War & Peace

A missile crosses the night sky over Damascus

A missile crosses the night sky over Damascus

The UK is yet again intervening militarily in the Middle East. The actions this week in Syria are as unlikely to bring lasting peace to the region as our previous interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya. Tensions with Russia are as bad as during the Cold War.  Theresa May ordered these current attacks without debate or a vote in Parliament.

The global armaments businesses are always looking for opportunities to battle test their weapons systems. There is a remorseless logic to the military industrial complex. A peaceful world would be the death knell for their business model. Many of our global political leaders see the world in frighteningly adversarial terms. Each military action ramps up the dangers of further escalation, and with nuclear weapons in the hands of unstable world leaders the prospect of total global devastation is all too real.

Can we envisage a more peaceful world?

There are parallels with action on climate change. Many people struggle to imagine how the modern world would function without fossil fuels. As I keep stressing in numerous blogs, technologically and philosophically a radically less polluted world is possible. The fact that the fossil fuel industry is forever seeking to sow doubt in this fact has greatly slowed progress. Likewise, a very much more peaceful world is possible. It requires politicians very much more strongly committed to cooperation and to building social solidarity. The military industrial industries seek to undermine such a worldview. When neither an ecologically sustainable future or a peaceful future are in the interests of certain industries it is time to change the economy that promotes such suicidal business models. To do that requires a different breed of politicians.

The European Union is far from perfect but it has probably been the greatest example of cooperation replacing conflict in human history. It is also leading the world in action on climate change. Local communities across Europe are cooperating on peace and sustainability through processes like the Aalborg Commitments. Ramping up such initiatives globally would be a vital step toward a better and more peaceful future. The UK should put itself at the heart of such a process, and of course the nonsense of Brexit needs to be reversed.

The UK has local elections on 3rd May. Issues like international military action and Brexit may not be the responsibility of local government, but they certainly effect all local governments in myriad ways. It seems to me that UKIP, the Tories and Labour are all wedded to an isolationist and adversarial mindset. Electing more local councillors from the Greens, Lib Dems, SNP and Plaid Cymru might be a way to open up a spirit of greater cross party cooperation and peaceful international cooperation and engagement. It would certainly be a powerful message on Brexit. Caroline Lucas is a voice of sanity on this latest attack on Syria, as on so much else. We desperately need more politicians like her at every level of government.

It often feels like we as individual can’t do much about huge global issues, from climate change to world peace, from hunger and poverty to biodiversity loss. Voting is one thing that we can do. Today, make sure you’ve registered to vote, and if your council is up for election on 3rd May do please vote. Of course to create meaningful change we need to do so much more than just voting, but voting does matter: one tiny step on the long road to a more peaceful future.

Democracy Under Threat

Christopher Wylie

Christopher Wylie speaking at Parliamentary select committee

Democracy is under threat like never before. Digital warfare seems to be incredibly effective in changing how people think, feel and vote. There is growing evidence that many elections have been influenced in very negative and socially divisive ways, from the election of Donald Trump to the UK Brexit referendum.

In December I wrote a blog about why we should ‘Exit from Brexit’. Since then the revelations have shown a very frightening picture of voter manipulation, illegal data harvesting and campaign spending greatly exceeding legal limits. In that blog I highlighted the excellent investigative journalism of Carole Cadwalladr and others. In Saturday’s Guardian she posts the latest update on this whole sordid mess. The embedded videos of her interviews with Christopher Wylie and Shahmir Sanni are particularly powerful. Their revelations about Cambridge Analytica and AggregateIQ are dynamite. The UK has much to do to restore its reputation as a reasonably functioning and law governed democracy.

Democracy has always needed defending from those out to destroy it. Lives are at stake in this battle. Every year dozens of investigative journalists are murdered as they investigate links between organised crime and corrupt politicians. Wikipedia lists 71 journalists killed during 2017. Propaganda has long been used to whip up hatred, and sometimes the effects take years to become apparent. The Nazi propaganda in the 1920’s and 30’s directly led to the eventual death of scores of millions of people by 1945. Kenya, like much of Africa, has a long history of inter tribal tensions. It appears Cambridge Analytica interfered in the last election in Kenya, in very socially damaging ways. It may be years before the full impact of this becomes apparent.

