Category Archives: Environmental

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.

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.

Meat

Can eating meat be ecologically sustainable?

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.

China gets serious about pollution

Air pollution in Beijing

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.

Snowdonia & Hafod y Llan

660KW hydro at Hafod Y Llan

660KW hydro at Hafod Y Llan, with me peeking out from behind it.

Hafod y Llan is a farm covering over 2,600 acres of the south-eastern slopes of Snowdon. I’ve just got back from holidaying in the area and was very impressed by how the National Trust, who own the farm, are managing it. 60,000 people climb the Watkins path across the farm and up Snowdon each year. The National Trust run a lovely campsite on the farm and maintain the footpaths and in other ways welcome the many people coming to this magnificent scenery. They are also managing the land to increase its biodiversity by reducing sheep numbers, introducing Welsh Black cattle, and employing a couple of shepherds to focus the grazing animals onto those areas that need it and away from the sensitive ridges where grazing might be detrimental.

Three years ago I wrote about how the National Trust is working to produce half their energy needs by developing local on-site renewables, and also to reduce their energy needs by 20% by 2020. Then I wrote about the impressive marine source heat pump they had installed at Plas Newydd on Anglesey. Last week in Snowdonia we were very lucky to meet the very knowledgeable Wynn Owen who works at Hafod y Llan and who showed us two of their recently installed hydro electric systems. They had integrated the work into the landscape in a very sensitive way. One of the systems is a small 15KW turbine, the other, pictured above, is a 660KW system, which, as far as I’m aware, is the National Trust’s biggest renewable energy project to date. They also have a couple of other hydro systems, including the Gorsen 18KW at Hafod y Llan and a 45KW system on the neighbouring 2,100 acre Gelli Iago Estate, also owned and managed by the Trust.

The extensive farmhouse and buildings at Hafod y Llan house National Trust staff and volunteers, a holiday cottage and the campsite with its showers, washing machine and recharging point for an electric car. On site they have a range of other renewable energy projects, apart from the hydro systems, including a good sized photovoltaic array on a barn roof, ground source and air source heat pumps, 18KW wood pellet boiler and are hoping to develop a number of other projects in the future including an anaerobic digester.

So far most of the electricity that the National Trust generates has been sold to Good Energy, and as we are Good Energy customers it is nice to think that some of our energy is coming from them. Recently the National Trust has started selling some of its electricity directly to local people which is both more profitable for the Trust and cheaper for the local energy consumers as it cuts out the middle man.

The way the National Trust is managing Hafod Y Llan successfully combines tourism, biodiversity, renewable energy generation into a productive organic farm and has increased on-farm employment. It shows how land can be managed in ways that are good for ecology and for the economy at the same time.

Thanks to Keith Jones and Wynn Owen for providing useful information for this blog.

Population

Today, 11th July, is the UN World Population Day. There are now nearly 7.6 billion of us, and the predictions are that by 2050 there will be 9.5 billion, and 11.2 billion by 2100. Global fertility rates are falling, but still we have an extra 83 million people to feed, house and cloth each year. Africa has the fastest rate of growth and Europe the slowest.

There have been many predictions of imminent famine and collapse due to overpopulation, as global food production would fail to keep pace with population growth. Also as the world’s poor aspired to rich world lifestyles the total ecological footprint of humanity would become catastrophic. Pollution would become more extreme and resources ever more scarce and the reason for endless wars.

However there is another possibility. Through peaceful cooperation humanity can collectively pioneer a new kind of global economy that rapidly eliminates the hunger and poverty of the world’s poorest people and the excess and waste of the world’s richest people. Together we as a species have the opportunity to work out sustainable solutions to all our problems, to restore biodiversity while feeding clothing and housing our growing population in ways that are socially just and ecologically sustainable. I’m sure it can be done, at least theoretically. To make it a reality will require the almost infinite creativity and capacity to cooperate that our species is capable of. I meet a growing number of people who are keen to play their part in this great transformation of the global economy. As Buckminster Fuller said back in the 1960’s ‘We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims’.

“Can we feed 9 billion people, sustainably?” is the title of a talk I’m giving tomorrow evening at De Koffie Pot, and was the theme of last week’s blog.

Time for Change!

Caroline Lucas & Jonathan Bartley to head UK government???

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.

