Category Archives: Environmental

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.

Solar Buses in China

Solar powered buses

Chinese Battery Electric Buses, with solar panels.

Over the years I’ve posted a number of blogs about why I’m optimistic that Chinese carbon emissions will plummet over the coming decade, and that the Chinese will make significant headway on tackling their ghastly air pollution. I’ve also written about lots of prototype zero emission transportation systems, but much less about the mass roll out of such systems and the effect they might have in reducing pollution.

Diesel buses and trucks are a major source of pollution in Chinese cities. Their days are numbered. Battery electric bus sales are booming. China represents 98% of the global market for such vehicles.  Many now have solar panels built into the roofs, as the above photograph shows. In Europe and North America a few pioneering places are doing small scale trials, mainly by importing electric buses from China. A few ground breaking efforts are being made to design and build electric buses, some with roof mounted solar panels, such as in Kampala, Uganda, by Makerere University and Kiira Motors, the first such project in Africa. However it is only in China that the rapid adoption of electric buses is forging ahead at incredible speed. The huge city of Shenzhen plans to have a fleet of 15,000 electric buses up and running by the end of this year. Other cities are expected to follow in rapid succession. There are several Chinese electric bus companies that are expanding very rapidly, such as BYD which is currently growing 50% per year. Chinese deployment of solar power is currently growing at 100% per year. Increasingly renewable electricity will be what fuels both the Chinese electricity grid and its public transport systems. Trains, trams, trucks, cars and motorbikes are all likely to go electric, or hydrogen fuel cell. It is now becoming possible to envisage fossil fuelled powered cars, trucks and buses in the same way we see steam trains, with a strange confused nostalgia for a more polluted past. If humanity is to have a future it will be with clean, pollution minimizing technology, and currently China is forging ahead of the rest of the world. Chinese carbon emissions rocketed during the decade 2002 to 2012 then levelled off for the last five years and now, I believe, are on the cusp of rapid reduction. And as carbon emissions fall so too will local air pollution. There is a long way to go, but improvements can be remarkably rapid, as the roll out of battery electric buses and solar power in China show.

This Blog’s Achievement Awards 2016

 

Philipp Saumweber

Philipp Saumweber, Chairman & CEO of Sundrop Farms

Reinier Wolterbeek

Reinier Wolterbeek, Chief Technology Officer at Sundrop Farms

It’s the time of year to select this blog’s achievement awards. I was tempted to choose Jo Cox, whose murder has highlighted the growing threats from intolerance, racism and demagogues. Her memory has become a rallying point for those seeking a gentler, more collegiate, more inclusive form of politics. She and these opposing world views are getting much coverage in the media. As is something of a tradition with this blog I will instead choose people who are not much in the headlines yet have helped open up new possibilities, showing how we might live more sustainably in the future.

In October I wrote about the official opening of Sundrop Farms Port Augusta facility in Australia. This is perhaps the greatest technological achievement of 2016, in a year that has seen many extraordinary breakthroughs. The key individuals behind it have been Chairman and CEO Philipp Saumweber and the Chief Technology Officer Reinier Wolterbeek. They share this blog’s accolade, ‘person of the year 2016’. Using solar power to desalinate seawater, generate electricity and to grow food in the world’s deserts unleashes extraordinary possibilities. New cities might grow in the world’s hot sunny deserts based on these technologies. I’ve followed this from when it was just a concept, through various precursor projects, and now at long last they have a full scale commercial project up and running. No small achievement!

Sundrop farms next two projects are to grow peppers in Portugal and berries in Tennessee, neither of which is a desert environment. It will be interesting to see what technology they use in each of these projects to demonstrate their aim of making intensive food production very much more ecologically sustainable. I’ll be waiting to see if they, or others, plan further food production projects in the world’s deserts, and how they learn from and build upon what has just been achieved at Port Augusta.

Queensland: Coal or Solar

fish on Great Barrier Reef

The future of the Great Barrier Reef, and the planet’s climate, will be greatly affected by plans to export vast quantities of coal from Queensland. There is an alternative.

Two worlds are colliding. The fossil fuel industry and its pet politicians plan ever greater acts of folly, piling more money into ever more reckless projects. Climate change, ocean acidification and air pollution all suggest it would be more sensible to quit all investment in fossil fuels and just leave them in the ground. There are better, less polluting and increasingly cheaper alternatives. Take what is happening in Queensland, Australia, as an example of the choice humanity must make.

The Great Barrier Reef is dying mainly due to the warming ocean. The Queensland government, led by climate change denying Pauline Hanson has approved several massive new ports to export vast quantities of coal. Huge swathes of sea will need to be dredged further damaging the reef. Avaaz, WWF and Greenpeace all have campaigns and petitions opposing the development. (Do please sign their petitions)

In remote northern Queensland a couple of small rays of hope suggest a better alternative. The Kidston Energy Park is just about to start building a 50MW first phase solar photovoltaic project, which it is planned, will then be expanded to 270 MW. What makes this project especially interesting is that a 250MW pumped storage hydro system is planned to be co-located on the site, meaning that excess solar energy from the middle of the day can be turned into more valuable evening electricity, or be stored for use on the occasional cloudy days. The whole project is located at an old gold mine at Georgetown with the pumped hydro system located in the old gold mine workings. This will be a world first, co-locating solar with pumped storage hydro.

