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Hello, good morning and welcome. I'm Anthony Day, this is the Sustainable Futures Report and it's Friday, 14th December 2018. Yes, less than two weeks to Christmas so I hope you’ve got all your cards written and presents bought.
This week as promised I shall look back at the 22 episodes published this year and pick out some themes, stories and updates.
Sustainability is an immensely broad issue and climate change must come at the very top. Among other things this year I’ve also looked at waste, population, and low carbon solutions for transport and energy. CoP 24, the United Nations climate change conference, comes to an end today although of course at the time of recording it's still going on. I'll update you on what was finally decided next week, but apparently the major contribution of the United States to the event was the promotion of the continued use of coal. This was initially met with disbelieving laughter and then drowned out by protesters complaining about the damage caused by fossil fuels from both production and use.
The big climate news this year was the IPCC report warning that we have only 12 years before reaching the tipping point when we will be unable to prevent catastrophic climate change. Actually that's not exactly what the report said. Certainly none of what I read quotes the 12 year figure. It does talk about 2030 as the deadline which of course is 12 years off, just. I'm concerned that the way it's being reported gives people a false sense of security and they'll think that they don't really have to worry about anything for 10 years or so. Of course what the report actually says is that we need to take urgent action now. Interestingly that's more or less what Lord Stern said in his report, and that was published in 2006.
Floods and Fires
2018 has seen extreme weather events across the world. In June and July there were wild fires in California, in northern England, in Greece and in Sweden, even above the Arctic Circle. Floods in Japan killed more than 200 people and then in the September Japan was hit by a typhoon. In Italy extreme rain led to flash floods which washed down a gorge and swept 11 hikers to their death. In October flash floods killed 10 people in France and at the same time hurricane-force winds hit Portugal, uprooting around 1,000 trees and leaving 300,000 people without power. Sydney, Australia, had torrential rain and destructive flash flooding in November.
In the Arctic the warm weather led to ice melting and water seeping into the Global Seed Vault on Svalbard. You’ll remember it’s a long-term seed storage facility which represents the world’s largest collection of crop diversity. Fortunately, "The seeds in the vault have never, ever been at any kind of threat," said Maria Haga, executive director of the global Crop Trust. The Norwegian government is making repairs.
At the other end of the world the city of Cape Town in South Africa warned that it would run out of water on 21 April as the result of continuing drought. In the event that did not happen, although stringent rationing had been introduced and thousands of plastic jerrycans were sold as people prepared to stock up. Just in time, the rains came and farmers up country were also persuaded to release some of the water held in agricultural reservoirs. Cape Town is safe, although rationing and strict water management remain.
Wildfires returned to California in November. The biggest, called The Camp Fire, killed more than 85 people and destroyed18,000 structures. It’s estimated that the CO2 released by the fires was equivalent to the total CO2 emitted in the state from power generation. The 2018 wildfire season was the most destructive on record. President Trump blamed the extent of the fires on poor forest management. To the surprise of the population of Finland he suggested that that country avoided fires by raking their forests and keeping them tidy. But then, Trump is a well-known climate sceptic. When the Fourth National Climate Assessment prepared by the U.S. Global Change Research Program warned of serious economic consequences from climate change the president’s response was, “I don’t believe it.”
Glaciers on the Move
Last week I spoke about the effect of climate change on the polar ice caps and the effect of the polar ice caps on climate change. Accelerated melting raises sea levels and retreating ice exposes areas of the ocean which absorb heat, unlike the ice which reflects most of it back. News from the BBC this week of a NASA report that satellite images show that Eastern Antarctic glaciers are moving more quickly as they slide towards the sea. Addressing the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), Dr Catherine Walker from Nasa's Goddard Space Flight Center said that the glaciers had speeded up by about 3% compared to 2008. The cause of the melting seems to be warmer water coming up against the glaciers as they reach the sea. The changes that are occurring are still quite subtle, and they are only really discernible because of the new automated computer tools that will search through the millions of satellite images taken of Antarctica. Research continues.
