Plastic Pollution

Albatross killed by plastic

Theresa May has declared a ‘war on plastic’, however with the weak and distant goal to ‘eliminate all avoidable plastic waste’ within 25 years. It is another example of politicians claiming to lead while offering too little, too late. There is so much more that we could and should be doing, at all levels, from individual consumers through corporates to councils, national governments and up to the EU and UN.

Many individuals around the world are trying to make changes in their own lives to reduce pollution through our own lifestyle choices and in how we engage as citizens. For decades we’ve supported campaigning groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, and voted for the few politicians who seem to take these issues seriously. One of my favourite new initiatives is City to Sea, a grassroots consumer campaign set up by the singer Natalie Fee. Do watch her TED X talk: inspiring stuff!

As Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall shows, corporates can take a lead. He praises the supermarket chain Iceland who have committed to a five year timescale to reduce their use of plastic wrapping, so highlighting the slothful 25 year ambition of Theresa May.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are debates about how we could redesign the macro-economic structures that underpin the global economy. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is one of a number of organisations promoting a global switch from a linear to a circular economy. This means a shift from the current “take, make and dispose” extractive industrial model to an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design. I’ve blogged before about Hugo Spowers and Riversimple, whose whole business model incorporates this philosophy. (See this article in the Guardian.)

One of the biggest ideas is the switch from sale to lease. So Riversimple are a car company that plan never to sell a car, but to lease them, thus reversing the economic pressure to build obsolescence into the product. Can we imagine clothes, toothbrushes and children’s toys which were all designed to be leased and endlessly reused and/or recycled rather than being sold and thrown away?

There are many changes that could be brought about via taxation. The tax on single use plastic bags is a useful small first step. Increasing taxes on all extractive industries from coal mines, oil wells to iron ore mines would incentivize reuse and recycling as well as more efficient design and resource conservation. Governments, like corporations, will only act if they feel under pressure to do so. So please, keep supporting all those great groups like City to Sea and Friends of the Earth, and try wherever possible to elect politicians who will genuinely seek to take a lead on these issues. (See Molly Scott Cato’s response to Theresa May)

Solar & Farming

solar & farming

Fraunhofer trial of solar panels over arable crops

The number of solar panels in use will keep growing for decades. Some will be on trains, ships, planes and integral with road surfaces. Probably most will be installed on rooftops and in deserts where they are not in competition with other land uses. A lot will be on farmland, where they can detract from agricultural production. Currently in the UK they tend to combine solar and livestock, often with the added goal of increasing biodiversity. Another possibility is to grow fruit, vegetables or arable crops in association with the panels. The Fraunhofer Institute have been running a trial on a third of a hectare plot at Heggelbach near Lake Constance, growing a variety of crops under the solar panels. The panels are more widely spaced than usual to allow sufficient light to reach the crops, and high enough for a combine harvester to work under them. The combined solar and agricultural productivity of the land should allow increased income for farmers. Other trials have taken place in USA, India and Japan. The Japanese project is growing 40 tons of cloud-ear mushrooms per year under a 4MW solar installation, which I would think must be one of the most productive dual uses of land anywhere and produce a good income for the farmer.

It seems to me that the best place to combine solar panels and agriculture is in the hot arid tropics where the shading is likely to help plant growth and reduce transpiration. The vegetation may also help keep the panels from overheating and so aid the efficiency of the solar panels. Doing a web search I’ve only come across a couple of small trial projects in India and USA. I’m sure other projects exist. They ought to. The potential benefits are huge. I would really like to see a large scale project doing both electricity and food production at a commercial scale, and doing proper scientific evaluation. The solar power might in part be used to drive irrigation, perhaps from solar desalinated seawater. The steel structure supporting the solar panels could also be used to hang shade netting, horticultural fleece or be integral to glass or plastic greenhouses, all of which could help increase crop production while reducing water use. Pioneering projects that I’ve blogged about in Somalia and Jordan could be expanded to incorporate solar panels directly over cropping areas. I think this may be one of the most beneficial technological combinations in the fight for food, energy and climate security. If anyone reading this blog knows of such projects perhaps they would send me a link. Thanks.

Renewables Rampant

UK elec

Coal Collapses and Renewables Rise. This graph of UK electricity; part of a global trend.

