Progressive Politics

Liz Leffman: with a  progressive alliance might she now be MP for Witney?

Liz Leffman: with a progressive alliance might she now be MP for Witney?

Since the terrible murder of Jo Cox and the bonkers Brexit vote some interesting and positive developments are happening in British politics. A new progressive alliance may be emerging. In the week after the Brexit vote I posted a blog pondering how progressives might regroup and referring to a letter from the Green Party to the leaders of other potentially progressive parties. Since then Caroline Lucas, the Green MP (one of the authors of that letter), Lisa Nandy a Labour MP and Chris Bowers from the Lib Dems have written a book speculating about a progressive alliance. The title is ‘The Alternative: Towards a New Progressive Politics’. I’ve not read it yet.

Jonathon Porritt recently wrote a very good blog titled The Rudiments of a Progressive Alliance. He is supportive of the position put forward by Lucas, Nandy and Bowers. He is also a member of More United, which is a new bottom up attempt at building a progressive alliance that focuses on building a mass membership crowdfunding platform seeking to support candidates from any party that sign-up to their open, tolerant, sustainability focused principles. More United seems to me a very positive development in British politics. I’ve just signed-up as a supporter: why don’t you?

Another good blog on politics that I read this week was from George Monbiot, reviewing a book called ‘Democracy for Realists’ by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels. It shows how people vote is very much more determined by a sense of social and cultural identity than by a rational analysis of policies.

More United seems to me to be the best hope of us getting beyond the adversarial tribal politics that has undermined good governance. It hopes to build a mass movement of people from many political parties, and from none, who want to see the emergence of a modern dynamic progressive alliance that can unite around particular candidates in particular constituencies, use Crowdfunding to support them to win elections and so to improve participatory and inclusive democracy. Their key principles seem to fit with a broadly held sense of inclusive, tolerant, pluralistic social identity that will be attractive to many people, and as Monbiot’s blog shows, this may be much more effective than huge tracts of detailed policy that most people don’t engage with anyway.

This week we’ve had two by-elections. In Batley and Spen, after Jo Cox’s tragic murder the Conservatives, Lib Dems, Greens and UKIP all decided not to stand. Quite rightly Tracey Brabin won the seat for Labour and a field of nine fringe, extremist and racist parties thankfully all lost their deposits. In effect a progressive alliance was working to make the best of the horrific circumstances following the murder of Jo Cox. The Witney by-election was a very different story. Robert Courts won it for the Tories. I was of course rooting for Larry Sanders, the Green candidate; however it was the Lib Dems candidate who did remarkably well, increasing her vote by 23.4 %. Had there been an alliance where both Labour and Greens had withdrawn their candidates and backed the Lib Dems Liz Leffman might now be the MP for Witney. The combined votes of these three parties were greater than the Tory vote. Might such alliances happen in future? It is hard to tell, but a discourse, and grassroots organisations, exploring such possibilities can only be a good thing.

Sundrop & Solar Desalination


Sundrop, with heliostat field to right, power tower and heat storage tanks centre, 20 hectares of greenhouses to left, saltwater storage ponds in left foreground

I’ve long been a fan of solar powered desalination, and have written about it several times on this blog. It offers the best hope of expanding and intensifying food production to feed a growing global population, and so simultaneously to leave more space for biodiversity to regenerate. So far all the solar desalination projects had been relatively small scale pilot facilities, designed to prove that the technology worked. It did. The challenge then was to build full-scale food production systems in the hot dry deserts of the world. The first such project has just opened.

Last week Sundrop Farms officially opened their newly enlarged facility at Port Augusta in South Australia. They have expanded 100 fold, from 2,000 square metre pilot to 20 hectare commercial scale greenhouses, which now are in full production, growing 15,000 tonnes of tomatoes per year in what was unproductive desert. Mirrors focus the solar energy onto a power tower which can generate up to 35MWt steam, 50% of which is used to heat the greenhouses, 30 – 35% is used to desalinate seawater and the remaining 15 – 20% is used to generate electricity. They get about 320 sunshine days per year, and have on-site heat and water storage to cover for days when the sun doesn’t shine, and also have grid connection for added security. There is a 16 minute video which really gives a good feel of the place and what they’ve achieved.

