Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Design for Living

Published as a podcast on Friday 10th March on iTunes, Stitcher and

It’s 10th March, it’s Friday, it must be the Sustainable Futures Report. Yes, here’s another episode of news, views and ideas about what’s going on the world of sustainability with me, Anthony Day. Another bumper week last week with more hits on Friday for the last episode than ever before. Thanks to all my listeners, wherever in the world you are. Thanks for your suggestions for interviews. There are some most interesting ones in the pipeline.

Roses are red, violets are blue, but LILAC is a housing co-operative. More about this later. The future, and the past, seems to be electric with electric taxis in Beijing and a very special battery-powered classic. In the I-told-you-so department climate scientists reveal that their 1980s forecasts were not that far out, while others report a massive permafrost thaw. (Try saying that with your teeth in!) Literati - you thought they were people who wrote for the newspapers, didn’t you? Well Litterati (that’s with two Ts) is about litter and there’s an app and a TED talk that you mustn't miss. Chevron seems to be realising that the end of oil is in sight - and not because it’s running out. And finally my good deed for the week, and why you should do one too.

But first…LILAC

Remember I told you about a CIWEM event about the Foss Barrier Flood Defence Scheme? One of the people I met there was Amanda Crossfield. I was delighted to learn that she drives a Nissan Leaf–the 100% electric car–and she told me that she lived at lilac. Lilac I asked, what's that? Lilac is a Low Impact Living Affordable Community and very interesting as both an idea and as a location. I found out that they were holding a Learning Day last week so I went along to learn more. 

The project is 3 miles from the centre of Leeds, a major city in the north of England, in case those of you in the south of England don’t know. It is close to bus routes and not far from the canal, where the towpath provides a safe and swift cycle track into the city centre. It’s a brownfield site; previously a primary school. There are 20 dwellings, and in total there are six 1-bed, six 2-bed and six 3-bed flats, and two 4-bed houses positioned around a central pond and green area. In addition there are allotments for tenants to grow some of their food, although it was never intended that the community should be self-sufficient. There’s a “pocket park”, a children's play area and a quiet corner for contemplation.

Let's look at the  three dimensions of the project.

First - low impact. Residential and non-domestic buildings account for around 45% of C02 emissions in the UK and LILAC is aiming to make each home carbon negative: able to return to the national grid as much power (and more) as it uses over the course of a year.

How does this work? It’s low impact both in terms of the construction and in terms of daily use.

The walls of the houses are made from super-insulated straw bale and timber panels using the Modcell system which were  prefabricated off site. The panels are faced with lime plaster, which keeps them watertight, and the production of lime plaster is far less energy-intensive than the manufacture of concrete or bricks, and it actually absorbs CO2 as it matures.  In contrast to a conventionally built home which produces around 50 tonnes of CO2 during its construction, a home built using straw bale as insulation can actually store 12.25 tonnes of CO2! The CO2 is locked in the timber, the plaster and the straw for the life of the building - expected to be a minimum of 60 years.

The buildings use ‘passive solar’ design, which means that the insulating materials and design of the buildings combine to store solar heat in the winter and reject solar heat in the summer, thus reducing the need to input heating energy. Although each home has a conventional gas boiler, when I went round I could see that the radiators were very small. And the houses were warm. All the people I met said they were paying far less for energy than they ever had before. A Mechanical Ventilation and Heat Recovery system (MVHR) means that fresh air is circulated into the houses from outside, heated by the stale air as it’s expelled. The windows, too, are triple glazed. Electricity from solar PV panels on every roof helps to keep the bills down, and each house has solar thermal hot water. Rainwater is not harvested as such, but the run-off from the roofs of the buildings is all diverted into the pond. This overflows into the urban sewer system, but a hydraulic brake ensures that it slows the impact of a downpour.

