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Hello and Welcome
Hello and welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 21st September. Yes I'm working back up to producing weekly editions once again. I'll explain why in the next episode.
Yes this is Anthony Day and welcome once again to the Sustainable Futures Report. As I say every time, a special welcome to my patrons whose regular contributions cover the costs of hosting this podcast. Welcome, and thanks again to you all.
If you would like to become a patron you'd be more than welcome and all you have to do is pop across to patreon.com/SFR and sign up.
This week I review an important book on the circular economy, there is energy news on nuclear, gas and coal, the BBC fesses up, Saturn may have rings but Carlsberg is getting rid of them, extreme weather is still battering many parts of the world and can Walmart afford sustainability?
Remember, there are links to all my sources on the blog, which is available from Friday morning at www.sustainablefutures.report.
But first, climate change is an issue but what can you and I do about it?
Last time I reported that scientists believe we could be as little as 3 years off the climate change tipping point. Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the authors say:
“Collective human action is required to steer the Earth System away from a potential threshold and stabilize it in a habitable interglacial-like state. Such action entails stewardship of the entire Earth System—biosphere, climate, and societies—and could include decarbonization of the global economy, enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, behavioral changes, technological innovations, new governance arrangements, and transformed social values.”
What can we do about it?
In each episode of the Sustainable Futures Report I complain about how little is being done to address the problem or to take it seriously, but perhaps it’s time I came up with some suggestions about what you and I can actually do about it. It’s easy to blame governments or other people, but it’s not enough. Yes, let’s put pressure on governments and corporations and keep the debate on carbon emissions and resource depletion in the front of public consciousness, but what should we ourselves be doing? Do you remember reduce, re-use, recycle? Let’s reduce the amount of plastic we buy. In fact many people are doing just that. However the sad fact is that refusing plastic drinking straws is a good thing to do but it won’t save the planet, any more than that watch made from recycled materials, that I featured last time, will. More about all that from George Monbiot later on.
Now if you delayed replacing your car by a year, or even more, you’d start to make a difference. Every new car starts as raw materials - iron ore, chemical feedstock for the plastics, rare earth metals for the electronics, sand and silica for the glass. If you don’t buy a new car none of that material has to be used. More important is the energy used in every stage of the manufacturing process, from the diggers which extract the ores, the refineries which produce the chemicals, the kilns which produce the glass to the energy which keeps the production lines rolling and powers the assembly robots. In the present state of things, most of that energy has a carbon footprint. And the benefit of all that energy is wasted when your car is scrapped. Your new car makes a significant contribution to global warming and carbon emissions even before you drive it out of the showroom, just by being built. So let’s reduce, and reduce significantly by thinking carefully about delaying big-ticket purchases like cars, domestic appliances and so on. But there’s more.
Repair, remake, redesign, rethink
Repair, remake, redesign, rethink is the subtitle of a new book by Catherine Weetman. It’s called “A Circular Economy Handbook for Business and Supply Chains”, published by Kogan Page (ISBN 978-0-7494-7675-5). You will have come across the idea of the circular economy in previous episodes of the Sustainable Futures Report. The idea is that all production and manufacturing exists in a closed circuit. When a product nears the end of its life it may be refurbished, repaired or re-manufactured and ultimately disassembled into it all its component materials. As in nature, there is, theoretically, no waste in the circular economy. Everything for which there is no further use becomes the raw material for the next production cycle. Catherine quotes Professor Walter Stahel who said “…the goods of today become the resources of tomorrow at yesterday’s prices.”
Sounds too to be true? To some extent it may be, but there is a tremendous amount of work which can be done to develop the circular economy before we get anywhere near theoretical limits.
Why a Book?
As I said in the last episode, all information exists somewhere on the web in reach of a search engine. The difference with a book is that the author has done all the research, verified the content and put it into a logical sequence for us to use. Catherine Weetman has carried out detailed research so that each chapter of her book ends with an exhaustive list of academic references and a list of further resources. Nonetheless this is a practical book, not an academic thesis. Apart from research, Catherine Weetman writes with experience from working on logistics and project management in food, fashion and supply chains for some of the UK’s biggest household names.
