Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

Eunice Foote

📥  Comment, News and Updates

So, the new head of the US EPA doesn't think that CO2 has much of a role in global warming.  What a pity Eunice Foote isn't still around to enlighten him.

It was the American scientist Eunice Foote who first discovered the greenhouse effect in 1856.  She showed that gases in the atmosphere were affected by the Sun’s radiation in different ways, and of all the gases she tested, it was CO2 that trapped the most heat. In 1859, UK physicist John Tyndall independently demonstrated the same effects, and he usually gets the credit for making the link.   This was because he published his results, including data on how the absorption of radiant heat differed from gas to gas.  Foote was ahead of her time.  Although her work was not published, and she wasn’t even allowed to present her findings to fellow scientists as no woman could do that in the USA at the time, it’s reported that she also speculated about whether changes in the amount of carbon dioxide in the air might lead to a warming of the Earth.



Always choose the right Hamiltonian

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I went to the I-SEE event the other night and managed to hang in through a whole evening of Density Functional Theory.  Here's a beginners' guide.  I thought I might struggle when the speaker, Aron Walsh, began by saying that he'd be talking at the boundaries of chemistry and physics.  I knew that I was going to struggle when he got onto Hamiltonian mechanics after about 5 minutes.  That said, I did learn something and the whole thing was very engaging.  The best advice Walsh had to offer was to say, "Make sure you choose the right Hamiltonian" which is something that I intend to take to heart.

Walsh had a nice line in self-deprecating humour.  His response to a well-judged introduction by the Chair, where his impressive CV was to the fore, was to note that some people think that he is more impressive on paper than in person.  It's not true though.


The great diesel disaster

📥  Comment, News and Updates

This is not my headline.  It comes from a Spectator column by James Delingpole.  You can read it here.  It begins in typical Delingpolian style:

Who do you think was responsible for Europe’s biggest environmental disaster of the past three decades; one that caused more widespread damage and killed more people than even the nuclear accident at Chernobyl?  Was it

a) greedy and selfish capitalists, probably linked to Big Oil, riding roughshod over the stringent health and safety regulations our wise, caring politicians have designed to protect us and our natural environment?  Or ...

b) an alliance of fluffy green activists, campaigning journalists and virtue-signalling politicians, united on a noble mission to save the planet from the greatest environmental threat it has ever known?

If you guessed b) then you may appreciate why we climate sceptics are experiencing such schadenfreude right now. For years we’ve been vilified by the powerful green lobby as nature–loathing, anti-science ‘deniers’ in the pay of sinister interests. Now it turns out that the real bad guys (as some of us have been saying all along) are those worthy greenies.

The article is about air pollution and the way that that the cost of driving a diesel car in the EU has been kept low because such cars release less CO2/km than petrol cars do.  Although UK fuel taxation does not discriminate between low-sulphur petrol and diesel fuels (the rate is 58p/litre for both and the VAT rate is the same), the car tax rates are different because they are based on CO2 emissions.  Hence there was a shift towards diesel despite its being a dirtier fuel.  Delingpole's point is that we were aware of this, but went ahead nevertheless.

I'm not sure, however, that all the blame can be directed at the EU's many Presidents as national law and taxes sits between Brussels and the motorist.  In the Netherlands, for example, the cost of taxing a small car (900-1100 kg) is 520 € for petrol and €1040 for diesel.  A slightly heavier car (1400-1500 kg) would be €800 for petrol and €1600 for diesel.  These are eye-watering sums compared to what UK motorists typically pay.  Here, for example, for my 1450 kg diesel it is about £20 (~€23 on a good day) because of the efficiency (in CO2 terms) of the engine.  (NB, from 2017, the UK tax rate has risen to £140 as the UK government catches up).  UK tax rates are here and are still based on CO2 emissions, not weight as in the Netherlands.

This is still a huge difference – and the cost of the fuel in the Netherlands is higher as well.