Secondly, Lilac is a community. Legally it’s a co-operative: a mutual home ownership society. With different sizes of the flats and the houses it’s home to people of all ages, including families with children, seniors and younger people. It’s a cooperative which means everybody has a say and a responsibility in managing the community. It means also that everyone benefits from shared resources.  At the heart is the Common House where people meet to discuss, manage and agree, and where they socialise and eat together twice a week. Why have a spare room in each house if it’s hardly ever used? There are guest rooms which anyone can book for visitors. Why have a washing machine which stands idle for most of the week? There’s a communal laundry. There’s a workshop as well, where everyone shares tools to mend bikes or carry out DIY projects or repairs. There are 11 cars on site and informal car-sharing arrangements means that 11 cars are enough for the 50 people who live at LILAC.
Residents join one of six teams responsible for the management of landscape, finance, food, the site and the Common House. The community atmosphere is strengthened by the layout of the site, which means that all the properties overlook the central green area. It’s easy to watch the children and acknowledge neighbours, and there’s no problem with traffic as all the cars are parked behind the houses. Having said that, each property has its own private garden and every resident has complete privacy behind his or her own front door.

The third aspect of LILAC is affordability. LILAC is a mutual home ownership society and the residents all have shares. Only residents can be shareholders and only shareholders can be residents. This means that LILAC can never be controlled in any way by outsiders. It also means that if people decide to leave, the choice of someone to take their place is made by the whole community. Only with 100% approval will a new resident be allowed in. Affordability is based on each resident’s income, as their monthly contribution, which covers purchase of shares, site maintenance costs and the cost of running the Common House, is set at 35% of income. This means that all sources of income must be declared annually to the Finance Team, and for many people that would always be a step too far. For others, though, LILAC and the many other cooperative housing schemes across the UK offer exciting opportunities.   

Thanks to all at LILAC for sharing with me last week. 

Spring Fever

The sun was shining at LILAC and spring is almost here. Time to get away from it all? How about a camper-van? Better still, and more sustainable, how about an electric camper-van? A few weeks ago I wrote about just such a vehicle which VW were exhibiting at the Detroit International Auto Show. The trouble is that they've done this before but they don't seem to have any intention of making such a vehicle available to the public. 
Don't despair! I know a man who has an electric camper-van and for the right price he'll even let you borrow it. Go to for the details and the pictures. Kit Lacey, Director of eDub Trips, explained to me recently how he obtained a vintage 1970s VW camper-van, stripped out the engine and installed a complete electric drivetrain. If you have your own classic VW camper he will convert it to electricity for you, for less than the cost of a first-class round the world flight. And of course the carbon footprint of an electric camper-van is so much smaller than your flight would be.
Kit’s classic camper is intended to be the first of many. There will be vans located in every UK National Park and he’s planning to install batteries as charging points at these remote off-grid locations. They will be charged from solar and wind power. Some dates still available for 2017, I’m told. Get in touch and tell him you heard about eDub Trips on the Sustainable Futures Report.

Looking to an electric future, the United Nations Environment Programme reports that Beijing’s 67,000 taxis are to go electric. Although there is worldwide concern about  urban air quality, Beijing is a city with one of the very worst problems. In Beijing you can actually see the pollution, and on a bad day you can hardly see anything else. Air pollution is responsible for as many as 4,000 premature deaths each day in China, according to a 2015 study. The electric transition is estimated to cost taxi operators around 9 billion yuan ($1.3 billion) because while a conventional car costs approximately $10,000, an electric car costs double that. This investment is seen as a necessary cost to curb CO2 emissions. The city must now expand its EV charging infrastructure to accommodate all the additional electric vehicles in the capital. Of course the problem won’t go away until they power all these EVs with clean energy. Coal-fired power stations are a major source of Chinese pollution, but there are plans to close those in the city and China is the world leader in solar and wind power.

If there are 67,000 taxis in Beijing there must be many more private cars. Measures to cut back on these, to reduce their use and to encourage their replacement with EVs must be expected.

Back in 2010 there was a report that all new London taxis were to be electric by 2020. Not sure how this is progressing. I don’t go to London very often but I’ve never seen an electric black cab. Have you?

DEFRA’s 25-year Plan
News on the long-awaited 25-year Environment Plan from DEFRA, the UK’s Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. There is no news. Still no publication date. A group of MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee have written to the Minister urging progress. The report was supposed to have been published last summer, and the Minister has stated on several occasions that it will be published “soon”. The committee is now calling for a firm date for publication.