It’s a Waste
Another major story this year has been waste, in particular plastic waste. A programme by David Attenborough revealing the devastation caused by plastics in the ocean caught the public imagination. We learnt that about half of the plastic in the ocean is lost or abandoned fishing gear. We also learned about microparticles. These come from some toothpastes and other toiletries, although they are being banned in the number of markets. The other source is other sorts of plastic which gradually break down as they decompose. These microparticles can absorb other pollutants as they float on the surface of the sea and then can sink to the depths of the ocean taking this pollution with them to infect deep-sea life. Otherwise microparticles can be absorbed by fish and other marine organisms. This can lead them into the human food chain but it's also been demonstrated that they can change the behaviour of some shellfish. For example, winkles can lose their fear of predators, which means whole populations become easy prey for crabs, changing the ecological balance.
Plastic waste has maintained a high profile throughout the year. There are ways of cleaning it up, but the long-term solution must lie at the production end so that the plastics used do not pollute or can be easily recycled. We need to continue to promote the circular economy.
One of the most notorious articles of plastic waste is the mesh that is used to hold beer cans together. Once discarded any animal that gets trapped in it can find it impossible to free itself. Disturbing examples are widely to be found in the media. Many drinks companies have committed to abandoning this mesh and instead they will hold their cans in fours or sixes by using adhesive blocks to stick them together. Good idea, but I haven't seen them on the supermarket shelves yet.
In May I met Simon Jordan, founder of #5thingsclear. Simon says we must stop closing our eyes to litter and expecting that others will clear it up. #5thingsclear calls on you to pick up five pieces of litter every day and take it away for proper disposal. Sadly litter is all too prevalent wherever you go, so that shouldn’t be too difficult. Picking up 5 things is a start, especially if we all do it. “Only you,” he said, “Can make the change. Action trumps hope.”
https://refill.org.uk is an organisation setting up a network of places where you can fill your water bottle free of charge. Re-using a bottle means you avoid single-use plastic bottles, and some re-usable bottles are designed to keep your water cool as well. There’s an app, so wherever you are it shows you where your nearest refill point is.
I have a reusable coffee cup. Sometimes I remember to take it with me. Most coffee bars give a discount these days if you use your own cup, so it doesn't take long for it to pay for itself. There is a problem in that once you've used it you're carrying around a dirty cup. I've never asked a cafe whether they would wash it for me before refilling, but if they did I could have several coffees in a day and avoid single-use cups.
In September Climate Action told us about a new solar-powered watch made from recycled plastic bottles. “Two French designers are leading the way to reducing plastic pollution,” they say, “by creating a watch made from recycled bottles. The new eco-friendly watch is named ‘Awake’. It is made from plastic waste, recycled stainless steel and is powered by solar energy.”
Apparently this watch will cost about $300. I must admit I’m tempted, although my £65 watch still works perfectly well. If I were to buy a new watch it would be nice to think that it’s been made with minimal impact on the environment. I think the new watch’s main contribution will be to make people remember that recycling is important.
Walker of Shame?
The people’s plastic police picked on Walker’s, the popular crisp manufacturers. Walker's crisps are packaged in bags made of plasticised foil which is extremely difficult to recycle. Hundreds of people started sending the bags back to Walker’s, using the customer service freepost address. Many of them just sent the packets which caused a lot of disruption to the post office which urged them to at least put them in envelopes. Walker’s have responded and this week announced that they have set up a network of collection points across the country. They have developed a partnership with TerraCycle which specialises in recycling difficult materials. In fact it claims that it can recycle anything. According to the website you can help fund charities and schools each time you recycle your crisp packets. Walker’s say that they are committed to using 100% recyclable packaging by 2025.
Other potato crisps are available.
Two Farmers offer crisps in a range of flavours. On their website they say: “In a pioneering move for the crisp industry we package our crisps in 100% compostable bags. These will completely break down in a home composting environment in 26 weeks. We also package into recyclable tins.” So you know where to go if you can’t wait for Walker’s until 2025.