Sundrop developed from an original idea developed by Charlie Paton, which he called a Seawater Greenhouse. He developed many of the pilot projects. Now he is developing a new lower cost pilot project in Somaliland, utilizing cheap shade netting instead of expensive greenhouses, but still using his original solar and wind powered desalination techniques. He is working with Gollis University in Somaliland and Aston University and DFID in UK.

The Sahara Forest Project is another thing that Charlie Paton originated which has now spun out into a Norwegian based company seeking to develop a number of related ideas and technologies. In 2012 they built a pilot in Qatar. Now they are researching doing a project in Tunisia.

Together all these developments suggest possibilities of more sustainable, and more intensive, food production in the worlds hot dry deserts.

Time to Quit Fossil-Fuels

Time to Quit Fossil-Fuels

Time to Quit Fossil-Fuels

On Friday 30th September, at a meeting of ministers in Brussels, agreement was reached on all 28 members of the EU ratifying the Paris Climate Agreement. Also this week India and Canada are likely to ratify. Sixty-one countries, including USA and China, have already ratified. For the Paris agreement to become effective it was agreed that at least 55 countries, representing at least 55% of emissions, would need to ratify. It looks like that threshold will be passed this week, meaning that the agreement comes into effect 30 days later. This is cause for some slight celebration.

The Paris agreement aimed to keep global temperature rise to below 2.0C, and aspires to keep it below 1.5C. In a new report by Oil Change International, using the oil industry’s own figures, the implications of this are spelt out loud and clear. Already operating mines and wells will push us past even the higher of these limits. This means that all planned new coal mines, oil fields and gas wells must be cancelled. Humanity as a species simply has to leave the fossil fuels in the ground. To carry on with business as usual will mean a climate utterly unsuitable for human civilization, and in a shorter time frame than any of our politicians seem to understand. This disjunction between the scientific reality and political policy is well developed in articles by George Monbiot and Bill McKibben.

Humanity needs to take concerted action on an unprecedented scale. The nearest comparison would be to war time mobilization, except in this case all countries in the world have to understand that climate change and a number of inter-related macro ecological challenges is the enemy, and only swift and concerted action will give humanity a hope. There is much that can be done, as I keep stressing in these blogs. Here is a short list. Humanity needs to:-

Stop developing all new coal mines, oil and gas wells and fracking, immediately and globally.

Stop investment in all new fossil fuel dependent infrastructure, be it new roads or car factories, airport expansion or shipping. Start planning the managed contraction of these industries, and the redeployment of millions of people into the new Cleantec sector.

As Amory Lovins and others have long argued we could and should use all forms of energy very much more efficiently than we do. Improvements are of course already occurring, but need to be ramped up. It is high time for a revolution in energy efficiency.

There is already a revolution in renewable energy technologies underway. Solar will eventually replace oil as the main form of energy, but this needs to be hastened by all means at humanity’s disposal.

As well as all of the above it would be wise to develop carbon capture and utilization. This will involve a multitude of actions from planting billions of trees to changing agricultural practices to maximise soil based carbon storage. It will also involve things like carbon negative cements and major changes to plastics industry.

It is my belief that theoretically and technologically humanity could provide a secure and comfortable lifestyle for everyone on Earth, and we could do this in ways that did not jeopardize the climate. Very few politicians seem to have much understanding of the scale and speed of change required. My local MP is Jesse Norman who recently became a junior minister in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. A few days ago I e-mailed him to ask if he would be prepared to debate these issues with me in public, in any forum he chooses, here in Hereford, in London, on TV or radio. I’ve not heard back yet.

The Quest for Good Governance

‘The Allegory of Good and Bad Government’ by Ambrogio Lorenzetti

‘The Allegory of Good and Bad Government’ by Ambrogio Lorenzetti

The quest for good governance is a long and ongoing struggle. When Colette and I were on our honeymoon in Italy we saw a lot of paintings, but it was ‘The Allegory of Good and Bad Government’ by Ambrogio Lorenzetti that impressed us the most. It is a series of six paintings depicting the effects of good and bad governance, painted for the Councillors of the republican city state of Siena in 1339.

