Saturday, September 27, 2014

Power for your pound

The costly deal between the UK Government and EDF Energy to subsidise the proposed Hinkley Point C nuclear power station may be close to gaining approval from EU competition authorities (see here). Nuclear has failed to keep its promise of providing cheap electricity even though at one point it was claimed it would be too cheap to meter. To make the Hinkley C nuclear deal happen EDF have been guaranteed almost double the current market rate for electricity and UK households look set to pay over the odds bills as a result.


Everyone acknowledges the very high capital costs of nuclear power and nobody yet knows for sure what decommissioning costs will finally be because we have insufficient experience of it. Nuclear is a very large drain on both public and private resources that we should be directing into options consistent with sustainability such as energy efficiency and renewable energy generation. However, EU Competition Commissioner JoaquĆ­n Almunia supports approving of public funding for building Hinkley C. The imminent decision is taken not by one but by a college of all the EU Commissioners but Almunia’s view obviously carries weight.


A letter has been sent by a group of over 20 academics, politicians and renewable energy companies to EU Competition Commissioner Almunia, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and his successor Jean-Claude Juncker urging them to take due time to consider this crucial decision properly. The letter, whose signatories include Molly Scott Cato Green MEP for the South West, warns of legal action in the event of a rushed decision.


EU Commissioners will rule on whether the deal amounts to illegal state aid. Nuclear opponents say the two proposed reactors at Hinkley Point infringe EU single market rules on the internal energy market, if the £16 billion development proceeds as currently agreed. Alternative developments to perform the same function have not been set against the nuclear proposal. 

Debates on UK energy policy focus almost exclusively on energy generation/production and often neglect even to mention energy saving and energy efficiency. It’s much cheaper to save energy and be efficient than it is to generate it - not only does it cut household bills and increase the profitability of businesses by reducing their outgoings, it also cuts pollution rapidly, is a very good job creator, can increase comfort, cut noise levels, and can sometimes be done using materials normally thrown away.


According to the National Insulation Association Britain has 7 million homes with lofts that need to be insulated. It has 5 million homes with cavity walls that need to be filled and 7 million with uninsulated solid walls. If it proceeds unchanged the deal between the UK Government and EDF Energy would lock consumers into paying well above the going rate for electricity for decades ahead while the cost of renewable energy falls rapidly.  A very bad deal for consumers – and one that won’t help tackle climate change because the Government's own [former] advisors at the SustainableDevelopment Commission produced figures to show that even doubling nuclear capacity would cut the UK's carbon emissions by just 8% and then not until 2035. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Kill culling not badgers

With the failure this week of the legal bid to stop this years badger culling without independent monitoring, the shooting is set to go ahead. Government still believes culling badgers will curb TB in cattle. Natural England, ironically the arm of the government responsible for ensuring that England's natural environment, including its wildlife, is protected and improved, has recently authorised the killing of a minimum of 615 badgers in Gloucestershire and 316 badgers in Somerset. The Government has refused to rule out the future gassing of badgers (banned over 20 yrs ago in England) and has begun field trials into the gassing of setts using carbon monoxide.  

Our Government continues with its error on this issue despite the consistent warnings given and despite that fact that the pilot badger culls this time last year ended in failure to meet targets and resulted in many badgers taking a long time to die after shooting. Killing badgers is both wrong and unlikely to be effective in fighting TB.

Many countries in the European Union are officially free of bovine TB. Many of these countries have not controlled TB in wildlife to be bovine TB free. Vaccination as a realistic alternative to culling has not been adequately acted on. Injectable badger vaccine trials were scaled back by the then new Coalition Government in 2010.

Lab studies with captive badgers have shown that vaccination by injection with BCG significantly helps in tackling infection. This indicates that vaccination alone could reduce bovine TB in badgers significantly and over a similar time to that suggested for shooting. Vaccination may also be cheaper than shooting. The Government position is not based on the scientific evidence. Non-lethal approaches are enough to tackle bovine TB in badgers.

Humane free-shooting of wild badgers - if there can be such a thing - would need to be successful. Even with people shooting well they are highly unlikely to be 100% 'successful'. Where they are not 'successful' then the chance of inaccurately shot badgers being in pain and suffering increases. This means that shooting cannot be free of cruelty ie humane.

The RSPCA say there are severe welfare concerns about shooting. It has consistently warned of  a high risk of wounding and the small margin for error. It describes the anatomical and behavioural features of badgers that make cruelty free shooting highly unlikely. The Independent Expert Panel report on last years failed badger culling pilot said that 7.4% to 22.8% of badgers shot during pilots were still alive after five minutes.

