Thursday, 22 August 2013

Rare Earth Elements and the environment

Appropriate and efficient use of a range of greener products is one important aspect of more sustainable city living. Consider: switching on a compact fluorescent bulb; using certain types of rechargeable, lower toxicity batteries; driving a hybrid car; using electricity generated from wind turbines; using a torch with LEDs.  
All these greener products, along with many non-green ones ‘from iphones to missiles’ as a recent Telegraph article puts it, currently need rare earth elements in their production (see below). The supply of these elements raises many environmental issues.  
  • The inner surfaces of compact fluorescent light bulbs are coated with varying blends of metallic and rare-earth (europium, terbium, yttrium) phosphor salts, which luminesce.
  • Hybrid cars use nickel-metal hydride batteries, the anode of which contains lanthanum (in the form of mischmetal, a mix of metals, in this case 50% lanthanum).
  • Neodymium-iron-boron high strength permanent magnets are used in hybrid car motors and wind power generators. Relatively small amounts of the rare earth metal dysprosium can be used with neodymium to raise the strength and corrosion resistance of such permanent, high strength magnets.
  • Cerium shows much promise in fuel cells (solid oxide types) where the oxide is used as an electrolyte due to its good oxygen ion conductivity.
  • Energy saving LEDs use cerium, yttrium and europium.
The supply of rare earth elements is an issue in terms of the environment for several reasons. Global demand for rare earth's is rising and supplies are limited. This poses a threat to a big expansion in low carbon technologies simply on grounds of availability, independent of price.
Limited supplies and high global demand for rare earth's points to rising prices. High and rising prices could make a range of low carbon industries, in countries without good supplies of their own, less competitive. As a result, development of such industries could be restricted.
Planned expansion in the use of wind power would need larger amounts of neodymium and dysprosium (about 4% of the present global supply according to a publication of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre). Production of permanent magnets for generators could be hampered unless the supply of these is raised. There is uncertainty about this due to concentration of supplies in China. 
Rare earth's are not easily recycled. Continued high demand, rising prices and concentration of supply could result in more countries seeking to develop new sources and/or open new or currently dormant mines, bringing many consequent environmental impacts. Alternatively production might rise considerably in China, where mining is likely to be even higher in impact.
Rare earth's are not easily substituted. This, along with lack of secure, affordable, accessible supplies, could result in countries turning away from clean technologies like solar and wind and developing alternatives that are less clean or have other impacts, such as increasing land demand in the case of biomass/biofuel.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Engagement for the environment

Engagement, the feeling of being involved and participating in activities, is vital for organisational effectiveness. It’s also vital for the creation of sustainable, conserver cities because it: is an essential part of on-going social learning; helps to ensure that individuals, communities and organisations get their dues; helps to empower local communities; involves mutual give and take; helps in getting governance right and is thus crucial to effective, shared, leadership, power and responsibility; helps to enhance general wellbeing; boosts ownership of changes needed to move towards sustainability.

To maintain and improve performance it’s important for organisations, whether businesses, government departments/agencies/bodies, non-governmental organisations, to cyclically review and revise why and how they engage with those who affect and/or are affected by their activities (stakeholders). Here’s my description of a practical process of review that organisations should conduct.
Auditing, taking stock of the current situation is the logical starting point for a review. Organisations should ask: what do we know already about our engagement? Effective organisations have a history of gathering relevant data on engagement, its depth and scope, quantitative and qualitative aspects. Level of engagement is one crucial aspect of performance to measure, indicating an important part of social sustainability. Information needs to be collated and evaluated asking: how was it obtained, by whom and when? Is it accurate and reliable? Has the information be obtained in the same way at the same time over a period of years, so that it can be fairly tracked? Are there any ‘hidden’ patterns, for example by stakeholder type or location??  What do the figures mean - how good/bad are they? Is there an upward or downward trend?

The second stage of a review of engagement should examine the root causes of the current state, asking: are there other/better measures of engagement? Which people get involved and why? Common reasons why people engage include: personal interest or common interests; aspiration to change things; very firm belief in a set of principles; exposure and access to opportunities to do things; and to voice opinions.