Getting it Right
Back in the 1980s there was widespread climate change denial and much scepticism of a model designed to forecast the evolution of global warming. 30 years on, scientists writing in the journal Nature Climate Change report that the 1989 predictions were far more accurate then expected. Dr Ronald Stouffer, head of the climate and ecosystem group at Princeton University, and his colleague Dr Syukuro Manabe, compared the predictions with actual results over the three decades and found they were very similar.

Permafrost Permathaw 
Meanwhile in northwest Canada huge slabs of Arctic permafrost are slumping and disintegrating, sending large amounts of carbon-rich mud and silt into streams and rivers.  Permafrost is of course land that has been frozen year-in year-out for thousands of years. Except it isn’t any more. Global warming, which is particularly intense in the North polar region, is causing it to melt.

A new study that analysed nearly a half-million square miles in the region found that this permafrost decay is affecting 52,000 square miles of that vast stretch of earth—an expanse the size, they say, of Alabama, which apparently is more than six times the size of Wales. 
According to researchers with the Northwest Territories Geological Survey, the permafrost collapse is intensifying and causing landslides into rivers and lakes that can choke off life downstream, all the way to where the rivers discharge into the Arctic Ocean.
Similar large-scale landscape changes are evident across the Arctic including in Alaska, Siberia and Scandinavia, as the researchers wrote in a paper published in the journal Geology. The study didn't address the issue of greenhouse gas releases from thawing permafrost. But its findings could help quantify the immense global scale of the thawing, which will contribute to more accurate estimates of carbon emissions. Scientists estimate that the world's permafrost holds twice as much carbon as the atmosphere.

Other global evidence of similar large-scale permafrost changes have recently been documented in Siberia, where scientists with the Permafrost Laboratory at the University of Sussex (UK) are monitoring another rapidly growing scar in the earth. More than a half-mile of once-frozen ground has collapsed 280-feet deep, according to their study published in in the journal Quaternary Research in February. The researchers said they expect to see the rolling tundra landscape transform, including the formation of large new valleys and lakes.
Similar signs are evident in coastal Arctic areas, where thawing permafrost and bigger waves are taking 60- to 70-foot bites of land each year, according to researchers with the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research. Writing in the journal Nature Climate Change in January, AWI scientists warned about collapsing coastlines and urged more research, with input from policymakers and native communities.
University of Alberta scientists Suzanne Tank, who was not involved in the new study, said that the release of sediments from the new slumps in the Canadian permafrost has significant ecological implications. The pulses of silt, mud and gravel make streams murkier and limit growth of aquatic plants at the base of the food chain. Exactly how that affects other species, including fish, is the subject of ongoing research.
Scientists know thawing permafrost unlocks carbon. But according to Tank, most of the carbon in the Canadian melting is being released quickly as coarse particles that aren't converted to CO2 immediately. But separate research by Swedish scientists suggests that the soil particles are quickly converted to heat-trapping CO2 when they are swept into the sea.
A series of studies on the National Institute of Health's Arctic Health website documents how the widespread thaw of permafrost is already having direct impacts on people. Warmer water and increased sediment loads are harming lake trout, an important source of food for native communities. Changes to the land surface are also disrupting caribou breeding and migration, and in some places, the disappearing permafrost has destroyed traditional food storage cellars, researchers have found.
At lower latitudes, permafrost is the glue that holds the world's highest mountains together by keeping rocks and soil frozen in place. Scientists are documenting how those bonds are dissolving, said Stefan Reisenhofer, a climate scientist with the Austrian Bureau of Meteorology and Geodynamics.
"We've seen a significant reduction in the number of ice days (those with 24 hours of sub-freezing temperatures), especially in the summer months," said Reisenhofer, who works at a climate observatory at an elevation of 8,500 feet. "From 2010 to 2014, the number of ice days decreased and the mountain beneath the research station crumbled, requiring a huge investment to stabilise the outpost”, he said.
Using satellite images from the European Space Agency's Copernicus program,  the Austrian researchers have shown how, similar to the findings in Canada, thawing permafrost has unleashed huge amounts of sediments below receding glaciers. Intensifying summer rainstorms have triggered huge landslides, damaging roads, power lines and water infrastructure, according to a recent evaluation of satellite images by Austrian climate researchers. 

