Sunday, 24 March 2013

Going for green? Or growth?

Societies and their economies clearly exist within and dependent upon the natural environment, drawing resources such as oil and natural gas from it and emitting wastes such as carbon dioxide to it. Sustainability therefore is a matter of the environment and society and the economy. It is necessary, desirable and in the end inevitable for us to achieve sustainability because human health, wellbeing and quality of life would be greatly improved and the stability and security of our world would be enabled. Tackling poverty for instance is as much an environmental as it is a social and economic issue. Why then do most politicians, economists, businesses and many others talk and act as if the environment is something to attend to only when the economy allows it? Why are economic and social issues still not seen as interdependent with environmental issues, requiring an integrated, coordinated approach? Or is this fact known but simply not acted on because of power relationships?  Has the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osbourne, whose recent budget demonstrated a near complete disinterest in the green economy, really not noticed the economic success coming from it despite the generally dire economic situation and lack of support from the Government?

Oil and gas supplies are finite, running down, high and/or unstable in price and when used cause climate change (amongst other problems such as oil spills!). Yet GDP and GNP growth - which take no account whatsoever of the depletion of resources or the build up of climate changing gases – are the main measure of economic progress! The pursuit of GDP growth as the key goal of governments - equating growth with progress - has been and is a part of the problem. GDP growth based on non-renewable resources is one of the reasons that Chancellor George Osbourne's budget promised to deliver shale gas and oil industry tax breaks to promote early investment in shale gas in his recent budget. He wants a shale gas boom and presumably is not bothered that reliance on gas is unsustainable, not least because it will make hitting our climate change targets impossible.
Seeking GDP growth in the way we have been is reducing our capacity to live without undermining the systems that support our lives by:

·        not switching resource use from finite, non-renewable types such as oil and gas to renewable types such as wind, biomass, hydroelectric, tidal, solar, wave and geothermal on anything like a sufficient scale or at a sufficient rate

·        decreasing the overall natural assets stock, such as through consuming resources like forests, soil and fish, that in principle are renewable, at a faster rate than they are replenished

·        damaging the regenerative capacity of ecosystems and their ability to supply goods and services, such as through soil erosion and desertification

·        emitting wastes and pollutants at levels beyond environmental capacity to safely process them, such as through the rapid emission of climate changing carbon dioxide

·        causing high levels of inequality by not trading fairly or sharing wealth or empowering people and communities within societies and across the world

·        leaving generations to come with a build up of risks and costs such through planning to expand nuclear power generation, leaving toxic and radioactive wastes for future generations to try to cope with for thousands of years

·        consistently undervaluing both humans and non-human species, through displacing local people, clearing the forest that sustained them and using the land to grow crops to make biodiesel instead of feeding people

·        not being efficiency focussed, given that over a third of the food produced is wasted and dumped and we use heating and electricity like there is no tomorrow

To become sustainable we need to achieve a set of economic and social goals not centred primarily on GDP growth. Growth in the economy needs to meet conditions and be selective, to be of the right sort, in the right places, so that we attain and maintain economic stability and security – and sustainability. Aside from announcements on extra incentives for ultra-low emission vehicles, a pledge of support for the next stage of two new projects for carbon dioxide capture and storage from power stations and indicating that the government would come forward with a plan for zero-carbon homes (that won’t actually be zero carbon) by May, Chancellor George Osbourne chose in his budget not to begin building an economy we can sustain into the 21st century and the next however. He pretty much assumes that what we have done in the past is good enough for the future. Instead of setting a clear regulatory framework to drive investment and export opportunities for low carbon technologies the Chancellor exempted some energy-intensive firms from the Climate Change Levy designed to incentivise energy efficiency for instance.

We need to broaden our idea of progress and success, adopting prosperity instead of GDP growth because it encompasses general flourishing, thriving, general wellbeing, happiness and health as well as economic factors - socio-economic goals should not continue to be geared to more and more money for a few. Efficiency needs to replace waste. Home insulation is very labour-intensive and thus a great job creator and insulating existing housing stock should be one of our highest energy priorities because it rapidly cuts bills, fuel use and pollution and adds to comfort levels. Yet people using the Government’s Green Deal to insulate their homes have to borrow at a whapping 7% interest rate!
Renewability needs to replace resource squandering yet the budget made no mention at all of renewable energy. We must not continue to exceed environmental capacities yet Chancellor George Osbourne has not encouraged our transport system to move away from its oil dependency and has instead withheld the fuel duty escalator rises and boasted about the amount govt is spending on new roads. This generation and those to come, the world over, deserve to get their dues but the Chancellor’s focus is backward or static, not forward. Yet without an integrated and coordinated approach to social, economic and environmental issues we won’t have dynamically stable, secure ways of living that are able to persist over time.  