The British government said it would do something about plastic in the budget. When it came to it there were no new taxes. The government said it would consult.
Energy, clean energy, is the most frequently recurring story in the Sustainable Futures Report. There are the ongoing sagas of the Hinkley C nuclear power station and the Swansea Bay barrier. Hinkley C carries on much the same as it did at the start of the year, way behind schedule, way over budget and extremely costly once it goes into production. The nuclear industry is not a happy place at the moment following a rumoured decision by Hitachi to pull out of the planned nuclear power station at Wylfa in Wales. The company’s share price rose 3% on the news, even though it will have to write off expenditure to date of nearly £2 billion. Bad news for the British government, though. It looks as though it may have to rescue the scheme with public money - something it vowed never to do. And it comes after Toshiba walked away from another proposed nuclear plant in Cumbria, which will now almost certainly not be built.
… and Tides
The Swansea Bay tidal barrage has its own set of problems. It has always been difficult to make the sums add up and the only way that the electricity price per unit can be calculated at anything near a reasonable level would be by looking at an extremely long expected life. The other issue is the problem with construction which will require thousands of tons of rock. The preferred source of this it is a quarry in Cornwall, but this is currently in an area of outstanding natural beauty and locals are horrified at the scale of expansion that would be needed. There are also questions over the financial structure, with ownership of the quarry and the barrier appearing to be in the same or closely related hands. On the one hand the present government has said that the barrier will not be built. The Labour opposition says that when it comes to power the barrier will be one of its first priorities. If it does come to power any time soon I think it will have more pressing matters to deal with.
The long hot summer in the UK generated a lot of solar energy and wind power made a significant contribution as well. For several months no coal was used for power generation. Still a long way to go to make the UK independent of fossil fuels for electricity generation. There is still much investment in gas fired power stations. Pity we don't have the level of sunshine that they get in Australia. In March, Elon Musk, he of Space-X and the Tesla electric car company, announced that he would give free solar panels and Tesla Powerwalls (batteries) to 50,000 homeowners in South Australia. The deal is that he sells the electricity to the homeowners for about 30% less than they are currently paying, he links all the systems together to make a virtual power station and he sells the surplus electricity to recoup his costs.
Fracking has been in the news as after months of protest the go-ahead was given for franking operations to begin near Preston in Lancashire. The process has been halted several times because of earth tremors. The latest and greatest at 1.5 on the Richter scale was reported just this week. It came just after operations had been resumed after a month-long suspension following earlier tremors.
Other energy stories that came up included the idea of a pumpable liquid to fuel electric cars. Too good to be true? Researchers Cronin, Chen and Symes say in the abstract from their article in the Nature Chemistry journal “we present a polyoxoanion, … that can act either as a high-performance redox flow battery electrolyte… …or as a mediator in an electrolytic cell for the on-demand generation of hydrogen.” It seems that this new process could be used in electric car batteries. The exhausted electrolyte liquid would be drained out and replaced with a new energy-rich batch. If this could be done as quickly as refuelling a petrol or diesel car the range anxiety problem with electric cars - the worry that the battery will run out and take hours to recharge, leaving the driver stranded - will be solved at a stroke. Of course there will be a few issues to be ironed out…
Leading the Charge
Other suggestions for charging up electric cars are to do it on the move, either with rails embedded in the road surface or with induction coils underneath.
The Bigger the Battery
Battery capacity is a key issue for electric vehicles. Energy to weight and energy to volume must be maximised. In April the University of Illinois announced that it had created a lithium air battery which could hold five times more energy than a conventional lithium ion battery and had 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. Research continues.
News from Canada
A major energy story continues in Canada. Alberta has vast reserves of hydrocarbons in its tar sands and wants to export crude oil to Asia through the Port of Vancouver. Vancouver is in British Columbia, and for the moment the provincial government is blocking the construction of a new pipeline to carry the oil from Alberta to the port. There are fears of pollution and desecration of the tribal lands of indigenous people and concerns about the passage of oil tankers through the difficult channel to the sea. I strongly recommend that you go to the blog at www.sustainablefutures.report and follow the Globe and Mail link.
