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Hello. This is Anthony Day with your Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 1st June. Welcome if you are listening for the first time. Welcome if you are a returning listener and a very special welcome if you are one of my patrons. You too can become a patron, and help with the cost of hosting this podcast and preparing the transcriptions. Your help from as little as $1 a month (I know, it’s an American site) is always appreciated and for slightly more than one dollar per month you get a stylish Sustainable Futures Report enamel badge. If that sounds interesting just hop across to patreon.com/sfr and find out more.
Among this month’s sustainability news I want to tell you about the lecture I didn’t get to and the lecture I did get to. About how the government is making it easier for fracking and plans to make it more difficult to own a wood burning stove. It's cleaning up cars, eventually, although it's told us that once already and it's promising world-beating environmental standards, although that’s not nearly as good as it sounds. And carbon capture and storage is popping up again! Neoliberalism seems to keep popping up as well. Oh, and don’t buy an electric car.
Bees and the Weather
But first, I’m British so let’s talk about the weather.
After a dreadful March, a pretty awful April and a disappointing May - at least to start with - a few warm days make it easy to forget all that and to believe that summer is truly acomin in. I’ve mentioned in the past that I keep bees. Not very expertly, although I seem to get a lot of honey. Last Autumn I had two colonies. In January I still had two colonies, but by the end of that cold spell in March I had only one. In winter bees cluster together for warmth around the queen and they generate warmth by vibrating their wing muscles. They can keep the centre of the hive at 35ºC, but to do this they need energy from the honey that they stored away for the winter. There was plenty of honey in both my hives and I supplemented it with sugar fondant. Unfortunately it was so cold that some of my bees wouldn’t leave the cluster to find the food, so one colony starved. That left a very weak colony with a bad attack of chalk brood. This is a fungal disease which infects the larvae and kills them before they develop into bees. You’re left with little white lumps - hence the name. There’s no real treatment for this apart from shaking the bees into a clean hive, but that’s only recommended for strong colonies. All I could do was keep feeding and let them get on with it. I’m pleased to report that when I last inspected I found clean comb and healthy larvae, so it looks as though the colony will survive. Incidentally, my local beekeeping association had its annual auction of beekeeping equipment and supplies on 12th May. For the first time ever there were no colonies of bees for sale. Clearly I was not alone in suffering winter losses.
Lecture No 1
What about that lecture I didn’t get to? I think I mentioned that I’ve started researching for a PhD in Sustainability at Leeds Beckett University in the north of England, so when I saw a lecture entitled “What are the justified reasons why we don’t do more about Climate Change?” I thought I had to go. This was in Newcastle, so I set off in good time on the train but when we got to Thirsk we stopped and then we were taken back to York. Apparently there had been a fatality on the line. We were offered buses to Newcastle instead, but by then it was too late. I did make contact with the lecturers and I’ve been able to follow up their work in related fields. Joanne Swaffield and Derek Bell of the Department of Politics at Newcastle University have published: “Can ‘climate champions’ save the planet? A critical reflection on neoliberal social change.” Climate Champions are internally recruited by organisations. They are people who believe in saving the planet, but also believe in neoliberal values. Profit is therefore the first priority over everything. Individuals are more important than the community, so while these champions will advise their colleagues about climate issues, they will leave their colleagues to make up their own minds about whether to do anything about it. They say, “Encouraging climate champions to engage in ‘ordinary moral reasoning’ about climate change with their colleagues might be an important first step to prompting critical reflection on the limits of a neoliberal approach to social change.”
Lecture No 2
And the lecture I did get to? A similar theme. It was called “All about change: understanding motivation and how values influence behaviour.” It was presented by IEMA and the Going Green Working Group of the British Psychological Society. It was led by Jan Maskell who you may remember started as an architect and is now a psychologist and was interviewed on the Sustainable Futures Report in March last year. Opposite number from IEMA was Nick Blyth, Policy and Practice Lead. The objective of the Going Green Working Group is to minimise the negative aspects of one's actions on the natural and built world. Jan was also keen to draw a distinction between occupational psychology, which is what she does with organisations, and occupational therapy, which is what some people do with basket weaving.