Another pioneering cleantech project is planned for Hughenden, Queensland. The Kennedy Energy Park is due to start construction in early 2017, with a first phase to be 30MW of wind, 20 MW of solar pv and 2 MW of Lithium Ion batteries all co-located and grid connected. Further expansion of the site would only be possible with improvements to the grid.

As I wrote in a blog last August, Australia could be a world leader in solar power. It has the perfect climate. Sadly is does not have the politicians able to take a lead. Last week I blogged about Mauritania, a country with a similar vast solar potential as Australia. Australia has much greater technical and financial clout, and is doing a number of useful projects, but I’d put money on Mauritania getting to a solar powered economy long before Australia, given the strength of Australia’s coal lobby and their political puppets.

Enderby Wharf & Air Pollution

Enderby Wharf: a missed opportunity

Enderby Wharf: a missed opportunity

Planning permission has been granted for a new cruise ship terminal in Greenwich. Ships moored in port run their diesel generators to provide power, and this creates terrible air pollution. Yesterday the Radio 4 programme ‘Costing the Earth’ investigated the situation. The answer is simple. Connect the ships to shore based electricity supply so they don’t need to run their generators. This requires some additional investment, but when planning a new port like Greenwich’s cruise liner terminal at Enderby Wharf providing such infrastructure should clearly have been a condition of the planning approval. Los Angeles was the first port in the world to build such a system, back in 2004. By now it ought to be standard practice. Radio 4’s Tom Heap interviewed lots of people in making the programme, but nobody from either local or national government, or the developers, were prepared to talk to him. As ever governments and commercial developers drag their feet, hounded by community groups, health professionals and environmental activists.

London has long had air pollution problems, dating back centuries. I was born not long after the Great Smog of 1952 and one of my earliest memories is of my family replacing open coal fires with gas ones as a result of the 1956 Clean Air Act. By the 1960’s pollution from cars was a big issue. On the 1971 ‘O’ level English paper, one of the questions was ‘Should the car be banned?’ I argued that it should. The many disadvantages, including local air pollution, climate change, accidents and communities divided by roads outweighed the benefits. This, I recall, became the policy of the Ecology Party, first called the People Party, (later, the Green Party) when it was formed in 1972-73. Since that time the evidence of the damage to human health has grown very much more detailed.

Air pollution from various forms of fossil fuels has long been a problem, for London, and for all big cities. As an issue it has periodically risen up and slid down the media agenda. Now at long last the Cleantech Revolution means that we can still have the many benefits of modern city life, but with radically reduced pollution. Technically much is possible. What is needed is for governments to understand this and take action. Tragically they seldom do, unless forced to do so by the valiant efforts of campaigners and activists, with the support of wonderful organisations like the activist lawyers of Client Earth and insightful radio programmes like ‘Costing the Earth’.

Trump vs Science

trump-digs-coal

Trump digs coal, calls Climate Change a hoax and becomes President. What does that mean for humanity?

When future historians look back at 2016, what will they see as the most significant change?

In Marrakech, Morocco, the COP22 climate change talks are underway. The evidence for climate change is utterly overwhelming. Atmospheric CO2 has passed the milestone of 400ppm.  Each year sees the global average temperature rise. Glaciers and permafrost are melting, sea levels are rising. Urgent action is required.

As I write this Donald Trump has just won the American Presidency. He has described Climate Change as a hoax. I can think of no better parallel than when the Nazi’s described any science they didn’t like as ‘Jewish Science’. Dismissing hard science based on careful study of empirical evidence is a very dangerous path to take. Donald Trump genuinely is a loose cannon.

Globally air pollution is re-emerging as a critical issue. This week Delhi has been described as a ‘gas chamber’ and the High Court in London has condemned our government for inaction in reducing air pollution.

The solutions to both climate change and to air pollution are a rapid transition from a fossil-fuel based economy to one based on renewables. Much of the Cleantech innovation is happening in USA.

What effect a Trump victory will have on any of this is hard to tell, but it is very likely that global leadership on these critical issues will move elsewhere.

Meanwhile real world events unfold. Sotheby’s have plenty of multi-million dollar homes for sale in Miami Beach. Sea level rise, plus the region’s porous geology and the increasing likelihood of storms and hurricanes make it almost inevitable that these properties will become utterly worthless before long, but exactly when, nobody knows. Trump may be dismissive of climate science, but he is keenly aware of property prices. Atmospheric gases and geological processes of change are completely oblivious to property prices or to the egos of politicians, yet they may dominate the news events of the Trump presidency.

We live in interesting times!