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.
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.
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.
Can eating meat be ecologically sustainable?
Meat is a complex and controversial issue. Can it be part of a diet that is ecologically sustainable and socially just? Arguments rage about this issue. One of the complexities is that meat is produced in very variable ways. The very best systems of pasture management can, it is argued, sequester more carbon into the soil than is necessary to offset the methane the cattle produce. They can also be part of restoring biodiverse habitats. In a blog in June I sang the praises of Will Harris of White Oak Pastures. However this represents the very apex of good meat production. The vast majority of meat production is very much less sustainable. Most animals raised for human consumption are fed on grain and soya that would be much more beneficially eaten directly by people. Even the best systems of meat production use a lot of space per unit of food produced. It would certainly be a good thing if humanity could massively reduce its meat consumption, say by 80 or 90%.
One of the common assumptions people writing about population and diets was that as people get richer they would eat more meat. Throughout the Twentieth Century this held true: not any more. Veganism is growing rapidly in many countries, and it seems especially so among the young and better educated. Also for many of us who are omnivores we are eating a lot more meals that are plant based, with a very much reduced intake of meat and dairy.
Globally levels of meat consumption vary a lot. Argentina and Uruguay top the table of per capita meat eating. India and China traditionally ate very much less but as people are getting wealthier they are eating more. Total global meat consumption is still rising but this may not go on much longer if veganism, vegetarianism and low meat lifestyles become more common, as I think they probably will.
If humanity could reduce its meat consumption dramatically, (say by 80%) that would free up an enormous area of land for other purposes. Some of this could be used for agroforestry or renewable energy projects, but the vast majority could be used for rewilding. Increasing the area of forests in the world could help restore habitats thus allowing biodiversity to flourish again, and it would be a very effective way of sequestering carbon, so vital in helping combat climate change.
Some people think that cultured meat, grown in laboratories, will replace traditional meat eating. Others see vegetable based meat substitutes, like textured soya protein as having a major role. Some argue we should switch from traditional meats to insects. Maybe meat eating will simply decline without the need for ersatz meats. Any of these perspectives may prove to be true. It is too early to say.
Air pollution in Beijing
This week China has shut down about 40% of all its factories, approximately 80,000 of them. Some may be shut down permanently, some just until they can clean up their act. The early evidence is that fines are being strictly imposed as the tax bureau acts in tandem with the pollution inspectors. Some factory managers and owners may well be sent to jail. There will be disruption in global supply chains. The price of Chinese made things, from clothing to car components will increase a bit in the short term. A few percentage points may be knocked off Chinese GDP figures. However all these things seem a small price to pay for the benefits at stake.
China has a public health emergency in terms of local pollution. In rapidly reducing this local pollution many macro ecological threats from climate change to ocean acidification can also be mitigated. In a blog a couple of weeks ago I wrote about the need to create a pollution minimizing way of maximizing the social and economic benefits of a modern economy. By shutting down obsolete and dirty factories cleantech innovation will be stimulated, leading to more sustainable forms of prosperity. Just in purely economic terms China will probably benefit in the longer term.
Over the last sixty years or so successive legislation has helped clean up most of the rivers of Europe and North America. London’s air quality improved rapidly after the 1956 Clean Air Act. Cleaning up pollution always requires strong government leadership. This week Sadiq Khan introduced the new £10 toxicity charge for bringing older more polluting cars into the centre of London. Although this is to be welcomed, it is too little, too late. The pace of shifting to a cleantech economy needs to speed up dramatically.
The medical journal, The Lancet, estimates that 50,000 people in the UK, and 9 million globally, die each year due to poor air quality. It is time governments the world over took more radical steps to tackle pollution. It will mean shutting down thousands of businesses. This needs to be managed in ways that create greater social and economic security while cleaning up the mess. To me this seems quite doable. Stop subsidies to polluting industries, introduce hefty fines on all forms of pollution, introduce a universal basic income and incentivise cleantech innovation.
