Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Let's protect our wetlands !!

World Wetlands Day is coming up soon, on Friday 2 February. The Convention on Wetlands, sometimes called the Ramsar Convention, was adopted on that day in 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar. All sorts of organisations, particularly green ones, have taken advantage of having a World Wetlands Day to raise public awareness of the value of wetlands and the importance that should be attached to their protection from development. One possible threat to wetlands in the region is the Severn Barrage of course.

Our wetlands include: the ponds in our gardens and parks as well as naturally formed ones; rivers like the Avon, Severn and Frome; reedbeds; and bogs. A very large variety of plants and animals live in these habitats which are prized by nature lovers and seekers of leisure and recreation. They are very important for our bodiversity as well as fulfilling a key role in storing flood water. Vitally now that climate change is bringing more weather extremes, wetlands reduce flooding in built-up areas.

Climate change is now a reality. Rising sea levels, warmer, drier summers, stormier winds and wetter winters are features we are seeing. Wetlands soak up water like sponges, allowing it to drain away into the ground in a controlled way in times of flood risk. As a result less reaches our towns and cities, where it can be very damaging. Wetlands are a buffer between the sea and inland development - absorbing the storm energy and acting as a storage area for high tides.

Wetlands protect areas where people live. A lot of work has been and is being done to restore drained and damaged wetlands. New ones are being established across the UK including restoring traditional ‘washlands’, putting the bends back in straightened-out rivers, and creating large areas of reedbed, which act to clean polluted water. 400 hectares were produced by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust alone in 2004/5.

Greens feel that valuing wetlands is the right thing to do for future generations and appeal to people to continue to support their rivers, ponds reedbeds and bogs. They are often of high aesthetic value because of their form, appearance and beauty. They are highly valuable ecosytems, benefitting both human and non-human life. They are often used for education and training so their value to learning is high. Wetlands are a good source of relief from toil as providers of spare time interest. Wetlands are very good for the economy because of the protection from damage they offer, and the leisure and tourism money they can bring in.

Friday, 26 January 2007

Air pollution impairs children's lung development

Children living and going to school within a third of a mile of the busy Wells Rd and Bath Rd in Knowle and elsewhere are seriously at risk of impaired lung development, according to the latest research published in The Lancet. The areas in and around these busy, congested roads have long struggled to meet decent air quality standards. Many other parts of Bristol will also fall into this category.

The US study, which examined the lung function of 3,677 children annually from the age of 10 until they reached 18 when the lungs are fully developed, showed that children who lived within 500 metres of a major road had lung impairment. Children who lived 1500 metres or more away had less impairment, even when factors such as smoking in the home were taken into account.

Its already known that toxic traffic fumes can trigger asthma attacks. The research suggests pollution can stop lungs from growing to their full potential - whether children are otherwise healthy or not.

There's no doubt that fumes from Bristol's very heavy traffic are the number one cause of the air pollution and subsequent childhood health problems, though scientists do not know exactly how air pollution does the damage yet. They do believe however, that lung inflammation in response to daily irritation by air pollutants is a factor. There is accumulating knowledge that the chemicals in the exhaust emissions of cars and lorries adversely affects lung development in the first eight or so years of life, probably through their powerful oxidant effect. Highly reactive oxygen molecules, free radicals, can damage cells and DNA.

Our central and local government has consistently failed to tackle the root causes of air pollution, traffic congestion in particular. The area where I live in Knowle is a very good example of this fact and is far from being the only area suffering. Whilst parents who read about this will be very concerned, all the government spokeswoman said on the issue was that they would consider the evidence and whether further investigations were needed. Further investigations are all very well but in the meantime children's health suffers on a daily basis. What we need is less talk and more action get us all walking, cycling and using public transport, instead of wasteful, inefficient and unhealthy car use. This means leadership eg on congestion charging, local rail, bus fares and quality of service, and putting your money where your mouth is. Dont hold your breath though - we haven't seen this for a long time!

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Inspiration from Robert Burns, born 25 January 1759

Robert Burns poet and lyricist, born 25 January 1759, will have the anniversary of his birth celebrated by many. Many of us would have sung or listened to others singing his poem/song Auld Lang Syne at New Year. He often wrote in Scots dialect of course and particularly when he wrote in English, his political or civil commentary was often radical.