For those of us who care about democracy we will have to redouble our commitment to holding truth to power, through excellent investigative journalism and the vigorous upholding of the rule of law. If we fail to do this now, the future consequences for our species could be fatal. We live in a world packed full of weapons of mass destruction and with an unfolding global scale ecological crisis: we need global peace and democracy if we want to have a hope of survival into the next millennium.

Politics: Violence & Hope

Norm Chomsky

I’ve just finished reading Norm Chomsky’s book ‘Who rules the World?’ He charts the development of American imperialist expansionism from the Founding Fathers, through the Monroe Doctrine to the ‘War on Terror’ and reiterates his view that the USA is the greatest sponsor and perpetrator of state terror. Much of what he says seems true to me, but he tends to overlook or downplay the imperialistic expansionism of other major powers, and the terror they inflict in their own spheres of influence. From China’s annexation of Tibet in the 1950’s to its current island building ventures in the South China Sea doesn’t look too different from America’s atrocities in Latin America and South East Asia. The best comparison is with Russia, whose continuity of territorial expansionism dates from the Sixteenth Century and has remained horribly unchanging through many Tsars, through the Soviet era and continues under Putin. A couple of weeks ago the BBC screened an excellent if terrifying documentary ‘Putin: The New Tsar’. One highlight was the contribution of Dr Ian Robertson on the psychological impacts of achieving too much power. In China President Xi Jinping’s personal concentration of power looks increasingly ominous.

Geopolitical rivalry between USA, Russia and China provides much cause for concern. On these blogs I always try and identify reasons for hope. My last blog was entitled Towards an Ecological Civilization. I am firmly of the opinion that most people would like a more peaceful, fairer and less polluted world to pass on to the next generation, but they are often at a loss as to how to get to this more hopeful outcome. So much of our media encourages fear and apathy, in part because they concentrate on reporting the rhetoric of the most divisive politicians. On this blog I try and encourage engagement and activism for a more hopeful future, and I will just stress three points.

The first is that countries can and do change. Think of Germany. Emerging from the horrors of the Nazi era it has remade itself as one of the most peaceful, responsible and best governed countries on Earth. I’ve blogged before about what Uruguay has achieved. Nowhere is perfect, but rapid and radical improvement is possible.

The second point is that the most interesting role models for positive change are often the least reported. So, while Trump’s idiotic pronouncements about energy make headline news I’ve never once seen coverage of the Danish District Heating Association, who continuously develop sensible practical solutions. More generally the Nordic Model offers so much more to learn from than USA, Russia or China, yet gets very much less press coverage. The world’s happiest and best run countries are the five Nordic countries: Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. I’m just about to read ‘The Nordic Theory of Everything’ by Anu Partanen, which I think will be a much more cheerful read than Chomsky, and a much more practical guide to a better future!

The third point I want to make is about engagement and activism. If you feel something is wrong, where possible, don’t just bemoan the situation, get active with others and work on solutions. After the horrors of the latest mass school shooting in Parkland Florida it is heartening to see American youth organising the March for Our Lives. To reduce gun crime in American schools, or reduce American state terrorism, will require much effort, but don’t forget Bernie Saunders could have beaten Trump and that could have set America on a very different path. One worth striving for!

Towards an Ecological Civilization

Paris

Can we make our cities, and World, less polluted and better to live in? This picture is of Paris, one of the places leading the way.

Humanity wants a better future. Increasingly we are united in our demands for a cleaner, less polluted environment, and we see this as a fundamental human right. We want to protect the oceans, the forests and the air we breathe from the multiple onslaughts of industrial civilization. Achieving a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable lifestyle for all humanity is a goal worth striving for.  Increasingly we have the technological tools to help us do this, and there is a global groundswell providing the pressure politicians need to enact positive change.