Having taken stock and considered root causes of the current state of stakeholder involvement, organisations then need to ask: what could we do to improve things and enable continual improvements in engagement? This third stage of a review should generate possible solutions, asking: what range of actions should we consider taking? The fourth stage is about selecting the best solution(s) from the range of possibilities. Engagement produces more engagement if:  it’s been influential and acted upon; if it’s appropriately tailored not necessarily the same thing for all; fluctuations according to issues and activities are accounted and planned for, with variety. 

Engagement happens at a range of levels and through a number of means. This list begins with basic engagement and ends with the most developed - information: such as newsletters, websites, exhibitions > consultation: groups, surveys, meetings > involvement: on-going dialogue; workshops; polling > collaboration: participatory decision making > empowerment: local control, highly developed structures, on-going mutual engagement.

In engaging it’s important to establish and develop relationships and networks. Key factors here are:  strengthening open culture, equity, mutual trust, trusted spaces and commitment; good quality and quantity of two-way information flow; support for connectors; fostering participation, collaboration and conversations; building fluid groups; co-designing.

Having selected the best solutions(s), the fifth stage of a review should ask: how should we go about implementing it? Implementation plans need to address: people, process, purpose, context, outcomes. Good engagement will reach all parts of the organisation and its stakeholders, not just the people who are already involved. Typical participants in an organisations decisions and activities vary according to the activity and the issue, but some groups can be harder to engage than others – often because they do not want or do not have the time compared with other priorities.

It’s important to reach out to and beyond perceived ‘usual suspects’ that can dominate participation; to and beyond older people to all ages; to all ethnic groups; to both men and women; to people in rural and urban areas…ie be as inclusive and broad in appeal as possible.

Many creative approaches to community engagement have been developed - participatory appraisal, games, modelling, websites, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, computer simulations. A variety of approaches helps. Knowledge about previous attempts to engage helps find most appropriate tools available for the task in hand (see the audit stage). Tools use will need to be determined by who it is you need to engage and what you know about them. Training is a key consideration, as is the sharing of leadership roles.

The sixth and ‘final’ stage of the review process is about maintaining continual improvement. Organisations need to implement and monitor, asking: have we/are we improving? How can we get on-going improvements in stakeholder engagement? It’s vital that the right data is gathered and that the cycle begins again at stage one.

Bad engagement matters. A clear purpose is needed or: time can be wasted; people’s appetite for participation cut; the organisation is damaged. Activities need to be carried out with commitment to respond or pointlessness results. The reality of engagement might be at odds with centralised strategy due to poor quality engagement, without proper coordination and shared commitment.

Inappropriate engagement activity levels might lead to ‘fatigue’, with local initiatives being asked to take part in a plethora of stuff. Engagement ceases to be meaningful if it is undertaken purely for the sake of being seen to engage. It’s important for everyone to develop a shared understanding of engagement and take a consistent approach, sharing what is happening. Where a comprehensive engagement strategy is in place, planned engagement may well fit in within existing structures and processes. If intent is genuine, organisations should want engagement activities to benefit everyone, not a few or particular sub-groups.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Creating conserver cities

Conserver cities would be healthier, fairer, more vibrant and convivial places to live. Creating conserver cities means: efficiency replacing waste; renewability replacing resource squandering; living within biophysical limits replacing pollution; implementing socio-economic goals geared to wellbeing for all not more and more money for a few and for a limited period; this generation and those to come, the world over, getting their dues; empowering local communities within urban areas; operating a cyclic economy.

Conserver cities would be sustainable because in broad social, economic and biophysical terms they would be dynamically stable, secure and able to persist over time. They would give on a par with taking instead of being parasitic (the average UK city footprint is three times the sustainable level).
They would ensure a decent future for generations to come ie not ballooning profits for the already super-rich today but an ongoing availability and decent supply of resources, fairly shared. Conserver cities would be One Planet Cities (see the details of how this year Brighton and Hove became the world’s first independently accredited One Planet City).

What would contribute most to creating conserver cities? What are the top priorities? Many changes are needed at many social, economic and biophysical levels but here is my outline of a dozen key priorities.

