Friday, October 23, 2020

Ecosystem Collapse


Hello and welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday, 23rd October. I’m Anthony Day. 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Apparently it may take 700 years to improve the nation’s housing stock (shame that the grant scheme I mentioned last time ends next March), CCS is in the news again and so are Greta Thunberg and Erin Brockovich - remember her? COVID is a disaster like we’ve never seen, but amid reports of collapsing ecosystems are we missing the big picture? There’s more extreme weather. Are you in the (hyper)loop? And watch your language. A recent article suggests our choice of words is crucial when describing the climate crisis.

Ecosystem Collapse

Ecosystem collapse - that’s a fairly stark use of language.

Insurance giant Swiss Re warned this week that one fifth of countries worldwide are at risk from ecosystem collapse as biodiversity of the world’s nations declines. 55% of global GDP depends on high-functioning Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services (BES) and major economies in Southeast Asia, Europe and the US are exposed to BES decline.

The report finds developing countries that have a heavy dependence on agricultural sectors, such as Kenya or Nigeria, are susceptible to BES shocks from a range of biodiversity and ecosystem issues.

Among G20 economies, South Africa and Australia top the rankings of fragile BES. The well-known impact of water scarcity is a driver for these countries, alongside factors such as costal protection and pollination. Brazil and Indonesia enjoy the highest percentage of intact ecosystems within the G20, however, the countries' strong economic dependency on natural resources highlights the importance of sustainable development and conservation to the long-term sustainability of their economies. At the moment the Bolsonaro government in Brazil seems to be pushing strongly in the opposite direction.

The report highlights several real-life cases of how BES impacts economies. For example, the destruction of the Aral Sea, which led to economic collapse and mass migration from the surrounding coastal area, provides an extreme illustration of how the collapse of an ecosystem can affect a local economy.  You may remember that a river was diverted in order to irrigate cotton fields. As a result the Arial Sea, previously a rich fishing ground, almost totally dried up. Other examples include the economic impacts of invasive species, nutrient run-off and algal blooms or the effects of the loss of pollinators on the agricultural sector. Global medical research is also very much at threat from the decimation of rainforests, as almost 50% of all medicines are sourced from natural resources within this habitat.

The Swiss Re BES Index provides guidance for governments. Governments must recognise the value of ongoing economic diversification combined with conservation and preservation efforts. 

UK Biodiversity

The government’s UK Biodiversity Indicators Report 2020 shows that the country is in line with international trends. 14 out of 24 indicators show long-term decline.

The government’s 2019 State of Nature report showed that in 2018/2019, government funding for UK biodiversity was 0.02% of UK gross domestic product. “One thing that jumps out is the rather worrying decline in public sector spending on biodiversity,” said Prof Richard Gregory, head of monitoring conservation science for RSPB. “With the climate and biodiversity crisis, nature-based solutions are part of what we should be doing, so it’s crazy we’re not investing in this.”

Natural England, which is sponsored by Defra, has seen its budget cut by £180m since 2008, and continued cuts are having a huge impact on the protection of habitats, conservationists warn. 

Sustainable GDP

A Guardian editorial last week included the comment, 

The UK government requires an environmental sense of purpose that specifies the appropriate ends for economic activity. The economist Kate Raworth has pointed out that a failure to do so has left a gap, which politicians fill by maximising national income. They are not obliged to ask if additional economic growth is sustainable. Governments ought to confront whether the growth of real GDP is too destabilising for global ecosystems. For decades the planetary boundary for resource use has been exceeded because conventional economics has encouraged political leaders to concentrate on goals that are largely irrelevant to human welfare.

The article continues,

Preparations for the postponed Cop26 climate summit, to be held in Glasgow, are the ideal way for Britain to take a lead in a global discussion. Boris Johnson should use the platform to frame UK policy proposals boldly in terms of their impact on people and the planet, not just the economy.

