Monday, 16 December 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, 14 December 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, 23 November 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, 15 November 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

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Why not nuclear?

Why not more nuclear power? The economics of more nuclear at Hinkley Point (pictured) are sound aren’t they? 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 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 energy efficiency and renewable energy generation, the only sustainable options in any case.



But it’s low carbon and would help fight climate change…It’s very slow and ineffective at this, taking many years to build and even more to pay back the carbon costs of construction, mining and transport. Energy efficiency measures are orders of magnitude faster and more effective – and bring wider benefits such as paying for itself in lower bills. The Government's own [former] advisors at the Sustainable Development 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.  
It would make us less dependent on imported energy though wouldn’t it? Well, uranium oxide from which nuclear fuel for power stations is made comes from abroad eg Canada (27.9% of world production) and Australia (22.8%) being the largest producers and Kazakhstan (10.5%), Russia (8.0%), Namibia (7.5%), Niger (7.4%), Uzbekistan (5.5%), the United States (2.5%), Ukraine (1.9%) and China (1.7%).

Nuclear is about having an innovative economy though, built by entrepreneurs right? No, nuclear technology is hardly the kind that can be tinkered with, adapted and developed by small and medium-sized businesses and individuals unlike energy efficiency, energy conservation and renewable energy technologies which are amenable and are rapidly
developing.


There are very large amounts of uranium ore in the ground though to make the fuel from. Yes but if nuclear power spreads more uranium ore is mined, the quality of the ore falls and the energy cost of mining it goes up. A mass nuclear power program would rapidly exhaust high quality ores and the uranium being mined would provide far less energy per tonne of rock.

Nuclear is a tried and tested technology though isn’t it? It’s failed the test of time and does not come out well if technical capabilities and limitations, total cost-effectiveness, socio-economic effects such as efficiency of job creation and the ability to keep safe and accurate records of nuclear waste disposal for thousands of yrs, and environmental impacts are all fairly considered. Nuclear certainly does not fit in with building a sustainable society because no-one disputes that it leaves ongoing problems for future generations in the form of nuclear waste (being transported through Bristol by train, below) and the finite nature of its fuel.


Train3


We will find solutions to nuclear waste disposal though…There are huge nuclear waste handling, storage, transport and disposal problems and there is no scientific consensus on the best way to do it, for existing waste let alone the extra produced from more nuclear stations. Conservative politician Sir Hugh Rossi once said 'With waste that can be active for thousands of yrs, guaranteeing that the institutions would be stable beyond periods which have so far proved to be whole lifetimes of civilisations would be impossible.'
We’ve learned a lot from our mistakes though haven’t we? Huge mistakes are still being made. There are also a whole range of safety and security issues for nuclear stations: with major accidents like Three Mile Island, USA in 1979, Chernobyl USSR in 1986, Windscale, UK in 1957; and Fukushima, Japan in 2011 (see image below).


It’s highly problematic: predicting and minimising human error in the design, construction, operation and decommissioning process; establishing safe levels of radioactivity; safely transporting nuclear waste by rail and road, including through cities like Bristol (shown in photo of train above), for safe disposal for thousands of yrs; planning what it is best to do in the event of a serious incident/accident; whether we can effectively prevent terrorist attacks eg by flying planes into stations, driving cars/lorries loaded up to be bombs. The consequences of just one very serious incident have the potential to be very large and long-lasting in scale as Fukushima and Chernobyl demonstrate.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Climate change: a matter of human rights

Climate change is a major threat to the realization of human rights as others participating in Blog Action Day (2013 theme human rights) will also say. People living in poverty are feeling the effects soonest and most sharply as the map below showing the distribution of deaths due to climate change in 2000 clearly shows. It’s essential that human rights are on the agenda at all the key meetings aimed at tackling climate change if effective solutions are to be enacted.


The latest IPCC report on the scientific evidence again reconfirmed: shrinking snow, sea ice, glaciers and polar ice caps; rising sea levels; more frequent weather extremes such as excessive temperatures and excessive rainfall and flooding; more drought affected land; more intense tropical cyclones, and more. Fundamental rights to life, health, water, food, and housing are clearly impacted - such as through more frequent and severe wildfires or water shortages or failed or destroyed crops - and are forecast to be impacted even more severely if we don’t tackle climate change. New research by the Overseas Development Institute shows that extreme weather can be the most important cause of poverty.

Actions on climate change need to protect human rights. If not then the effectiveness of preparing for climate change impacts and the effectiveness of attempts at slowing it and cutting the harm it can do is reduced. Rights to information, fairness, participation and accountability are particularly important.


Solutions are much harder to find and implement without free access to information about the nature and extent of the problem and potential and applied actions. Governments and others should therefore provide for and enable the flow and spread of good quality information on climate change, action taken and its impacts. It’s part of the duty of Government to provide and explain information about risks and opportunities, not least in relation to environmental change.

