Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Reflection on the election

The media became very excited very early on at the prospect of a general election and the parties began their campaigns many months before anything official. I doubt that the public relished the spin and very vague promises we get, especially from conventional political parties. The media often focussed on the [limited accuracy] polls and the [wrongly predicted]hung parliament much more than they did on political principles and policies and so didn’t serve the public well. Most political parties focussed a lot on what they thought the polls were showing too, instead of just getting on with real debate, so they did not serve the public well either.

 All elections are important, not least in 2015, with the prospect of yet more austerity, a changing relationship between the nations making up the UK and an uncertain relationship between the UK and EU all having huge implications. There are questions that need to be addressed about current electoral law and electoral processes. Is fair and broad debate facilitated? Does media coverage and access serve the public need and interest? Is the electoral system the most democratic? Have we got the law on party funding right?

The process of an election is important as well as the outcome and it should be treated as such. Yet the media persistently talk of elections as merely a kind of horse race – frequently talking about the betting odds. This does not help us have full, fair and proper debate.

The elections I’ve contested have become more dull and uninspiring over the decades, with the exception of certain candidates and areas of the country. It’s no wonder that a wide and representative range of people aren’t encouraged to get involved. Debates, present and future agendas and learning processes are very important – not everyone fights every general election seat to win this time around, some may not fight to win at all. Isn’t it about time we thought over longer timespans and in a broader, more inspiring way about elections?

narrowness of the debate in conventional politics is part of the problem. There is a large measure of agreement between the usual Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems. They are all consumer capitalists and all have plans to cut vital services!! Debate between them centred on tax and spending differences of only a small percentage of national wealth. All the conventional parties make claims to be radical, all claim to be committed to sustainable development – but none of them said much about this key idea and none of them have taken action to make any fundamental changes in the direction of a sustainable society. Yet issues of reconciling our economy and society with the environment, raised by Greens for decades now, are very much more serious and urgent.

Agreement between the conventional parties could be taken to mean that things are pretty much ok or are in hand – but just look around you!! There are many fundamental problems, for future generations and in other parts of the globe in particular. Thus Greens like me contest elections, win or lose, to: offer voters a radical option; demonstrate that to genuinely solve problems the interconnections and interrelationships between economic, social, political and environmental factors must be addressed; raise the really big issues like the gap between rich and poor here and globally, caring for the elderly, climate change and our energy-hungry lifestyles, global justice, democracy and the EU, how we can live our lives now so that future generations can also lead decent lives with real choices.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

If I were a Councillor...

I'm the Green Party candidate for Knowle ward in the May 2015 local elections. I was born, brought up and still live in Knowle and have campaigned as a Green locally for over thirty years [several yrs of it are recorded on this blog]. I've been a candidate many times in local and general elections, including in Knowle and Bristol South. 
I work as an Open University Tutor, teaching environmental decision making, environmental management and environmental science, having previously been a science teacher and industrial technologist.
I originated and coordinated Sustainable Knowle, the neighbourhood Transition group (, work closely with Bristol’s successful group of Green Councillors and have served on council committees [See About page for more].
I want Knowle and Bristol to be healthier, fairer, more lively and enjoyable places to live. This means fighting those things that are reducing your quality of life and cutting the options available for the future of your children, grandchildren and theirs, especially: inequality; unfairness; loss of community safety, security, power and influence; waste; resource squandering; pollution. I want decent living today that leaves a decent future for the generations to come and will work particularly hard for these dozen priorities.
  1. the retention and improvement of locally available housing, facilities, services and jobs and the availability and use of local resources
  2. far better, cheaper, more extensive public transport; much better cycling and pedestrian provision  
  3. inclusive, informed, genuine public participation in community life
  4. open, involving, accountable, ethical attitudes and policies
  5. broad-based measures of progress - social, economic and environmental
  6. the protection, enhancement and if possible increase in open, green, natural spaces; biodiversity enhancing developments
  7. adopting and achieving high land, air, water and environmental quality standards; safe, secure and stable neighbourhoods
  8. education for sustainable living in schools, colleges, universities and wider public life
  9. innovative low carbon and low waste systems and designs; local energy saving and the micro-generation of energy
  10. much better waste avoidance, reuse and recycling
  11. more local, fresh, healthy food availability; more home and allotment grown food
  12. organisations and people acting with social and environmental responsibility
I write regularly on a wide range of issues including: on the Bristol 24/7 online news site (; on the Sustainable Cities Collective website (; here on my Sustainable Cities, Sustainable World blog; on Twitter (, on Facebook and elsewhere.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

