The voice of technology should be heard in climate debate
BT’s former futurologist Ian Pearson has urged East of England companies to use scientifically based recommendations as the basis of their environmental policies rather than input from green groups that either hold science in contempt or nurse politically motivated agendas. In ‘Carbon’ – a new report on UK eco policy – Pearson turns conventional strategy inside out, branding it outmoded and counter productive, and tells the metaphorical lunatics to get out of the asylum.
Piece by piece, Pearson dismantles current UK thinking.
Too often the plans focus on old-fashioned environmental solutions so
are in danger of locking in out-of-date technologies, he says. “Current
environmental dogma says that cars are bad and public transport is
good. Quite the reverse is true in the long term.
“To use 1990s solutions such as guided busways is severely misguided.
It would be far better to implement pilot schemes such as electronic
routes and electronic vehicles. If a whole town is being built, given
that most journeys are local, there is a perfect opportunity for
genuine eco-towns to trial such new technologies, that are far more
environmentally friendly than any bus-based system, while allowing
unrestricted travel, and allowing full social inclusivity for an ageing
Transport – Guided Bus & Buses
Cambridgeshire County Council is in the process of building the longest
guided busway in the world, scheduled to open early next year. The aim
of the Cambridgeshire Guided Busway is to provide high quality,
reliable and frequent local public transport along the A14 corridor.
But Pearson reckons the system will soon be overtaken by new-tech
He said: “Occupancy of guided busways is low. Like railway lines,
dedicated track is only occupied for a small fraction of the time, so
it represents poor efficiency. Depending where the busway is, a bus
might go on one of these just once every several minutes and only takes
a couple of seconds to pass. The track still takes up significant space
and being made of concrete, contributes CO2 during fabrication.
“The biggest problem, though, is that because it represents significant
investment, it is likely that councils will stick with the system long
after it has past its ‘use by date’. Even when electronic tracks and
electronic cars are available and could provide public transport much
more efficiently and with better comfort, convenience and social
inclusion, councils will stick with bus based systems because they have
invested heavily in them.
“Also, buses last longer than cars, so will not benefit as quickly from
engine improvements or electrification. If the road architectures have
also been designed around buses, it might well be prohibitively
expensive to move to the more efficient systems, locking in dirty bus
based systems for much longer than need be.
“This will be a big problem in eco-towns, where they are designing
residential areas to be largely car-free with a high dependence on
buses. When the rest of the country is carbon free with superb
electronic transport, communities in eco-towns will still be polluting
the environment and suffering limited mobility.
“The busways simply enable the private bus companies to take even more
tortuous routes to maximise the number of passengers they can pick up,
and therefore revenue. If they made a single stop and went straight
into town they would be very much faster and more people would use
“Other factors with bus use also kick in, of course, such as the
slowing down and acceleration of other traffic where they mix, with the
consequential increases in emissions from other vehicles increasing
system wide emissions.”
Ease them out, Pearson argues. “Taxis are usually classed as public
transport. A taxi often has to make a two-way journey to take a
passenger one way and often return empty once the passenger is dropped
off. Taxis also drive around empty looking for customers. Taxis are
much more damaging to the environment than private cars. Removing their
public transport classification would help.”
“An antiquated transport solution long overdue for a rethink,” says
Pearson. “Today, on a typical piece of regional railway track, a train
goes past every 20 minutes. A 200m long train travels at 40m/s (90mph)
and takes five seconds to go past. So the track may be used five
seconds out of every 20 minutes – an occupancy of 0.4 per cent. Yet the
infrastructure has to be there all the time.“
Transport in the future
Pearson has a clear vision and it’s electronic and multi-modal. As it
is likely that speed limits will be electronically enforced at some
point, the outcome will be that the computer takes over from the
driver. Cars in the future will drive themselves. Pearson says: “In the
future we will have better identification and tracking technology. If
the identities of both cars and occupants are known and if personal
driving style is eliminated by electronic over-rides, there is far less
incentive to personally own a car.
“At the same time it will become much easier to implement and manage
large fleets of shared cars. So we may well see large fleets of shared
cars, owned by companies, government or social groups.
“These will more often have multiple occupancy because of security
advantages. And because they are driven by computer, with all the cars
in a ‘road train’ electronically linked for acceleration and braking,
they could drive much closer together – increasing road occupancy,
greatly reducing drag and making road travel much more energy efficient. They could be just centimetres away from each other, making travel
safer: It isn’t possible to get much of a speed differential before a
collision if cars are very close.
“And with electronic control of the travel, the road transport system
would become rather like the packet transport systems used today on the
telecoms network. Slots could be electronically booked to ensure smooth
travel and destination time would be known at the outset. Speeds could
be made much more constant, making the system more energy efficient.”
Pearson says a further capacity advantage arises from the computer
driver. Lanes are the width they are today mainly for safety reasons.
With computers driving, cars could get much closer sideways, too,
squeezing more lanes onto the same road area. It also makes it more
feasible to run roads with lane direction determined by time of day –
with some lanes carrying cars one way in the morning rush and the other
in the afternoon.
Pearson says there is no reason why road train technology cannot be
implemented on the railways. “Suppose that electronically driven cars
and buses could be taken onto the railways and interleaved with vans
and small rail carriages that spend all their time on the railways.