Well informed people are enabled to actively participate in decision making. Governments should be engaging with the public through meaningful consultation, genuinely involving people. Without the participation of civil society in the design of climate change adaptation and mitigation policies their social sustainability may be limited.

 
Well informed people are enabled to fight discrimination. Climate change is impacting more on those already vulnerable to human rights abuses because of poverty, age, gender, race, ethnicity, disability and more. Climate change policies that unfairly discriminate and don’t aid the fight against discrimination are inconsistent with genuine, coherent approaches to achieving sustainability. Fairness means meeting needs now and into the future, sharing resources over time and across distances, working together, fighting  discrimination, trading fairly, trading sustainably, dealing with risks and costs now and not passing them on to our children and theirs, conserving resources so that they are always available.


Those who disagree with their Government should be able to freely express their views, associate with like-minded people and assemble to peacefully protest. This is a crucial feature of an informed society with decent opportunities to participate. Action or lack of action on climate change needs to be subjected to public debate and pressure. It’s healthy that people seek, receive and spread information and ideas and, far from being suppressed in doing so, are encouraged to do so. Governments should be accountable for their actions or failure to act on climate change and people should have the power to get them to put their mistakes right.
More on: climate change and human rights http://www.ichrp.org/en/projects/136; the Universal Declaration on Human Rights http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/; British Institute of Human Rights http://www.bihr.org.uk/.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Climate change: concerted action needed

We humans are told [wrongly] that ever growing narrowly defined wealth levels are possible and desirable on a finite planet. Human population has accelerated to over seven billion and looks set to reach ten or eleven billion people, all needing energy, food, water, shelter…and aspiring to ever growing wealth. Resource intensive technologies, especially fossil fuel dependent ones, are used for industrial scale farming, mass production, transportation and more.

Given the accelerating rate and intensity of resource use and the pumping out of huge amounts solid, liquid and gaseous wastes it would be a surprise if there was no significant impact on our climate, with billions of tonnes of the waste dumped into the air. Thus the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change asserted on the release of their very recent report on the scientific evidence that  they are 95% certain that humans are the "dominant cause" of global warming since the 1950s’ (BBC story here).  




Of the 4 hundred billion tonnes of carbon in the form of natural gas, oil and coal present underground before the industrial revolution it’s taken us about 250 yrs to burn 0.5 hundred billion tonnes. We are currently set to burn the next 0.5 hundred billion tonnes in just 35 years. Do we really think this is a good idea??

Carbon dioxide in the air is 39% higher than at the start of industrialisation in 1750. Methane is up 158%. Nitrous oxide is up 20%. People, especially those living in the most economically developed societies, currently impact heavily on the carbon cycle (see image below). Total carbon dioxide equivalent emissions per person per year in the UK are now more than 10 tonnes, when a sustainable level is 2 tonnes. Elsewhere in the economically developed world it can be higher than this eg in the USA.


In constructing homes, factories, roads...people consume huge quantities of fossil fuel and cement. Extracting/producing, transporting and using fossil fuels and cement in itself releases large amounts of carbon. In heating and lighting homes and using many gadgets people consume large amounts of natural gas and electricity (largely produced by burning fossil fuels in power stations).

In transporting themselves around by car and their factory mass produced and consumed goods around the globe by heavy lorry, planes and ships, huge amounts of petrol, diesel and aviation fuel are burned, emitting carbon. Demand for land is high and growing eg to feed a growing world population and to meet high demand for meat. Beef farming in particular is land and energy intensive - large scale deforestation (see image) has occurred to make land available for it.


The World Metrological Organisation says that global warming accelerated from 1971 to 2010 and the decadal rate of increase between 1991-2000 and 2001-2010 was higher than ever. The world is warming and the changing weather is causing increasing amounts of damage. The latest World Meteorological Organization analysis of climate between 2001 and 2010 stated that the decade was warmest since measurements began in 1850 for both land and ocean surface. More national temperature records were reported broken in the last decade than in any previous one.

In the last decade we’ve seen heat waves in Europe and Russia, Hurricane Katrina in the US, tropical cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, droughts in the Amazon basin, Australia and East Africa, and huge floods in Pakistan. Sea levels rose approximately twice as fast as the one hundred year trend. Arctic sea ice has rapidly declined and there is accelerating net loss of ice sheet mass in Greenland and Antarctica and from glaciers around the globe.


The current hot debate about the apparent pause in atmospheric warming centres on looking at ten to fifteen years of data (see part of the debate here). This is a short period in climate terms and becomes most useful if one looks at decadal averages and in the context of the overall trend (see above). Remember that the classical definition of climate is the range of weather phenomena averaged over 30 years. The climate system is complex, with high inherent variability so one should not expect a smooth global temperature curve (see graph above). More data is far better than less, so what counts is the long-term underlying trend. This trend is clearly in an upward direction.

