Brexit and the Bigger Picture

The UK has left the EU. The Brexiteers have had their way. The media coverage of the EU and the forces that pushed for us to leave it has been woeful for decades.

George Monbiot, I think quite correctly, sums up the drive for Brexit as being one aspect of a war within capitalism. What he refers to as housetrained or domesticated capitalism has just lost one major battle in its struggle against the forces of warlord capitalism. Watch this excellent 6 minute video or read this blog from George.

Mark E Thomas in his book ‘99% Mass Impoverishment and How We Can End It’ examines this struggle within capitalism. His chapter four, on what he refers to as ‘market fundamentalism’ is more or less what Monbiot refers to as Warlord capitalism, and it is an ideology that has chilling ramifications. Market fundamentalism sees democracy and the needs of the vast majority of humanity as a burden. It prioritizes wealth accumulation of the richest few over absolutely everything else.

To my mind market fundamentalism, or warlord capitalism to use Monbiot’s term, is a terrifying philosophy, the logical outcome of which is total impoverishment for billions of people. Now our challenge is to overcome this evil through concerted action.

In a blog written just after the Brexit vote in 2016 I contrasted the strongly pro EU stance of Scotland under Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership with the chaos that Brexit was about to unleash on the UK, and how these divergent paths would probably lead to the break-up of the UK. The paths Scotland and the UK are on continue to be ever more divergent.

Boris Johnson is the puppet clown front man, behind which the forces of market fundamentalism are destroying the institutions of the UK. Meanwhile Scotland has linked up with Iceland, New Zealand, Wales and Finland to form the Wellbeing Economy Governments partnership (WEGo). It is the very antithesis of everything the market fundamentalists believe in. The two forces are in conflict. Which one wins may well determine humanity’s future. The market fundamentalists care not a jot about the climate and ecological emergency, WEGo is our best hope to tackle these issues and to do so in a caring and compassionate manner. (I shall write more about WEGo over the coming months)

Molly Scott Cato, one of our finest MEP’s, together with the German MEP Terry Reintke, posted a blog looking forward to a better future and a time when the UK rejoins the EU. I for one remain both European and British, locally Herefordian and globally engaged. Brexit is not over now, nor will it ever be. I look forward to us rejoining the EU.

There is a global struggle of epic proportions. On the one side the market fundamentalists and on the other an emerging network of activists and governments promoting planetary and human wellbeing. In a way the break-up of the UK or our membership of the EU are minor skirmishes in this epic struggle.

Carbon Emissions: have they Peaked?

In an article published today in Grist Shannon Osaka considers if global carbon emissions peaked in 2019.  2020 saw emissions fall by 7%, or 2.4 billion metric tons. Clearly 2020 has been a weird year, and the fall may be due mainly to the Covid19 pandemic. As the above graph shows emissions have sometimes dipped in certain years, due to various crises, only to rebound the following year. It is of course too early to say for sure if emissions have peaked and if and how quickly they will then descend.

In December 2015 I wrote a blog wondering, and hoping, that carbon emissions had peaked in that year. Instead they rose again from 2016 to 2019. In that blog I posted two graphs, the first highlighting the small decrease in emissions in 2015, the second from the UN assuming a peak in emissions in 2030 and what the UN called an impossibly steep cut in emissions thereafter.

The fall in emissions in 2020 has been dramatic. Most opinion is that post Covid there may be some rebound toward higher emissions, or that emissions may jog along not going up or down a great deal. There is of course another possibility that emissions will plummet every year from now on until we reach net zero, and then into net negative, where the Earth is sequestering more carbon than is being emitted.

If we look at the graph below it shows how various energy technology costs have changed over the last decade. Solar photovoltaic panels have been coming down in price for many years. Between 1976 and 2019 the price of solar modules has fallen by 99.6%., and as the graph shows the fall in the last decade has been 89%.

Wind, both onshore and offshore, concentrating solar thermal and many forms of energy storage such as batteries and green hydrogen have all also fallen in price by considerable amounts. Fossil fuels and nuclear are slowly pricing themselves out of the market. Worldwide more coal power stations are closing than are being built, and this trend will only accelerate.

