Thursday, November 24, 2016

Beavering away!

Published as a podcast at on Friday 25th November.

The Sustainable Futures Report is a member of the Better World Podcast Collective at    

Hello and welcome to another Sustainable Futures Report. Yes it’s Friday 25th November and this is Anthony Day. Only four more pods until Christmas and the episode for 23rd December will have to keep you going until 6th January. In the last report for the year I’ll be looking back at the topics covered in 2016’s 37 episodes.

In the meantime, though, the message from Marrakech; Trump, the climate and the moon; is this wet week the time to look at natural flood defences, even bringing in beavers to dam the flow, or should we get a new roof from Elon Musk? Here in the UK the chancellor has just delivered his autumn financial statement - was there anything in it for sustainability? The question on everyone’s lips this week has been “Can you trust the news?” When it comes from the Sustainable Futures Report of course you can! And some bright spark has the answer to storing electricity.

Trump, Climate Change and COP22

As you know, President-elect Donald Trump is a climate change sceptic and has said that he would repeal Obama’s Clean Power Plan and withdraw from the Paris Agreement to limit climate change. The question was whether this would lead to the collapse of the agreement if the USA, the world’s second biggest polluter, decided not to take part. Last week I suggested that China and India and the rest of the world would still go ahead and it seems I was right. The news from COP22 in Marrakech, the latest UN ClimateChange conference, is good. China said that the global trend was irreversible while Russia committed to respect the treaty regardless of what others decided. No major country disagreed and the German State Secretary at the Environment Ministry announced that the whole of Germany would be fully renewable by 2050. Well, I say the news was good, but not everyone was happy. Campaign organisations including Oxfam were disappointed at the lack of financial commitment. Part of the Paris Agreement committed the richer nations to provide $100bn to help developing nations meet their climate targets, but campaigners complained that any excuse was made to delay, reduce or defer the payments. 

COP22 saw the launch of a new initiative, the “2050 pathways platform”. According to the UN Climate Change Newsroom, “The 2050 pathways platform will support countries… seeking to develop long-term deep decarbonisation strategies, including through the sharing of resources (including finance, capacity building), knowledge and experiences. It will also build a broader constellation of cities, states, and companies engaged in long-term low-emissions planning of their own, and in support of the national strategies. Essentially, it will be a space for collective problem-solving.”

Already, 22 countries, including both the US (for the moment) and the UK, have started or are about to start the process of preparing a 2050 pathway. 15 cities, 17 states, and 196 businesses have joined the 2050 pathways platform. Many others are expected to join. Let’s hope these financial commitments are met. 

So will the world go ahead without Trump’s America, or will he row back on his commitment to get out of COP21? He is very unlikely to release funds to help developing countries with climate change. He can block the Paris Agreement by cutting environmental  legislation like the Clean Power Plan, which he’s already committed to do. He has put a coal industry executive in charge of the energy department and he plans to lift restrictions on coal and to allow drilling to take place almost anywhere, both onshore and offshore. One saving grace is that at present natural gas is cheaper in the States than coal, so price will not drive generators to use more coal. Even so, a major nation which persists with fossil fuels will add a significant amount to atmospheric CO2, making it more difficult for the other nations to reduce the global total.

On the other hand more than 360 businesses have written an open letter this week to Donald Trump, President Obama, members of Congress and all the delegates to COP22, calling on them to continue U.S. participation in the Paris agreement. The signatories include DuPont, eBay, Nike, Unilever, Levi Strauss & Co. and Hilton as well as Starbucks, General Mills and Hewlett Packard. But not Amazon, Google, General Motors or Ford. Or any coal companies that I could spot.

The letter says: “We want the US economy to be energy efficient and powered by low-carbon energy”

We call on our elected US leaders to strongly support:

  • Continuation of low-carbon policies…
  • Investment in the low carbon economy… 
  • Continued US participation in the Paris Climate Agreement…

“Implementing the Paris Agreement,” they say, “will enable and encourage businesses and investors to turn the billions of dollars in existing low-carbon investments into the trillions of dollars the world needs to bring clean energy and prosperity to all.”

Is Donald Trump determined to remain the only head of state in the entire world to reject the scientific consensus that mankind is driving climate change? I hope he doesn’t ask his friend Nigel, because I believe he’s a climate denier as well. And one of Donald’s advisors has suggested that any money earmarked for environmental programmes should be spent on travelling to the moon instead.

