Cut Noise

The awful fear noise may lose out to climate


There is a pervasive fear amongst noise campaigners that they are losing out to climate activists.  Of course there are areas where their interests coincide – less car traffic on the roads; a move to rail for short distance flights – but there seems to be an increasing number of areas where there is divergence.

It probably started with wind farms. In their enthusiasm to back renewable energy many, almost certainly a majority, of climate campaigners ignored or dismissed the increasingly desperate calls from many residents of the very real noise problems they could and were causing.

It has emerged again with heat pumps. Another blog on this site spells out the problem in detail. In essence, the UK Government has said that fossil fuel heating systems – oil and gas boilers – will be outlawed in new homes from 2025. Their main replacement is likely to be heat pumps. These are like air conditioners which pump out heat. And most of them are situated outside. There could be significant noise problems, particularly with those which are on walls (there's less of a concern when the coil is in the ground), especially around tonal and low-frequency noise.  And people on lowest incomes living in multi-occupancy properties and flats are likely to be worst hit. There is an awful sense of the Government bending over backwards to satisfy climate concerns at the expense of the least well-off in society.

There are also conflicts coming to the fore in aviation. The big one is around the question of research and development into new aircraft. Should noise or climate be prioritized? Ideally, the choice should not have to be made but, in reality, it might need to be. The way forward may be to put a lot of resources into the development of sustainable fuels but, beyond that, the priority should be noise.

Already there is simmering disagreement over whether any future tax on aviation should be based on the number of flights a person takes or the distance travelled.  A compromise might be achievable but noise and climate campaigners want very different things: for communities under flight paths the number of planes using the airport is all-important; for them, the distance travelled – and therefore the carbon footprint – is a secondary issue.

Currently, because the climate movement has made such great strides, a lot of community airport campaigners are willing to jump on the bandwagon in the belief that their best hope of getting fewer flights is through governments introducing climate legislation. It is a high risk strategy because governments may choose to reduce emissions at the expense of noise.

There is a wider gulf between noise campaigners and a growing number of climate activists. The anti-capitalist slogan ‘climate change not system change’ of some climate activists leaves most noise campaigners cold. They buy into capitalism. Indeed, some of them are ‘captains of industry’.   Some noise sufferers are climate sceptics. Most, like the general population as a whole, want something done about it but not at the expense of everything else. Only a few really buy into the radical message of the climate outriders though some might feel it suits them tactically to go along with it.

How capable are  many of the ardent climate campaigners are of compromise; of accepting less climate-friendly solutions in order to cut noise? Some certainly are but, unless the climate movement as a whole modifies some of its stances, such as on wind farms, the most it can expect from noise campaigners is tactical alliances on certain issues. On other issues there will be increasing and possibly outright opposition.

Read our Case for a Noise Audit of all energy sources:


How will Boris’s 10 Point Environment Plan impact noise?


The Prime Minister’s 10 point plan is of course intended to cut emissions; not noise. Its impact on noise levels will be mixed. Here are my noise marks out of 10, ten being good for noise.

Offshore wind: Producing enough offshore wind to power every home, quadrupling how much we produce to 40GW by 2030, supporting up to 60,000 jobs. Hard one to mark as insufficient work has been done on the impact on mammals and fish, so given the uncertainties, 5.

Hydrogen: Working with industry aiming to generate 5GW of low carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030 for industry, transport, power and homes, and aiming to develop the first town heated entirely by hydrogen by the end of the decade. Hydrogen is quiet: 10

Nuclear: Advancing nuclear as a clean energy source, across large scale nuclear and developing the next generation of small and advanced reactors, which could support 10,000 jobs. Nuclear plants once up and running are silent neighbours but there can be noise disturbance during construction, so 9.

Electric vehicles: Backing our world-leading car manufacturing bases including in the West Midlands, North East and North Wales to accelerate the transition to electric vehicles, and transforming our national infrastructure to better support electric vehicles. Cuts traffic noise dramatically at lower speeds but not so at higher speeds where tyre noise predominates, 7.

Public transport, cycling and walking: Making cycling and walking more attractive ways to travel and investing in zero-emission public transport of the future. Essential to reduce car use but probably requires road pricing (which is not mentioned) as well to get meaningful reduction, 7.

Jet Zero and greener maritime: Supporting difficult-to-decarbonise industries to become greener through research projects for zero-emission planes and ships. There is no guarantee that zero-emissions planes will be quieter; shipping is the main cause of noise in the oceans but engines are not the main cause of it; on their own greener fuels will do little to improve noise, so 3

Homes and public buildings: Making our homes, schools and hospitals greener, warmer and more energy efficient, whilst creating 50,000 jobs by 2030, and a target to install 600,000 heat pumps every year by 2028. Despite claims by some manufacturers that heat pumps are quiet, real noise concerns remain: 0; Hydrogen boilers would be quiet: 10; Thermal insulation doesn't focus on noise: 2

Carbon capture: Becoming a world-leader in technology to capture and store harmful emissions away from the atmosphere, with a target to remove 10MT of carbon dioxide by 2030, equivalent to all emissions of the industrial Humber today. Noise neutral.

Nature: Protecting and restoring our natural environment, planting 30,000 hectares of trees every year, whilst creating and retaining thousands of jobs. Noise neutral.

Innovation and finance: Developing the cutting-edge technologies needed to reach these new energy ambitions and make the City of London the global centre of green finance. Some cutting-edge technologies can benefit noise; others will work against it: 5

Why do greens back the noisiest energy source?