This Government continues the trend of successive Governments in not basing policy on the scientific evidence and taking action of the type, scale and speed that it suggests. In addition to the badger culling there is also: drugs and their classification; climate change; and over-fishing for instance. The grasp of science, scientific issues and their interrelationship with socio-economic and environmental factors in Parliament, in political circles generally and in the media is, with some exceptions, pretty poor.

More on badger culling here: http://www.rspca.org.uk/getinvolved/campaign/badger

Friday, May 30, 2014

Why concentrate on cities?

Why is there such a focus on cities when it comes to living more sustainably? See this contribution to the debate here for instance.

Why are cities so important? What might be their role(s)? What actions are they taking?

Cities are built environments with large numbers of people living and working in them. In England or the USA population centres may be granted certain status & powers by Royal or State Charter and thus become cities. City status and power may become established for historic reasons too. Cities are not limited to the physical boundaries reached by their built environment however since they are interconnected with other places via flows of people, materials, energy, services, information, ideas…This reminds us that boundaries are what people impose upon any complex perceived reality in order to form a more understandable system(s) and to perform some task(s). 

Cities are complex combinations of interacting ecological, social, economic and other systems, often growing (sometimes very rapidly). They are centres of: people; production; pollution; & power. The image (below, left) of Los Angeles shows both the built up and polluted aspects of cities.

Large populations accumulate in cities by the process of urbanisation. Since 2008 over half the world’s population live in cities (in more economically developed countries 75% of people live in cities). By 2050 70% of global population may live in cities. So, cities get such attention in the sustainability debate because that’s where most people are.

Just 600 urban centres generate 60% of global economic growth as measured by GDP. Cities physically cover 3% of global land area but use up 75% of global energy. As centres of production, as measured by money flow, cities are very important (more here).

Cities are responsible for 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions, the megacities making a particularly large contribution (see image below, left; more information here). They are thus a major cause of climate change - and arguably are well placed to tackle the problem, given appropriate powers and money. Cities have major air, water and land pollution problems and have an eco-footprint several times their land area (three times in Bristol’s case; details here).

Cities are seats of power & influence and may have money, for example the C40 CitiesClimate Leadership Group is a network of the world’s megacities which says it is committed to addressing climate change. Cities can lead by example, for instance Bristol as European Green Capital 2015 (and before Bristol: Copenhagen; Nantes; Vitoria-Gasteiz; Hamburg; & Stockholm) has to demonstrate: a consistent record of achieving high environmental standards; commitment to ongoing and ambitious goals for further environmental improvement and sustainable development; that it can act as a role model to inspire other cities and promote best practices (more here).


Cities such as Bristol (City Hall pictured below, left) may be able to finance sustainability moves &/or coordinate the generation of finances (& other resources). They can offer leadership, giving direction, coordinating & engaging stakeholders from all levels, setting a good example. They have knowledge, skills, personnel…& can design, plan & maintain. They can inform, educate & involve, encouraging combined behavioural & technical change.

Engagement is vital for organisational effectiveness & the creation of sustainable cities because it is an essential part of on-going and broad-based social learning which addresses wider forces and institutions, complementing community activities with political and economic insights and action on macro, meso and micro levels - a paradigm for engaging in institutional and social dilemmas such as sustainable development vs. market forces. Engagement is also crucial because it: helps to ensure that individuals, communities & organisations get their dues; helps to empower local communities; involves mutual give & take; helps in getting governance right & is thus crucial to effective, shared leadership, power & responsibility; helps to enhance general wellbeing; boosts ownership of changes needed to move towards sustainability.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Looking at life-cycle analysis

Life-cycle analysis (LCA) is an effort to assess the environmental impacts of a product or service from its very beginnings to its very end. It is a powerful tool for analysing aspects of systems that can be measured and compared according to a common standard. The aim is to enable a total, whole system overview.

LCA has significant strengths and can contribute much to environmental management and the achievement of sustainability, as evidenced by the achievements of Hewlett Packard and Kyocera (here) via work on remanufacturing and design for disassembly. It has weaknesses that need to be kept in mind too. To get a total view of a system one needs to account for every factor and all interactions – but there us much that cannot be reduced to a number and inserted into a model. Additionally a single, common unit for all varying impact types cannot be established. Social implications of products are generally lacking in LCAs in part because of measurement issues.

Rigid system boundaries make accounting for changes in systems difficult. Accuracy and availability of data can also contribute to misleading conclusions (data from generic processes may be based on averages, unrepresentative sampling, or outdated results). Comparative LCA is criticised because of these considerations.

