Three Great Initiatives

On this blog I usually pick a technology of the year, and a person, or people, of the year. This year what has inspired me most is small groups of people taking action to change things in all sorts of positive ways. The old quote from social anthropologist Margret Mead comes to mind: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.” Many such small groups have inspired me this year, and whose actions I will be following with interest in 2022. I want to highlight three.

First while the UK government is still paying tax payers money to companies to develop more oil and gas fields this needs to be challenged. Paid to Pollute is a tiny organization which has taken the UK government to court. There is a video of the three key people, Mikaela, Kairin and Jeremy explaining their actions. It is worth watching all 56 minutes.

Awel Aman Tawe is an amazing Welsh charitable organization that does great educational work around climate change and has initiated some excellent projects. It set up the Awel as an energy coop to build and run two Enercon 2.35MW wind turbines at Mynedd y Gwrhyd, near their headquarters at Cwmllynfell, twenty miles north of Swansea in South Wales. They have also set up Egni, the UK’s largest rooftop solar coop, with 88 photovoltaic systems on schools, village halls and other community buildings across South Wales, with a combined capacity of 4.4MW. It is an excellent and ambitious renewable energy coop. Well done Dan, Rosie, Mary Ann, Carl, David and the rest of the team.

The term agrivoltaics combines the words agriculture and photovoltaics. If done well many benefits can be achieved, from biodiversity gains to more productive farming systems and solar electricity, all from the same land. Byron Kominek set up the Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Centre on five acres of land on the outskirts of the city of Boulder, Colorado, USA. He works with a small team experimenting with various crops under the solar panels and running educational workshops. In the hot dry climate of the American southwest saving water appears to be one of the key advantages, but in other climates other factors will be more important, such as protecting crops from frosts or extreme weather events.

The changes we need in society are many and complex, but challenging the government’s irrational subsidies for fossil fuels is certainly a necessary first step. Developing more renewable energy is also of course necessary and doing this by utilizing agrivoltaic systems and cooperative structures seems the best way to go. Well done to these three teams of pioneering people at Paid to Pollute, Awel Aman Tawe and the Colorado Agrivoltaic Learning Centre.

2021 By-Elections: Greens gaining ground.

I’ve blogged a lot about council by-elections this year. Election Maps is run by a heart surgeon as a hobby, and he produces excellent graphics and data. On Christmas Eve he published this. It shows the aggregate results of all the council by-elections held during 2021. It shows the Conservatives, Independents, Labour, SNP and UKIP all losing seats and the Greens, Liberal-Democrats and Plaid Cymru all gaining seats. In my last blog I mentioned the Green Party gaining eight seats in by-elections over the last few months and now this shows them gaining twelve over the year. It does not mention the main round of local elections held each May, where of course many more seats change hands, and where over the last few years the Green Party has been making impressive gains, as I’ve previously reported on this blog, here and here

2021 Council By-Elections Aggregate Result:

CON: 64 (-10)

LAB: 50 (-2)

LDM: 36 (+10)

GRN: 14 (+12)

IND: 14 (-5)

SNP: 6 (-2)

PLC: 4 (+1)

UKIP: 0 (-1)

Others: 8 (-3)

The Tide is Turning on the Tories

Helen Morgan the LibDems new MP for North Shropshire

On this blog I have frequently argued in favour of some kind of progressive alliance. It is the only way in which we will rid ourselves of this ghastly government and bring in some sensible and more democratic ways forward. Although I’m a passionate supporter of the Green Party I want to celebrate the LibDems historic victory in the North Shropshire by election. They have comfortably overturned a huge Tory majority. It is the third biggest swing to the LibDems, or Liberals, since the Second World War. It is such an interesting result for a number of reasons.

There was no formal progressive alliance, but many Labour and Green voters lent their votes to the LibDems as it became apparent that they were the best bet to get rid of the Tories. This is very much evidence for a kind of bottom up led progressive alliance, led by voters rather than the leadership of national political parties.

The Tory vote collapsed, but interestingly these voters did not switch to the far right parties. Reform, Reclaim and UKIP all stood and all got pretty risible votes. The three main left or centre left parties, LibDems, Labour and Greens, got 61.5% of the vote between them, which given the nature of North Shropshire’s political history and the makeup Shropshire Council is pretty remarkable.

It is also interesting that North Shropshire was strongly pro-Brexit, yet now has swung decisively toward one the UK’s most strongly pro-EU parties. Perhaps now the reality of Brexit is sinking-in. It has been the greatest self inflicted damage on the economy, society and reputation of this country. Reversing it and re-joining the EU will take decades, but eventually that will become possible.

