the difficulties associated with building ever-larger flood defences to combat changing conditions that may be the result of global warming. Instead, they have instigated a policy of ‘managed retreat’ from some coastal areas. This doesn’t mean they have stopped upgrading, rebuilding and improving existing flood defences, but are instead developing a portfolio of measures to manage floods and live with flooding.

So perhaps we need to start recognising flooding as another type of risk that we live with and manage in our daily life. With flooding, we have to accept that there will always be a real risk and that it cannot be completely eliminated. Even the huge investment in improving the UK flood defences after the tidal surge of 1953 could not completely prevent the flooding experienced in the recent storm surge event last Christmas.

Yet there is no doubt that risk has been reduced in recent years. If you compared the flooding of 1953 and now, which are comparable in tidal height and the strength of the wind, then the previous flooding caused much more devastation – causing 300 deaths and numerous sea wall breaches.

This and other recent major flooding incidents, such as those experienced in Gloucestershire in 2007, Cumbria in 2009 and Wales in 2012 would’ve caused much more damage if it were not for the work and expertise of the Environment Agency that has been given a clear overview role in managing flood risk.

The way forward is to forget about one simple ‘silver bullet’ solution to the flood risk problem, such as dredging or only building concrete floodwalls, but to think of flood risk management as a way of increasing societal resilience.

This would involve a combination of measures and decisions: to prevent or mitigate flood risk, to prepare for inevitable occurrence of flooding, to develop warning and alarm raising systems, to plan for an effective response to flooding events and limit loss and exposure, and to plan and organise recovery.

Even if we focus only on prevention and mitigation of flood risk, the difficult decisions will have to be made by Government, its agencies, local authorities, families and us, individuals.

We have to ask ourselves some tough questions. What are our strategic priorities, for example in large populated areas? Can we develop more synergistic policies that help reduce flood risk, like encouraging better farm management practices? Where best to invest limited funds, to gain maximum protection from flooding? Can we allow some farm land to be designated for being safely flooded in extreme situations to protect towns elsewhere? Can we continue to build on floodplains? When do we consider managed retreat from flood vulnerable areas?

The bottom line is that flood management is not only about how much dredging we can do, how many more new drains to dig, or how much concrete we can pour. We have to use our best science and engineering, but also work with nature to maximise natural flood protection, which means: protecting and restoring wetlands (that can store or slow down water flowing into our rivers), reconnecting floodplains (to make space for water and protect important areas), investing in upland forestry (to reduce flooding downstream), etc.

For example, research at the University of Exeter has demonstrated that restoration of peat bogs on Exmoor could result in a third less water leaving the moorland during heavy rainfall compared with previous years.

Growing populations, increasing urbanisation, economic growth and climate change mean that the likelihood and the consequences of flooding are likely to increase. The question we face as a society is not whether we can beat the nature, but whether we can live with it.

To achieve the above, public bodies, businesses, communities, families and individuals will all need to prepare to do their bit to respond to the threat of floods and to learn to live with them. This year marks the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, but this time the urgent recruiting slogan could be “Your country needs you to prepare for and live with floods!