In numerous blogs I’ve sounded an optimistic note that China’s carbon emission might plummet over the coming decade. These factory closures will contribute to that goal, and they will also help ensure China is a leading economic powerhouse in the future. As USA under Trump and Britain under the quagmire of Brexit both look back to a fantasy of past glory China is forging ahead, creating the kind of economy which will typify the post fossil fuel age. China has a long way to go to reduce its horrendous pollution, but it is making a very bold start, and that is to be welcomed.
TuNur’s proposal to build 4.5 GW of csp solar energy in Tunisia
The technology of concentrated solar power (csp) has been around for a long time. Augustin Mouchot pioneered its use in the 1860’s and Frank Shuman built an impressive system in Maadi, Egypt in 1912. I’ve long been a strong advocate. However prices remained high as rates of deployment were low, and rates of deployment were low because prices were high. This is now changing fast as several countries and companies compete to bring forward the technology. Over the last few years there have been significant price reductions of projects in Chile, Dubai, Morocco and elsewhere as the technology improves. In February I blogged about China starting work on 20 demonstration projects, and as they establish a supply chain of mass produced components prices will continue to fall. Concentrating solar power has the advantage over solar pv and wind in that energy storage is typically built into the projects so they can guarantee to supply electricity 24 hours a day. As techniques of thermal energy storage improve the advantages of concentrating solar continue to improve. Some very big schemes are currently under construction or have been announced.
At Ouarzazate in Morocco a 580 MW plant is being built in four stages, the first of which is already in operation. In Dubai they are planning a 5 GW mix of solar pv and csp. In 2014 I blogged about TuNur’s proposal to build a system in Tunisia which recently took a step forward as they applied for a permit to build a 4.5 GW plant over three stages, the first exporting electricity to Malta, the next to Italy and the third to France. A couple of weeks ago the Northwest Electric Power Design Institute proposed to build a vast 7.4GW CSP facility in Akesai County, in China’s remote Xinjiang region.
The Paris Climate Agreement incorporated the ambitious goal of keeping global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Centigrade. In many ways governments are failing to implement the policies necessary to achieve this objective. Collectively we are failing to curb our wasteful and profligate lifestyles. However there is one area where the news is consistently very good and that is the speed with which renewable energy is progressing. As the costs of renewables continues to tumble coal, gas and nuclear are all failing to compete.
In UK the falling cost of offshore wind received a lot of media coverage, undermining the viability of the government’s commitment to Hinkley and further nuclear power projects. In India numerous coal projects are being abandoned as India embraces cheap solar pv. The falling cost of concentrating solar power has received less media coverage, but is of just as great significance. If these giant csp projects all go ahead they will displace a lot of fossil fuel usage which of course will be very good news from a climate change perspective. If they are done with the right social and economic policies in place they could also transform the lives of many people, especially in poorer countries like Tunisia.
Flooding in Mumbai 29th August 2017
Hurricane Harvey continues to bring unprecedented flooding to Texas and is now making landfall in Louisiana. Large parts of India, Nepal and Bangladesh have been flooded in heavier than usual monsoonal rains. Niger in the African Sahel is also now experiencing higher than normal flooding with more than 40 deaths. Earlier this month torrential rain caused a devastating mudslide in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, and Typhoon Hato battered Macau, Hong Kong and parts of South-Eastern China. There are two points I would like to highlight about how these events are covered in the media.
First is about the relative importance we put on human lives. Hurricane Harvey has attracted vastly more media coverage than the South Asian monsoon. Both situations are still on-going, but at the time of writing the death toll from Hurricane Harvey is 30 while for the South Asian monsoon it is 1,200. If the media, and their readership, which I guess includes us all, really valued all human life as having equal value would we reflect this in our reporting and give greater media attention to where the death toll was higher? Let us simply say that our hearts go out to all those who are suffering from these extreme weather events wherever they live and whoever they are.