Every Friday morning I read the Tweets from the English Elections Centre and Britain Elects, as most local council by-elections take place on Thursdays, and every Thursday there have been a few local elections. Over these past few months both the LibDems and the Greens have been taking seats off the Tories pretty well every week. Some of the swings have been impressive, and often some kind of tactical voting or informal alliance emerges and either the Greens or LibDems focus on one seat. The collapse of the Tory vote in rural and small town England is not confined to North Shropshire. Over the last few months the Greens have won victories in Horndean Downs (East Hampshire) Ardingly & Balcombe (Mid Sussex) Gorrell (Canterbury) Hartfield, (Wealden) Castle (Tonbridge& Malling) Highfield (Ashford) and two in Brundall (Broadland). These eight Green victories have all been in the Tory heartlands of southeast England. The LibDems have also won a good number of new local council seats, again mainly at the Tories expense. Even Labour has won the odd few seats, but less I think than the Greens or LibDems.

The tide seems to be swinging against the Tories. I, and millions of others, am delighted by that. The Greens and LibDems, and a few of the Labour MP’s, are most enthusiastic for a progressive alliance. The SNP and Plaid Cymru would have much to contribute. Still most of the Labour leadership hold on the outdated idea that winning as a single party is the only worthwhile way to win. I would argue that alliances often bring out the best of both parties. Our county of Herefordshire is better governed than it has been for many years, thanks to the Green and Independent coalition now in charge. Most of Europe is very well served by such coalitions and with any fair voting system coalitions become inevitable.

Eve of COP26 Anticipation

On Sunday 31st October COP26 is due to start. It ought to be the most important and influential meeting in human history. We as a species are at a precarious tipping point. We are heading toward climatic and ecological breakdown. Our very life support systems are being destroyed by greed and stupidity. We could change direction, but tragically the whole COP process is in the hands of the most greedy and venal politicians imaginable.

The UK government is hosting proceedings in Glasgow. Yesterday Rishi Sunak presented his budget. It featured a cut in aviation taxes, ongoing expansion of oil, gas, airports and roads, and other detrimental policies which indicate a total lack of action in terms of planetary healing. Sewage is being dumped in our rivers and seas while privatized water companies rake off obscene profits and squirrel them away in offshore tax havens. Serco’s 37 billion pound track and trace system was an utter failure in helping combat Covid yet siphoned this enormous sum of money away from the NHS and into the hands of the most greedy and incompetent people imaginable. Brexit Britain is in a weaker, more divided and more isolated political position in the world than at any time since the Suez crisis, or probably very much longer.

There will be many people at COP26 who want to help steer a very different path for humanity. A path that gets to zero carbon emissions as fast as possible, and does so in ways that promote global social justice. Those pressing for such a change of direction are a very diverse group of actors, each with somewhat different perspectives, but complementing each other. Perhaps some countries may emerge as leaders. The most likely candidates are small islands states like the Marshall Islands, or countries like New Zealand and Finland that have the best of governments. There will be companies and agencies promoting a solar and cleantech revolution and there will be the activists from the myriad groups around the world trying to lobby for change. New leaders may emerge, big ideas will be discussed. I will follow the news via many sources, including George Monbiot’s COP26.TV and the tweets of many inspiring activists and participants, as well as the mainstream media. Last week Greta Thunberg wrote an excellent article in the Guardian setting out what needs to emerge from COP and particularly the crying need for honest climate leadership. I will of course be interested in her reports from Glasgow. She is the outstanding leader of our times. We need people like her in positions of power. Instead we have evil clowns like Boris Johnson. The shear tragedy of it.

My own feelings on the eve of this momentous meeting are a mix of love and hope, frustration and rage.

German & Norwegian Elections

Annalena Baerbock, leader of the German Greens

Norway had a general election on Monday 13th September and Germany yesterday, on Sunday 26th September. Similar and rather positive trends seem to be emerging in both countries, with Conservative governments falling and probably being replaced with more left leaning and Greener coalition governments.

In Germany the SPD (Labour) emerged as the largest party, winning 206 seats in the Bundestag, a gain of 53 seats. The Greens won 118 seats, a gain of 51 seats. The only other party to gain more than a single one were the FDP (Liberal) who gained 12 seats to bring their total to 92.

The big losers were the CDU/CSU who together lost 50 seats bringing their combined total down to 196 seats. The far left Die Linke party lost 30 seats, reducing their total to 39, and the far right AfD lost 11 seats, reducing their total to 83 seats.

I think a new government will be dominated by the SPD and Greens, but to form a majority government they will need the support of the FDP, or the FDP plus Die Linke. Other possibilities do exist, but seem unlikely to me.

