Forget banks, forget airlines - can we bail out the planet? As the world begins to reopen from lockdown, we're asking whether the present 'reset' is a golden opportunity to tackle climate change. Can we cut emissions, and kill the coronavirus, and rescue the economy all at the same time? Plus, in the news: the whereabouts of the UK government’s long-awaited contact tracing app; the man who can’t see numbers; and the strange star that shouldn’t exist...
In this episode
00:60 - The NHS COVID app: what's gone wrong?
The NHS COVID app: what's gone wrong?
Greig Paul, University of Strathclyde
Here in the UK, pubs and restaurants are preparing to re-open and two households will soon be able to meet inside. But the NHS Test and Trace system - which should secure these steps against causing another outbreak - was supposed to involve a 'contact tracing' app that has failed to materialise. The app was intended to help find people who have been in close contact with strangers carrying the coronavirus. And now politicians seem to have delayed, U-turned, and entered into new discussions with Apple and Google. So what’s going on? Phil Sansom found out from security engineer Greig Paul…
Greig - Since we last spoke, what's happened here is the UK government's sort of made a bit of change in the direction of what they're looking at doing. They had an app, they were testing it on the Isle of Wight, and it started to hit some teething problems around iOS devices recognising each other. And the reason for this was Apple has some technical restrictions on how Bluetooth works on their devices, that they're not able to work around unless they go down Apple's approved route of contact tracing.
Phil - Oh dear. So iOS being the Apple operating system, right? So they couldn't access Apple phone connections?
Greig - That's right. So on an iPhone, for example, there are a number of rules around Bluetooth access that mean that you can't use Bluetooth in the background very easily, and you can't do lots of scanning and announcing that you're there. Which are both things that you really need to do if you're trying to run a contact tracing app.
Phil - How many phones was it missing?
Greig - One of the estimates was that in some situations it was only capturing about 4% of iPhone to iPhone interactions.
Phil - Oh dear!
Greig - Yeah, it wasn't good. Based on how the app worked, I think that's a worst case, it was 4% it was getting. But the problem is you need public confidence in an app like this to work. So in that case I think, yes, that's not good enough.
Phil - So what have they - the government, NHSX, whoever - done now?
Greig - Right now what they're doing is they started off working on a second app in parallel. And what this app is doing is it's using the Apple and Google recommended approach to contact tracing. And the difference here is that Apple and Google, while they've put a number of restrictions that mean that you can't do some of the things that they were doing in the original app to measure distance between devices, what they are doing is making it possible to run in the background. So the government's hoping now to work with Apple on bringing their distance measuring into the approved way of working.
Phil - Can you explain that? Because I know the app doesn't take location data. So how was it getting distance between two phones?
Greig - As you say there's no location data invoved. It's about the signal strength between two phones. Now between different models of phone you get different types and performance of antenna. So if you know, for example, that you've got an iPhone 10, and someone that you're setting next to has got a Google Pixel 4; if you know that, which the UK NHSX approach had, then that will allow you to work out the amount of signal loss you'll see. And therefore you can approximate the distance between the two users much more accurately by taking into account the two antennas involved.
Phil - Is this something that the designers were really keen on, but that they're now having to give up because of this Apple operating system issue?
Greig - It's not clear if they're going to have to give up on it, but for the moment, yes, they have had to stall on this. They were very keen on it; they've recognised that false positives are a big concern. If people are going around every single day getting told they need to self isolate because of COVID, and then the day after they come out they get told again, people are going to start to tire of it and start to ignore it. So as it stands right now, other than Apple choosing to work with them and help them to do that, it won't really be possible for them to do it otherwise.
Phil - But that sounds like that Apple have the government over a barrel, no?
Greig - Effectively yes, actually. France wanted to do a similar type of contact tracing app and they ended up having to meet the same kind of U-turn there, and actually ended up working with Apple and Google. In the UK we've got just over 50% of the population running an iPhone. So Apple's position on this is, "well, we want you to respect user privacy". The challenge for the UK government is: they are an elected government trying to do what people are wanting, which is to be kept safe. And they're up against Apple, and Apple can actually, and is currently, saying, "no, you can't do that. You have to do it the way we want to."
Phil - It's almost like they're kind of making laws, isn't it?
Greig - Well in a sense, yes actually! If you look at some of the restrictions that are being put in place against these apps by Apple, you're not allowed to use it for enforcing quarantine measures...
Phil - Really! Apple say that?
Greig - Yep. You're not allowed to use the contact tracing API for the purpose specifically of enforcing a quarantine measure.
Phil - That's mental.
Greig - We can be charitable here and try and look at it from their perspective, but at the same time, we're in an unprecedented crisis effectively. There is a risk here in that the company is effectively creating de facto law.
Phil - What about Google as well? Why are they involved in this mess?
Greig - If you want a contact tracing system to work, it needs to work across as many phones as possible. In the UK that really means Apple and Android, because you've got Apple for about 50% of the population and Android for about the other 48-49%. And Apple and Google came together and have put together a joint Bluetooth protocol, so that the phones will be able to speak to each other and make things work. Google isn't quite in the same position in that they don't have as many restrictions in place on what an app can and can't do on the device.
Phil - Where do you come down on all this stuff Greig?