Measuring Business Impacts on People’s Well-being

📥  Comment, New Publications

OECD had a workshop in Paris the other week on Measuring Business Impacts on People’s Well-being.  Here's the webpage.

The workshop

"discussed the foundations to measuring business impacts on well-being through the creation of new measurement standards in close collaboration with the business sector, and as part of existing reporting practices that already transcend economic performance."

You can read the speaker blogs here, read the session notes here, and find links to the presentations here.  My sources say that the one from Hunter Lovins is the one to watch.  It's here.  All rather North American.


Blencathra on the BBC

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I watched a BBC film about Blencathra (a year in the life of) the other week.  In my younger life, I spent considerable time on that mountain and the film did justice to its fine sculpture: think blooming heather, time-lapse scudding clouds, fading sunsets, ... .  The music was intrusive (and not at all Cumbrian).  And there were only a few authentic local voices to listen to.  There was the obligatory tale of the phantom horsemen of Souter Fell despite its being quite separate from Blencathra.

When it finally finished (to much relief) I reflected on an omission: there was no mention of the Blencathra foxhounds.  Given the cultural significance of fox-hunting in the Lake District, and the fact that the Blencathra hunt survives today (despite everything right-thinking types threw at it), this seemed odd.  Until, that is, you remembered who the programme was made for.  Just too hot to handle for the BBC, I guess, as mentioning this core part of the mountain's life might be taken as conveying approval which would never do.


Meeting teachers at the TeachMeet

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I was rather uncharitable (quite uncharacteristically, so, I thought) about the Bristol TeachMeet last Thursday evening.  I'm happy to report that some 9 teachers did turn up.  I'm less happy to note that hardly any of them had heard of the sustainable development goals.  Their interests seemed (mostly) environmental, but then such things are hardly disconnected with the SDGs.  There was much angst around about how few green flags there are adorning Bristol schools.  I sensed a bit of embarrassment as this was not a welcome legacy of Bristol's period as the Green Capital.  It could be, of course, that Bristol's schools are just showing discernment.

I sat next to Fred, the engaging orang-utan, who'd brought along his ventriloquist, Stephanie Roinier.  Fred, aided by Stephanie (and Tom who used to work for the Natural History Unit and who had a huge bundle of super-nice pics to share with us) stole the show.  You'll find Fred on YouTube talking about the evils of palm oil, and he's on Facebook as well.

Then there was c/o Aardman.  I've yet to explore this, but it's all about Shaun building an eco-friendly place to live and it comes via sustainable which explores the Green Capital legacy – what there is of it.

There were calls for more TeachMeets.  Next time, I hope that teachers are given more of an opportunity to share what they do.  After all, it is what TeachMeets are supposed to be about.



From Atoms to Devices: materials design for new energy technologies

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The I-SEE seminar on Tuesday 7 March is:

From atoms to devices: materials design for new energy technologies

and is given by Aron Walsh, Professor of Materials Design in the Department of Materials at Imperial.  Here's the Abstract

The discovery of functional materials, tailored for applications in energy conversion and storage, is now possible by combining theoretical chemistry with high-performance computation.  The toolkit for materials modelling is becoming increasingly predictive and powerful, with a recent emphasis being placed on data mining and informatics.   I will critically discuss the past and future contributions of materials theory and simulation to the development of new energy technologies, including light-to-electricity conversion in photovoltaic cells and heat-to-electricity conversion in thermoelectric cells.  Particular attention will be paid to hybrid halide perovskites which in addition to becoming champion thin-film solar energy materials, demonstrate how new materials have the potential to displace existing technologies in a short timeframe.  I will discuss the challenges for materials design including the development of robust application-specific performance descriptors that can be accurately measured and calculated, and combine to give a quantitative figure of merit.

It would seem that Professor Walsh thinks that technology might have a role to play in our renewable energy futures.  The session is free for neo-Luddites.  Further details are here.


But will there be any teachers?