Cities and cars

Urban space is at a premium, and cars waste that precious space

Urban space is at a premium, and cars waste that precious space

The move away from petrol, and more especially diesel cars, buses and trucks is gathering pace. Greenpeace and the Guardian have shown how hundreds of thousands of children are routinely exposed to illegal levels of air pollution. Sadiq Khan is bringing in the Ultra Low Emission Zone. Courts in Munich and Stuttgart have instructed city authorities to prepare to ban diesel cars and plan the transition to electric. Many cities around the world are now striving to clean up their air quality, and since the dieselgate scandal the image of the diesel car has been in freefall. The petrol engine too is on its way out.

Stock markets sense the direction of travel. Last week the stock market valuation of Tesla overtook both Ford and General Motors, despite Tesla still having never made a profit and only producing a tiny fraction of the number of vehicles than their more established rivals.

As the population of many big cities is growing and space is very much at a premium there is a very strong argument to limit private car use within cities, even for zero emission vehicles: there simply is not the space for them. By improving public transport, walking and cycling facilities it is possible to move very much larger numbers of people more quickly around the limited available space, as the above table shows.

A few weeks ago the giant Chinese company Geely opened a new car factory in Coventry. It is now making the new TX5 London taxi, a plug-in hybrid with a 70 mile battery range and a petrol back-up motor. The TX5 is a six seater with space for a wheelchair. This looks to be a considerable improvement on the old dirty diesel taxis currently in use. In the longer term the TX5 hybrid is likely to be superceded by an all electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.

The best cities around the world are continually improving walking, cycling and zero emissions public transport systems. More streets are being pedestrianized. The next logical steps are to roll-out zero emission taxis, ban diesel and petrol cars and allow some, but probably quite restricted, use of zero emission private cars. Such cities should be a joy to live in: safer, quieter and cleaner, and with air fit to breathe.

The Politics of Hope & of Hate

Hans Rosling

Hans Rosling the Swedish statistician, who died in February. A powerful advocate for a better, more caring future.

What’s going on in the World? It seems to me that old definitions of left and right are rapidly becoming obsolete, or at least are morphing into new forms. Humanity faces the existential threat of climate change. People are starving to death in Somalia. Globally millions are fleeing poverty or simply seeking a better life in a different country. The world is urbanizing at breakneck speed. There seem to me to be three broad camps emerging.

The mainstream is under attack, and in many places the political parties that embody this philosophy are seeing support collapse. Tony Blair, John Major and Hilary Clinton are politicians who represent this old centre ground, close to the interests of bankers, relaxed about growing inequality and only prepared to take action on climate change as long as it didn’t seriously disrupt existing business models. This centrist position is under attack from two very different perspectives.

On the one hand we have the Trump-Putin-Farage camp of xenophobic, right-wing populists, who deny climate science in order to keep the fossil fuel driven economy going and to protect the economic interests of a tiny clique of billionaires. These demagogues, like all demagogues, ‘protect the rich by getting the poor to blame the weak.’ (A succinct definition from Alain de Botton) Hence the travel bans, incitement to racism, attacks on the institutions of democracy from the courts to the media, the web of lies in order to undermine calm rational debate. The revival of fascism is something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime, yet fascist ideologues from the 1920’s such as Julius Evola are now back in fashion!

On the other hand there is an emerging green worldview. Clean air and unpolluted water and a healthy biosphere are seen as fundamental human rights. Climate change is understood to represent a challenge of paramount urgency. From this perspective leaving the vast majority of the world’s known fossil fuels in the ground is seen as necessary. A very rapid ramping up of renewable energy and energy efficiency measures represents a huge economic opportunity. Social inclusion and economic equality are seen as fundamental objectives. Taxing all forms of pollution, closing tax loopholes, increases in top rates of taxation are all seen as necessary in order to fund excellent health and education for all. Multiculturalism is to be embraced as is gender equality. I’ve recently blogged about Jesse Klaver in Holland and Isabella Lovin in Sweden who both personify this emergent Green politics and in a UK context I’d cite Caroline Lucas and Molly Scott Cato.