Of course to get to net zero as soon as possible will require more than just market forces. We need to change almost every aspect of our global turbo charged capitalist throw-away society. More and more people understand this and are busy creating the new economy. Millions of activists are raising their voices in calls for change. Most of our politicians are utterly inadequate for the task at hand, but even they may move in the right direction. Some better politicians are emerging in many countries, and over the coming months I’ll highlight a few of the best.

For now I just want to stress that the Covid pandemic, combined with falling costs of renewable energy, give us a window of opportunity to reconsider our collective future as a species. Let us cooperate to rapidly bring down emissions, and build a better future. We live in a multifaceted emergency, out of which something better may just be beginning to emerge.

The Wye, Reimagined!

Extinction Rebellion activists hold a vigil for the River Wye, Saturday 19th Dec 2020

The River Wye, like so many of Britain’s rivers is in a sorry state. It is suffering from decades of damage caused by poor farming practices. Phosphate pollution is a major issue stemming from intensive poultry units, excessive use of artificial fertilizers and old and poorly functioning sewage works and septic tanks. Excessive ploughing is leading to soil erosion after heavy rain. Maize, unsustainably grown for bio-digesters, is especially vulnerable to soil erosion. These are just some of the problems affecting the Wye catchment area. Herefordshire Wildlife Trust’s Andrew Nixon gives his list of what is wrong here. Helen Stace, the Trust’s director, writes about a recent act of ecosystem vandalism by a local farmer on the River Lugg. Investigative journalist Nicola Cutcher writes about pollution on the Llynfi, a Welsh tributary of the Wye. Yesterday Extinction Rebellion held a vigil on the old bridge in Hereford to draw public attention to the crisis affecting our rivers. George Monbiot, Franny Armstrong and Nicola Cutcher are crowdfunding for what I am sure will be a fascinating live documentary to be called Rivercide.

All this is about what is wrong, with just a little about some of the small things that could be done to mitigate the damage. I want us to now re-imagine the whole Wye catchment differently. We could utterly transform the whole ecosystem, producing more food while also massively benefiting wildlife. Here’s how.

Protecting and rebuilding soil is of critical importance, and the scope for solving multiple problems is immense. Gabe Brown, a farmer from North Dakota, has been a pioneer in regenerative agriculture. He has five principles of soil health: ‘no-till or minimal tillage, keeping the ground covered, diversity in plant and animal species, keeping living roots in the soil as much as possible, and the importance of integrating animals.’ By applying these principles he has managed to increase his soil organic matter from 1.9% in 1991 to 6.1%, so increasing the rate at which water can percolate down into the soil from half an inch per hour in 1991 to eight inches per hour now. This increase in permeability massively reduces risks of both flooding and drought. The raised level of organic matter also increases fertility while sequestering carbon. Imagine if all farmland in the Wye catchment adopted these methods.

We could go further, as agroforestry pioneer Martin Wolfe demonstrated at Wakelyns farm over the last 25 years. Now several others are developing the most amazing farms utilizing agroforestry alley cropping. Outstanding among them is George Young of Fobbing in Essex. He is planting rows of the most extraordinary variety of fruit and nut trees, with a great diversity of nutrient rich grains and legumes grown in the alleys and is now integrating red pole cattle into the system. He, like most regenerative farmers, is gradually reducing all his chemical inputs and slowly converting to organic systems.

If we return to reimaging the Wye catchment where the entire area was converting to systems of organic agroforestry, with a very much greater diversity of trees and bushes, arable crops and livestock all integrated into each acre. As we did so we could close down all intensive poultry units and replace or repair all malfunctioning sewage works and septic tanks. We would then have massively reduced the risks of flooding and of drought, of pollution and of soil erosion. We could of course go further still. Many areas would benefit from rewilding. Some farms might want to follow the extraordinary example of rewilding set by Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell at Knepp farm in Sussex. The reintroduction beavers would have a very positive effect, acting to slow the river, reduce erosion and create a wonderful network of habitats for more species to colonize. The Wye could once again have the biodiversity and health it had hundreds of years ago, and it could simultaneously produce more and better food than it ever has.