At this time each year on this blog I like to highlight something that has helped in the process to make a more ecologically sustainable, socially just and peaceful future possible. Sometimes I focus on a political leader who has made an outstanding contribution, sometimes on a particular innovative clean energy technology. This year I want to celebrate a whole global trend, the switch from fossil fuels to renewables, and especially the growth of North Sea wind.

Ever since I started blogging I’ve been saying humanity should switch to 100% renewables, for electricity, heating, cooling and transport. We can then simultaneously ditch fossil fuels and nuclear. The speed with which renewable technologies are progressing is staggering. Performance is improving while costs keep tumbling. The ecological case for moving from ‘The Fossil Fuel Age’ to ‘The Solar Age’ always was strong, now it is the most economically sensible thing to do.

In 2017 the first contract has been signed which will see an offshore wind farm built without subsidies. The German electrical utility EnBW submitted a bid of Euro 0.00 in a competitive tendering process to build the 900 MW He Dreiht windfarm in the North Sea. As solar and wind energy get cheaper the case for greater international grid integration gets stronger. The Dutch grid operator TenneT has proposed building an artificial island on the Dogger Bank and linking all the electrical grids of the countries surrounding the North Sea together in a hub and spoke arrangement. Electricity could then be sent to wherever in Europe it was needed. I’ve blogged before about this, but now support seems to growing and it is projected to be in operation by about 2027. TenneT estimates that 30GW of windfarms might connect to the first hub, and that other hubs might also be built. This would be a huge step forward in reducing carbon emissions and pollution in general across much of Europe.

All over the world innumerable renewable energy projects are demonstrating that we can provide electricity, heating, cooling and transport to all 7.6 billion of us while tackling climate change and achieving all the other global goals. Over the coming year I’ll highlight more of the technologies and politicians that are showing the path to a better future.

London

map of London with Daniel Raven-Ellison's spiralling walk

map of London with Daniel Raven-Ellison’s spiralling walk

London, like all great cities, has suffered from horrendous pollution. Wildlife and human health have suffered. Gradually, with much effort and intelligent planning things have got better, and could get very much better in the future. One idea I’m really keen on is to make London into a National Park City. (Please watch this lovely 6 minute film). Last summer Daniel Raven-Ellison walked 563kms spiralling inwards through all 32 London boroughs to promote the concept. As London becomes more densely populated its wildlife and biodiversity could increase, its ecological sustainability improve and the quality of life for its human population could also improve.

From the 1860’s the cholera epidemics that swept the city were sorted by building better sanitation. In just four days in December 1952 smog from burning coal killed 12,000 people and the resulting Clean Air Act of 1956 has saved many lives. By the 1950’s the River Thames was pretty well lifeless, now fish are flourishing once more and otters are breeding again.

If we think of how life in London might be improved over the coming decades some obvious things spring to mind and some useful steps are being taken. Over the next couple of years the Elizabeth Line will open and Oxford Street will be pedestrianized, two small steps in reducing the blight caused by traffic. Just as for people in London in 1950 it was hard to imagine stopping burning coal, now it is hard for many people to think to the post fossil fuel future. Life in London might be very much more convivial as we transfer road space away from cars to trees, parks, cycleways and very much better and cleaner public transport.

You can declare your support for the Greater London National Park City here. It is an idea whose time is now. Its creation would be a major step in the long struggle to improve the living conditions of Londoners, and it would be a beacon for other cities to follow.

Treasuring Our Oceans

Humpback whale

Humpback whale, one of many species found in the magnificent Revillagigedo archipelago

The world’s oceans are being damaged by plastics and pollution, overfishing and drilling for fossil fuels, by acidification and warming. One part of repairing the damage is to create marine reserves where no fishing or extractive industries are allowed. It is especially important to create these no take reserves in some of the most biologically rich and unique habitats. A number of countries bordering the Pacific Ocean are now doing just this.

Mexico has just created a huge reserve around the Revillagigedo Islands, in the Pacific Ocean southwest of Baja California. Over the last couple of years New Zealand, Ecuador, Niue, Chile and French Polynesia have all created large marine reserves. Thank-you to all these countries for doing something that will benefit so many species, including humans. Meanwhile, bizarrely yet predictably, Trump is threatening to reduce marine reserves in American waters and open them up to fishing and to oil and gas exploitation.