The second point is about the causal relationship between climate change and these types of events. This has been particularly heated in the USA where climate change deniers and over simplistic arguments saying climate change caused the hurricane scream at each other. David Roberts, writing on the Vox website, makes a very intelligent and nuanced analysis of the complex relationship between individual weather events such as Hurricane Harvey and climate change. Of course hurricanes and monsoons have always killed people and the death toll is made worse by many factors such as how and where we build our settlements, but to exclude the role of climate change is simply wrong. Climate change is certainly making Hurricanes like Harvey worse as the waters of the Gulf of Mexico are warmer than was historically the case, leading to greater evaporation and precipitation, which coupled with rising sea levels, has resulted in more flooding. The US military describe climate change as a ‘risk multiplier’ or ‘threat multiplier’. They rightly see it as exacerbating many pre existing threats from flooding to terrorism in ways that are both complex and highly nuanced. The simple truth is wherever we can reduce threats and risks we should do so and rapidly reducing carbon emissions is a very doable policy. And a second simple truth is that we should value all human life equally.
The first wind turbine blades leave Siemens Hull factory for DONG’s Race Bank Offshore Wind Farm
A few days ago I posted a blog about the Norwegian oil company Statoil developing and deploying the world’s first commercial scale floating wind turbines. Statoil is changing its business model. Climate change, ocean acidification, air and water pollution are all largely driven by humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels. Technological innovation and falling prices have made the case to switch from fossil fuels to renewables an economically smart move, as well as being a macro ecological imperative and an absolute necessity for humanity to continue to flourish. The cleantech revolution is happening and is being driven mainly by small start-up companies. What future do the big incumbents have? Will they change with the times or struggle to keep the old polluting economy going? Peabody and DONG provide the most extreme examples of this choice.
The name DONG stands for Danish Oil and Gas. In 1972 it was set up by the Danish government to develop North Sea oil and gas fields. It expanded into electricity supply and owned coal fired power stations. Fossil fuels were its core business. As it has grown it has transformed itself into a cleantech pioneer. It is now the world’s largest builder and owner of offshore wind farms. 80% of its capital is employed in the wind sector and just 4% in oil and gas, and it has said it will sell off this vestigial side of the business while investing heavily in more offshore wind. Last week the first wind turbine blades left Siemens new Hull factory for DONG’s Race Bank Offshore Wind Farm. DONG has also invested in the Cambeltown wind tower factory in western Scotland, owned by Korean company CS Wind. DONG is also now developing some interesting waste to energy projects such as the REnescience project at Northwich, Cheshire. It is creating lots of useful jobs helping develop the technologies that will help combat climate change.
Peabody is a much older company, founded in 1883 in Chicago, USA. It was and remains focused overwhelmingly on coal. To quote Wikipedia ‘Peabody has been an important actor in organized climate change denial.’ It has totally failed to make the transition to a cleantech future. It filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in April 2016. The day after the election of Donald Trump its shares shot up by 50% and in April 2017 it emerged from bankruptcy. It still owns vast coal reserves. If this coal is ever going to be exploited then Peabody has economic value, but if, as climate change and the cleantech revolution show, these assets are just worthless liabilities then a return to bankruptcy seems inevitable.
Most of the world’s huge oil companies, such as Exxon, Chevron, BP and Shell, are still dominated by their oil interests. Most of them have dabbled in renewables but their main capital resources are still overwhelmingly in oil. Will they make the change and fully commit to the post fossil fuel future or will they cleave to the old polluting past? My hunch is that most of them have left it too late: cleantech start-ups will grow exponentially and squeeze them out of the energy market. Their stock market values are likely to plummet as the realization that the reserves they own and that underpin their stock market valuations are worthless. Oil and coal will follow flint from being key economic assets to interesting geological curiosities. When in 1991 the first offshore wind farm opened at Vindeby in Denmark many in the global energy industry thought offshore wind a ludicrous idea. Nobody would say that now. A lot has changed in the last 26 years: much more will do so in the next quarter century as the pace of change inevitably quickens.
On this blog and in numerous talks I’ve put forward the case that the prime political divisions can no longer be seen as left/right, but rather socially and ecologically literate on the one hand and oil addicted nationalistic despots on the other.