LCA can provide a lot of room for the researcher to decide what is important, how the product is typically manufactured, and how it is typically used. There has been a lack of consistency in the methods and assumptions used to track carbon during a product life cycle for instance. The wider the variety of methods and assumptions used the more different and potentially contrary conclusions can be.

Many of these weaknesses can be and are being minimised however. Best practice life cycle interpretation is performed with great care, determines the level of confidence in the final results and communicates them in a fair, complete, and accurate way. There are guidelines/standards to help reduce conflicts in results, such as ISO 14040:2006 on basic principles and ISO 14044 on compliance with standards.

Third-party certification plays a major role in today's industry. Independent certification can show a company's dedication to higher quality products to customers and NGOs.

Comparative LCA is now more often used to determine a better process or product to use. LCA is increasingly used to support business strategy, inform research and development, input to product or process design, support and inform education and inform labelling or product declarations.

All over the globe major corporations are either conducting LCA in house or getting others to do it for them - and governments are facilitating the development of national databases to support LCA. When it comes to environmental impact assessment, integrated waste management and pollution studies LCA is now playing a major role.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Forests for the future

With UN International Day of Forests (21 March) trying to raise awareness of the importance of forests, here are my reasons for wanting to see forests protected and for more forests of the right sort in the right places to be established (or re-established).

Meeting Needs: Sustainable use value is enormous (and ongoing!); Huge numbers of non-timber forest products can be available forever, if sustainably harvested; Sustainable forestry provides a very valuable resource forever; Eco-tourism provides jobs and income; Forests help avoid the costs and extremes of climate change; A properly functioning and stable water cycle is vital to agriculture (see details of 22 March World Water Day).

Beauty: The wonder of forest systems, non-human animals, plants, people; Deep feelings of connectedness and joy that forests can bring; Delighting the senses and pleasing the mind (see the details of 20 March International Day of Happiness).

Morality: Whether we think of morality in terms of rights, responsibilities, human character, duties, the common good, or consequences...the appropriate action is forest protection; Raising issues such as future generations, global citizenship, local peoples, traditions, the right to existence for species and systems, ability to meet needs, ability to maintain functioning life systems...

Natural Cycles: Take just two, the carbon cycle and the water cycle, forests play a huge role in both; They take carbon from the air and store it away; Burning or logging forests  to farm beef, soya or fuel crops is disastrous; Forests moderate and stabilise the water cycle, intercepting rain, binding soil, temporarily storing and gradually releasing water (see World Water Day).

Learning: We have huge amounts to learn about and from forest systems; Many, many species are yet to be discovered could disappear if we don’t protect areas; Forests help us learn about ourselves and our history; Potential to inspire designs and technologies; Learning from and with biochemicals and genes

Health and Wellbeing: Forests shade us, shelter us from rain; They take harmful pollutants from the air; They help us relax and provide recreational opportunities; They provide healthy food; They are sources of cures, treatments... (See the details of International Day of Happiness).

Biodiversity: A massive store of biochemicals and genes, both number and range, vital stuff of life; Who knows what potential is there for plant breeders, for drugs researchers; Essential for stable, secure, functioning ecosystems and natural cycles...; The intrinsic right to exist...

Humanity: Forests make a huge contribution to the human species as a whole; They are a resource in the widest sense for the whole globe; Loss of forest is a loss to us all.


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Safer Streets for Bristol

Large groups of us used to kick or throw a ball around or race our bikes and scooters around the block or skip or play hopscotch on the streets in 1960’s and 70’s Knowle, Bristol. Kids playing in the street is a much rarer sight now, not least because our roads are much busier. The UKs current default speed limit of 30mph in areas where people live was set in 1934 when there were 1.5 million motor vehicles. Now there are a massive 34.5 million!! 

Adopting the principle of residential roads having a 20mph speed limit and implementing this in stages across the city, with monitoring and public consultations is one of the best actions Bristol City Council has taken (see here). Here's why I hold this view so strongly.

Road traffic in the UK is the single biggest cause of premature deaths for boys and the second biggest cause for girls age 5 -15. Every year in Bristol hundreds of people are killed or seriously injured on the roads (see here), the burden falling hardest on the poorest, with 24 of every 100 child pedestrian casualties being in the most deprived neighbourhoods compared to 1 in 100 in the least deprived. At 20mph a pedestrian knocked over stands a 90% chance of surviving. At 40mph they stand a 90% chance of dying. 20mph in residential areas is clearly fast enough, and the "20's Plenty For Us" initiative is excellent.

Compare our residential street default speed limit of 30mph with the speed limit in Northern European towns. Our limit is 60% higher than the 18.5 mph (30 kph) limits that they have for streets where people live. No wonder perhaps that 92% of pedestrian deaths are on urban roads in the UK and at 21% we have a higher proportion of pedestrian deaths on the roads than any of our European neighbours.