Slowly the United Nations is moving towards recognising the human right to a healthy environment. Over the last eight and a quarter years I’ve posted three hundred blogs highlighting some of the positive steps that are being taken on this path to a better future. My focus has been on the shift from a fossil fuel economy to one based on renewables. This change in energy use is one part of a bigger shift, what David Korten and Joanna Macy refer to as ‘The Great Turning’, from Imperial Civilization to Ecological Civilization.

In a great video Jeremy Leggett argues that the transition away from fossil fuels and to a 100% renewables based global economy is happening faster than most people understand. He identifies three meta-narratives in this process. First, the global groundswell of people, governments and increasingly also from corporations who see the need for change. Second, the falling costs and increasing efficiency of the renewable energy technologies, and thirdly, a whole set of problems within the old energy incumbency, from the ponzi like debt structure of the fracking industry to the inability of everything from coal and oil to nuclear to compete with renewables on either cost or environmental legislation. Together all these trends conspire towards an exponentially fast energy transition. We will see a lot of stranded assets.

There are many victories to celebrate. Over the last few years UK carbon emissions have fallen, so that in 2017 they dropped to levels last seen in 1890. This rapid improvement was mainly due to the decline in coal and rise of renewable sources of electricity.

As I’ve stressed in a number of recent blogs, the next big change needs to be in transport. At last many cities are starting to ban cars and make city centre areas radically more pedestrian focused. Cycle paths and public transport infrastructure are being improved. Several German cities are about to introduce free public transport in order to help get people to quit their car addiction. Many cities are banning the most polluting vehicles, and as I’ve shown in recent blogs very much cleaner alternatives are rapidly developing. Over the next decade I would predict air quality to improve and carbon emissions from transport to fall. Putin, Trump and few ghastly politicians will do all they can to stop this transition, but the overwhelming tide of global opinion combined with the pace of technological innovation is stacked against them.

Shipping beyond fossil fuels

Ampere

Ampere, the Norwegian pioneering battery electric ferry.

Last week I looked at how transport systems might work in the post fossil fuel era. Hydrogen fuel cells and batteries are emerging as the main contenders in the race to store cheap, clean, surplus wind and solar energy and use it in various types of transport. The speed of change is likely to much faster than most people envisage. Reducing carbon emissions and cleaning up local air pollution have usually been portrayed as a cost, but if making these improvements proves cheaper than carrying on with old polluting technologies, then the pace of change may be very rapid. One extraordinary example of this is the ‘Ampere’.

The ‘Ampere’ is a ferry operating between Lavik and Oppendal across the Sognefjorden fiord in Norway. It is a battery electric vessel and came into service in 2015, and has now a couple of years of data which show that emissions are 95% down and operating costs are 80% cheaper than the previous diesel powered ferry. Due to these staggering environmental benefits and cost savings orders for similar ferries are flooding in. The busy ferry route between Helsingborg in Sweden and Helsingor in Denmark now has battery electric ferries, but the route is only four kilometres. The Dutch company Port-Liner are due to launch their innovative fully automated battery electric container barges this autumn, operating between Antwerp, Rotterdam and Amsterdam. On the Pearl River in China a large new battery electric coal transport ship has come into operation with a 50 mile range. There is much scope to increase the use of battery electric ferries on short trips, but for large international ships crossing the major oceans something more than just batteries will probably be needed. This might include onboard solar panels and use of the wind via sails, kites or aerofoils. All these are being trialed.

As ships currently use heavy, very dirty, forms of diesel they emit huge quantities of a whole range of pollutants. Switching to radically cleaner forms of energy makes sense first in urban contexts, such as in port, along rivers and canals and on short ferry crossings, up to and including say ferries linking England and France. We have the technology to do this now, and it makes perfect sense both environmentally and economically. Long distance global shipping will also make the transition to cleaner fuels, but it’ll take a little longer, as the technical challenges are more complex, but certainly not impossible.

