Thursday, February 23, 2017

Greenwash Backwash Backlash

Published as a podcast on Friday 24th February on iTunes, Stitcher and

Hello. This is Anthony Day with your Sustainable Futures Report for Friday the 24th February. Welcome to listeners across the world - across five continents in nearly 100 countries. Thanks for listening: thanks for your feedback.

This week: more on the Greenpeace/HSBC palm oil story - and a different perspective. High speed rail and solar trains, a journey to the North Pole and we’re still waiting for a decision on Swansea Bay. Someone’s invented a robot that eats pollution, and what is a single-event upset?

As always, you'll find links to most of these stories below.

More about Greenpeace, HSBC and palm oil
I’m always grateful for feedback, so thank you to Ivana Jakubkova for taking me to task over my criticism of Greenpeace in the 10th February episode of the Sustainable Futures Report. You may remember that I was invited by Greenpeace to write to HSBC bank to complain about their financial support for companies that were devastating the environment in order to produce palm oil. I did so and received a detailed response from HSBC which made me wonder whether their actions were as bad as alleged. Then I got a message from Greenpeace thanking me for sending the letter to HSBC and urging me to forward a link to my friends. This link was for a video, based on a session with the Chief Executive of HSBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos, but heavily edited and intercut with scenes of forest devastation in order to promote the Greenpeace case. I wrote to Greenpeace and explained that I was unhappy with their position, particularly with this video. They wrote back and provided evidence to refute the responses which I'd reach received from HSBC. They did not, however, say anything about the video and that was withdrawn from the Internet earlier this week. Maybe I was not the only person who objected to it.

In the news this week HSBC have announced that they are doing more to distance themselves from the palm oil industry, which shows that the response that they sent to me was really only half the story.

The new policy will require HSBC customers to:
Commit to protecting natural forest and peat by June 30, 2017.
Identify and protect forests and peat in new plantations prior to commencing new development.
Provide independent verification of their NDPE commitments by December 31, 2018. (That’s No Deforestation, No Peat, No Exploitation)

HSBC also announced that it will join the Banking Environment Initiative and the Tropical Forest Alliance (TFA), which is hosted by the World Economic Forum.

Greenpeace acknowledged the announcement as “a good first step”. 

The following day HSBC announced a loss of $3.4 billion in the fourth-quarter, leading to a 62% drop in profits for the year. Schadenfreude for Greenpeace supporters.

I aim to be impartial in the Sustainable Futures Report and I research everything that I write. If you think I’ve got it wrong, I may well have. No room for alternative facts here! Please let me know. I still think that Greenpeace were wrong to use their heavily-edited video. We will always need campaigners and watchdogs like Greenpeace, but there’s always a risk in overstating the case. The corporations that we may oppose have endless resources and will use any excuse to rubbish a whole campaign, even on the basis of a small inaccuracy.

One point that HSBC made was that if they didn’t invest in companies they would have no influence over their operations. If they withdrew their loans then other less scrupulous banks would provide the funds. We need to seek out those banks as well.

I’ve been asked to talk to MBA students at the University of Huddersfield next month, on sustainability and business ethics. I think I’ve got a case study.

Swansea Bay
I promised you an update this week on Swansea Bay.
Swansea Council and over 100 MPs are urging the government to give the go-ahead to the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, an installation designed to generate electricity from the rise and fall of the tides.

Sir Charles Hendry, independent inspector and author of the Hendry Review, also urged the government to give the project the green light after finding that it would create thousands of jobs and generate environment-friendly electricity for 155,000 homes for 120 years.
He described the project as cost-effective, technologically-sound and would bring "significant economic opportunity" in its wake. He said the government should adopt a "no regrets" policy towards it.
It was hoped that a decision would be included in next month's budget, but it seems that there may well be further delays. It is suggested that the Hendry report did not go into sufficient detail on value for money.

Old Sparky, energy columnist in the satirical Private Eye newspaper, is sceptical of the project. He is also sceptical of the planned nuclear power station at Hinkley C, and of course that's another story. Sparky's concern is the cost of electricity. If it is calculated on a 35-year life, like a nuclear-power station, it will be very expensive. However, the promoters are asking for the price to be calculated on a 90-year life and, as seen above, the Hendry report anticipates that it will last much longer than that. Old Sparky also says that even with the four other tidal lagoons planned around the coast the varying timing of the tides will mean that the scheme is never able to meet a constant base load. That's fair enough, but like Hinckley C, the complete five-barrage project will only account for 8% of the nation’s electricity demand. It has the advantage of being much quicker to build than a nuclear power station, there will be no fuel costs once it is in operation because the tides are free and therefore it will bolster UK energy security because there will be no fuel to import. For the moment, we are still waiting and we have been waiting for years. In the meantime you can see more about the project on their website at

High Speed Rail
The rail network in the UK is carrying more passengers than ever before. Following years of under-investment many parts are running close to capacity. Enter HS2, the high-speed line planned from London to the Midlands and eventually to the North. Many people, especially outside London, are unenthusiastic about the project. It looks too expensive and far too far into the future to be relevant. 