In praise of things public

Things that are public are available to everyone. If they are truly public that is. This makes it a positive, valuable, powerful, democratic idea. Take for instance: public health, education and social services; Bristol’s excellent public parks and open spaces; public meetings; and public rights of way.  

Some things we call public are not determined by what the public want though. Take public transport for example. Private companies own and determine rail and bus services, subject to regulation, with limited public involvement. The result is they are not run for people as a whole and are not done by and for the people. The same can be said for what we call public utilities like gas, electricity and water. Ownership and running of such things should be fully open, accountable and public.

The public interest (or common good) should be determined by broad, inclusive, direct and indirect public involvement not a minority of powerful, wealthy private interests.  Private interests can afford to by-pass public services, using private vehicles, private schools, private health care.

Things truly public are open, accountable to and shared by the people. Greater Bristol’s public transport system should be run by a strategic transport authority operating in the public interest. We forget the very large increase in public health that resulted from public provision of clean, safe drinking water and sewage removal and treatment. These services provided some protection from disease and sources of harm. We should apply the same strategic thinking to transport. Traffic congestion is a definite source of harm, with 29,000 deaths per year caused by air pollution, including hundreds in Bristol. Only smoking causes more premature deaths.

Public enquiries into developments like new roads or power stations need to be genuine, real exercises in public participation. Elected representatives such as Councillors, MPs, Mayors, Police and Crime Commissioners should be subject to public opinion between elections (recall), with a by-election triggered if enough people in an area sign a petition. It’s the public that should decide what - and who - the public really wants. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Creating jobs through resource conservation: the circular economy

Half a million jobs would be created by transforming our economy from a take, make and throwaway one to a genuinely green one which optimises efficiency, renewability and working with environmental respect. This is the conclusion of a recent report by the Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP)  and the GreenAllianceBristol’s green ambitions are thus good economically and socially as well as environmentally – but radical change is best. The more ambitious the plans the more jobs are created.

The report found that whilst significant further recycling and remanufacturing would generate more jobs it’s even better to make substantial progress with these and add in major development of the re-use and bio-refining sectors as well as shifting from product manufacturing to product-service systems. Politicians and other decision makers would need to be much more active and ambitious and set the frameworks needed for this, including setting higher standards for product and resource recovery. They need to fight for instance at EU level for mass job creation through resource conservation.  

The key green idea is to create a circular economy based on making, reusing and remaking: fewer resources are taken from the environment; management is sensitive and centres on renewable resources; production is efficient, clean and for long life; product and system use is efficient, with high emphasis on repairing and maintaining; products and resources are re-used (or recycled or used as an energy source if re-use is not possible).

All these green ideas and more were key topics explored and discussed between 3-5 March at Resource 2015  the yearly congress and exhibition bringing  together 11,000 attendees: individuals, organisations and businesses large and small.

The circular economy concept and the Resource event itself should be more widely reported, especially in aspiring green cities like Bristol. Independent environmental consultancy ResourceFutures  is one of the sponsors and participants. Bristol University's  BruceHood , Professor of Developmental Psychology in Society, was a speaker this year, covering issues like: what makes us want to own things; what we think of second-hand items and sharing.   