Burns was a pioneer romantic and inspiration to radicals, liberals, socialists and Scottish nationalists. As a green much of his work inspires me so I thought this may be the right moment to include a small sample of his work.

John Lapraik, a friend of Burns, stimulated him to write two great pieces. In the 'First Epistle to John Lapraik', Burns includes these lines:

"Gie me ae spark o' Nature's fire,
That's a' the learning I desire;
Then, tho' I drudge thro' dub an' mire
At pleugh or cart,
My muse, tho' hamely in attire,
May touch my heart."

The 'Second Epistle to John Lapraik' details the bad luck which has been the writer's share, and leads to a declaration on the value of lowliness and contentment:

"Were this the charter of our state,
On pain o' hell be rich an' great,
Damnation then would be our fate,
Beyond remead;
But, thanks to heav'n, that's no the gate
We learn our creed.
"For thus the royal mandate ran,
When first the human race began,
The social, friendly, honest man,
Whate'er he be,
'Tis he fulfils great Nature's plan,
An' none but he."

Sunday, 21 January 2007

Cut human-caused weather extremes by going green

January 20th marked the four hundredth anniversary of the huge tidal wave around the Bristol Channel that caused so much death, damage and distress. Such an anniversary reminds us of the awesome power of natural forces. This power has been clearly demonstrated to us all in Bristol and across the country in our recent weather, with several deaths resulting.

The tidal wave four hundred years ago was a natural event. Yet we are now living in a time where we cannot say that all the weather extremes we experience are wholly natural events. Firm, reliable and verified scientific evidence as collected together by the UN and others has now been saying for decades that pollution of the atmosphere with carbon emissions has altered our climate and thus our weather. Weather extremes have always happened and always will but science now says that as a result of human behaviour these extremes will occur more frequently and that they will be more intense and damaging.

As I write even more scientific evidence is being presented by the BBC/Open University in their report on the climateprediction.net project. Many Bristolians have taken part in this by downloading climate model software onto their home computers from the BBC website. The findings of this project are stark and go beyond a pleasant Mediterranean climate. Evidence of: increased flooding risk; more powerful storm surges; more torrential rain; stronger heatwaves, and more, are confidently predicted to occur if we dont act to substantially cut carbon emissions. Links between environmental problems are also presented eg year on year decrease of open, green space in Bristol reduces the natural capacity of land to deal with extra rain and so flooding risk rises. Unlike green space tarmac and concrete dont act like a sponge.

Problems like carbon emissions and open space loss caused by human behaviour can of course be changed by altering behaviour. Saving energy through upgrading home insulation keeps you more comfortable and saves you money on bills as well as cutting carbon emissions. Taking the train and/or holidaying in the UK instead of flying cuts emissions but also boosts your local, regional and national economy as you spend here and not abroad - there's also a lot to discover in our diverse country. Helping to save a piece of local open green space from development will maintain the ability of land to cope with rain and campaigning to build and maintain genuinely local facilities like swimming pools cuts car use, making our air healthier to breathe. There are many big plus points in such behaviour change - so go green!

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Politicians should also set a personal green example

Tony Blair and the government should set a good example on climate change by adopting more sustainable personal behaviour and so Philip C James letter ('Government must lead by example', Bristol Evening Post, January 15) hit the nail on the head. We all need to do our bit because it all adds up - the Government are asking us all to contribute and it is hypocritical if they are not doing likewise.

Philip asks whether Labour are ready to offer leadership on this issue. The signs are far from good. Tony Blair first said he had no intention of cutting back on personal air travel but then quickly announced he would start to offset his carbon emissions. I cannot see why Tony Blair would not help to promote the country he leads by saying that he would take a holiday or two here instead of always flying. What does he not like about the UK?

Whilst his very sudden conversion to offsetting his carbon is welcome up to a point, there are also issues with the effectiveness of some offsetting schemes. Its also the case that committment to carbon offsetting varies considerably across the Cabinet! What's more the government's own advice to businesses considering carbon offsetting says that action to minimise emissions should be taken first, with only emissions that cannot be eliminated then offset. This is excellent advice to all trying to make carbon cuts and Tony Blair himself should follow it.