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Ed's energy errors

As expected Energy Secretary Ed Davey has today given planning consent for another nuclear power station - Hinkley Point C - in Somerset (picture of the announcement left). French energy giant EDF want to construct two reactors at the proposed power plant at a massive cost of £14 billion, though a deal with the government on a guaranteed long term price they can charge for the electricity generated – in effect the subsidy the Coaltion Govt said it would never give - has not yet been done though a compromise seems likely (see here).

We are told that the country must build new nuclear plants to help meet its climate change goals and to avoid overdependence on imported fuels amid dwindling North Sea oil and gas supplies. More nuclear might mean that we use less fossil fuel, unless of course total energy use rises as in the past and we use both more nuclear and more fossil fuel – nuclear is after all part of a strategy of economic expansion that in the past has meant more energy consumption. In addition if we don’t import as much gas we will still be import dependent - the uranium oxide from which nuclear fuel for power stations is made comes from abroad. This country has no uranium oxide of its own – the countries that can produce and supply concentrated uranium oxides include Canada, Australia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Namibia, Niger, Uzbekistan, the United States, Ukraine and China.

Expanding nuclear power to help fight climate change is a very slow, ineffective method and a misdirection of money that we are very short of.  The world has had nuclear power since the 1950's and we still have climate change! The latest reports say that Hinkley C will take ten years to build and once operating it will not save us any carbon at all until it has paid back the carbon costs of construction. Several years before the Government abolished them their own advisors at the
Sustainable Development Commission produced figures to show that even 10 new reactors would cut the UK's carbon emissions by only about 4% after 2025. It takes quite some time to approve, build and get nuclear stations into full operation. In the meantime there is a high carbon cost in construction and also in the whole nuclear fuel cycle (in particular mining the ore, transporting it thousands of miles across the world and then manufacturing the fuel...). Plus of course the nuclear electricity generated can’t directly replace all of the fossil fuel used eg in gas central heating systems and petrol/diesel from oil used in cars.

It is several times cheaper to save energy through cutting our currently very high energy waste to a minimum than it is to generate it by any means. It pays for itself in a relatively short time through lowered bills. This is also the most rapid and effective way to cut carbon emissions, fight climate change, and reduce our dependence on imported fuels. Even though the Coalition Government claims to be green (many make this claim but far too few live up to it) they are still thinking in terms of energy generation when a sustainable society requires the establishment of a lower and more renewable energy culture. Government needs to be determined to help shape this future but currently is still stuck in the past.

There has always been a lot of talk from the Coalition Govt about an enterprise economy, built by entrepreneurs. But is nuclear technology the kind that can be tinkered with, adapted and developed by small and medium-sized businesses and individuals? Self-evidently it is not. Yet energy efficiency, energy conservation and renewable energy technologies are amenable and are rapidly developing - the future is clearly with these and we should be ensuring billions are invested in them.

Nuclear power does not fit well with the basic engineering criterion of economy of means ie doing tasks with the minimum of energy supplied in the most effective way. Why split atoms just to boil a kettle of water?? In any case for how long will the source of the atoms split in the nuclear fuel be economically available? The more nuclear power is expanded the more uranium oxide is needed to make more nuclear fuel. Thus more uranium ore is mined, cutting the quality of the ore as it depletes. Energy and thus carbon costs of uranium ore mining rise as more mining is needed to obtain the same amount of oxide. Exhaustion of high quality ores happens more and more quickly if more and more nuclear stations are built. Continue with this policy and the uranium being mined would provide an ever decreasing amount of  energy for each tonne of rock mined, until any energy advantage over other fuels is lost.

Everyone acknowledges the very high capital
costs of nuclear power (and nobody yet knows for sure what the total decommissioning costs will finally be as we have too little experience of it to tell). Tens of billions are needed to build each station. This is a very large drain on resources that Govt and businesses should be investing in cutting energy waste and increasing renewable energy generation methods, which as the only sustainable option we must develop at some point anyway. There's no time like the present to do this.

