Hydrocarbon History 2: London Fog

Posted: April 1, 2021

Energy use is not equivalent to environmental damage! In this episode Tavis talks about the history of London’s notoriously bad air, and how improvements were made using hydrocarbons.

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Audio Transcript:

Hey everybody! Welcome back to Hydrocarbon History. If you missed the pilot episode last week, I definitely recommend you check it out. Basically, I’m trying to break down some historical case studies to see what we might learn from the past. Also, if you are listening to these rather than watching them, you are definitely missing out. Plenty of visuals, and I will definitely be referencing some charts and maps. So, let’s get started shall we? Let’s kick things off with… a cup of tea. Ever heard of a London fog? It consists of earl gray tea, frothed milk, and vanilla syrup, and is quite the tasty concoction. It’s called a “London Fog,” and while definitely whimsical in structure, establishes the topic for this episode. Let me take you on a trip way back to the 1700s. What partially inspired this episode was a pirate history book that I am currently in the middle of. It’s called, “The Republic of Pirates,” and it spent a portion of one chapter talking about the city of London in the Early 1700s. At this point, London had been well established for quite some time, and ownership of property had transferred from the church to the people. Unfortunately, this “Georgian” era of London was riddled with poverty. During times of good grain yield, 10% of the population could not afford to eat. On bad years, that number is closer to 40%. Most well off people assumed those who were poor were poor thanks to their habits such as gambling or drinking. In order to combat that, the poor were pushed into workhouses where they would be assigned menial tasks like winding thread onto a spool. Many of these people were worked to death. Those who lived in their own homes still struggled to afford the simplest things, so children were often out of the question. Babies were very frequently abandoned to churches where they were raised, and when they became old enough to work (roughly 5-7 years old), priests would rent them out for the day to perform work. Most often they were used as chimney sweeps thanks to their small flexible bodies, but this almost always resulted in the development of cancer, or if they were extremely unlucky, a rather young death. Overall, the 18th century was incredibly trying for many many people. Of course, humans find ways to overcome tough situations, and thanks to the industrial revolution, were able to up their output and diversity of goods through the use of machinery by the middle of the 19th century. Around this time, the population was 2 million, and would eventually climb to 6.5 million by the end of the century. London was finally beginning to blossom, but at the cost of the air around the city. Remember last week when we talked about indoor air pollution? Well, scale that up to a smog surrounding a city. Coal became the dominant energy source, and only became more popular in use, especially when coal pricing halved from 1820 to 1850 thanks to the increased rate of mining soft coal. Soft coal covers lignite and peat which are the lowest grade coals found at relatively shallow depths and forming at temperatures around 200 degrees fahrenheit. This was about the only accessible coal back then, and even though it is the worst grade they had no other fuels to use. Even in modern times, communities that farm this soft coal are usually energy starved for any other fuel source. From 1820 to 1900, national coal consumption rose from 22 million tons to 176 million tons. Things are looking grim. But this begs the question… how did it get better? I was in London back in 2015, and the air quality didn’t look too terrible, so something must have changed. It turns out there are 3 potential development factors.

  1. The first: expansion! The very thing that was leading to their concentrated pollution was their ticket to other nearby areas. The use of coal led to the development of machines that could generate significant horse power off of that coal, and steam engines were able to provide better commuting options. What does this mean? People now have the option to move to surrounding suburban areas. Population density decreases, so even if the amount of energy consumed does not change, it was much easier on people’s lungs as the smog concentration decreased. 
  2. The second potential reason includes the introduction of the Public Health Act in 1891. Basically, those who were emitting too much smoke ran the risk of running into significant financial penalties if they didn’t switch to better quality coal. Although it is more expensive to purchase these higher quality fuel sources, it benefits the air quality around them. Sound familiar to today? Natural gas is a much cleaner fuel source than coal, so that is why we can see a modern phasing today. Now hold your horses, I can already feel some of you clicking on the comment section below to say, “You can’t just ignore the transition to renewables!” Well, I tried to be very selective with my word choice. I said, “fuel source” and not just “energy source.” We observe more industrial activity than we did back when London was covered in smog, but we are not powering planes, trains, or heavy industrial machinery with wind or solar power. While I am not ultimately stoked on what appears to be the infancy of a carbon tax, the financial incentive did push people to stop burning this dirty cheap coal, and the environmental and health benefits were observed. 
  3. One of the last potential reasons revolves around something I kind of hinted at, natural gas. Industrial applications relied heavily on coal, but heating and cooking could be just as effective using natural gas. You see, unlike last week’s episode that focused on lots of unventilated wood cooking, London at this point had ventilation, but used this dirty coal to heat their homes and cook with. This shift was incredibly dramatic as only 2 percent of people had gas cookers in 1892, but by 1911 that had exploded to 69 percent. Again, making use of more pure fuels helped decrease the amount of pollution.

