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Hello, here we are again.
There’s just so much to talk about because sustainability is such an enormous topic. As you may remember, I signed up with Leeds Beckett University to do a PhD in the hope that it would give me more focus. Of course, as they say, you end up knowing more and more about less and less. So I'll continue with my highly specialised PhD research and I'll also continue to take a broader view when I write the Sustainable Futures Report.
In this episode I'm looking at pension funds, plastics and population. There's good news and bad news on fracking, there is controversy in Canada about clean water and ISDS, which I mentioned last time, has had a day in court. It seems that no one can stop Juliana, not even Donald Trump. Since the last episode we've had World Water Day, Earth Hour and Easter, that festival of packaging. WWF warns that climate change may be about to change our diets. And on the energy front there’s progress on the lithium air battery and progress, in a negative sort of way, on the U.K.'s latest coal mine. Thinking of a new house? Why not print one?
Pensions, they come to us all eventually. At least we all seriously hope they will. The qualifying age for pensions is steadily being raised but we all hope that once we get there there will be enough to live on, at least.
Now the UK Parliament's Environmental Audit Committee has written to the UK's top 25 pension funds demanding information on how seriously they are assessing climate risk. The government has admitted there is a "lack of attention and outright misunderstanding" among pension trustees of their fiduciary duty with regards to environmental and climate risk disclosure.
Writing to the committee, the pensions minister said the government was aware of “relatively little robust research” on the way that pension funds interpret risks such as climate change but that “good practice appears to be far from universal”.
Recent research had indicated that “a lack of attention and outright misunderstanding” of the scope of their fiduciary duty remained widespread among trustees.
Climate risks posed to investments include increasing numbers of claims made to insurance firms related to extreme weather, fossil fuel companies losing value as investments and energy businesses “being left behind” by the shift to a low carbon world.
Mary Creagh, chair of the committee said: “The climate change risks of tomorrow should be considered by pension funds today. A young person auto-enrolled on a pension today may be 45 years away from retirement. Over that timescale these climate change risks will inevitably grow.”
Responses to the committee's letter were expected by 28th March and the government is planning a consultation. I reported last time that Lloyds of London had advised against investing in coal some 25 years after it had been warned of the problems and risks with fossil fuels. Hopefully it will not take another 25 years for the pensions side of the insurance industry to take account of climate change risks.
That David Attenborough documentary earlier in the year really caught the public imagination and people are still thinking about ways to reduce their use of plastic.
A report commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) summarises available data on single use plastic consumption and waste management in the UK, both historic trends and future projections, and considers the UK’s performance relative to other European countries. It was produced by waste management consultancy eunomia.
A worrying conclusion is that the report estimates official figures over-state the quantity of plastic packaging sent for recycling by about a third, and much of what does go into the waste stream may be of such poor quality it cannot be re-used.
On the other hand an industry spokesman said he was "very confident" of the accuracy of the data from packaging firms.
But Eunomia argues that the industry's figures simply do not tally with the amount of plastic actually in the waste stream.
Packaging firms have to take part in government-approved schemes under what is known as "producer responsibility".
This obliges them to purchase a credit - a Packaging Recovery Note (PRN) - from a recycling firm to contribute to improving recycling. Defra, the UK Environment Ministry, says the scheme raised £50m in 2016. The cash was to be used for "capacity building" in the recycling system through increasing collection and processing of recyclables. But critics say the scheme is so opaque it is hard to tell exactly how the money is spent. And local councils, which have to run waste collection and litter services, complain they do not see a penny of it.
Canada - the right to clean water and shades of ISDS
News comes from the town of Ristigouche in Canada, where the municipality has been taken to court by oil and gas exploration company Gastem. Gastem sought $1m compensation from the town, claiming that regulations on clean water had obliged it to stop its operations in the area. The judge did not agree. He said that the regulations were based on serious research and that the town of Ristigouche was obliged to ensure the protection of watercourses in line with government regulations. He ordered Gastem to pay $154,000 to the municipality, and a further $10,000 towards its legal costs in defending the action. The campaign Solidarité Ristigouche had raised some $340,000 to support the 157 inhabitants of the area in their fight.
“Today we raise a glass - of water - to the clean water of Quebec and to everyone who supported us,” said the mayor of Ristigouche-Partie-Sud-Est, François Boulay.
