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Hello and Welcome
Hello I’m Anthony Day and welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 7th September.
Now that we have left August behind us you may think that the silly season is over. There were many silly stories in the press but many serious issues continued to be serious so here's a roundup of what you may have missed. I've called this episode HOLD TIGHT because there's an awful lot to get through. The first and most important thing of course is to welcome our newest patron Michelle Marks. Welcome Michelle, and thanks for supporting the Sustainable Futures Report. If you too would like to be a patron and contribute a small amount each month to support the Sustainable Futures Report you would be more than welcome. Just hop across to patreon.com/SFR where you'll find all the details. And let me take this opportunity to thank all my patrons for their continuing support.
I've always said that sustainability is a vast subject. Just to give you a flavour of that, in this episode I'll be talking about energy, including fracking and transport, about waste food and waste plastic, about climate change, about investment strategies, about floods and fires and climate change denial, and we have a book review as well. There are some informed insights from Jeremy Leggett and there might be a bit of politics too.
Remember, the full text of this episode is on the blog at www.sustainablefutures.report where you will find links to the sources of all my stories.
Here we go then, let's start with energy. Have we finally found the philosopher’s stone? You know, the compound sought by the alchemists of old which would turn lead into gold. The idea of a pumpable liquid to fuel electric cars seems to me to be in that category, or at very least it seems to be too good to be true. Researchers Cronin, Chen and Symes say in the abstract from their article in the Nature Chemistry journal “we present a polyoxoanion, … that can act either as a high-performance redox flow battery electrolyte… …or as a mediator in an electrolytic cell for the on-demand generation of hydrogen.” Some storage batteries contain a liquid called an electrolyte. Older readers may remember when car batteries contained sulphuric acid as an electrolyte, and the cells had to be topped up with distilled water every now and then. It seems that this new process could be used in electric car batteries. The exhausted electrolyte liquid would be drained out and replaced with a new energy-rich batch. If this could be done as quickly as refuelling a petrol or diesel car the range anxiety problem with electric cars - the worry that the battery will run out and take hours to recharge, leaving the driver stranded - will be solved at a stroke. Of course there will be a few issues to be ironed out. Could this liquid be dispensed through existing petrol pumps? Can it be easily transported or does it need to be pressurised? How is it produced and how much energy is needed for the process? What will happen to the exhausted electrolyte extracted from the batteries? A practical solution may be some way off, but we need to support more research like this.
Cleaning Up Cars
More news from the automotive sector.
In August Greenpeace took direct action against @UKVolkswagen by blockading their head office “to try & wake them up to the diesel pollution crisis. It's time for VW to do the right thing & #DitchDiesel.” 20-08-18
VW has been getting a bad press in Mexico as well, for a story which has been relayed by media from the Washington Post to CBC to the Daily Telegraph. Apparently, Volkswagen is curbing the use of hail cannons outside its factory in Puebla, Mexico, after it was accused by local farmers of causing a drought in the region, leading to heavy losses of crops.
VW used the cannons to protect newly-built vehicles from hailstone damage. The devices emit shock waves into the sky, which are believed to prevent the chunks of ice from forming, but there’s a lack of scientific evidence that the cannons actually impact weather conditions and minimise hail, and their legitimacy has long been criticised. Still, farmers in Puebla claim that the cannons have led to a lack of much-needed rainfall.
The hail cannons are “affecting the Earth’s cycles,” said Gerardo Perez, a leader of the farmers. When the devices blast away, “the sky literally clears and it simply doesn’t rain,” he said. To cover the crop losses, the farmers are demanding that Volkswagen pay nearly $4 million in compensation.
Bad news, but the most damning report came from The Guardian.
“Drivers in Europe have paid €150bn more on fuel than they would have if their vehicles had performed as well on-the-road as in official laboratory-based tests, according to a new report.
Car companies have legally gamed official tests of fuel economy for many years by, for example, using very hard tyres during tests or taking out equipment to make cars lighter. The gap between test and actual performance has soared from 9% in 2000 to 42% today.
Analysts at research and campaign group Transport & Environment have now calculated that this difference cost motorists in Europe €150bn (£136bn) in extra fuel between 2000 and 2017. UK drivers paid €3.5bn more in 2017 alone, and a total of €24bn since 2000.
A new more realistic lab test is now in place but the European commission uncovered new evidence in July that this was also being gamed by carmakers. This means the increases in fuel efficiency being demanded by the EU as part of its action on climate change are still being undermined and drivers will continue to use more fuel than policymakers intend.”