Greig - Some of the rules are understandable and make good sense. People should be transparent, privacy is important, and we do need to take good account of that. I don't think it's necessarily going to be the same concern for countries that broadly respect human rights, compared to countries where, for example, they've declared rule by decree. I think we need to recognise that there are different factors in different countries. And clearly Apple's trying to play to a global audience here, because they want to sell their phones to every country. But I think it's going to become increasingly difficult for them and they could even lose some public support over this.
Phil - And what about more short term for the UK is a contact tracing app?
Greig - The press really latched on to the idea of the app potentially being the saviour from lockdown, the way to get normality started again, etc. In terms of this app itself, it is a significant undertaking. They are doing new things. And I think going down Google and Apple's route, there are still questions to be answered around whether it will actually achieve the outcomes we need.
08:16 - The man who can't see numbers
The man who can't see numbers
Teresa Schubert, Harvard University
In Oliver Sacks' 1985 book 'The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat', he documented some of the most unusual cases he’d encountered over his career as a neurologist, including - famously - his patient who couldn’t see faces. Sacks died 5 years ago, but he would have been absolutely fascinated by a report published this week on a man known only as RFS. Owing to a degenerative brain condition, RFS can’t consciously see any of the numbers between 2 and 9! Katie Haylor spoke to Teresa Schubert, who’s been studying the RFS' symptoms and what they can tell us about how consciousness works...
Teresa - RFS has difficulty seeing numbers. So if he looks at the number two or the number eight, instead of seeing that normally the way you or I would, he sees what he describes as "this tangle of black spaghetti". He also can't see anything that's in the same location. If you take a really big eight and you put a face in the centre of it, for you or I, we could see the eight and the small face in the centre; for RFS, that whole thing becomes this mess of scrambled stuff, he can't see that face. We were able to record his brain activity, and we found that his brain is actually detecting that face, even though he can't see it. So that suggests that not everything your brain is detecting actually becomes what you see. You are not necessarily aware of everything that your eyes take in and that your brain is processing. It's a very unique case. I had never heard of anything like this. And if you scour the published scientific literature, there's nothing quite like this that's been reported. And it tells us something really interesting. I think about the way what we see is being constructed by our brain. You don't just open your eyes and then see everything like it's a video recording. There's a lot of work that your brain is doing to process things and to show things to you.
Katie - Just to make sure I've got this right: this gentlemen can see letters normally, but he can't see the numbers two to nine. In fact, he can see zeroes and ones, but not the numbers two to nine. Is that right?
Teresa - That's right. Which is a really, I think, striking and surprising finding; it's very specific. And we do know that your brain has specialised areas for processing categories of things that we have a lot of experience with. There's a specialised brain area for processing faces, for processing letters, and for processing numbers. So it's not out of the realm of possibility that one of those areas could be disrupted in this way.
Katie - Why is the brain discriminating between different numbers?
Teresa - There are a couple of possible reasons for that. Zero and one are very simple shapes, so it may be that because those shapes have another interpretation, they're not necessarily being treated as a digit by his brain and being subject to this disruption. But zero and one also have special status, giving you information about place value: whether something's in the hundreds place or the ones place. And they also have a different role in number words, so the difference between 3 and 13 and 30 is about whether there's a one or a zero and what side it's on. Those are possible reasons why zero and one might be okay, even though the rest of the digits are so disrupted.
Katie - Do you think it's got anything to do with the nature of the image? Say if these numbers were in Roman numerals, or say you had four images rather than the number or the concept four; would that help?
Teresa - Yeah, so his ability to process numbers more generally is completely fine. He was an engineering geologist, so he was the guy who's responsible for making sure that your bridge is going to be strong enough to span the river, or your tower is going to still be standing in 20 years. And this deficit is really specific to the shapes of those digits, so Roman numerals are fine. If you write a number out in words, it's also fine.
Katie - In my head something's just hiding behind a wall or there's some sort of blockade. Do you know what it looks like what's happening?
Teresa - Our best guess is that the numbers are getting detected. And we know that because if they weren't getting detected as numbers at some level, then there would be no reason for only numbers to look weird to him. Everything would look weird. So we know numbers are getting detected as a digit. And then something goes wrong past that in the way that information gets passed on to what he actually becomes aware of, and what he sees in the world. And we don't know specifics about what that thing is that's going wrong. So this is a really clear case of seeing that something has gone wrong, but it's going to require a lot of additional study to see exactly how that next process works.
Katie - How does this study add to what we understand about conscious awareness?
Teresa - I think our study makes a small but important contribution into showing that we have many different steps and layers of processing that allow awareness to be generated. It really complicates the picture of what it means to be conscious and to be aware of something.
Katie - It is only one person's experience though. What can one person's experience tell us of how the brain works in general?
Teresa - There's a long history of using these individual case studies, as we call them, to learn about the way brains work in general. So we assume that before RFS developed this condition he had a normal brain, and what's happened is one part that's constructing this little corner of awareness for him has now been damaged and disrupted. And so by looking at what's gone wrong there, we can kind of work backwards and see like, "okay, here's what's not happening correctly for RFS. That means there's a part of the brain that's doing that for everyone."