Creating marine reserves has many advantages. It is not just about protecting wonderful and unique habitats. There are potentially many economic benefits. Perhaps the most obvious is tourism. As the reserves provide sheltered breeding grounds and fish stocks recover so the adjacent seas outside the reserves become much more productive fisheries. The enhanced global reputations of countries creating these reserves can also have significant diplomatic, political and economic benefits.

The North Sea, like many others, has suffered from overfishing, pollution and from the oil and gas industries. Now the North Sea is the epicentre of the global expansion of the offshore wind industry. I welcome this. Humanity needs to switch from a fossil fuel to a renewables based economy with great urgency. As we do so many wind turbines will be built in the North Sea. There seems some evidence that the sea’s biodiversity can recover as a result. The base of each turbine creates a mini reef effect, providing an anchorage for seaweed and crustaceans and shelter for fish to spawn and so for seals to hunt. I would love to see more focus on how these effects could be enhanced, for example by suspending chains between the turbines and creating no take reserves within the wind farms. A couple of years ago I wrote a blog enthusing about offshore wind, tidal lagoons and the idea of creating an artificial island in the North Sea to act as an energy hub for all the countries bordering the North Sea. This could be designed to help create a very much more biodiverse ecosystem, as well as being a major part of helping Europe become a zero carbon economy. It could have many and varied political, economic and ecological benefits. Helping nature flourish is not just about protecting pristine habitats. It is also about creating new habitats within our cities, in our industrial landscapes and also in our changing and industrialized seas. To really protect the oceans we need to switch from a linear to a circular economy, from fossil fuels to renewables, from pollution to conservation, and we need to do it all quickly. Humanity is capable of rising to the challenge. There is much to celebrate and very much more still to do!

Nature & Joy

Colette & I on Dinedor Hill

Colette & I on Dinedor Hill

Yesterday Colette and I and an old friend of ours trudged through deep snow up to the top of Dinedor Hill. It was so magical to be immersed in the perfection of the natural world. We could tell from the way the snow stuck to the east faces of tree trucks that the wind had first come from that direction and that later it had become very still as more snow piled up deeply on top of tiny twigs. The weight of snow in the silent woodland weighed heavily on branches and from time to time a branch would come crashing down, breaking off with a sharp crack followed by a swooshing sound as it and a load of snow descended to the forest floor. I think we all experienced that pure joy at the shear perfection that the natural world can present us with. Something to treasure.

We returned home and watched Blue Planet Two. Again we were immersed in the perfection of the natural world, but tinged with its fragility and the damage we are doing to it. Seeing a man snorkelling off the coast of Sri Lanka as a pod of about 300 sperm whales swam past was wonderful. A pod this size probably hasn’t been seen since before the days of whaling, a couple of hundred years ago. Individual species and the whole planetary ecosystem can flourish if given the chance. We are a part of that whole interwoven tapestry of life and it is vital for our survival as a species that we treasure and protect it. David Attenborough, in very clear and simple language made the case that we need to stop the pollution and the damage. He and these programmes are an inspiration to millions of people. We need to absorb the message and use it to redirect our politics, our economy and the technologies we utilize. We also need to get out and experience nature first hand, in whatever way we can, in our own neighbourhoods. It is such a source of pure joy and something to celebrate often and deeply.

Time to Exit from Brexit

Farage: Putin's Puppet

Farage: Putin’s Puppet

It is now nearly eighteen months since the Brexit Referendum. The public mood seems to be coming round to the fact that the whole process was so deeply flawed that it should be declared null and void. We should ‘Exit from Brexit’. This will probably happen via a second referendum on the terms of any agreement that the UK government comes to with the EU. One option must be to cancel the whole process and stay within the EU, ideally on exactly the same terms we were on before the referendum of June 2016.

One of the most interesting themes to emerge over these last eighteen months has been the extent to which the main movers and shakers behind the movement to leave the EU were funded by a strange mix of ultra conservative Americans and the Russian government, cooperating through techniques coming from the weird world of psychological warfare. I would strongly urge readers of this blog to follow the investigative journalism of Carole Cadwalladr, J. J. Patrick, Adam Ramsay and Peter Geoghegan, the barrister and campaigner Jolyon Maugham and the Green MEP Molly Scott Cato. Between them they are doing the job that Woodward and Bernstein did to uncover Watergate. Brexit is part of a global assault on democracy. The Mueller investigation is uncovering the Trump end of this mess, while the Electoral Commission is beginning to investigate the UK end.