Find the full text of the letter at 

But hang on! Apparently Donald Trump has just said, in a conversation with journalists from the New York Times, that he’s rethought the matter. Asked if he thought human activity was linked to climate change he responded: “I think there is some connectivity. Some, something. It depends on how much.” He also said he would keep an open mind on whether he would pull the US out of the Paris climate change deal. Of course that doesn’t change the fact that he’s packed his administration with climate-change deniers.

Flooded Out

Here comes winter! Not many frosts so far in the UK but a lot of rain. Too much rain. People waking up to find their cars under water and water seeping into their homes. Trains cancelled because the ballast has been washed away from under the tracks. This time it wasn’t so much the North of England that got the floods, it was the South and South West. Even London got a lot of rain, so it really made the headlines! By the way, many of the people flooded out in the North last Christmas are still not back in their homes. Floodwater comes up and down in a few days, but the consequences take months to sort out.

These latest floods have been caused by exceptionally heavy rain. When it falls all at once, rivers, watercourses and drains cannot cope. The water builds up, spreads out and invades streets and all types of buildings. We’ve seen in the past that it can overwhelm electricity substations and telephone exchanges with widespread consequences. What’s to be done? “Dredging!” shout the correspondents to the popular press. That’s not really the answer. If the flow is 10 times normal, do we make the river 10 times as deep? Either you wouldn’t see it for most of the year, or the sea would flood in and fill it all up. And then it would silt up again. Flood barriers have an effect, but a major effect is to speed the water to flood someone else further downstream. They can also look unsightly and block the view of the river. Much of the solution to flooding depends on the management of the catchment area of each river. If the water in the tributaries can be slowed done so it takes longer to reach the main stream, then the size of the maximum flow further down can be reduced. Ideally the water should be held back at source for as long as possible before it enters any part of the watercourse. This can be achieved with natural flood control. Both Environment Secretary, Andrea Leadsom, and Floods Minister, Thérèse Coffey, have both recently supported the approach, but the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) recently told Friends of the Earth (FoE) that “there is no funding earmarked specifically for natural flood management”.

Pickering in North Yorkshire suffered perennial floods until natural flood management was introduced. Now it’s a whole lot drier. The scheme consists of a range of land management measures way beyond the town up towards the sources of Pickering Beck and the River Seven. First, bunds have been built to hold back flood water in slow-release ponds. Trees have been planted along river banks and in flood plains. Rough dams of tree branches have been installed to slow the water but let it gradually percolate through. These are the sort of dams that beavers build and I read that beavers are being introduced into England, though not as far as I know into Yorkshire yet. A significant contribution to river flow has been from channels dug to drain moorland. Many of these have been blocked which cuts off the water but also re-wets the peat. This is important because peat is a major long-term store of CO2, and if it dries out it crumbles and just blows away. Controlled burning is an established method of managing moorland and in future landowners will avoid burning right up to river banks, because water runs straight off burnt areas with no vegetation to hold it back.

Natural flood management can protect urban areas from flooding rivers, but with intense rainfall floods can be generated locally. Cities are full of flat surfaces - roofs, streets, carparks and so on which do nothing to hold back the water. A downpour can overwhelm the drains and cause localised flooding. What to do? If every building had a water-butt, the time taken to fill it would buffer the flow. The problem is making sure it’s empty before each storm. You could encourage the installation of green roofs - roofs covered with plants which trap the rain and also insulate the building below. The trouble is that you can’t have both a green roof and solar panels. Another solution is catchment ponds, but the problem in urban areas is finding space to put them. 

New Roof? Outlook Sunny

Whatever happens, make sure your roof is watertight. From next year, in the US at least, you’ll be able to buy roof tiles from Tesla, the electric car and storage battery company. CEO Elon Musk told the Tesla directors that these new tiles, which incorporate solar panels, would be cheaper than conventional tiles even without taking the value of the electricity generated into account. 
In the US asphalt tiles are commonly used and these will be many times cheaper than Tesla tiles. Tesla tiles will be cheaper than slates or clay tiles, and like them will last much longer than asphalt. And they will generate electricity.

And when you have generated your electricity, what do you do with it? Well you could store it in a Tesla Powerwall, a domestic battery unit available in the UK from February 2017. Although it could make you close to self-sufficient in electricity, it’s not cheap at over £6,000 for the basic 14kWh unit. You would have to put a high price on energy security to make it worthwhile. And you might want to wait for the next development in battery technology.