15:37 - Psychosis: when brains overrate new information
Psychosis: when brains overrate new information
Joost Haarsma, UCL
New evidence has emerged for the origin of psychosis. This is a mental condition where people lose touch with reality; they hear or see things that aren’t there, and develop irrational delusions. And although many people suffer from it, the underlying mechanism in the brain that causes these experiences isn’t known. But now scientists at the University of Cambridge have discovered that it may be down to how the brain processes new information. Phil Sansom and Chris Smith heard more from author Joost Haarsma...
Joost - Now, what we found in our study is that the brains of people who have recently had a psychosis cannot distinguish reliable from unreliable information to the same extent that healthy people do. And we, furthermore, also found that an important messaging system in the brain, called the dopamine system plays a really important role in distinguishing reliable from non-reliable information. And this latter finding is really crucial. As we know, from previous studies, that the dopamine system tends to be disturbed in psychosis.
Phil - What is this psychosis, exactly? So I can get it clear in my head. What does it lead to?
Joost - Psychosis is a term that doctors use to describe a collection of symptoms. Someone might start to hear voices inside of their head or see things visually that are not actually there. Patients often also start to form very unlikely and improbable beliefs that are often also very distressing. So for example, they might start to think that the secret services are out to get them. So it might induce some state of paranoia. And these symptoms, they are common in a wide range of psychiatric and neurological disorders. It happens in something like schizophrenia, as you mentioned before, but they're also common in Parkinson's disease, they can occur after taking certain drugs. And also it can occur after a prolonged sleep deprivation.
Phil - Now, how were you actually looking at people with psychosis to figure out what might be behind it?
Joost - We invited a group of individuals that recently had an episode of psychosis, and some of these people still struggled with some of the symptoms of it. We invited them over to come and do a few experiments where they needed to learn about new information, where we as experimenters varied whether it was reliable or not. And importantly, when they were doing this task, they were lying in something, what we call an MRI scanner, which is basically a big magnet. Then in combination with radio pulses allow neuroscientists like me to look inside the brain, and study how the brain actually takes to account its reliability
Chris - And Joost, how do you know that dopamine is involved? And what does it actually do?
Joost - In our study, we also had a separate group of people who are healthy, that we then gave a drug that alters how to dopamine system in their brain functions. So this is our route to our evidence. And what we think it actually does in the brain, when we learn about the world, we signal, these signals in the brain, what we call error signals, which basically tell us how wrong we were. And when we think we are wrong, that signal should be stronger. And we think that dopamine scales this signal up. So that signal then has more of an influence on how we change our mind in the future.
Chris - Would the hypothesis be, then, if you take a person and you block up, give drugs that block dopamine in the same way that we give these sorts of drugs to people who have psychosis, if you Rob the brain of that dopamine signal, do they become equally bad at judging the value? Cause they haven't got the dopamine there to judge the value of the misinformation.
Joost - So this is what we've done in our study with the healthy individuals, we gave them a drug that blocks at least certain dopamine receptors, and indeed, what we found in their brain, they're not able to take into account reliability of information anymore. And what we've done in a study as well, we also gave a drug that amplifies the dopamine system. And the evidence was a little bit less clear there. But if we amplify the dopamine system, all information seems to become more important.
Chris - Now people, when we treat them, who have psychosis, and we give them dopamine blocking drugs, these drugs often have horrible side effects. They cause movement disorders and many other manifestations because dopamine is a multipurpose neurotransmitter in the brain, isn't it? Does your research shed any light on how we might be able to be more targeted with our treatments, so we can help people with their psychosis, but not rob them of their other faculties.
Joost - I think that is rather difficult to do. I think it's in the nature of giving people certain drugs, that you tend to have very global effects in the brain. The thing that we looked at in the brain was a specific region in the brain. It's kind of, if you put your hands on your head and put them somewhere in the middle, it's in that part of the brain that we found this effect. But if you take a drug, it's going to have an effect on all other parts of the brain as well.
Chris - So this study adds understanding and corroboration of a theory. But at the moment we can't say that this is going to make the lot of someone who has psychosis any better.
Joost - I wouldn't be that pessimistic. If you are seeing a patient and a couple of months ago, they had a psychotic episode, until recently the only explanation a psychiatrist might say is that perhaps something is going wrong in your dopamine system. And that's why you had the psychosis, but it's not really an explanation. So it at least allows psychiatrists to give them a more full explanation of how it can be that a brain starts to form these beliefs that can be so distressing.
21:35 - Black neutron star confounds astronomers
Black neutron star confounds astronomers
Ben McAllister, University of Western Australia
A strange object that should not exist has been spotted by scientists, using gravitational waves to peer deep into outer space. Previously astrophysicists thought they had it all worked out: at the end of its life and depending upon its size, a star either fades into a remnant called a white dwarf, explodes and then shrinks into a dense neutron star, or collapses into a black hole. But now scientists have spotted a new object that doesn’t fit the mould. From the University of Western Australia, Ben McAllister…
Ben - Stars like our sun spend their lives fusing atoms together under extreme temperatures and pressures to generate light and heat. It’s this process that gives us sunshine and warmth on Earth. Stars are effectively the Universe’s nuclear power plants!
Eventually though, all stars run out of fuel, and then they die.