Transport beyond fossil fuels

Coradia iLint

The Coradia iLint made by Alstom, a hydrogen fuel cell regional train

Many countries are now setting themselves the goal of moving from petrol and diesel powered transportation systems to very much cleaner technologies. The UK, like many countries has set itself the goal of banning sales of new fossil fuelled vehicles by 2040. Norway plans to do so by 2025. Many people still don’t seem to realize that we already have most of the technologies we’ll need to run a modern global economy purely on renewable forms of energy. Renewably generated electricity, supplied via the grid, via batteries or via hydrogen fuel cells will be the basis of most methods of transport.

For over a hundred years trains and trams have used electricity via either overhead cables or live rails. There is a strong case to keep electrifying railway lines. An emerging alternative, particularly suitable for quiet rural railway lines, where the high cost of electrification might not be justified, are hydrogen fuel cell trains. Alstom is already marketing the Coradia iLint, and Siemens are now partnering with Ballard to make something similar. There are lots of advantages to getting people and freight off the roads and on to rails. Steel wheels on steel rails generate much less friction than rubber tyres on tarmac, meaning greater energy efficiency and less pollution. The longer thinner shape of trains means less air resistance, again aiding efficiency.

We will of course still need buses, trucks and cars. There are many possible fuel options. Oslo has a fleet of 135 buses powered on biomethane made from food waste and sewage. I’ve blogged about methanol fuel cells, and a whole range of innovative and experimental ships, planes, and solar panel clad roads and cars, which are all promising but not yet in common usage. Battery electric vehicles are getting massive media coverage due to Elon Musk and Tesla, and are beginning to sell in large numbers. Last year in Norway over half of all new cars sold were either battery electric or petrol/electric hybrids, but sadly in most other countries the proportion is very much smaller. In terms of volume of sales, China is a long way ahead of any other market for battery electric or hybrid cars and buses.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are the other main technology to be moving from the experimental stage to the mass production stage. (earlier blogs from me in 2015 and 2017) The Scottish government has recently helped Aberdeen double its fleet of hydrogen fuel cell buses from ten to twenty. Cologne in Germany has just ordered thirty, and dozens of cities are ordering a few. Ballard, the Canadian hydrogen fuel cell specialist has now teamed up with some Chinese companies to build a fleet of 500 hydrogen fuel cell light trucks and the refuelling infrastructure to support their roll out in Shanghai. Meanwhile the Nikola company has secured 8,000 pre-orders for its huge hydrogen fuel cell trucks, and will start production next year in Arizona. At the other end of the spectrum is Riversimple, who are due to build their first twenty tiny hydrogen fuel cell cars later this year, and which our local car club may be in a position to trial. Exciting times!

The days of petrol and diesel are numbered. It is too early to say which technology will dominate in the post fossil fuel economy. Both hydrogen and batteries are in essence ways of storing surplus wind and solar electricity and it is this aspect of how best to store energy cheaply and at vast scale which may be the main determinate of which fuel is used where. There will undoubtedly be a role for many technologies in various settings. I’ll explore more on this next week.

Hereford By-pass

As renewables are replacing coal, carbon emissions associated with the generation of electricity are falling in the UK and in most countries. That’s the good news. The bad news is that progress in the transport sector, in the UK and globally, has been woefully slow. Transport is now the UK’s biggest source of carbon emissions. It is also the source of most of our nitrogen oxides and particulate matter pollution, both known carcinogens, causing much ill health and death. Over the next few weeks I’ll explore what could be done to lower carbon emissions, pollution, prevent accidents and to generally improve things.

