Towards an Ecological Civilization


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, 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


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!

Tax & Survival

rough sleepers

Rising numbers of homeless reflect the collapse of the public sphere

The number of people sleeping rough in UK has risen 169% since 2010. The NHS, education and all manner of council services are all in crisis due to chronic underfunding. As the public sphere collapses, excessively rich individuals take an ever greater share of the wealth. Meanwhile the natural world is being trashed at an unprecedented rate. Globally pollution now kills three times as many people as Aids, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

As I said in a blog in October ‘We need a pollution minimizing way of maximizing the benefits of a modern global economy that can bring prosperity to all humans while allowing biodiversity to flourish.’ That socially inclusive and ecologically sustainable goal can be achieved. The technological options are already available. The missing ingredient has been political will. Since the Thatcherite revolution of 1979 there has been a quasi religious belief in market forces and low taxes. It is time to challenge this.

Now might be the time to bring back big government, but in a radically reinvigorated manner. I would like to see the top rates of income tax raised to 100%, top rates of stamp duty and death duties increased, tax loopholes and tax havens closed. Corporation tax should be increased. The basic rate of income tax could also be raised by a few pence. Taxes on all forms of pollution should be set in order to force whole industries out of existence. All forms of advertising should be heavily taxed. Also many areas of government funding should be cut, from subsidies that promote unsustainable farming practices to oil and gas exploration. Many costly projects such as Trident, Hinkley C and HS2 could all be abandoned.

With this vastly increased revenue a lot of vitally important work should be done. A universal citizen’s income could be introduced. Funding for the NHS and education should probably be doubled. Political power needs decentralizing. Local government funding could be increased perhaps fourfold and many new responsibilities could be transferred from national to local government. Funding for socially and ecologically innovative projects would be available.

The conservative party once had a reputation for sound financial management, yet the national debt has massively increased under this incompetent Tory government. I think we could quickly reduce the national debt while creating a paradigm shift towards a socially fair and ecologically sustainable future. The health, education and wellbeing of people now and in the future needs investing in, and to do that we need to raise a lot more taxes.

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.