Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Sun shines on solar

Very positive story about one example of solar power generation in Bristol in todays Post (details below). Wouldn't it be great to see hundreds or thousands of  other developments like this across the city, generating low carbon power from free sunlight. Scaling up in this way would begin to eat away at our unsustainable city emissions significantly.

One year after the largest solar panel [ie photovoltaic panel] system in Bristol was installed on the roof of the At-Bristol attraction, staff have revealed that the panels are proving more efficient than they had imagined.

A total of 208 individual panels were fitted on the Harbourside science centre’s roof measuring an area approximately the size of two tennis courts. It was estimated that the panels would create the equivalent power to supplying a dozen homes a year – but in fact the amount has been beaten by two households, equating to 14 in reality.

As a result, it has reduced the centre’s carbon footprint even further than initially planned. The 50 kilowatt peak (kWp) solar photovoltaic (PV) system provides a renewable source of energy for the building and its planned prevention of more than 25 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year from entering the atmosphere has also been beaten by nearly 3,000kg of CO2... (full story here). More on renewable energy here.

Gas and greed

Here's an excellent reason for insulating all homes to the highest standards and developing renewable energy big time, in order to improve our health and wellbeing and cut our dependence on this polluting, pricey fossil fuel and the companies that make such profits from it whilst putting prices up and giving shareholders more: British Gas has reported a rise in profits for 2012 after colder weather led to people using more gas.

Profits from its residential energy supply arm rose 11% from a year earlier to £606m. It said gas consumption had risen by 12%.

But there has been some criticism that the company increased its prices in November when profits were rising.

Centrica, which owns British Gas, reported an adjusted operating profit of £2.7bn for 2012, up 14% from 2011...full BBC story here. More on fossil fuels here, renewable energy here, and energy efficiency here.

No to nukes

Please sign the Global Zero petitiion to President Obama calling for action to cut nuclear weapons. Here's the petition wording:

You stated clearly and with conviction your commitment to seek a world without nuclear weapons. You asked for perseverance. You dared us to overcome our differences. You challenged us to ignore the voices that tell us the world cannot change. And you told us words must mean something.

We heard you.

As you begin your final term in office, we urge you to announce on April 5, 2013 – the 4th anniversary of that historic speech – that you will set the world’s course to global zero by negotiating further cuts to the massive U.S.-Russian Cold War stockpiles and bringing world leaders into the first international negotiations in history for the elimination of all nuclear weapons.
Its irrational to abide by the principle of maintaining peace by arranging to defend ourselves with weapons we could not possibly use without committing suicide. More on a range of nuclear weapons issues here.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Renewables from the Rift

Energy revolution promises to transform East Africa - an excellent report by Tom Heap for Radio 4 and Newsnight. An energy revolution is taking place in East Africa as the price of solar technology tumbles and huge resources of geothermal steam beneath the Great Rift Valley start to be exploited, moves which have the potential to lift millions out of poverty and cut greenhouse gas emissions...I wish we had the drive and ambition for renewable energy that seems evident in Kenya - the UK too is rich in renewable energy potential - particularly wind, tidal and wave power - but just aren't developing it on anything like a sufficient scale and are missing out economically as a result.
The Great Rift Valley is a tear in the Earth's crust stretching 3,000 miles (4,830 km) through Africa. In places the ground smokes and sulphurous fumes fill the air.

Drill down a couple of miles and, if your prospecting is good, you hit pools of water under great pressure and heated to 230C. Stick in a pipe and steam roars out ready for ducting into power stations to turn turbines and make electricity.

At Olkaria, near Lake Naivasha, in Kenya, they have been generating some electricity for 20 years, but now there is step change. With investment of around £1bn, in a few years they will be able to produce more electricity than the country's entire current annual consumption 1,600 megawatts... remote villages of Africa, a quieter energy revolution is underway which could change lives more rapidly. Seven in 10 Africans are not on the mains grid, but wires and pylons are not the only way to deliver electricity.

Solar lights are now illuminating the homes of seven million Africans and sales are doubling every year.

Harnessing the African sun has been considered before and foundered due to high cost and complexity. But in the last few years the price of technology has plummeted - solar panels, batteries and LED bulbs are now better and cheaper.

Also the need to charge millions of mobile phones has created an enormous appetite for relatively small amounts of power - the kind that solar can generate...More details and links to the Newsnight and Radio 4 programs here. Explore a wide range of renewable energy issues here.

Changing climate

Global warming and airflow changes 'caused US and EU heatwaves'. Air systems that encircle planet can slow to standstill, as greenhouse gas heats Arctic and causes temperature imbalance
Global warming may have caused extreme events such as a 2011 drought in the United States and a 2003 heatwave in Europe by slowing vast, wave-like weather flows in the northern hemisphere, scientists said on Tuesday.