In the most massive stars, when the nuclear fire goes out, the core of the star collapses violently under its own gravity to form a “black hole”. This is an extreme region of space that is so dense, that its gravity is sufficiently strong to prevent even light from escaping, so it looks black.
But, if the star is a bit less massive, rather than collapsing to form a black hole, instead the protons and electrons are squeezed together to form neutrons, and a neutron star is born.
These are also extreme regions of space, with very strong gravity. They are also super dense: the average neutron star is about the same size of a small city, but just a teaspoonful would weigh as much as a million blue whales.
For decades, maths and physics predicted that black holes and neutron stars should exist; and since the 2015 detection of gravitational waves, we’ve been able to observe them by looking at the gravitational waves produced when they interact.
So far though, our best theories say that neutron stars can’t be heavier than about 2.4 times the mass of our Sun, and black holes haven’t been detected which are lighter than about 5 times the mass of the sun.
The gap between these two values is what astrophysicists call a “mass gap”. It’s a physics no man’s land in which no small, dense objects like neutron stars or black holes have ever been observed, and we aren’t sure if they even exist.
But this week new evidence from the world-leading gravitational wave observatory, LIGO, has got physicists scratching their heads!
A recent set of results suggest that far away in space a black hole 23 times the mass of the sun “swallowed” a lighter object.
When this occurred, the two objects merged to form a bigger black hole. A large amount of energy was simultaneously released as gravitational waves, which travelled through the Universe for 780 million years to reach the Earth.
But when the team at LIGO looked at the data to determine what the smaller object in the collision was, something didn’t add up...
LIGO has previously detected neutron stars colliding, and black holes colliding, and they’ve been eagerly awaiting the first detection of a black hole and a neutron star colliding, to test our theories. So the gobbling up of a much lighter object by a black hole looked promising.
LIGO can look at the data from the collision, and compare the shape of the gravitational wave signals with those predicted from models to determine the mass of the objects involved - kind of like a cosmic weight scale.
In this collision, the smaller object looked too big to be a neutron star, and too small to be a black hole - it seemed to have a mass of 2.6 times that of our sun - placing it firmly within the mass gap.
This makes the smaller object in this collision either the heaviest neutron star ever detected, or the lightest black hole. As Professor Vicky Kalogera, a co-author on the study, put it - “Either way, it breaks a record!”
This is fascinating, since it challenges our current understanding of black holes and neutron stars. If the object turns out to be a heavy neutron star, it will require a tweaking of our physical models to explain how such a thing could have formed. If it turns out to be a light black hole, it will be the lightest black hole ever observed by a large margin, almost as light as the heaviest neutron stars! Either way, this event will change the way we understand these extreme objects, and lead to a deeper understanding of gravity, and the Universe. Who knows, it could even be a completely new kind of dense object altogether!
Maybe we’ll realize there is no mass gap after all, and this is just the latest example of our arrogant human brain’s desire to put messy, complex things into nice, well-defined boxes.
Either way, don’t touch that dial - it’s an exciting time to be listening to the vibrations of the cosmos.
26:37 - What happens if I inhale coronavirus again?
What happens if I inhale coronavirus again?
Welcome to the mailbox - and this week, Chris Smith tackled this question from listener Alice, a hospital worker...
Chris - Alice, as far as we know at the moment, once you’ve had the coronavirus you can’t be reinfected, at least in the short term. So if you inhale a stream of virus particles, the immune memory from your previous encounter will protect you. And if you can’t catch it, you can’t give it to someone else.
But what we don’t know is how long that immune memory will last. What’s got researchers worried is that infections with other members of the coronavirus family - that cause colds in winter but otherwise work very similarly to the covid coronavirus - don’t produce long term immunity.
So, in summary: after you’ve been infected, you’re COVID-safe in the short term, over weeks to months, to yourself and to others. But what happens long term, over months to years, is unknown for now.
[Update added 01.09.20 - A report from Hong Kong has since documented the case of a man reinfected with SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus about 3 months after previous hospitalisation with the virus. His second bout of infection was caused by a genetically distinct strain of the virus, proving reinfection (rather than sustained low-level carriage) had occurred. This suggests that, at least in some people, immunity produced in response to even a severe case of Covid disease, may not be long lived. https://academic.oup.com/cid/advance-article/doi/10.1093/cid/ciaa1275/58...
29:07 - COVID & CO2: emissions going back up
COVID & CO2: emissions going back up
Corinne Le Quéré, University of East Anglia
The pandemic has strong links to the environment. As we’ve previously reported on the show, lockdowns across the globe have led to some unexpected consequences - from oil prices going into the negative, to dolphins in the canals of Venice and goats invading Llandudno. Not to mention the fact that it was an environmental hazard - a coronavirus originating in wild bats (we think) - that started everything off. Phil Sansom spoke to environmental scientist Corinne Le Quéré from the University of East Anglia and from the Global Carbon Project. She’s helped produce a report showing how CO2 emissions have been affected so far...
Corinne - The pandemic had an extremely large effect on carbon emissions. At the peak of the confinement in early April, daily emissions dropped by 17% compared to an average day last year,
Phil - I guess, in some ways I'm a little surprised it's not more, given how many people were off the roads and at home.