In Hilden, Germany, the setting of their 18.5 mph (30 kph) limit in the early 90's was the foundation of them encouraging cycling and walking. In fact now 23% of in-town trips are made by children and adults using bikes instead of cars.

Something has to change to bring the UK into the 21st century. Adults lead more sedentary lives in part because they spend more time in their cars. Children lead less active lives in part because we worry about the dangers posed by road traffic. The growth of physically inactive lifestyles in industrialised countries has led to what many are calling a major public health crisis. Preventable illnesses associated with inactivity and obesity include stroke, heart attack, certain cancers, diabetes, and depression.

Around 40% of people in the UK report being bothered by noise from traffic, nearly double the figure from the 1970’s. Children living near busy roads suffer significantly higher rates of asthma and West of England Partnership figures show that over 100,000 Bristolians live in areas where air quality is considered to be potentially damaging to health.

Cars travelling too fast in residential areas have helped to create social degradation. Neighbours across the road from each other don't talk to each as often as they used when I was kicking a ball about with mates, because a gulf is created by cars speeding past. As far back as 1969 Prof David Appleyard found that community was eroded on San Francisco streets with busier traffic.

A study by Kevin Leyden in 2003 found that people living in walkable, mixed use neighbourhoods were more likely to know their neighbours, participate politically, trust others and be socially engaged, compared with those living in car-oriented suburbs’.

Research on Bristol’s streets by Josh Hart at UWE showed that motor vehicle traffic is responsible for a considerable deterioration in residential community, measured by average number of social contacts, extent of perceived ‘home territory’, and reported street-based social activity. Several studies show that people whose homes had windows facing busy streets were more often depressed.

20's Plenty For Us was formed in order to work for the implementation of 20 mph as the default speed limit on residential roads in the UK, in place of 30mph. The balance is shifting towards roads and streets as public spaces for people rather than just motors – safer, cleaner, healthier and more civil. Quality of life is better with a 20mph limit, with less noise, lower pollution, greater child mobility, more walking, more cycling and more talking encouraged, leading to better general wellbeing.

The Bristol 20’s Plenty group was launched in 2009 to help build improved quality of life in local communities. Dozens of neighbourhood champions were then put in place, including myself in Knowle - and its been great to see Bristol City Council's and the Mayor's efforts bringing in 20mph areas since then.

20mph is an idea whose time has come, with growing numbers of cities doing it, including Portsmouth, Oxford, Norwich, Leicester, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Islington decided to become the first London Borough to implement an authority-wide 20mph limit where people live. Transport for London made funds available for all London Boroughs to set a 20mph default. Bristol is proposing to roll out 20mph limits in more residential streets after beginning in the south and east of the city some years back.

Research has shown that the vast majority of the public, over 80% in polls, would like 20 mph on residential roads. After all its where people live!! The Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport Safety found that 70% of drivers want it too. Changes in Dept of Transport guidelines have relaxed recommendations and in many residential areas 20 mph limits may be set without any physical measures at all – which means the cost of the change is small.

Portsmouth City Council created over a thousand streets with 20 mph – and they did it with only 6 traffic orders, in just nine months without any speed bumps at a cost of £475,000, the cost of about two sets of traffic lights. Speeds reduced by an average of 3mph and the whole community has a collective commitment to sharing the roads better. The cost of 20mph in Bristol is greater as we are bigger than Portsmouth but its a tiny amount considering that if a person is unfortunate enough to be hit by a car at 30mph they are likely to die whereas at 20mph they are likely to live! Further information, facts and figures and references:

http://www.20splentyforus.org.uk/ and http://www.bristol20mph.co.uk/

Monday, February 10, 2014

Judge Dredge

Eric Pickles, Conservative Secretary of State for Communities apparently knows best (see here). Was he giving advice on politics, on which he has a good deal of experience? Or on being a local councillor or running a city council, which he can claim to know a good deal about? Or on the city of Bradford due to his Yorkshire roots? Or on Brentwood and Ongar, his constituency in Essex? Or even on law, given that he has at least, some time ago, studied that at Leeds Polytechnic? None of these! Eric Pickles (pictured 'in action' top left) knows best about the management of water catchments (drainage basins; watersheds), including what's best to do to prevent flooding in Somerset, Berkshire and elsewhere in pretty unprecedented wet weather circumstances. He said,
 
"We perhaps relied too much on the Environment Agency's advice.

"I think we recognise now that we should have dredged and I think it's important now that we get on with the process of getting people back into their houses, and really do some serious pumping."