HSUK is an alternative scheme developed by two qualified and experienced railway engineers which claims to provide far better connections between the principal cities in England and Scotland and to cost £20 billion less. £20 billion less than HS2 plus HS3, the proposed east-west line from Liverpool to Hull. The HSUK engineers have modelled the scheme in three dimensions and worked out detailed timetabling. Have a look at their website: . You can download the brochure which includes the proposed network consisting of existing, new and upgraded lines. Here's what they say:

“HSUK fully supports the Government’s commitment to build a new generation of high speed lines. However, HS2 is the wrong solution in the wrong place. It will not provide the extra capacity and connectivity either to drive economic growth, or reduce transport CO2 emissions in line with the requirements of the 2008 Climate Change Act. HS2’s introduction threatens the fundamental integrity of the UK rail network.

“Neither the Government nor the 650 MPs in Parliament understand this problem, because their experts at the Department for Transport and HS2 Ltd do not understand the problem either, and have given them the wrong advice. “The wider British public sense much that is deeply wrong with HS2; it will cost too much, benefit too few and take far too long to deliver.
“This is why High Speed UK has been developed: it is different, better and cheaper than HS2.”

They continue:

“It is important to appreciate that High Speed UK is far more than just hopeful lines on a map; it is a complete design. It is the result of ten years’ work to design a better-connected and higher capacity UK rail network as a single holistic system. Its scope far exceeds that of HS2. Every straight, transition and curve has been mapped all the way from London to Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, Teesside, Tyneside, Edinburgh and Glasgow. The HSUK scheme is ready for detailed design to start immediately. With much simpler construction along a far less controversial route following existing transport corridors, HSUK can be completed much more quickly than HS2 and HS3, at lower cost and to a higher specification.” 

Bold claims. It’s certainly worth a look. One thing that appeals to me is that HSUK plans to serve city-centre stations whereas HS2 will use new out-of-town stations, partly to keep its lines as straight as possible for the planned very high speeds. HS2 may have shorter station-to-station times, but overall journey times could be the same or even longer. If you think that HSUK is a good idea they urge you to write to your MP. Might be a bit late, as I hear the HS2 legislation is before Parliament this week.

Solar Trains?
But how should we power our trains, whatever route we choose? Can we connect solar photovoltaics (PV) directly to railways to power electric trains? The Guardian newspaper reports that the charity 10:10 ( and researchers at Imperial College’s Energy Futures Lab are working on it. If it’s feasible, using solar energy to power trains solves a number of problems. Already electric trains are one of the cleanest forms of transport, but they can only be as clean as the source of the electricity. An increasing problem for renewable energy generators is the structure of the national power grid. It was designed for electricity to flow one way, from a relatively small number of generating stations to a large number of consumers, both industrial and domestic. In some areas renewable energy cannot be accepted into the grid because expensive modifications would be needed. The ideal for any solar or wind installation is to have a consumer close at hand and able to use 100% of all electricity produced. Maybe trackside solar farms could feed directly into the railway’s power system, with no need for a grid connection. Even better, railways use direct current which is what PV panels produce. They use a similar voltage as well. At home, we have to have an inverter which changes DC to AC and a transformer to bring it down to 230 volts to match the grid. This process absorbs about 3% of the output. No such problems if the panels are supplying DC  direct to the user. Community Energy South, an umbrella group of renewable energy co-operatives is already working to identify promising sites where they could install a megawatt or two of trackside solar. Maybe such groups in other parts of the country should be doing the same.

The researchers see a major opportunity in India.
There they have over 25,000km of electrified tracks, and an electrification target of 2,000km of new tracks every year. And a lot of sunshine. Of course that raises the eternal question of what happens at night, but storage is rapidly developing. You may even remember Advanced Rail Energy Storage which I reported on on 6th May last year.

It consists of a very heavy train which travels slowly up an incline when there’s surplus electricity to power it, and then descends and generates electricity when it’s needed.

On a similar topic, solar farm specialist Lightsource has recently signed a 25 year power purchase agreement (PPA) with Belfast airport. This was enough to underwrite a neighbouring £5m solar farm, using a private wire to supply a quarter of the airport’s electricity needs.

Opportunity Knocks
Following last week’s Department of Missed Opportunities, here’s the Department of New Opportunities brought to you by Necessity, the Mother of Invention.

Remember the Samsung Galaxy note 7, the exploding phone? According to the i newspaper, Samsung have had to take back nearly 3 million of these phones after they were found to be unstable and could explode or burst into flames. This is equivalent to the contents of 28 shipping containers and the South Korean authorities have classed them as toxic waste and warned Samsung  to dispose of them responsibly or face fines. Greenpeace and the ├ľko Institute have worked out that these phones between them will contain more than 30 metric tons of cobalt, more than a tonne of tungsten, between 20 kg and 60 kg of palladium, more than 100 kg gold and more than 1,000 kg of silver. All of these are expensive and difficult to extract and tungsten and other metals found in the phones are classed as conflict minerals. They come from war-torn countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the mines are guarded by child soldiers. 

