Accentuate the Positive
Hello and welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report. I’m Anthony Day and it’s Friday 14th February.
It’s time to accentuate the positive - to explain to people what’s good about tackling climate change rather than frightening and depressing them with speculation about what could go wrong. This week I’m also talking about COP26, about HS2 and about nuclear options suggested by Bill Gates and Rolls-Royce.
But first, last time I introduced Victoria, our latest patron, whose objective this year is to reduce her carbon footprint by 45%
“The plan is to assess and reduce my footprint over the course of the year, looking at each are of life / consumption over the 12 month period, aiming to reduce each area by 45% each month.
The January challenge has been food. Last year my footprint was 1.37 tonnes CO2e. This month I took time to research the farms and supply chains available to me locally and their emissions impact.
As a result, I committed to buying local & seasonal veg (with any further supplement fruit from Spain via truck) through Riverford Organic, who have a farm relatively local to me and have a detailed and commendable carbon reduction policy themselves. Our Dry goods now come from the local refill shop, who buy from Suma wholesales, ranked 4th on Ethical consumer magazine for most ethical supermarket / wholesalers.
We have found a UK pulses and grains supplier, ‘Hodmedods’ who are also soil association accredited.
“The biggest change for us has been transitioning to a vegan diet. Previously, we would buy local and ‘pasture fed’ meat & dairy as much as possible. However, after reading the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN) report ‘Grazed and Confused?’ I concluded that I can not justify consuming ruminant products if I care about atmospheric GHG concentrations. Have you read it? It is a very detailed study about the offset potential through soil carbon sequestration of ruminants vs their emissions.
We still buy eggs (from local farms with U.K. grain feed!) and occasional meat and milk for our toddler.
If we maintain these changes, my footprint this year for food will be approx 0.29, a whole tonne saved!
Importantly, our food budget has not changed much as a result of these consumption changes. Mainly because I am at home so can cook from scratch, we are not eating meat, and we eat out less.
The next categories will be: travel, energy, clothing, cleaning & beauty products, other consumption, home renovation, community projects, political lobbying, plastics, rewilding / biodiversity support, offsets.”
“Do you have anyone in your network working with communities or on community decarbonisation projects? I am trying to start something in my village!”
Is there anyone out there who can help? Contact me via email@example.com and I’ll pass it on.
The report from the Food Climate Research Network that Victoria mentions is indeed very detailed and worth a read. There’s a link to it - to the suppliers she mentions and to all my other sources - on the blog at www.sustainablefutures.report. However, the Sustainable Food Trust, while agreeing with much of the report, firmly rejects its conclusions. It says, “The only practical way to produce human-edible food from grassland without releasing large amounts of carbon to the atmosphere is to graze it with ruminants, and with the increasing global population it would be highly irresponsible to stop producing meat, milk and animal fats from grassland, since this would cause even more rainforest to be destroyed to produce soyabean oil and meal, as well as palm oil.”
The debate deserves more attention, and I’ll look at this for a future episode.
“There is no planet B” by Mike Berners-Lee looks at the impact of food production on the planet and suggests how our behaviour can determine the impact that we have on carbon emissions. His book looks at energy, biodiversity, plastics and other challenges in equal detail. I reviewed this book a while ago, but very much in haste without having read it properly. I plan to put that right too, in a future episode.
COP26 is the next United Nations conference on climate change, which will take place in Glasgow in November. It’s been called the most important COP yet, just as COP25, 24, 23 and all the rest were described. To be fair, that’s an oversimplification because COP26 is the event, five years after the Paris Agreement, where the 190-plus countries that signed the agreement pledge their future actions to control emissions. At Paris the target was to hold global temperature increases to 2℃, although it was estimated that the pledges made would only hold them back to about 3.5℃. Since then scientists have decided that the increase should be no more than 1.5℃. Since then President Trump has withdrawn the US from the Paris Agreement claiming that it acts against American interests. Coincidentally US emissions fell by about 2% in 2019, largely due to the replacement of coal by fracked gas for electricity generation. It is unlikely that this will be enough to meet the Paris targets over the long term.
Given the importance of this event it is concerning to find that the prime minister has dismissed conference president, Claire O’Neill. Prior to the December election Claire O’Neill was a junior minister, but decided not to seek re-election so that she could concentrate on her role at COP26. Announcing her departure the PM said that O’Neill did not have the foreign affairs expertise or experience needed to broker a consensus between the nearly 200 countries that had signed the Paris Agreement. He said the conference would now be chaired by a government minister, but so far no appointment has been made. Both David Cameron, former PM, and William Hague, former foreign secretary, are known to have declined to take the post.