Today, as in the Fourteenth Century, ensuring peace and freedom from the fear of violence are the most basic requirements of governments. This week a historic peace deal has been signed in Columbia ending 52 years of civil war that left 260,000 people dead and six million internally displaced. Congratulations go to President Santos and to the Farc rebel leader Timoleon Jimenez, to the Columbian people and to all those who helped bring this agreement into being. President Santos said “Columbia celebrates, the planet celebrates because there is one less war in the world”. There are of course still far too many countries wracked by civil war and chaotic and sporadic violence: Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Southern Sudan, Zaire to name but a few.

If ensuring peace and freedom from fear of violence is the most basic requirement of governance, what then in the highest aspiration of governance? Scandinavia has for decades led the world in good human rights, social justice and much else. Danish politicians like Ida Auken are trying to establish a circular economy to make the best use of resources, and the Danish Green Party is campaigning to end the import of fossil-fuelled cars by 2025. The Swedish coalition government of Social Democrats and Greens have created a strong economy with falling unemployment, strong economic growth, where the deficit has been eliminated and they are now introducing a system to give tax incentives to people who repair all manner of goods rather than throw them away and buy new. This should reduce the materials through-put of the economy and create more jobs. Scandinavia is pioneering so many ideas focused on ecological sustainability and social justice, and that for me is the very essence of good governance in the Twenty-first century.

The Danish word hygge is sometimes translated as ‘cosiness’. It is also associated with being comfortable in ones community, with social solidarity, with being at peace and with happiness. Perhaps ensuring it is how all people feel should be the highest ambition of governments. We all have a lot to learn from Scandinavia.




The campaign to disinvest from fossil fuels is gaining momentum. Last night Waltham Forest Council Pension Fund Committee voted to fully disinvest. They are the first UK council to do so, but it’s probable that many others will follow. In the past the main arguments were ethical, all about climate change, air pollution and trying to promote better alternatives. Renewable energy technologies, including generation, transmission and storage, are all seeing rapid increases in efficiency and decreasing costs. This will mean that many investments in fossil fuel and nuclear will become stranded assets, unable to sell the energy they generate when competing against cheaper renewables. It now makes very prudent business sense to disinvest from fossil fuels.

Waltham Forest joins 600 institutions with combined assets of over $3.4 trillion in the disinvestment movement. The powerful combination of good business sense and strong ethical foundations make this a movement set for exponential growth. We’ve seen a lot of bankruptcies in the coal industry of late, oil, gas and nuclear are all likely to see casualties over the coming year or two.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, speaking in the light of the Paris Climate Agreement and in relation to the transition from a fossil fuel economy to a renewables based economy said that “The once unthinkable has now become unstoppable”.

Hinkley stupidity and better alternatives

Graph of UK electricity

Graph of UK electricity, note falling demand and growth of renewables

Theresa May’s new government has given the go ahead for Hinkley C nuclear power station. This seems to me to be a deal of mind boggling stupidity. Although the deal has been signed it is far from clear if the reactor will ever work. EDF’s design has been described by technical experts as “unbuildable” and the financial situation as “madness”. Only two reactors of this type have ever been attempted and both are massively over budget, behind schedule and may never be completed due to ongoing technical faults in the reactor vessels, at both Flamanville in France and Olkiluoto in Finland. There are all manner of security and waste management issues that are far from resolved. The initial price tag of £18bn will turn into a figure far higher once the 30 year contract for buying the over-priced electricity is taken into consideration: I’ve seen figures suggesting this could push the total project price up to £24 or £37 bn. All rather fairytale figures if, as I suspect, the project may be a colossal white elephant, and may never actually generate electricity anyway.

Over the last decade two very good and significant trends have emerged in UK electricity generation, as the above graph shows. One is that demand is falling quite steeply. This is due to increased efficiency. The other is the rapidly rising share of renewable energy in the mix. Both these trends could be further enhanced with intelligent government leadership, and fossil fuel use could continue to plummet at the same time as nuclear power could be gradually phased out. Hinkley C was designed for a world that no longer exists, where demand was thought to be increasing and that there was a need for large base-load power stations. What is now needed is flexible load balancing technologies to back-up the growing solar and wind power. The proposed interconnector with Norway, the proposed expansion of pumped storage hydro at Cruachan and the proposed Swansea bay Tidal Lagoon are all excellent examples that the UK should be building.

