Thursday, January 26, 2017

Keeping Heads Above Water

Published as a podcast on Friday 27th January. The Sustainable Futures Report is available at iTunes, Stitcher and

Gosh! Is it Friday again already?

Seems like it. So here I am, Anthony Day, with your latest Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 27 January 2017.

This week I'm talking about floods. About flood prevention, specifically the Foss Barrier in York. There’s something in the air in London and other large British cities. There's something in the air in France and there's certainly something in the air in Colombia. President Trump has reversed President Obama's ban on the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines but have we come to the end of the pipeline for carbon capture and storage? President Trump is tweeting regularly as ever, but he’s told some parts of the US government to button it. Who, and why?

Circular Economy

First, news from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the charity dedicated to the promotion of the circular economy. You’ll remember that the idea of the circular economy is to reduce, re-use, remanufacture - and recycle only as a last resort. This is to replace the tradition linear model: take-make-discard. In an ideal circular economy nothing is wasted and sent to landfill; everything that cannot be re-used or remanufactured becomes raw material for the next generation of products. Every product is designed with disassembly, repair and remanufacture in mind.

The Foundation's latest report Achieving Growth Within, which was launched at the World Economic Forum  in Davos, finds that scaling the circular economy in Europe offers investment opportunities totalling €320 billion in the food, mobility and built environment sectors. The study was produced by SYSTEMIQ  ( in collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and sponsored by SUN. No, not The Sun newspaper. SUN stands for Stiftungsfonds für Umweltökonomie und Nachhaltigkeit GmbH (Foundation for Environmental Economics and Sustainability), which was established in September 2014 by the Deutsche Post Foundation.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation goes on to say:

“As Europe seeks to dynamise its economy, Achieving Growth Within identifies priority investments that could provide a major source of regenerative growth and unlock economic, social and environmental benefits, as well as mitigating the risks associated with investing in conventional assets in an era of rapid change. Businesses and governments could benefit from promising investment outlets, and harness the competitive advantage brought about by a circular economy transition.”

Dame Ellen MacArthur commented: 

“Building on the analysis of our 2015 report Growth Within, which demonstrated the additional €0.9 trillion benefit for Europe by 2030 from shifting to circular economy practices, this latest report outlines the first steps needed by businesses and governments to realise these benefits. As our current linear growth model becomes increasingly challenged, this research shows how Europe can begin to exploit new opportunities for innovation, growth and resilience, gradually decoupled from resource constraints.”

You can read the full report - and much else - at 

This is an example of sustainable good news for good business. For far too long environmentalists have dwelt on climate change and other catastrophes. Yes of course they are very serious, but no-one wants to listen to bad news. Here’s a message which shows that sustainable business is profitable business, and profitable both for the economy and for the planet.

Something in the Air...

There’s something in the air in London. It’s carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and particulates – microscopic particles of soot. The pollution was so bad this week that two London boroughs issued black alerts and several others went to code red. This means that children were kept indoors and everyone was advised to avoid exercising outside. Although we have known for some time that air quality in London is poor, black alerts are what we expect in Beijing or Delhi, not close to home. It is partly due to the cold weather and fog that has concentrated the pollution, and bad air quality has also been experienced in Paris and other French cities. The French solution is to announce a permanent ban on vehicles over a certain age from city centres between 8AM and 8PM. While exceptional conditions persist they are also restricting the days on which individual motorists can enter the city: odd numbered registrations one day, even numbered the next. Colombia

There’s something in the air in Colombia, though probably less CO2 and nitrous oxide than in London or Paris, at least outside the cities. In many parts of Colombia the air is thick with coal dust; with particles that lodge permanently in the lungs and cause irreversible damage, particularly to children. Coal production is massive in Colombia, with exports rising to a record 88m tonnes in 2016. Massive is the word for the mines as well. Opencast mines can be 2km wide, 400m deep and 20km long. Nothing stands in their way. Rivers are diverted, whole communities are uprooted and resettled;  the regular explosions used to release the coal raise the dust which damages health. Of course, Colombia is a difficult state to govern, with battles between its drug cartels and the 50-year  guerrilla war with the FARC rebels which is only now coming to an end. Maybe this is why the government takes little notice of the social and environmental consequences of the mining. Maybe this is why the Colombian authorities allow, for example, sulphur oxides of 250 micrograms per cubic metre, many times the 20 micrograms maximum recommended by the World Health Organisation. Maybe this is why public officials deny eye-witness reports of pollution and fail to investigate the murders of those who protest that their water supplies are polluted, their children are sick and their fisheries have been destroyed.