Writing back to the PM, Ms O’Neill said,
“The cabinet sub-committee on climate that you promised to chair, and which I was to attend, has not met once.
"In the absence of your promised leadership… departments have fought internal Whitehall battles over who is responsible and accountable for (the conference)".
She said at this stage, the UK should have clear actions to communicate to the diplomatic network, an agreed plan of ministerial international engagements led by the prime minister and a roadmap for the proposed "year of action”, but so far none of this had been done.
The PM, supported by Sir David Attenborough, went ahead to host a launch event for COP26, still without a president, although for the moment the PM has declared that he will take the lead himself.
Claire O’Neill is sceptical. "My advice to anybody to whom Boris is making promises - whether it is voters, world leaders, ministers, employees, or indeed family members - is to get it in writing, get a lawyer to look at it and make sure the money's in the bank," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
Meanwhile other countries have started to express concerns that the UK does not have a clear vision for the talks. They contrast the extensive preparations carried out by the French in preparation for the 2015 Paris Agreement with the lack of action from the UK. They are concerned also that COP26 will be put into the portfolio of the business ministry at the same time as that ministry will be engaged in crucial post-Brexit trade talks.
For the moment it appears that the appointment of a new president will wait upon the cabinet re-shuffle expected in the next couple of weeks.
Said one prominent attendee at the launch event: “We are getting no direction. That’s what’s missing here.”
As expected, the government has this week confirmed its commitment to HS2, the planned high-speed railway. This in the face of much opposition from people concerned about the environmental damage it will cause including the destruction of ancient woodlands and about the fact that any carbon savings from its use are unlikely to equal the emissions created in construction before the end of its design life. There are serious concerns about the announced increase in expected costs - all funded by the taxpayer - from £32.2 billion to £106 billion.
It is also difficult to see exactly what the line will achieve. The initial route goes from London to Birmingham with a second phase extending in two branches to Crewe and Manchester and an East Midlands Hub and Leeds, although these cities will not be reached before the 2040s. The idea of HS2 is to revitalise the North and Midlands, but will this actually happen? A high-speed service to Birmingham will simply bring the city in range of London commuters, resulting in a brain drain and higher property prices for those who remain.
Supporters of HS2 say it’s not about the 250mph trains - faster than any operated anywhere in the world so far - but about releasing capacity, so that more commuters and more freight can be carried on existing lines. This must mean that fewer long-distance passenger trains will run on the East Coast and West Coast main lines to free up the pathways for these additional freight and commuter trains.
The West Coast main line runs from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh via Birmingham. If services are reduced on that line to make way for this freight and commuters the Birmingham passengers can take the high-speed option, but passengers for intermediate stations and for all stations North to Glasgow and Edinburgh will have fewer trains and no alternatives. When phase 2 eventually gets to Leeds the same will apply to passengers on the East Coast main line. At present it takes 2h15m by train from London King’s Cross to Leeds, but HS2 will arrive in just 1h 21m. I live in York, some 25 miles from Leeds, but I can already get to and from London in 1h 50m on existing services so HS2 - especially as it will undoubtedly charge a premium price - will be of little interest to me. Some of the high-speed stops will be at out-of-town hubs rather than city centres, which will help some passengers but not others. Despite the high-speed train, door-to-door journey times could be little changed.
My 1h50m journey to London covers just over 200 miles. To go by train from York to Manchester Airport takes at least two hours for just 85 miles. Upgrading that line, not to high speed but just to the speed of the East Coast Main Line and extending that upgrade to the whole of that line from Hull to Liverpool, creating Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR), would make a vast difference to the whole of the North of England. Much of that line was originally built with four tracks, including the tunnels. Reinstating those lines would give dedicated capacity for commuter trains, which are frequent cause of delays to express services. It should cost vastly less, surely, than a 250mph super-train. NPR will link the cities of the North. HS2 will merely facilitate a brain drain back into London.
If the objective is to increase freight capacity, and it’s certain that there’s a significant amount of freight that could be diverted to rail, (is there?) why build a passenger line and not a freight line?
Somebody once said that if you’re in a hole the best strategy is to stop digging. Speaking of HS2, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last week that when you’re in a hole as big as this one, you’ve got to keep digging. I fail to see the logic of his argument. Yes, it’s been estimated that to stop HS2 now could cost £9 billion and severely damage the construction industry. But is it not better to to spend £9 billion now to avoid spending £100 billion and more on a white elephant? And who said the purpose of the project was to prop up the construction industry? Send them North to develop a project that will truly balance the inequalities of the English regions.