We dont
assess ourtechnological options properly. Nuclear 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. Yet this would not be where assessment of the technology should end, since we should progressively widen the domain of issues to be considered, introducing more factors and interactions - like the ripple effect of throwing a stone into a still lake. Nuclear fission, the only commercially proven nuclear technology, certainly does not fit in with building a sustainable society because no-one disputes that it leaves ongoing problems for future generations and of course the uranium fuel is a finite resource.
Plutonium,  whose natural occurance on Earth is measured in trace amounts only, is lethal. It is highly toxic as well as radioactive. An evenly distributed 500 kg could kill the Earth's human population approx 90 times (at one microgram per person). Yet when I visited Sellafield, the site of the UK's first nuclear station and where nuclear waste is reprocessed, several yrs ago, the tour guide said that approx 500kg of plutonium had been emitted to the Irish Sea over the sites lifetime. There are huge and highly expensive nuclear waste handling, storage and disposal problems and there is far too little scientific consensus on the best way to do it - for the existing waste let alone the extra produced from more nuclear stations. Waste can be active for thousands of yrs. How can it be guaranteed that the institutions needed to manage nuclear waste disposal sites would be stable for this length of time? If the future is anything like the past then whole civilisations can come and go in this time.
There are a wide range of safety and security issues for nuclear stations: learning lessons from major accidents like Fukushima in Japan, ThreeMile Island in the USA, Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union and Windscale in the UK; attempting to predict and 'eliminate' human error in the design, construction, operation and decommissioning; establishing 'safe' levels of radioactivity; 'safe' transport of nuclear waste through urban areas such as Bristol 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 to be bombs.

Then of course there are the major ethical issues involved in reprocessing some nuclear waste and providing material for the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Forest film maker

Nilson Tuwe Huni Kui has a very interesting - and green - view on wealth when he says,

"People may think richness is about money but for us in the rainforest being rich is something else. We are rich in biodiversity, in culture and in spirituality."

Tuwe has moved from a remote Amazon rainforest village with 600 inhabitants to the city of New York! He wants to make his people's culture and problems better known and wants to become a documentary film maker. He's studying in New York through the Tribal Link's Indigenous Fellowship Program and the Nataasha van Kampen Foundation.

See this BBC report about Tuwe and his move...the subway, fast food, indigenous communities and loggers, drug cartels and oil prospectors.

More on the issue of wealth here.

Car crazy

This BBC News piece takes a very speculative look at what might happen if everyone had a car. Even though it states that the number of cars in the world could rise from its current 1 billion to 4 billion by 2050, that traffic moves more slowly in London now than 100 yrs ago, that further major congestion and environmental pollution could well refers to the 'freedom' that car ownership gives (!!) and assumes that we will be able to persist with it. The solution is apparently a narrow, technical one of smaller, narrower, robotically controlled etc cars. Wouldn't it be more practical to: reduce the need to travel; have facilities, services, jobs...locally; do more stuff online; change attitudes on what 'status' is all about... . And what about joining all the cars together, running them efficiently on tracks and calling them...trains and trams...and making really big cars that can carry lots of people efficiently and calling them...buses...or making two-wheeled human-powered cars and calling them...bicycles !?!?  

Smaller, narrower, robotically controlled cars at best just kicks the can down the road, passing the problem on to future generations.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Truth about taxes

Many of us have bought and eaten Silver Spoon sugar, Kingsmill bread, Ryvita and bought and drank Twinings tea. What many may not be aware of is that they are all products of Associated British Foods, a huge business that operates in dozens of countries around the world, owns Primark, has a turnover of £11 billion - and avoids paying tax to the tune of millions every year in Zambia, one of the worlds poorest countries. See the Action Aid campaign on this issue here.

Why does this matter? Because Zambia Sugar, a subsidiary of Associated British Foods, made record profits between 2008 and 2010 but paid no corporation tax at all. Between 2007 and 2012 it paid corporation tax at a mere 0.5% of its profits when Zambia's corporation tax is 35%.  And they have done this legally, though not morally. Meanwhile low paid Zambian seasonal sugar cane cutters pay tax at 25% on all earnings above the personal tax threshold. Zambian market stall holders selling stuff - including bags of sugar - pay business tax to the council every day whether they have earned anything that day or not. Its not fair. Action Aid estimate that the cane cutters pay tax at 20 times the rate of Associated British Food subsidiary Zambia Sugar and the market stall holders pay tax at 90 times the rate.