From our point of view here in the West it’s very easy to ask what we can do about it. It’s very difficult to suggest any action that we can take that will make a difference. It’s important to be aware, though, that much of the coal exported from Colombia comes to Europe and is burnt in UK power stations. When you next turn on the light, think of the people who have lost their lands, their health, even their lives as part of the process which allows you to turn that light on. The best thing we can do is to eliminate coal from our power stations. The government has said it will close all the coal-burners by 2025 but that’s not definite and it’s still open for consultation. You can add your views at 
Look for Coal generation in Great Britain: The pathway to a low-carbon future. You have until 8th February to make your views known, and you have as much right as anyone else to express your views.

Thanks to Johana Rocha Gómez of Tierra Digna for the background information and to Scarlett Hall of the Coal Action Network for her riveting first-person presentation of the situation in Colombia.

And so to home...

Floods on the Foss

Last week I was invited by CIWEM, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management  to a presentation on the Foss barrier. The River Foss joins the larger RiverOuse close to the centre of York and it was the failure of the barrier on Boxing Day 2015 that led to extensive flooding in the city. You might remember the Chinook helicopters on the news, flying in spare parts. The River Foss empties into the Ouse, but when the level of the Ouse rises it can back up the Foss and flood the city. That was the case until the Foss Barrier was built 30 years ago. In times of flood it is lowered to cut the Foss off from the Ouse. Of course the Foss is still flowing towards the sea and building up behind the barrier, so eight pumps manage the levels by shifting the water around the barrier and into the Ouse. The problem in 2015 was that the pumps had a maximum rating of 30 tonnes/second but the Foss was flowing at 40 tonnes/second. Inevitably the water rose behind the barrier until it threatened the control room and the electrics. If it had come higher it might have stopped the pumps. If the pumps had stopped with the barrier closed the water would have rapidly risen even higher and flooded extensive parts of the city. The decision was taken to open the barrier while there was still power. This led to serious flooding but the independent report published this week concluded that this was less serious than it would have been if the barrier had remained closed.

Urgent action has been taken to prevent such floods happening again: installing an emergency control room some 3m higher than the original one and replacing the eight pumps with units capable of shifting up to 50 tonnes of water per second. The whole barrier site is a massive concrete construction with channels and tunnels leading to the pumping chamber. The key question was whether this existing structure would be able to cope with the increased flows. Kevin Nielsen of ch2m [] explained to us at the CIWEM event how his company had created computer models of the flows - the Approach Conditions Evaluation Criteria - to calculate the swirl and velocity of each part of the water as it entered the pumps. The pumps are simply large propellors in tubes. If the water does not meet the blades at the precise angle it can cause cavitation, vibration and pump failure. The computer models indicated that the upgrade to the pumping station would be successful, but experience has shown that while models can successfully weed out unviable designs they cannot account for all the variables. The next stage was to build a physical model and try it out. This was done by Hydrotec Consultants Ltd, not to be confused with other organisations in the industry with similar names. The one you want is at We were invited into their lab to see their 1/12 scale working models of the inflow and the pumping station. Fascinating. 

After little more than 12 months since the flood the full-size Foss Barrier is now up and running and in fact was back in operation only two days after the flood. It has a temporary high-level control room while work continues to build a permanent one. It now has the high capacity pumps and has been operational - and used four times during the year - throughout the upgrade process. It’s quite impressive to see this civil engineering project completed so quickly.

Of course York was by no means the only part of the UK to be flooded. Parts of Carlisle were flooded three times over the period, wiping out the biggest biscuit factory in Europe, thankfully now back in production. Let’s hope the money and the expertise will be made available to protect all these areas.  Maybe money will be found to expand the Environment Agency. (Don’t hold your breath) Work needs to be done as well to control the flows before they get to the flood zones, as I’ve mentioned in previous episodes. We need upstream floodplains and meandering rivers to slow the flows to manageable levels.

Meanwhile, across the pond…

News from the Trump administration is that President Obama’s opposition to the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines has been overturned by President Trump. The Keystone XL pipeline will run from Canada right across the USA bringing oil from the tar sands to refineries in Texas. I’m not sure on exactly what grounds Obama opposed the pipeline, but it could arguably be seen as a white elephant as we move away from fossil fuels. Anything which stimulates the expansion of the fossil fuel industry will lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions. But then, President Trump is a known climate change sceptic and his administration, including the director of the EPA, is packed with climate change deniers. Relaxing the restrictions means that the pipelines can be built, but not necessarily that they will be built. Expect continued protests, and continued police action to control the protestors.