Talking of major infrastructure projects, Britain’s newest nuclear power station is still under construction at Hinckley C. Although this is a new design, it is based on what some claim are out-dated principles. “Old Sparky”, energy correspondent at Private Eye magazine bets a fiver that Hinckley C will never be finished. As loyal listeners to the Sustainable Futures Report will remember, the plant is years behind schedule and billions over budget.
Meanwhile, I learn that Bill Gates is investing in nuclear power which he sees as the source of clean energy for the future. He accepts that many people are totally opposed to it, but believes that the fears and criticisms can be answered. The story of Chernobyl, the reactor which exploded in the 1980’s, demonstrates to many people the dangers of nuclear power. On the other hand, there are many reasons why such an event could not occur again. One of the main reasons is that the Chernobyl plant was built to a 1940s design. Even in the 1980s there were very few computers and limited automation. Such electronics as there were at the Chernobyl plant were indicators. The safe operation of the plant relied totally on the actions taken by the operators in response to the information from those indicators.
“Ah,” you may say, “but much more recently there was a disaster at a much more modern plant at Fukushima in Japan.” True. What happened there was that the plant was shut down for safety reasons as a typhoon approached. With no power from the reactors, diesel generators were started up to run the pumps to cool the core. Then the tsunami struck and the diesels which were down in the basement were flooded and they stopped. Without cooling the reactors melted down, releasing radioactivity into the atmosphere and the floodwaters.
Bill Gates has invested in a company called Terrapower, which claims several innovations in nuclear design. It uses computer modelling which was certainly not around when Chernobyl was built and probably not Fukushima either. Computer modelling can not only assist with the design of the reactor but can also simulate its behaviour in operation. Terrapower reactors operate at atmospheric pressure, removing the risk of blow-outs and they use depleted uranium, which is otherwise discarded and guarded as a highly dangerous waste product. The documentary I saw mentioned reactor cooling and the use of molten metal for this purpose. Water is used to cool some conventional reactors, and as long as it is kept under pressure it will continue to absorb heat without boiling. Even without being pressurised, molten metal will absorb vast amounts of heat without boiling, so it will continue to cool a reactor, even in exceptional circumstances.
After extensive negotiations it was agreed to build a prototype Terrapower station in China. Sadly the US trade dispute with China has put an end to that for the moment.
I’ve suggested in the past that the nuclear reactors that they put in submarines could perhaps be used as neighbourhood power stations. This week Rolls-Royce, who build such units, announce that they plan to supply mini nuclear stations which will be factory-built in modules, shipped to site on lorries and bolted together. They will be much smaller than Hinckley C, for example, but multiple units could be located together. The plan is to install them at existing nuclear sites which have all the necessary grid connection points and security infrastructure. First shipments are not expected before 2029, and many believe that we need to urgently decarbonise our electricity generation well before that.
How smart are we at getting the climate message across?
If you have ever been on any sort of management course you have probably heard of smart goals. It's an acronym. Goals should be specific, measurable, appropriate, relevant and time-bounded. The most famous smart goal came from President John F Kennedy.
Kennedy stood before Congress on May 25, 1961, and proposed that the US "should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”
That goal was specific, it was measurable, it was appropriate and relevant because Soviet Russia had put the first man into space and the Americans were feeling very nervous about that, and the end of the decade was a clear deadline. It was achieved in July 1969.
Do we need a SMART goal to solve the climate crisis, or do we need something else to make the world’s citizens demand action? Only governments, working with other governments can take the global actions needed to change the world, and governments will only do what the people want them to do.
I’ve called this episode “Accentuate the Positive” because I believe that it is only by being positive that we will get people on board. Too many climate messages are disaster scenarios, warning of what will go wrong. Losing the polar bear is sad for many people but they are more concerned about immediate and day-to-day issues. It’s very sad, it’s more than sad, that so many animals have been burnt to death in Australia and so many people have lost their homes - even having to be rescued from beaches by warships in Australia - but Australia is a very long way away and people in the UK, the US and elsewhere don’t see these things as directly relevant to their daily lives. They don’t see how or why they should do anything about it.
I’ve been looking at recent campaigns which have gained popular support. They didn’t have SMART goals in all cases but they all had a positive message.
