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I'm Anthony Day. It's Friday, 8 September and this is the Sustainable Futures
What’s it all about this week?
There’s a lot about travel this week - from Barcelona to Outer Space. We’ll look down a mine and up into a multi-storey farm. Would you like a new car? Tempting, but I’m resisting so far.
If you need to use a plastic bag in the UK, the government says you should pay 5p or slightly more than 5¢. Other governments are more strict. I’m going to tell you about a country where a plastic bag could cost you over £30,000. Philosopher Alain de Botton has warm words for those of us who may be unpopular or short of money, but his book didn’t really do it for me. I’m reading “This Changes Everything” by Naomi Klein at the moment, and that has really made me think. Will Hurricane Irma really change everything? She should be making landfall in Florida about the time you hear this.
First, a big welcome to all my patrons. If you’d like to join their number go across to patreon.com/sfr. Knowing you’re out there drives me to the keyboard each week. I do love Fridays, because the week’s pod is in the can, the blog is on line and I can relax. Until Monday.
I’ve got some big interviews coming up in future episodes. How to live on a 4-ton carbon footprint. Sustainable Marketing. There’s someone who wants me to publish an infographic on radon. And I’ve just had an email announcing that the International Copper Association is sponsoring Climate Week NYC (Sept. 18-24) to encourage engineers, sustainable business owners, and other climate change activists to Think Copper. They want to know if I’d like to interview their VP of public affairs. I’ll do some background research before I answer that one.
Talking of minerals, do you remember Falling Whistles? It’s a charity I mentioned a while ago which aims to rescue child soldiers from the mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s called Falling Whistles because the youngest children can’t carry a gun. They just get a whistle. Tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, (3TG), have helped fund armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in which over 5.4 million people have died since 1994. These so-called Conflict Minerals are essential for modern electronics. Chances are that there’ll be some in your smartphone, your laptop or your TV. Or in all of them.
Apple for one have recognised that this situation cannot continue. Here’s an extract from their 2017 supplier responsibility report:
“Our commitment to people and the planet doesn’t stop at manufacturing. In 2010, we were one of the first companies to map our supply chain from manufacturing to the smelter level for tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold (3TG). In 2016, we completed our supply chain mapping for cobalt. We continue to publish a list of our 3TG smelters, and this year the list also includes our cobalt suppliers. For the second year in a row, 100 percent of our identified 3TG smelters and refiners are participating in independent third-party audits. And 100 percent of our cobalt smelter and refiner partners are participating in third-party audits. In 2016, we removed 22 smelters from our supply chain. We will continue to remove those who are unable or ultimately unwilling to comply with our high standards. Every year we deepen our influence throughout our supply chain as we push for higher social and environmental standards.”
Read the full report at:
Reduce, Re-use, Recycle and all the Rest
Of course eliminating conflict minerals is a worthy aim, but action by all consumers of these materials will be needed to bring it to an end. Recycling, for example, is an action which will reduce demand for newly-mined materials. The theory of the circular economy aims for all products, not just electronics, to be designed for repair, for remanufacture and ultimately for material recovery. In the perfect circular economy model there is no extraction and no discarding to landfill. Everything is re-used. Nothing is ever perfect, but a tremendous amount of progress towards a circular economy could be made. But making things last - and the signs are that mobile phone consumers are making their phones last longer and longer - means that annual new-product launches are generating less and less excitement, and less and less revenue. It also means that less material is needed.
And now to our travel section. You’ll see how it links up in a moment. This week the BBC heavily trailed a programme by Professor Brian Cox on the future of space travel. He examined the plans of Richard Branson of Virgin, Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla electric cars who originally set up PayPal, and Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon. They are all developing space vehicles, for tourism, exploration or colonisation. 700 people have paid $250,000 each to Virgin Galactica for a trip into space with a unique view of the earth and four minutes of weightlessness. However, departures are on hold since a test vehicle disintegrated in flight in October 2014. All three entrepreneurs echo physicist Stephen Hawking by saying that space flight and colonisation, initially of Mars, is essential for the preservation of human civilisation. That may be so, but it will surely be far from replicating life on earth. It will be more like an encyclopaedia packed with memories, or one of those remote seed banks buried underground in case there is an agricultural disaster which wipes out some of the world’s plant species. It’s no justification for not doing all we possibly can to preserve the planet we’ve got.
Jeff Bezos believes that we should transfer all our heavy industry to space. Up there there’s uninterrupted solar energy 24/7. We already have the capability of landing on asteroids. We could mine them, he says, and a single asteroid could yield resources worth $30bn. Bezos is reputedly the second richest man in the world so we should surely listen to what he says. Unfortunately I can’t help thinking about a story going round in the very early days of space exploration. A scientist was eagerly explaining to an elderly lady how his team had managed to send mice into orbit. “Really?” she said, “But isn’t that an awfully expensive way of getting rid of them?”
