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 In the longer term the TX5 hybrid is likely to be superceded by an all electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.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.

Citizen’s Income

De Koffie Pot

De Koffie Pot, home to the excellent ‘Politics, Environment & Ethics’ weekly workshops, every Wednesday

Last night in Hereford we had an excellent evening discussing Citizen’s Income. Perry Walker of Talk Shop chaired the session and Dr Malcolm Torry from the Citizens Income Trust led a fascinating talk and discussion. To quote from the Citizen’s Income Trust introductory pamphlet ‘A Citizen’s Basic Income is an unconditional, automatic and nonwithdrawable payment to each individual as a right of citizenship.’ The Trust’s work focuses on the practical possibilities of implementing such a scheme in the UK. Related organisations exist to promote the concept in other countries, and indeed on a global scale. I’d long supported some kind of global scheme, but in the current political climate this seems unlikely to happen any time soon. Some interesting short term (usually 2 years) and local (just covering a few villages) experiments in Citizen’s Income have been tried in Namibia, India, Canada, Finland and elsewhere over the years. The Namibian example in particular looked to be a very successful way of improving the lives of the some very poor people. In an analysis of the scheme the Basic Income Earth Network make clear that the scheme was not extended due to corporations who want to keep labour cheap and people disempowered. To some extent this may be the case everywhere, but possibly things are beginning to change for a number of reasons.

In UK and elsewhere as more people juggle multiple very short term and insecure jobs with means tested benefits this becomes ever more costly and complex to administer. The system’s complexity disincentivises claimants from telling the truth and keeps them stuck in welfare dependency. Couple this with the rapid expansion of automation, artificial intelligence and robotics and the number of jobs available is liable to plummet. The right wing Putin/Trump/May/Global Corporate line seems to be to create a new class of serfs or insecure day labourers harking back to early 19th Century work patterns. The emerging alternative supported by Green and left leaning parties around the world seeks to promote equality and develop the possibilities for personal growth in a more leisured society, by shortening the normal working week and a host of other measures, a key part of which is the implementation of Citizen’s Basic Income. Many on the right now see a Citizen’s Income as increasingly necessary and the only way to tackle welfare dependency. Last night’s talk convinced me of the importance of more people joining the Citizen’s Income Trust and helping in whatever way they can to get this sensible and practical policy implemented as soon as possible.

Last night’s session was part of the ‘Politics, Environment & Ethics’ sessions at De Koffie Pot. Every Wednesday: highly recommended, free admittance, very friendly and empowering. If you’re in the area why not join us? Check-out the website to see what’s on.

Two Wins in an Epic Struggle

Greens Win in Leominster and in Knowsley

Greens Win in Knowsley and in Leominster

Yesterday we saw two acts of historical folly. Donald Trump signed an executive order to nullify Obama’s climate change policies. Theresa May signed a letter to the EU triggering Article 50 and the start of the Brexit process. May and Trump share a vision of the future which seems totally focused on further enriching the tiny class of billionaires, even at the cost of trashing the environment and pushing millions of people into poverty. Globally the fight-back is gathering pace. Those wanting a more socially just and ecologically sustainable future have an epic battle on their hands.

In the States Bernie Sanders is travelling the country encouraging people, particularly young people, to get stuck into politics and to stand for office at every level. Globally millions of tiny battles must be won in order to create the change we want to see. Those millions of victories need to happen quickly. Last Thursday, 23rd March, two tiny but important steps forward were made. The Green Party of England and Wales won two resounding victories.

Here in Herefordshire Trish Marsh won the Leominster South seat on Herefordshire Council. In a five horse race she got 41% of the vote, more than double the second placed candidate. I helped deliver leaflets and was impressed with what a big team we now are, and how much better organised and motivated we are now than in the past. On the same day in Knowsley, Merseyside, Kai Taylor won a resounding victory, getting 75% of the votes to Labour’s 25%.

On 4th May there will be local elections across the UK, for local councils, new mayoral positions and also the Gorton, Manchester, by-election. These are perhaps the most important and unpredictable elections I can recall. Both the LibDems and Greens could do well as a result of the emerging shambles of Brexit. At the last general election Gerald Kaufman had a 24,000 vote majority in Gorton. Once that might have been considered a safe seat, but now it could go any number of ways, with both the Lib Dems and Greens hopeful of victory. Of course I’m hoping Jess Mayo wins it for the Greens.

Globally the Trump/May agenda of ecological destruction and social injustice has the funding of billionaires. To oppose them the rest of us will need to pitch-in politically, get organised, put in time and effort, chip-in financially and learn to cooperate locally and globally in various progressive alliances. It will require the efforts of many millions of people. No small undertaking: but it is happening. Please help in this epic and existential struggle in whatever way you can.

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.

Proportional Representation Now!