All of these factors contributed to the immediate success of the environment and public health. At the peak of worst air quality, 1 in 350 people would die from bronchitis. To put that into perspective, if you filled Denver’s Pepsi center to the brim, 57 people would die. Definitely an interesting fact, but let’s dive deeper into some data, shall we? Here is a historical collection of the air quality for Delhi more recently in the red, and London in the Blue back to 1935. But we started talking about things from the 1700s no? Let’s slide this back… Woah. This is astounding. It peaked at 623 SPM in 1891 which was still over 100 SPM worse than Delhi today. In 2016, London’s air quality was magnitudes better at only 16 SPM. The measurement of SPM is short for suspended particulate matter and is simply a mass of solid particulates in micrograms per cubic metre. 16 SPM would be roughly equivalent to 16 particles of baking soda found in the volume of 1000 nalgenes. That’s pretty damn good if you ask me, especially if you consider that in Q3 of 2019 the UK generated 39% of their energy from fossil fuels. Virtually all of that 39% was generated from natural gas. So what exactly am I trying to highlight in this episode? Well, I’m not saying that we should stop burning coal, that’s for sure. I like to look at energy sources based on 2 criteria. Energy density, and emissions. Energy density is a measure of just how much energy you can get out of a certain volume or mass. Coal, incredibly energy dense. It is a solid rock of hydrocarbon bonds that can generate lots of heat and energy when burned. Renewables don’t measure up to this energy density, and it is even kind of difficult to measure the differences, but you won’t be extracting rare earth minerals with mining equipment that runs off of solar energy stored in batteries. Not quite yet at least. So coal’s strength is clearly lots of energy in a tiny little package. What does that cost? The other criteria I mentioned, emissions. While, say, a wind turbine is not as effective at releasing energy as coal it is certainly much cleaner in terms of emissions. Perhaps not when manufacturing, but purely from an operating perspective. So we’ve got this balance beam of energy sources. Which one is right? That brings me to what I’m trying to highlight in this episode. Energy use is not equivalent to environmental damage. This is a weird myth that we have been conditioned to believe. Everything on my scale of energy has its strengths. Coal was great for industrial machinery in early London, but it made sense to switch to gas stoves for smaller applications like in home heating and cooking. Today, some buildings in London make use of solar energy to supplement some of the power because that is the strength of renewables: supplementing some of the demand that would have come from fossil fuels. Fun fact, there is a building in London called the walkie talkie that could be considered the antithesis of a solar panel as it’s concave exterior once focused all sunlight on a man’s Jaguar melting his mirrors, paneling, and jaguar insignia. London makes use of many different types of energy because all energy has its strengths and weaknesses. After all, even if we can supplement some of our fossil fuel use with renewable energy, it still won’t provide us with a physical substance that we can refine into fuel or products. Again, we have to get away from this idea that energy use leads to environmental damage. In order to further cement that idea, I’m taking you back to another figure. This chart plots air quality versus GDP per capita, and the size of the circles equate to the population. I’ve chosen to look at these two variables because it sticks to the theme of air quality, and GDP per capita is a great way at measuring a country’s developmental success and can be compared pretty closely to energy consumption per capita. Thank you to Our World in Data for having such quality graphs and information. The leading country in terms of energy consumption per capita is Qatar. Here they are in the upper quartile of the air quality index, while still maintaining a very high GDP. Here is the United States with an air quality index rating of 96%! Remember talking about the Dominican Republic in our last episode? They consume a decent amount of energy, and still have an air quality index of almost 100. While energy use is not always equivalent to environmental damage, it can be. Look at China and India for example. Massive and highly industrialized countries that consume lots of energy. Their air quality is rather poor because they don’t have the same environmental protections that the United States had. This is why I will always favor oil and gas produced domestically, rather than overseas. It is far more sustainable to produce. Singapore isn’t too far from China geographically, and look where they sit? Incredible air quality, while maintaining an enviable GDP per capita. Ultimately, energy generation and use is an incredible tool. We just have to be conscious of how we consume it, and what generation sources are used for which applications. Again, we learned that energy use is not equivalent to environmental damage. London found a way to improve air quality while simultaneously making use of hydrocarbons. But that is about all I have for you today. Please don’t take my word on anything I have said! All my resources will be linked below, so please form your own conclusions, and I welcome you to challenge mine. You can contact me at podcast@rarepetro.com to do so, or for any other reason. If you are already through all of the other wonderful content we put out and waiting for more, please look at the useful links page on www.rarepetro.com. It will direct you to some of our favorite sources of data that we use to present all of our findings to you. Who knows, you just might accidentally learn something! Again, this has been Tavis Kilian with another episode of Hydrocarbon History through RARE PETRO, and until we see you next time, take care everybody.

References:

https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/air-quality-index-vs-gdp-per-capita

https://www.bl.uk/georgian-britain/articles/poverty-in-georgian-britain#

https://www.britannica.com/science/lignite

https://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/londons-past-air#:~:text=The%20infamous%20London%20fogs%2C%20known,Clean%20Air%20Act%20of%201956.

https://ourworldindata.org/london-air-pollution

Music: https://www.bensound.com/royalty-free-music

Related Tags: fog | hydrocarbon history | london

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