The study of meandering air systems that encircle the planet adds to understanding of extremes that have killed thousands of people and driven up food prices in the past decade.

Such planetary airflows, which suck warm air from the tropics when they swing north and draw cold air from the Arctic when they swing south, seem to be have slowed more often in recent summers and left some regions sweltering, they said.

"During several recent extreme weather events these planetary waves almost freeze in their tracks for weeks," wrote Vladimir Petoukhov, lead author of the study at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

"So instead of bringing in cool air after having brought warm air in before, the heat just stays," he said in a statement of the findings in the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences... Full Guardian story here; more on climate change issues here.

Cut councils clear

Goto, a remote island off the coast of south-west Japan near Nagasaki is an unlikely birthplace for a model society. But with local industry struggling and a population in decline, it has been selected as a testbed for the region's new social and economic strategy...unlike many British cities, Nagasaki has a convincing vision for its future. Its prefectural government (comparable to a large county council or combined regional authority) has set out a ¥42bn (£295m) "green deal" for the region that links plans to increase tourism and improve its record on sustainability to its economic and industrial future.
The plan is this: make up the population gap by encouraging tourism and use the tourist industry to spread sustainable behaviour such as driving electric vehicles (on Goto, for example, all hire cars are already EV or PHV vehicles). Then use this expertise in eco-sustainability to develop a new industry in green technology (Mitsubishi is already gathering expertise in offshore wind) to create jobs. If this "green deal" succeeds, it could convince the Japanese government to site a new offshore green energy hub within the prefecture, turning the region's fortunes around...

... lessons, in return, for British authorities from the bold vision of Nagasaki's senior officers and politicians. Imagining and believing in a different future for an area in decline takes strength.
Of course, it is easier to think big when central government is still providing investment (two-thirds of the funding required for Goto's electric vehicles was provided centrally). But though tussles between the two power bases are still common, Japanese local authorities have a greater share of responsibility, autonomy and fiscal control than British councils. The message for Whitehall? Give councils their freedom and they could grant you that elusive prize: economic growth. Full story here . More on cutting councils (like the one based at Bristol City Hall, pictured) clear of centralised control and the importance of the local here.

Eat weird and wonky

Eating weird and wonky fruit and veg could cut food waste, survey finds. Poll by Institute of Mechanical Engineers finds most British shoppers are not put off by irregularly shaped produce
More than 80% of British shoppers would be happy to buy fruit and vegetables which are not perfect in shape or colour, a new survey has revealed. The survey confirms widespread - if relatively new - consumer acceptance of wonky carrots, blemished spuds and discoloured cauliflowers.

The poll, for the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME), showed that fewer than one-in-five people would only buy produce that is unblemished and uniform in size and shape. In January, a report by the IME estimated that between 30% and 50% of the food produced worldwide is lost or wasted...(full story here; more on sustainable food issues here).

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Food fit for the future

Horsemeat has entered the UK human food chain passed off as beef (see here). The chain has been shown to be very long and very complex, with dubious practice both within the UK and across the EU (more here). Parts of the food system the UK and EU are insecure.  Testing of meat for processing is inadequate. The provenance of many processed products containing ‘beef’ is now understandably doubted by shoppers. Reports are appearing about the benefits of locally sourced foods.

Trust and confidence in processed meat products from supermarkets has decreased with more people instead going to their local butcher. They can talk to them about their products. They are more likely to look over what they are buying. They can get to know and understand more about their food and where it comes from. There’s a great story to hear and pass on about those who supply all local foods: farmers who grow local apples; bakers who make local bread or meat pies. We should not underrate the power of the story of our food as part of having confidence in and enjoying what we eat.

There are many advantages in short, simple food chains, which for meat in a local butcher is much more often from farm to butcher to shopper. Contamination, deliberate or otherwise, is less likely with a shorter chain. There are animal welfare advantages in lowering the need to transport them – and diseases are less likely to spread if animals are moved around less.
More people may turn directly to suppliers of organic, seasonal, local, regional and national foods as these pride themselves in establishing and maintaining maximum traceability for their products and establishing and maintaining high and consistent quality standards (see here on green system design). Any changes in shopper habits may only last for the period that the scandal remains an issue – but this would be a mistake. There are many advantages in establishing and supporting a strong local food system.
Community and food security and stability is enhanced by strengthening the local food system. This is something my city, Bristol, has worked quite well on eg through its Food Policy Council, Food Charter and Who Feeds Bristol? report, a baseline study of the food system that feeds the city and its region (details here). The Bristol-based Soil Association has championed local food.