He added: "I apologise unreservedly and I'm really sorry that we took the advice, we thought we were dealing with experts." 

He's wrong not only because he failed to give very good reasons and evidence to reject the best available scientific advice but also because now is not the time to criticise the key agency fighting the floods. He needs help sort the current situation out as best as possible, working with the Environment Agency. However, he appears to be blinded by his need to appeal to what he thinks is popular.

Unprecedented weather, most likely part of a climate change trend, combined with land management and agricultural and building practices that have encouraged increasingly rapid flow of water and solids into rivers, instead of soaking in and being released more gradually, are the causes of this prolonged flooding. A comprehensive, well funded approach is called for not just dredging. There probably will be some dredging on the Somerset Levels but they will have to look at the effects throughout the whole water system. They need to consider/reconsider future plans too because the rivers they may dredge are above sea level and prone to rapid silting up.

UK Governments of late have a history of rejecting the best available scientific advice: criticising the Environment Agency on dredging/flood management; rejecting scientific advice that badger culling would not be an effective way to fight Bovine TB; sacking drugs expert Prof David Nutt (here); failing repeatedly to cut carbon emissions and fight climate change at the rate and scale advised by the UNs IPCC. The political trumps the rational it seems.
More here.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Congestion, carbon, cars and cities

The transport debate in Bristol has been particularly hot during 2013, including: planning permission given for the South Bristol Ring Road (rebranded as the South BristolLink); bus rapid transit; bus fares; residents parking zones; and speed/road safety cameras (see here for more).  It’s long been a big issue because, whilst the recently crowned European Green Capital 2015 has its sustainable aspects and ambitions, it’s a long way from solving its very big transport problems. Horrendous traffic continues to lower our health, wellbeing and quality of life. This will continue to damage present and future generations if we don’t do something soon that is effective in breaking the business as usual cycle of problems (pictured: begin at the arrow and go clockwise).  

Bristol’s transport problems are serious: every day too many vehicles are trying to use local roads; there are very limited possibilities for building more roads and in any case more roads bring more traffic and more damage (a lesson Bristol’s planners seem not to have learned yet); drivers spend half their time crawling in jammed traffic; congestion is costing business very large amounts of money; traffic congestion generates more air pollution and produces more climate change causing carbon emissions; congestion causes frustration and raises stress levels. The UK is unfortunately still a long way from breaking the link between prosperity and traffic growth, vital to building a sustainable society (see table below).
What does the UK need to do to achieve transport sustainability? Some of what follows is supposed to be in place but in practice is not. Much of what follows is either paid lip service to or is just not happening on any sufficient scale or pace.

The first task is to ensure that priority in transport theory and practice in built up areas is given and enacted on a reasoned basis, aimed at sustainability. Prioritisation in built up areas should be on the basis of safety, efficiency, environmental impacts, health and fairness, which produces this order: first pedestrians and disabled people; then cyclists; followed by buses, trams, light rail, trains and perhaps small, high efficiency and/or alternatively fuelled vehicles; then shared petrol and diesel transport such as taxis and car pools; private petrol and diesel fuelled motorised transport ; and finally heavy goods vehicles except public transport.
There is plenty of scope for debate in some of the priority order eg which forms of public transport contribute best to sustainability in particular places; the priority given to private vehicles that have multiple occupants; the position of motorbikes, mopeds and any new types of vehicle that become commonly used. However it’s pretty clear that the top three priorities are: walking/disabled people; cycling; and well occupied public transport, very likely a coherent combination of modes operating under an integrated transport authority.   

What should transport objectives be if the aim is sustainability ie achieving prosperity without waste, resource squandering, pollution, inequality, unfairness and weakening community? Here’s what I’d adopt as my sustainable transport objectives: human-scale, self-reliant communities; a participative, democratic planning processes; moving from cars, lorries and vans to walking, cycling and public transport; accounting properly for the social and environmental welfare of all areas/people; respect environmental limits, maximise efficiency; equity, health, safety.
When assessing transport proposals, policies and actions, evaluation should be based on broad-based social, economic and environmental considerations, not just profit/financial costs or a crude cost-benefit analysis or greenwash. Safety, health, wellbeing, eco-footprint, carbon footprint, biodiversity measures and not just speed and convenience are important. Targeted provision for groups/individuals disadvantaged by car-oriented society should be a key indicator too. We need to develop and use performance measures that trigger action to counter rebound effects such as people driving more if/when the efficiency of their vehicle improves.

The UK needs the following overarching sustainable transport policies: reduce transport energy use, with liaison at all levels and in strategic areas; penalise fuel guzzlers, encourage sustainable technologies; financial disincentives to private and incentives to public transport; incentives to non-motorised transport; and perhaps most critical of all, land use planning that reduces the need for motorised transport and favours walking, cycling and public transport.