Paying taxes is essential. Key services such as health and education cannot be provided on an adequate, ongoing and widespread basis otherwise. Primary education is not free in Zambia. The health system in Zambia features large queues and a shortage of medicines. There were eight million people in Zambia living in absolute poverty in 2010, two million higher than in 1991, meaning that even basic food, water, lacking (see here).

Avoiding paying tax should be made very hard. Companies should see paying taxes at a decent rate as the responsible thing to do. Governments need to: ensure that their tax regimes are in order; close tax loopholes; and work for and agree to international treaties clamping down on tax avoidance. This is essential to allowing countries and people to meet their needs and have decent opportunities in their lives. This would surely be welcomed by all those involved in Comic Relief, working for a just world free from poverty.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Lots to learn from Lush

Received today from Lush: Lush Cosmetics celebrate the Cosmetics Directive and prepare for their next animal testing fight. In May 2012 Lush Cosmetics collected over 400,000 signatures supporting the Cosmetics Directive, legislation that makes Europe the first zone in the world where animal testing of cosmetics is banned. Today in over 900 shops worldwide Lush Cosmetics are hosting Animal Parties to celebrate the final stage of the Cosmetics Directive coming into force.

However the fight to end animal testing in Europe is far from over. After celebrating the Cosmetics Directive today, Lush Cosmetics launches a campaign - in collaboration with the Humane Society International - to replace animal tests with more modern alternatives for all REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) testing.

The REACH legislation was written in 2007 – and requires companies to take part in product safety testing. Companies must follow REACH guidelines for which tests should be administered for the various ingredients.

However REACH has not been updated since it was written in 2007. In the intervening years many non-animal alternatives have been developed and also some animal test refinements (these are improved protocols which mean that for each test less animals need to be used and killed ). By not adding these replacement tests to the REACH testing guidelines, REACH are breaking their own stated rules – and millions of animals are dying in tests because companies cannot use the non-animal alternatives until the legislation lists them as suitable for use.

Hilary Jones, ethics director at Lush Cosmetics says:

“Here at Lush we are overjoyed to be able to celebrate the final stage of the Cosmetics Directive finally coming into force. The British public played a huge part in getting this legislation passed and enforced. Continuous public pressure across Europe since the 1980s forced legislators to write these laws – and only public pressure has kept the legislation on track, as it suffered delay after delay.

Now that we know that public pressure can work – we will use that power again to help more animals.

The Cosmetics Directive only covers tests that are conducted specifically for cosmetics purposes. But cosmetics ingredients are also subject to testing under the new REACH chemical legislation – and animals are going to be used in huge numbers to conduct this safety testing. So animals are still at risk and still need our help.

Today we are all taking the time to party and celebrate the power of the people in bringing change for those who cannot speak up for themselves. But from tomorrow it's time to get angry again that not enough is being done to protect millions of animals from unnecessary tests.”

Lush: 100% Vegetarian; 80% Vegan; 67% Unpreserved; 46% Unpackaged  

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Graphic global climate change

Very good climate change infographic here, capturing a lot of the essential facts and portraying them clearly (see here also). The image shows the upper part of it (click to see larger version). New facts are emerging all the time though - and the figures are getting worse. This week came news that carbon dioxide concentrations have jumped up AND news that global temperatures are higher than they have been for at least 4000 yrs (see here). Hopes of staying within a temperature rise of two degrees are fading more and more rapidly due to our inaction, whilst what what are learning all the time about climate change science says we have underestimated the feedbacks, pace, scale and impacts.

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Sustainable squirrel?

No reason in principle why Bristol should not develop a local, sustainable market in grey squirrel meat (unless you don’t eat meat on principle of course). They are a renewable resource if properly and sensitively managed so that the use rate is less than the replenishment rate - and there are restaurants who would serve them (see here).  The practicalities would have to be got right in that: we'd need to know that the quality of the meat was good; 'harvesting' them should be humane and licensed; and should be done on the basis of the best information on numbers and reproduction rate of squirrels (consuming them at too fast a rate means running out of the local supply).

There would need to be a public demand for the meat and it would need to be offered at an affordable price (it’s currently pretty pricey if you buy it online eg here ). It’s a situation perhaps comparable in some ways to deer, with recent reports suggesting there are far too many. They have no natural predators apart from people and so they cause significant damage to forests in particular and thus to other wildlife - and thus their numbers need be more strictly controlled and sustainable local markets in venison established/developed. Squirrel is low in fat, low in food miles, free range, eats a natural diet...and I'm told tastes like something between duck and lamb.