There is so much more that we could be doing. One idea I’d like to see developed would be to take a city like Liverpool with high unemployment and high rates of fuel poverty and see what could be done to work out a whole city approach to improving things. One could improve the energy efficiency of every property with a coordinated insulation and draft proofing programme and connect every property in the city to a district heating system modelled on that of Copenhagen, and include a huge heat pump taking heat from the Mersey, as Drammen in Norway do from their local fjord. This would create more employment, warmer homes and other benefits for a fraction of the cost of Hinkley C.

Turkish holidays

Hagia Sophia

The extraordinary Hagia Sophia, built in 537 AD, for 1,000 years the world’s largest cathedral, later a mosque, now a museum. 

It’s been a couple of weeks since I posted a blog. We’ve been away in Turkey for a family wedding, and then a bit of sightseeing while we were there. Tragically so much of what one hears about Islam these days is in connection to terrorism. In Turkey we saw quite intimately the other side of Islam: extraordinary reaching out to create loving bonds between people, irrespective of differences across religion, language and culture. Personally I’m delighted by the growing cultural diversity within my own extended family and proud of the integrity all the individuals within it.

After the wedding our sightseeing took us to the ruins of Ephesus, to Selcuk, Milas and to Istanbul. We found the Turkish people very warm and welcoming, and very keen for tourists to come. Given the political problems over the last few months they naturally want political calm and economic recovery. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a rich mix of archaeological and architectural treasures. Ephesus, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque were all extraordinary.

As this blog is usually about climate Change and energy issues it’s only fitting that I give them a mention. We saw lots of rooftop solar water heating systems, but plenty of scope for more. We saw remarkably few photovoltaic panels, but these are apparently just starting to take off in Turkey, and in 2013 Turkey opened its first small concentrating solar power station. Carbon emissions in Turkey are 4.4 tonnes per capita, but as this a county with huge solar potential this figure could be rapidly and beneficially reduced, but for that to happen Turkey needs peace. Many Turks are currently looking to neighbouring Syria with a sense of fear and dread that all that chaos and bloodshed could only too easily spread to Turkey. We share their desire for peace, for a calm evolution of democracy and a revived economy, ideally powered by the sun, and accessible to us via sustainable flight!

Australian Solar

Australian National University set Solar Efficiency Record

Australian National University set Solar Efficiency Record

Australia could be a world leader in solar power. The entrenched interests of the powerful coal lobby have been a barrier preventing the government getting fully behind the conversion to a solar powered economy. However the tide is turning in favour of solar power as technical innovation progresses, prices come down and popular support grows. Today I want to write about two solar stories from Australia.

Tyalgum is small community of just 300 residents in the beautiful hilly county along the border between New South Wales and Queensland. They are proposing to disconnect themselves from the electricity grid and supply all their energy needs from ordinary rooftop photovoltaic (pv) solar panels with batteries in all the buildings to store electricity in the most distributed way possible. For relatively isolated small communities at the end of the electricity grid this makes perfect sense. Once Tyalgum achieve this many other similar communities are likely to follow them.

Meanwhile scientists at the Australian National University at Canberra have just announced 97% conversion efficiency for turning sunlight into steam. They use a huge 500 square metre parabolic mirrored dish to concentrate the sun’s energy onto a small central receiver. Water pumped through this receiver is heated to 500 degrees Celsius by the power of 2,100 Suns, creating steam to drive turbines and so make electricity, or to be stored in molten salt to generate electricity after the sun has set. Australia has long been good at research into concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) but unfortunately has never had the government vision and support to achieve large scale commercial deployment, so consequently Australia lags a long way behind Morocco, Chile, South Africa or the USA in terms of deployment of CSP. However as costs continue to fall, spurred on by innovation and increases in efficiency, the economics of concentrating solar power relative to coal continue to improve.