Many cities around the world are acting to limit the use of cars, investing in walking, cycling and better public transport. Barcelona, Copenhagen and Freiburg are all making excellent progress. Sadly many other cities are still building roads in the mistaken belief that they are the future of transport. Hereford, where I live is one such place. The new link road has recently opened allowing better car access to the northern part of the city centre, but at an unnecessary financial and environmental cost. The Tory cabinet are determined to build a by-pass. Some of us have been active in our opposition to this for decades. We managed to stop the Eastern route on environmental grounds back in about 1991. Now the council have seven alternative routes for a Western by-pass and are running a consultation process. Please fill-in a form, available from Hereford Library or from the council website (and do so before the consultation closes on 20th March). Also do please sign the 38 degrees petition against the by-pass.

On Wednesday 28th February, as part of the Left Bank’s weekly politics, ethics and environment sessions the Green Party are hosting a public debate on the by-pass. If you live in Herefordshire, please come and join-in: 7.30pm, this Wednesday, all welcome and free admittance.

Here are a few recommendations I’d like to explore.

How can we improve access and permeability for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users, while decreasing it for cars?

How to make safer routes so children can walk and cycle to school?

Which roads would we like to see pedestrianized?

Lowering urban speed limits would help: by how much and where?

Could we introduce a congestion charge or toxin tax as has been done in London?

Could the council impose a parking charge on people using supermarket car parks?

When might we see battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell buses, trams and cars replacing fossil fuelled ones in Hereford? (This is beginning to happen in some places, and will be the subject of another blog in a few days time).

Open Letter to Malcolm Turnbull PM

Highbury Quarry

Tilt renewables want to turn the old Highbury Quarry into a pumped storage facility.

The Australian power company AGL plans to close the huge Liddell coal fired power station by 2022, and replace it with renewables and storage. The Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently pleaded with them to keep it open saying “You can’t run an electricity system just on solar panels and wind farms. You can’t.” Well, Mr Turnbull, you are wrong, and you are holding back the Australian economy with your outdated understanding of emerging technologies. Let me explain.

Australia could use the power of the sun and wind for all its energy needs, for electricity, heating, cooling and transport, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There would be many advantages in doing so. Obviously there would be the environmental advantages of cleaner air and plummeting carbon emissions. What is less well understood is that now there would be enormous economic benefits. The costs of renewable energy and of storage technologies continue to fall as repairing old coal fired power stations rises. With renewables, once the equipment is up and running the ongoing costs are minimal, whereas with fossil fuels, as they are burnt, there is the ongoing cost of fuel. With every year that passes the balance tips further in favour of renewables and storage.

Understanding storage is of critical importance. Batteries are the best known form of storage, and in 2017 the number of home energy storage batteries in use in Australia tripled as their cost tumbled, and as costs are projected to keep falling people will keep buying them to back-up their rooftop solar photovoltaic panels. There is now a cumulative capacity of 170MWh in all these domestic scale batteries, and this is bound to keep rising rapidly.

A few months ago, with much fanfare, Tesla opened the world’s biggest battery adjacent to the Hornsdale wind farm in South Australia. It brings another 100MWh of storage onto the system. Many more batteries are planned, both domestic and industrial in scale. In Adelaide there are plans to install solar panels and batteries to 50,000 homes, which would in effect add a virtual power station with 250MWh of storage.

However it is not just batteries that will be used to store all the cheap, clean, wind and solar energy. Tilt renewables are planning a new pumped hydro storage facility in an old quarry in the Adelaide suburbs, with a capacity of 1350MWh storage. They are also planning on adding a 44MW solar array and a 26MWh battery to their 368MW Snowtown Wind Farm, which all taken together with their pumped storage, will greatly increase the usefulness of the wind farm.

Solar Reserve expect soon to start construction of the 150MW Aurora concentrating solar thermal power station, just north of Port Augusta, also in South Australia. This will have eight hours full load thermal storage, thus adding another 1200MWh of storage.

As transport systems switch to hydrogen fuel cells and battery electric vehicles they will soak up vast quantities of surplus solar and wind generated electricity. Hydrogen, methanol and other storage gases and liquids will be used as more ways of storing energy, to add to the batteries, pumped hydro and thermal methods of storage. A 100% renewable energy economy should be every bit as reliable as the existing infrastructure, as well as being less polluting and cheaper.