Jesse Klaver, charismatic leader of the Dutch Green Party

Jesse Klaver, charismatic leader of the Dutch Green Party

The ‘first past the post’ voting system has had its day. It is unfair. Back in the day when Britain was essentially a two party system it was very much less unfair than it is now, with at least seven parties. The current Tory government has a clear parliamentary majority yet only got 37% of the vote. There is currently a petition to bring in a system of Proportional Representation, which right now has 102,440 signatures and so has passed the magical 100,000 needed to be considered for a parliamentary debate. Do please sign it. The more signatures the greater the moral pressure for change. Make Votes Matter have issued a press release which puts the case very clearly, and shows that there is at least some support from all the parties, even a few Tories.

There is much wrong with British and American politics. George Monbiot shows how both systems have been corrupted by the undue influence of money, and the lobbyists of the most polluting industries. Even the weak laws about election expenses that Britain does have are being flouted as Michael Crick shows, with twelve police forces currently investigating the overspending of 20 MP’s. Getting Proportional Representation is an absolutely necessary first step in the process to making Britain a more democratic country. Tightening up rules on party funding is a necessary second step.

This week the Dutch had their election to choose the 150 members of their House of Representatives, of course under a proportional system. Twenty-eight parties put up candidates, with thirteen getting enough votes to get MP’s elected. As only about 1.6 % of the vote is needed to get a single MP elected this encourages lots of small parties, which then have to form coalitions. This to my mind is no bad thing. The UK and global media focused on Geert Wilders Freedom Party and their racist agenda. They did increase their number of MP’s from 15 to 20. However three other parties increased their representation by more. The Christian Democrats and the D66 Progressive Liberals gained six and seven MP’s respectively yet were hardly mentioned in the UK media. The biggest gains, from four to fourteen MP’s, were made by the Green Left led by the charismatic Jesse Klaver. Their pro refugee, pro-EU, socially progressive and ecologically pioneering agenda proved popular, especially with the young in cities like Amsterdam where they became the biggest party.

Right wing racist popularism remains a potent force in Britain, Holland and in many countries. It may be better to have these horrible views expressed within parliaments by people like Geert Wilders in Holland than outside by people like Nigel Farage in the UK. The Dutch system allows new ideas and new parties to enter the parliamentary mainstream, for good and for ill. The British system remains dominated by parties that have their roots in Nineteenth Century ideas and traditions. We desperately need a system that better reflects society as it is now and is better equipped to discuss and deal with the real challenges that lie ahead. Let us bring in Proportional Representation now. It is not a universal panacea, but it is a necessary first step toward a more democratic way of governing this country.

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.

Save the NHS!

The NHS is ours, and needs our support.

The NHS is ours, and needs our support.

On Saturday 4th March an estimated 250,000 people marched through London in support of the NHS. I, like millions of others, couldn’t be there in person but was with them in spirit, tweeted my support and felt impelled to write this blog. The NHS is one of the things Britain should feel proud of. This current government has a campaign to slash its funding, trash it in the media so as to weaken public support thus allowing them to accelerate their piecemeal privatisation. Many on the right wing of the Tory party want to make it more like the American system. This to me seems insane.

The American system may provide luxurious levels of care for the richest and most expensively insured people and huge profits for private companies running health care and pharmaceuticals, but for the majority it is a very bad system of health care. Many people live in fear of becoming ill and the crippling financial impacts this can have on them at a time when they are anyway most vulnerable. For those with chronic health conditions insurance may be difficult or impossible to obtain. Life expectancy is lower in USA than in any Western European country due to the abysmal access to health care of the poorest people. This is a system we have very little to learn from.

If the UK want to learn from other countries it should be to Scandinavian or other Western European countries that all organise their systems somewhat differently, but all basically offer very much better and fairer systems than the Americans. In Britain we have fewer doctors, less hospital beds and less overall funding per head than in most of Europe. We should increase taxes on all forms of pollution, close tax loopholes and increase top rates of income tax and double expenditure on the NHS. The founding of the NHS was one of the crowning achievements of the post war Atlee government and perhaps the single greatest thing that Britain achieved in the entire Twentieth Century. It should not be slashed, trashed and privatized by this reckless and short sighted government. It will remain a focus of political struggle until this government is thrown out.

A strange moment in UK Politics

Jonathan Bartley & Caroline Lucus, Co-leaders of the Green Party

Jonathan Bartley & Caroline Lucus, Co-leaders of the Green Party

What a strange point we are at in British politics. UKIP are at war with themselves as Aaron Banks threatens to stand against their only MP, Douglas Carswell. Nigel Farage seems to have thrown his toys out of the pram because he didn’t get an honour. Most of the Tory party are leading the country into the UKIP inspired chaos that is Brexit. The most effective opposition has been from John Major and Kenneth Clarke who both have made impressive and sensible speeches, showing just how far the rest of the Tory party has drifted into UKIP territory. Labour whipped MPs and Lords into supporting the crazy government policy of a rapid and hard Brexit.