It makes sense for cities to be linked into power grids, but for isolated communities cutting themselves off from the grid makes increasingly good economic sense. Solar power could supply all of Australia’s power needs and both pv and CSP have a role to play. Australia now has a new government and it is high time they put the conversion to a solar powered economy as a top priority: there would be many benefits, including cheaper electricity and reduced carbon emissions.


Airlander 10 on maiden voyage over Bedfordshire

Airlander 10 on maiden voyage over Bedfordshire

A few weeks ago I blogged about Solar Impulse and speculated about the possibility of radically more sustainable air flight based on lighter than air airships. Little did I realise at the time that such craft were actually being developed and were pretty much ready to go. A few days ago the Airlander 10 took its maiden voyage over a field in Bedfordshire. This Airlander 10 is very impressive. It is huge: 92 m long and 43.5 m wide, a vast helium balloon encased in high-tech Vectran material. It is has been designed and built by Hybrid Air Vehicles and is a true hybrid, its lighter than air main body is like an Airship, its aerodynamic body and small fixed wings are more like an airplane and its multidirectional engines give it much of the functionality of a helicopter. It can land anywhere, on water, in fields, in deserts or on ice-sheets. This will give it tremendous advantages in delivering goods or people to remote locations, and also opens the possibility for smaller quieter city airports. It can travel at up to 100 mph and stay airborne for weeks at a time. The Airlander 10 comes with a £25 m price-tag, very much cheaper than an Airbus A380 at £287m. They expect to have one hundred of these craft operating within 5 years. The Airlander 10 can carry a payload of 10 tonnes, and plans are afoot to build an Airlander 50 to carry 50 tonnes, with much larger future possibilities, of anything up to 1000 tonne versions.

The Airlander already creates less environmental damage than other planes, but this might well be further improved by incorporating solar cells and batteries as pioneered by Solar Impulse. I wonder whether the two teams have been in touch, it might be of great mutual benefit. Together they hint towards a future with very much more sustainable air travel. Bring it on!

Carbon Capture & Utilization

Professor Charlotte Williams, founder of Econic Technologies

Professor Charlotte Williams, founder of Econic Technologies

Climate change dictates that we need to reduce carbon emissions to net zero or even to net negative emissions as fast as possible. There has been much talk of carbon capture and storage. However just pumping carbon dioxide into old oil and gas wells seems both a waste of a potentially valuable resource and a rather insecure method of storage. I’ve long argued that carbon capture and utilization was a much better path to explore. There are many methods of doing this, from very well known and old to the most innovative high tech fields of research.

Photosynthesis takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Using high quality timbers like oak and teak in construction locks this carbon up in the fabric of a building, potentially for many centuries. Algae grow rapidly and are potentially the basis of a whole range of sustainable renewable energy and chemical industries. In 2009 Scottish Bioenergy built a very interesting algal bioreactor at the Glenturret Whiskey Distillery in Crieff, turning industrial waste into energy and a range of useful products, including high protein fish food. Using photosynthesis to capture carbon in timber, algae and other useful plant materials has a powerful positive role to play in carbon sequestration and in modern industrial innovation.

Carbon can also be directly captured from the atmosphere, or from flue gases, and used in a whole range of other useful products, from cement to plastics. A few years ago I got very excited at the prospect of carbon negative cements, which have great potential but which unfortunately cannot yet compete on price with ordinary Portland cement. Currently there is a lot of interest in making the plastics industry more sustainable. One of my favourite examples of this is Econic Technologies.

Econic Technologies is an amazing UK start-up. It was founded in 2011 by Professor Charlotte Williams to use carbon dioxide as a feedstock in the production of polymers. These are used in an extraordinarily wide range of products from trainers to mattresses, coatings and adhesives to appliances and in construction. The process they use will help reduce the energy use and ecological footprint of this whole range of industrial products. Econic Technologies, like MeshPower that I blogged about last week, was started by people from Imperial Collage in London. They have now grown due to investment from Imperial Innovations, Jetstream Capital, Norner and most recently Woodford Investment Management. This has allowed them to hire more staff and to open a new Application Development site at Alderley Park in Cheshire. This small start up seems to be growing well, and the technologies they have developed may have a huge role in helping reduce the pollution caused by the global chemical industry. I wish them every success.