In the circular  economy waste does not exist as resources recirculate. Diversity is designed and built into systems, processes and manufacturing - making communities and society more resilient. Energy is managed well, used efficiently and comes from renewable sources that don’t significantly pollute and won’t run out. The whole idea is based on systems thinking, seeing situations in total ie as a whole, accounting for interactions, interrelationships and interdependencies between parts.  The significance is that society would dynamically stable, secure and able to persist over time, leaving a decent world for future generations.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Managing our environment: 10 key concepts

Here are ten key environmental management concepts and what they mean from my perspective. I've chosen: Environment; Sustainability; Sustainable Development; Management; Environmental Management; Stakeholder; Complexity; Decision; System; Perspective.

  • Those affecting and those affected by a change.  = Stakeholders
  • The quality of a system that has many components, all interconnected with each other = Complexity
  • Development that meets the needs of the present without reducing the ability of future generations to meet theirs. = Sustainable development***
  • A way of experiencing the world; a point of view, one of many, all to be considered = Perspective
  • Set of things existing in relation to each other, defined by someone…natural and non-natural, observer dependent; not just our surroundings or the biophysical world but also humans and their social, economic and other systems. We are a part of it, are dependent on it...there are multidimensional interrelationships and feedbacks...human-centred definitions are flawed. We are always linked in and are not in control. = Environment
  • Control, organise and arrange for use of aspects an environment…with natural components, technologies, people…by an individual, organisation or community. = Management
  • The capacity to live without undermining the systems that support life = Sustainability***
  • The managing of human-environment relationships, involving controlling, organising and creating new circumstances for new policies and practices to occur. = Environmental Management
  • A whole, made up of interconnected parts organised to perform a function(s)…(perspective dependent). = System
  • Conscious choice to take or not to take; a particular action or set of actions. = Decision

***Variety in the definitions of sustainability: examples

Acting in recognition of the fact that social and economic systems have to work within and are dependent upon our environment (systems).

Transition from a consumer to a conserver society (transformative).

Reconciliation of production and reproduction (feminist, via journalist/writer Bea Campbell).

Achieving a set of economic (and social) goals not centred primarily on economic growth, with growth meeting conditions and being selective (economic).

Coherently and consistently combining: efficiency; renewability; living within environmental limits; strong local communities; fairness, local and global; health, wellbeing and quality of life; fairness, now and on into the future (my own, more operational definition).

The capacity to live without undermining the systems that support life (ecological).

Development that meets the needs of the present without reducing the ability of future generations to meet theirs (Brundtland, UN Committee, sustainable development).

Friday, January 2, 2015

Sustainability assessment in four steps

What is a sustainable state or sustainable use? Here is how I'd go about assessing these in four steps:

  1. Is the current system state (country, city, business, neighbourhood, process or product...) well established through monitoring key factors such as: efficiency; renewability; living within biophysical limits; socio-economic goals geared to wellbeing, fairness and equality; empowerment of local communities? And is the data valid and reliable?
  2. Is any variation from a sustainable state efficiently and effectively detected, using indicator alert zones as appropriate?
  3. Once unacceptable variation is found, are systems for assessing root causes and enacting corrective action in place?
  4. Are there records that previous variations have been picked up and effectively corrected? Go to 1. 

The process overall should be subject to a well accepted process of inspection, verification and certification, preferably independent, on a regular, appropriately frequent basis. All organisations involved should run themselves sustainably. 

Easily said, far from easily done!!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

All growth is good???

Economic growth has been the most important socio-economic performance measure for over 70 yrs. All political colours except the Greens have increasing growth as their aim and leaders at the recent G20 summit made pledges centred on it. Yet this statistic takes no account whatsoever of the costs of achieving growth and counts anything that causes a flow of money as a positive whether its good for society or not. What's not included in growth figures reveals this measure as a very poor indication indeed of general prosperity and progress. 