After space tourism the BBC featured sustainable tourism. This week on Radio 4’s Costing the Earth Tom Heap reports how some residents of Venice, Barcelona, Amsterdam and even Orkney in the far north of Scotland are driving people away. Tourists are damaging ancient streets with their litter and graffiti and their footfall. Hotels and holiday lets are driving up property prices and driving out the locals. The permanent population of Venice has fallen by half since the 1970s. Amsterdam has a population of a million but hosts 17 million visitors each year. The shops are changing to provide for tourists. The pharmacists and other specialist shops that the the locals need are being forced out. These popular destinations are becoming so overcrowded that the experience may soon be no longer worth the trip. Destinations like Venice and Kirkwall in Orkney are visited by cruise liners which unload up to 3,000 visitors at a time. Coaches to the favourite tourist spots have to be scheduled, because only so many people can visit at once.
The driver of all this is cheap accommodation and cheap flights. Aircraft are still a major emitter of CO2 and other pollutants as far as I know. CO2 is a cause of climate breakdown. Governments are not planning to restrict air travel and they would be voted out if they did it effectively. Even people who know that CO2 causes climate breakdown are not prepared to forgo their foreign holidays. I think the psychologists call it cognitive dissonance, the holding of two opposite opinions at the same time. Others call it politics. Whatever it is, we need to do something about it.
And continuing with a theme of travel and tourism, would you like a new car? I must admit I'm tempted. Here in the UK we change the prefix of our car registration numbers every six months, and every six months people rush into showrooms to buy a new car with the latest prefix. It's happening now in September. That isn't the reason I'm thinking a new car. Smart have just relaunched their electric models and it appeals to me to have a clean and quiet car which costs little to run and would not only fit into my garage but also leave quite a lot of storage space in there as well! Of course it has downsides. It has only two seats, but we are a two-person household. Its range is only 100 miles, and we frequently visit family who live between 200 and 300 miles away. And from time to time we take the grandchildren out, which we couldn't do in a two seater car. And the present car is 12 years old, so costs me virtually nothing in depreciation, it still runs like new and it's a hybrid so it's cleaner than most other vehicles on road. I’m maximising the return on the energy and materials put into its manufacture. Does an electric car makes sense for me? Difficult.
The Future is Electric
All the signs are that the future of transport will be electric and the National Grid, the U.K.'s power distribution utility, has issued a discussion paper on the challenges ahead. It's a question of balancing range – miles between charges, which determines battery size - with the desire to recharge rapidly and the capacity of the electricity supply. The top-end cars like the Tesla Model S and the forthcoming Jaguar iPace offer a range of 300 miles and need a 90kWh battery. The paper explains how it would take 20 hours to recharge such a battery from a domestic socket or less than two hours from a 50kW fast charger. However a 50kW fast charger is far too big to be connected to a domestic supply. In theory a 350kW fast charger at a dedicated charging station could recharge this battery in 12 minutes, but unfortunately the present state of technology means the battery would either melt or explode.
And then there’s the question of the 43% of British motorists who have to park on the street. Do they go to service stations to charge up? They certainly won’t want to spend a couple of hours waiting around.
Changing, not Charging
One idea that I’ve heard of, but nobody seems to be developing, is the modular battery pack, universal to all cars. Then you would just go to the service station and a machine would swap your battery for a charged one in about the same time as it takes to fill a petrol car with petrol. Of course for this to work there would have to be swap stations with stocks of batteries all over the country, so it represents a major investment. If cars were built with the option of recharging or swapping the battery then the modular battery could be phased in over time.
Read the paper, Forecourt Thoughts, at http://fes.nationalgrid.com/media/1221/forecourt-thoughts-v10.pdf
Full links on the blog at www.sustainablefutures.report .
Where will the extra electricity to power our transport fleet come from? Carbon Brief comments on a report from Cambridge Econometrics which suggests that a move to electric vehicles will raise UK electricity demand by only 10% by 2050. Articles in the press suggest that charging electric vehicles will cause a calamitous rise in peak consumption. But research by Carbon Brief has shown this to be unrealistic and misleading. EV owners are unlikely to all want to charge their cars a the same time. Many will use smart chargers which will cut in when demand, and prices, are low. For the foreseeable future domestic installations will only be able to support modest charging rates, but that will be acceptable to people able to charge overnight. As we’ve seen in other episodes of the Sustainable Futures Report, EV batteries connected to the grid via a smart charger are a vast resource for smoothing the peaks and troughs of electricity demand.
There will be a significant cut in carbon emissions from the change to EVs because the power generation sector - even coal - is becoming rapidly cleaner and electric cars are far more efficient than those with internal combustion engines.
I’m still tempted. I could almost always get a parking space; one of those slots reserved for electric cars which are usually empty. And I’d get the new numberplate prefix. Maybe I’ll get one for Christmas.