Her book is written in a clear and understandable style and has charts and tables and a wealth of case studies. It starts with a guide on How to Use this Book, which is always useful. Divided into four parts, it leads off with an overview so you’re left in no doubt about what the circular economy is, while Part 2 describes how businesses in various industries have adopted circular economy principles. Part 3 looks at the implications for supply chains and Part 4 is devoted to implementation.
The circular economy is an essential part of achieving and maintaining a sustainable world, so I like the way Catherine puts everything in context with case studies and real-world examples. We learn how Ford is working with HJ Heinz to use fibres from tomato skins as a bioplastic material, replacing petrochemical plastics and stopping the tomato skins being wasted. We learn how global water usage has grown at more than double the rate of population growth in the last century, and goes on growing. We learn how crops grown to feed people directly take up just 4% of the world’s available land surface, whilst crops to feed cattle, sheep, pigs and chickens account for 30%. We learn how resources - technical, energy, water and biological - are impacted, and some would say unsustainably impacted, by different industries across the world. Case studies and examples from food and agriculture, fashion, consumer electronics and industrial manufacturing show how the circular economy is potentially at the heart of a sustainability revolution and of fundamental changes to our lifestyles and expectations. It’s about doing more with less. It’s about sharing resources in a different way to achieve a different and probably better standard of living.
Who’s it for?
This book is as much for the managers who have never heard of the circular economy as for those who deal with it every day. Every business is at the crossroads of numerous supply chains and if the organisations upstream or downstream of your business decide to implement circular economy principles you’re going to have to adapt, or you will find business more difficult or more costly to do. As I said in The Green Supply Chain, if you’re the weakest link your customers and suppliers are likely to work round you, and suddenly your market is gone. A Circular Economy Handbook for Business and Supply Chains is an essential reference for those already involved, and forewarns and forearms those who haven’t been hit by it yet. It’s not bedtime reading, nor would I expect anyone to read it from cover to cover, but buy this book and dip into it. It’s not only useful, much of it is fascinating. It will broaden your outlook and you might find out how your competitors could be overtaking you.
Talking of competitors overtaking you, I read that China and the European Union (EU) signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Circular Economy Cooperation at the 20th EU-China Summit in Beijing on 16th July. Of course the UK won’t have to worry about that after Brexit next year, which is just as well as we will have plenty of other things to worry us by then!
CHINA - EU circular economy
Moving on to energy and our old favourite Hinkley C. The CEO of the French nuclear group Framatome said recently that the start-up of the UK’s first European pressurised reactor (EPR) at Hinkley Point C in 2025 was feasible. Framatome used to be called Areva, a troubled engineering company involved with other EPR projects in Finland, France and China, all of which are over budget and seriously delayed. When EDF signed the Hinkley Point deal with the UK government in 2012, Vincent de Rivaz, the CEO of EDF Energy at the time, said UK households would be cooking their Christmas turkeys with electricity generated at the reactor in 2017. Only 8 years late, then. So far.
The project is led by EDF Energy with investment from China and backing from the UK government. There has been strong criticism of the government for guaranteeing an indexed-linked price for the electricity from the plant at more than twice the current rate. As renewable and battery prices fall many see the plant as an expensive white elephant, but with 3,100 people employed on the site it would be a brave politician who called a halt.
In other energy news The Guardian reports that a coal comeback could drive up UK energy emissions. It’s a simple question of market economics: Coal plants have become more economic to run than their gas counterparts in the past month because wholesale gas prices have hit 10-year highs. A report from Imperial College warns that coal-burning in September is adding an extra 1,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions to the UK’s total, threatening its reduction targets.