Economic growth is most commonly defined as the rate at which GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is increasing. GDP is the total value of the output of goods and services of a country, calculated either by adding up the value of all goods and services produced, or the expenditure on goods and services at the time of sale, or producers incomes from the sale of goods and services (see Office for National Statistics guide). GDP captures and communicates trends through quantification and serves as the main way of getting feedback on what is happening in the economy and society. It is central to economic policy and decision making. It serves to frame public policy and market behaviour. In short its a pointer and so its vital that it points in the right direction - but it doesn't. The graph (top left) of world GDP growth (green line) compared with the Genuine Progress Indicator (purple line) shows that things are progressing throughout the time period according to GDP but since the mid to late 1970s genuine progress has been static. Here are the details.   

GDP takes no account at all of the depletion of resources. When the economy grows, resources which are in finite supply like land are consumed and renewable resources are often used at a rate faster than they are naturally replenished. As a result irreplaceable parts of the capital stock are used up and are unavailable to help meet needs and give people reasonable economic opportunities on into the future. Its a fundamental matter of fairness that we should not run down, waste or squander resources but our main economic indicator tells us nothing about these costs - in fact it in effect assumes that this running down is a good thing because it causes a money flow, growing the economy. Related to this is the fact that GDP takes no account of resource reuse through second-hand transactions, such as selling a used car, or intermediate transactions such as materials that may be sold and resold several times.

GDP does not reflect the distribution of growth. It therefore does not reflect inequality. Who is benefitting from the proceeds of growth and how much is a key issue of fairness. If politicians, civil servants, the media and so on thought of reducing inequality as one part of economic progress then perhaps policies and priorities would be different. Countries that are less unequal suffer far fewer health and social problems (see here).

GDP figures don't show any difference between production that is clean and green and that which is polluting. The environmental costs of growth are thus not accounted for. Yet environmental quality is a very important public health and wellbeing issue. Its an ecological issue too because polluting industries undermine ecosystem capabilities to provide essentials such as clean water, fertile soil, relatively stable climatic conditions, and biodiversity. Related to this is the fact the GDP takes no account of changes in quality through technological improvements or the sustaining of output whilst creating more leisure time.

GDP does not measure any unpaid family, community or social activities. If you tend your garden, clean your house, walk your dog, cook food for your family, grow allotment vegetables or paint your house these are productive positives, many of which underpin the productive capacity of the economy in the GDP sense. Yet they would be included if you paid someone to do them for you. Transactions through barter, if you exchanged your allotment spuds for your neighbour electrican skills for instance, are not counted. Non-profit services like the police and army are valued according to salaries paid and equipment used, yet their value in a market place would be very different. Service is undervalued in GDP.

Adjustments are sometimes made to what is included in GDP. For instance the UK's statisticians this year began including estimates of the value of sex-work and illegal drug dealing (see here). However, they did not of course subtract these negatives from the value of GDP, they added them - because unlike what we usually think of as accounts the accounting process to produce GDP only adds! The £10 billion that was added for sex-work and illegal drug dealing  is approximately the value of Bristol's GDP - and later there was a political row when on the basis of the recalculated figures the EU asked the UK to increase its contribution to the budget (see here). No wonder that my dissertation on this topic in 1998/9 was subtitled 'Is it wiser to subtract as well as add when doing national accounts?' Give me alternatives to GDP, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) anyday.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Breath of fresh air?

Air is polluted when substances, energy or effects with the potential to harm are released into what you breathe. Air pollutants cause you harm such as loss of health, comfort, stability and amenity - and may poison you due to their toxicity. They can harm species growth and damage food chains/webs in ecosystems. In the UK 29,000 a year people die prematurely because of air pollution, according to Government statistics, including hundreds of people in Bristol.

Examples of common air pollutants include: carbon dioxide; carbon monoxide; nitrogen oxide; nitrogen dioxide; ground level ozone; a range of hydrocarbons; sulphur dioxide; and particulate matter (see image above) from the microscopic through to easily visible dust.  