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I'm off to SWLfSC's Teachmeet today.  I wrote about this 10 days ago and wondered whether I'd be talked at for the whole 2 hours

It turns out that there are even more presentations than I thought:

Big Picture stuff

  • ESD Current context for teachers and teaching - Justin Dillon
  • Systems thinking in the classroom - Stephen Sterling
  • Free CPD programmes on sustainability education - Paul Vare

Greener schools

  • Resource use and waste management - Sheila Gundry
  • Keep Britain Tidy -Tom Knapper (untidy more like)

Different Approaches

  • Sustainable learning - Clare Marshall
  • The John Muir approach - Clare Moody


  • Quality education and ESD: reflect on your learning - Mairi Kershaw

Not many teachers – although there are two slots in the programme rather condescendingly termed: Teacher Exchange.

But maybe I'm guilty of bringing too literal an approach to the notion of Teachmeet.  Perhaps I should not read this as Teachers Meet, let along Meet Teachers.  I looked it up and find it's a Scottish idea.  This is what Wikipedia has to say:

Originally conceived in the summer of 2006 in Edinburgh, Scotland, under the name "ScotEduBlogs Meetup". The new name TeachMeet was created by Ewan McIntosh and agreed upon by the attendees of the first event. The 2nd Edition was held in Glasgow on the 20th of September 2006.[3]

The 5th TeachMeet was the first to be held at the BETT Show in London.[4]

In 2010 TeachMeet 'Takeover' was introduced, where teachers took over vendors stands in the main conference to bring the TeachMeet discussion out of the Apex Room and onto the exhibition floor.[5]

TeachMeets are now regular occurrences in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, Australia, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, Sweden, the USA, New Zealand. In New Zealand the Teachmeet is virtual and is run totally via Google+ Hangout.

Common Features[edit]
The following features are often part of a Teachmeet, but the format changes according to the size of the meeting and the preferences of the organisers:

Micro-presentations - lasting 7 minutes
Nano-presentations - lasting 2 minutes nano presentation (3-5 one after the other)
Round-table break-outs - lasting 15 minutes or so, allowing focussed discussion around a theme, with a volunteer facilitator
Random selection of speakers - from a pool of willing participants
Back-channel - to let non-participants participate

This does imply that there will be teachers somewhere around.  I'll see if I can find any.  More on it all next week.



📥  Comment, News and Updates

WEEC 2017 has posted a list of three of its plenary speakers, and (whisper it those who dare) two of them might actually be worth listening to.

The three are:

Wade Davis, Professor of Anthropology and the BC Leadership Chair in Cultures and Ecosystems at Risk at the University of British Columbia

Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party of Canada and its first elected Member of Parliament.

David Suzuki, scientist, broadcaster, author, and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation.

The outline programme is here.  You'll find that there are 6 plenary slots all told so there's plenty of opportunity for disappointing speakers to appear as they usually do in such events.  Will WEEC manage to keep up this standard?


Sobering thoughts about renewable electricity

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I have a stake, as you know, in a renewable energy future.  As one of the co-owners of Semington A which contributes in a modest way to the grid's attempts to keep the lights on, I keep an eye on prices and subsidies and watch renewables hugely increase their contribution to world electricity generation – whilst remaining a pathetically small part of overall production.  And two graphs in this week's Economist are enough to sober up anyone drunk on the hope of a quick achievement of carbon-free electricity.

The article A world turned upside down explored the problems of the success of the growth in renewable use.  Currently, non-hydro renewables contribute 7% of global electricity with our old friends coal and oil contributing the most.  It was ~2% in 2005 which shows the recent rate of growth.

Here's a hint of the problem:

"In 2014 the International Energy Agency (IEA), a semi-official forecaster, predicted that decarbonising the global electricity grid will require almost $20trn in investment in the 20 years to 2035, at which point the process will still be far from finished. But an electricity industry that does not produce reliable revenues is not one that people will invest in."

... and the Economist explains in detail why reliable revenue production is now so difficult.  When revenue production proves unreliable, so surely will electricity generation.