Getting around

1.     the retention and improvement of locally available facilities, services, and jobs and the availability and use of local resources. This strengthens communities and their resilience and reduces the intensity of travel needs, making local economies the priority

  1. far better, cheaper, more extensive public transport; much better cycling and pedestrian provision. Well occupied buses, trains and trams are highly clean and efficient per person, though non-motorised walking and cycling is even more clean and efficient as well being healthier.
Environmental quality and quantity

  1. protecting, enhancing and if possible increasing open, green, natural spaces; biodiversity enhancing developments. Green spaces are important to active, healthy human lives and perform a wide range of biophysical and socio-economic functions, from food growing to rainwater management to city climate moderation LINK. Biodiversity is basic and 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.  
  2. adopting and achieving high land, air, water and environmental quality standards. UK air pollution for instance is a major public health risk, causing the premature deaths of 30,000 people in 2008.   


  1. education for sustainable living. This means schools, colleges, universities and others delivering education working to carry out environmental education: in and through the environment as a resource; about the environment by imparting knowledge; for the environment by encouraging students to formulate caring values, attitudes and practical actions in their environment; and by developing the skills needed to study the environment in students. It’s not just about the formal education system though because to achieve conserver cities we need on-going social learning. By social learning I mean encompassing but not same as participation, learning which addresses wider forces and institutions, complementing community activities with political and economic insights and action on macro, meso and micro levels - a paradigm for engaging in institutional and social dilemmas such as sustainable development vs. market forces.
Waste and energy

  1. innovative low carbon and low waste systems and designs; local energy saving and the micro-generation of energy. This is about: doing the same or doing more using less, cutting waste of energy and materials; being thrifty; getting more output squeezed from every input of energy, material, effort, money, time...It’s also about being enterprising, entrepreneurial and making the very best use of the latest technologies in an appropriate way (taking a broad, balanced view of technology, accounting for interactions, assessing and using technologies properly).
  2. waste avoidance, reuse and recycling. Taking the thinking and actions now more commonly applied to UK solid wastes (in particular household waste) and applying them in a total sense - to liquid and gaseous wastes and throughout society.


  1. more local, ethical and organic food availability; more home and allotment grown food. Many who become aware of their personal or household ecological or carbon footprint are surprised at the high contribution that comes from food. Locally-grown, seasonal food means fewer food miles, less packaging and fresh goods and it is also food with a low environmental impact. Growing food and eating seasonal food keeps us in touch with natural cycles.

Organic food growing is low-input, making minimal use of energy intensive synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, using as much as 40% less energy, supporting higher biodiversity levels and prioritising animal welfare more.

Balanced lower meat or no meat diets are both healthier, lower environmental impact and better for animals (vegetarian diets can be 40% lower impact than even low meat diets). Growing some of your own vegetables and not wasting food can reduce environmental impacts by more than a tenth, reducing the energy and waste which goes into getting food from field to plates, including transport, refrigeration and packaging.

People and participation

  1. people taking personal responsibility to be more environmentally-friendly. Individuals and households really need to own and support moves to establish conserver cities or those moves won’t be socially sustainable. Genuine lasting solutions are much more likely if behaviour and technical changes are coherently combined. A purely technical ‘solution’ may often result in changes in other key factors which reduce, undermine or reverse any progress made. Examples: increasing fuel efficiency of vehicles means less fuel used, saving people money, which they may then spend on travelling further, consuming more fuel.; installing low energy lighting may mean people are happy to leave them on for longer; cars with many safety features may be driven faster.
  2. inclusive, informed, genuine public participation in community life. This is about: open exchange of ideas; mutual understanding; effective, timely information; promoting trust; highlighting decision-making processes; dealing with complex, possibly controversial issues; unique insights; serving each other. It ideally develops a common view, a sense of purpose – and allows communities to take control and set agendas. This is the way to learn to live better lives.

Policies and performance

  1. open, involving, accountable, ethical attitudes and policies. Getting governance right at all levels (individual, neighbourhood, community, city, region, nation…) is crucial to effective leadership and the sharing of power and responsibility. Social sustainability, and thus overall sustainability, depends upon this. LINK
  2. broad-based measures of progress - social, economic and biophysical. It’s crucial to creating conserver cities that our real wealth, source of our resources and the basis of our lives is acknowledged, that is, the natural and social world with its whole interconnected water, air, land, biodiversity and social systems. Cities need to agree broad performance measures because it’s not mere money flow, high production and consumption or narrow progress that healthily sustains us.