South Australia has elections coming up on 17th March 2018 and energy policy is a central issue. In 2012 I wrote a blog called ‘Repowering Port Augusta’, where I argued for building renewable energy facilities and then closing down the dirty and decrepit Northern and Playford B coal power stations. Unfortunately these obsolete power stations were closed before the renewables were rolled out, compounding mismanagement and leading to a shortage of electricity, chaos, blackouts and price hikes across South Australia. Jay Weatherill’s Labour Party and Nick Xenophon’s SA Best Party have both now come to understand the need to switch to a renewables based economy. Please Malcolm Turnbull and Steven Marshall get your Liberal Coalition Parties up to speed with what is now technically possible and what the advantages might be for the Australian economy. Please help roll out the whole raft of renewable and storage technologies as fast as possible, ideally before obsolete old Liddell closes in 2022!

New YouTube video channel

I’ve now got a YouTube channel! A few months ago Elwyn Lear filmed me giving a talk in Leominster, Herefordshire. He has kindly and skilfully edited the film and created a YouTube channel for me. This film is one hour and five minutes long. We are hoping to create more films to put on the channel over the coming months, most of which we envisage being very much shorter.

In the current film the question I seek to answer is ‘Can we feed 9 billion people sustainably?’ To which basically I say an emphatic YES, but with some pretty big ‘ifs and buts’. We need to change global income distribution to eliminate poverty, probably via a global universal basic income. We need changes in diet and in farming systems, which probably need to include a decrease of 70 or 80% in global meat consumption. We need to use the best of modern technology, which includes greenhouses with integrated renewable energy for heating, cooling and, where appropriate, desalination. (Genetic modification seems something of a red herring: there is very little evidence that it helps sustainably increase productivity.)

In the film I talk about a dozen or so farms that I think are showing the way to go. They are a very diverse bunch, emphasizing that there is no one single solution, but indicating that with many more farms like these, we could indeed feed 9 billion people and do so incredibly sustainably. As most of the farming systems I focus on produce vastly more food per acre than is the norm there should be a vast increase in space for rewilding. Also as these systems use few if any chemical inputs on-farm biodiversity should also flourish.

This is rather a long film at one hour and five minutes, which is quite a long time to listen to me chunttering on. If you do get around to watching it, please send me any comments you like. I always find the feedback useful.

The film is here.

Protecting Nature

Patagonia

More of wonderful Patagonia becomes a National Park!

Last week Chile’s outgoing President Bachelet announced the creation 10 million acres of new national parks, one million acres of which came from the Kris and Doug Tompkins Foundation. This action will help ensure the protection of many unique landscapes and iconic species. Chile has also created some impressive no-take marine reserves.

The renowned biologist E O Wilson set up the Half-Earth Project with the goal of protecting half the Earth’s surface as National Parks and Marine Reserves. It seeks to identify the most ecologically diverse and species-rich environments and work with partners to achieve their protection. It is a very big goal.

The concept of a national park is often thought of as an uninhabited wilderness, but the reality is that most national parks are home to people, and are to some extent farmed. Scotland’s Cairngorms or Kenya’s Masai Mara are typical of these places that combine sparse human populations with wildlife and habitat conservation. A few weeks ago I blogged about the possibility of London becoming a national park city, which would certainly expand the notion of what constitutes a National Park. It raises the question, if London can become a national park, then can E O Wilson’s ambition of half the Earth be extended to the entire Earth becoming protected.

The concept of nature reserves and national parks has always been somewhat limited if the biggest single threat that many species face is from the macro ecological crisis of climate change, ocean acidification and myriad forms of pollution that know no boundaries. So, of course, the whole world needs protecting, but with each area having its own unique balance of varied human activities and space where nature can be left to flourish with minimum human disruption. We need to minimize pollution and the damage it does AND we need to protect the many species with which we share this wonderful and unique planet. So this week, let’s celebrate Chile’s new national parks, one more step towards a more sustainable future!