No Litter, Please, We’re Tidy

By comparison with problems caused by melting permafrost, the problem of litter might seem trivial. I came across Litterati this week, and it's another example of big data and almost the internet of things. Do you like picking up litter? Do you ever pick up litter? If everybody in the world did, it would make the world a much cleaner place. It would stop all that pollution drifting down the watercourses and floating out into the sea, as we mentioned in previous episodes.
Jeff Kirschner has come up with an app which makes litter-picking interesting. Not only that, it gathers useful data. You download the Litterati app and then when you see a piece of litter you photograph it, pick it up and dispose of it, and send its digital record to the digital landfill in the cloud. Every time you do this the location of the item and the time you found it are both recorded. Given that many items of litter are branded, the photograph will frequently reveal where it came from. Kirschner quotes the example of the tobacco companies who sued the government in California because their product was being taxed as a major source of litter. The Litterati data was so clear and conclusive that the tobacco companies lost their action and the litter tax was doubled. Have a look at Jeff Kirschner's TED talk. Go to and search for Jeff Kirschner. It's only six minutes. When you've done that you can download the Litterati app to your smartphone and join the worldwide contingent of people who are making this world a cleaner place!

The End of Oil?
And talking of making the world a cleaner place, what if we stopped using fossil fuels? Well obviously we can’t stop overnight, but if we stopped using them we would cut the world’s greenhouse gas emissions dramatically. Chevron, the international oil company based in California, has listed in its annual report the risks to its ongoing operation and profitability. One of these risks is regulation of GHG emissions. Here’s what they say. I’ve abridged this 950-word clause: 

Regulation of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could increase Chevron’s operational costs and reduce demand for Chevron’s hydrocarbon and other products. In the years ahead, companies in the energy industry, like Chevron, may be challenged by an increase in international and domestic regulation relating to GHG emissions. Such regulation could have the impact of curtailing profitability in the oil and gas sector or rendering the extraction of the company’s oil and gas resources economically infeasible. 
International agreements (e.g., the Paris Agreement and the Kyoto Protocol) and national, regional and state legislation that aim to limit or reduce GHG emissions are currently in various stages of implementation. 
…even with respect to existing regulatory compliance obligations, the landscape continues to be in a state of constant re-assessment and legal challenge, making it difficult to predict with certainty the ultimate impact that such regulations will have on the company. 

… the ultimate impact of GHG emissions-related agreements, legislation and measures on the company’s financial performance is highly uncertain because the company is unable to predict with certainty, for a multitude of individual jurisdictions, the outcome of political decision-making processes and the variables and tradeoffs that inevitably occur in connection with such processes. 

So is Chevron going to diversify, or is it going to fight on? It’s a global organisation with international commitments and multi-billion investments, revenues and liabilities. At least it has identified the risk to its business. Changing any organisation of such a size will take years to plan and execute.

Let’s watch and see what happens. Let’s see what approach other oil majors take. At the World Economic Forum this year Al Gore said that corporations were good at managing risk, but no good at all at managing uncertainty. Chevron’s problem seems to be that its major risk is shrouded in uncertainty.

And Finally…
This week I made my 75th blood donation. I think that's quite a sustainable thing to do. We can manufacture pharmaceuticals and produce all sorts of marvellous medical equipment, but we cannot synthesise blood. Healthcare depends for that on people like you and me. 
My message of the week is that if you haven't given blood recently or if you've never thought of giving blood it's time to do something amazing. Go to  or search for “blood donor” if you are not in the UK, and get yourself signed up. Yes I know it involves a needle, but you don't have to look. It doesn't hurt. It takes a lot less than an hour from start to finish and it could save a life. 
Your life, your partner’s life, your child’s life or the life of someone that you've never met and never will meet but who would die but for your generosity. 
That's the thought for this week. 
Do something amazing: sign up to give blood.
Do it now.

OK, I won’t detain you. I’m Anthony Day and that was the Sustainable Futures Report.

Don’t forget:

Until next week.

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