Monthly Archives: November 2017

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.

Greenhouses

Seawater Greenhouse's Somaliland Project

Seawater Greenhouse’s Somaliland Project: super productive fruit and vegetable production, where it is needed most

In blogs over the last couple of weeks I’ve looked briefly at the unsustainability of current systems of farming. As the global population continues to rise there are many predictions of further food shortages and yet more ecological damage. I remain convinced that we could feed 9 billion or more people and simultaneously restore biodiversity. To do so will require changes to systems of grants, subsidies and economic justice, which I’ll cover in a future blog. Greenhouses, and other systems of protected cropping, seem to me to be the most important technological change.

I grow a huge range of fruit and vegetables in my two small unheated greenhouses and little polytunnel, all in an urban back garden. We have plenty of organic fresh green salad crops to feed family, friends and neighbours every day of the year. For six months of the year we have an abundance of tomatoes. However it is at the bigger scale that the real possibilities open out.

Thanet Earth is the largest greenhouse complex in the UK. Inside each of their five huge greenhouses is a gas combined heat and power plant, utilizing the heat and Co2 within the greenhouses and selling electricity to the grid at times of peak demand. In Australia Nectar Farms have recently built a 40 hectare greenhouse project, linked to a local wind farm and battery storage system, to provide heat and light for greater year round cropping. Sundrop Farms Port Augusta project uses concentrating solar power to provide desalinated water as well as heat and electricity for their innovative desert based farming system. They, like Thanet Earth, Nectar Farms and many modern greenhouses can control temperatures very precisely, so ideal growing conditions can be maintained year round. They grow hydroponically, and use light, as well as heating and cooling, to maintain year round cropping. Yields per acre are huge.

Plenty Farms in California are expanding rapidly as Silicon Valley billionaires are pouring money into this new start up, which is organically growing leafy green vegetables under a system of vertical hydroponics and relying just on LEDs for light. Around the world others too are growing crops in old shipping containers, factories and warehouses, often in inner city areas, close to where the people are.

I’ve blogged before about solar desalination and mentioned pioneering projects in Australia, Jordan and Qatar. The team at Seawater Greenhouse have just completed construction of their project in Somaliland, which uses cheap shade netting and evaporative walls to create cool moist conditions in the hot dry desert. This is a tiny project yet it shows one possible way to rapidly and sustainably increase food production. It could be hugely significant in the future. Christopher Rothera’s blog and photos really give a good sense of this project.

Another system that I’m passionate about is aquaponics; I blogged about this in 2011 (here and here). Kate Humble and her team, together with Aquaponics UK have built a great system near Monmouth. Again it is a tiny project that could well be a prototype for much larger systems. They’ve some great videos on their website.

In this blog I’ve mentioned some very diverse types of greenhouses and related technologies. The one thing they all have in common is that they produce a lot of food in a limited area and do it in ways that are energy efficient and, to varying degrees, ecologically sustainable: just what we need to feed nine billion people.

Arable Farming & Ethical Eating

Maize, like other grain crops, is usually grown in unsustainable ways

Maize, like other grain crops, is usually grown in unsustainable ways

Last week I wrote about meat and whether it can be part of a diet that is ecologically sustainable. Today I want to look at the alternatives. The ethical complexities are many, and are one reason why I’ve never been a vegetarian, let alone a vegan. Take the choice between whether it is more ethical to eat Welsh lamb or Egyptian new potatoes. I decided many years ago that on purely ethical grounds the spuds had the greater negative impacts. When poor countries such as Egypt export relatively low value food items like potatoes, which require a lot of water and land, it pushes up the price, and Egypt’s urban poor are forced into ever greater food insecurity. Growing for export favours the bigger produces and pushes small farmers growing for the local market out of business, and thus land ownership becomes more concentrated. There are also of course the environmental impacts of growing the crop in a water stressed country like Egypt, and the pollution and carbon emissions of such long distance trade.

Most of the world’s arable farming is now dependent on a range of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and systems of ploughing that are destroying the soil and its complex microfauna. Bees, butterflies and the broad range of insect species seem to be in global decline. As the smaller and simpler life forms die off so to do the birds and mammals that feed upon them, all the way up to the iconic apex predators. These systems of farming have been responsible for a decline in organic carbon content of soil, typically from say 5% to 0.5%, which is very serious from both climate change and food security points of view. In most cases the use of genetically modified crops is only exacerbating the damage for a very small increase in global food production.

Traditionally environmentalists have argued the case for small scale, mixed, organic farming, or systems of permaculture. Such farming practices are certainly very much more ecologically sustainable, but either tend to produce less food per acre, or to require more labour. They also have not had the political support, and therefore grant subsidies, that more ecologically damaging systems of farming have had. I would certainly like to see more support for these sectors.

One area of food production that is expanding, and where huge increases in productivity per acre can be achieved in ways that are potentially very ecologically sustainable is greenhouses, polytunnels and other forms of protected cultivation. This is not to say that all such systems are ecologically sustainable, but some are. On the very small scale I have two small greenhouses and a little polytunnel in our back garden from which I harvest a huge diversity of fruit and vegetables all year round. The productivity per acre is extraordinary. However it is time consuming and the old green idea of the self provisioning economy has singularly failed to take off in this world of busy, time-poor, modern urban living.

In the next week or so I’ll write about a few of my favourite farms that are developing highly productive systems of greenhouse cultivation that show we could feed a very much larger global population with a predominantly vegan diet on a relatively small area. This could leave a considerable area of land for rewilding and for some pasture fed meat and dairy farming.