In a survey of government ministers only 5 out of 14 questioned by The Guardian currently offset their personal carbon from flights. This is very poor. Secretary of State for Culture Tessa Jowell was quoted as saying, 'I'll be working to plant trees to offset my carbon emissions'. This shows a real lack of awareness at the heart of government about what makes a reliable carbon offsetting scheme - in the week they are launching an offsetting standard! There is no way as yet to accurately measure how much carbon is absorbed and released by forests and woods as trees go through their lifecycle. One EU study estimated that Europes forests absorbed somewhere between 120 and 280 million tonnes of carbon per year, indicating massive measurement uncertainty.

There is growing interest in carbon offsetting but people considering it, Cabinet members included, should look closely at the particular schemes used and shop around for the best. Those that are heavily reliant on tree planting may not be reliable in terms of carbon absorbed - the error in measurement can be as high as 50% according to one New Scientist report! This is perhaps no surprise as carbon absorption by trees depends on many things: species; age; our increasingly uncertain climate, especially droughts and forest fires; diseases; canopy type; a range of pollutants and other factors.

Tree planting done properly is a very good thing and in optimum conditions a lot of carbon can be absorbed but such conditions seldom exist and its very hard to know with accuracy how much is absorbed. There are still fears that foresters might cut down existing forests to plant carbon guzzling trees. There are also many competing land uses for areas around the world that might be considered for trees, not least food production.

In any case carbon offsetting by trees is only a temporary 'solution'. Once trees are mature they begin emitting net amounts of carbon as they begin decomposing in whole or part. They must be removed or managed so that locked up carbon is not simply released again a few decades on.

Its important that we dont come to rely on carbon offsetting, especially by tree planting. Its tempting to put off the real task of cutting pollution or wriggle off the hook of emissions targets. However, the only guaranteed way to tackle climate change is to adopt sustainable lifestyles, which in any case would enhance our general wellbeing. So come on Tony Blair and company - show us how this is done!

Thursday, 11 January 2007

New Academy in Hengrove: Parents and kids should come before religious influence

I am opposed to the setting up of Academies such as the one Oasis Trust is involved in setting up in Hengrove, where many Knowle parents send their kids to school, and am thus in substantial agreement with Phil Jones from Knowle ('A case of indoctrination or moral guidance?', Open Lines letter, Bristol Evening Post, January 10).

Schools should be set up and governed in the interests of children and parents and not private individuals, businessess or religions (as in the case of the evangelical Christian Oasis Trust). Academies are not a genuine solution to todays education issues.

Very poor consultation, failing communication, accelerating opening/closing plans, the lack of experience of running schools of Oasis Trust and very strange council decisions concerning local primary education just make the situation even worse. I just hope that, whatever happens here, local children are provided with good general schooling.

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Organic food: safer, healthier, greener, ethical

It is clearly wrong to say that organic food is not safer, healthier and more nutritious than that grown with artificial chemicals and drugs, as argued by Dr Anne Buckenham from the Crop Protection Association (Bristol Evening Post letters page, Feedback: 'Organic Food', 8 January). Organic foods generally contains more of the good stuff our bodies need for good health as well as less of the contamination that we don't need.

Properly and naturally look after the soil that crops come from and the animals used for meat, eggs and dairy, and their products will look after you. Most people will probably feel this is the case instinctively, as evidenced by growing organic food sales. There is plenty of science to support their instincts too and so the Labour Government's Environment Secretary David Milliband is mistaken to say that food grown with chemicals is not second-best, except perhaps for when the food has been imported from a long distance away, increasing its environmental impact ('Organic farmers hit back at Milliband', Bristol Evening Post, 8 January) .

Take what is perhaps the biggest UK food crisis in decades - BSE. Organic farmers banned the feeding of animal protein to farm animals long before the BSE crisis hit beef farmers. There have been no recorded cases of BSE in any animal born and reared organically.

Antibiotics are used massively in non-organic animal farming. They are used to promote rapid growth and to prevent disease in intensively reared, overcrowded farm animals. This is demanded by our current food system, with its emphasis on quantity not quality. High standards of animal welfare in organic farming minimise the need for antibiotics and other veterinary drugs which are used only when strictly necessary.

Organic fruit and veg generally have greater levels of beneficial minerals, essential amino acids and vitamins. Research comparing the nutrient contents of organic and non-organic fruit and vegetables reveals a strong trend toward higher levels in organic produce. Of 27 valid comparisons of the mineral and vitamin C contents of organic and non-organic crops, 14 showed significantly higher levels in organic produce while just one favoured non-organic.