Something in the Air
OK, that’s hitting drivers in the pocket and it’s frustrating attempts to curb climate change, but what’s more worrying is the effect of poor air quality on health.
CNN reports that air pollution could be more damaging to our health than previously thought, according to a new study, which found that prolonged exposure to dirty air has a significant impact on our cognitive abilities, especially in older men.
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that breathing polluted air causes a "steep reduction" in scores on verbal and math tests.
Meanwhile, The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health has declared pollution as the greatest health risk to the world population of which air pollution is by far the greatest contributor. The principal outdoor pollutants are particulates (PM10 , PM2.5 and ultrafine particles), both primary from exhaust and tyre/brake wear and secondary from atmospheric chemical interactions of pollutants.
In 2016, the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) and Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPH) published a ground-breaking report highlighting the serious health issues being created by air pollution in the UK with an estimated 40,000 deaths from cardiovascular and lung disease brought forward and substantially greater effects on morbidity from a wide range of diseases. An important conclusion from this report was that air pollution acts across the entire life course from conception to old age; exposure to pollutants in early childhood, contributing to excess morbidity and mortality in later years.
Falsifying vehicle emissions data is clearly both cynical and irresponsible. It might not be going too far to classify it as a crime against humanity, as it affects all people for all of their lives; motorists or not.
Goodbye to Coal?
Transform, the journal of IEMA, reports that the UK is on the brink of eradicating coal from its electricity mix during the summer months. OK, we’ve had an exceptional summer, but coal accounted for a record-low 1% of power over June this year.
Climate Action also has the story: “Researchers at Imperial College London analysed official data from the National Grid over the months of April, May and June,” they say.
“‘For the third summer in a row, coal is edging closer to extinction in Britain,’ commented lead author Dr Iain Staffell, noting that ‘coal supplied a mere 1.3 per cent of electricity over the quarter. Its share also fell below 1 per cent for first time across June.
‘The times at which coal is running over summer is “at a bare minimum”,’ Staffell added, highlighting that plants are usually called upon to provide grid stability during periods of low demand.”
“The report goes on to state that Britain “likely could” run without coal all summer, given that the remaining fleet operated at only 3 per cent of its maximum capacity.”
Across the pond, California has given fossil fuel-derived energy a hefty shove towards obsolescence after legislators voted to require that 100% of the state’s electricity come from carbon-free sources.
The bill, which will need to be approved by the state senate and Governor Jerry Brown, will require a complete shift to clean energy such as solar and wind by 2045. It would also demand that electric utilities source 60% of their power from renewable sources by 2030, up from the current target of 50%.
Nothing in the Pipeline?
Turning to another source of fossil-fuel energy, Eco-Watch reports a Stunning Victory for Indigenous Nations as Canada Halts Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion
I mentioned this dispute in a recent episode. Alberta is exploiting vast tar sands to extract bituminous oil, but can only make the project viable by transporting the output by pipeline across Bitish Columbia to the port at Vancouver.
The article goes on, “A Canadian court "quashed" approval of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion on Thursday, a major setback for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose government agreed to purchase the controversial project from Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion Canadian dollars (U.S. $3.5 billion) in May.
“It's a stunning victory for Indigenous groups and environmentalists opposed to the project, which is designed to nearly triple the amount of tar sands transported from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia.
“The Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the National Energy Board's review—as explained by the Canadian Press—"was so flawed that the federal government could not rely on it as a basis for its decision to approve the expansion."
“The project has been at the center of widespread protests from environmental groups and First Nations ever since November 2016, when [prime minister] Trudeau approved a $7.4 billion expansion of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline that would increase the transport of Alberta tar sands oil from the current 300,000 barrels per day to 890,000 barrels per day and increase tanker traffic nearly seven-fold through the Burrard Inlet. Specifically, the court said it was an "unjustifiable failure" that the National Energy Board did not consider the environmental impacts of the increased tanker traffic.”
If you remember, the Burrard Inlet links the Port of Vancouver to the Pacific Ocean. In addition to concerns about the environmental impact of the pipeline there were also concerns about the tankers taking the product away to Asian markets. The inlet is crossed by a string of islands, making navigation far from straightforward, particularly in winter.
The court's judgment could be appealed a final time to the Supreme Court of Canada, but for the moment construction must stop and the government must revise its review of the project, including its negotiations with the indigenous peoples.