The links to this story are on the blog. They're in French, but I don't expect that to hold back the listeners to the Sustainable Futures Report.
You’ll remember that I recently commented on ISDS, investor-state dispute settlements, which allow corporations to sue local and national governments if they find that local laws restrict their operations and their profits. There are elements of that in this case. It’s encouraging to learn that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has recently thrown out a similar case, as reported by globaljustice.org.uk.
This case involved a Dutch company called Achmea and the government of Slovakia. The company was just starting to provide health insurance in Slovakia in 2006 when a new government in the country decided to reverse the liberalisation of its health insurance market, and placed specific limits on profit-making. The case is important in highlighting the threat to contracted out public health systems – like parts of the NHS - from these corporate courts.
Achmea brought corporate court proceedings against Slovakia in 2008 under a Netherlands-Slovakia investment agreement. The company won, and Slovakia was order to pay €22million. That’s when proceedings started in the German court system to force Slovakia to pay up, and the German federal court of justice asked the ECJ whether all of this was lawful under EU Treaties.
The response from the ECJ was that the way these corporate courts work isn’t lawful because they exist outside the normal court system and therefore outside the judicial system of the EU. As such they are incompatible with EU law.
This ruling will have a big impact in a case that’s been going on for some years: that of Canadian mining company Gabriel Resources which is seeking over $2.5billion damages from Romania after it effectively rejected its plans for a gold mine –Europe’s largest – at Rosia Montana. The Romanian parliament refused to amend the country’s mining law in a way that would have made the mine possible, following months of local and national protest.
Gabriel then sued Romania in a corporate court. Even more shocking, Gabriel is actually a Canadian company, but took action under a bilateral trade agreement between Romania and the UK, on the basis that it has a 'shell' or' mailbox' company registered in Jersey.
Of course the British government intends to ignore the ECJ once Brexit is complete. Just as well, as the US will almost certainly insist on ISDS as a condition of new trade agreements. It will make it so much easier for American companies to take over our National Health Service.
Still in the courts…
The Juliana case which I’ve mentioned several times rumbles on. This is an action by a number of young people against the US government. They claim that the government’s failure to close down the fossil fuel industry is prejudicing their future health and wellbeing.
This has been going on since 2015, but the president and administration have made numerous attempts to prevent the case from coming to trial.
Judges with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled against a White House petition for writ of mandamus that would have dismissed the lawsuit because the young people failed to state a valid claim. Appeals court Chief Judge Sidney R. Thomas, writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, rejected the administration's "drastic and extraordinary" petition, meaning the case, Juliana v. United States, can go to trial.
"We are mindful that some of the plaintiffs' claims as currently pleaded are quite broad, and some of the remedies the plaintiffs seek may not be available as redress," Judge Thomas wrote in his opinion. "However, the district court needs to consider those issues further in the first instance.”
And so it goes on. Didn’t someone once say that justice delayed is justice denied?
Looking at a completely different aspect of sustainability, some are now asking the question: “Is birth control the answer?”
A study by statisticians at Oregon State University concluded that in the United States, the carbon legacy and greenhouse gas impact of an extra child is almost 20 times more important than some of the other environmentally sensitive practices people might employ their entire lives - things like driving a high mileage car, recycling, or using energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs.
Haven’t we been here before? Similar research was put forward by Kim Nicholson and Seth Wynes last year. I reported it in the Sustainable Futures Report of 21st July and commented that doubts had been raised about the statistics. On 22nd September I interviewed Professor Karl S Coplan who also cast doubts on the results of the study.
The thesis is that a child, especially a child of the United States, will produce an enormous carbon footprint over his or her lifetime, so having fewer children will have a far greater effect on saving the planet than giving up your car, avoiding air travel or living on a plant-based diet. The Nicholson-Wynes study also took into account the impact of that child’s descendants as well.
I’m uneasy about this. Giving up your car and so on may have a smaller impact, but it will have a much more immediate impact, and time is short! I believe that the two major effects on the planet from population are longevity and lifestyle. As long as people are living longer than they used to, then population will grow even if couples only have children at replacement level. All these people have an effect on the planet. Secondly, the global middle class is growing rapidly. The total number of people is staying more or less the same, but the proportion with ambitions to be members of the middle class and with the ability to enjoy the levels of consumption that that brings is growing rapidly. Morally we can do nothing to reduce the world’s elderly population, nor can we deny the standards of living that we enjoy in the West to other nations. What we must do is ensure that they can enjoy that lifestyle on the basis of the most efficient and clean manufacturing, energy generation and food production.