CCS - a pipe dream?

Another pipeline in the news won’t be built. I spotted a tiny advertisement at the bottom of the page of my local newspaper. It was a notice from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announcing that the application to build a 75km pipeline from a planned carbon capture and storage facility at Drax power station to the East Coast had been refused. As you’re aware, carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the answer to clean coal. The idea is to extract the carbon dioxide from power station flue gases and pump it away to be stored for ever in caverns under the North Sea. Unfortunately nobody has yet made it work on a commercial scale, but if it did work it would be of great interest to Drax, the largest coal-burning power station in the UK. Of course Drax now burns a high proportion of biomass in the form of wood-chips, but nobody pretends that wood chips don't emit CO2 when they burn - some say they emit more CO2 and polluting materials than coal. The theory is that trees growing in the US, where most of the wood chips come from, will absorb the CO2. Not everyone agrees.

George Osborne saw a clear need for CCS to clean up coal and announced a £1bn fund for its successful development . Then he withdrew it. The cancellation of this fund was cited as the main reason for refusing permission for the pipeline. You can read the full paper at 

Fighting in the Dark

Finally, Time Magazine reports this week that the Trump administration has instituted a media blackout at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and barred staff from awarding any new contracts or grants.

Emails sent to EPA staff since President Donald Trump's inauguration detailed the specific prohibitions banning press releases, blog updates or posts to the agency’s social media accounts. The Trump administration has also ordered a "temporary suspension" of all new business activities at the department, including issuing task orders or work assignments to EPA contractors. The orders are expected to have a significant and immediate impact on EPA activities nationwide. The EPA did not respond to phone calls and emails requesting comment. 

A new phrase from 2016 was “post truth”. New this month was “alternative facts.” Some people call them falsehoods. It is extremely worrying that the Trump administration should shut down communications from the EPA in this way. Are they afraid of the truth? Maybe so, given that recent political debate on both sides of the Atlantic has relied on lies, half-truth and rumour. I know it’s a cliché to say that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. I believe that’s more true today than ever.

Anyway, have a cheerful week and be vigilant. 
This is Anthony Day and that was the Sustainable Futures Report. More next week. 

Do you have a sustainability story to tell? Or a point of view to put over? I'm always looking for interviewees for the Sustainable Futures Report. Coming up, I will be talking to someone about fracking. What grabs your attention? Get in touch at and let me know. 

That's all for this week, But I'll be back again in just seven days.

Bye for now!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Talking about Sustainability

Find the podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. Links at

It's Friday, 13 January but don't worry, there isn't another Friday the 13th until October. And where will we be by then? Well if you believe the followers of Guy McPherson then we will be facing the Apocalypse, but call me reckless and I'm sure many of his followers would, I just don't think things will be quite as bad as that by then. There's no doubt that 2017 will be a challenging year, particularly on the political front. Everything we do depends on a political framework so we can't ignore Brexit or Donald Trump or the lack of a credible opposition in the UK Parliament. But before I get on my hobbyhorse let's look at some things that I've picked up on the sustainability front this week.

You've heard of carbon capture and storage and you've probably heard that no one has yet made it work on a commercial scale, but have you heard of carbon capture and utilisation? Maybe that's the future. If you want to get away from it all, how about a VW camper? Yes I know they stopped making them in 2013, but they’ve just brought a new one out. Looks the same, but very different. Could be just what you’ve been waiting for, Clive. There’s good news from Swansea Bay, and I'll talk about the Green Investment Bank, which may not be green or a bank for much longer. I'll admit that I've given in to temptation and written to the local paper. I’ll tell you why and what I said, and if you want to save energy and be warmer at home you should have listened to me on Talk Radio on New Year's Eve. Missed it? Don't worry–here’s your second chance. I was talking to Martin Roberts.

