Thursday, March 16, 2017

Islands of Dreams

Published as a podcast on Friday 17th March on iTunes, Stitcher and at

Hello, this is Anthony Day and this is the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 17th March. Welcome to new listeners, welcome to established listeners. The Sustainable Futures Report reaches across five continents, and is brought to you without advertising, sponsorship or subsidy. Don’t forget that if you need a conference presenter, keynote speaker, awards host or webinar facilitator you can contact me via 

This week there’s more about energy and about islands - in the middle of the North Sea and floating out there in space. How do you get your groceries? Ocado has a new idea and Ocado is not alone. Drones, robots, autonomous lorries? Are these the future? There’s more on the effects of air quality and the WHO has produced a new report on a sustainable world for children, linked to the SDGs. Surfers are protesting against plastic bottles - a story which made the front page this week. Do you remember American Judge Ann Aiken? She’s now under attack from the Trump administration, as well as from the fossil fuel industry. I’ll tell you more.

All at Sea
Next week three companies from the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany will sign an agreement in Brussels, backed by the EU, to develop a large renewable electricity system in the North Sea.

They are going to build an island on Dogger Bank which is a shallow area of the North Sea between the United Kingdom and the European continent. It will cover 2.5 square miles with an airstrip, a harbour and accommodation for the workforce. It will be a hub for the vast array of wind turbines in the surrounding sea. Interconnector cables will link the hub to Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Norway and Belgium. These cables will be used to bring power from the wind turbines ashore, but will also be used to allow countries with surplus electricity to export it to other countries. The island will be a maintenance centre for the turbines, saving the time needed to travel backwards and forwards to the mainland. The location is also in the middle of an area with relatively high and stable wind speeds.

There are no details at present of how the island will be constructed and there is no doubt that it will be a challenge. First, even though the sea is shallower here than elsewhere in the North Sea, it’s still 15-36 metres deep depending on the tide. It would be impossible to create an island just by dumping rocks on the site. Will they build it on legs? Dogger Bank is a sandbank, so those legs would have to go well into the sea bed to give stability. For a 2.5 square mile platform that’s an awful lot of steel. You could question whether the carbon savings from the renewable wind energy will ever compensate for the carbon emissions from the construction.

Then there’s the geology of the site. In 1931 an earthquake took place below Dogger Bank, measuring 6.1 on the Richter scale. It was the largest earthquake ever recorded in the United Kingdom. It caused damage across eastern England and was felt in countries all around the North Sea.

Dogger Bank is an important fishing ground, and there are also calls to designate it as a Marine Conservation Area. 

Doesn’t look like plain sailing to me for this project! I’ll let you know when I have more news.

Solar Farms in Space
There’s wind power in the North Sea but if you were to build solar farms in space they would be super-efficient because there’s no clouds or atmosphere to get in their way.

This week is British Science Week, and Jerry Stone of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS) presented a paper on living in space. Together with other members of the BIS he’s been updating research carried out in the US in the 1970s into how humans could start living in space in large numbers. They believe that thousands of people could be living in floating space colonies orbiting the Earth in as little as 20 years’ time. A colony would consist of a vast hollow cylinder, which would rotate to provide gravity for the people who would live on the inside. While life in space might sound unappealing to some, they say it could actually be healthier than planet Earth, enabling people to live longer and, eventually, grow taller. It’s probably healthier than an island in the middle of a windy ocean. 

Space colonists would initially build and maintain solar panels that would be used to provide power on Earth, but other industries might later move into space to take advantage of the weightlessness and huge supply of energy from the sun.

I’m not sure how the electricity from that solar farm would be transmitted to earth, but then, I’m not a scientist. Obviously not a cable, but perhaps a laser beam. As long as you don’t fly through it.

Delivering the Goods
If you’re living in a space colony, I suppose you have to wait for a rocket from earth to bring you supplies, at least in the early years. If you live in London, on-line supermarket Ocado has been testing grocery delivery by electric vehicles as part of a bid to cut its carbon footprint, reduce congestion and keep noise levels to a minimum, especially in residential areas.
It uses the Danish-designed TRIPL Urban Cargo Drive vehicle for short-distance home deliveries. It looks bit like those tricycles you see selling ice-cream at the seaside, with a big box on the front and the courier sitting over the single wheel at the back. No pedalling. The electric drivetrain gives a range of up to 100km, a top speed of 45kph and a maximum payload of 200kg.

But who needs a courier?

The Starship robot is a six-wheel automated trolley that can travel up to 4 mph for roughly 10 miles. It uses a GPS signal and nine cameras to navigate and avoid obstacles. It runs along the pavement, or sidewalk, as you say in America. It doesn’t have a driver, although if it gets lost or confused it can call home for help and an operator can then look through the cameras and take over control. It’s much smaller than Ocado’s trike, but it can carry up to 10 kilograms or three shopping bags at a time. It’s designed to transport packages, groceries and takeaway meals. 