And in Germany…
Meanwhile in Germany dozens of protesters have occupied 60 treehouses, some as high as 25 metres off the ground, since 2012 in an attempt to protect the ancient Hambach forest from being felled to make way for the expansion of an open-pit coal mine. The authorities have now decided to drive them out so that RWE can enlarge its existing lignite mine.
Hambach is an ancient forest and home to some rare species but RWE owns it and intends to fell it and has the force of the law behind it. Lignite, of course, is a particularly dirty type of coal and it is ironic that a government-appointed coal committee is due to announce an end date for the coal industry by the end of the year. The government is under pressure to reduce emissions in line with the Paris agreement but has had to rely more on coal since it decided to phase out nuclear by 2022, following the Fukushima disaster.
Across the Pond
Meanwhile, some good news from across the pond. Courthouse News reports that the state of Oregon can continue rating fuels based on their greenhouse gas emissions despite claims by oil and gas companies that the program is unconstitutional. The American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, American Trucking Associations, and Consumer Energy Alliance sued the state environmental commission in 2015, asking a federal judge to block Oregon’s Clean Fuels Program on the basis that it is unconstitutional, unenforceable and discriminatory. Under the program, regulated businesses must keep the average carbon intensity of all transportation fuels used in Oregon under an annual limit. Fuels with carbon intensity below the limit generate credits for the businesses, while those above the limit result in a deficit.
U.S. District Judge Ann L. Aiken refused, finding the Oregon program was nearly identical to a California program that the Ninth Circuit had previously approved.
The case went to appeal, but a divided panel of Ninth Circuit judges ruled in Oregon’s favour.
You may remember that Judge Ann Aiken has been prominent in the Juliana case. This is an action by a group of young people against the president and the US government, claiming that their life chances are damaged by the government’s failure to prevent fossil fuel companies from polluting the environment in which they live and by contributing to the causes of climate change. Despite repeated calls by the government for the action to be struck out, the case goes on. And on. Some of the young people are not so young these days.
Wind in the Desert
A recent paper from the University of Illinois suggests that we should consider building wind and solar farms in the Sahara Desert. Do you remember Desertec? It was a plan to build solar farms in the Sahara and to transmit the energy to power Europe. The Desertec Foundation still exists and is still promoting the idea and you can find all about it at http://www.desertec.org. The Illinois research is about a lot more than just cheap renewable energy. Postdoctoral researcher Yan Li and his colleagues found that a massive wind and solar installation in the Sahara Desert could have beneficial climatic and ecological effects, as well as supplying power to Europe and the Middle East. Their climate-modeling study found that such an installation in the Sahara Desert and neighboring Sahel would increase local temperature, precipitation and vegetation. Overall, the researchers report, the effects would likely benefit the region.
Co-researcher Eugenia Kalnay at the University of Maryland, said, “We found that the large-scale installation of solar and wind farms can bring more rainfall and promote vegetation growth in these regions. The rainfall increase is a consequence of complex land-atmosphere interactions that occur because solar panels and wind turbines create rougher and darker land surfaces.”
Colleague Safa Motesharrei added, “The increase in rainfall and vegetation, combined with clean electricity as a result of solar and wind energy, could help agriculture, economic development and social well-being in the Sahara, Sahel, Middle East and other nearby regions”
Seems like a win-win to me.
Walmart and sustainability
I came across an article about Walmart and sustainability in The Conversation. The impetus came from the Chief Executive wondering what sort of world his granddaughter was going to inherit. How could they make Walmart a more sustainable organisation and reduce its impact on the planet? Some things proved relatively easy to do.
The efficiency of its fleet of trucks doubled within a decade. Walmart converted 28 percent of the energy sources powering its stores and operations globally to renewables and the company diverted 78 percent of its global waste from landfills, instead finding ways to recycle, reuse or even sell the garbage. Its goal is to eventually get to 50 percent renewables and zero waste in Canada, Japan, the U.K. and U.S. by 2025.