“Cars could be made with dual wheels, as some buses are today. Once on
rail, no steering is needed and with vehicles talking electronically to
each other to co-ordinate braking and acceleration, the driver could do
other things while the car drives itself to the destination station,
where it would leave the track and use its other wheels to get to its
Because the rail harnesses electric energy, the car could use an
electric motor. Instead of using petrol, diesel or even fuel cells it
could make very long journeys on batteries, which could be recharged
during the rail journey.
“This approach could eventually be applied to both road and rail with
electronic control systems automatically managing both systems,” says
Pearson. “As a crude estimate, the resultant capacity of the roads would
increase probably threefold and the capacity of the railways perhaps as
much as 100-fold. Congestion and travel delays could be greatly reduced along with the
environmental impact since the whole system could be driven on
The bonus would come if the electricity was produced from renewable
sources which would make the entire transport system carbon neutral. If
the system worked, light rail could eventually be laid onto the roads
with perhaps a heavy duty freight track and some light private
As Pearson remarks, bikes “occupy the peak of the moral high ground as
far as environmentalism is concerned.” But it isn’t that simple, he
“On proper cycle paths they are certainly a good solution from a
fitness and environmental viewpoint. But mixed with cars they can be
dangerous. They also force other vehicles to slow down to pass and then
accelerate again. On busy narrow roads this can lead to significant
With a futuristic transport system, more space could be made for
electronic cycle lanes. A linear induction motor laid into or on the
cycle lane surface could pull riders along if they wanted assistance. A
simple metal plate would be fixed to the front forks of the bike and
could be switched on or off, offering variable speeds for individual
Tracks could be laid to give extra assistance – on hills for example –
and other technologies, such as RFID chips, could enable highly
personalised control and payment systems. This would speed up bike
journeys and reduce the congestion threat.
Forget the wrist-watch, mobile et al, technology change is accelerating
and environmentalists are arguing that hi-tech gadgets such as phones,
computers and MP3 players become obsolete very quickly and end up on
landfill while they still have years of useful potential life left.
Some companies that consider themselves environmentally responsible
have initiated programmes to tackle obsolescence but Pearson warns: “To
do so can be a significant error.”
He says this is especially true of mobile phones. Regardless of the
arguments, a phone today makes very little environmental loading, he
says. And future generations of phones will progress quickly towards
digital jewellery, which will do far more than today’s IT with minimal
Pearson argues: “A person wearing a few grammes of digital jewellery in
2020 will have far more IT capability than someone today with a laptop,
phone, PDA, MP3 player, digital camera, GPS navigation system, security
alarm, ID card, electronic cash cards, credit cards, voice recorder,
video camera, memory sticks, radio, portable TV, a book, magazine,
games console and many other gadgets that haven’t been invented yet.
“Without the rapid obsolescence cycle the enormous environmental
benefit of being able to achieve all this with very little material and
energy compared to making a huge loading on material resources and
energy will not be achieved.”
Recycling versus carbon sinks
East Anglia suffers from a major coastal erosion problem and in some areas, coastal defence is commercially necessary. One conventional approach is to make huge concrete blocks (making and
transporting concrete produces large amounts of CO2) and dump them in
the sea to absorb the wave power. This solution is carbon intensive. Meanwhile landfill sites are filling up fast. Scientists are trying to figure out how to sequestrate carbon into carbon sinks.
Pearson says: “Householders are already encouraged to separate plastic
waste for recycling, and when it reaches the recycling centres, it is
usually compressed into blocks for easier handling.
“If these blocks were dumped in the sea just off the Norfolk coast,
suitably contained, transport and processing would produce far less
CO2, carbon would be locked up, coastal erosion reduced, land
reclaimed, landfill would fill up more slowly and CO2 production
“The plastic would effectively become a plastic reef and later,
reclaimed land. This approach would be carbon negative, while recycling
is at best carbon neutral. One obstacle to this solution is the move
towards biodegradable plastic, which returns carbon to the atmosphere.
“The much levied criticism of conventional plastics, that they will
stay around for thousands of years, actually makes them ideal for a
carbon sink. Bio-degradable plastic, and current laws that prevent
plastics from being dumped in the sea could turn out to be
environmentally damaging, by preventing such solutions.”
A major sticking point is disposal of nuclear waste. Pearson says: “The
argument is raised repeatedly that our descendants will have to cope
with the nuclear waste for 10,000 years or more.
“But that depends entirely on the assumption that technologists will
never be able to develop a means of disposal, whereas it is highly
likely the disposal problem will be solved this century; at worst, we
will have to store the waste for decades, not millennia.”
One approach for waste disposal is to send it into space – to fire it
into the Sun, which is a nuclear reactor itself. Pearson says:
“Although today that would be a dangerous and expensive approach
because of the costs and unreliability of rocket technology, at least
one space elevator will most likely be built within the next few
“A space elevator is a huge cable extending into space, allowing
delivery of people and materials all the way into earth orbit. It is no
longer science fiction. Many engineers are already doing R & D on materials and
techniques, with large financial incentives for each milestone along
the way. Over time (almost certainly this century), with perhaps
several such elevators, and what eventually will become well
established technology, this is likely to become a safe way of getting
stuff into space.
“Plutonium and other high level waste could safely be disposed of, for
ever. There is therefore no real problem with long term storage: We
will certainly have reliable means of safe disposal within 100 years.”
• Ian Pearson is now with Futurizon, a new futures consultancy and the ‘Carbon’ report is available free at www.futurizon.net