As we blunder into Brexit a second Scottish independence referendum is almost inevitable and it is equally inevitable that Nicola Sturgeon will win a huge mandate. Senator George Mitchell has pointed out that Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement was based upon both the UK and Ireland being members of the EU. Brexit may destabilize Northern Ireland economically and politically. Northern Ireland, like Scotland, voted to stay in the EU. They, like Scotland, may seek a political settlement that maintains that membership even if it means leaving the UK. After Scotland and Northern Ireland leave the UK Wales would almost certainly follow. To speak of the United Kingdom already feels like a historical anachronism, like speaking of the British Empire. Little England, outside the EU and bereft of its former partners in the UK would seem a very isolated and vulnerable place. That will have been the unintended consequence of UKIP and their Tory acolytes.

The Tories, Labour and UKIP all seem crippled by internal disputes. Meanwhile the Green Party is strongly united behind its co-leaders, Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley, and making slow but steady gains in a scattering of local authority by-elections in the Forest of Dean, Knowsley and in Weymouth over recent months. Then yesterday Exeter city councillor Chris Musgrave left the Labour party and joined the Greens. I’ve been a Green (and before that Ecology Party) voter since the 1970’s. Several times I’ve thought we were on the verge of a breakthrough, but strangely now, out of the chaos that is Brexit, it feels more likely than ever.

Following the death of Labour MP Sir Gerald Kaufman there is to be a by-election in Manchester Gorton. In the 2015 general election Labour had a huge majority, with the Greens coming second out of a field of seven candidates. In the Richmond Park by-election the Greens stood down to help Sarah Olney achieve a LibDem victory: perhaps this time the Lib Dems will stand down and pitch-in to help the Greens? Will More United play a role? UK politics seems very much more fluid and unpredictable than at any time in my life… and I was born before the Suez Crisis!

Outside in the real world beyond our shores big decisions need to be made. Climate change and a related host of macro ecological threats endanger our continued existence as a species. Fascistic demagogues are in power in USA, Russia, and the Philippines and are threatening to take over in several European countries. They care not a jot about the ecological state of the World and thrive on social division. It is more critical now than ever before that humanity cooperates to build a better, more ecologically sustainable, socially just and peaceful future. Perhaps most of the world’s people understand this. Now it is time that they, that we, united and worked together to overcome the forces that seek to divide us.

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.

China: CSP

China_provinces

The Provinces of China. New CSP will mainly be in Qinghai, Gansu & Inner Mongolia.

Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) uses mirrors and lenses to focus the energy of the sun to make steam, drive turbines and so make electricity. This solar technology can be used to directly drive industrial processes, desalinate seawater, or to power air conditioning via absorption chillers. With CSP heat is usually stored in molten salt and this is then used to generate electricity in the evenings after the sun has set. This is a very important advantage over photovoltaic solar. I’ve long been a fan of this technology and have written about it frequently on this blog. In the first decade of this century Spain lead the world, before abandoning support under the Rajoy government in 2010. In February 2013 I posted a blog asking ‘where next for CSP?’ I’ve posted blogs about Morocco, Chile, South Africa and USA who have all built impressive examples of this technology.

Until recently China had not built any serious CSP power projects. A couple of months ago they simultaneously announced twenty projects, ranging in scale between 50MW and 135MW, all with thermal storage and all designed and built mainly by local companies. Various mirror configurations will be used: parabolic troughs, power towers and Fresnel systems. All the projects will have to be up and running before 2019 to get the agreed price of 1.15 yuan/kWh. This is a very tight time scale, but I’d expect all will be achieved on schedule. The Chinese government refers to these as demonstration projects. If they are successful, which I’m sure they will be, I would expect the next tranche of projects to be on a larger scale. The projects are all in the sunnier west of China: mainly in Qinghai, Gansu and in Inner Mongolia. High voltage direct current power-lines will connect them to the cities on China’s less sunny east coast.

Jeremy Williams wrote an interesting blog about China’s carbon emissions and the various viewpoints people have about their future emissions. On this issue I’m firmly on the side of the optimists. I’ve blogged before about how China’s carbon emissions skyrocketed in the decade 2002 to 2012. They’ve since declined a little. I both hope and expect they’ll plummet over the coming decade, 2017 to 2017. Urban air quality is a very serious health issue in China, and China is also very vulnerable to climate change. The government is very conscious of these threats and has the money and technological ability to take action on a heroic scale and by doing so it will become a leader in both the technological and political spheres, just as USA is abandoning any sense of political leadership, particularly on Climate Change. China is investing heavily in most forms of low carbon energy, including nuclear, wind, solar photovoltaics and hydro. All forms of energy generation have advantages and disadvantages, but CSP seems to me to be one of the best for the hot dry regions of the world. These initial twenty projects will probably be followed by many larger scale projects over the coming decade, and make a significant and worthwhile contribution to reducing carbon emissions and local air pollution.