Bristol’s work on local food is likely to be progress well under Bristol’s first elected Mayor who is committed to:  growing a greener Bristol through encouraging local food production; championing the protection of Bristol’s Green Belt and farmland; establishing Town Teams across Bristol, modelled on the Greater Bedminster success, to revitalise high streets and independent shops.

Supporting local producers and local shops supports responsible land use. Buying local gives those with local farmland the economic support to stay in business and not sell to developers. Land that is covered in concrete and tarmac can: no longer supply local food; not absorb carbon emissions; not help to manage rainwater and reduce flood risk; not support biodiversity.

Growing, processing, selling and eating more local food strengthens the local economy. It employs quite a number of people now and could employ many more if boosted. Spending money on local products from local businesses tends to re-circulate money locally and generate more income for the local economy.

A strong local food system generally means lower air pollution because food is transported less and stored for shorter times. Generally the total ecological and carbon footprint of local foods is lower. Since locally grown food does not travel so far and is supplied in season it is therefore fresher. Local farmer's market food has often been picked within a day of purchase.  It often has longer to ripen and is handled and so damaged less because it does not come so far and through so many different hands.  Foods in season are at their peak taste, highest abundance, and lowest cost. The taste and nutritional value which reduces over time and with handling is better. Buying local means we stay in touch with the seasons.

Locally grown, locally eaten foods don’t have to stand up to long distance and frequent transportation. This means that shorter shelf life, lower yielding varieties can be experimented with by producers. This is highly unlikely to happen on any significant scale with supermarkets. More information on Bristol and its local food from and

Friday, 8 February 2013

Schemes and surroundings

This story about how a NASA research team has come up with a way of making an aeroplane 'hybrid wing' that could cut in half the fuel use from flying got me reviewing design principles and processes which benefit the environment. This wing design still has a long way to go to fully prove itself and be put into commercial practice but truly smart designs can help to make a difference environmentally.
Environmentally beneficial design processes at best adopt a broad, wide-ranging outlook, dealing with all stages or aspects in the life of a product or system (see Dartford FCs Princes Park stadium lauded for its green design, pictured left). This means considering: the raw materials; material processing; producing parts, products and services; distributing products and putting services into action; use, repair and maintenance; any reuse of products and parts; recycling or composting of any materials; and finally the disposal of wastes that cannot be eliminated.
Best practice means auditing energy and material inputs and emissions to air, water and land for each stage or aspect in the product or system life cycle as far as is practicable.
Design to benefit the environment means where possible avoiding materials, processes, designs or systems that are high impact in terms of: energy; water; materials; environmental emissions; distance travelled from source; toxicity; or health and safety risks such as noise.
Also to be avoided, ideally, are anything: non-recyclable; non-renewable; likely to generate direct or indirect waste in large amounts; of low durability or hard to reuse, repair and maintain; hindering meeting independently verified, well regarded environmental standards, such as ISO 14001; difficult to establish and maintain traceability for; difficult to establish and maintain high and consistent quality standards for.
Measurement of the aforementioned aspects and/or categorisation into low, medium and high impact is often not straightforward. Common units for carbon emissions and toxicity don’t exist for instance (though one might attempt convert many of the impacts into a money value or land area or to energy).
It’s not possible to meet all the design for the environment criteria simultaneously eg a high durability product or system may use a lot of water in production or use. There is very often a balancing act with trade-offs likely to be involved.

A broad outlook on the environment means going beyond the biophysical aspects to their interrelationships with social and economic ones. Many kinds of partnership to promote best environmental – and socio-economic – practices can be formed. There are wide benefits in such partnerships as they can offer good employment opportunities to local people and/or produce socio-economic and environmental benefits to communities that are not local.

A broad approach to  design is more likely to achieve lasting, appropriate solutions to problems. Ideally it tries to account for behavioural, ecological and other responses to designs instead of assuming a technofix. It tries to account for the network of  relationships between all the relevant factors: technical; economic; social; psychological; environmental… Akin to crystal ball gazing it may sometimes be - but its well worth the effort.

A purely technical ‘solution’ may result in changes in other key factors which reduce, undermine or reverse any progress made eg increasing areoplane fuel efficiency (perhaps via a 'hybrid wing' design) means less fuel used, saving airlines money, which helps the keep the price of flying lower, meaning people may then fly further and more often, perhaps even consuming more fuel than was saved through efficiency; low energy lighting designs may result in people leaving them on for longer; cars with many safety features may be driven faster. Anticipating the impacts of designs may facilitate a better, more complete design and/or result in other compensatory changes eg in taxation, regulation, education, govt keep change going in the desired direction and on the scale needed.   