Corinne - Actually it is more in the U.K. It was 31% decrease, and about the same in the U.S. and the countries that were under severe lock down, but not all the countries were locked down at the same time. So because of the timing of the lock down, the global emissions are down 17% while country by country is a lot more.
Phil - That must be pretty good for preventing global warming, right?
Corinne - These are not the kind of emissions that we need for tackling climate change. These are not desirable, obviously, because locking up people is not the way to tackle climate change, but they're also not structural. We have the same cars, the same roads, the same heating system, the same industry. So as soon as the lock down eases, then we go back to our previous way of life, and the emissions will rebound possibly even higher than they were before. And we already see emissions coming back up. There are about now, about 5% below their level last year.
Phil - Man, we really are going right back to our old emitting ways.
Corinne - We are, but this is really not surprising. This is what happened at the end of the last global financial crisis of 2008, 2009. Because the economic stimulus packages did not pay enough attention to green stimulus. And so it's what happens now, how we go back to work, transport in particular is very important in the bit longer time, the more structural changes to be put in place.
Phil - How much scope for that is there? Because obviously there's this huge emergency of a pandemic. And there's the second huge emergency of global recession.
Corinne - There's huge scope to act now, because the governments are about to put incredible sums of money into the economy. If you can orient these sums of money, first to help you do the things that create jobs, but also develop the infrastructure that you need to tackle climate change, then you have a win-win position and there's lots of them. And in fact, this is what happened at the end of the last financial crisis. So some countries like Germany, the U.S. and China invested massively in renewable energy. So they invested in wind and solar power, with the result that today these energies are competitive and they're very broadly expanded around the world. And the same thing could happen now to the car industry.
Phil - What kind of deadline are we working to here?
Corinne - If the pandemic is essentially over then the emissions this year would drop by 4%. And if some confinement measures stay in place until the end of the year, then the drop would be more around 7%. So 4 to 7%, and these kinds of decreases, this is what we need to do year on year. I mean, tackling climate change is not something that you do on the side. It's something that you have to bring in the middle of the centre of the government. It has to be directed by the prime minister. It has to be part of each decision. There have to be strategies across the economy.
33:26 - A green recovery for the UK?
A green recovery for the UK?
Chris Stark, Committee on Climate Change
When it comes to tackling climate change, the pandemic can offer a kick out of complacency. Here in the UK, a group called the Committee on Climate Change has just reported to the government on how to organise a green economic recovery. Chief Executive of the CCC Chris Stark told Chris Smith what they're suggesting...
Chris Stark - Well, there's a window now to engineer the kind of recovery that might actually accelerate us towards the climate goals that parliament has set; and I very much agree with Corinne's earlier points. And so this is about supporting the economy. It's about creating jobs. That means we need things that can start in the next year to two years, we need to get the money cycling in the UK economy, and it's jobs, jobs, jobs - this is labor intensive stuff, things that can really boost employment. That's pretty standard advice. What's interesting, I suppose, about this moment is that we've also had an experience in the lockdown that gives us some sense of how society could change in the future. So there's a set of things that we might want to hold onto in particular, how we've worked and travelled over this lockdown period, that may actually help the climate goals. So what we said in our report this week to the government was that firstly, there are a set of infrastructure investments, which are the kind of classic stimulus: housing retrofits, investing in green spaces and nature, energy infrastructure investment. Things like flood defences, which we know we need because of climate change. Secondly, policies that actually support people to make those changes in lifestyle and in society, and that's about re-skilling and jobs, how we've been working, remote working especially, supporting that. And also the infrastructure that we need to walk and to cycle more. And lastly, there's a set of policies that we've recommended that will drive a faster pace of transition to lower emissions in the future. Those are things like the strings that the government might want to attach to any support they offer to business, especially high carbon businesses, things like airlines. And secondly, the chancellor I'm sure will be thinking about what he's going to do with the tax system. So they can have tax incentives that the chancellor might want to give to push us towards low carbon.
Chris Smith - What sorts of gains will this buy us? If the government takes your advice and these sorts of things that you're mapping out are implemented, where will this put us towards our goal of being net zero in 2050 and hitting what we've signed up to as our obligations to the Paris climate change agreement we've got to get our emissions down?
Chris Stark - So this can really move us on actually, I mean, we are the statutory body that gives advice to parliament every year on progress. And the report we published this week was not only recommending these policies, but also talking about the progress we've seen in the last 12 months. And it has not been in the right place. We've seen some things move on, but not nearly at the kind of pace that we'd need to be on track to the goals that parliament set last year.
Chris Smith - And why is that Chris? So if you've got these great ideas and you've written this report and this analysis, and you said to the government "you've now got the opportunity to do this", why are we so far behind on this? If we think we actually would get a better lifestyle out of this for implementing many of the things that you're proposing?
Chris Stark - Well, I think there's kind of several things going on. One is that we've had an unexpected election in the middle of last year which interrupted... I think there was some momentum towards a stronger set of policies but I would say that even still the policies were not in the right place. We've had a pandemic that hasn't helped clearly in the policy process, but I think there's also a kind of failure of genuinely kind of imagining how good this future could be. So I think this is the kind of interesting thing for me is that we come off the back of that election at the start of the year into a new parliament when all the main parties stood on a, kind of on a manifesto of doing something about this climate objective. And now I think we do need to start imagining how the future can happen and imagine how quickly, how much more quickly we can move to that kind of outcome through the recovery and the kind of things we've been suggesting would move us on substantively onto the kind of course that we'd need to be on to be on track for net zero emissions.