The other side of things is the sustainability of the products that it sells to its customers. There were two problems here: the first might not apply in Europe but certainly applied in the US. It was a problem of definition. Almost any product could be labelled sustainable because there were no standards against which sustainability had to be judged. This backfired on the company. For example, a promotion of Campbell’s soup with a green “Earth Day” label instead of its customary red one generated external criticism and accusations of “greenwashing.”
The other problem was cost. Sustainable and organic and responsibly sourced products typically sell at a premium and there was very little room for premium priced products at Walmart which aims at the keenest possible prices. Its consumers were uninterested or unable to pay higher prices for the sake of sustainability.
This led Walmart to focus less on consumers and more on suppliers. If it could just make sure its products were more sustainable or at least that it was able to offer more options – without a meaningful increase in price – it could go a long way toward achieving its goals. And consumers wouldn’t even realize they were helping make the world a better place.
It took years of work with suppliers, but a 2014 study found that Walmart was the top-cited retailer driving suppliers’ investments in product sustainability, with 79 percent identifying the retailer as influential.
Walmart’s efforts showed that balancing cost and sustainability is possible but difficult to implement. For companies, labelling a low-cost product as “sustainable” makes it harder to justify charging a higher price for a similar good that bears that label. And retailers would prefer not to waste limited shelf space providing those options.
Supermarket chains have immense power. Let’s hope others will continue to use it to promote sustainability.
Plastic pollution is still on the agenda and good news comes this week from drinks brand Carlsberg. Many brewers send out their drinks in packs of four, six or more where the cans are joined together with plastic yokes. This plastic is notorious for being one of the worst dangers to wildlife when it is thoughtlessly discarded. Birds, fish and marine mammals can all get caught in it and rarely manage to get free. Carlsberg's solution is to glue the cans together. If you want to release a can you just twist it to break the bond. They are even using glue which can be recycled along with the can. Additionally, Carlsberg announced new caps which remove oxygen to make the beer taste fresher for longer; a switch to Cradle-to-Cradle certified silver inks on its bottle labels to improve recyclability; and a new coating on refillable glass bottles to extend their lifespan.
Carlsberg will extend its Snap Pack to its other brands and the signs are that other brewers will follow suit. As a consumer you can make your choice and influence their decision. Look out for Snap Packs towards the end of this year.
Paved with Good Intentions
The Road to Hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. The roads to sustainability is sometimes paved with unforeseen consequences. George Monbiot, writing in The Guardian, recounts the story of a request to Starbucks and Costa to replace their plastic coffee cups with cups made from corn starch which was retweeted 60,000 times, before it was deleted.
Monbiot goes on, and I quote: “Those who supported this call failed to ask themselves where the corn starch would come from, how much land would be needed to grow it, or how much food production it would displace. They overlooked the damage this cultivation would inflict: growing corn (maize) is notorious for causing soil erosion, and often requires heavy doses of pesticides and fertilisers.
“The problem is not just plastic: it is mass disposability. Or, to put it another way, the problem is pursuing, on the one planet known to harbour life, a four-planet lifestyle. “Regardless of what we consume, the sheer volume of consumption is overwhelming the Earth’s living systems.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he says, “Our greed for plastic is a major environmental blight, and the campaigns to limit its use are well motivated and sometimes effective. But we cannot address our environmental crisis by swapping one overused resource for another. When I challenged that call, some people asked me, “So what should we use instead?”
The right question is, “How should we live?” But systemic thinking is an endangered species.”
No, nothing is as simple as you think. But at least we must keep thinking. Read the rest of that article. You’ll find the link on the blog at www.sustainablefutures.report. Do read it if you get the chance, but here’s another brief quotation from it:
“The BBC’s approach to environmental issues is highly partisan, siding with a system that has sought to transfer responsibility for structural forces to individual shoppers. Yet it is only as citizens taking political action that we can promote meaningful change.
