Category Archives: Environmental

Towards an Ecological Civilization

Paris

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.

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).

Protecting Nature

Patagonia

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!

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.

London

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

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

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

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

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

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

Treasuring Our Oceans

Humpback whale

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

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

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

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

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

Nature & Joy

Colette & I on Dinedor Hill

Colette & I on Dinedor Hill

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

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

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.