Climate Change and the River Thames

© Colin Cafferty 2013

Dr Becky Briant, climate change programme director at Birkbeck, University of London


Lifeblood of London

London is defined by its relationship to the physical landscape although it can sometimes be hard to see the wood for the trees in this urban jungle. Tower Bridge, the Houses of Parliament, the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf – none of these would form an iconic backdrop to the city without the mighty Thames flowing timelessly by. And so it was entirely fitting that Dr. Becky Briant, Programme Director for the MSc degree course in Climate Change Management at Birkbeck, decided to devote an entire lecture on the challenges to the future of the river and her citizens under climate change.

Effects of climate change on the river

“We are living in what some analysts describe as a carbon military industrial complex”, she says rather ominously. Dr. Briant makes liberal use of graphs to support her case including various emissions scenarios that model the predicted outcome in terms of changes to weather patterns. “The evidence is pretty strong that we are causing the changes we’re seeing”. We’re currently on track for a 4°C rise in global temperatures by the end of the century. “There’s a certain amount of climate change that’s going to happen no matter what we do”, Dr. Briant adds.

So what lies in store for us? We can expect wetter winters where peak flow in the river could increase by 40% by 2080. Between 3-24 billion litres of freshwater already flows over Teddington Weir, the upper limit of the tidal Thames. London is particularly vulnerable to flooding due to impermeable surfaces, whether that be concrete or the clay-rich impermeable soil beneath our feet. We can also expect drier summers and more intense rainfall events, which will in turn affect water quality in the river. And then there is the whole issue of surface water on our many paved streets that the Drain London Forum is seeking to address in a sustainable way.

So what does the future hold in store for the Thames?

London is fortunate to have a vital piece of infrastructure in place that can protect the city from tidal flooding, the Thames Barrier. The lifetime of this key flood defence is predicted to expire in the 2070’s due to sea-level rise at which point a new barrier further downstream at Long Reach (or Tilbury) has been proposed. But already the barrier is having to be closed more frequently due to tidal surges. Lest we forget, 307 people died in the UK due to the floods in 1953, which prompted the construction of the barrier in the first place.

Professor Gerald Roberts, Head of the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, remarked at the lecture’s end that he was “particularly struck by the image of London with so many rivers running through it”.  So next time, you’re out and about, keep an eye open for all those small creeks, tributaries and hidden rivers that feed the mighty Thames and remember that they could yet rise up in response to climate change. And so hopefully will we, the citizens of this great city, to take action before the cost is too great.

Useful links –

UK Climate Projections from DEFRA

Thames Estuary 2100 Plan

London Draft Climate Change Adaptation Strategy

The Burning Question: Can Obama deliver on climate change?

Where were you when Obama finally announced ambitious plans to tackle climate change yesterday, some five years after promising to do so as a presidential candidate? I found myself sitting in the offices of the Hub; a pioneering shared work and event space in Islington, North London, listening to Duncan Clark co-author of “The Burning Question”. Clarke eloquently argued, with the support of copious graphs, that “energy begets energy” and that it is only by addressing the fundamental issue of how do we leave carbon locked in the ground that we can succeed in addressing climate change. “We need to take on fossil fuels directly”, he says. Meanwhile in Georgetown University, President Obama is making a speech that many Republicans interpreted as a “war on coal”.

Perhaps the headline policy announced by the US President was the intention to empower the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to control carbon emissions from existing coal and gas power plants. These generating stations account for a third of all US greenhouse gas emissions. “Power plants can still dump limitless carbon pollution into the air for free,” he said. “That’s not right, that’s not safe and it needs to stop.” But it will be 2015 before these targets are even set and by that time the Republicans could be back in power leaving the policy to go up in smoke. No doubt that legal challenges will follow and as the clock ticks, Obama’s exhortation that “we don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society”, will become a time bomb with a rather short fuse. Any progress that Obama might make in office has already been undermined by a Republican vow to unwind any policies waged in the “war on coal”. A flawed political, electoral and judiciary system that expends vast amounts of energy pushing the machinery of progress in one direction and then the other, reflects the state of the global energy market and broader world economy all too well.