The answer to the question “How should we live?” is: “Simply.” But living simply is highly complicated. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the government massacred the Simple Lifers. This is generally unnecessary: today they can safely be marginalised, insulted and dismissed. The ideology of consumption is so prevalent that it has become invisible: it is the plastic soup in which we swim.”
Mea Culpa BBC
George Monbiot is not alone in criticising the BBC and it has finally admitted mistakes over its coverage of climate change. The problem has long been an issue of false balance. On many current affairs programmes climate scientists have been followed by denialists, notoriously Lord Lawson who has no scientific background in the field and who has been shown to deliberately quote false information. Now Fran Unsworth, the BBC’s director of news and current affairs has issued a briefing note to producers warning of the problem. “To achieve impartiality, you do not need to include outright deniers of climate change in BBC coverage, in the same way you would not have someone denying that Manchester United won 2-0 last Saturday. The referee has spoken.”
And finally, the weather.
I reported last time about extreme weather events around the world and it seems that they continue. After the floods, the heatwave and the typhoon, Japan has suffered a major earthquake. Nothing to do with climate change, of course, but another blow to a nation already devastated in many areas.
The Philippines were hit this week by Typhoon Mangkhut and at the time of writing 81 people were dead and many more missing. Dozens are feared dead after a landslide engulfed a building where miners were taking shelter.
The storm moved across to Hong Kong which was left reeling by ferocious winds of up to 173 kilometers per hour (107 miles per hour) and gusts of up to 223 kph (138 mph).
The storm tore off roofs and scaffolding from skyscrapers, shattered windows, shook high-rise buildings and caused serious flooding in low-lying areas as waves of more than three meters (9.8 feet) lashed the coast. 54 people are known to have died.
As Typhoon Mangkhut approached, China evacuated 3 million citizens from southern towns. As the storm passed on the South China Morning Post reported that the Guangdong government estimated the direct economic losses for the province were at least 4.2 billion yuan. That’s about £450m or more than half a billion US dollars.
Across the world Hurricane Florence has been moving steadily across the United States. As it made landfall it was downgraded to a category 1 storm and it is suggested that that gave people a false sense of security. Regardless of wind speed, as the storm moves up the East Coast it brings torrential rain, storm surges and flooding. 30 people have already died. Citylab reported on Tuesday that Hurricane Florence battered the Carolina coasts with heavy rain, strong winds, and a devastating storm surge over the weekend. But even after the rain had dissipated, it still presented a danger from disastrous flooding, which the North Carolina Department of Transportation warned would still get worse in the days to come.
I don't know whether the storm will get across to California, but heavy rain would be useful to quell the wildfires burning in that state. On 31 August it was reported that the fire was under control but by 6 September reports were coming in that it had spread to cover 23 mi.².
I haven't been able to find any reports dated since 10 September, but Mercury News recorded on that date that a 45-mile stretch of Interstate 5 which runs from Mexico to Canada, was still closed because of the fire. The fire had destroyed abandoned cars and trucks along the road, although it seems that the occupants managed to escape.
Bad News for the Climate
And that’s it for another episode.
I didn't want to end with all this bad news, with these stories about all this exceptional weather but the implication must be clearly that climate change is real, that climate change is serious, and that climate change should be the number one concern of all governments. Let's share that with our political representatives: let's hold them to account. Let's try and focus them on the long term and the not so long-term future of ourselves on this planet. Good luck with that, given how governments throughout the world are obsessing about short-term issues.
Well, as I say, that's it for another episode of the Sustainable Futures Report. Another bumper episode running to over 4,500 words this time. I hoped you enjoyed it. I hope you found it interesting and I hope that you will let me have your ideas for the topics that I should investigate and cover in future episodes or pieces that you would like to contribute yourself. I've got some ideas for the next episode and I'm planning to publish on 28th September as we get back to a weekly routine. I’ll explain why then.
And that really is it…
So for now this is Anthony Day saying thank you for listening, saying thank you for being a patron if you are, and you know where to go if you're not.
Yes I'm Anthony Day, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your suggestions and ideas.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Bye for now