Chris Smith - But going back to my point, why is there this inertia? Because many of the things you've outlined are actually ingredients for what could be a healthier, happier lifestyle, a better environment, and many people - a report this week suggested half of people questioned said they'd actually quite enjoyed the lockdown or were enjoying some of the changes that they'd seen in their immediate environment because of the lockdown. Less noise, less pollution, less stress, less rush hour. We seem to think they're the ingredients of a green recovery. So why haven't we done this before?
Chris Stark - Well I mean, crucially, you need to ask the politicians that question, but I have a sense of why, why it might not be.
Chris Smith - But you must challenge them Chris, you must be saying to the politicians, here are my recommendations, what do they say to you?
Chris Stark - Of course. I mean, the key thing is that the scale of this is enormous. So I said the investments that are required really do challenge the government. And I think the other thing to say is that it's not often that we have the discussion we need to have about how lifestyles will change alongside this. My own view is that we don't need to be scared of any of that, but of course, for the government, they are more cautious. So I think the key thing that the role that we play is to point out that these are investments that must be taken. We have signed up to these targets. Parliament has mandated that, that we should achieve that target. This is a moment to really make those kind of investments. And actually you can make much more progress over the next 12 months than the last.
Chris Smith - Do you think that actually, because we're in a situation where we're spending money hand over fist, we think that this pandemic is costing the economy of just a country, the UK, a third of a trillion this year, that because they're spending so much money, actually now's the time to spend a bit more, do some of this stuff because actually doing some of this stuff that would have been a previous enormous cost can now actually be part of the ingredients for recovery?
Chris Stark - Well, absolutely. I mean, I think there was never actually an enormous cost to this. It can easily fit into the kind of investments we make each year. And now when we've got so much spare capacity in the economy and the government is needing to get the economy going, it's such an important thing to apply that green lens to the kind of investments that we'll be considering anyway, and really make a difference, not just on getting the economy going, but also getting us on the way to our climate goals in the UK. If we don't do that, it's going to be much, much harder in the future to reverse from it.
40:01 - How to reach zero carbon
How to reach zero carbon
Kimberly Nicholas, Lund University
One country that’s ahead of most in the fight against climate change is Sweden. Sweden now has an energy grid that emits almost no carbon. Kimberly Nicholas is a sustainability expert at Lund University in Sweden - she’s currently helping the city of Lund reduce its emissions to zero. I asked her whether Sweden might have any lessons for us…
Kimberly - There is actually almost no country on earth that is on track to limit warming within the range that the Paris agreement specifies and even these climate goals are not sufficient. And certainly the policies that are being put in place at the moment are nowhere near fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Phil - Oh dear. If the targets aren't good enough, what do they need to be?
Kimberly - What's necessary as I said is to get all the way to zero, which is a really a round and unforgiving number.
Phil - That's zero carbon dioxide?
Kimberly - Exactly. So humans need to completely stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The reason for that is because it lasts essentially forever. So there's some carbon now in the atmosphere that's been there longer than Stonehenge, for example, or longer than the pyramids have been around. We really are setting the thermostat for essentially the future of civilisation. And we need to do about half of the work in less than 10 years. So we've got a big job ahead of us if we want a relatively safe and a stable climate. Sweden is further ahead in terms of having a clean energy source. Now we're faced with how to eliminate emissions from transport and from land use.
Phil - How do you deal with them? Because people obviously still need to go about their life, go to places, use land for various agriculture, whatever.
Kimberly - The first step is stepping back and having a pretty big rethink of what we're aiming for here. And we know that business as usual is headed for catastrophic climate change. Transport, I think a big part of it is reducing the need for mobility, making it safe and attractive to walk and cycle instead of drive. Services available where people live - kind of relocalising neighbourhoods, and digital substitutions for what would otherwise have been a really long work trip for a short meeting. We need to move to fossil free cars, so we need cars that are inherently clean that don't pollute by driving but we also will need to actually reduce the total miles driven. So there's a lot of discussion around that of why are people driving, for what purposes? It ends up being things that you would probably never think of as climate related.
Phil - Obviously here in the UK we're not quite there. I mean, we've gone off coal as of a couple of months ago.
Kimberly - That's great. Congrats. Let's celebrate that. We need to celebrate the climate victories when they do happen, because that's huge.
Phil - What do we do now though?
Kimberly - Yeah. Now you've got to decarbonise everything else! And you also need probably even more clean electricity because we need to run a lot of things that today are not run on electricity, like cars for example, most of them are running on a fossil fuel. So we need not just 100% clean electricity, but more like 200% clean electricity, because that will be our major fuel source in the future.
Phil - How do you actually do that?
Kimberly - You shut down a lot of dirty infrastructure, unfortunately ahead of its planned lifetime. We need then politics that will help deal with those losses. Make sure that the workers get a fair transition to clean energy jobs, and there's a lot of demand for that. There are a lot more jobs in clean energy actually than today's dirty energy system. And the workers themselves would prefer in many cases to organise for just this kind of transition.