Play for the planet

A project has been launched to see whether games can help increase people's interest in environmental issues reports BBC Environment reporter Mark Kinver...

Consultant Paula Owen hopes the 12-month study will encourage people to change their behaviour and reduce their environmental impacts.

She said that people did not engage with 'doom and gloom' messages, leaving them feeling powerless.

The project was launched at the Science Museum, London, as part of Climate Week.

"Gamification is a simple idea; it is the idea of using the concepts and and mechanics of games but in a non-gaming environment," Dr Owen explained.

"That environment could be a variety of settings, like in a health situation, such as the initiatives to encourage running through leaderboards and setting up competitions among friends.

"Basically my idea is to take the concepts of gamification and use them in the environmental sector to try and promote greater pro-environment behaviour." More here.

Massive melt

The glaciers of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago will undergo a dramatic retreat this century if warming projections hold true reports the BBCs Jonathan Amos. His story then says:

A new study suggests the region's ice fields could lose perhaps as much as a fifth of their volume.

Such a melt would add 3.5cm to the height of the world's oceans. Only the ice of Greenland and Antarctica is expected to contribute more.

The assessment is reported in the Geophysical Research Letters journal.

Full story and links here. More on climate change issues here.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Empowering women

Excellent article making a compelling and powerful case for empowering women, by political analyst and former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers: ...As a huge and growing body of research and experience makes clear, empowering women makes things better. Not perfect. But better. Business is more profitable. Governments are more representative. Families are stronger, and communities are healthier. There is less violence - and more peace, stability and sustainability.

Why? Well, it starts with the simple fact that women often experience life differently. And that experience affects the way we see problems - and think about solutions.

"Diversity is absolutely an asset," says Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

"With diversity you bring different ways of looking at the world, different ways of analysing issues, different ways of offering solutions. The sheer fact of diversity actually increases the horizon and enriches the thinking process, which is critical."...

...So empowering women isn't about political correctness, it's about improving outcomes. It's about investing in stronger economies and healthier communities - it's about ending conflicts, and sustaining peace. It's about improving the quality of life for people all over the world.

Empowering women isn't just the right thing, it's the necessary thing. And because women are increasingly ruling, the world is changing for the better (full article on the BBC website here).

See  Picture top left shows Jane Goodall, Rosalind Franklin, Helen Sharman and Rachel Carson just a few women that have inspired me and my interest and work in science, the natural world and environmentalism.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Damaging diets

More clear evidence that we need to move towards a lower meat diet here. A report  in the journal BMC Medicine that shows that diets high in processed meats reduce lifespan due higher cardiovascular disease and cancer. Diets lower in meat are not only healthier for people they are healthier for the environment and thus for future generations of people who benefit from a better conserved environment. The more highly processed the meat the greater the resource input and the higher the environmental impacts.

As this previous post says '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 that 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).'

More posts on meat related issues here.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Boost for biofuels is bad

Very disappointed indeed to hear that MPs have agreed new subsidies for  biofuels like palm oil. Biofuels certainly dont qualify as green since they originate from large scale monocultures of oil palms (see image), sugar cane, soya, maize, sugar beet, oilseed rape and jatropha, with very large forested areas cleared for the energy and chemical intensive cultivation of single crops.
Biofuels, sometimes called agrofuels contribute substantially more to greenhouse gas emissions by nitrous oxide emissions from fertiliser use and by land conversion, than are saved by burning slightly less fossil fuels. They significantly accelerate climate change, something academic and green campaigner George Monbiot has written about with some passion (also see

Its not just climate impact that makes biofuels from monocultures distinctly non-green. There are bio-diversity losses, water and soil degradation, human rights abuses including the impoverishment and dispossession of local populations, the loss of food sovereignty and food security and a stimulus to rising food prices around the globe. Despite this the BBC reports that: 
An all-party scrutiny committee agreed new payments for renewable energy - including palm oil. [Note they are only renewable in practice if they are properly and sensitively managed so that resource use rate is less than the replenishment rate ie such that resources don’t run down or degrade.]

This commodity is blamed for creating more greenhouse gases than it saves, and for destroying the rainforest habitat of orangutans.