Changing the Battery

An article in New Scientist magazine for 12th November explains how batteries could move forward. At present, electric cars, phones, cameras and other portable gadgets generally use lithium ion batteries. This is because they have a high energy capacity in relation to volume, which is crucial as demand rises and electronic devices get smaller. The problem is that concentrating energy in a small space needs to be very carefully done to prevent it all leaking out at once and causing a fire or explosion. Battery fires have occurred in electric cars, electric buses, Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 and even Boeing’s Dreamliner aircraft. Incidentally, the word is that Apple iPhones have suffered similar problems to the Note 7. The batteries are of similar design and manufactured by the same subcontractors. Maybe the American press are less keen to report on problems with American products. All I can say is that my previous iPhone occasionally got very hot indeed for no apparent reason. Fortunately it never exploded.

Another way of storing electricity is to use a capacitor. Capacitors charge and discharge far more rapidly than batteries. It’s a capacitor that powers the flash on your camera. The problem with them is that for a given size a lithium-ion battery holds 1,000 times as much energy as a traditional capacitor. Now researchers using carbon nanotubes are developing ultra-capacitors. Still not big enough - and far too expensive - to replace batteries, they could work in tandem helping to meet short term peak demand and smoothing the demand on the batteries. Smoothing demand extends battery life and using a capacitor in tandem means that a smaller battery would be needed for a given peak output. Important for electric vehicles. Working with batteries, capacitors could smooth the output from renewables, which notoriously fluctuates. The whole area of energy storage is rapidly developing, which can only be good news for renewable energy and a low carbon future.

Financial News

This week’s Autumn Financial Statement 
from the UK’s chancellor of the exchequer (that’s finance minister to those of you listening in a country without a history) had few surprises. Time was when the merest details were strictly embargoed until the chancellor rose to speak. This time the details have been steadily leaked since last weekend. The word “sustainable” appears in the official document three times; each time in the context of sustainable finances. Not much detail on energy and low carbon.
  The carbon price floor has been frozen at £18/tonne (rising with inflation in 2020/21).

A Shale Wealth Fund has been set up to provide £1 billion to communities local to shale gas projects.

The statement promised to simplify the reporting process and reduce the administrative costs of the Petroleum Revenue Tax for oil and gas companies in order to aid the North Sea industry.

Yes of course, we need more fossil fuels.

I had hoped that the infrastructure section would contain a commitment to the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, but not a word. He did promise to upgrade east-west rail links, but in the south, not the north. Is it really more important to link Oxford to Cambridge (via Milton Keynes!) than to upgrade the line from Hull to Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool? Fuel duty is still frozen, to the greatest benefit of those who drive the biggest, thirstiest cars. Surely he should have started increasing duty on diesel at least, in preparation for banning diesel vehicles from city centres in an attempt to improve air quality. The city of Barcelona has already published plans to ban a million cars from its streets by 2020. 
No change to former chancellor Osborne’s realignment of company car tax, which means that from next year cars with high emissions will be treated much the same as low-emission vehicles. Short-termism and shortsightedness. No change there then.

All the news, whether fit to print or not.

“Can you trust the news?” You’ve probably heard this story already as it’s been widely reported. Americans agonising over why Hillary didn’t win are blaming Facebook and the rest of social media. False claims, like “Pope Backs Trump”, were posted and apparently many people read the headline and shared the article without reading the text or stopping to think whether it might be untrue. As a result much false information, including spoof headlines from satirical sites, went viral and was accepted by many as truth. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, dismissed the notion that Facebook could actually influence anyone’s behaviour. But as many commentators have pointed out, if that’s true why would anyone want to advertise on Facebook?

In compiling the Sustainable Futures Report I do my best to verify the information I provide. Where possible I include links to sources in the text, which you can find at

And Finally...

And finally, September was not the hottest on record. Why is that newsworthy? Well the previous 16 consecutive months were all the hottest months on record. Even without a scorching September, 2016 will be the hottest year on record, hotter even than 2015 which was hotter than 2014 and so back for 15 consecutive hottest years. 

This is Anthony Day. That was the Sustainable Futures Report. Next week I shall be interviewing Tim Balcon, Chief Executive of IEMA, the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment. Provided the edit goes well I’ll bring that to you next Friday 2nd December.

Until then have a good week and I’ll talk to you again next week.

Bye for now!

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