Here we are back again - finally.
Yes it's Friday. It's 2nd February and here is the first episode of the Sustainable Futures Report for 2018.
I'm Anthony Day.
Welcome to my podcast, welcome to my patrons, and a special welcome to Catherine Weetman of Rethink Solutions, my latest patron. Thanks for your support, Catherine.
As promised, this episode will be my manifesto for the coming year. I've been away and we've had a bit of a family crisis since I got back–largely now resolved–hence the delay in getting back into the routine.
While I've been away I've been reading. I've read Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything followed by her latest: No Is Not Enough. I've read George Monbiot’s Out of the Wreckage and I picked up Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury to read on the plane. Plenty of food for thought.
In the News - Climate Change
First, let's look at some of the news stories which have come up since I last spoke to you. Last week I was asked to do a interview for Talk radio. They wanted to know about the new report which indicated that the effect of man-made climate change would not be as bad as expected. I tracked it down to a report in the journal Nature by a team from Exeter University. What they had actually said was that they thought that apocalyptic climate change which might occur as a result of 6°C warning had a less than 1% chance of actually happening. In fact anything over 4.5 degrees was extremely unlikely. They concluded that there was a 66% chance of warming falling in the range of 2.2° to 3.4°, with the most likely outcome of 2.8°. While they said that the ultimate worst-case scenario was extremely unlikely they reminded us that the Paris Agreement target was 2°, and anything above 1.5° was considered dangerous. So their work certainly didn't mean that we could slow down our efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
Drought in Cape Town
When we got to the interview, which was with Eamon Holmes on his Drivetime show, he wanted to talk about the difference between apocalyptic and dangerous climate change and then moved on to ask me about the drought in Cape Town, South Africa. As it happened I had not heard about the drought at that stage, so could not offer any detailed insights beyond suggesting that they should use solar power to run desalination plants, tell everyone to use as little water as possible and ultimately distribute water only from tankers or standpipes in the street. I've since done my research and the situation in Cape Town looks pretty desperate. Apparently they have had two years of drought and the reservoirs are down to less than 30% of capacity. The city authorities first said that the taps would run dry on 21st April but they are now saying that this will happen on 12th April. They have lowered water pressure and cut off water altogether at certain times. People have been told to use not more than 87 litres of water per day, shortly to be reduced to 50 L. They have been asked to spend not more than two minutes in the shower. Not many people are taking any notice. Desalination plants are under construction. I'm told they will take two months to complete but that sounds extremely quick to me. People are stockpiling fresh water. Warehouses full of plastic water carriers are selling out daily. They are preparing for a black market in water as things get worse. It will be interesting to see if the authorities can deliver the remaining water fairly across all areas of the city, and avoid unrest and violence.
It’s currently high summer in Cape Town and the average rainfall in February is 20mm or less than an inch, climbing to 100mm, about 4 inches, in July. That gives an annual total of 780mm or 31 inches. Compare that with Sydney, Australia, another coastal city on the same latitude as Cape Town. There they expect an average of 126mm in February, with a peak of 140mm or 5.5 inches in June, but the average total for the year is 1300mm, 51 inches, nearly twice as much. Strangely Manchester in the UK - famous for rain - only gets 34 inches (870mm) while London gets just 22 inches, (560mm) https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/public/weather/climate/gcpvj0v07 , which is less than Cape Town gets. Maybe it’s the fact that temperatures are so much lower and evaporation is less that makes droughts less frequent and less severe in the UK.
That’s the vagaries of climate, but we’re now witnessing the vagaries of climate change. Cape Town is the first major city in the world to face catastrophic drought. The fear is that it will not be the last.
And meanwhile Paris in France faces floods.
Blue Planet ll, David Attenborough's latest documentary, was the most watched programme of 2017 in the UK. In particular, the final episode which showed how discarded plastic was causing havoc to marine life has caught the public imagination. There are calls for an end to plastic packaging or even to ban the sale of water in plastic bottles. The UK bottled water market, including glass bottles, is worth £2.4 billion.
A new initiative was announced last week by the Water Council - a network of shops of all types where you can refill your water bottle free of charge. Actually it’s not new at all - regular listeners to the Sustainable Futures Report will remember that I reported on this in July. There’s an app which shows where your nearest refill point can be found. Just search for Refill. I understand that Starbucks, Costa and Premier Inns have agreed to be part of the network, although their locations don’t yet appear on the app. They should have a sticker in the window, though.