One reaction to all the climate change evidence: the UK Climate Change Act, 2008 which became law under the last Labour Govt, which sets a carbon reduction target of at least 80% by 2050 from 1990 levels and carbon budgeting. However, the current Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition Govt has a long list of green failures. Despite its ‘greenest government ever’ claim it has: dropped the pledge to cut EU emissions by 30% by 2020 and is instead getting the EU "back on track" to cutting energy consumption by 20% by 2020; abandoned a planned rise in the renewable energy target; axed a commitment to replace air passenger duty with a per-flight tax; severely limited the scope of green financial products supposed to enable people to invest in green infrastructure; favoured greater reliance on finite and climate change causing natural gas; favoured fracking for shale gas....see here for more.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Re-structure the economy don’t just re-cycle

I’ve experienced Bristol’s fairly good recycling/composting system with its brown, black and green containers in addition to the smaller ‘rubbish’ bins that are meant to be just for residual waste for several years now. It’s not perfect but it has helped me to make a pretty good (approximately 10%) reduction in my household eco-footprint from an already lowish level.

Bristol’s recycling, composting and recovery of household waste has increased sharply since 2004 (see table below) but the better option of reuse is still at a very low level and the rate of increase in recycling/composting has slowed greatly, currently standing at a rate just over 50% when some, such as the Zero Waste Alliance say that 70%, 80% or even 90% are achievable in the right conditions. Many UK cities who have in the last decade focussed much more on recycling and composting are in a similar position (some figures compared here).  
 
However, recycling is far from the top of the waste management list as far as creating sustainable cities is concerned: if we didn’t produce the waste to begin with then there would be no waste sustainability problems to solve. The different options for dealing with waste are considered as a waste management hierarchy. Top priorities are waste avoidance, reduction or minimisation. After reduction is the reuse of objects so that they do not enter the waste stream at all: for example the refilling of bottles, or trade in refurbished furniture and appliances.


It's not until one gets lower in the hierarchy that one gets to materials recycling and composting and then the recovery of energy from waste by a whole range of methods, some much more eco-friendly than others, such as pyrolysis and gasification compared with the - all too often proposed - mass incineration with electricity generation. Many fear that increasing mass incineration with electricity generation reduces the incentive to reduce, reuse and recycle given that one needs to retain high levels of rubbish to feed the beast that burns it, an issue recently explored here in The Guardian.



Waste disposal is at the bottom of the hierarchy and includes final disposal to landfill and the incineration of waste without recovering any energy. Society is sort of upside down as far as what we do with our waste is concerned because the options we use most are at or towards the bottom of the list of waste sustainability priorities! Thus campaigners are working hard to emphasise the need for waste avoidance, for reduction, for reuse and indeed for restructuring our economy as our top priorities.
There does of course also need to be a shift to high levels of recycling and composting but there are certainly dangers in thinking that these alone are the complete solution to all our waste sustainability problems - they are not, as their position in the waste management hierarchy illustrates.

Without very significant reductions in waste we still have to deal with very large amounts of material in a fuel and money intensive way. This often includes sending recyclable and compostable materials over large distances on trains, in lorries and on ships because recycling and composting facilities don’t exist locally and the infrastructure is not in place to use the products of recycling and composting. Bristol is at least seeking to add to locally available recycling centres (see here) but only once funds become or are made available. 
The further you go down the waste management hierarchy the lower is the tendency to avoid, eliminate or prevent waste problems and higher the impact of the waste management options themselves. Recycling itself can have sizeable impacts though on balance the gains of recycling outweigh the impacts (though this situation might not stay this way).  
Moving to more recycling is a relatively 'easy' step to take, despite all the teething problems, claimed inconvenience and the initial costs of new systems. It’s the relatively ‘low hanging fruit’ of more sustainable waste management. Just as sometimes happens with public transport improvements (which alone do not constitute sustainable transport) some politicians have loudly blown their own trumpet about their recycling achievements and helped to create the false impression that recycling alone contributes more to sustainability than it can in reality. 
 


What would really help to tackle our waste sustainability problems is a very significant shift to producing minimal waste and designing for reuse, repair and long life products. This is a much more difficult step to take in the sense of the scale and type of change because it means restructuring our economy so that: re-use, recycling and composting facilities are operating locally; the infrastructure is in place to use the products of recycling and composting; and instead of being geared to mass consumption the economy works in a cyclic fashion geared to conserving our real wealth (see here and here). Thus building sustainable cities is as much about a new economics as it is about the biophysical environment.

More on: recycling here; Bristol's waste management system here.