Transport modes and systems should be such that we avoid service duplication and enable service-oriented, complementary, integrated transport. Communal provision and collective vehicle use needs to be expanded. We should be divert resources from large scale development to sustainable transport (renewable resources, high efficiency). Goods movement by rail and water (eg by ship around the coast) should be prioritised over roads. We need both to avoid unsustainable developments and enable sustainable developments because so often cities that take one step forward, such efforts to promote cycling in Bristol also take two steps back like the building of the very large car park to service the Cabot Circus shopping centre near the city centre which attracts traffic from over a whole region.

Financing sustainable transport policies means making choices some do/would not welcome, including: no tax relief for business transport costs; urban parking and private car facilities disincentivised and progressively reduced and spend the revenues on facilities for walking, cycling, the disabled; use disincentives on lorry and van use to resource rail, coastal shipping and canals. We should shift more research funding into assessing the true costs and benefits of transport modes and into truly sustainable technologies and systems.

The cost of car ownership and use should be directly related to the net total impacts and fuel taxation should absorb vehicle excise duty and include a third party insurance levy so that irresponsible drivers cannot avoid these things. We need greater incentives for low emission fuel use. General investment in: public transport; demand management; traffic-free area creation in cities and homes zones is far too small.
Sustainable transport can’t come about if we don’t oppose road building that encourages traffic and dont stop building new urban trunk roads and motorways (or expanding the capacity of existing roads and motorways).

Standards all-round need tightening, for instance: on the safety, speed, size, weight, noise and exhaust fumes of vehicles; speed limits in residential areas (eg Bristol has expanded the number of 20mph areas it has); the max speed limit; speed limits in selected areas; making all speed limits statutory; the legal blood alcohol limit; eco-driving proficiency.

We need regular driver checks for driving and vehicle competence and health eg whenever a driver commits designated offences, with fees to make the process self-funded. There should be tougher license penalties for alcohol and drug related driving offences, especially for persistent offenders and in certain circumstances it should be in the power of courts to order that a driver has to take another driving test before regaining their license to drive. The breaking of driving or vehicle standards should incur license penalties in addition to fines, with no choice of paying the fine to avoid the penalty points.

More on Bristol's transport here and here.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

10 ideas for a more sustainable Christmas


 Even in hard economic times this Christmas billions of pounds will be spent on food, drink and presents in the UK. Waste levels over this period rise by 20%, including food, energy, wrapping paper, cards and of course Christmas trees.

Christmas can be enjoyed without abandoning sustainability concerns with a little prioritisation and organisation. The following ten suggestions wont transform us into a sustainable society but they are positive steps worth taking whilst the leadership, policies, institutions and decision-making processes which take sustainability forward are developed:

1. Cards: billions of Christmas cards are sent every year, many not made of recycled card and many thrown out rather than recycled. You could send an e-card instead or watch out for cards made from recycled material or make your own cards from previous ones! Bristol is well set up for recycling card, so we can use the system that's been provided.


2. Decorations: old colour newspapers and magazines can be used to make decorations like paper chains. Paint, glitter, card from boxes or old Christmas cards, glue and a bit of wool or string can be used to make tree decorations. These activities will keep kids happy and occupied doing a creative task that really involves them in Christmas. Far better this than buying sparkly decorations made in a far away sweat shop by child labour then flown thousands of miles across the globe.

3. Trees: millions of Christmas trees are bought in the UK, often to be thrown out, each year. There is enough UK tree waste to fill the Albert Hall more than three times! The best thing you can do if you have a tree is buy one with roots -  if well cared for it can be planted out and used year on year. If you choose a tree without roots make sure it’s from a well managed source and that you use local schemes for turning used ones into mulch for parks and gardens.

4. Wrapping: you may not think of all that sticky-tape securing wrapping paper as plastic but it is. It won’t rot and is single-use. String and wool are both more biodegradable and reusable and so are much the better option for securing wrapping paper. String/wool does not mess up the paper it secures and leaves it in a state where it, with a little care, can be retained and reused – close to ten thousand tonnes of paper is used to wrap UK presents every year. If you have paper that can’t be reused put it out for recycling in your black box!


5. Chocolate: hundreds of millions of pounds is spent on chocolate for Christmas. If you buy fair trade chocolate you will be supporting cocoa farmers, their families and communities much more. They get a fair price for their cocoa beans. Workers rights, pay and working conditions are much better under fair trade.