Con Ed power plant in Queens, New York City © 2012 Colin Cafferty

Power plant on the East River in New York City

The other big story was Obama’s announcement that he would approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline (from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to the refineries on the Gulf of Mexico) only if it “does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem.” But who’s definition of harm are we going by? The State Department has indicated that a pipeline is more environmentally friendly than transporting the crude oil by rail. And so the debate appears to be glossing over the fundamental question that is glaring us all (rather too warmly) in the face. Should the US facilitate the development of an energy source that unquestionably carries a higher carbon footprint than even conventional fossil fuels? This reframing of the debate on Keystone is an affront to our collective intelligence and must surely infuriate large swathes of American and Canadian folk alike.

Back in North London, Clark is talking about the pressing need to take on the fossil fuel industry. “The Burning Question” author sensibly advocates engaging the industry in the quest to address climate change. “What will it take to leave billions of dollars of fossil fuels in the ground?” he challenges. Do we realistically think we can persuade mining and energy companies to write off their fossil fuel reserves or for investors in the global markets to write down the value of their assets? One approach he advocates would be the development of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), a hitherto underfunded technology that would allow us to pump the CO2 from power plants into underground reservoirs where it can no longer warm the atmosphere. “Without CCS, the political will to leave fossil fuels in the ground will be that much harder” he points out soberly. Using all the tools at our disposal and converting the naysayers into “aye-sayers” are all sensible approaches but take a look at the position Obama now finds himself in. There is no stick long enough, no carrot sweet enough for a thick-skinned elephant and a stubborn donkey. He may be bypassing Congress now but just how far can he go with this approach?

So much of the wider political debate in the US is fuelled by fear – terrorism, gun control, loss of freedom and privacy. The US President’s proposals to build resilience towards climate change through strengthening of flood defences and soft infrastructure is the one policy announced yesterday that is most likely to succeed. And it is driven by fear. But most other proposed actions on climate change fuel fear in exactly the opposite way. The perceived attack on the fossil fuel industry and the angst over loss of jobs and quality of life in the US (even if unsubstantiated) needs greater reassurance from the left. A stronger business case needs to be made that can appease the concerns of those who stand to lose most from climate change legislation. Let’s hope that action on climate change will succeed because people believe it is the right thing to do rather than out of fear of averting another natural disaster such as the droughts in the American Midwest or hurricanes along the East coast.

Obama’s speech demonstrated that he definitely ‘gets’ climate change. He understands the moral obligation and he recognizes the sense of urgency. “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” he told the audience at Georgetown University. Actions and not words are what we need and it’s a telling sign when a person of such influence on the world stage cannot make a significant dint on an issue that he directly connects with the very future of his own children. But for now, there is still hope; as long as the debate is kept alive and the belief that the next generation deserves better than what we are currently prepared to offer them.

The Challenges Facing Community Wind in the UK

Community ownership of renewable energy is still an alien concept to most people in the UK. Media reports are invariably negative whenever the two words ‘community’ and ‘wind’ appear in the same sentence. And yet, there are a small number of individuals who are determined to show that it doesn’t need to be this way. Jack Heslop*, site manager of Baywind Energy Cooperative, is one such individual. Baywind was established by a group of concerned locals in Cumbria, Northwest England back in 1996. I spoke with Mr. Heslop in his car as we sought shelter on the windswept Harlock Hill, one of two sites owned by Baywind. “There are 1,300 people invested in this scheme. Empty field, wind turbines, 15-17 year ago, people thought we were crazy. Wind turbines, what’s all that about? But these people put their money into it because they believed…because they knew climate change was coming. Even then”. The concept has since expanded under the umbrella of Energy4All, a not-for-profit social enterprise created by Baywind in 2002, which now represents seven renewable energy coops throughout the UK from its nearby base in Barrow-on-Furness. Even if you aren’t passionate about saving the planet, it still makes sense to invest in community energy. Baywind’s model has proven that it can make a steady return over the years – around 10% for the last financial year alone. “That’s because we’ve got a good wind farm manager, you see, that keeps the wind turbines going”, he says laughing to himself.