Some consumers have written to the media to say how they are unwrapping their purchases at the supermarket and leaving the wrapping behind for the supermarket to deal with. Yes, something must be done, but like with most sustainability issues the solution isn't that simple. Plastic packaging is attractive to manufacturers and distributors because it is cheap, it is light, it can be transparent, it is waterproof, hygienic and reduces waste by protecting the product from damage in transit. It’s possible to print on plastic, so there’s no need for an additional paper label to show the product description or instructions for use. Some people claim that paper should be used instead, but it’s not as versatile as plastic. It’s not transparent, it collapses when wet and can be less hygienic. And while paper can be recycled, both the production and the recycling processes involve large amounts of water and harsh chemicals. At least much more paper than plastic is recycled. In the UK plastic recycling varies from town to town, and much plastic that could be recycled goes to landfill or incineration.
A Cunning Plan
We’ve recently seen the publication of the DEFRA 25-year plan, which has been promised for at least the last two years. That’s the UK’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
It’s a very wide-ranging document with lots of good ideas for clean air, clean water, protecting plants and wildlife, dealing with climate change and reducing pollution and waste. There’s a plan to plant a new Northern Forest across the width of England. We'd prefer an upgraded railway, but that's another story. Yet another story is the high-speed rail link HS2, which will apparently destroy some 30 ancient woodlands along its route, but that’s for another day.
Commentators were quick to point out that no legislation to make all the good things in the DEFRA plan happen was announced. Launching the report, the prime minister said the government was committed to working to a target of eliminating avoidable plastic waste by end of 2042. Avoidable is a bit of a weasel word. She said that the 5p surcharge for plastic bags would be extended to all shops, not just the large ones, and the government would work with supermarkets to introduce a plastic-free aisle. Frozen food supermarket Iceland said it would eliminate plastic packaging from its own-brand product range by 2023.
Small not necessarily Beautiful
The public is most aware of the plastic which litters the beaches and the ropes and nets and bottles which ensnare the fish and the turtles and the dolphins and the seals, and the plastic drinking straws which impale them. Plastic is an unseen killer as well. It can exist as micro-particles from detergents and cosmetics or it can break down into micro-particles from larger plastic fragments. These particles are absorbed by fish and sea creatures, displacing their food and poisoning them. Particles can float on the surface of the sea, absorbing other pollutants, and then they can sink down into the ocean carrying poisons to levels where they never normally penetrate. Even if we stop plastic pollution now, as we must, this pollution will remain for decades to come.
One source of pollution that we hardly ever think about is tyres. Tyres wear over time and it’s estimated that some 600,000 tonnes of tyre dust are shed by motor vehicles in the US alone. That dust is washed into the gutters, into streams and eventually into the oceans. What’s the solution? Well there are other materials that could be used, but they are, unsurprisingly, more expensive. And a tyre is a highly complex product. It needs to provide grip for braking and steering in all weathers, its design will directly affect fuel consumption and its design will also affect noise levels. In these days of ultra-quiet engines, most vehicle noise comes from the tyres. It’s a tall order for a material to meet all these requirements, be affordable and be environmentally friendly as well. Another difficult problem, but one we must solve.
VW Shoots Other Foot
Of course cars in general are a major source of CO2 and other pollution. However Volkswagen have attempted to rebuild their reputation by carrying out tests which involved exposing monkeys in sealed cages to diesel fumes. BMW and Daimler were involved as well. That went down well in the press.
But don’t worry about cars. An academic paper now claims that microwave ovens could be just as bad. The study, carried out at Manchester University, used life cycle assessment (LCA) to estimate the impacts of microwaves, taking into account their manufacture, use and end-of-life waste management. Altogether, the research team investigated 12 different environmental factors, including climate change, depletion of natural resources and ecological toxicity. They found, for example, that the microwaves used across the EU emit 7.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year. This is equivalent to the annual emission of 6.8 million cars. This will be linked partly to the electricity used by the ovens and partly to the energy consumed in the manufacturing and distribution process. Another important factor was that microwave ovens are frequently discarded long before the end of their useful lives. Consumers may just want a new one to match a new kitchen, or one with more functions.
Researchers are now planning to extend their work to examine other white goods like fridges and washing machines.
But there’s more! Apparently sandwiches are a serious source of pollution. Yes, it’s those people at Manchester University again. Professor Adisa Azapagic, from the university’s School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Sciences, said: ‘Consuming 11.5 billion sandwiches annually in the UK generates, on average, 9.5 million tonnes of CO2 eq, equivalent to the annual use of 8.6 million cars.’ Writing in the journal Sustainable Production and Consumption, the team said: ‘The estimated impact from ready-made sandwiches ranges from 739g CO2 eq for egg & cress to 1,441g CO2 eq for the bacon, sausage & egg option.’ Ready-made all-day breakfast sandwiches are the worst offenders. Sandwiches loaded with eggs, bacon and sausages have the highest carbon footprint of the meal deal world – generating 1,441 grams of CO2 eq. That’s the same amount of pollution that would be produced by driving a small car for 12 miles.