The government says biofuels are needed to help keep the lights on and to meet greenhouse gas emission targets. [If they did their carbon sums properly they'd know it is a falsehood that biofuels help cut carbon emissions]

Environmentalists are also concerned at new subsidies for burning wood pellets in power stations. They say the huge scale of imported wood is unsustainable.

Oxfam's policy adviser Tracy Carty said the MPs' decision made no sense because it would only increase the burning of harmful biofuels in UK power plants.

"Biofuels, like palm oil, produce more carbon emissions than they save, fuel land grabs and increase global food prices," she said.

"Germany and The Netherlands have decided to remove these types of subsidies and it's high time the UK did the same. The UK government needs to seriously reassess its bankrolling of biofuels, and take a lead in securing an end to harmful EU biofuel targets this year."

See BBC reports and links here. Further posts on biofuels here.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Transport and toning

Bad news today on health, with data published in the Lancet showing that the UK is falling down the league table of healthy living (see here). Inactive lifestyles, smoking, alcohol, unbalanced diets and a poor attitude towards preventive health care are certainly part of the reason. Inactivity is encouraged by the kind of transport policies we have too eg on the same day as the health news comes the story (here) that the all-party cycling group inquiry reveals a lack of political leadership and will to get people cycling.

Cycling should be given much higher priority in transport planning - it increases health and well-being, which no other mode of transport other than walking does and it has very low environmental impacts.  Many journeys made are relatively short - cycling should, along with walking, account for most short distance journeys made if we get conditions right and we need this to be so if we are to build a sustainable society.

The incentives in our society are not the right ones however. We use money flow through our economy as our measure of progress. We should instead adopt the broader idea of prosperity as it encompasses general flourishing, thriving, general wellbeing, happiness and health as well as the economic factors (related posts here). Having prosperity in place of increasing money flow as the driver of society would put our health - our ability or capacity to function well physically, mentally and socially, not just the absence of disease or condition - centrestage, where it should be. See health related posts here.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Fitting society for flooding

Environment Agency boss Chris Smith has stressed the urgency of becoming more resilient to drought and flooding (see here). Environment Agency data shows that last year one in every five days saw flooding whilst one in four days saw drought! Much more widespread use of sustainable drainage systems is just one reaction to the problems. These involve controlled, integrated water management and release, often in stages, using a range of techniques that imitate or are inspired by natural systems, in order to eliminate or cut flood risks, rapid change in water level or flow and build up of pollutants.

They are best used for new developments, such as: where intense development has already occurred and the traditional system is not coping: where there are other reasons why localised flooding, and water pollution are a foreseeable issue: or where one simply wants to use best possible sustainable practices. Sustainable drainage systems may also be used where there is redevelopment or regeneration. It’s best for developers to incorporate drainage thinking into plans early on as there are implications for buying land and deciding on layout. Development may be new or redeveloped areas, individual household, housing estate, roads, offices, factories and so on.  

Aims are achieved through: prevention and control at source, on site and at regional level. Techniques commonly employed include: secure substance, storage, safe waste disposal, minimisation of hazardous substance use; green roofs; rainwater harvesting; permeable pavements; infiltration trenches; filter drains; swales; basins; ponds and wetlands. In place of the most rapid water movement, as happens with traditional drainage and due to hard paving, hard roofing and water diversion into pipes...precautionary action is taken, water is absorbed, temporarily stored, allowed to settle, is more gradually released, filtered, subject to natural microbial action amongst stones or in soil, has nutrients removed by algae and plant action, has flow variations smoothed out.

Sustainable drainage systems facilitate appropriate development, allowing development in places already built-up, so relieving pressure to build on green land. They enhance water quality, biodiversity, leisure/recreational value and aesthetic appeal. There will be some costs in maintaining ponds, removing silt from sumps. Green roofing cuts the heat island effect, insulates heat and sound, provides habitats, and helps purify air. Upfront costs, maintenance, repair and fixing costs of green roofs tend to be higher. Sustainable drainage systems follow legal requirements in the EU Water Framework Directive and in Local Development Plans. They can save on construction and maintenance costs such as when swales replace roadside kerbs, often generally simplifying construction. They allow storage and use of water and recharging of groundwater when climate change is bringing more drought risk. Some additional costs may be incurred: in getting to know the legislation/regulations; in education and training in new techniques.
Good guide to sustainable drainage systems here (the source of the image top left), with links to good material on flood resilience and all sorts of other water-related issues. 

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Energy from the estuary

The story 'Conference to look at alternatives to proposed barrage across Severn' caught my eye (here) given that I've followed and posted on the barrage issue quite often (here).