This is one of the best visual presentations that I’ve seen, and not only shows how the pipeline will reach the coast but highlights the risks involved in shipping the oil out.
At the moment the project seems to be stalemated, but in the light of the IPCC report we have to stop exploiting fossil fuels. Galling as it is - and highly significant for employment in Alberta - the best course for the planet must be to keep the tar sands in the ground.
22 episodes, about 70,000 words and 300 stories this year. I haven’t done them all justice, I’m afraid, but there will be another episode of the Sustainable Futures Report next week. Let me leave you with a reminder of the people I’ve interviewed this year, the books I’ve reviewed or come across and the TED talks that you really should watch.
In July I spoke to Martin Baxter of IEMA about the future of environmental regulation in the UK after Brexit. Also in July Kristina Joss, Head of Salterbaxter North America, a leading sustainability agency, spoke about aligning business goals with the SDGs. I was also interviewed on Talk Radio by Mike Graham about adapting to climate Change. I was interviewed again on Talk Radio, this time by Julia Hartley Brewer about carbon dioxide. Do you remember that back in the summer there was a shortage of CO2 which affected the brewers and the soft drinks industry? The popular query seemed to be “If there’s all that CO2 out there causing climate change, how can there be a shortage?” I tried to explain.
Hal Harvey, author of Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy, spoke to me in October. His book is available now. Something for the Christmas stocking? It was the turn of Professor Jon Gluyas of Durham University later in October to talk about carbon capture and storage.
Clive Wilson gave me an interview in September about his book, Designing the Purposeful World.
Books for your Christmas list should include
- Designing Climate Solutions: A Policy Guide for Low-Carbon Energy, by HalHarvey.
- Designing the Purposeful World by Clive Wilson
- And “A Circular Economy Handbook for Business and Supply Chains” by Catherine Weetman and published by Kogan Page.
There’s a special offer for Sustainable Futures Report listeners on Catherine’s book. Go to koganpage.com - the full link is on the blog - https://www.koganpage.com/product/supply-chains-for-a-circular-economy-9780749476755, and use the discount code CIRCULAR20 which she assures me makes it even cheaper than at Amazon.
This year I’ve also read,
- This Changes Everything and
- No is not Enough - both by Naomi Klein
- Out of the Wreckage by George Monbiot and
- Moneyland by Oliver Bullough is scary account of the world in which we now live and try and get our sustainability messages over.
If you’ve time for a TED Talk, search out Naomi Klein and Andrew Dent.
Before I close, 2018 has not been too good for VW the car company. It’s been scarred by the dieselgate scandal and then it was found that the company had been testing the effects of diesel emissions on monkeys. It stirred up a storm in Mexico, too. Apparently, Volkswagen is curbing the use of hail cannons outside its factory in Puebla, Mexico, after it was accused by local farmers of causing a drought in the region, leading to heavy losses of crops.
VW used the cannons to protect newly-built vehicles from hailstone damage. The devices emit shock waves into the sky, which are believed to prevent the chunks of ice from forming, but there’s a lack of scientific evidence that the cannons actually impact weather conditions and minimise hail, and their legitimacy has long been criticised. Still, farmers in Puebla claim that the cannons have led to a lack of much-needed rainfall. The hail cannons are “affecting the Earth’s cycles,” said Gerardo Perez, a leader of the farmers. When the devices blast away, “the sky literally clears and it simply doesn’t rain,” he said. To cover the crop losses, the farmers are demanding that Volkswagen pay nearly $4 million in compensation.
And that’s it..
…for this week, but there will be a final episode for the year next Friday 21st December when I’ll talk about the outcome of CoP24. Meanwhile, do you remember this song? I first played it in March. It’s called “Goodbye Beautiful World” but are we down hearted?
I'm Anthony Day and I'm still optimistic.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report and there'll be another next week.