And somebody’s just discovered that there’s plastic in teabags!
The trouble with these scary headlines is that they just make people want to switch off. Should I stop driving? Stop making my healthy porridge in the microwave? Stop eating shop-bought sandwiches? Stop drinking tea? It’s all too hard.
It’s more than tempting for the average consumer to say, “Let’s just assume that the scientists have got it wrong and carry on as normal. After all, my one sandwich can’t make a difference, can it? And I don’t drive an awful lot.” And look at the Australians. (I was there last month.) They put plastic straws in every drink, their supermarkets put your shopping in plastic bags without a thought or a surcharge and with petrol at the equivalent of 85p per litre they all drive really big cars. Having said that, I did visit an open-air food market in Fremantle, which had the stated objective of avoiding all plastic. My meal came on a cardboard tray with wooden cutlery and my coffee in a recyclable cup. Have a look at biopak.com.au
Maybe the responsible approach is to start from the opposite direction. Instead of cutting out cars, microwaves, teabags and sandwiches, analyse your carbon footprint. How is your personal carbon footprint built up? How can you modify your lifestyle to reduce it? Of course there are multiple ways of measuring carbon footprints. It’s time for an international standard. Should you consider carbon offsets? Patron Catherine Weetman draws my attention to Cool Effect Carbon Credits. There’s a link on the blog. On that page there’s a number of articles, including a justification for carbon offsets. Personally I’m not convinced. What do you think?
Catherine has sent me a lot more links for carbon footprinting. I’ll report on them in a future episode.
Winning the Carbon War
I heard from Jeremy Leggett last week. jeremyleggett.net He says: ‘In a report entitled "Climate Change and The Insurance Industry", Lloyd's of London was advised as follows in February 1993: “It would behove the industry to look very closely at where all capital is invested. Fossil-fuel-related operations should be eschewed, and solar energy and energy-efficiency projects favoured.” ‘I remember that well,’ says Jeremy, ‘I wrote the report, and presented it at Lloyd's, before a large audience of worried-looking reinsurers.’
That was 1993.
On 21st January 2018 Lloyd's finally decided to divest from coal, the most dangerous fossil fuel in terms of climate change.
‘An issue arises here,’ says Jeremy, ‘By delaying a quarter of a century enacting what is surely such an obvious self-protection measure, how much damage has Lloyd's done to investors who have placed their trust in them, in the interim, when it comes to weather-related disasters?’
More on Solar
If you’re interested in solar energy there’s a TED Talk you should see. Search for Amar Inamdar, or find the full link here:
Where I go from Here
I promised you my manifesto. As I said to start with, I’ve read a number of important books over the last few weeks and they have influenced my thinking. No time to review them in detail here: I'll aim to do that next time. The overall message is that climate change is increasingly urgent and therefore it is urgent that we find ways of influencing our governments, our leaders and global corporations. I make no apology if future episodes of the Sustainable Futures Report have a more overt political tone.
I’m just about to start researching for a Phd at Leeds Beckett University. It will take me 4 or 5 years. The actual topic of the thesis will be refined over the initial six months or so, but my objective is to examine why the denialists with their fantasies get much more attention from governments and policy-makers and the public than do scientists with their peer-reviewed research. I hope I shall be able to find a way of doing something about that and I hope I shall be able to do it before it's too late.
The other thing which is taking much of my time at the moment is the Smart Sustainable Cities Convention, which will take place in Leeds, UK, on 21st March 2019. I'm the director, so my initial task is to recruit sponsors–going well so far–and then to invite speakers and facilitators. Then I need to attract the delegates. I shall be marketing the event across the whole of Europe. Don't worry, we won't be leaving the EU until the week after the convention. The intention is that this event will be held annually in different cities across Europe, but for the moment I'm concentrating on this first event in Leeds. You can find more information on the website which is at sscc19.com.
With all these things going on I'm having to take hard decisions about the Sustainable Futures Report. Initially at least I will be reducing the frequency to one episode per month. So the next edition will be on Friday, 2nd March. In between the monthly episodes I may have items from other speakers, so if you have a message to share please send me a 100 word summary of what you'd like to talk about and we'll discuss it. If we agree, you can then either send me an audio file that I can publish, or a script which I can read and record. Give it some thought. My aim is to please my listeners. After all if I don’t, everyone will stop listening.
Bye for Now
And this is where I stop this episode. Thank you for listening (reading) and if you are, thank you for being a patron. And if you're not you can join this exclusive band by going to patreon.com/sfr and signing up to contribute anything from $1 per month towards my expenses in publishing and hosting the Sustainable Futures Report, like Catherine and all the others did. (Sorry it’s not in £ sterling, but it’s an American site)
I’m Anthony Day.
I'll be back on 2nd March. Maybe before.
Have a great February
Bye for now.