This event was in fact not a lecture but a full day workshop with four speakers. First was Andrew Simms, Fellow of the New Economics Foundation and the New Weather Institute, who was talking about whether rapid transition could be possible. In other words are we realistic in expecting that people’s attitudes can fundamentally change towards climate change or any other issue in a relatively short time? After all climate change is quite urgent, given that scientific opinion indicates that the crucial 1.5°C threshold could be breached within five years. There was a record rise in CO2 levels last year, despite emissions reaching a plateau; fossil fuels still produce 82% of the world’s energy, which has doubled since 1978 and global material use is still increasing. If we are serious about an environmentally sustainable future then industrialised countries need radical reductions to consumption: changes of a scale never before seen. Pathways to change to 100% renewable energy do exist, but the political will is not there.
Yes we can…
How realistic is it to believe that we can change rapidly and in time? Andrew told us that history shows that a short sharp shock can lead to rapid change. For example, in April 2010 that volcano in Iceland exploded. It filled the atmosphere with corrosive dust which meant that air travel was cancelled across much of Europe. And the world adapted. Supermarkets sourced food locally, businesses used video conferences, people shared cars and adapted to a slower pace of life without air travel. Of course the problem only lasted for a few days, but adaptation was almost immediate and life went on much as before.
Andrew quoted other examples of rapid change from the past. While it took 15 years to electrify the East Coast main line, Victorian engineers laid 4,000 miles of railway in only seven years. In one weekend in 1892 they converted Brunel's broad gauge railway from London to Plymouth to standard gauge in one weekend. He told us how the US under Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal built extensive infrastructure, spending about 3 1/2% of GDP between 1933 and 1940. Incidentally that was less than the amount spent more recently on quantitative easing. He reminded us how people adapted during the Second World War. A diet constrained by rations, which had the unexpected consequence of improving the nation's health. More use of public transport and people spending what spare cash they had all enjoying themselves rather than on consumer goods. He told us about how Cuba reacted to the short sharp shock which came when Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union stopped supporting the Cuban economy almost overnight. Urban organic agriculture produced 26,000 food gardens in Havana alone and the obesity of the population fell by half. Cuba became self-sufficient.
The 2007 financial crisis showed how states can act swiftly and at scale - although whether the response to the financial crisis was the right one is another debate. Changes at a smaller scale: the Presidents Club in London collapsed almost overnight as a result of scandal, all male conference panels are no longer acceptable, veganism is rapidly becoming mainstream and we are seeing an inflection point in our attitudes to plastic. And there were many other examples.
In conclusion Andrew said that we are good at change but we need public leadership; we need a political will to act at scale and speed and we need a realisation among political leaders that action is needed. The current neoliberal political philosophy, where profit is the over-riding goal and the individual is encouraged to be more important than the community, is not conducive to the changes required.
What should we do?, asked an audience member. Join your nearest transition towns organisation, was Andrew’s answer. He’s involved in an organisation called the Steps Centre https://steps-centre.org which has run conferences on rapid transitions and you’ll find more about transition towns at https://transitionnetwork.org
Simon Jordan followed with a hard-hitting presentation. He explained how he had changed his own life from a very low ebb. “Only you,” he said, “Can make the change. Action trumps hope.”
In little more than 12 months Simon has set up an international movement called #5thingsclear. It started like this. He was horrified to find the amount of plastic washed up on to a remote beach in Wales close to where he lives. To find birds, animals and fish maimed and poisoned by the plastic they consume. I mentioned nurdles at the start of this episode. Nurdles are plastic granules which are the raw material for many plastic products. In the news this week nurdles have been found on British beaches in addition to all the abandoned fishing tackle, plastic bottles, plastic bags and other detritus which is becoming the norm. Simon says we must stop closing our eyes to litter and expecting that others will clear it up. #5thingsclear calls on you to pick up five pieces of litter every day and take it away for proper disposal. You don't have to find it on the beach. Sadly litter is all too prevalent wherever you go. Picking up 5 things is a start, especially if we all do it. Especially if we see litter picking as a civic responsibility and not as a punishment, but of course that’s at odds with the neoliberal philosophy which values the individual above community.