I don’t think anyone should be made to feel guilty for having children, although they should probably stop after the first two per family.
I’ve been reading a book; Standard Deviations, Flawed Assumptions, Tortured Data and Other Ways to Lie with Statistics. It’s by Gary Smith, who is Fletcher Jones Professor of Economics at Pomona College in Claremont, California. (ISBN 978-0715649145) He explains how statistics can be manipulated and presented to support a theory or political agenda. He gives examples of work by distinguished academics and others who should have known better. Strongly recommended. It’s not a difficult read and it’s quite eye-opening. Find out about the falsified research which underpins the UK government’s austerity policy, for example.
A TED to Watch
If you’d like to watch something rather than read something, search out this TED Talk by Naomi Klein. It’s called:
Denialists, don’t you love them?
I’ll be examining them as part of my PhD.
“You can deny environmental calamity – until you check the facts” is an article by Guardian columnist George Monbiot (interviewed on the Sustainable Futures Report last year)
He’s taking issue with a new book called Enlightenment Now, by Steven Pinker. And yes he does go into lots of detail. Link on the blog if you’d like to read it.
Food for Thought
WWF has been busy with reports. This one is called Changes to Diet where it claims that great British dishes are under threat from climate change
“In a new report launched ahead of Earth Hour”, they say, “we reveal the environmental impact of the nation’s favourite dishes, and how a changing climate is likely to alter some of the country’s most iconic meals.”
The new report comes as WWF calls on people across the UK to make a promise for the planet this Earth Hour. Promising to become a ‘flexitarian’ and eat more sustainably by cutting back on meat, fish and dairy can help future-proof out best-loved dishes, and reduce our overall impact on the planet.
“The UK’s best-loved dishes as we know them could be under threat as soon as 2050 as a direct result of climate change. Research found that favourites including chicken tikka masala, fish and chips, the cheese ploughman’s and lamb cawl (Welsh lamb stew) may taste different, need substitute ingredients and cost more in the future, as climate change could threaten the supply of the key ingredients required to make up these dishes.”
The report also calculated the environmental costs of these dishes today, given that around 20% of the UK’s greenhouse emissions are attributed to food production. The cheese ploughman’s was revealed to contribute more to climate change than the fish and chips or chicken tikka masala. In fact, the simple cheese, pickle and bread dish created 2.6kg CO2 in greenhouse gas emissions to produce, the equivalent of charging a smartphone 316 times, boiling a kettle 113 times or keeping an LED lightbulb switched on for 28 whole days. (Don’t you just love statistics? Apparently if all the statistics published across the world in an hour were printed in 12 point font on A4 pages there would be enough to cover 2.7 football pitches and if the pages were all piled up the stack would be higher than several London buses. Furthermore, 47% of all statistics are made up on the spur of the moment.)
Anyway, back to reality. The report showed that by 2050, climate change could cause:
- Chickens to be fed on alternative feeds such as insects and algae
- Rice prices to rise by a third
- Higher prices for tomatoes due to extreme rainfall and heatwaves
- Substitutions of anchovies for cod, as warmer oceans cause those species to displace cod populations
- Cheese production affected due to heat stress on dairy herds and resulting impact on milk production
The threat to these classic dishes shows that climate change could impact every aspect of our lives in future if we don’t act now. That’s why this Earth Hour WWF asked everyone to eat more sustainably. “If each of us takes a small action, together we can combat climate change and future-proof our best-loved dishes.”
"MAKE A PROMISE FOR THE PLANET AND BECOME FLEXITARIAN", they urge. Details on their website and links, as always on the podcast. If flexitarianism is a step too far for you, other promises are available.
Future of the Sea.
More reports! The British government has published a report, Future of the Sea. This report considers the role that science and technology can play in understanding and providing solutions to the long-term issues affecting the sea. It outlines a number of recommendations to help the UK utilise its current expertise and technological strengths to foster trade links, build marine capacity across the world and collaborate to tackle climate change.
In the related blog it talks about benefits to shipping from increasing access to trans-Arctic sea routes as global warming drives back the ice. This could also make drilling for oil easier, for those companies that still believe that fossil fuels have a future.