6. Turkey: ten million or more turkeys are eaten during the festive season in the UK. Millions of these birds are reared intensively in huge windowless buildings containing crowds of thousands. Selectively bred and anti-biotic treated for maximum growth these birds cannot express natural behaviours and cannot mate without human intervention. I’m just not hungry for this kind of food at all and its ecological footprint is very high. If you don’t want to avoid turkey at Christmas altogether its worth paying more for one reared to much higher animal welfare standards.

7. Consumption: find out if you consume resources and produce pollutants at a rate of more than one planet here, http://footprint.wwf.org.uk/ (see image below). Monitor gas, electricity, petrol and diesel use and you are measuring sources of environmental impacts – cut energy and fuel use wherever possible, save money and cut pollution. Monitor amount of meat eaten and you are measuring one of our biggest sources of environmental impacts – lower meat consumption and you’ll save money, probably have a healthier diet and cut environmental damage!

 
8. Food: when buying your Christmas food choose locally, regionally or nationally grown and produced where you can – this cuts down transport environmental impacts and supports producers here

9. Bags: refuse plastic and paper bags by taking your own; avoid wastefully packaged goods; and buy in bulk if possible (both the price per kilo of food and per kilo of packaging is lower)

10. Shopping: make a list before you shop – it helps you stick to buying only what you need and intended to buy. Consider adding fruit trees to your Christmas present list - growing an apple, pear, plum or cherry tree is easy, requires very little work, little space and yields delicious home-grown fruit year after year.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Lets work together

The Cooperative Movement is going through a very difficult time at present in the UK, with multiple serious allegations surrounding a former Chairman of the Co-op Bank (here). It’s vitally important  to remember that the current scandal is about the failings of an individual and perhaps some other individuals and systems around him though and not the idea of cooperation itself or the many, many successful cooperatives.

No better time than now to remind ourselves that cooperation, striving in support of each other towards a common goal, is a fundamentally important idea that does enormously valuable work.

It’s clear that cooperation is a crucial feature of nature (see image above of Emperor Penguin cooperation to keep warm; more on this here) and its one reason why early human communities were able to survive and thrive. Competition is seen as the opposite of cooperation but in a balanced, sustainable ecosystem it too means striving together (the Latin com meaning  together; and petere meaning strive or seek). We have to cooperate successfully if we are to thrive as a species on into the future.


Cooperatives in the UK go back to the early days of industrialisation. Workers sought to break the monopoly of millers by setting up cooperative corn mills. Famously Robert Owen (pictured) ran a big, profitable cotton mill without the abusive worker exploitation that was then the norm (more history and background here and here). 

Cooperatives (worker, producer, consumer, multiple stakeholder, neighbourhood, community, housing, marketing, food, energy…) work for the benefit of all their voluntary members. They operate fairly and are open to all who can use them and abide by certain responsibilities. They run themselves using participative democracy. The economic success of the cooperative is fairly shared amongst members. They are committed to advancing the learning of members. Cooperative organisations work to support other cooperatives (see here for information on the international scene). Their goals are a balance of both economic and non-economic – and they are a great alternative to cut-throat capitalist competition that we can’t sustain.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Love the local loot

Local currencies, such as the Bristol Pound, are increasingly widespread and successful. You can pay your local council tax in Bristol Pounds, buy goods and services from over 600 local businesses that accept them, pay using paper pounds or via text or online and pay your bus fare to First Bus if travelling within Bristol because they are an associate of the scheme. Elected Mayor of Bristol George Ferguson takes his mayoral salary in Bristol Pounds. 




Local currencies may also be referred to as community, complementary, regional, alternative, auxiliary currencies or private currencies. They have a different purpose to conventional currencies, though the terms can mean different things to different people.

The Schumacher Society state the advantages of local currencies, saying '...local currencies are a legal, but underutilized tool for citizens to support local economies. Local currencies function…the same way that national currencies have functioned on a national scale - building the…economy by creating a protective “membrane” that is defined by the currency itself. Local businesses that accept the currency are distinguished from chain stores that do not, building greater affinity between citizens…and their local merchants. Individuals choosing to use the currency make a conscious commitment to buy locally first, taking personal responsibility for the health and wellbeing of their community, laying the foundation of a truly vibrant, thriving local economy.' (more here) 
Local currencies like the Bristol Pound are community or auxiliary currencies in that they are used by people with the common bond of being located and using money in a defined community. Local currencies can also involve the common bond of association.

Local currencies like the Bristol Pound are complementary currencies because they are a supplement to conventional, national currencies such as the pound sterling. The legal tender is the pound sterling and the Bristol Pound, equal in value to the pound sterling, is a voluntary agreement to use the local currency as a medium of exchange for the purpose of supporting local economic activity.
The Bristol Pound is not strictly an alternative currency as it is designed to be a complement not a replacement for the conventional currency, the pound sterling. It is a local currency because it is for use in the Bristol locality as opposed to a larger but sub-national area (which would then make it a regional currency).