It looks as though the Canadian government has bought a white elephant which could remain in limbo indefinitely.
Fracking Futures - or not?
Still on energy, Jeremy Leggett published a review of fracking last month. You can find it at https://jeremyleggett.net/2018/08/08/history-of-oil-and-gas-production-from-shale-in-pictures-and-charts-why-american-shale-is-heading-for-a-crash-and-fracking-in-the-uk-is-doomed-to-costly-failure/ and the link is on the blog and the blog is at www.sustainablefutures.report . He calls it “Why American Shale is heading for a crash and fracking in the UK is doomed to costly failure” so he’s not puling any punches. I recommend that you go and have a look at it, but I’ll just highlight a couple of points. Leggett reports that US fracking is consuming cash faster than it’s generating it and he calls it a giant Ponzi scheme which will never repay its investments. According to Bloomberg there’s a major threat to the viability of fracked gas from the rapidly improving solar, wind and battery technology which is driving energy prices below the level where fracked fossil fuels can be profitable. California’s plan to phase out fossil fuels, mentioned above, just ramps up the pressure. There is also concern that many fracking wells are becoming depleted much more quickly than expected. New pipelines will never pay for themselves if there is no product to put through them.
Quite apart from viability, there are serious environmental concerns. The US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) now accepts that fracking can contaminate drinking water. Farmers are suing water companies for mining aquifers to extract the thousands of gallons of water needed for fracking operations. 70,000 fish were killed in Ohio after a fracking spill, but nobody knows exactly what killed them because operator Halliburton has no legal requirement to reveal the chemicals it uses. On the face of it, gas is a cleaner fuel than coal, but the methane leaks associated with extracting the gas can make it more damaging than coal. The EPA has found that methane leakage is far higher than expected, and leakage in the US has global climate consequences.
There is no fracking currently in the UK, but the government is keen that it should start as soon as possible in England and is doing everything to smooth the planning path and to buy off opposition by promising hefty grants to the local communities where fracking is planned. Scotland, Germany, the State of Victoria in Australia, France, New Zealand and the US State of Monterey are some of the states which have all banned fracking, but the UK government insists that fracking is an essential part of England’s energy future. One of the problems in the UK, of course, is that nobody in government is giving any serious attention at the moment to anything apart from Brexit, the UK’s planned departure from the European Union, and each of the two main parties is totally split from cabinet level down.
Let’s talk rubbish
Waste has featured in the news over the past few weeks.
A shocking report published in the Journal of Cleaner Production reveals that more than a third of farmed fruit and vegetables never reaches supermarket shelves because it is misshapen or the wrong size. A third. More than 30%. One apple or potato or cucumber or strawberry or turnip in three is thrown away.
A University of Edinburgh study found more than 50 million tonnes of fruit and vegetables grown across Europe were discarded each year. This was in part because they did not meet consumers' expectations of how they should look.
Meanwhile, plastic waste still makes the news. BBC News quotes the Treasury saying that there is high public support for using the tax system to reduce waste from single-use plastics.
A consultation on how taxes could tackle the rising problem and promote recycling attracted 162,000 responses. Treasury Minister Robert Jenrick said the government was looking at "smart, intelligent incentives" to get plastic producers to take responsibility.
Reports suggest a levy on manufacturers and some disposable plastic products may be introduced in the Budget, which will take place in November. It could include measures such as a tax on single-use coffee cups.
Climate Action tells us about a new solar-powered watch made from recycled plastic. “Two French designers are leading the way to reducing plastic pollution,” they say, “by creating a watch made from recycled bottles. The new eco-friendly watch is named ‘Awake’. It is made from plastic waste, recycled stainless steel and is powered by solar energy.”
Apparently this watch will cost about $300. I must admit I’m tempted, although my £65 watch still works perfectly well. If I were to buy a new watch it would be nice to think that it’s been made with minimal impact on the environment. I think the new watch’s main contribution will be to make people remember that recycling is important.
Scientists have been telling us about the dangers of plastic pollution for years. Then David Attenborough made a film about it and suddenly everyone’s aware. You can never tell what will trigger the tipping point; only rejoice when something does.
Scientists have been telling us about climate change for years. The consequences of the long hot summer we’ve had may have the same tipping point effect. There has certainly been no shortage of weather stories in the media, and people are beginning to think that climate change might just be real.
Floods and Fires
At the beginning of August New Scientist reported on California’s worst wildfire in history. It was now the size of Los Angeles, they said.