Carbon Emissions & the Scale of Change

Carbon Emissions need to fall to below zero. Historically prosperity has led to high emissions. That needs to change.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are today at 413.66 parts per million (ppm). A healthy biosphere would ideally be at around 285 ppm, which is roughly what it has fluctuated around for the past 10,000 years, or the entire duration of human civilization. Climate scientists often talk of 350 ppm as a safe upper limit. The Paris Climate Agreement was signed five years ago in an attempt to reduce emissions, but it has failed. Emissions need to drop to zero and then we need to sequester massive amounts of carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere. Most governments talk of reducing emissions, and in some sectors of the economy they may succeed, but no country is yet at zero emissions, let alone the required net negative emissions.

If we look at the graph above it shows the extent of our challenge. Historically increases in wealth have only come about with rising emissions. The countries with the smallest carbon footprints are all very poor whereas all the richest countries have higher carbon footprints.

It seems to me entirely possible to have prosperity for all 7.8 billion of us human beings, and to do so in a way which is carbon negative. To achieve that everything needs to change. This is not just about how we generate and use energy, or about how we farm or about ending our throwaway culture. Yes, all those things need to change, but so too does the distribution of power and money.

A recent report by Oxfam stated that the carbon emissions of the richest 1% are more than double the emissions of the poorest half of humanity. Richer countries, and especially richer individuals, have a huge moral responsibility to reduce emissions.

Many millions of people are active campaigners for climate action and climate justice. We have been on demonstrations, lobbied MP’s and tried to live more sustainable lifestyles. Some people have even set up innovative companies to try and change the technological basis of our society. The global school strikes movement deserve particular praise for keeping the issue in the media spotlight.

For my part I am currently writing a book about the scale of change required, and once every month or two I give a talk on Zoom, the next one being on 6th January. These things have kept me rather pre-occupied during the last few months and so these blogs have been rather less frequent than they used to be: apologies for that. If you want to be added onto the talks and discussions list, which includes my talks, and lots of other interesting things from The Left Bank programme, you can fill out this MailChimp form.

Energy Futures: Belgium

Graph from Federal Planning Bureau in Belgium: but is it correct in its prediction of rising fossil gas use to replace nuclear power?

Belgium has just formed a new government. It is a coalition of seven parties, including both the Belgian Green Parties Ecolo and Groen. One long term policy of most European Green Parties is to phase out nuclear power. The chart above has been produced by the Belgian Federal Planning Bureau and predicts a big rise in the use of fossil gas. This quite naturally is drawing considerable criticism as just when Belgium, like all countries, should be rapidly decarbonising, it threatens to increase emissions.

However I think the graph is wrong. It predicts solar increasing from 5% to 6% between 2015 and 2050, and wind from 8% to 32% over the same period. This to me seems a massive underestimate of both. Solar and wind have been getting steadily cheaper, more efficient and with higher capacity factors for many years, and this trend is predicted to continue. The chart, and much of the debate on Twitter and elsewhere assumes the choice is between nuclear and gas, both of which are already costly, each have environmental downsides and future costs look high.

Belgium is already ramping up its offshore wind farms and has plans for more. Better insulated buildings, more efficient appliances, more walking, cycling, home-working and public transport should all act to decrease overall energy demand. So too will the transition from a throwaway linear economy to a circular economy. Gradually pretty well all new buildings everywhere will have solar panels installed.

Two trends that do not appear on this chart are of significance. The first is distributed local energy storage. Many houses will have batteries, in electric cars and larger static ones. Green hydrogen will also be produced at scale. All these will facilitate the greater take up of wind and solar, so together they will make up more than the 38% predicted in the graph. They may make up 70%, possibly 90%, of Belgian electricity demand by 2050.

The second trend is long distance renewable energy trading. Belgium, like Germany, will probably be a net energy importer, being densely populated, quite highly industrialized and with relatively poor wind and solar resources. Denmark is already planning to export wind power to Holland, Germany and Poland to help them decarbonize. Scotland, Norway and Iceland all look well positioned to be net energy exporters, with their huge wind, hydro and geothermal resources and relatively low energy demand. However the biggest renewable energy exporters are likely to be from the sunniest countries.