These air pollutants originate from sources, follow certain routes, pathways, and spend extended periods in locations, sinks.  Consider: carbon dioxide from Bristol homes, shops, factories and traffic building up in the atmosphere and causing climate change; radioactive substances in nuclear waste flasks from Hinkley Nuclear Power Station accumulating in Bridgewater soils; sooty particulate matter (PM10s) from vehicle exhausts penetrating deep into all our lungs. We now know more about which pollutants are where and why but still dont gather enough data and make it freely, frequently and easily available.

Rain and winds will move pollutants around and affect concentrations – and substances sometimes settle out of the air onto buildings, into soil, onto food. The mobility of a substance causing harm, or having the potential to do so, affects where it will be, when and how long it might be present. Strong sunlight can cause new pollutants to form from the cocktail pollutant mixture. 

Every day too many vehicles are trying to use local roads: each weekday, half a million vehicles cross into and out of Bristol’s city centre. Bristol’s resulting traffic congestion generates serious, health damaging air pollution: in Old Market the annual mean concentration of nitrogen dioxide recorded was 63µgm3, compared to the EU limit of 40µgm3; and in St Pauls ground level ozone concentrations were 124µgm3 compared with the EU limit of  80µgm3. Traffic emissions contribute significantly to an ecological footprint 2.9 times Bristol's land area.

With respect to the pathways pollutants take we need to consider: problems of sourcing (point sources; diffuse sources); distance from source; change in pollutants during their journey; interactions between pollutants; modes of travel; modes of action and effect; and changes in environmental conditions. We need to ask questions such as: what is the pollutant like; how much is present; how long will it stay present; where will it go; where can it go; how harmful can it be? 

Pollutant persistence is an important factor as substance stability determines the time it takes to break down and so reduce in harm. Pesticides you may use in the garden to kill weeds or in the home to control bugs and certain industrial wastes tend to be persistent and so hang around to cause ongoing problems. Heavy metals may be ingested and once in our bodies they bind to enzymes producing toxic effects. 

Time to breakdown and mechanism of pollutant breakdown are important. Pollutants will naturally degrade but may change or break down in ways that cause harm in itself.

Toxic pollutants are those that interfere with physiological or neurological processes causing loss of health or even death. Toxins may influence enzyme function, reacting with them, stopping normal action. Pollutants may combine with cell constituents, as carbon monoxide does with haemoglobin thus affecting oxygen transport in the body. Secondary actions such as an asthma attack or heart beat irregularity may be caused.

With respect to toxicity, factors to consider are: pollutant concentration; length of exposure; frequency of exposure; age of person; activity (level of exertion); health of the exposed person, population, system; whether inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin. Children are particularly vulnerable as they get a bigger dose per unit of body mass and are still developing key organs such as lungs. Those already suffering ill-health eg from asthma, bronchitis, heart problems or obesity and so on are at particular risk. Air pollution can cause coughing, chest pains and lung irritation in everyone.

Some air pollutants are carcinogens. These cause uncontrolled cell division (cancer). Examples include some pesticides, asbestos, some hydrocarbons such as are present on particulate pollution (see image at start). There is no carcinogenic air pollution level at which there is no effect. This is because cancer development results from an accumulation of irreversible cell damage. This contrasts with toxic substances, where damaging doses can be clearly established. Some carcinogens are also mutagens (chemicals or radiation that alters chromosomes) or teratogens (substances that can cause birth defects). The problem is the time lag between contact and effects.

The combined effect or two or more air pollutants is often greater than the sum of the separate effects (synergism). Smoke with sulphur dioxide and particulate matter with hydrocarbons (see image at start), are examples where the pairing causes much more harm than each individual substance. Carcinogenic hydrocarbons on microscopic particulates are delivered to the exact place they can do most harm, deep in human lungs.