Yes, what about COP26? We’re just a couple of weeks off the original November date for the conference, now postponed for 12 months. In view of the many meetings and major conferences now going ahead online, that postponement looks shortsighted. COP26 will be the five-year review of the global nations’ progress towards the Paris agreement targets. Already the general consensus is that on present performance the targets will be widely missed. It's not as though we have plenty of time to deal with the problem. Typically such a major international conference is preceded by months of diplomatic activity led by the host country. The UK is the host this time with business secretary Alok Sharma as conference chair. Let's hope he uses the next 12 months wisely, although there’s still that rumour that former prime minister Theresa May will take over the role from him.

Meanwhile, in Other news…

Carbon Capture & Storage

Whatever we do, some parts of our economy will be burning fossil fuels and emitting GHGs and other pollutants for several years to come. If we have to use fossil fuels let’s at least try and minimise the damage. Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) has been seen as the solution for years, but like fusion energy it’s just not quite ready yet. In fact Grist reports that the International Energy Agency (IEA) has said that achieving our emissions targets will be impossible without CCS.  

In a recent deal, a consortium including Amazon and Microsoft invested in CarbonCure Technologies, a Canadian firm seeking to slash the carbon dioxide emissions of concrete. And concrete production is a very significant producer of emissions. 

CarbonCure works with nearly 300 concrete producers to inject captured CO2 into their product. The injected gas chemically transforms into limestone, reinforcing the concrete. Amazon will use the concrete in its buildings, including its vast new headquarters in Virginia.

“The funding from Amazon will be critical to rapidly scale up the solution we’ve developed,” said Christie Gamble, the director of sustainability at CarbonCure. 

Carbon capture is still in its infancy — there are only about 20 projects in commercial use worldwide, according to the IEA — but billions of dollars in investment is flowing into the sector. Microsoft has announced a “moonshot” climate plan that will involve direct air capture of CO2 and biomass energy carbon capture and storage, where wood chips are burned and the resulting carbon is injected into rock formations.

Norway is launching a full-scale carbon capture and storage project, named Longship after the Viking vessels, while a direct air capture project for the Permian Basin in the southwestern United States is doubling in size and aims to suck up 1 million tons of CO2 a year. 

Just to put things into perspective, the US Geological Survey estimates that the global emissions of energy-related carbon dioxide totalled 32.5 billion metric tons in 2017, and of course it’s risen since then.

The U.S. government is pitching in, recently awarding $72 million to two dozen different carbon capture initiatives.

Carbon capture can’t come soon enough, but there’s a long, long way to go.

Net Zero Heating

The UK Energy Research Centre has just published a briefing paper entitled “The pathway to net zero heating in the UK”. They say,

“Meeting the UK government’s net zero emissions goal for 2050 will only be possible by complete decarbonisation of the building stock (both existing and new).”

“..Almost all of the UK’s 29 million homes will require upgrading by 2050, that is about 1 million homes per year, and is equivalent to more than 19,000 homes per week. Current retrofit rates are inadequate for achieving even a significant portion of the required level of decarbonisation to meet the 2050 targets.

“The replacement of fossil fuel-based heating systems is happening at an even slower pace. In 2018 only 27,000 heat pumps were installed in the UK and the vast majority of new build homes were connected to the gas grid. As a result, the proportion of homes heated by gas is increasing.”

There was a record rise last year in the number of new gas boilers installed, showing that the UK is going in the wrong direction.

They say, “In 2018 only 27,000 heat pumps were installed in the UK and the vast majority of new build homes were connected to the gas grid. As a result, the proportion of homes heated by gas is increasing.” 

Gas is a fossil fuel, so it is essential to eliminate its use as far as possible if we are to meet our 2050 net zero targets. Heat pumps work like a fridge in reverse. Running on electricity, they extract heat from the air or from the ground and pump it into your home. If homes are built to a high insulation standard, higher than currently required, a heat pump is appropriate, but they do have disadvantages which make them unattractive in existing homes. First, they are far more expensive than gas boilers. They work at a much lower temperature than gas boilers so they are ideal for underfloor heating but radiators have to be much larger to be effective. A heat pump cannot deliver instant hot water so a hot water storage cylinder is required. The total installation will take up much more space than a gas boiler. Although these pumps are far more efficient than boilers in that they extract heat from the environment, not from the electricity that they are powered by, with electricity being more expensive than gas the running costs are likely to be similar.

