World Environment Day
It’s Friday 5th June - World Environment Day. I’m Anthony Day and in this episode of the Sustainable Futures Report I look at new transport initiatives and ask if they are just flights of fancy, I investigate whether a proposed recycling initiative is merely greenwash and I look again at possible directions for post-COVID recovery. I’m British, so I’ll be talking about the weather and finally, keeping the lights on has never been more challenging. I listened to a panel of experts this week talking about Grid Flexibility.
But first, as I said, 5th June is World Environment Day. It’s an initiative of the UN Environment Programme and has been established since 1974.
The message on the website is:
The foods we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the climate that makes our planet habitable all come from nature.
Yet, these are exceptional times in which nature is sending us a message:
To care for ourselves we must care for nature.
It’s time to wake up. To take notice. To raise our voices.
It’s time to build back better for People and Planet.
This World Environment Day, it’s Time for Nature.
There’s nothing particularly special announced for today, but the website shows lists of events, projects and initiatives going on all the time all over the world. That clearly makes sense: we can’t afford to think about the environment just for a day and forget it for the other 364. Sign up now for the Wild Earth Live Safari from Africa, for the Time for Nature webinar or the World Environment Day Festival. That’s just a very small selection of events going on both before and after World Environment Day. There’s a link to the full schedule on the blog.
Do you remember that when Apple launched the iPad you could have something engraved on the back at no extra cost? Mine says, “Take care of the planet. It’s all we’ve got.”
Sixth Mass Extinction
Are we taking care? Worrying news this week from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the US. The article by Ceballos, Erlich and Raven opens with this statement:
The ongoing sixth mass extinction may be the most serious environmental threat to the persistence of civilization, because it is irreversible. Thousands of populations of critically endangered vertebrate animal species have been lost in a century, indicating that the sixth mass extinction is human caused and accelerating. The acceleration of the extinction crisis is certain because of the still fast growth in human numbers and consumption rates. In addition, species are links in ecosystems, and, as they fall out, the species they interact with are likely to go also. In the regions where disappearing species are concentrated, regional biodiversity collapses are likely occurring. Our results reemphasize the extreme urgency of taking massive global actions to save humanity’s crucial life-support systems.
“When humanity exterminates other creatures, it is sawing off the limb on which it is sitting, destroying working parts of our own life-support system,” said Prof Paul Ehrlich, of Stanford University in the US, and one of the research team. “The conservation of endangered species should be elevated to a global emergency for governments and institutions, equal to the climate disruption to which it is linked.”
Last January I interviewed Chris Thomas for the Sustainable Futures Report. He’s an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of York, a Fellow of the Royal Society and author of Inheritors of the Earth, How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction.
We are causing a higher rate of extinction than is normal in the geological past, and if we were to maintain the current rates of extinction for another 10,000 years let us say to one order of magnitude, then we would indeed get up to the sorts of levels that have been seen in the great mass extinctions of the past. But we're not about to hit one of the so-called Big Five and become the big sixth, not instantly at least, because those are defined by 75% or more of all species going extinct, and we're not there and the rate of current extinction is taking us there on the timescale of millennia, not decades.
I’m going to contact him for comment.
It’s interesting, by the way, that in the very last part of the interview he said:
“…if you could imagine we got one of these diseases that our bodies can't cope with like HIV or Ebola and it had the transmissibility of measles, then we would really be in a challenging global situation…”
Let’s Talk About Transport
The current pandemic does not seem to have dampened enthusiasm for new forms of transport. I understand that works continue on HS2, the UK’s high speed railway line, although the need for crossing the country at high speed or indeed the demand for being able to do so must now be in serious doubt. But then, who would go on HS2 if the alternative was to take the Hyperloop? Smart Cities World reports that Spanish company Zeleros has complete a €7m funding round to support development of the hyperloop in Europe. I think Hyperloop was originally an idea of Elon Musk - CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Cars. It’s an evacuated tube and vehicles fly along inside it without touching the sides, driven by magnetic induction. It means that speeds of up to 1,000kph will be achieved, more than twice the design speed of HS2. Paris to Berlin will take just 90 minutes, only an hour from Lisbon to Madrid or Rome to Nice or even less than that for London to Edinburgh. The cost of building the tube must surely be enormous and how much electricity will it take to make it work? And how many people will it take? And what about two-way working - does that mean two tubes or will there be passing loops? And even 1000kph is nowhere near as fast as Zoom or Skype or email.