Instead of a person arriving at their door, customers could find themselves receiving a notification on their phone that says a robot is on its way and a code to unlock it. "Put the code in, the robot opens up, and there's your food," said David Buttress, chief executive of Just Eat. 
So far there are no reports of any accidents or any cargoes going missing. Allan Martinson, the chief operating officer of Starship, said,  "The most surprising reaction has been the lack of reaction, but kids love it. We've seen them try to chase it, hug it. One person tried to feed it a banana.”

Keep on Trucking
Here’s yet another futuristic delivery system. Mercedes-Benz Vans announced an equity investment last week in a drone startup company, Matternet and that it will invest €500 million over the next five years in designing electric, networked vans.  The drones will launch from the rooftops of the van. It’s all about efficient delivery over the last mile.

Steve Banker, writing in Forbes magazine, is sceptical. He points out that regulations in both the US and Europe make the use of autonomous drones totally impractical. On the other hand, the technology in the van is a significant advance. Racking modules are loaded up in the warehouse and then loaded into the van. The van is electric, designed to be quiet when travelling down suburban streets, and although it’s not totally autonomous the driver controls everything from a joystick. No steering wheel, no pedals. Arriving at a location, the racking module delivers the correct parcel to the driver. No searching in the back of the van for the right one. The screen gives last-minute instructions like “leave with neighbour”, “put under flowerpot”, and so on.

Meanwhile, for long-distance deliveries Mercedes-Benz has unveiled an autonomous lorry that will be able to drive itself across Europe's roads within the next 10 years. This looks like good news for the thousands of Eastern European drivers in the news this week. It was reported that they can’t afford to live in the expensive Western European countries where they work, so they camp in their vehicles, sometimes for months at a time. When these new autonomous vehicles come in they won’t need to live in their cabs, although they may no longer have jobs. But wait, the new autonomous lorry will still have a steering wheel - and a driver. What’s the point of that? It looks as though a boring and tedious job could become even more boring and tedious. The driver will have far less to do. Maybe operators will be able to pay the drivers even less. 

Something in the Air
More about air pollution, and this time it’s not just about the effect on people.

Plantlife is a British conservation charity working nationally and internationally to save threatened wild flowers, plants and fungi . It owns nearly 4,500 acres of nature reserve across England, Scotland and Wales where you can find over 80% of the UK’s wild flowers . It has 11,000 members and supporters and HRH The Prince of Wales as its Patron.

A new report from Plantlife, “We need to talk about Nitrogen”, explains how atmospheric pollution with nitrogen compounds is affecting both plants and animals. 

Writing in the charity’s blog, Dr Trevor Dines says,

“It is no exaggeration to say that an excess of nitrogen deposited from the air is pushing many wildlife habitats in to critical condition. In a report released today by Plantlife we reveal that a staggering 90% of sensitive habitats in England and Wales are suffering from excess nitrogen.
Nitrogen deposition takes place when nitrogen emissions from transport, power stations, farming and industry – mainly emitted as nitrogen oxides and ammonia - are deposited back into the natural environment directly from the air or in rain. And the results of nitrogen build-up are hugely damaging to biodiversity. 'Thuggish' plants - such as nettles - that flourish with high levels of nitrogen are overpowering many of the UK’s rare and endangered wild plants, who simply cannot survive in such nutrient -'rich' soil.
As the countryside greens up this Spring the impacts of nitrogen deposition are clear for all to see; you don't need to venture far to see that nettles are running ever more rampant. In some areas once diverse habitats are becoming monotonous green badlands where only the nitrogen-guzzling thugs survive and other more delicate plants - such as harebells - are being bullied out of existence.”

The report spells out how tackling the destructive impact of atmospheric nitrogen deposition on plants and ecosystems is one of the greatest challenges faced in nature conservation. It not only affects plants, but also affects animals, insects and birds as their habitats are overwhelmed.

Nitrogen oxides are emitted from the burning of fossil fuels mainly from power stations, factories and transport emissions, whereas the main source of ammonia is from agriculture. In 2014, agriculture accounted for 83% of all UK ammonia emissions, with the largest contributor being livestock manures, especially from cattle, as well as emissions from organic and inorganic fertilisers that are spread onto fields.

“The nitrogen deposition problem is complex and requires co-ordinated and multi- faceted approaches to address both its causes and consequences,” says the report. “Links need to be strengthened between related policy areas such as agriculture, water quality, energy, transport, climate change and public health. The reactive nitrogen problem is a global, regional, country and local issue, and effective solutions will need to be sufficiently integrated to drive a reduction in overall emissions.”

In other words, governments must act. If only they hadn’t got so many other things to consider at the moment. Maybe that 25-year Environmental Strategy that we’re still expecting from DEFRA, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, will have some answers. Maybe.

Sustainable World
Another report is out. This one is from WHO

“Inheriting a sustainable world?  Atlas on children’s health and the environment”

“More than a decade after WHO published Inheriting the world: The atlas of children’s health and the environment in 2004, this new publication presents the continuing and emerging challenges to children’s environmental health.
“This new edition is not simply an update,” they say, “but a more detailed review; we take into account changes in the major environmental hazards to children’s health over the last 13 years, due to increasing urbanization, industrialization, globalization and climate change, as well as efforts in the health sector to reduce children’s environmental exposures. 
“…as governments discuss sustainability in the face of growing populations requiring food, water, housing and other basic needs, investing in the health of children by reducing exposure to environmental risks has to be an overriding priority. Only in healthy environments do children have the potential to become healthy adults, capable of meeting the challenges of the future.” 