Bristol allowed the building of the M32, which penetrates right into the city, between 1965 and 1975, adding to air pollution. Conventional transport planning is still very much in evidence here, with planning permission granted for the South Bristol Link (Road) and before that Cabot Circus shopping centre with its large, centrally located car park. Little wonder that air pollution problems are still very much with us. We need to tackle many different aspects: need/demand for all transport to begin with; shifting from high impact means of transport to lower impact; reducing the impact severity of high impact means of travel; harmonising planning policies and practices with sustainable transport so that one doesn't contradict the other; establishing a truly strategic, integrated Greater Bristol approach; bringing back the public service ethos of public transport; making the price of methods of travel fairly reflect their actual total costs....All this - and more - needs good democratic leadership, time, and serious money.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The air that I breathe

The recent air pollution event in Bristol on 28 and 29 October highlighted the very serious health effects. Each year the official figures show that 29,000 people die prematurely in our country because of air pollution, equating to hundreds of people in Bristol. Second only to smoking as an environmental cause of death. More details from the Word Health organisation here.

Up to one in five of all lung cancers are caused by air pollution. Children are particularly vulnerable as they get a bigger dose per unit of body mass. Children need clean air to develop and flourish (more here). Those already suffering ill-health eg from asthma, bronchitis, heart problems or obesity and so on are at particular risk - though air pollution causes coughing, chest pains and lung irritation in everyone.

It’s a stark reminder that people are an integral part of the environment and that their health and wellbeing are dependent upon it. Decision makers like Bristol's Mayor, Councillors, MPs, MEPs, Ministers and Secretaries of State need to make connections between: patterns and types of development, such as large supermarkets; car dependency and congestion; poor public transport, walking and cycling options; air pollution; poor health; reduced wellbeing and quality of life; and earlier death. They need to act in accordance with the seriousness, scale and persistence of the problems (see articles on transport here).

Greens haven’t campaigned against air pollution just because its an environmental issue – its also a development, transport, planning, economic, health and social issue (more details here). It needs to be tackled by joined up thinking (systems thinking), which we so clearly have not done if we just look around our neighbourhoods, the city and the country.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Earning a living

Wages that can be lived on doesn't sound like too much to ask for does it. However, millions in the UK don't receive pay that covers the cost of living - whilst the very rich are getting even richer. The Living Wage Foundation which promotes the adoption of a living wage states that its value is now £8.80 per hour in London and £7.65 elsewhere in the UK. In comparison the legally set national minimum wage is £6.50 for those over 21 yrs, £5.31 for 18-20 yrs, £3.79 if under 18 yrs and £2.73 for apprentices of 16-18 yrs (19 yrs if in the first yr).

The significant difference between the living wage and the minimum wage leaves many people unable to meet their needs, dependent on benefits on which there is a squeeze, taking on dodgy loans, getting into debt - with growing numbers using food banks.  Unlike the living wage, the minimum wage does not tackle poverty. The living wage-minimum wage differential is not fair because being fair means meeting needs now and into the future - being decent, caring and honest in giving dues. Meeting needs now and into the future is at the core of sustainability.

Political leaders on the whole sign up to the principle of the living wage. However, current and previous governments have presided over the development of a large pool of labour which is paid poverty wages. Tony Dyer puts it well, observing in the Autumn 2014 Bristol Green News that under a Labour Government in 2004 Bristol South had two of the ten most deprived neighbourhoods in the city - and by 2010 it had eight. He describes how this is not just due to unemployment, given that Bristol South has an employment rate of 79%, above both the city and UK average. He concludes that the deprivation is significantly due to Bristol South wages being well below the UK average with more than 20% earning below the living wage. Tony advocates turning the minimum wage into a genuine living wage, thus enabling people to meet the cost of living and lead decent lives.

We need to aspire to widening what is included in the assessment of a living wage and to reducing the difference between the minimum and maximum wages earned. Needs are those factors required to enable people not just to survive but to thrive, flourish and prosper. They go beyond the basics of food, water, warmth, shelter to the range of wider physical, mental and social factors that produce wellbeing. The promotion of wellbeing and  the ability to meet present and future needs is a key feature of the green aim of sustainability.

BBC article on the living wage.

Living Wage Foundation homepage.

Living Wage Wikipedia entry.

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 Joaquín 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:

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.