Did you know that some supermarkets are now wrapping carrots individually in plastic? Please don’t buy them. Avoid plastic bags, plastic straws, plastic bottles, plastic cups. Carry your re-usable coffee cup. Don’t release helium balloons or candle lanterns. They can choke livestock where they land and candle lanterns have caused serious fires. There is no Plan B, said Simon. There is no Planet B. Our economy must be better, not bigger. There is no future in growth-based, debt-fuelled, over-consuming consumerism.
So how does he think we can achieve change? People respond to trigger issues and to imminent threats. Hectoring, elitist attitudes are not effective. It's a question of living by example and constantly promoting the message. One questioner asked whether it was justifiable to place so much emphasis on plastic and litter when this is only one of a wide range of issues threatening our environment and our survival. But surely it is better to address at least one issue than to admit that the whole thing is far too difficult and complex and to use that as an excuse for doing nothing at all.
The second part of the event was devoted to two workshops. More about them in a later episode.
The British government continues its love affair with fracking. It was announced this week that planning regulations for new fracking operations will be eased. Shale gas explorers will be able to drill test sites in England without applying for planning permission and fracking sites could be classed as nationally significant infrastructure, meaning approval would come at a national rather than local level. Announcing the changes in Parliament, the Secretary of State explained that the UK had moved from being a net exporter of gas to a position where more than 50% and rising is now imported. As North Sea gas production declines the intention is to make up some of the shortfall from onshore shale gas deposits. The government's position is that the continuing use of gas is consistent with its long-term carbon reduction targets. Maybe so, but gas is still a fossil fuel and its consumption leads to carbon emissions, whether or not these are within targets. Gas provides about a third of the energy used in the UK and is widely used for heating homes and commercial premises. Changing from gas to another form of heating implies investment in new heating equipment. A national campaign to insulate buildings could cut demand and reduce the need for more gas, or energy of any kind.
Whatever the solution, fracking for shale gas remains controversial. At this stage we are talking about test drilling, so the actual availability of gas reserves is so far unproven. There is no doubt that there is a strong protest movement against fracking. Activists claim that the operations can cause earth tremors and pollute local ground water and water supplies. They complain about the high level of lorry traffic needed to service the sites and carry away the product. They have already shown that they are ready to disrupt operations at existing test sites by continuing civil disobedience. Of course the fracking sites are far away from London, but many are in Tory shires. Some even, despite promises, are planned for national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. This government was quick to block the expansion of on-shore wind, the cheapest wind-power, because it upset some of its supporters. Do they think these supporters will be any happier with thousands - and yes, it will have to be thousands to achieve a worthwhile level of production - thousands of fracking wells?
Another campaign from Greenpeace
“Just a few short months ago, Environment Secretary Michael Gove promised "a world-leading body to give the environment a voice and hold the powerful to account””, they say, “and Prime Minister Theresa May pledged "Brexit will not mean a lowering of environmental standards.”"
Talking to the press, Environment Minister Michael Gove has indicated that a regulatory body will be established post Brexit, but there has been wide criticism of its very limited powers. For example, it will not be able to take the government to task. At present any EU government which breaches environmental regulations is answerable to the EU at the European Court of Justice and faces penalties and fines. Britain has been referred to the ECJ several times for failing to deal with dangerous air quality, but after Brexit that will no longer be possible, and critics including the United Nations warn that weakened regulations will damage the UK’s reputation. The Institute for Government reports that its analysis of European Court of Justice (ECJ) judgments from the last 15 years shows that almost half of the cases the Commission brings against the UK relate to the environment and that the UK loses most of them. It is difficult to see how a more relaxed regime will deliver better environmental protection, as the proposed new regulatory body will be able to issue “advisory notices” but no penalties. Comment in The Guardian and The Observer seems to imply that if the government itself is not held to account it will be able to preside over weakened regulations across the board. A strong letter is not going to deter polluters from cutting costs by ignoring regulations.