Meanwhile in Norway a very similar pattern is emerging with the incumbent Conservatives losing power to a broad left coalition, which again is likely to be made up of at least three parties, and probably more. The Labour party has 48 seats, the Centre party 28 seats and the Socialist Left party 13 seats, which would create a government with a 9 seat majority in the 169 seat parliament. The Norwegian Green Party increased their seats from 1 to 3, a gain of 2. They would be natural partners in such a coalition.

Chloe Farand, writing on the Climate Home News website points out how this new Norwegian government might be good news in terms of reducing emissions by curbing new oil exploration and extraction. The new government in Germany is also likely to be bolder on reducing carbon emissions than was Chancellor Merkel and her CDU/CSU government.

So, expect small steps forward in terms of the climate-ecological-social crises in these two countries. Still action on the streets will be needed to urge greater speed and boldness, but these two election results are certainly cause for a small celebration.

The Green Party, reflections & hopes

Yesterday, on the day that polling opened for the new leaders of the Green Party, I voted for Carla Denyer and Adrian Ramsey to be the new co-leaders. To explain why I voted for them I want to take you back many decades.

As a child in the 1950’s and 60’s I was intensely aware of the damage, pain and suffering being done to the natural world and to people, and as a teenager I became fascinated by those trying to create better, more peaceful, less polluting, more socially just ways of doing things. This became a lifelong quest.

I followed the very early developments of the Ecology Party in the 1970’s. I eventually got around to joining the party in 1982, the same year we formed a new branch of the party in Herefordshire. For the next couple of decades we struggled to get our message heard, and as this graph shows we did gradually and very slowly increase our tiny number of councillors. Mainly we fought elections knowing we would lose, which was quite frankly dispiriting. Gradually in odd places the local parties started getting very much better organized and winning seats. One of the leading places was Norwich and one of their first councillors was a very young Adrian Ramsey, first elected in 2003, and he was part of the team that helped Caroline Lucas get elected in 2010 in Brighton. It seemed in rather hip university cities we could indeed win seats.

Chris Williams worked with Adrian and brought this ‘target to win’ model of organization to the West Midlands. Gradually we got better organized and over the last decade or so the Greens went from three to sixty council seats across the region. Chris Williams winning socially deprived Chelmsley Wood and later Ellie Chowns winning in rural Bishops Frome and Cradley showed we could win anywhere, as long as we had a great candidate, a good sized team of activists and excellent organization.

If delivering leaflets and canvassing where you know you are going to lose is dispiriting then doing the same when you can feel the momentum swinging your way is energizing and empowering. In Herefordshire we went from decades struggling to get or retain one councillor to winning seven seats at the last election in 2019. We are now part of a very creative coalition of Greens and Independents and are running the council.

In my years of trying to influence our local Tory MP’s Jesse Norman and Bill Wiggin I have come to the conclusion that they are both unable to hear our messages however we express them. The only way to change policy is to replace these MP’s with Greens who understand the scale of global system change that the School Strikes movement and Extinction Rebellion are rightly calling for.

Politically things now seem possible that only a few years ago were the stuff of dreams. The Green Party now has 454 seats across 143 principle authority councils in England and Wales, a dramatic increase from the 173 seats we held in 2018. Last May Bristol Green party, lead by Carla Denyer, made a breakthrough and are now level with Labour, each with twenty-four seats. It seems to me that Adrian Ramsey and Carla Denyer have the experience of being councillors and the skills to organise effective teams and win elections. I think they would be the best leaders of the party and that is why I voted for them.

Creating global system change is essential to combat our interlinked network of crises: climate, ecological, social and political. A better future may or may not be possible, but our best chance of securing that is a complex mix of massive changes that I shall be trying to describe in a book I’m writing, and in the upcoming Millichap talk I’m due to deliver via Zoom on 22nd September. One of those changes has to be to change our elected leaders at every level, everywhere. I can see with Adrian and Carla leading the Green Party we might just win a lot more elections, and replacing Bill Wiggin with Ellie Chowns would be amazing, as would replacing Jesse Norman with Diana Toynbee. Do please join the Green Party, and for those of you in Herefordshire come and join our rapidly growing and highly energized local team.

System Change

It is clear we need to stop burning fossil-fuels and switch to renewables, change from a wasteful, throw-away society to a pollution minimizing one, from a linear to a circular economy and from an extremely unequal world to a very much more equal one.