“In 2015, 26% of the deaths of 5.9 million children who died before reaching their fifth birthday could have been prevented through addressing environmental risks – a shocking missed opportunity. The prenatal and early childhood period represents a window of particular vulnerability, where environmental hazards can lead to premature birth and other complications, and increase lifelong disease risk including for respiratory disorders, cardiovascular disease and cancers. The environment thus represents a major factor in children’s health, as well as a major opportunity for improvement, with effects seen in every region of the world. 

“Children are at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals, because it is children who will inherit the legacy of policies and actions taken, and not taken, by leaders today. The third SDG, to “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages,” has its foundation in children’s environmental health, and it is incumbent on us to provide a healthy start to our children’s lives. This cannot be achieved, however, without multi-sectoral cooperation, as seen in the linkages between environmental health risks to children and the other SDGs.”

Surfers against Sewage 
Surfers against Sewage are campaigning to urge the Scottish Parliament to introduce deposit return schemes on plastic bottles to help stop plastic pollution. This is just part of a story which continues to make the news, not just in Scotland but throughout the world. In the UK we buy 35 million plastic bottles each day, and although many of them are recycled, some 16 million are dumped. Little wonder that the press coverage shows beaches covered in plastic bottles as far as you can see. It’s a classic case of “externality”. An externality is an event for which a producer is not held responsible. There’s no penalty for Coca Cola, Evian, Sainsbury’s, Halfords, or any of the thousands of suppliers if a consumer finishes one of their products and throws the bottle away. It’s external to their responsibilities. The consumer might be penalised, although that rarely happens. Many externalities are now controlled, so manufacturers can no longer emit gases into the air or pollutants into watercourses with impunity. Surely the ‘polluter pays’ approach should be extended to the suppliers of plastic containers.

Although putting a charge on plastic bags has dramatically reduced their usage, putting a deposit on a plastic bottle is different. In most cases it’s not possible to refuse the bottle, because even if you’re carrying your own container, the product will have arrived at the retailer in a bottle. With a plastic bag you can refuse to pay for the bag and it is not supplied and not used. With a bottle it’s always supplied and it’s only taken back if you think it’s worth collecting the 5p or 10p deposit. If it’s taken back, it’s taken back to be recycled, which uses more energy and resources than if you never had the bottle in the first place. 
You can take your own cup or insulated container to be filled at most coffee shops. Why not extend this to soft drinks and other liquids? Body Shop always used to offer refills for their lotions and potions, but I’m not sure if they still do. How often do you throw away a washing-up liquid bottle? How many are thrown away each month in your street? In your town? In the UK? Have a look at They provide washing-up liquid. You get a bottle and you refill it using concentrate that they send you by post. Once the concentrate pouches are empty you send them back for recycling. You keep your bottle indefinitely. And it costs about the same as buying it from the supermarket, but you don’t have to carry it home.

There’s no doubt that we need to do something, as we discussed in detail in the Sustainable Futures Report for 10th February. It’s not just about rafts of plastic bottles on beaches, it’s about the micro-particles that these plastics break into, that pollute the oceans, damage marine life and get into the human food chain. You can make a start by carrying your own re-usable water bottle or checking out And don’t forget the Litterati app I told you about. (That’s with two Ts) It lets you identify, locate and photograph pieces of litter. Let’s use it to name and shame the organisations that produce all this rubbish.

And finally…
Lawyers representing fossil fuel defendants in a youth climate lawsuit filed a motion last week with a U.S. District Court seeking an appeal to the order in Juliana v. United States. As reported by The Washington Post, the Trump Administration filed a similar motion requesting appeal. Fossil fuel defendants support the Trump Administration's motion.
The background to this is that in April last year, twenty-one children, aged 8 to 19, successfully sued the Federal Government and the Fossil Fuel Industry for damaging their future by not doing anything about climate change. Judge Ann Aiken then rejected a motion to dismiss the case.

Now the fossil fuel defendants claim that the Judge erred when ruling that the dispute was not a political question. The fossil fuel defendants argue that the government, and not the judiciary, should resolve the issues presented by plaintiffs in this case.

However, in her 11-page judgement Judge Ann Aiken explained in detail why it was not a political issue and therefore a matter for the courts, not for the government. The latest challenge shows how determined the fossil fuel industry and the government are to defeat this so-called “Kids’ Case”. It looks as though it will go on and on. Of course if the courts did eventually find against the government and the industry it would have monumental implications. No wonder they don’t want to lose.

I’ll keep watching and keep you posted.

Next Monday I’m talking to MBA students at Huddersfield University about sustainability and business ethics. What should I call the presentation? Maybe, “The Only Way is Ethics.”

That's all for this week. You might say that's more than enough. 

This is Anthony Day, that was the Sustainable Futures Report and there will be another report next week.
I’m off to Whitby on a steam train at the weekend. Don’t mention the carbon footprint!

Bye for now.

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