In June and July fire burnt across Saddleworth Moor in northern England. It may have been caused by arson, but the hot dry weather helped it burn for some 3 weeks.
A series of wildfires in Greece began in the coastal areas of Attica in July and by mid August 96 people were confirmed dead.
In Sweden, in northern Europe, wildfires burned more than 24,000 hectares of land, with authorities battling 80 fires across the Nordic country at one point. Some of these fires were burning north of the Arctic Circle.
The situation wasn’t helped by an outbreak of arson, which saw some 100 cars set on fire in different cities across the country.
The South China Morning Post reports that In Japan, more than 200 people were killed in historic flooding, followed by an extreme heatwave, and then a typhoon battered the country again – all of this in July alone.
As I write this, the BBC is reporting that Japan has been hit by one of the strongest typhoons in 25 years, with officials warning more than a million people to evacuate their homes.
Typhoon Jebi made landfall in western areas, bringing heavy rain and reports of winds up to 172km/h (107 mph).
In Osaka Bay it swept a tanker into a bridge and in Kyoto parts of the train station roof came down.
In Calabria, Italy, torrential rain in August led to flash flooding. Waters tearing down a narrow gorge killed 11 hikers
In Kerala, India, floods caused the death of at least 324 people. Some 220,000 were left homeless and thousands were trapped after unusually heavy rain.
The state is “facing the worst floods in 100 years”, said chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Roads were damaged, mobile phone networks down, an international airport closed.
Could it be Climate Change?
The bad news goes on, all over the world. As I said, people are beginnig to mutter about climate change. Writing in the Daily Mail, former Conservative party leader Michael Howard said, “Thirty years ago Margaret Thatcher warned of man-made global warming. I fear this blazing summer is proving her right.”
The Guardian’s headline was “Domino-effect of climate events could move Earth into a ‘hothouse’ state”. It went on to explain that a domino-like cascade of melting ice, warming seas, shifting currents and dying forests could tilt the Earth into a “hothouse” state beyond which human efforts to reduce emissions would be increasingly futile. The paper was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “I do hope we are wrong, but as scientists we have a responsibility to explore whether this is real,” said Johan Rockström, executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. “We need to know now. It’s so urgent. This is one of the most existential questions in science.” He warned that the 2℃ target set by the Paris Agreement might not be enough to avoid this situation. Worryingly it’s generally agreed that the commitments made by the countries signing the Paris Agreement will not be enough to meet the target, especially as Trump’s America has turned its back on it.
Putting your money…
Jeremy Leggett provides us with a summary of a recent note to investors issued by Jeremy Grantham, chief investment strategist of Grantham, Mayo, & van Otterloo, a firm with more than US$118 billion in assets under management. Grantham calls it “The Race of Our Lives” and he goes through the threats to the future from climate change. He shows his company’s portfolio break down - 39% in clean energy, 17% in energy efficiency, 19% in agriculture and the rest spread over smart grids, copper and water.
These are his recommendations:
- Vote for green politicians and that can include some Republicans
- Lobby investment firms to be greener and to lean on their portfolio companies to do the same.
- Do not grant the oil companies immunity– they have been complicit in a global cover-up of data, funded propaganda, delayed decarbonisation and they’ve recklessly endangered us.
- Consume with decarbonisation in the front of mind
“We are racing to protect not just our portfolios, not just our grandchildren, but our species. So get to it.”
And Those Against…
Of course the denialists are always with us. A recent headline said,
“Australian PM dumps key climate policy to stave off leadership revolt”
Sorry Mr Turnbull, it didn’t work. Although there’s no guarantee that the new PM will introduce wide-ranging green policies. Probably the opposite.
In the US the Illinois attorney-general is suing Trump Tower over the 20 million gallons of water that it takes from the Chicago River each day. It uses the water for cooling, which raises its temperature, and then discharges it back into the river with no regard for any environmental consequences.
A sinister story comes from Open Democracy UK.
“Twenty years ago, and without any public debate, an arcane international agreement entered into force. The Energy Charter Treaty (ECT) gives sweeping powers to foreign investors in the energy sector, including the peculiar privilege to directly sue states in secret international tribunals arbitrated over by three private lawyers. Companies are claiming dizzying sums in compensation for government actions that have allegedly damaged their investments, either directly through expropriation or indirectly through regulations of virtually any kind.