Site manager at Harlock Hill community wind farm

Site manager at Harlock Hill community wind farm


Baywind are currently in the process of repowering their site at Harlock Hill replacing the five wind turbines with a similar number of larger, more efficient models. This will quadruple the maximum output to 11.5 MW, enough to power 6,400 households. But they are facing hurdles every step of the way. “This site falls between two authorities. One half is South Lakelands and the other half is Barrow. We were turned down by South Lakeland because of the visual [impact]”. When I met with Mr. Heslop in May 2013, Barrow Council had yet to vote but they have since approved the application. This paves the way for Baywind’s partner, Infinergy, to appeal the planning decision of South Lakeland Council. “If this wind farm goes ahead there’ll be £35,000 going in to the local community to do what they like with it. We’ll have nothing to do with the way it’s given out”. He later adds, “Personally I’d rather see the money go into a fuel poverty fund to help people pay their bills”.

Fuel poverty is indeed a very real issue in these harsh economic times but too often the blame is laid at the door of the wind industry. “I do believe that all energy gets subsidized, doesn’t it?” he questions hesitantly. “Over the years, no one worried about where their electricity came from. They don’t see it. But all of a sudden…I need to have a windfarm next to me or a generating station of any sort next to me. It makes them think”. This attitude towards energy is strikingly similar to many people’s outlook towards food, and in particular, meat. Consumers want to be able to pick up a freshly cut steak in a local supermarket and not worry about where it came from, if the animals were reared in a humane way. They put all of their misplaced trust in the retailer and the supply chain, until the next scandal comes along, that is.

One of the most unexpected impressions that struck me during my visit to Cumbria is just what a hilly landscape it is. Sometimes I found that I simply couldn’t find the wind turbine (or the access road) that I had caught a glimpse of earlier, especially when I really wanted to find it. You’ve heard of the elusive storm chasers in the US? Well, welcome to the unlikely world of the wind chaser. So what about concerns over the visual impact on landscape in Cumbria? “You’ve got to protect the landscape, but come on, what’s natural around here?” he says inquiringly. “It’s all evolved over the years. It’s not natural. It’s been mined [referring to the nearby slate quarry], there used to be a forest on it. Everything changes. This is a working landscape. Telephone towers over there, two of them either side of us”, pointing through the car window.

Recent proposals by the UK government to give local councils greater powers to reject wind developments in their jurisdictions whilst also requiring greater contributions to community benefit funds will not empower a fair representation of local communities. No doubt, local communities need to see more direct benefits from wind, and any other infrastructure developments (road, rail, power stations) for that matter. But some perceive the community fund to be a bribe and it rarely appeases the vocal minority who are fearful (whether justified or not) of local house prices being negatively impacted. Up to 20% of Denmark’s energy needs are currently met by wind, of which 80% is met by 2,100 community-owned wind farms. These are communities that have a real stake and a long-term return through the shared ownership of wind farms in their locality.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. “One of the nicest things I do on this wind farm… we’ve had every school in the area come here”, he announces proudly. “We’ve had planners, we’ve had bankers, we’ve had coach-loads from Japan, Italy and Australia. They’ve all come here because it’s a community owned wind farm and I’ve never had one person that didn’t like it”. So what about the future for community-owned energy? “I think it’s always going to be challenging. It’s just that risk money…if you don’t get your planning, you lose your money”, he replied shaking his head. If it’s already taken two or three years since first applying to replace five community-owned turbines that have already stood in a field for 15 years, what hope is there for any new developments?

This article is part of a series exploring wind power in the landscape. Tilting at windmills is an ongoing photo project that has so far travelled to East Anglia and Cumbria in England. Colin Cafferty is a documentary photographer based in London who focuses on energy, sustainability and environmental issues.

Useful links –

*All views expressed by Mr. Heslop in this article are his own and do not represent the official stance of Baywind Energy Cooperative or Energy4All in any way.