One Planet Living  is basically applying best practice environmentally beneficical design to cities, towns and neighbourhoods. The ten principles chime with much of the aforementioned thinking. Zero Carbon: making buildings more energy efficient and delivering all energy with renewable technologies (eg see Lighthouse zero carbon building at Building Research Establishment, pictured left). Zero Waste: reducing waste arisings, reusing where possible, and ultimately sending zero waste to landfill. Sustainable Transport: encouraging low carbon modes of transport to reduce emissions, reducing the need to travel. Sustainable Materials: using sustainable products that have a low embodied energy. Local and Sustainable Food: choosing low impact, local, seasonal and organic diets and reducing food waste. Sustainable Water: using water more efficiently in buildings and in the products we buy; tackling local flooding and water course pollution. Natural Habitats and Wildlife: protecting and expanding old habitats and creating new space for wildlife. Culture and Heritage:
reviving local identity and wisdom; support for, and participation in, the arts. Equity, Fair Trade and Local Economy: inclusive, empowering workplaces with equitable pay; support for local communities and fair trade. Health and Happiness: encouraging active, sociable, meaningful lives to promote good health and well being.

More details on the above, including an expansion on what the 10 principles are all about
here. Several practical examples of projects, at various levels, such as: BedZed UK; One Brighton; One Gallions, Thames Gateway; One Planet Sutton; RuralZED, can be found here.  


Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Crunch carrots, cut climate change

We really need to be redoubling our efforts to tackle climate change. Just look at the blog entry before this one, where Stern says the problem is far worse than he'd previously described in his highly influential report - and the entry before that on government giving the cold shoulder to action on climate. Many think of efforts to tackle climate change in terms of flying less, driving less, using renewable, low carbon energy sources, insulating our homes, recycling materials...but adjusting our diet is not so commonly mentioned.

Changing to a lower meat, higher fruit and veg diet can in fact be one of the most effective ways of lowering carbon emissions and tackling climate change, especially if beef consumption is reduced or eliminated. Consider the estimated total eco footprint of meat compared with fruit and vegetables: 6.9 to 14.6 hectare yrs per tonne for meat (calculated using average global yield and embodied energy data - the range is due to pasture-fed vs grain-fed animals); as against 0.3 to 0.6 hectare yrs per tonne for a range of fruits, roots and vegetables (calculated using average global yield for a range of veg, with an allowance for transport, processing and energy for farming).

These estimates from the book Sharing Nature's Interest by footprint experts Chambers, Simmons and Wackernagel (2000) show the the environmental impact of meat is 11 to 49 times higher than fruit and vegetables. This chimes with the basic science because the food chain for meat is obviously longer, with many vegetables and grains being grown for use as animal feed. [Meat impacts are 1.5 to 8.5 times higher than grains and pulses too.]  Beef farming has a very high climate impact due to: rainforest clearance to create the farmland, perhaps by burning; grain feeding the animals; methane released by the cows metabolism, (and dont forget the long distance trade in frozen meat).

In short: crunch carrots more, eat meat less and you will contribute to cutting climate change! Whether the fruit and veg are chemically grown abroad, or locally and organically grown, they're going to have lower climate impact than any kind of meat. There are other benefits too as lower meat diets are cheaper and healthier. Carrots for instance - given that it was National Carrot Day on 3 Feb and that it will be International Carrot Day on 4 April  - have the highest vitamin A content of all veg and are loaded with vitamin B6, vitamin C and potassium too. Find out more from this amazing, if somewhat bizarre site:    

Friday, 1 February 2013

Climate change: consummate concern

Nicholas Stern: 'I got it wrong on climate change – it's far, far worse'. Author of 2006 review speaks out on danger to economies as planet absorbs less carbon and is 'on track' for 4C rise

Lord Stern, author of the government-commissioned review on climate change that became the reference work for politicians and green campaigners, now says he underestimated the risks, and should have been more "blunt" about the threat posed to the economy by rising temperatures.

In an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Stern, who is now a crossbench peer, said: "Looking back, I underestimated the risks. The planet and the atmosphere seem to be absorbing less carbon than we expected, and emissions are rising pretty strongly. Some of the effects are coming through more quickly than we thought then."

The Stern review, published in 2006, pointed to a 75% chance that global temperatures would rise by between two and three degrees above the long-term average; he now believes we are "on track for something like four ". Had he known the way the situation would evolve, he says, "I think I would have been a bit more blunt. I would have been much more strong about the risks of a four- or five-degree rise."

He said some countries, including China, had now started to grasp the seriousness of the risks, but governments should now act forcefully to shift their economies towards less energy-intensive, more environmentally sustainable technologies... Full story from link below:

Nicholas Stern: 'I got it wrong on climate change – it's far, far worse' | Environment | The Observer