“Swedish energy giant Vattenfall, for example, sued Germany for €1.4 billion in compensation over environmental restrictions imposed on a coal-fired power plant. The lawsuit was settled after the government agreed to relax the restrictions protecting the local river and its wildlife. Since 2012, Vattenfall has been suing Germany again, seeking €4.3 billion plus interest for lost profits from two nuclear reactors, following the country’s phase-out of atomic energy after the Fukushima disaster. Several utility companies are pursuing the EU’s poorest member state, Bulgaria, seeking hundreds of millions of euros because the government reduced soaring electricity costs for consumers. And these are only a few examples.”
We covered this in a previous episode. I read a report recently that the US fossil fuel industry was considering similar action. It wanted to sue the government to repeal environmental legislation that was making its operations unviable. Let’s ignore the effect of fossil fuels on the viability of the planet.
It’s an Ill Wind…
There has got to be good news. Back at the beginning of year the city authorities in Cape Town South Africa predicted that the city would run out of water on 21 April. That you didn't in fact happen because they introduced to stringent water rationing regulations, they were able to negotiate with farmers to release some of the water in my reservoirs and they did have some rain. Since then I have had exceptional rain and the reservoirs are now back up to 80% capacity. No let up on the rationing regulations, however. I think people in Cape Town have come to realise how valuable water really is. A lesson for all us perhaps.
Good news for the shipping industry in that they North Atlantic Sea ice is receding in the hot weather so that navigation around the top of North America is possible. A new 42,000 t containership, the Venta Maersk, has been built for the route. Good news for the shipping industry, but maybe not such good news for the rest of us because even without collisions or capsizes there will be environmental damage from the passage of these vessels. The fact that the northwest passage is open itself underlines the truth of climate change.
Designing the Purposeful World
And now, before you go, we have a book review and an interview with Clive Wilson, the author. This will be the first of two book reviews for September. My first thought was to ask “Who reads books these days?” We are so overwhelmed with sources of information from multiple television channels to social media to Internet search engines and podcasts, quite apart from the traditional newspapers, magazines, and print advertising. We are showered with so much information that many people have a very limited attention span, and who indeed would read a book when you can get all the answers on line? The answer of course is that while you can search for anything on line, it’s frequently difficult to judge the accuracy of what you find or even to complete the picture of what you are looking for. On the other hand, the author of a book has done the research, often over many months or years. They have verified and cross-checked the information and assembled it all in a logical sequence for you to absorb.
I don’t know whether Clive Wilson thought specifically of attention spans when he wrote Designing the Purposeful World, but his book certainly does everything it can to catch the reader’s attention and keep it. It’s also only 130 pages or so, so it’s a very manageable size, but Clive is asking the reader questions, and giving space for written answers from the first page on. In fact he asks you to write down your thoughts no less than seven times in the first chapter and ends it with a checklist to test your understanding. This is a pattern repeated throughout the book. This is not a book that anyone is going to fall asleep over.
Designing the Purposeful World explores the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,(UNSDGs) how they affect all of us and how we all can make a difference. If you haven’t heard of the UN SDGs you should go to sustainabledevelopment.un.org, or maybe just read the book. It starts from why anyone can make a difference and ends with a summary of the story so far and a call to take action, to promote the SDGs and to help to fulfil them. There are seventeen goals and along the way Clive demonstrates how they fit in with our lives, with the organisations we work for, with the companies we buy from and with society at large. I’ve had an opportunity to talk to Clive Wilson and to ask him to expand on some of his ideas.
Clive Wilson. His book, Designing the Purposeful World, is published by Routledge and available from all good bookshops. Next time I shall be looking at “A Circular Economy Handbook for Business and Supply Chains” by Catherine Weetman and published by Kogan Page.
And that's it for this edition of the Sustainable Futures Report, which is by far the longest one to date but as I explained the start there is just so much to catch up on. As usual there are links to all my sources on the blog which you can find at www.sustainablefutures.report.
Thank you for listening and if you're a patron thank you for your support. And thanks again to Michelle Marks for becoming our latest patron. The next edition of the Sustainable Futures Report will be on 21 September and I'm seriously thinking about resuming a weekly publication schedule. I'll explain why next time. I'll also mention smart meters and tell you about my attempts to buy an electric car. I expect there will be quite a lot of other stories to bring you as well. If you have ideas or information or feedback don’t hesitate to share at email@example.com. And don’t forget that there are links to the sources of all these stories on the blog at www.sustainablefutures.report.
In the meantime thanks once again for listening.
This is Anthony Day
That was the Sustainable Futures Report
Bye for now!