Phil - How much then is sort of my job, and how much is Boris Johnson's job?
Kimberly - One piece of research that my colleague Jonas Sonnanschein did, that was really fascinating, had to do exactly with this. So in a survey, he asked people who's responsible for the emissions from aviation: is it the industry themselves, the manufacturers of the plane or the industries that run them, the consumer who buys the ticket? And basically no one took responsibility for the emissions. So I think it was, you know, the industry said, well, it's the government's responsibility. The government said, it's the private citizens we can't tell them what to do. The citizens said, well, I wouldn't fly if industry didn't make it so darn cheap. So basically you have this perfect circle of everybody pointing the finger the other way. And I think if we are actually going to stabilise the climate, what is necessary is that people take responsibility for the things that they can control.
44:40 - Economics, climate, and COVID: what works?
Economics, climate, and COVID: what works?
Hector Pollitt, Cambridge Econometrics
What ideas for a green recovery might be effective, and what are less promising? Hector Pollitt is head of modelling at Cambridge Econometrics, and has been figuring out the economic and climate impact of some of these policies. He spoke to Chris Smith...
Hector - Yes, we've considered two different scenarios. The first of which was a reduction in VAT, very similar to what's happened after the 2008/2009 financial crisis. Now, as we heard from Corinne Le Quéré, that didn't really lead to any environmental improvements along the way. So our thinking was, can we do a bit better? And on that basis, we designed a more green scenario that's designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions at the same time, while still promoting employment growth.
Chris - So the whole point about slashing VAT is that that makes us put our hands in our pockets and we're more likely to go and spend money. Therefore, you inject your resources into other sectors of the economy. That gets the economic engine running. How does the environment factor in this though? What can you do to both get the economy going, but also be sympathetic to environment?
Hector - VAT rate reductions depend on households, consumers, spending more money exactly, as you said. But the government can also spend money directly and inject into the economy that way. And that can create additional demand and jobs. The really interesting thing we found from our analysis was that in fact, the economic effects can be better in the green scenario than just from the VAT reductions.
Chris - Oh, right. So as well as stimulating the economy with a VAT reduction, you put some of the resources - rather than just spend money cutting VAT - you spend some money on green initiatives and you end up with both a benefit to the environment and some of these things that we were hearing from Chris and from Corrine, that that will be good, as well as a stimulated economy.
Hector - Exactly. Yeah. These measures can be very powerful, both economically and environmentally. The sorts of policies that we're talking about here, there's nothing particularly new: wind and solar power, support for energy efficiency, car scrappage scheme which we tried after 2008/2009. But this time around to promote the use of electric vehicles. And some very simple things like planting trees that can create local employment. There are lots of potential benefits here. If we can get the message to the politicians.
Chris - And how much benefit are your proposals going to return?
Hector - It's about 10% of total UK CO2 emissions over a three year period. And that's on top of anything caused by COVID-19 itself.
Chris - To what extent is this a societal problem though? Because to quote Kevin Anderson, professor of climate change, he points out in a recent article in The Guardian that the wealthiest 10% both in the UK and globally account for 50% of the world's emissions. And so he's saying, if you could just bring the top line down to what the average EU citizen emits, you'd end up in a position where actually we would gain a 30% drop in our CO2 output literally overnight.
Hector - Yes! Literally overnight might be making it sound a bit easier than it would be! I fully agree that this is a societal problem, and we have to address it as a society. And the question of how to make that come around, I think, is a really difficult one for our leaders.
Chris - Hector, thank you. That's Hector. Pollitt from Cambridge Econometrics. I mentioned the work earlier of Kevin Anderson, the climate change scientist. This is a good time to bring back in Chris Stark from the committee on climate change. Now, Chris, in a recent article in The Guardian climate scientist Kevin Anderson, whom I mentioned earlier has been quoted as saying that what we're using Chris as our reference frame for where we need to be in 2050, we're already way over the mark and emitting far more than our fair share. And maybe you need to rethink your figures.
Chris Stark - Yes. I'm a great respecter of Kevin's work actually, although we have a fundamentally different outlook on the challenge. Last year, we offered in a major report we published our advice to the government to say that we felt that it was necessary to get to net zero and that it was possible to do that by 2050. And that 2050 was the appropriate date for the UK in terms of its Paris commitments. Kevin takes a different view and I fully respect it, but it's based ultimately on his view of what an equitable share of the remaining carbon budget across the world would look like. Our view is different only in the sense that we see a global need for every country to get to net zero. And by going at maximum possible ambition here in the UK, we think it's possible to get there by 2050 at the latest, and for that to be entirely compatible with the Paris agreement, the goals that were set in Paris in 2015.
49:44 - How to bail out the planet
How to bail out the planet
Scientists are saying we need to stop emitting greenhouse gases, full stop. So bailing out the planet means avoiding bailing out fossil fuel companies so that they can keep running. But that’s a huge leap into the unknown, and if done poorly, puts a lot of people out of work at a dangerous time. So can it be done right? Phil Sansom spoke to journalist George Monbiot, who certainly thinks so…
George - Governments are spending a great deal of money keeping companies afloat. And I think that money should primarily be directed to keeping the earth's living systems afloat. And so when it comes to bailing out the oil industry, which governments have over a barrel - or over several hundred million barrels of unsold stock - or bailing out the airlines, if they're going to do so, it should be as part of a programme to re-purpose those industries into businesses which are compatible with a habitable planet.