Meanwhile, I reported in the past about lilium.com and their electric flying taxi. “Enabling a world where anyone can fly, anywhere, anytime.” They’re still working on it.
And The Guardian reports that the world’s largest all-electric aircraft is set for its first flight. Unlike the lilium, which carries only 4 passengers and a pilot, the Electric version of the Cessna Caravan will seat nine. Still some way to go, I think.
I firmly believe that after the end of lockdown the UK government needs to spend widely to restart the economy, but should spend on essential infrastructure, on restoring care facilities and services, on community centres and libraries, on transport facilities to meet changing work and leisure patterns, on research to develop new industries and employment and protect the nation from the risks of relying on far distant suppliers for critical goods in times such as the present pandemic. We need of course to invest in green solutions, to expand existing solar and wind production, to develop a smart grid and insulate the nation’s housing stock so we don’t continue to waste vast amounts of energy. We need to reassess land management and agricultural production - something we can of course do unilaterally now we have left the EU. And I believe everyone should receive a universal basic income (UBI), from birth, but that is a debate for another day. You’ll find a link on the blog to an article about a potential UBI in Spain.
This is not the time for vast expenditure on Hyperloops, HS2 or electric air taxis which will serve only a very small number of very wealthy people, if they work at all.
There’s news on the recycling front. Carlsberg and Coca-Cola are evaluating a new plastic bottle made from plant sugars instead of fossil fuels. The new material has the advantage that not only can it be recycled, it will biodegrade in a year or so. By contrast, if it’s not been burnt every bit of fossil-fuel plastic that was ever made is still somewhere on land or at sea.
In time Avantium, developer of the new material, plans to use plant sugars from sustainable sourced biowaste so that the rise of plant plastic does not affect the global food supply chain.
Kenya’s fight against pollution began on 28 August 2017, threatening up to four years’ imprisonment or fines of $40,000 (£31,000) for anyone producing, selling – or even just carrying – a plastic bag.
A year later the authorities claimed victory – and other east African nations Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and South Sudan were considering following suit.
“The streets are cleaner, waterways are less obstructed and fishermen find fewer bags in their nets,” said locals. Abattoirs were finding far less plastic in slaughtered animals. Some traders grumbled because fabric or paper bags were much more expensive, but police strictly enforced the law.
Three years on the policy is still in force although plastic bags are smuggled in from neighbouring countries. Polypropylene sacks were introduced and then banned, but the ban has been overturned after legal action against the government. Low grade polypropylene which cannot be recycled is becoming a problem.
A single use plastics ban that will be in effect in all Kenya’s protected areas including its beaches, national parks, conservation areas, and forests takes effect today, World Environment Day. This broadens the scope of the regulations from plastic bags to plastic bottles and anything else designed for single use.
“This comes at a time when we see an increase in single-use plastic products, and the ban will go a long way in encouraging the adoption of the refuse, rethink, remanufacture, recycle, and recover model of production,” noted Sustainable Inclusive Business Director Karin Boomsma.
You could argue that scrappage, paying an allowance for a car that’s traded in for scrap on the purchase of a new one, is a form of recycling. I fear it can also be a form of greenwash. The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) has held talks with the government over a possible £1.5bn scrappage scheme, to reduce the price of vehicles and drive sales after the lockdown. It might make sense if the scheme encouraged the purchase of electric cars, but industry is insisting that it should apply equally to the purchase of petrol and diesel cars as well.
Over the 10 years or so since British chancellors stopped increasing fuel duty in line with the cost of living the CO2 emissions from new cars have steadily been rising. And of course some have been rapidly rising, obscured by the VW scandal. Does it make sense to subsidise the production of such cars? Does it make sense to subsidise the production of any cars? “Absolutely!”, the industry will cry, citing the jobs involved the manufacturing, the supply chain and the dealerships - and the taxes paid on profits, on cars sold and on fuel. But the industry has been producing quality products for years now, and yet encourages us to buy a new car every two or three years and accepts that the average car will be scrapped at about 7 years, long before its useful life is over. While petrol and diesel cars create emissions in use, there is a tremendous carbon footprint in manufacturing a new one as well. The longer you keep it, the lower the average annual impact.