It looks like Trump is on the verge of pulling the USA out of the Paris Climate Agreement. The US House Intelligence committee has issued subpoenas to Michael Flynn and Michael Cohen in the latest instalment in the Trump-Russia saga. There is certainly a huge overlap between Putin and Trump as they struggle to keep the global carbon bubble economy going. Both Trump and Putin are irrelevant. When it comes to finding solutions to the biggest issues facing humanity, from climate change to poverty, they either are in denial of the problem or simply don’t care. Other, more intelligent, socially and ecologically responsible politicians are taking leadership roles.
A few days ago there were elections in British Columbia. Andrew Weaver, inspirational leader of the BC Greens and a professor of climate science will now be an influential figure in John Horgan’s New Democratic Party government. Expansion of the Kinder Morgan oil pipeline was one of the defining issues of the election and the result is a great victory for those of us standing up to big oil and their puppet politicians.
The EU and China look set to rebuff Trump and to increase political commitment to the Paris agreement and to intensify cleantech collaboration. They will want partners in North America. Canada, with Justin Trudeau, John Horgan and Andrew Weaver involved will have much to contribute. As the Federal government in Washington collapses into irrelevance individual states and cities are increasingly stepping up to take leadership roles. In April Isabella Lovin and the Swedish government delegation signed a climate cooperation agreement with California Governor Jerry Brown, simply bypassing the idiocy of what passes for politics in Washington these days.
Britain’s role in the world is rapidly diminishing as the Brexit buffoons lead the country into increasing inequality, isolation and irrelevance. Globally constructive solution focused thinking is being led by pioneering left leaning Greens and right of centre pragmatists like Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Xi Jinping, who do certainly have their differences but are united in seeing the need to tackle climate change and to bring the post fossil fuel economy into being, and to doing it collaboratively.
Caroline Lucas & Jonathan Bartley to head UK government!?*
This week atmospheric Co2 passed 410ppm, the highest level for three million years. We are heading for a climate totally unfit for human civilization, a climate unseen for 50 million years, and we could get to this ghastly outcome within the lifetime of children alive today. Climate change is just one aspect of a wider Ecological Crisis that includes habitat loss, species extinction, ocean acidification, desertification and myriad forms of pollution. In the UK we also face a Social Crisis that has at its heart rising inequality and chronic underfunding of health, education, housing and other public services.
Since my adolescence in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s I’ve been an environmentalist, and like most environmentalists then and now, also committed to social justice based on much greater equality. In those early days the only way of causing less polluting lives was to live simpler lives. We drew inspiration from Gandhi, Ivan Illich, Fritz Schumacher and then young Jonathon Porritt. An ecologically sustainable lifestyle inevitably meant using less energy. There were some futuristic writers, like Buckminster Fuller, who had visions of the future based on higher tech, but any truly sustainable source of energy supply was off in some distant future.
Over the last half a century there has been a cleantech revolution. Now we have the technology to provide a Swedish standard of living to all 7.5 billion of us humans. As I keep saying on this blog, technologically so much is possible. If we applied the principles of ecological sustainability and social justice systematically humanity could very quickly banish much of both the Ecological Crisis and the Social Crisis to history. We could create a carbon negative global economy with zero hunger and poverty. To achieve this we need different politicians. Why Sweden is rich and Somalia is poor has more to do with politics, history and culture than due to resources or possibilities. Why we in UK are living through a protracted period of austerity and Sweden is not is due to the different political decisions that have been made. While Sweden systematically applies goals of ecological sustainability and social justice the UK does not. We in this country currently have a government focused on further enriching a tiny clique of billionaires, and are prepared to trash the climate and the lives of our own people in order achieve this insane goal.
We have a UK general election on 8th June, and local elections on 4th May. Please register to vote, and please vote, ideally for the Green Party, but failing that for any politician you feel can contribute to getting rid of Theresa May and this awful government. The UK desperately needs a government that understands the Ecological Crisis and the Social Crisis and is prepared to radically redistribute resources to achieve the twin goals of Ecological Sustainability and Social Justice.