On this blog I have frequently talked with great enthusiasm about various renewable energy projects and technologies. They are very useful, but only if we can also rein-in total energy demand. Today Ember have just issued a damming report that shows global carbon emissions rising during the first half of 2021 despite a healthy increase in renewable energy generation. In the UK and globally the response to the pandemic has often used the slogan ‘Build Back Better’, but the reality is that we’ve been building back with the same or worse energy wasting projects, so although generation from renewables has increased, so too has electricity generation from coal. The main increase has been in China, and many politicians are keen to blame the Chinese, but this increase in emissions has been fuelled by the west’s insatiable demands for ever more Chinese made goods.

For decades we’ve been encouraged to recycle stuff and to make minor lifestyle changes that often only result in annual carbon reductions of a few grams, and those of us who care about such things have made efforts to live as ethically as we can. However it is all pretty pointless if the emissions of those millions of high emitters who simply do not care can carry on emitting. The American economic anthropologists Richard Wilk and Beatriz Barros have calculated the personal carbon emissions of many billionaires and found they each emitted over 1,000 tonnes, and some, such as Roman Abramovich emitted a staggering 33,859 tonnes. A report from Oxfam stated that the carbon emissions of the richest 1% are more than double of the emissions of the poorest half of humanity. To reduce emissions to avert climatic catastrophe we need everybody, every country and every industry to reduce emissions rapidly, and obviously the most important place to start is with the biggest emitters. That implies curtailing some industries from air travel to advertising, and limiting the rights and privileges of the most wealthy and wasteful people.

This week Extinction Rebellion are protesting again on the streets of London and many other cities. I support their actions and am with them in spirit, but not in person. Those who are on the streets protesting represent the many millions of people who cannot be with them, but support them in spirit.

Worldwide people are demanding system change in order to avert climate catastrophe. The Millichap Peace Fund have invited me to give a talk which will go out live via Zoom on 22nd September and be available online thereafter. I shall be asking the question ‘Is a better future possible?’ Given the scale of the many interrelated crises we face to even ask such a question can seem a travesty. In the talk I shall try and convey my vision of what system change might look like and how we might achieve it. This talk is a brief synopsis of a book I hope to have published by spring 2022. I’ll post more details about the talk and how to register to get the Zoom link nearer the time. There will be an opportunity to ask questions. More details on the talks and classes page.

Scaling-up Solar & Wind Power

The above graph shows the fifteen countries that generate the greatest percentage of their electricity from wind and solar power. These figures are for 2020. Wind and solar have doubled over the last five years, from generating 5% (1,083TWh) of the global electricity supply in 2015 to 10% (2,435TWh) in 2020. (For more on this see Hannah Broadbent’s article)

These increases in solar and wind power have been an impressive achievement and it is a trend that will only increase over the next few years as solar and wind technology improves, prices continue to fall and integration with existing grids improves.

A dozen or so countries already get very close to 100% of their electricity from renewable sources. Most have excellent hydro-electricity resources, like Bhutan or Paraguay, and also substantial geothermal resources that are easily exploitable, such as Iceland or New Zealand. Most countries don’t have such good hydro or geothermal opportunities, but many more countries do have massive potential to develop solar power and wind power.

It will make sense for some of the countries with the best solar and wind resources to develop very much more electricity than they need and export the surplus either in the form of hydrogen or as electricity via cable to neighbouring countries. A couple of years ago I posted a blog in which I cited Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist, saying that his country should rapidly aim to develop 700% of its electricity from solar and wind power, to allow for the electrification of transport, heating, cooling, industrial processes and energy exports.

Which country will be the first to reach 100% of their total electricity demand from solar and wind, and when will they achieve that goal? And which country will reach that 700% goal first, and when?

My guess it will be a small country without a massive population or industrial base that passes both these milestones. In April I posted a blog titled ‘Floating wind comes to Ireland’ in which I described a huge wind development, which on its own will substantially increase the percentage of Ireland’s electricity supply that comes from wind. Ireland is certainly a contender, and as an independent country Scotland would be too.

It seems highly likely to me that a number of countries from the global south will leapfrog the more heavily industrialised global north. Uruguay and Chile are both already in these top fifteen countries and Chile has one of the best renewable energy resource bases in the World. Several African countries could emerge as leaders, and ones to look out for may be Morocco, Mauritania and Kenya, but it could be almost anywhere.

Sun rich countries such as Algeria, Tunisia and Libya currently produce zero percent of their electricity from the sun and wind according to Ember’s interactive map. They are all well placed geographically to generate vast solar export earnings while helping develop their own economies and also help the whole world decarbonise.

As to a time when either the 100% or the 700% milestones might be reached, all I want to say is that it could happen very much more quickly than many people think.