Not only has the government been prosecuted by the EU for poor air quality, it has lost at least three actions in the High Court brought over the same issue by campaigning lawyers Client Earth. Maybe this is why Environment Minister Gove has been talking specifically about clean-air provisions recently. From 2040 no new petrol or diesel cars will be permitted to be sold in the UK - as announced several months ago. At the time it was pointed out that Norway was planning to do this from 2025, and India, among others, from 2030. There’s now a rumour - strongly denied - that hybrids will be banned as well. Whatever happens, leaving it to 2040 will limit and postpone the effect. After all, many cars sold up to 2039 are likely to still be on the roads in 2050.
But don't buy an electric car! That's the advice given to at least one researcher from the universities of Suffolk and Aarhus. They posed as potential buyers and visited car dealers across Scandinavia, seeking advice. Many dealers failed to offer electric cars even though they were available from the manufacturers that they represented. Electric cars were often hidden away at the back of the site and frequently not even charged. Some dealers even claimed that owning an electric car would be financial ruin.
The researchers concluded that dealers were badly informed about electric cars, and there were two strong disincentives to their sale. The first was that dealers are incentivised on the volume of cars that they sell and taking time to explain an electric car reduces their time for making sales. The other issue is that servicing is frequently the major profit centre of a dealership and electric cars need very little maintenance. The conclusion appears to be that you shouldn't trust a car salesman. Who would have thought it?
Clearing the Air
The other air quality issue addressed by Mr Gove was wood-burning stoves. They look essentially green, don’t they? They must be environmental because they burn a natural non-fossil fuel and any carbon dioxide emitted will be absorbed by new trees growing up to provide the next crop of logs. Maybe so. Maybe. The immediate problem with wood burning stoves is particulates: small fragments of ash which escape into the atmosphere. Particulates can act as nucleation sites. They stimulate the formation of clouds or fog like the London smogs of the 50s. Worse, they are small enough not only to be breathed into the lungs, but to transit the lung membrane and be absorbed directly into the bloodstream. About 10% of UK homes (2.5 million) have an open fire or wood-burning stove and account for 38% of damaging particulate matter in the UK. Michael Gove says he is ready to legislate to ensure only the “cleanest” domestic fuels will be available for sale.
Have your say.
The government’s consultation is open until 15th June.
If you clean up particulates you're still left with carbon dioxide. The solution for major installations like power stations has been carbon capture and storage, although this has never been achieved at a commercial scale. The plan is to strip the carbon dioxide out of the exhaust gases from the power station, compress it and pump it along pipelines for indefinite storage in exhausted oil and gas wells under the North Sea. George Osborne, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, offered a £1 billion fund to make the technology work, but like other elements of the government’s energy policy this was withdrawn at short notice. Now Drax Power, operators of the U.K.'s largest power station, are looking at carbon capture and storage again. The difference is that instead of pumping the carbon dioxide away to remote caverns beneath the sea, the plan is to store the gas on site and to sell it for use in industrial processes. At this stage no buyer is in view. It’s interesting that they will be using CCS on their biofuel boilers. Perhaps the process isn’t as carbon-neutral as they like to claim.
A while ago I reported on a plan to make use of surplus CO2, but I’ve had no luck in finding the episode. If you can remember who it was who was going to develop this process please tell Drax.
And that’s it for another episode of the Sustainable Futures Report. Thank you for listening, thanks for supporting and thanks for coming up with ideas.
I have several interviews planned for future episodes. In September I’ll be reviewing a new book on the Circular Economy and I’ve just come across the Green Deal again. It seems to have been much more successful than many people thought and in fact it’s still in operation. More about that, too.
As always, if you have ideas, suggestions or a sustainability story to tell do get in touch. firstname.lastname@example.org
I’m told that June is going to be incredibly hot - even hotter than the temperatures we enjoyed in the UK for the last weekend in May. Have a great June, and I hope you won’t be affected by a repeat of the flash floods and lightning storms which hit the south of England this week. I think it may be something to do with climate change.
Until next time
This is Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Bye for now.