The lies that won the Leave campaign their victory are being revealed as just that, lies. The lie that if we left the EU there would be extra money for the NHS was perhaps pivotal in winning it for Leave. It is now clear that there will not be extra money for the NHS. Instead it will be decimated and privatized. The Leave campaign claimed that leaving the EU would be quick, easy and pain free, and now quite the reverse is plainly true. Businesses, scientific agencies, key workers and all manner of opportunities are leaving the UK just as many Remain people pointed out they would.

The one thing that politicians really are influenced by is how people vote. During the month of November there have been 35 council by-elections in Britain. Only eight changed hands, but they are very interesting. The Liberal Democrats gained seven and the Greens one. The Conservatives lost four, Labour two and UKIP two. This represents a gain of eight for the most pro EU parties and a loss of eight for the main parties supporting Leave. Some of the swings have been dramatic. The Conservative vote in Cradley and Bishops Frome collapsed from a high of 81.1 % in 2011 to just 28.8% last month as the Greens made an emphatic gain. The LibDems took seats from UKIP, Conservatives and Labour in vote Leave areas of the country, and they won them with some huge swings. This is only one month and only a few by-elections, but if it is a sign of more to come that could be very significant. It may well be that the public mood is now strongly to remain in the EU. UKIP have totally collapsed, and if Labour and the Conservatives don’t wake up they might follow UKIP onto the fire of a backlash to the Brexit lies and deceit.

Challenging Global Oligarchy

ssange, Trump and Putin: disrupting government and liberal norms. Composite: Geoff Caddick/Jim Watson/Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty

Assange, Trump and Putin: disrupting government and liberal norms. Composite: Geoff Caddick/Jim Watson/Mikhail Metzel/AFP/Getty

The Panama Papers, and then the Paradise Papers, reveal much more than just the murky world of how the very wealthy avoid paying tax. They provide an insight into how democracy is being undermined by oligarchy. Phil McDuff, writing in the Guardian, shows how tax havens and offshore accounts have been set up as a direct result of government policy. They could and should be closed down. However, they will not be closed, not until we have some pretty radical political change. We live in a global oligarchy where the institutions of democracy have been captured and are being used to further enrich a tiny class of international billionaires. One might ask why a billionaire would want more money; surely they own every material possession they could possibly desire?

One explanation is that what they want is ever greater influence on the political process to promote their own vision of how the world should be. ‘Throughout history, oligarchies have often been tyrannical, relying on public obedience or oppression to exist’ (Wikipedia) Globally the super rich are pouring more money into buying up the allegiance of ever more politicians and the media outlets that can promulgate their views. This increasing global trend toward oligarchy is being driven by a strange mix of American libertarians and autocrats, racists and misogynists, Putin’s Russian state machine, some extreme right-wing ideologues and organised crime networks and the limitless greed of already obscenely wealthy individuals.

In 2015 former President Jimmy Carter stated that the United States is now “an oligarchy with unlimited political bribery” (Wikipedia). The election of Donald Trump, the Brexit Referendum and many other elections and political processes were swayed by the flows of dark money and divisive propaganda flowing from the global oligarchy. This is a complex area. Challenging this will require the actions of many people. The best journalists will be needed to uncover this labyrinthine, secretive and dangerous world. Politicians capable of taking a lead and painting a vision of how society could be better organised will need to step up to the task. It will also require the efforts of millions of us ordinary citizens of the world to work together to win the many millions of victories that need to be won in order to implement change.

The oligarchs may have more money and power at the moment, but they can be toppled. Our little local victory that I blogged about last week is one tiny step in the right direction. Millions more steps will be needed. Globally a broad movement that desires a more egalitarian and ecological political and economic system is globally growing in momentum. The limitless greed, belligerent nationalism and ecological damage of the current oligarchy cannot go on much longer.

Ellie wins for the Greens!