As I write, Hurricane Irma has made landfall in the Caribbean, with winds of up to 300kph destroying buildings. All contact with Barbuda has been lost and the category 5 storm, the strongest, is moving towards Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. It could reach Florida by the weekend, although the track of any hurricane is unpredictable. Florida residents are warned to leave, as residents of Houston were warned only days ago. With Florida little more than 1 metre above sea level, the risks from a storm surge are severe. The problem, as in Houston and in New Orleans at the time of Katrina, is that there are many people who do not have cars to get them away and do not have the resources to pay for alternative accommodation. Such people have found themselves at the back of the queue for relief services. Just as important as the social cost is whether these storms will encourage governments to accept that climate change is causing this exceptional devastation. Al Gore said in his latest film that it’s time to join the dots, to accept climate change, or climate breakdown as George Monbiot calls it - to accept that climate breakdown is the cause of all this and that action to reverse it is overdue. In her book, Naomi Klein cites a missed opportunity early in the Obama presidency. In 2008 he had the Congress, the banks and the car industry all on the back foot. He could have insisted that the carmakers completely re-engineered themselves to minimise or eliminate fossil fuels and he could have compelled the banks to fund the investment. The world would have been very different if that had happened although it might have been technologically premature. Technology has advanced dramatically since 2008 making many more things possible than were possible even then.
Cometh the hour…
The point is that we need leaders with vision to look beyond today’s issues, crucial though storms and Syria and Korea and so on all are. There are no such leaders in the United States and the UK government is obsessed with Brexit, the UK’s detachment from Europe. By the way, where’s the logic in Brexit? It looks as though we’re moving towards a situation where, for several years at least, Britain will still be in the customs union and the single market but will no longer play any part in governing them. Britain will still be subject to the European Court of Justice, but there will no longer be any British judges on the bench. How is that “taking back control”?
Softly, too softly?
Naomi Klein makes the point that the World Trade Organisation dates from around the same time as the United Nations started to urge the control of carbon emissions. Countries breaching WTO regulations are subject to fines. The Paris Climate Agreement finally set out a framework for controlling carbon emissions for all the countries of the world. Their INDCs, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, agreed at the Paris conference were all expressed in different ways. There is no penalty if they are not achieved - except to the world at large. It is known that that these INDCs are insufficient to achieve even the 2℃ fallback target, and in any case there is no planned performance review for five years.
One could despair. But hold on there! Al Gore says despair is denial. There must be a way, and one way must be to keep promoting the sustainability message.
Let’s have some good news. World population is growing but there are new ways to feed us all. No, not crunchy insects, although don’t rule them out completely. I reported a while ago on the vertical farm at Paignton Zoo in Devon, South West England, which has been growing salad crops to feed the animals since 2009. Now I learn of a firm in New York called Bowery which does just the same, but produces food for people. The plants are grown indoors in tightly controlled conditions. Plants are monitored constantly so that that they always receive exactly the nutrients they need. Being indoors means that pests are kept out and hence there is no need for pesticides. Because harvest cycles are shorter - there’s no unpredictable weather - and the plants are grown on shelves one above another, Bowery claims to achieve 100 times the production that a conventional farm on a site of the same size could yield. They claim to use 95% less water and to monitor the crops so that they can harvest them at peak flavour. Because the farm is in the city its delivery miles are very short. Bowery is a new start-up and at present services just three stores and two restaurants, but if you’re in New York why don’t you search them out and let me know what you think?
Of course it all depends on the capital cost and the running costs, but vertical farming sounds like an excellent idea to me, especially as more and more of us are living in cities.
Ban the Bag
When we go to the shops too many us carry away what we buy in plastic bags. You know the arguments - plastic bags don’t decompose, many are discarded and not recycled, they get blown into trees and hedges and look unsightly, they block watercourses, they end up in the sea and they stifle turtles and other marine animals, they get into the food chain and might even eventually end up on our plates. All in all, plastic bags are bad news. If we want to take away a plastic bag from a major store the government now decrees that we have to pay 5p.
Habib El-Habr, a UN expert on marine litter, says that plastic bags take between 500 and 1,000 years to break down, and also enter the human food chain through fish and other animals. In Nairobi’s slaughterhouses in Kenya, some cows destined for human consumption had 20 bags removed from their stomachs. So the government decided to take action and impose penalties on the manufacture, sale and use of plastic bags. They say that they are aiming first at manufacturers and distributors, but consumers are also covered. Even as a tourist you could be fined for carrying a plastic bag. The penalties range up to £31,000 and/or four years in prison.
A very bold move. It will be interesting to see if it works. To be fair the 5p surcharge cut the UK plastic bag use dramatically, but there’s still a group of people who don’t bother. Time to increase the charge to £5?
Read All About It!
And finally a book review. I am reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. Manda Scott said I had to read it before starting Klein’s No is Not Enough. I will defer a review until I’ve finished it. And I am going to review Drawdown as well.
The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton claims on the cover to be the number one bestseller. Of course Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was also a bestseller. Everyone bought it, but few actually read it: even less understood it. De Botton’s work is not nearly as deep and technical as A Brief History, but it wanders and confuses. The main thesis is that philosophy can console us for some of life's concerns. Thus it sets out how philosophy can console us for being unpopular, having no money and so on. The first chapter on the Socratic method of argument is a useful guide to presenting arguments and dealing with denialists. I'd leave the rest to another time. I know that Alain de Botton has a significant reputation. Maybe this book was the wrong one to start getting to know him.
Bye for now!
Right, I’m off to catch up on my reading! I’m Anthony Day and that’s the Sustainable Futures Report for another week. I’ll be back on 15th September. I hope very much that you will be too.
Bye for now!