[Talk Radio interview]

Swansea Bay

More on energy. This week sees the publication of a report which recommends that the government should go ahead with the development of the tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay. This is excellent news, because when the report was set up it was seen as a device to kick the project into the long grass where it would lie and be forgotten. I reported on Swansea Bay back in November. Tidal Lagoon Power plans to build a barrier across Swansea Bay in South Wales to hold back the tide and release the water through turbines to generate electricity. Predictable power twice a day, no carbon emissions and no fuel costs. The government made the construction of the Swansea Bay lagoon a manifesto commitment  at the last election.
The project will cost £1.3bn, most of it spent in Wales and the rest of the UK. That’s less than a tenth of the cost of Hinkley C, the planned nuclear power station just across the Bristol Channel. The output would of course be very much lower than Hinkley C which is planned to produce 8% of the nation’s electricity. However, with similar lagoons at Cardiff and Newport and in Cumbria and Somerset the total output could be the same. The cost of construction would be significantly lower, there would be no emissions, no hazardous waste to dispose of and the life of the plant would be very much longer.

The key obstruction to progress seemed to be the negotiation of the strike price. This is the guaranteed price for the electricity produced by scheme. Initially it was estimated at £168 per megawatt, which is very much higher than the figure of £90 agreed for Hinkley C, which itself is at least twice the current wholesale price. However, the report takes into account the longer life of Swansea Bay, around 120 years, which cuts the figure to a comparable £89.90. A spokesman for Tidal Lagoon Power told the BBC’s File on Four programme that building the Cardiff Bay tidal lagoon as well could bring the cost down to £60. Of course subsidies would be involved, estimated at 30p on a bill, but what price energy security? Let’s hope the government acts on the report.

Power of the Press

Yes, I’ve been writing to the local paper. There are some people with very fixed opinions who write every week and I bite my tongue because I often disagree. Anyway I picked up my pen last month and this is what I said:

“We learn from Philip Roe's letter that it is a fact that global warming has little to do with man or his flatulent cows. Could he perhaps share his evidence for this “fact”?"

Mr Roe came straight back:

“Anthony Day asks me to share my evidence that man has little to do with global warming. Even the most ardent tree huggers have got to admit that planet Earth is pretty huge. Man's gas input (carbon dioxide to methane) from road vehicles to flatulent cattle affecting the climate of this planet is of no real consequence. In all probability earth is getting warmer, but this is purely cyclic. Britain, in the Carboniferous period, was tropical yet there was no man around to affect that climate. Ice ages have come and gone over the last 2.5 million years. Cyclic changes which happen about every 100,000 years. CO2 (carbon dioxide) allegedly produced by man, is being blamed as the main cause of “global warming” but what about volcanoes Mr Day? Many volcanoes, both on the surface and subsea, pour thousands of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere day in, day out. Man-made, and naturally occurring, CO2 have a little to do with the earth's climate. The Greens would love to say we are the cause of climate change. Climate changes are cyclic and man can do nothing to alter that fact.”

I felt he’d been misinformed, so I sent off a response.

“Philip Roe (ThePress 23rd December) is mistaken in thinking that our contributions to methane emissions are negligible. In fact human activity, including agriculture and flatulent cows, produces 55% of the 558 million annual tonnes of this highly potent greenhouse gas.(Environmental Research Letters 12/12/16) He is right in saying that volcanoes emit tonnes of carbon dioxide, (CO2) day in, day out, but their 200 million tonnes are equal to less than 1% of the 24 billion tonnes emitted by human activity. (US Geological Survey) 
While climate change is cyclical over the very long term, it is clear that we are accelerating that dangerous cycle. Recognising the urgency of the situation, some 195 nations, including the US, the UK and China, have made a commitment to radically cut emissions of greenhouse gases as soon as possible. The good news is that efficient use of energy reduces emissions, so a well-insulated home and a high-mpg car will save you money and help save the planet as well. And Dutch scientists are developing a special grass which stops cows from burping as much methane.”

Mr Roe hasn’t come back on this. He’s turned his attention to letters urging the government to get on with Brexit just as quickly as possible. But then we heard from Alan Robinson.

“I am grateful to Anthony Day for correcting Philip Roe’s untenable assertion that mankind's contribution to greenhouse gases is insignificant. But Anthony only got it nearly right. He described cows first as “flatulent” and later as “burping”. It may come as a bit of a surprise but in fact methane emissions from ruminants arise mostly from fermentation of the cud before it enters the true stomach. The gas emerges from the front-end, not the rear. So “burping” is correct. Sadly it also means putting gas bags on bovine bottoms isn't much use. Eating kangaroo is better, because kangaroo burps are far less methane laden.”

So that’s me told. Actually I did know that it was burping and not flatulence that caused the methane (as careful listeners to the Sustainable Futures Report will well know.) Didn’t know about the kangaroos, though.

The Baking Powder Solution

So that’s methane. What about carbon dioxide?