A Bad Week for Big Oil

Climate activists campaign to get the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline stopped

A matrix of crises is simultaneously unfolding. Species are going extinct, atmospheric carbon levels are increasing, new diseases are emerging, and inequality is getting worse. In many ways things look bleak. All these crises call for a radical change of direction. That change may be happening. The signs of change are many, some are subtle and slow, but sometimes change can be sudden.

This week has been a terrible week for big oil, and a good week for climate activists. A Dutch court has ordered Royal Dutch Shell to cut emissions by 45% by 2030. Climate activists have also been influential as shareholders, with successful coups against the management of both Chevron and Exxon. All this unfolded only a week or so after the International Energy Agency released it’s ‘Net Zero by 2050’ report, which essentially advised against any new fossil fuel projects.

The French oil multinational Total is currently constructing the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, or EACOP, across Uganda and Tanzania. It will have devastating impacts on the local ecology and lock us into higher carbon emissions. Local activists are trying to stop it. Today Total is having their AGM. The news from IEA, Shell, Chevron and Exxon will no doubt be on their minds. EACOP is a project that should be cancelled.

Shell is planning to appeal the Dutch court’s decision, and no doubt the management of Exxon, Chevron, Total and the others will try and keep their business as usual model going, with a token bit of greener investment in renewables to try and keep the activists quiet. Most of the oil majors have been involved in decades of systematic lying, backing climate denialism when their own research revealed the huge climate impacts of their industries. In my view most of them have left it too late to change. Probably most will go bankrupt. They have such vast assets which this week’s developments are making look increasingly like worthless stranded assets.

I just want to say a huge thank-you to climate activists everywhere. There are many more battles ahead, but let’s pause long enough to celebrate this week’s victories.

Local elections and emerging trends

Bristol has 70 councillors: Now 24 each for the Greens and Labour, 14 Conservative and 8 LibDem, after this week’s dramatic gains for the Green Party

On Thursday 6th May there were the local elections in England, Scotland and Wales, and slowly over the days since the results have come trickling in. They reveal a number of interesting trends.

The first is that these have been another outstandingly good set of election results for the Green Party. Their vote share went up in most regions of England, Scotland and Wales. There were no elections in Northern Ireland. The Green Party of England and Wales gained an extra 88 councillors, and were very close to winning a number more. Bristol was perhaps the biggest achievement, gaining 13 new councillors and where the Greens and Labour each now have 24 councillors. Green made impressive gains in many counties of southern England, from Kent and East Sussex to Suffolk and Norfolk, and also made impressive gains in northern cities such as Burnley, Birkenhead in the Wirral, Kettering in North Northamptonshire, and in Shrewsbury and Oswestry in Shropshire. They made gains in many other places. All this bodes very well for the future of Green politics.

The second major trend is the very different directions the various countries and regions are headed. Scotland is fired up for probable independence and a strongly Nordic policy direction firmly geared toward regaining a place in the EU, and promoting a wellbeing focused economy. The SNP remain the dominant political force in Scotland, but the party which gained the most seats was the pro-independence Scottish Green Party, sister party to the Green Party of England and Wales, and they can happily work with the SNP. Boris Johnson and right-wing populism have no appeal in Scotland, and post-Brexit unionism is looking increasingly like outdated English imperialism. Labour and Liberal Democrats in Scotland lost more ground, linked as they are to the union.

The Labour party lost ground in the traditional working class northern towns, but they remain strong in many other parts of the UK, especially where there is a distinctively local leadership asserting its independence from central control. Mark Drakeford in Wales and Andy Burnham in Manchester are two good examples where the case for a radically devolved politics is being forged, and both proved electorally popular.

Richard Murphy wrote an insightful blog about the intellectual bankruptcy of the traditional three main parties. Boris Johnson is pursuing a populist, divisive and corrupt form of governance that will inevitably end in disaster. Murphy sees this creating a political void, waiting for a new and hopeful path. May I suggest that it is the Green Party that fills that role? The climate and ecological emergency requires a new political direction. It is significant that many of the new councillors for the Green Party are climate activists, keen to provide the political leadership needed to bring about the required changes.

A globally unified, yet highly decentralized network of regions seems to me to be a way forward as we confront the monumental challenges left to us by the dying era of nation states, of fossil fuels, of pollution and plunder. The Green vision of the future is gaining ground globally. We don’t have all the answers but we are committed to giving it everything we have. The path has to be one of peace, of sharing and of justice. Justice of every kind: economic, social, political, racial, of climate justice and resource use justice. That requires global transformational change. We saw a little bit of it at these local elections. We will see more in the German Federal elections in September. Millions of small steps are being taken by people in many communities around the world. The old order is crumbling; the new one is struggling to be born.