North Africa is one huge area where solar will be developed at scale. Morocco’s Ouarzazate solar park is one of the most exciting energy infrastructure projects anywhere on Earth. Many more large solar parks will be built, utilizing both concentrating solar thermal and solar photo-voltaic systems, and will also have on site energy storage with batteries for very short duration of a few minutes to a few hours, solar thermal heat stores for up to 24 hours, and on-site electrolysis for hydrogen production and so energy storage over weeks, months or even years. Energy will be exported via high voltage direct-current cable and as hydrogen using tankers or pipelines.

Germany is investigating purchasing green hydrogen from Australia, and Australian entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes is planning to connect a cable from Australia to Singapore to supply 20% of Singapore’s electricity. The long distance trade in renewable energy is a relatively new phenomenon, and consequently often overlooked by energy planners. It will be a huge global industry very quickly: the economics look good, and it will be vital for global decarbonisation.

So back to Belgium and their new coalition: my advice to them is hold fire on any new investments in fossil gas, even if that means a slower ramping down of existing older gas and nuclear power stations. Invest in demand reduction through changes to buildings, transport, work patterns, circular economy etc. Invest in renewables, energy storage, and interconnection and longer distance sourcing of green hydrogen.

Apologies

I think it is about nine weeks since I posted a blog, so apologies to regular readers. That is I think the longest gap I’ve had in over ten years of blogging. I have been rather engrossed in thinking about a book I’ve wanted to write, and have had several attempts at. Just starting again: daunting and exciting.

I’ll be posting a blog in a few hours…

Quaker Identity & Climate Activism

I was recently asked to write an article for our local Quaker newsletter. This is what I wrote.

Identity & Activism

What does it mean to be alive now, in the summer of 2020, and to be a Quaker living in Herefordshire?

We humans are at a critical time for our species: perhaps the most dangerous time since we first evolved about two million years ago. During that time we’ve had many challenges. We survived the last Ice Age. For the last ten or eleven thousand years we’ve thrived and multiplied during the benign climate of the Holocene era. That era is now over: we have entered the Anthropocene, the era in which we, our one single species, is now shaping the planet’s climate, the acidity and warmth of the oceans and causing the decline and extinction of countless other species. Over the eleven thousand years of the Holocene atmospheric carbon dioxide was relatively stable, fluctuating around 285 parts per million. The burning of fossil fuels since the industrial revolution has pushed this figure up to 416 ppm, and it is still rising. We need to stabilize that figure and then get it back down to 350 ppm or less, and do so as quickly as humanly possible. That in itself necessitates changing almost everything we associate with our contemporary way of life.

But climate change is far from our only problem. Our democracies are under threat. Huge and powerful forces are funding campaigns that create hatred and anger directed towards the poor and vulnerable, foreigners and refugees. Inequality has grown more extreme. An Oxfam report recently stated that there are 2,153 billionaires in the world and that they own more than the 4.6 billion poorest people. Old problems like poverty and war persist.

We as a species now have the most extraordinary tools at our disposal. We have sufficient money, resources and technology to feed, clothe and provide a comfortable way of life for all 7.7 billion of us. But that comfortable way of life would have to be quite different from how we live now. As Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed’. In the current context we have to say the world has not enough for anyone’s greed.

The rich and powerful shape our politics, our media and the impact we as a species are having upon ourselves and the planet. Their greed seems limitless. Their desire to keep making profits from doing business as usual seems to blind them to seeing how things could be different, and how they could be happier while being less wealthy. For humanity to have a future we will need to redeploy resources on a truly massive scale, away from fossil fuels and towards renewables, away from the rich and powerful towards the poor and weak.

The British government is failing us. They care not a jot for the poor and vulnerable, and their attempts at energy transition are confused and misguided. Many of us make personal decisions to stop flying, or not to own a car, or to reduce our overall consumption and waste by simply buying less stuff. However the impact of individual lifestyle choices is limited. We can only choose from the options available, and most people are not prepared to give up on things if others are still enjoying them. In the Second World War people accepted rationing because it was seen to be fair. Then we came together as a national community in the face of a common enemy. Now we have to come together as a global community to face a common crisis.