In a traditional left – right dichotomy environmental protection, investments in health and education and other aspects of ‘big Government’ were seen as being against the interests of business. However from the emergent Green perspective they can be seen as complementary. In a blog last month I cited a report from the World Economic Forum that judges Sweden to be both the best country on Earth in which to do business and the one with the best systems of health, education and environmental protection. Essentially it is a well functioning modern state. By contrast the UK and USA are becoming less economically competitive partly because they don’t have such healthy and educated populations and are riven with social problems stemming from inequality. The fact that Sweden is committed to phasing out the use of fossil fuels by 2045 is a moral imperative to tackle climate change: it is also a business opportunity. Many examples could be cited, but an interesting one is the steel industry, which currently emits vast quantities of Co2. Sweden is the first country in the world planning to switch from coal to renewably generated hydrogen to run its blast furnaces, so creating new economic opportunities while reducing emissions.

In international development we see the contrast perhaps most strongly. The new despots collude with global corporations to maximise short term profit and exploit poor countries, with Liam Fox’s Empire 2.0 and Donald Trump’s America First policies as typical. Meanwhile the emergent Green worldview is highly internationalist. Multilateral cooperation is fundamental. As the wonderful Swedish statistician and epidemiologist Hans Rosling argued, it makes sense in every way to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals as rapidly as possible. All 7, 8 or 9 billion of us humans could have Swedish levels of prosperity if we shared resources better, cooperated to reduce conflict, pollution and inequality and jointly developed the cleantech of the future. As I keep arguing in these blogs, technologically and philosophically, providing high quality, universally inclusive, food, shelter, electricity, education and health services is achievable: politically it will be extremely challenging.

What is needed is for millions of people to pitch-in and join the political movement that is trying to establish the politics of hope not hate. Green parties around the world are at the heart of this process. So too is building alliances with mainstream parties who are more slowly beginning to see the opportunities that a radically different, more ecologically sustainable, socially just and globally connected world might entail.

Hydrogen Shipping

Energy Observer

Energy Observer, which uses on-board solar and wind power to desalinate and electrolyse seawater to make hydrogen for its hydrogen fuel cell power system.

Ships are responsible for a lot of global pollution. Small gains in efficiency have been more than offset by the increased volume of trade. Historically most environmentalists argued that relocalizing the economy and decreasing trade was the best way forward, but there is little evidence that this is about to happen any time soon. Another path is to make shipping very much less polluting. Currently most shipping uses diesel engines burning a particularly polluting form of fuel oil known as bunker oil. A range of exciting technical innovations are pointing to the possibilities of a future with global trade based on pollution free ships.

In 2013 I blogged about the MS Turanor making the first circumnavigation of the globe using just photovoltaics and batteries and I’ve frequently blogged about hydrogen fuel cars, trucks and trams. Today I want to focus on two hydrogen powered boats that I think have tremendous potential.

In April 2016 Cheetah Marine successfully launched a catamaran powered by an outboard motor using hydrogen in an internal combustion engine. Cheetah are based at Ventnor in the Isle of Wight where they make hydrogen using energy from the solar panels on their workshop roof to split ordinary mains water into oxygen and hydrogen using ITM’s electrolysis process. The hydrogen is stored in pressurized tanks on the boat.

The Energy Observer is a French boat currently being completed ready for its official launch this May in Paris. Again it is a catamaran but in this case using hydrogen fuel cells. Seawater will be purified and pass through an electrolysis process onboard the boat utilizing energy from onboard solar panels, two small vertical axis wind turbines and a traction kite. A six year round the world trip is planned calling in at 101 ports as an educational showcase for clean technology.

These two hydrogen powered boats, along with MS Turanor, show the technological potential for shipping to become radically more sustainable. What is needed at this stage is strong action on pollution through outright bans, taxes and other disincentives, and support to take these innovative cleantech solutions out into the mass market. Last month I blogged about how electric buses, many with solar panels on the roof, have suddenly leapt from the eco-fringes to the commercial mainstream in some Chinese cities such as Shenzhen. How long will it be before clean renewable hydrogen replaces dirty bunker oil as the main energy source powering the global shipping industry? Much of the best innovation is happening in Britain and France, yet will it be China that takes it into mass commercial production? We need to stop pollution and replace it with very much cleaner technology, and there are huge economic and health opportunities to be gained by doing so. To grab these opportunities requires political support. It is about time Britain and Europe turned this native innovation into the norm for mainstream commercial shipping. If they don’t somebody else will. Bunker oil has had its day. Better technologies are available. Now is the time to develop and deploy them.