Using the term private currency emphasizes that the Bristol Pound is not issued under state authority ie of the government (see here). The Bristol Pound is a partnership between the Bristol Pound Community Interest Company and Bristol Credit Union and is a not-for-profit social enterprise (more from here).


Local currencies are tools of financial localism and may be considered a part of the fight against global capitalism that affords voluntary, market structures, helping communities trade within a defined area such as a neighbourhood, town or city.  Local currencies help to raise awareness of the state of the local economy and encompass a wide range of physical and financial form. They are associated with the economic (or new economics) discourse around sustainability often driven by community-based initiatives and social movements such as Transition, which seeks re-localisation to tackle problems such as peak oil, climate change, clone towns and big-box developments (more here and here).
As the Schumacher quote said local currencies work in part by establishing a ‘protective membrane’. The currency can’t be used outside the membrane and is part of trying to create conditions inside that are favourable. One might argue that it’s not desirable to have internal variations in currency and trade: but what is an optimum currency area? Given the crisis that continues to ensue from creating fewer currencies within the EU, where 17 out of the 28 member states abandoned their national currencies for the Euro and a single interest rate (see here), doing the opposite and creating more currencies seems good sense.

Local currencies tend to circulate and re-circulate rapidly, more so than national currencies. A fixed amount of currency is thus used more, producing greater overall economic activity and benefit per unit. Local currencies like the Bristol Pound are only useable in the local area, thus encouraging the buying of locally-produced and locally-available goods and services. More benefit accrues locally per unit of economic activity. The local currency can’t flow out of the local area to benefit other parts of the nation or other countries around the globe.
 
Local currencies have their critics, such as people wanting free trade across large areas as opposed to a sort of local mercantilism and monetarism. There is a debate on the degree to which local currencies can and do help a broad population, especially those less wealthy. The extent to which local currency initiatives, such as the Bristol Pound, can and do help the fight to reduce carbon emissions is also an issue. Nevertheless there has been a big leap in local currency use in the last twenty years and more than 2,500 different ones now exist globally (see UK examples: Totnes Pound, Brixton Pound, Stroud Pound and Lewes Pound).

Popping to the local shop for milk, bread or tea will not be an option for many if the local economy is not supported. By supporting local shops we can help slow down and stop  decline and boost the local economy as well as help in the fight against climate change. Small shops are currently struggling to survive due to the power of the big supermarkets, with thousands of UK independent shops going out of business each year. Supermarket power has become huge. The four biggest already control over three quarters of the UK grocery market; Tesco take 30 per cent and is still moving into neighbourhoods all over the country (image below shows local Bristol pub that's now a Tesco). Big supermarkets continue to try to get across their environmental credentials, but shopping locally is still a better option, especially if you leave the car at home and buy locally-sourced food.



The range of benefits from local shops is excellent: greater likelihood of providing local food; they often offer a much more personal service; they keep money circulating in the local area supporting other local businesses; along with street markets they offer affordability without roping you in - via special offers and some slashed prices - to more expensive purchases (a Friends of the Earth survey in 2003 found that apples were cheaper in greengrocers than supermarkets and in 2005 a study for the New Economics Foundation found that street markets in London were "substantially cheaper" than supermarkets for fruit and vegetables); they are more energy efficient than huge superstores as a study by Sheffield Hallam University showed that it would take more than 60 greengrocers to match the carbon dioxide emissions from just one average superstore; and a broad range of local shops provides more choice than one big supermarket. More from here.


Sustainable economics is of course much bigger than just local currencies. It aims for an economy based on: efficiency; renewability; respecting environmental limits; building stronger local communities; meeting needs now and in the future; local and global fairness; health, wellbeing and quality of life. It looks to provide consistent funding for voluntary, community and social enterprises and to redesign the banking system with more emphasis on local communities and re-circulating money throughout the local economy. The intention is to: overcome problems with access to capital; see reinvestment of profits locally; support community activities and voluntary organizations; have local community banks administer a community development fund; provide investment funds for local enterprises engaged in ecologically sustainable businesses; make loans available to small business and community enterprises using innovative as well as traditional forms of security; have community ownership, including democratically elected, accountable shareholder directors; provide full retail and small-to-medium business banking services. Sustainable economics advocates social dividends and shifting taxation from income to natural resources in addition to supporting the development of local currency, local exchange and trading systems (such as Bristol LETS) and time banking schemes.

More on the Bristol Pound: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bristol_Pound