Many greens back wind power yet shy away from nuclear, the quietest form of energy generation.  Of course the extraction of oil and gas is hugely noisy but, unlike so many wind turbines, takes place far, far from where people live. The World Health Organisation showed in its recent report that people start to get annoyed by wind turbine noise at lower levels than other sources of noise.  The graph opposite, from some years ago, indicates the sort of differences. This is because of the high content of low-frequency in the noise. And, due very often to the subsidies offered by Governments, far too many cowboys – and in Italy, the Mafia – have become involved in the wind power industry, with little regard to how closely they build turbines to people’s homes. Yet I have not seen the greens tear into this industry. Indeed, some leading members of green NGOs have gone to work for wind power companies.

I am being somewhat unfair in putting all environmentalists under the term ‘the greens’. Many conservationists, very much environmentalists, have led the fight against many wind farm proposals. And there are other environmentalists who want to tackle noise. But far too many climate change campaigners have been willing to overlook the dire noise impacts some of the turbines have had on people.

'too many climate campaigners overlook the dire noise impacts of wind turbines'

And yet many of the same climate activists are very wary of, or actively opposed to, nuclear power.

Nuclear has been a controversial source of energy. There have been concerns around cost and safety. But modern technology is sorting the safety problems and the smaller plants now on the market will cost much less. Nuclear power has been described as “the silent giant of today’s energy system – it runs quietly in the background, capable of delivering immense amounts of power, regardless of weather or season.”

From a noise perspective it is preferable to onshore wind, solar or fracking. Countries such as France or Sweden showed long before climate change was on the agenda that the quiet alternative, nuclear, has the potential to be the catalyst for delivering sustainable energy transitions. Surely if you want to ‘Go Green’ your slogan should be ‘Go Nuclear’.

I just don’t think noise is seen as an environmental issue by most environmentalists. I feel they are wrong.  In my book Why Noise Matters I point to the evidence that underwater noise has doubled each decade during the past 50 years, posing a significant threat to whales, dolphins and other marine wildlife. Equally, the natural rhythms of the jungle are disappearing. Bernie Krauss, the eminent American acoustician who has recorded nature’s sounds for over 40 years, estimates in that time nearly a third of the ecosystems have become ‘aurally extinct.’

And still so many greens don’t ‘get’ noise. It would be nice if that was to change. If it doesn’t, climate change campaigners can expect to meet growing opposition to any noisy plans they put forward.

John Stewart

The greens gurgantuan error in opposing nuclear...from a climate perspective


This piece as been taken from The God Species - how humans really can save the planet by Mark Lynas (first published 2011)

In climate-change terms, opposing nuclear was a gargantuan error for the Greens, and one that will echo down the ages as our globe’s temperature rises. Nuclear is an essential if we are to deal with climate change. Renewables are a crucial part of our toolkit, but not enough on their own. The battle of the energy titans comes down to one great contest: nuclear vs. coal. And by rejecting nuclear over past decades Greens have unwittingly kept the door open for this most polluting energy source of all.

Some in the environmental movement have begun to realize this mistake, including members of the Green Party and the former director of Greenpeace UK, Stephen Tindale. In the US, both Stewart Brand and NASA scientist James Hansen have strongly supported nuclear. As has George Monbiot, one of the green movement’s most fearsome and well-known campaigners, who wrote: “Like most environmentalists, I want renewables to replace fossil fuel, but I realize we make the task even harder if they are also to replace nuclear power.”

An interesting ‘what if?’. What quantity of carbon dioxide emitted over the last few decades from fossil-fuelled power plants have been been cut if it hadn't been for the anti-nuclear campaigning of the Greens? In Austria six nuclear stations were proposed, and none were eventually used. In the US, at least 19 nuclear plants were cancelled after being proposed – mainly due to the changing tide of public opinion brought on by the rise of the Greens. What if the nuclear build rate of the 1960s and 1970s had continued until today, and all these proposed plants had been welcomed by the rising environmental movement? There can of course be no definitive answer to such a question, but if we say that 150 additional plants would by now have been running for 20 years, these would have avoided the emission of 18 billion tones of CO2.

Read more in this a long but fascinating and easy-to-read article by award-winning environmentalist Michael Shellenberger Why Climate Activists Will Go Nuclear—Or Go Extinct 

The Heat Pump Revolution....that sends shivers down the spine


Fossil fuel heating systems will not be allowed in new homes in the UK from 2025. Heat pumps will come in. The UK Government has said that fossil fuel heating systems – oil and gas boilers – will be outlawed in new homes from 2025. Their main replacement is likely to be heat pumps. These are like air conditioners which pump out heat. And most of them are situated outside.  There are significant noise concerns, particularly from those which are on walls (there's less of a concern when the coil is in the ground), especially around tonal and low-frequency noise. 

'we simply cannot risk installing heat pumps in properties until we are certain they will not cause noise problems'

Thomas Lefevre, the director of Etude, which was commissioned by the Greater London Authority to study heat pumps (1), said, “The noise coming out is not huge, but it is not negligible. People who say they will not introduce any noise risk at all are wrong.” A report by the European Heath Pump Association admitted that the fan noise is a key problem. Mike Stigwood, the director of the consultancy MAS Environmental told the journal Noise Bulletin (2) that the tonal and low-frequency noise from noise pumps would be a problem. Where they are located is also important but in flats the choice of location can be very limited indeed.

'those on lowest incomes living in multi-occupancy properties and flats who are likely to be worst hit'

There is an expectation that the technology might improve as the mass market justifies and stimulates investment in quieter pumps but we simply cannot risk installing heat pumps in properties until we are certain they will not cause noise problems. Otherwise their constant low-frequency noise will create untold misery. And those on lowest incomes living in multi-occupancy properties and flats who are likely to be worst hit.

We hope this is not unfair but there is an awful sense of the Government bending over backwards to satisfy climate concerns at the expense of the least well-off in society.


(1). Low carbon heat: heat pumps in London

(2). Noise Bulletin, April 2019, has an excellent in-depth piece on wind pumps