The other day I went to a conference at London City Hall, in honour of the European Year of the Air organised by Clean Air in London.

The Problem: London has dirtier air than most places, although it’s no Beijing. But it is ahead of places like LA. It’s also the worst air quality in any major European city, not entirely shocking since it is the biggest.

The quick story of air pollution is how it is mostly made up of particulates and NOx, nitorogen oxide, not nitrous oxide and no laughing matter. Particulates is the fancy name for dirt. The greatest sources are coal fired generation or the tailpipes of diesel engines. The largest number of vehicles in central London are buses and taxis. But the killer fact, at least to me is that air pollution actually kills people 

Up to 9% of deaths in the capital's most polluted areas are down to air pollution, a new London Assembly paper has reported.

The paper, Air Pollution in London, produced by the Assembly's Health and Environment Committee, reports 8.3% of deaths in Westminster are attributable to man-made airborne particles.

Call me cynical, but why are many in UK media more upset about alleged dead goats in Pennsylvania fracking and not several thousand people put into an early grave in Westminster? Where is the anger of Green NGO's who seem more interested in foisting cuddly toys on supporters gathered in the streets where charity muggers and victims alike are slowly dying than in actually solving anything?

The event itself made me realise how lucky I am not to be in the public sector anymore. The event followed the usual scenario:

  1. Start off with a cheesy video stating the bleeding obvious using young children
  2. Organisers welcome includes telling  everyone what a big problem it is.
  3. Describe the various EU, national and local targets and programs, and most important polices, that provide the government setting. This is especially important because the audience was almost 100% public sector or “consultants” who share similar investments in talking about the problem but aren’t given any incentive to do anything about it.  If everyone solved air pollution, the unfortunate side effect for public and NGOs alike would be to succumb not to pollution, but to the next round of government spending cuts.
  4. Then discuss behavioral cures. People should walk, cab drivers should switch off engines, kids should use side streets to stay away from big roads etc. That gives the impression that we are in control of the problem. Or maybe even causing it. Problem victims and source all at once.
  5. Next up were too nutty scientific schemes to solve the problem that concentrated on nibbling away at the problem and perpetuating at least some jobs. One was to spray the streets to keep the dust down. Sure to impress visitors.  Hey, it worked during the Plague of London. The full scientific survey, by an academic expert of course found a best outcome in one block of less than 10% reduction in particulates. Three out of six sites had no change. But still worth talking about. Then the idea of building a green wall, which most people would call a big hedge on a handful of streets. That allowed a full discussion of what would be the best plants to eat the particulates. And, most importanlly for this audience, planning permission issues attached thereto.
  6. Eat the free lunch, and leave in disgust

At no time was it pointed out that there are over 12,000 CNG buses in Europe, or that every bus in LA is gas powered. Or how taxis have to be gas powered by law in places like Bangkok, Dhaka or Teheran.

 And certainly don’t mention that there are three, yes 3, CNG buses in the entire UK, the first Olympic city in 30 years that ran on diesel buses.  

 In other words don’t mention how natural gas can provide a solution. It wasn’t even due to any antipathy towards gas. It was simple ignorance. I asked three key people why CNG for buses or replacing coal wasn’t discussed. I pointed out  CNG buses emit zero particulates, 30% less CO2, 40% less NOX and save half on fuel costs. I didn’t at this point, push my luck on how we could use UK shale gas instead of imported oil.

 The man from the national level professed not to be aware of CNG as a solution in transport. This despite a role in the European initiatives. Presumably he doesn’t take the bus any place he goes. As for generation, that’s another department, not his. 

One of the professors also seemed quizzical. “That’s a good question” was the reply. “We looked at it about ten years ago.But since gas is running out we didn’t think it was sustainable or cost effective.” The value of a PhD. Get one once, and you’re an expert for life. Sadlly, you then spend so much time getting research money you don’t actually have any time to keep up with anything new.

 Finally the man from TfL. But we have hydrogen buses! Or one being tested to be exact. His reason for no CNG buses was that planning permission was hard to get to install the filling stations.

So there it is: 4,267 London deaths in 2008 from particulate pollution.Or planning permission.Take your choice. One deadly problem, one insurmountable.

 News from Europe today at least the  EU Energy Commissioner sees the use of natural gas in transportation really being important.  

 Natural Gas (Liquefied (LNG) and Compressed (CNG): LNG is used for waterborne transport both at sea and on inland waterways. LNG infrastructure for fuelling vessels is at a very early stage, with only Sweden having a small scale LNG bunkering facility for sea going vessels, with plans in several other Member States. The Commission is proposing that LNG refuelling stations be installed in all 139 maritime and inland ports on the Trans European Core Network by 2020 and respectively 2025. These are not major gas terminals, but either fixed or mobile refuelling stations. This covers all major EU ports.

LNG: Liquefied natural gas is also used for trucks, but there are only 38 filling stations in the EU. The Commission is proposing that by 2020, refuelling stations are installed every 400 km along the roads of the Trans European Core Network.

CNG: Compressed natural gas is mainly used for cars. One million vehicles currently use this fuel representing 0.5% of the fleet - the industry aims to increase this figure ten-fold by 2020. The Commission proposal will ensure that publicly accessible refuelling points, with common standards, are available Europe-wide with maximum distances of 150 Km by 2020.

 Also today is a good piece at Reuters on how fast oil is losing out gas in transportation in some more clued up parts of the world, i.e. everywhere except the exceptional Britain:

 Crude oil's supremacy in motor fuels is pricing it out of power and industry, leaving it stuck in low-growth transport and vulnerable to a revolution that could favour natural gas.

In OECD countries, transport fuel demand is set to actually fall as weak economies, a shift to smaller cars, and a move onto public transport in congested urban areas take a further toll, BP says. Worldwide, meanwhile, gas, biofuels and other alternatives are expected to steal almost a third of what growth there might be.

I particularly liked these quotes:

(Christof Ruhl of BP) acknowledged surprise at the speed with which energy use per unit of wealth produced is falling around the world and said the pace of development in U.S. shale gas and shale oil had shocked the industry too.

Ian Taylor of the trading giant Vitol was asked in November about future oil industry shockers, or "game changers":

"I think it's when the Chinese and Americans work out how to put gas in those trucks and only use gas for transportation," he said, "and I've got a horrible feeling it may come a little bit quicker than we're all anticipating."

Oh well. Back to trading pork belly futures. My horrible feeling is that when the UK finally wakes up to what the rest of the world and the EU are doing on shale gas, we’ll be either out of the EU and or totally isolated or broke.

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