It would help if my local paper The Post named some of the alternatives to a barrage given that the headline says 'look at alternatives'. Some alternatives to a barrage are: tidal lagoons; tidal stream turbines and tidal reef systems (pictured). If the public are going to form an informed opinion about a barrage vs alternatives they need more information in general - and in particular more information about the alternatives!

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Climate change comprehension

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has rightly urged US President Barack Obama to raise awareness of the science behind climate change (see here). However, we all need to learn about much more than the science. We need to learn about why we have been reacting to the problem in the way we have been. Climate change is rated as a very serious and large scale problem. So why has action not been correspondingly large scale and urgent?

Visibility: human-caused climate change has, so far, been relatively gradual for us. Changes have happened over decades or more. Many people don’t notice changes or have become accustomed to them. Compare them with day to day and other environmental problems, say, a toxic chemical spillage. Nevertheless climate change is very serious and needs large scale and urgent action (see stories on climate here).
Historical precedent: Earth’s climate cycles through warmer and colder periods but here is no historical precedent for the current human-caused global climatic change. Having no previous cases to draw experience from adds to uncertainty, hesitancy and delay about action. But act, now and on a large scale, science says we must.
Immediacy: many the threats posed by human-caused climate change are far less immediate than many. But the extent and severity is nevertheless potentially huge.
Complexity: many varied and interacting factors result in human-caused climate change, including emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other pollutants, deforestation…feedback effects such as ice and permafrost melting…Public and political appreciation of  and action on the science is less than straightforward - and there is very active politically motivated campaigning against action on climate. It’s not like Hooke’s Law or test-tube chemistry.
Blame : it’s easy to say it’s the fault of someone else such as, ultra-consumerist Americans, the rapidly growing Chinese economy, highly populated and growing India, the rich, the poor, industrialists, car drivers...some other ‘tribe’. We all, in fact, share some responsibility.
Personal impacts: these are often indirect/less direct for climate change. Consider impacts due to displaced people, higher rates of infectious disease, the spread of disruption due to flooding, socio-economic effects such as on food prices.
Human-caused climate change is very serious – but urgent action is lacking because to date because: problems are relatively less visible; there is little/no historical precedent; the threat is less immediate than many; its causality is complex; blame is passed around; personal impacts are often indirect/less direct. This is a challenge for all of us - our ethics, economics, politics, science, leadership…I see that USA Today is playing a good part in climate change awareness raising here. There is a lot to learn and a lot to do.

Biodiversity is basic

Biodiversity sampleBiodiversity is not just nice to have around and its about much more than just the variety of species. It’s about the genetic variety within species, the range of all species, the interrelationships between species and between those species and their habitat(s) and the variety of habitats and ecosystems themselves. Let’s not forget that human beings are included in this of course and that the living world is also tightly coupled to and dependent on the non-living ie water, rocks, air and so on. In short biodiversity is nature as a whole - and it’s the source of our resources and the basis of our lives - see the biodiversity sample in the image top left.

The level of biodiversity is a key measure of how sustainable human society is - and should feature at least as much as carbon emissions as an indicator. If biodiversity is optimally high then we are much more likely to have: protected natural assets; kept ecosystems healthy; retained regenerative capacity; maintained the ability to deliver goods and services; kept wastes and pollutants below environmental capacity for safe processing. We need biodiversity - in fact we can’t live without it! Basic life support systems - those that process our water, soil and air - require varied forms of life, so this alone makes biodiversity essential.

Here’s a list of just some of the direct uses humans make of biodiversity: food such as wheat, rice, potatoes, vegetables, meats and the other stuff we eat; construction materials like wood and bamboo from plants; cotton, paper, linen, and wool from fibre producing plants and animals; renewable fuels, like birch logs or coppiced willow; latex from rubber trees to make tyres and condoms; ornamental plants for our gardens; tropical fish as pets; large natural/semi-natural areas for eco-tourism; many species used as biological pest control for our crops eg ladybirds; reed beds that clean up sewage-contaminated water; many pharmaceuticals, now synthesised, but originating in natural products eg aspirin from willows and penicillin from fungi...[pictured below].

Biodiversity usefulness

There's only so much of our planet to go around and so as human population growth has accelerated and as human consumption has increased - and intensified per person especially in the rich world - so biodiversity has declined. Its estimated that there are 1.4 to 1.7 million living species that we have named and described and that there may be as many as 10 or even 100 million species in total - and we are responsible for an accelerated rate of extinction, very likely including species we did not even know existed.