Tuticorin Alkali Chemicals in India, which runs a conventional power plant, plans to turn 60,000 tonnes of CO2 a year into soda ash – or baking powder. It will do this using a new technology which captures the emissions from the plant boiler’s chimney and mixes them with rock salt to make soda ash – a chemical that forms a key ingredient in glass, sweeteners, detergents and paper products, as well as food. The firm’s managing director, Ramachandran Gopalan, told BBC Radio 4: “I am a businessman. I never thought about saving the planet. I needed a reliable stream of CO2, and this was the best way of getting it.” The company states that the plant is now running with virtually no emissions seeping into air or water. Globally the technique could be used to absorb 5-10% of man-made CO2 emissions.

The method has been developed by two chemists from India who set up a company called Carbonclean, which is now based in Paddington in London. They relocated there from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur after failing to find finance in India – but later secured £3.6 million from the UK government. Imperial College London and Leeds and Sheffield Universities helped Carbonclean develop the technology. Nice to hear that the UK government is supporting at least some green initiatives.

Read more at:

Roger Harrabin presented Climate Change: The Trump Card on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm on 3 January. (iPlayer) He also talks about the environment post Trump and about the biggest solar farm in the world. 

Green Wheels

Volkswagen has revealed a new camper van concept, the I.D. Buzz, at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit.
It looks a bit like the iconic VW Microbus made famous by the 1960s hippie movement, but it boasts eight seats and an all-electric drivetrain with a range of 600km or 370 miles. The I.D. Buzz has full integration with futuristic self-driving technology. The steering wheel is only needed some of the time – with a "gentle push" it retracts back into the dash, allowing the car's occupants to chat among themselves. Its quoted 0-62mph time is five seconds and it has a limited top speed of 160kmh – just shy of 100mph. 0-60 in 5 seconds? That’s not a hippie car.

There’s some discussion over whether VW will ever put the I.D. Buzz it into production. In any case it’s not expected to hit the road before 2020 at the earliest. Nevertheless, like other manufacturers VW has announced that it will be involved in setting up a network of charging points to make electric driving convenient, and it has many other electric vehicles under development. A logical move, given that the outlook for the diesel market is extremely black. VW is also reported to be developing a self-drive taxi fleet to rival Uber. The 8-seater ID Buzz could be the vehicle of choice.

Green Investment Bank

Do you remember the Green Investment Bank? it was set up by the UK’s coalition government to support new, emerging and green technologies, and according to a report in the Guardian Newspaper it has been quite successful, with projected returns of around 10%. Of course the whole Green idea was completely unattractive to former Chancellor George Osborne who took the opportunity to change the bank’s constitution so that it could invest in a much wider range of projects. The next stage was to sell the whole thing off. And Theresa May's government planned to do just that. The rumour is that the buyer is Macquarie, an Australian investment group which until recently at least had a major stake in Thames Water. Based on their past record, what they could do is simply buy the bank, sell off all its investments and close it down. Macquarie could then invest the proceeds elsewhere, with no guarantee that this would be in the UK or in green technology. Hence my earlier comment that it would no longer be green or a bank. As I write this I learn that Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, has forced a debate in parliament, claiming that Macquarie has a dismal and terrible environmental record, [and] also has an appalling track record of asset-stripping.  MPs of all parties have raised concerns over the sale, but the government has refused to comment in detail or even to identify the bidder, saying that the whole thing is “commercially sensitive”. Watch this space. We'll wait and see.

And finally...

And finally, who is that Guy McPherson I mentioned at the start of all this? Well, go to Guy McPherson and you’ll find out all about him. I wouldn’t bother, if I were you. It’s too depressing. Guy is an American academic who predicts near-term human extinction - that’s well within the next 10 years. It’s hardly surprising that there’s a headline on his home page which asks, “Contemplating suicide?” I don’t want to be flippant about this, and there’s no doubt that humanity is taking exceptional liberties with the planet and we urgently need to do more about it, but 2017 can’t be that bad. And, if you’ll forgive another cliché: while there’s life there’s hope.

Still, no time to sit around and wait for things to happen. Many a mickle maks a muckle. Get that aerated shower head on your shopping list for Saturday and check whether your local council is still doing free loft insulation. And a new boiler will really save you money if you haven’t got a condensing one already.

That’s it for this week. I’ll be back next week with another Sustainable Futures Report. I’m Anthony Day. Thanks for your comments, ideas and suggestions. I’m always ready for more. Just send them to

Till next time!