If we are to have scrappage I would base it on two factors: the emissions of the car to be scrapped and the emissions of the car to be bought. The dirtier the car you scrap and the cleaner the car you buy the more you get. Simple!
As we wait for economic recovery as lockdown ends, the EU claims that its recovery plans will not prejudice its climate change goals. The commission argues it can raise €150bn in public and private money, up from a pre-crisis goal of €100bn, to help fund greener transport, cleaner industry and renovated homes. At the heart of the plan, the EU proposes to more than quadruple to €40bn a “just transition fund” aimed at moving coal-dependent regions away from fossil fuels.
Peter Colville is an activist and blogger who publishes under the title of The Unfinished Revolution. His latest article is headed “Krisis - a manifesto for the future,” was sent as a letter to the Observer newspaper and signed by some 50 or 60 academics, activists, artists, journalists and business people.
“We, the undersigned, believe, firstly, that the Covid-19 pandemic highlights the importance of building a united, caring and resilient society, and secondly, that we must use the recovery to invest in preventing what could be an even greater disaster for humanity – a full-blown climate and ecological crisis – while there is still time.”
- The key stages they lay out are:
- Recognise the value of care
- Accept that we really are all in this together
- Tackle the climate and ecological emergency
- Learn from the past
- Prepare for the future
Build Back Better is a phrase on many people’s lips and websites. "Build Back Better" was firstly defined and used officially in the UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030.
The World Resources Institute says, “To build back better, countries must harness low-carbon investment opportunities to reboot economies while reducing the greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution that jeopardize lives. It means pulling people out of poverty and creating more jobs. And it means fostering resilience to future shocks like disease outbreaks and the impacts of climate change.”
We Mean Business is a global nonprofit coalition working with the world’s most influential businesses to take action on climate change. They say, “Together we catalyze business leadership to drive policy ambition and accelerate the transition to a zero-carbon economy.”
Under the heading of Build Back Better they claim that 1,282 companies with a combined market capitalisation of $24.8trn are committed to bold climate action through their partners’ initiatives.
There’s clearly appetite for change after the pandemic, but will there be consensus, will there be some sort of coordination, or will we sit around and talk about it while the politicians slide back to more of the same and business as usual?
Meanwhile the IMF warns that markets are not paying attention to the climate crisis.
“Equity markets have generally ignored the increasing number of natural disasters over the past 50 years and tougher rules are needed to make investors aware of the dangers posed by the climate crisis.
“Companies should be forced to disclose their exposure to climate risk because a voluntary approach does not go far enough.”
Let’s Talk about the Weather
It’s a bit cooler today, but the UK had a record 266 hours of sunshine in May, following record rainfall in February. Such extremes are not typical of British weather. The previous record for sunshine for March to May was 555 hours. This year we had 626. The causes of this are puzzling the meteorologists. It could be something to do with climate change, although on its own it cannot prove or disprove anything. However it seems to be reinforcing a trend towards increasingly warm and unpredictable weather.
Back on 2nd June 1975 snow an inch thick stopped cricket. And then on 6th June a heatwave started. Only in England.
Last week I was a bit dismissive about a report from Australia. “Australia’s electricity grid operator,” I reported, “wants the power to remotely switch off or constrain the output of new rooftop solar systems, as it finds ways to manage South Australia's world-leading levels of "invisible and uncontrolled" solar output.” I commented, “No doubt balancing the grid will be a challenge, but surely the more urgent challenge is reducing emissions from power generation.”