Phil - So you're saying rather than, for example, what we've seen with Air France, where the French government said, "okay, we'll bail you out on the condition that you cut this amount of flights", you're saying "no, bail them out for the purpose of getting rid of them"?
George - Yes. I mean, either do what so many of these governments say they keep wanting to do, which is to leave things to the market. I mean, they never really do want to do that, but that's what they say, which would be the harsh way, or say "right, here is the only circumstance in which we're going to bail you out, that you are not going to be an airline company or an oil company, by the time this process has ended. You're going to be a completely different company". In either case, the emphasis should be on helping the workers rather than just pouring money into the company. I mean, we've seen lots of big companies around the world receiving huge government bailouts and then promptly burning a load of that money on dividends and share buybacks, channeling that money straight out of government coffers and into the hands of their big shareholders, which seems completely wrong.
Phil - We mentioned oil companies and airlines so far - are those the companies that are the priorities?
George - Well, the crucial task is to leave fossil fuels in the ground. We all get urged to change our light bulbs and improve our insulation. And that's all good. But actually the overriding aim must be to stop extracting fossil fuels because if they are extracted, they will be burned. So you have to deal with both the production side of it and the consumption side at the same time. And so far really we've only been dealing with the consumption side. And that means a deliberate government programme for changing your sources of energy. But that has to be a deliberate crash programme by the government, if we're going to pull out of what is increasingly looking like a death spiral. So the idea of just bailing out the oil industry, and saying "carry on as you were before", is completely incompatible with protecting the future of humanity.
Phil - But how, practically, do you do that to something like an oil company without however many thousands of people losing their jobs?
George - That's why the government has to intervene. If you just said, "right, that's it chaps, shut up shop, that's the end of your industry," hen thousands of people would lose their jobs. But if you said, "right, no, you're going to come out as a completely different industry and we're going to assist that process. So instead of building platforms for oil rigs, you'll be building platforms for wind turbines. Instead of building pipelines, you'll be building high voltage DC interconnectors to bring the electricity ashore." And in fact, there's loads of potential jobs there, if governments get behind that programme. Similarly, there's a potentially huge possibility for employing people in insulating everybody's houses properly. And that is actually quite low cost, high employment; as opposed to some of the bailouts, which are for high capital, low employment companies. So if you do it rationally, and you do it in a deliberate and considered way, you can actually employ far more people than are being employed at the moment while making the green transition.
54:50 - QotW: how alike are the kids of identical twins?
QotW: how alike are the kids of identical twins?
This week Eva Higginbotham has been looking for the answer to this question from Sam...
Eva - It was a love story like no other! In 2017, identical twins Briana and Brittany Deane met identical twins Joshua and Jeremy Salyers and fell in, as they put it, ‘double love at first sight’. The potential for awkward mix-ups aside, the double-couples are now married, and planning to get pregnant at the same time and raise their children under one roof. But, will their children be like twins? I put the question to Tessa Bertozzi, a geneticist at the University of Cambridge.
Tessa - No, the children won’t be like twins, but this is still an interesting question from a genetics point of view. Even though their family tree makes them cousins, they will be just as related as siblings. Think of it like this: identical twins have the exact same DNA, so two sets of identical twins each having a child is equivalent to a single couple having two children. In both cases you end up with two children who share approximately 50% of their DNA.
Eva - So you share about half your DNA with each of your brothers or sisters, but how does that come about? Our DNA is organised into structures called chromosomes, and most people have 23 pairs. We inherit half of them from our biological father and half from our biological mother. And this is where it gets interesting.
Tessa - The set of 23 chromosomes that each parent passes on is different every time thanks to the biological process that produces eggs and sperm, known as meiosis. There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, the pairs of chromosomes, one from your mother and one from your father, find each other in the cell and, amazingly, swap portions of their DNA. We call this crossing over. This means, for example, that mom’s chromosome 5 now has bits of dad’s chromosome 5 too.
Eva - So when your cells are making eggs or sperm, some of the DNA you got from Dad gets mixed up with some of the DNA you got from Mum. And then...
Tessa - After crossing over, the chromosome pairs all line up in the middle of the cell. When the time comes to divide, they split up randomly - so an egg cell might get chromosome 5 from mom and chromosome 6 from dad, instead of receiving all of mom’s or all of dad’s chromosomes. This means that every sperm or egg produced by a single person has a completely unique combination of genes. In other words, the half of our DNA that we get from each parent will be a different half than the one our siblings inherit, but since both siblings receive DNA from the same genetic pool, on average 50% of their DNA is overlapping.
Eva - So there you have it - the Salyers twins kids will be taking genes from the same gene pool, but won’t end up with ALL of the same genes and so won’t be identical. At least, until we can get cloning off the ground! Next week we’ll be answering this question from Neerav...
Neerav - I have a question as to how coffee granules dissolve so well compared to soup-in-a-pack, for example. The difference is amazing, coffee dissolves with minimal or no stirring!