Organic crops are not artificially protected with pesticides so they tend to produce more naturally occurring phytonutrients, many of which are now known to have protective,antioxidant properties. Some are proving useful in the prevention and treatment of cancer. The artificial fertilisers used in chemical farming tend to increase the water content of fruit and vegetables. This tends to produce the bigger yields our current food systems demand but it dilutes the nutrient content of non-organic fruit and vegetables.

Organic milk, according to research carried out by scientists in Britain and across Europe, has nearly 70% more essential fatty acid omega-3 that we hear so much about as essential for a healthy body. Studies have also shown that organic milk contains significantly more vitamin E. Organic cows milk good is because the animals eat a much more natural fresh grass and clover diet. Most non-organic cows eat a more grain-based diet containing cereals, maize and protein supplements.

Yes its important and healthy to get at least our five-a-day fruit and veg, whether it is organic or not, especially if the food source is local, regional or British because this lowers the environmental impacts of food production. However, eating at least five organic fruit and vegetables a day is even better, doubly so if local/seasonal. Non-organic apples can be sprayed up to 16 times with 36 different chemicals, many of which cannot simply be washed off. Government tests, in 2005, found pesticides in 80% of non-organic apple samples.

Pesticides are found on one in three non-organic foods tested each year, and multiple residues of up to seven different compounds are not uncommon. Pesticide safety is tested for individual compounds. Unfotuneately we know very little about the 'cocktail effect' of multiple residues. Some research suggests that they may be hundreds of times more toxic than the same compounds individually.

The British Medical Association say that some pesticides can be stored in our body's fatty tissues for years, raising concern about them being carcinogenic (cancer causing), mutagenic (causing birth defects) and neurotoxic (damaging to our nervous system). Organic farmers predominantly use natural methods to control pests so choosing organic is the best way to avoid pesticides in your food.

Organic food processors are prohibited from using a host of ingredients that researchers say may be harmful to our health such as aspartame, hydrogenated fat, phosphoric acid, sulphur dioxide, monosodium glutamate, or artificial flavourings and colourings, none of which are prohibited in non-organics.

My answer to the question: 'Do you think organic food is worth buying?' - is generally yes it is, especially if it is British, and we should be doing more to support it, increase the amount produced and help to bring prices down. Clinical and observational evidence in humans suggests that organic food, with fewer toxins and more nutrients, can make a difference to our health. Few, if any, dispute that organic farming is better for the environment and is more ethical too. It has to be said that it's difficult to do controlled health studies with people because of complicating factors like genes and lifestyle. In controlled animal feeding trials though, the evidence is clear. Animals fed organically produced feed are healthier in terms of growth, reproductive health and recovery from illness.

Friday, 5 January 2007

Q&A in Seven Magazine

I will be featured in the Bristol Evening Post's Seven Magazine, in the Q&A section. My answers to the questions they put are:

Tell us about your job.
I'm an Associate Lecturer in Environment with the Open University, as well
as the Coordinator of Bristol South Green Party.

How long have you been doing the job?
I've been with the Open University for nearly seven years. My involvement
in the Green Party goes back over twenty years, including being a
Parliamentary Candidate in Bristol South in 1987 and 2001.

Where do you live?
In Knowle. I was brought up, went to school and have
virtually always lived in Knowle.

What is your favourite food?
I love traditional food like fish, chips and mushy peas but have taken to
having haddock instead of cod because haddock are in plentiful supply in
the oceans, unlike cod. I'm also very keen on Sunday roasts, especially
lamb, though I dont eat a lot of meat. I like a lot of different foods
though and do a lot of cooking.

What is your favourite smell?
Baking bread is hard to beat. There is a certain smell of the English
seaside and woodland that's very pleasant and relaxing too.

What would your idea of perfect happiness be?
I've never been comfortable with the idea of perfection. I want my
partner and daughter to be happy, healthy and achieve their potential of
course. And there are so many wrongs in the world I'd like to see put
right. I'd be very happy to see the Green Party get the public support and
votes its ideas have long deserved. They really do merit recognition - and
of course they have not jumped on the green bandwagon like others because
they started it going!