This week Climate Action presented a webinar entitled “Grid Flexibility: How can we make our grids more flexible to cope with the net-zero transition?”, which made it clear just how difficult the problem is. The event was moderated by Roland Roesch, of the Innovation and Technology Centre at IRENA, the International Renewable Energy Agency, with panellists Stathis Mokkas, Energy Markets Lead at UK Power Networks, Carolina Tortora, Head of Innovation at National Grid ESO and Richard Sarti, Director of Marketing and Sales at NODES AS. There’s a link on the blog to the recording of the webinar.
Roland Roesch started by reminding us that the management of energy, both supply and demand, and the minimising of emissions from electricity generation were crucial to meeting the targets in the Paris Agreement. The increasing proportion of electricity coming from renewables challenged the whole distribution system.
There is a statutory duty to maintain the voltage and keep the frequency of the supply within narrow limits around 50Hz. The speakers described how the National Grid, the backbone of electricity distribution, was designed at a time when all energy was generated at major plants connected to the grid. In the control room operators could see the coal, nuclear and gas-fired stations and some hydro and pumped storage. They could see how each station was operating, they could talk to each station and they could plan days, weeks or months ahead, or contact them immediately if they had an unexpected surplus or shortfall. Now that we have an increasing proportion of renewable generation, much of it is not connected to the National Grid but is linked to the local distribution networks. This means that the grid controllers cannot see individual generators and cannot control them. They can only deduce their effect from fluctuations in demand from the local networks.
In the past, forecasting demand has been better than 95% accurate, but the landscape is changing rapidly and fundamentally. The grid must be rebuilt to take account of these changes, and one speaker said it was like rebuilding a ship while at sea. The objective is to make the grid net zero by 2050 and carbon free by 2025. Carbon free means no back-up from gas or coal stations even in emergencies and including the ability to achieve a black start - restarting from a total blackout - from clean energy sources alone. This presumably includes nuclear power.
The objective is to achieve flexibility with minimal investment by making the most efficient use possible of existing assets, smarter grids and intelligent markets. Already artificial intelligence is being used and the potential of introducing blockchain is under study. Changes like the transfer to electric cars are built into the models. For example, to replace the whole of the UK vehicle fleet with electrics could put an additional demand of 5GW to 20GW on to the system. By comparison, the English city of Oxford, with a population of 155,000, has an electricity demand of 500MW. On the other hand, smart vehicles and smart chargers could permit the vehicle batteries to be used as short-term backup to the grid.
Complicated stuff, and I begin to have more sympathy with the people in Australia who want to slow down the use of solar PV. There’s no doubt that there is a tremendous amount of expertise working behind the scenes on these challenges.
Just think of that next time you turn on the light.
There was a lot more in the webinar and there’s a link to the recording on the blog. And for a near real-time view of how the UK National Grid is running go to
If you look at that site you’ll probably see that we’re using no coal in our generation mix. I believe we used none at all for generating electricity in May. Hardly surprising then that one of Britain’s last remaining coalmine operators, Hargreaves, will put an end to all mining operations from next month because, they say, it is clear that coal has “a limited future” in the UK.
The end of Hargreaves coalmining business is likely to raise fresh doubts over plans put forward by the Banks Group, another Durham-based infrastructure firm, to develop the UK’s largest opencast mine to serve Britain’s steel and cement sector. The government is still to rule on that.
And that’s it…
…for another week. I’m afraid you only got one episode this week. And if you liked it, please tell your friends and post your thoughts on social media. If you didn’t, please tell me. And if you really, really liked it why not become a patron? Why not become my first $50/month patron? Well I can dream. From $1 per month you can help me cover the costs of hosting the Sustainable Futures Report and getting the interviews transcribed. Full details are at www.patreon.com/sfr. I’m always keen to hear from you and hear your ideas for the podcast. Contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
I’m sure I’ll find something to talk about next week.
World Environment Day 2020
Sixth mass extinction of wildlife accelerating, scientists warn
World’s largest all-electric aircraft set for first flight
Spain rekindles a radical idea: a Europe-wide minimum income
Eight months on, is the world's most drastic plastic bag ban working?
Build back better
EU pledges coronavirus recovery plan will not harm climate goals
Markets not paying attention to climate crisis, IMF says
Freak snow stopped cricket on 2 June 1975
UK coalmines operator Hargreaves Services to end mining next month
UK Grid Performance