There have been calls on Samsung to recycle these phones which sounds a good idea and a step towards the circular economy to gladden the heart of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. In fact, Samsung will go one better, and rather than dismantling the phones for recycling they will remanufacture them, install them in new cases, provide them with lower capacity batteries which are expected to be safer and the units will be sold in India, Vietnam and other emerging markets. 

Wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a phone designed so that it could be repaired or all the modules like the processor, the battery or the camera could be changed or upgraded to suit the user’s requirements or to cope with software updates? Of course, this is no news to the developers of the Fairphone. They have had a phone just like this for some years and Fairphone 2 is now available for preorder. It’s modular, repairable and contains no conflict minerals. Check it out at  

RV Polarstern
Fancy getting away to sun, sea and sand? Well this trip won’t be for you. The Research Vessel Polarstern is setting off for a year-long voyage in the Arctic, where the sea will be frozen, there will be no sand except on the bottom of the ocean probably and by the end of the voyage it will be dark all the time.
Germany is going to sail its 120m-long research vessel into the sea-ice at the top of the world and just let it get stuck so it can drift across the north pole. Researchers hope to gather valuable new insights on the region where Earth's climate is changing fastest.

Last month the extent of Arctic sea-ice was the lowest ever recorded for a January (during the satellite era), with temperatures several degrees above the long-term average.
Prof Markus Rex will lead the so-called MOSAiC project - Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate:
"The decline of Arctic sea-ice,” he said, “is much faster than the climate models can reproduce and we need better climate models to make better predictions for the future.
"There is a potential that in a few decades the Arctic will be ice free in summer. That would be a different world and we need to know about that in advance; we need to know is that going to happen or will that not happen?”
Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Professor Rex, from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Potsdam, said: “The plan is to travel in summer when sea ice is thin and sea extent is much smaller.
We can travel along the Siberian coast and then make our way with our ice-breaker to the Siberian sector of the Arctic. Then we just stop the engines and drift with the sea ice.
“As the season proceeds the sea ice will grow and by late November we’ll sit in solid sea ice.
It will get colder; the ice will grow in extent and thickness. By then we’ll have set up a network of stations on the ice, some close and some 20 or 30km away.”

I understand that armed guards will be on hand to protect the researchers from polar bears. You must admire some people’s dedication to their science. 

TED Talk
Following last week’s item on Marine Anthropogenic Litter you might be interested in this TED talk. 
Jonathan Rossiter talks about a robot that eats pollution - and by the way, it generates electricity as well.

And finally - the single-event upset

Is your smartphone freezing or your computer crashing? Blame it on outer space. Also at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Bharat Bhuva, professor of electrical engineering at Vanderbilt University, explained that showers of cosmic particles from outer space are causing havoc with electronic devices. Millions of these particles strike your body each second, but despite their numbers, this subatomic torrent is imperceptible and has no known harmful effects on living organisms. However, a fraction of these particles carries enough energy to interfere with the operation of microelectronic circuitry. When they interact with integrated circuits, they may alter individual bits of data stored in memory. This is called a single-event upset or SEU. The damaged data is called a bit-flip.

If this causes a blue screen or makes your phone hang that’s one thing, but the consequences can be more serious.
In 2008, the avionics system of a Qantas passenger jet flying from Singapore to Perth appeared to suffer from a single-event upset that caused the autopilot to disengage. As a result, the aircraft dived 690 feet in only 23 seconds, injuring about a third of the passengers seriously enough to cause the aircraft to divert to the nearest airstrip. 

Ritesh Mastipuram and Edwin Wee at Cypress Semiconductor have calculated that a simple mobile phone should only have one potential error every 28 years. However, a person flying in an aeroplane at 35,000 feet (where radiation levels are considerably higher than they are at sea level) who is working on a laptop may experience one potential error every five hours.

In Belgium a bit flip in an electronic voting machine added 4,096 extra votes to one candidate. The error was only detected because it gave the candidate more votes than were possible. Just imagine if that happened to a computer in a restaurant and it ordered up, say, an extra 4,096 chicken portions. How would Deliveroo cope?

So perhaps it wasn’t the Russians who fixed the US election. Maybe it was little green men in outer space.

That's it for another week. I'm Anthony Day and you've been listening - and thank you very much for listening  - to the Sustainable Futures Report. There will be another one next week.

I'm heavily involved in organising a conference at the moment and I can't tell you anything about it, but it will be exciting and interesting and have a lot to do with sustainability. It may happen in the autumn but it may not actually take place until Spring 2018. I'll keep you posted.
In the meantime, if you have a conference and you need a chair or a keynote speaker or you have a webinar and you need a facilitator or you're planning an award ceremony and you want a host you know where I am. Drop me a line at  . If you have any comments or or suggestions or ideas that's the place to send them as well. Thank you for listening, thank you for your feedback. I look forward to hearing more in due course.

I’m Anthony Day.

Bye for now.

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