What's the most valuable lesson life has taught you?
I've often felt that its not been enough to be rational and well reasoned
when trying to achieve change, something else is needed. I also like the
saying that: proper preparation prevents poor performance.

What is your favourite record/piece of music?
This is very hard because I like a lot of music of pretty varied types. I
do play certain songs a lot though, so on this basis While My Guitar
Gently Weeps by George Harrson/The Beatles of which there is a fantastic
version on the new Love CD.

What is your favourite book?
For fiction: The Lord of the Rings trilogy is one I've read many times.
Tolkien builds a whole world very completely, with the history and
languages of many peoples, as well as writing very movingly in places. For
non-fiction: Ray Mears books on bushcraft or Edward de Bono's books on
thinking skills are very good.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
I found it hard to come up with much here, though I did remember mixing up
the words Turks and Kurds (with the obvious embarassing result) when
having a serious discussion on the Iraq issue with my mum-in-law. I was
told I blushed heavily!

What was your childhood ambition.
At secondary school I was very good at sports, especially rugby, because I
had a very good turn of speed, so I remember thinking that I might well be
capable of playing for good club like Bristol. I also remember being very
keen on writing, something I've been able to follow up on through my work
in education - and regular letter writing to the paper!

What would you like to be doing in five years time?
Supporting my daughter with her A' levels or whatever she is doing and my
partner with her work. I'd like to be part of a strong, successful group
of elected Green Councillors influencing Bristol City Council
significantly. I'm keen to write, so would like to help the Open
University to write an environmental course or two, and maybe I'll even
get a few books published!

What do you think of the events planned as part of the city's Abolition
200 commemoration and the invitation to Nelson Mandela?
Its most important to commemorate in ways that maxmise opportunities to
fight the injustice and inequality of today, here and around the world. It
would be very hard to find a better role model for persistently fighting
for a just cause than Nelson Mandela, and so I hope he comes here.

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

Efficient, healthy, green - the humble bicycle (Happy 30th Brithday Sustrans)

What would stretch twice around the world if they were lined up head to tail? Answer: all the cars in Britain, according to The Ecologist magazine. To make things worse car traffic is due to increase by over a fifth in the next ten years, not least in Bristol unless we change our habits. So, its worth reminding ourselves of just how efficient, healthy and green that great piece of technology - the bicycle - is, especially since Sustrans the country's leading, and Bristol-based, sustainable transport charity is about to celebrate its 30th anniversary.

Primary energy use in cycling amounts to just 0.03 megajoules per kilometre! Even walking, which consumes 0.14 megajoules, is not this efficient. The average for a car with average occupancy is 2.1 megajoules per passenger kilometre whilst domestic air travel is also 2.1 due to its higher occupancy rates. Public transport fares better with figures of 1.1 per passenger kilometre for the average rail (about the same as a double decker bus) and 1.4 for a single decker bus, depending on occupancy rates. The most efficient forms of public transport, such as London Underground trains or certain forms of tram might achieve figures as low as 0.2 megajoules when fully occupied - still no match for the bicycle.

This makes the bicycle 70 times more energy efficient than the average car and 6 or 7 times more efficient than even the best forms of public transport running under the most efficient conditions. So, in terms of efficiency, my answer to the question 'Have you got any suggestions for improving transport in and around Bristol?' is to invest much more in cycling and try harder to create a cycling culture. More is also needed for public transport.

We need a cycling culture for our health too. One BUPA study found that childhood obesity had doubled in a decade. Over a third of children aged 2-7 years dont get enough exercise and nearly two thirds of teenage girls are classed as inactive. Contrast these figures with the fact that a 10% increase in the number of people riding a bike regularly would lead to a 4% reduction in people with heart disease, saving hundreds of millions a year in healthcare. And it would create a more pleasant, greener environment.

Current hunting ban is weak

Given that more than 300,000 people seem to have taken part in 314 fox hunts across the country on Boxing Day it seems that what many have been calling a ban on hunting is not really a ban at all.

Greens like me would enact a proper ban on hunting with hounds. The present Act 'banning' hunting is weak and almost unworkable. The police have said that they are unable to enter private land without the landowner's permission. They have maintained they don't have the manpower to deal with the issue. Hunting with hounds is also a 'non-recordable' offence at present. The political will from the government just wasn't there when it came to banning hunting.