Would we accept some rationing, of things like flights, fuel or clothing? Would we accept very much higher rates of taxation on wealth, higher incomes and inheritance, on fossil fuels, plastics and pesticides? Would we accept the loss of our white privilege?

Of course a sustainable and better future is not all about giving things up. Money instead could be invested in wellbeing. There is so much that needs doing. We could provide useful work for billions of people deploying renewable energy and developing a hydrogen economy, in farming in ways that increased biodiversity and sequestered carbon into the soil, and in caring for one another so much better through better health and social care, better education and training. All this needs active government and intergovernmental action supporting global leadership.

Probably all of us in Hereford Quakers make lifestyle choices at least partly conscious of the social and ecological impacts of our decisions. Most of us also try to influence things for the better through signing petitions, writing to our MP and campaigning actively within political parties and pressure groups, by helping charities and being good citizens. Some of us no doubt see prayer as an active part of the process of change. Many of us are aware that we have tried all of these for decades and still so many aspects of the global situation continue to get worse. The urgency of the situation cannot be overstated. We have to reduce carbon emissions to zero as fast as humanly possible, yet our governments are sill aligned so closely to the fossil fuel industries. This is why so many children are on school strike, why so many of us support the actions of Extinction Rebellion and others who are taking to the streets in protest.

Sometimes climate change can feel like a distant problem that does not much effect a place like Hereford. However in an ice free world sea level would rise to a point where Hereford Quaker meeting house would be under the ocean. That I find a useful image to think about while contemplating if and when we shall all meet again in that special space, when at last we emerge from lockdown.

Billionaires and emissions

Humanity currently emits around 40 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide every year. That is 40,000,000,000 tonnes. There are 7.7 billion of us, so that works out at about 5 tonnes per person per year. Of course our emissions are not evenly spread. National averages vary a lot, with high emitters like Bahrain emitting 24 tonnes per person while the people of Burundi emit on average 0.0, or too little to measure. The figures for USA are 15.7, China 7.7, UK 5.7 and India 1.8.

Finding data on carbon emission by the wealth of individuals is very much harder than finding these national averages. One thing is very clear; these individual emissions would be very much more widely spread. The typical billionaire lifestyle involves the use of private jets, super yachts and other aspects of excessive consumption. There are currently 2,153 billionaires in the world, and by my calculations they each emit on average at least 1,000 tonnes per year, and this is almost certainly a very considerable underestimate.

Oxfam figures reveal that these 2,153 billionaires own more than the 4.6 billion poorest people. If we compare their emissions with the poorest billion or two of the population, who’ve never been in an aeroplane or owned a car, then it becomes apparent that the emissions of these couple of thousand individuals will be equal to many hundreds of millions, if not billions, of the poorest people.

Climate change is spiralling out of control at exponential speed. It is abundantly clear that we need to reduce emissions from 40 gigatonnes to zero as fast as humanly possible. There is much we can do technologically. Technical change alone will of course not be enough. We will need redistribution of wealth on a massive scale, and the abandonment of consumer driven capitalism and the massive levels of waste and excess that these lifestyles entail.

We will have to do many things that are currently considered impossible. One of the most important will be the rapid elimination of all billionaires, not through genocide but through taxation. The taxation would need to be globally administered and all tax havens and tax loopholes closed.

Humanity faces multiple crises simultaneously: climate, ecological, social and political. They are all intrinsically linked. We can only solve one by solving them all. Any ecologically sustainable future will also inevitably be more equal and fairer. Humanity cannot carry the dead weight of so much excess.

An academic analysis of the damage that excess affluence causes is beginning to emerge. In a sense this echoes what Mahatma Gandhi said: “The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not everyone’s greed”. Extreme wealth almost inevitably causes extreme damage. We see this across everything from how it distorts politics to how it breaks social cohesion. It also carries unacceptable levels of carbon emissions.

USA: A Failed State?

Armed men, spurred on by their President, seek to ‘liberate’ the capitol building in Michigan. This is not how civilized countries operate: more like a failed state.

The USA is increasingly looking like a failed state. It could be on the verge of civil war. I sincerely hope not. Their mad, narcissistic President seems actively to be encouraging civil war, with his tweeting to armed white supremacists to ‘liberate’ state capitol buildings, and with tweets such as ‘when the looting starts, the shooting starts’.