The report says, “It is extremely unlikely that heat decarbonisation will be achieved without significant policy interventions.  Fundamentally it is important to recognise that the speed and scale of the required heat transformation means that relying on consumer led schemes such as the RHI and the planned Clean Heat Grant, are not sufficient. Incentives for consumers need to be part of a suite of policy measures based around skills, financial support and packages, local area-based planning approaches and cross-industry strategy will be needed.”

It’s been calculated that at current rates total decarbonisation of the UK housing stock would take 700 years, but to be fair, in last week’s interview Simon Ayers of TrustMark pointed out that government had a manifesto commitment to substantially increase investment in retrofitting insulation and the installation of heat pumps. We hope this will follow on when the Green Homes Grant scheme ends in March 2021. Apart from anything else, it will be a job-creator.

Reduce, Re-use, Recycle.

A while ago I reported that the Chief Executive of IKEA, the furniture company, predicted that we were reaching “peak stuff” and that we would stop, as consumers, just buying things and concentrate more on services. Now he's gone a step further and announced that the stores across 27 countries will start taking back their products for resale or recycling. You get a voucher to spend in the store in return, for up to 50% of the price. The scheme will be launched on Black Friday,  and the company say, “By making sustainable living more simple and accessible, Ikea hopes that the initiative will help its customers take a stand against excessive consumption this Black Friday and in the years to come.”  

The scheme is not totally simple. You start by making an online offer, and if it’s accepted you must return the item, fully assembled, to the store. Not all products qualify, although the popular Billy bookcase is specifically mentioned.

There are reports that department store John Lewis is considering a similar scheme.

Could this be the start of a true circular economy?

Clean Air

Listener James Spencer tells me about clean air in Leeds. According to transport journal Route One the city of Leeds in northern England intends to formally abandon plans for a clean air zone (CAZ).

Cllr James Lewis, LCC Deputy Leader and Executive Board member with responsibility for air quality said, “When we consulted on the CAZ in 2018, we said that we hoped that nobody would be charged because businesses would switch to less polluting vehicles before the charging system took effect. That is exactly what has happened.

“We have achieved the aims of the CAZ without having to charge a single vehicle. If Leeds were to introduce a CAZ today, only a fraction of vehicles would be affected. The vast majority of businesses are now using cleaner vehicles than they were just a few years ago.”

Besides Leeds, Bristol and Sheffield are other cities that are reconsidering their Clean Air Zone proposals after seeing major improvements in air quality through changes in travel behaviour.

Due to the centralised nature of administration in the UK, any such decision will have to be approved by the government in London.

Erin Brockovich

Do you remember Erin Brockovich? The eponymous film was based on the true story of her role in a lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric over alleged contamination of drinking water. In real life Erin Brockovich is still campaigning. According to The Hill she’s warning that America is now in a water crisis far worse than people realise.

She says, “We are in a water crisis beyond anything you can imagine. Pollution and toxins are everywhere, stemming from the hazardous wastes of industry and agriculture. We’ve got more than 40,000 chemicals on the market today with only a few hundred regulated. We’ve had industrial byproducts discarded into the ground and into our water supply for years. This crisis affects everyone – rich or poor, black or white, Republican or Democrat. Communities everywhere think they are safe when they are not.”

Her new book is called Superman’s Not Coming. Even as this new book seeks to bring attention to the quality of the US water supply, the quantity of water is dwindling as climate change causes both droughts and floods that exhaust America's infrastructure. As wildfires rage across the West Coast, the East Coast is bracing for hurricane season. And Brockovich doesn’t have much faith in the government to come to the rescue either. 

“These issues start with tiny seeds of deception that add up over months and years to become major problems. Our resources are exhausted. Corruption is rampant. Officials are trying to cover their tracks. People are not putting the pieces together when it comes to the severity of this crisis. I’ve got senators and doctors calling me, asking me what to do,” she says. 

She’s created a Community Healthbook to allow individuals and community groups to "report and review health related concerns and community environmental issues by geographic area and health related topic.”