On the Energy Front
Not Backing Fracking - for the moment
After months of protest, anti-fracking campaigners have folded their tents and stolen away into the night. They dismantled their protest camp, which had been there since 2015, as exploration company Third Energy moved some of their equipment off the site. They are still waiting for final approval from the British government. Energy Secretary Greg Clark has ordered the start of drilling at Kirby Misperton to be put on hold pending an investigation into the “financial resilience” of Third Energy.
Clark’s move, taken after the collapse of outsourcing firm Carillion, came as protest groups and Labour politicians drew attention to the fact that Carillion’s former chief executive, Keith Cochrane, is now the non-executive chairman of Third Energy.
Other exploration companies have been talking to the council about test drilling at a site close to the city of York. No doubt the protesters will be back.
Of course fracking is banned in New York, in France and even in Scotland and Wales. In England, however, the government is actively promoting it. It seems to have an obsession with pushing through measures which are demonstrably uneconomic, unpopular, unrealistic and potentially damaging to the environment, to the economy and to the population. Nuff said.
Once we’ve found the energy, let’s store it!
The University of Illinois announces that it has created a lithium air battery which can hold five times more energy than a conventional lithium ion battery and has been successfully charged and discharged 750 times.
They say it will take more work to create a commercial version of the battery but if they achieve this it will be a game changer. You may remember that I have commented on this research in the past. The lithium reacts with the oxygen in the air and the problem with a lithium air battery up till now has been that the air contains all sorts of pollutants which inhibit the battery’s operation.
A unit with five times the energy of conventional units will be revolutionary, not just for mobile phones but also for electric cars. Imagine an electric car with a range of not 200 miles but 1,000 miles. That should certainly overcome a lot of range anxiety. A key issue, as ever, will be how long it takes to recharge the battery. There is no word on this at the moment. Cost will also be a factor.
Despite all this, the word is that batteries are not the limiting factor for the introduction of electric cars. It’s niobium, the rare earth metal that’s essential for the magnets in the electric motors. Niobium is in short supply. It’s mainly produced in China, where all of it will be needed to meet domestic demand. And wind turbines need niobium magnets, too.
At the other end of the energy spectrum…
Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, has rejected the Druridge Bay opencast mine plan. This was to have been a coal mine on the Northumbrian coastline, close to the beach. It may not legally be an area of outstanding natural beauty, but it is an area of countryside rich in wildlife and popular with tourists. The minister rejected the plan not only on environmental grounds, but significantly he cited the damaging effects of burning coal. Of course, there would have been commitments to return the site to its former state once mining had been completed, but many promises like that have gone unfulfilled elsewhere. A coal mining company facing declining demand for its product could well find that it was unable to reinstate the land when the time came. And nothing could be done to recapture the CO2.
No Place Like Home
I said at the beginning of this episode that you might be considering a new house.
As part of the Nantes Digital Week at Nantes in France they built a house. In fact they printed it, using a massive 3D printer.
This innovative system makes it possible to build the walls of a house by 3D printing, on the construction site itself and in just a few days. The advanced technology consists of depositing 3 layers of materials using a polyarticulated industrial robot: two layers of expansive foam serve as formwork for a third layer of concrete. Once the walls have been constructed, the foam is kept in place in order to insulate the house without thermal bridging. At the end of the operation, the mobile robot emerges through an opening provided for the fitting of the joineries.
This 95m2 house will include 5 rooms, rounded walls, windows and doors… a set of complex architectural forms, achieved by means of a revolutionary technology, on a site provided by Nantes Métropole Habitat.
This innovative project is led by a consortium of scientists, manufacturers, and public and socio-economic actors. The aim: to quickly build affordable, adaptable, and energy efficient housing.
The building is described as ideal for social housing, but why should it be limited to that? Have a look at the video on YouTube and see what you think. Links are on the blog as always at www.sustainablefutures.report . You can find more at http://batiprint3d.fr/en/
And that’s the Sustainable Futures Report for April. Apologies for the delay. The next edition is scheduled for 3rd March, but might possibly slip to the 10th. Thank you for your support, thank you for listening and thank you for your ideas.
I'm Anthony Day. That was the Sustainable Futures Report. And I'll talk to you again soon. Enjoy the rest of April and here's hoping we might eventually see the spring.
Bye for now.