Since the murder of George Floyd protests have erupted across America. Yet another black man murdered by a white police officer. Slavery and colonialism are what America was founded upon. Racial injustice has a long and tortured history. Current police brutality opens old wounds. Healing will require more than just an end to police violence. Deep structural change is urgently needed.

The Covid pandemic reveals interesting contrasts between different systems of social and economic organisation. Covid has resulted in over 40 million job losses in America, and only a few hundred thousand in most European countries, and losing ones job in USA often means losing health insurance and possible destitution. Americans live under extraordinary levels of stress and worry. Inequality levels are extreme. In Europe workers often sit of company boards and have helped mitigate the negative impact of Covid on the labour market. When people are made redundant the welfare system in Europe is generally vastly better than in USA.

While millions of Americans are facing real economic hardship others are sucking countless billions out of the system for their own insane vanity. Any system that allows billionaires to exist is clearly failing to collect the taxes that are required to create social justice. There was something deeply symbolic as Elon Musk’s private SpaceX rocket orbited above the heads of impoverished, angry and brutalised Americans.

Under Trump America has quit the Paris Climate Agreement and the World Health Organisation. These are the actions of a country imploding in upon itself, unable to fulfil its international obligations. America is heavily indebted and increasingly likely to default. Less a superpower: more a basket case.

Even the American Constitution, which for decades was held up as a beacon of democratic values looks hopelessly flawed. The right to free speech has resulted in a tidal wave of hate speech. The right to bear arms has resulted in far right militias who make USA look increasingly like war torn Somalia or Syria.

And yet for all its many failures America still has some hope. It has many great people. They deserve better. There is currently a struggle going on for the soul of America. Will it follow Trump down the road of ever greater inequality and division, or will it find a path to a better place?

Covid Comparisons

Death rates from Covid 19 have been highly variable. The worst four countries all have populist leaders.

This is one of the Financial Times’ excellent Coronavirus graphics. The red line was added by Tim Walker, who tweeted ‘If this chart shows nothing else, it shows that popularism and respect for human life are incompatible.’ I agree. Now, nearly six months into the pandemic, I want to take stock and compare the best and worst responses to the pandemic. Today the FT reports the global figures, 5.16 million confirmed cases and 331,300 known deaths. The real numbers are no doubt much higher. What is really becoming clear are the staggering differences between the low death rates in countries with compassionate and competent governments and the high death rates in countries lead by incompetent populists.

The populists, principally Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro and Johnson have behaved abysmally. Many people have died, and will continue to die unnecessarily as a result of their incompetence. George Monbiot wrote a good article about why the UK failed to follow its own preparedness planning. But it is not these stories of stupidity I want to focus on.

The countries that have acted with intelligence, compassion and competence are a large and diverse group. New Zealand, Taiwan, South Korea are often cited as those countries that responded best, and have kept death rates very low. South Korea and Taiwan both experienced the SARS epidemic a few years back and really learnt important lessons. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, I rate as the best leader in the World and she embodies that mix of compassion and competence that the World desperately needs more of. Iceland, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Germany have all demonstrated leadership and competence, but that is what we’d expect from them, wouldn’t we? Afua Hirsch draws our attention to some remarkable stories of success from Africa, focusing on Ghana and Senegal.

However if you read just one story of success let it be this, from the state of Kerala in India. I, like most people outside Kerala had never heard of KK Shailaja the health minister of Kerala until a week or so ago. Now I’d love her to be our health minister. But it is not just about personalities, it’s about the political systems that make them possible. Kerala has long had a particularly practical breed of highly competent communists forming their state governments. Health, education, equality and life expectancy are all better in Kerala than elsewhere in India, thanks to them. Contrast that with the idiotic ideological inflexibilities Monbiot portrays in UK governance.

The Spanish flu pandemic that ravaged the World in 1918-19 is still being debated. In years to come this Covid 19 pandemic will be analysed. There is still much we do not know, about the disease itself, about a future vaccine and about how and when this pandemic will end. However one thing is becoming clearer every day. Good governance saves lives.