For example, “Make America Great Again”. Is it specific? Not at all - great can mean whatever you want it to mean. Is it measurable? Yes and no. Statistics can be quoted in triumph, but may not be entirely accurate - or not accurate at all. But some will accept them as evidence of success. Is this slogan appropriate and relevant? Certainly to patriotic Americans - and very difficult to argue against. Time bounded? No, but nobody seemed concerned about that. Popular sentiment was enough for Trump to gain the presidency.
One of the slogans of the Brexit campaign was “Take back control!” Again, not specific, although borders, laws and money were mentioned. Measurable? Yes, if that means new laws to tighten our borders and rejecting the jurisdiction of the European court, although I though we still had control of our money given that the UK opted out of the euro and retained the pound. Relevant and appropriate? Seen as such by many, and again, difficult to argue against. Time bounded? Referendum day was seen as the deadline.
Then, in the UK’s recent general election we had “Get Brexit Done”. Simple, concise and positive. Specific. Measurable - either it’s done or it isn’t. Appropriate and relevant in two ways: those wanting Brexit wanted it implemented and many of the rest just wanted it done and out of the way. Time-bounded with a clear target date of 31st January 2020.
I can’t remember how the opposition pitched against “Make America Great Again”. Maybe Trump’s supporters just shouted them down.
In the Brexit referendum the remain side had “Better Off In”, but that was difficult to sell because governments had been blaming the EU for their own shortcomings for 40 years. Chancellor George Osborne resorted to (negative) scare tactics by promising an even harsher austerity budget if the country voted to leave.
In the UK General Election “Get Brexit Done” delivered a substantial victory to the government. This may be partly due to the fact that the opposition did not have a clear or consistent message.
Accentuate the Positive
My point is that negative messages don’t work, and while there are many negative messages related to the climate crisis that we must not ignore, we will not enthuse the general public by warning them of how dreadful things could be. Already there are people who are suffering serious anxiety about the future. There’s a link on the blog to several articles on this.
So what is the positive message we can use to get people on board? I thought of “Save the World!”, but that is totally non-specific and people can be tempted to believing that that means other people and why can’t they save themselves?
How about “Let’s clean up!”? Clean up could mean cleaning the atmosphere of CO2 and pollutants or clearing up plastic and other rubbish. “Cleaning up” can also mean “making a tidy profit.” Or “Let’s clear the air.” It’s a positive thing to clear the CO2 and particulates out of the air where we live and bring up our children, and “Let’s clear the air” has a sense of reconciliation, co-operation and moving forward. Or what about “Let’s Clean Up and clear the Air.”?
There are other positive benefits of tackling climate change and there must be better slogans than the ones I’ve thought of, so over to you. As the Johnny Mercer song goes,
“You've got to accentuate the positive
“Eliminate the negative
“And latch on to the affirmative
“Don't mess with Mister In-Between”
Let me have your ideas. Mail@anthony-day.com
And that’s it…
… for another week.
There are links to all my sources on the blog at www.sustainablefutures.report and you’ll also find links there to stories which I thought were interesting but I didn’t have time to cover.
I’m Anthony Day and that was the Sustainable Futures Report. There will be another next week. I hope you get everything you wish for this Valentine’s Day, and I hope that all our dreams eventually come true.
Bye for now!
[It is my policy to pay for any copyright material, principally music, used on the Sustainable Futures Report. On this occasion I have been unable to locate the copyright owner of “Accentuate the Positive.”]
New patron Victoria - 45% carbon cut
Host UK 'does not have clear vision' for last-ditch climate talks
Boris Johnson promises urgent climate action after stinging criticism
The Guardian view on climate anxiety: we live in frightening times
Accentuate the Positive
Other interesting ideas that I haven’t had time to follow up
US Emissions - opposing views
Quorn to be first major brand to introduce carbon labelling
Why Irish data centre boom is complicating climate efforts
Russia announces plan to ‘use the advantages’ of climate change
'We need to capitalise on raised awareness,' says WWF's UK chief
Robert Habeck: could he be Germany's first Green chancellor?
Climate crisis linked to at least 15 $1bn-plus disasters in 2019
The Guardian view on car culture: change is coming
'This is the farming of the future': the rise of hydroponic food labs
Average CO2 emissions of cars sold in UK up for third year in row
Most of 11m trees planted in Turkish project 'may be dead'
Climate emergency: 2019 was second hottest year on record
Asda trials refill points and bottle recycling in 'sustainability' store
See a show and help save the planet as the West End turns green