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Scientific Alliance Newsletter

As the saying goes, forecasting is never easy, particularly about the future. On one hand, studies of what the future may bring are often constrained by our current knowledge, which inevitably sees progress as a linear extrapolation of recent trends. On the other hand, claims are often made about the importance of emerging technologies and how much they will shape our lives. Usually, neither is right. Instead disruptive technologies come along and lead us along paths we cannot foresee, but those technologies are rarely the ones that are trumpeted as the way forward. The reasons for this...
Undeniably, our species has shaped the Earth’s environment, and our first forays into near Space may expand our influence significantly, perhaps even later this century. But will geologists of the far future look back through the strata and see the present period as being quite different from what went before? That is the question which is being addressed by the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphyunder the auspices of the International Union of Geological Sciences. The term Athropocene was coined at the turn of the century and is used generally to designate the period over...
By any rational analysis, nuclear fission should be one of the major energy sources of the 21st Century. Its advantages are considerable: uranium is plentiful and only small quantities are needed to generate large amounts of energy, electricity is generated with essentially zero carbon dioxide emissions, and there is more than half a century of proven safe and reliable use. To set against that, of course, there are some negatives. In particular, there have been a handful of high-profile accidents, particularly at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Of which, more later, but...

Smoke and mirrors?

26.02.2016
Polluted air is a major contributor to the global burden of ill-health. A comprehensive WHO study (Global Burden of Disease) attributes nearly 6 million deaths to it in 2010, second only to overall diet and high blood pressure. It kills more people than smoking, alcohol or drugs. So, when we see headlines such as UK air pollution ‘linked to 40,000 early deaths a year’, it is not something we should dismiss lightly. This headline comes from a report about a new study – Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution – recently published jointly by the...

No sign of Peak Oil

18.02.2016
Nor, for that matter, of peak coal or gas. Fossil fuels, said to be on the path for an effective demise in the rich world later this century, will actually continue to fulfil the major part of our energy needs for the foreseeable future. So says the latest BP Energy Outlook. Gone is ‘Beyond Petroleum’, back comes making the most of what they do best, albeit in straightened times given the stubbornly low oil price. To be fair to BP, this has been their consistent story even through the period of what is often described as greenwashing. Since they know the business better than...
This week saw the opening of a massive energy project centred on Shetland. A consortium led by the French energy company Total has invested £3.5bn in extracting gas from deep undersea over 100 km west of the islands, receiving it onshore at a new complex adjacent to the existing Sullom Voe oil terminal, and then feeding it into the UK mainland gas grid. According to the report “the Shetland Gas Plant is said by its operator Total to be capable of supplying energy to two million homes” (Total turns on gas from west of Shetland Laggan and Tormore fields). By coincidence,...
“Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.” This is a statement of the Precautionary Principle, which seems at first sight to be a self-evidently sensible statement. If this approach had been taken in years gone by, rabbits and cane toads perhaps would not have been introduced into Australia, nor Japanese Knotweed into the UK. Some things have unintended consequences, but some of these are predictable with a bit of...

High-tech farming

21.01.2016
Modern societies have an ambivalent relationship with agriculture. In poor countries, farming families may still make up the majority of the population, and agriculture remains the largest part of the economy, whereas in the rich world the great majority of us are disconnected from the reality of growing and harvesting food. This leads to a romanticised view of the sector, with a perceived ideal of happy and healthy farmers growing nutritious and tasty food without the need for pesticides and other modern technology. This is the underpinning of the organic movement, which has managed to...

A perfect storm?

14.01.2016
Life is about priorities. Most of us fortunate enough to live in the developed world enjoy secure food and energy supplies and are free to worry about issues such as broadband speed and where to go on holiday. But still, for far too many people, the main priority is much simpler: to be able to grow or afford enough food. On a broader level, Europe has enjoyed probably its most peaceful seven decades ever. With the notable exception of the Balkan conflicts – very nasty indeed, but also quite localised – the great majority of Europeans have grown up free from conflict. Of course...
First: a Happy New Year to all readers. How 2016 will shape up is anyone’s guess, with ‘experts’ being no more likely to call things correctly than the rest of us mere mortals. However, we can be certain that many of the same issues will continue to form the backdrop to our lives; we just don’t know quite how and to what extent other unknown factors may disrupt things. Putting aside matters economic, political and social, which are beyond the scope of this newsletter, we will all continue to depend on secure supplies of energy and food. Most of us also take for...

Current Issues


Future costs of UK energy supply

The Scientific Alliance recently published part 1 of an examination of National Grid's Future Energy Scenarios, dealing with security of supply. We are now pleased to publish part 2 - cost of supply. The authors - Dr Capell Aris and Colin Gibson - conclude that building more gas and nuclear stations would be considerably less expensive than any of the NG scenarios, as well as offering better energy security.

What's New

14 October 2016: Read the new report by Dr Capell Aris, published jointly with the Adam Smith Institute - Solar power in Britain: the Impossible Dream