Ellie on election night

Ellie and some of the team on election night

Some great news! Ellie Chowns has just won the Bishops Frome and Cradley council seat here in Herefordshire. This is another emphatic win for the Green Party, following several others in recent months in West Midlands and across UK. (Leominster East, Leominster South & Knowsley, Cannock & others). Ellie was a very strong candidate and will make an exceptionally good councillor. She got 471 votes for the Greens, Robert Carter got 299 votes for the Tories, Jeanie Falconer got 251 for the LibDems and Roger Page only managed to get 19 votes for the Labour Party. This brings the green group on Herefordshire Council up to four. For the last ten years this had been a Tory seat, but before that it had been held for the Green Party by Guy Woodford.

I’ve helped out for the Green Party and before that the Ecology Party in a small way at many elections since the 1970’s. This one was remarkable. We had a bigger and more highly motivated team than I can ever remember. Guy at 82 was fired up with enthusiasm and his encyclopedic local knowledge was invaluable. Mike Abbott organised the many volunteers with a spirit of love and joy that was so at odds with the anger and hate that seems to dominate so much of politics these days. The big team included several councillors and members from It’s Our County, a locally focused political party. They had decided not to put up a candidate themselves and to support Ellie. This cross party cooperation I found particularly rewarding. I wish we had more of it at the national level, and I hope it is a positive sign of things to come here in Herefordshire.

This victory in the picturesque hills and valleys of east Herefordshire was also impressive because many people think of rural Herefordshire as very strongly Conservative, or the kind of old Independent councillors who usually end up propping up the Tories. Most of It’s Our County’s councillors represent the more urban seats of Hereford and Ledbury and the Greens other three councillors all serve the people of market town of Leominster. For a coalition of Greens and It’s Our County to have any chance of replacing the Tories and running Herefordshire Council we will probably have to win some of the many rural seats. This campaign in Bishop’s Frome and Cradley really did show how it could be done! Thanks to everyone who helped out, and most of all to Ellie for being such a great candidate!

Bonn and Climate Leadership

Bonn conference

The Bonn Climate talks: where will the required leadership come from?

The Bonn Climate Change Conference has ended. Plenty of fine ambitious rhetoric but a failure to grasp the nettle and do what is necessary. Bill McKibben, writing in the New Yorker, is clear about the dilemma. Most politicians are caught in a bind, realising the need for action but constrained by a desire to protect old polluting industries. Angela Merkel has said “Climate change is an issue determining our destiny as mankind – it will determine the wellbeing of us”, yet she remains protective of the German coal and car industries. Canada’s Justin Trudeau and California’s Jerry Brown are similarly conflicted.

Although 500 NGO’s have signed The Lofoten Declaration no leading politicians have done so. Many politicians want to be seen to be leading in the world of cleantech and renewables, but are unable to grasp the concept of managed decline. Most of the known fossil fuel reserves need to be left in the ground, and the industries that depend on them need to be wound down. This needs to done in ways that are socially just. Green politicians like Caroline Lucas, Jesse Klaver, Isabella Lovin and Andrew Weaver understand this, but none of them are leading their nations. Many small and vulnerable countries such as Fiji are trying to offer leadership, so too the UN. People are looking for political leadership from the elected leaders of major economies who have the power and money to create the top down political momentum. Technologically and philosophically the opportunities are amazing, but political leadership has long been lacking. Where might it come from?

It is absolutely not coming from USA or UK. Trump is utterly isolated as the only leader to quit the Paris Agreement. Britain is caught up with the parochial fantasy of Brexit. Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau and Jerry Brown would like to be seen to be leading but are too constrained and too timid. Manish Bapna and Lailai Li, writing on the World Resources Institute website sound a positive note about Xi Jinping and China. Frances Beinecke writing on the Natural Resources Defence Council website has encouraging things to say about India. Probably leadership will be a collaborative venture, and I think the person most likely to draw the key players together may be France’s Emmanuel Macron. He has vision and ambition, seems to be able to break with old patterns of doing things and to work with others to make progress. He may not want to move as radically as the science suggests or greens advocate, but he is in a position of power and does clearly have leadership skills. The test will be whether he can lead France’s managed decline in fossil fuels while ramping up the cleantech sector, and do it in ways that are socially just. If he can collaborate with the rest of the EU, and with India and China to make this the new global norm, then he will have achieved the kind of leadership the planet and it’s people so desperately need.