It’s a community-led initiative. Find it at where you can see some graphic pictures of dirty water. At the moment it’s exclusively for the US, but maybe it’s an initiative worth copying in other countries. 

Greta Thunberg

Another big name in the news - when is it not? – is Greta Thunberg. There’s a new film out about her - I am Greta. I don’t know where you can watch it given that cinemas are all closing, but there’s a link to the official trailer below.


Smart Cities World reports that Virgin Hyperloop has picked West Virginia for a futuristic transport test centre. The company claims reports That the Hyperloop Certification Centre will create an entirely new ecosystem, creating thousands of new jobs across construction, manufacturing, operations, and high-tech sectors.

“As we look to emerge from the Covid-19 crisis, it’s clear that we need a 21st century solution that will propel us forward, allowing us to not just rebuild, but actually evolve,” said Jay Walder, CEO of Virgin Hyperloop.

If you remember, hyperloop is a high-speed passenger transportation system which sends vehicles along tubes at extremely high speeds. Powered and suspended by magnetic induction, the cars, or pods, don't touch the sides. It’s an idea suggested by Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX, and his original design envisaged a speed of 760mph which would give journey times of 35 minutes for Los Angeles to the San Francisco Bay Area or 18 minutes for London to Manchester. A 2017 article in Metro reported a contract for a 90-mile hyperloop from Dubai to the capital of the UAE which would be complete by 2020. It appears that the project is still live but no date for completion is currently available.

I feel bound to ask who is hyperloop for and what is it for? Answers on a postcard, please. Or send me an email if you can explain why a hyperloop is a good idea. Or HS2, for that matter. Even if there’s a logical justification for them - which I doubt - should we be giving such projects priority in this time of climate emergency?

Extreme Weather

We’re warned that extreme weather is a consequence of the climate crisis. True to form, and on the heels of a succession of hottest years on record we now come to the the wettest day on record. According to the Met Office, Saturday 3 October was the wettest day for UK-wide rainfall since records began in 1891. The downpour followed in the wake of Storm Alex and saw an average of 31.7mm (1.24ins) of rain across the entire UK.

The total amount of water was enough to exceed the capacity of Loch Ness - the largest lake in the UK by volume. Fortunately there were no reports of fatalities. When Storm Alex hit parts of Italy and France a number of people lost their lives.

And Finally…

Watch your Language

Writing on Tabitha Whiting urges us to be careful with our choice of words when discussing climate issues. “Change” is the first one she picks on. It’s too neutral and insubstantial. Trouble is that alternatives like “crisis” and “emergency” suggest short term problems that can be quickly overcome. Over-using them dulls their power.

Avoid talking about believing in climate change, she advises. Belief implies the possibility of debate and disbelief, but the climate crisis is a scientific fact. Then there are goals, like the Paris Agreement goals. They’re too impersonal. Look instead at the human consequences of failing to meet those goals.

Fighting climate change? Well it’s a fight we’ve picked ourselves. We are the ones who have destabilised the climate with our massive emissions. If we stop that, the climate will stop defending itself. Eventually.

Finally “neutral” as in “carbon neutral”. She describes it as a classic greenwashing term. Organisations from supermarkets to governments claim to be at or on the way to carbon neutrality. That may only mean that they are emitting at the same level as they have always done, but now they are buying offsets. I’ve discussed offsets extensively in the past and I have to agree with Tabitha Whiting that we’re deluding ourselves if we really believe that offsets are the answer. The science on that point certainly leaves plenty of scope for disbelief in the effectiveness of offsets.

And that’s it…

…for another week.

Thank you for listening, thank you for being a patron, if you are, and thank you for sharing ideas. Keep them coming.

There will be another Sustainable Futures Report next week. Keep safe and well until then.

I’m Anthony Day.

That was the Sustainable Futures Report.

Until next time.




Clean Air

Zero Emissions Homes

Ecosystem Collapse

Fifth of countries at risk of ecosystem collapse, analysis finds 

UK on course to miss most biodiversity targets

Boris Johnson's Cop26: ask if GDP growth is sustainable

Erin Brockovich 




Extreme weather: October downpour sees UK's wettest day on record

And Finally…


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