We hunt species directly - for food or medicine or sport - cutting numbers and sometimes wiping out, as with the dodo, or nearly wiping out species, as with the blue whale. We take large areas of land, wiping out habitats and ecosystems eg by deforestation, wetland create farmland, mine resources, build roads, airports, towns and cities...We dig and drill into the ground and under the sea to extract resources, like coal, oil and gas, that have taken millions of years to form. We very rapidly consume the resources we've extracted and emit our waste and pollution into the air, oceans and onto land.

We grow our economies as fast as we can - that's how we measure our progress, by a measure of money flow, the increase in gross domestic product (GDP) or gross national product (GNP). GDP/GNP treats loss of biodiversity and loss of ecosystems and the services provided as if a benefit not a cost eg the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the Exxon Valdez disaster or all the other oil spills are counted not as a cost but as a benefit - yet we are in truth impoverished by it as we diminish the basis of our wealth. GDP as an indicator has gross deficiencies. We need new kind of economics with broader based goals.

Bristol's rare plants and animals

Biodiversity should be valued for reasons of: ethics; aesthetics; ecology; education; recreation; economics; and the resilience that comes from diversity in systems. I want biodiversity conserved because it exists, because I like it - and because we all depend on it. Forms of life are beautiful and diversity itself is beautiful (see the image above of some the rare plants and animals found in my city, Bristol, including the: Bristol Onion; Greater Horseshoe Bat; Bristol Rock Cress; Lesser Horseshoe Bat; Bristol Whitebeam; Short Eared Owl; Wilmott's Whitebeam; Peregrine Falcon). It is morally right to protect species. The complex web of interactions in nature is harmed if we don’t conserve species and we need the interactions. Nature is the source of the resources and services we use to build our economy and so biodiversity is vital to meet our needs, trade, do business and make a profit (depending on how you want to define economics). The variety of life is of very important educational value and is a source of inspiration, leisure and recreation. It is very important for both our physical, social and mental health and wellbeing . A diminishing gene pool is damaging, dangerous and impoverishing.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Living lightly

I've gained a stronger and stronger sense in recent years that its become much harder to persuade people of the green case. I've heard it when working and campaigning and seen it in the results (with a few notable exceptions) of local and national elections I've been a candidate in. I'm therefore not surprised at poll results showing widespread low levels of public concern about the environment (see report extract below*), though there is often more to these things than meets the eye. Greens around the globe have so far failed to effectively get across their total case - that its about prosperous living, where people can flourish and thrive, in a sustainable society free from: waste; resource squandering; pollution; inequality; unfairness; and weakening community (see here). 

*Public concern in environmental issues including global warming, the loss of species and air pollution has dropped to its lowest level in two decades, according to an international poll released this week.

GlobeScan poll, undertaken last summer before superstorm Sandy hit the Caribbean and New York, showed levels of public concern in 12 countries over environmental problems – which also also included fresh water shortages and depletion of natural resources – were even lower than 1992, when the first Earth summit was held in Rio.

The decline has come in a period when the signs of environmental degradation have become clearer and the science stronger, from species going extinct faster than new ones can evolve to dramatic climate change impacts such as the shrinking of Arctic sea ice in 2012 by 18% against the previous record.

Doug Miller, chairman of GlobeScan, said in
a statement: "Evidence of environmental damage is stronger than ever, but our data shows that economic crisis and a lack of political leadership mean that the public are starting to tune out."...Full Guardian story here.

The public, rightly worried about the state of the economy and society, still see 'green' as just about the biological and physical environment. Its not been made clear that the environment is not just our surroundings or the biophysical world but also humans and their social, economic and other systems. We and our systems are a part of the environment, are dependent on it biologically, physically, socially and economically. There are multidimensional interrelationships and feedbacks between the biophysical and socio-economic.We are always linked in and are not in control. More here.
If we dont live sustainably then we wont have a dynamically stable and secure society able to persist over time (see here). To solve interdependent socio-economic and environmental problems we need to ensure that: efficiency has replaced waste; renewability has replaced squandering; living within environmental limits has replaced pollution and resource depletion; socio-economic goals are geared to wellbeing for all, not more and more money flow for a few; this generation and those to come, the world over, are getting their dues; and local communities are empowered.