- this is Anthony Day with the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 12th April. I called this episode Next Week but who knows where we'll be or what will be happening next week? By the time you listen to this or read it you’ll know far more than I do now. Could the UK be teetering on the point of leaving the EU? If we wake up on Saturday morning and are no longer members, then all environmental controls and carbon commitments will be in the hands of our own Michael Gove. That's former journalist and now Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Gove who once said that we'd had enough of experts. Will he continue to follow the EU experts on environmental protection or will he follow some other path? And what about the Paris Agreement? The EU signed that on behalf of all 28 members. Presumably we’re going to have to re-sign it on our own behalf. I hope our commitment will be at least as strong as the one we made as part of the EU.
I did tell you last time that I was going to suspend the Sustainable Futures Report over Easter and for a couple of weeks thereafter. But of course, next week sees Extinction Rebellion’s big event. Their plan to block the roads of central London and to be arrested for it if that's what happens. I don't think I can let that pass, so look out for another episode, but I'm not promising to publish on Friday.
The other reason for going ahead is to pay tribute to all my listeners, patrons included, who are growing in number by the hour. I mentioned previously that downloads for March were growing rapidly and in fact they exceeded the totals for each of December, January and February. Downloads in April continue to run at about double previous levels. So if you're a new listener, welcome and I hope you'll stay and if you're a loyal listener, thank you for staying with me. And here's the inevitable plug for Patreon. If you'd like to support me in this podcast for as little as $1 per month I'd be more than grateful and you can find out all about becoming a patron at patreon.com/sfr. Apart from that I get no subsidy, sponsorship or advertising. I do chair conferences sometimes, and I’m paid for that, and I’m always ready to deliver keynotes so do bear me in mind for your next big event.
Where does it all come from?
Following on from last week’s question about where I do ever find enough material for a weekly podcast, here's what I'm covering this week.
Re-wilding the countryside, global warming in Canada, what engineer I K Brunel thought about pollution, the downside of banning throwaway coffee cups, the future for gas home heating, the Lancet’s Countdown, naming and shaming some plastic polluters, coal-fired power plants and cleaning up the National Grid, air quality in London and regenerative farming. But not necessarily in that order.
A sign that the fight-back against climate change is gaining support. There was an article in my paper talking about the incredibly cheap flights available just at the moment. The journalist said she was going to take advantage of as many as she could possibly afford. Three letters in my paper the following day criticising her irresponsibility given that aviation is a major source of carbon emissions and air pollution.
I’m grateful to Professor Hilary Graham of York University for telling me about The Lancet’s Countdown initiative.
The Lancet Countdown: tracking progress on health and climate change was established to provide an independent, global monitoring system dedicated to tracking the health dimensions of the impacts of, and the response to, climate change. The Lancet Countdown tracks 41 indicators across five domains: climate change impacts, exposures, and vulnerability; adaptation, planning, and resilience for health; mitigation actions and health co-benefits; finance and economics; and public and political engagement.
The Lancet Countdown's 2018 report arrives at three key conclusions:
IMPACT: Present day changes in heat waves, labour capacity, vector-borne disease, and food security provide early warning of compounded and overwhelming impacts expected if temperature continues to rise.
DELAY: A lack of progress in reducing emissions and building adaptive capacity threatens both human lives and the viability of the national health systems they depend on, with the potential to disrupt core public health infrastructure and overwhelm health services.
OPPORTUNITY: Despite these delays, trends in a number of sectors see the beginning of a low-carbon transition, and it is clear that the nature and scale of the response to climate change will be the determining factor in shaping the health of nations for centuries to come.
Ensuring a widespread understanding of climate change as a central public health issue, they say, will be crucial in delivering an accelerated response, with the health profession beginning to rise to this challenge.
Among its 10 recommendations the report includes
- investing in climate change and public health research
- phasing out coal-fired power
- encouraging city-level low-carbon transition to reduce urban pollution (more about that in a moment)
- rapidly expanding access to renewable energy, unlocking the substantial economic gains available from this transition
- developing a new, independent collaboration to provide expertise in implementing policies that mitigate climate change and promote public health, and monitor progress over the next 15 years
This is another authoritative voice, identifying the challenges of climate change and urging action. Difficult to ignore, unless perhaps you’re Donald Trump. As they say, a lack of progress…threatens human lives. The world is beginning to realise that something must be done. The problem is that since we’ve delayed our action long after the challenge has become evident we’re going to need to act rapidly and dramatically.
Remember the reports of last year’s IPCC Report? Which said that we had only 12 years to sort things out? Does that mean that we’ve only got 11 years left now? No. What the IPCC actually said was that we’ll get to the point of no return in 2030 unless we start doing something NOW.
There’s a link to the Countdown report on the blog and there’s also a link to a discussion of the report with Professor Hilary Graham and Professor Hugh Montgomery.
In the Air
Talking of air pollution - again - this week sees the introduction of London’s ULEZ, the Ultra Low Emissions Zone. If your vehicle is not an ultra low emissions vehicle, which means it meets Euro 4 emission standards if it’s a petrol car or Euro 6 for diesel cars, you will have to pay to drive in the zone. The charge is £12.50 for cars and vans and £100 for buses and lorries. Electric cars are of course exempt. The ULEZ charge is in addition to the Congestion Charge, but while the Congestion Charge does not apply after 18.00 or at weekends or on public holidays, the ULEZ charge applies 24/7 every day of the year. If you travel late at night and you’re in the zone both before and after midnight you’ll have to pay for two days. If you fail to pay, the penalties are £160 for light vehicles and £1,000 for large vehicles.
Incidentally, I’ve looked up the Euro emissions standards and they say nothing at all about CO2, the most common greenhouse gas. They specify limits for gases like carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide and the concentration of particulate matter, but not CO2. Time for some revisions there, I think.
Something clearly has to be done about London's poor air-quality, although it is by no means the only city in the UK or indeed in the world with an air pollution problem.
The Guardian reports that while in 2017 London saw its first breach of annual pollution limits just five days into the new year and in 2018 it occurred within a month, three months into 2019, no such breaches have taken place. So things are getting better. Nevertheless, the London Atmospheric Emissions Inventory shows that there are still 2 million people living in areas with toxic air, including 400,000 children.
Ministers have been defeated three times in the high court over the inadequacy of their national action plans for improving air quality. The latest plan, described by environmental lawyers as “pitiful”, revealed that air pollution was much worse than previously believed.
Air pollution causes at least 40,000 early deaths in the UK from lung and heart disease, but it is being linked to an increasing range of health impacts, from miscarriage to teenage psychosis.
We can hope that once Brexit is out of the way the government will take a sensible approach to air quality and to the many other issues which have been on hold for the last three years. Unfortunately it seems that if the government doesn’t get its way its policy is to try and try and try again in the face of all opposition and legal rulings.
Good News - nearly
Good news in that the National Grid has announced a plan to make its operations 100% clean by 2025, as reported in the Australian press. Good news on the face of it, but as Energy Voice explains, what the company actually said was that its ambition is to transform the operation of the electricity system by 2025 so it can be operated “safely and securely at zero carbon” when there is sufficient renewable power online and available to meet demand. Zero carbon means renewables and nuclear, which together supplied 53% of the nation’s electricity in 2018. It’s not clear, but I’m assuming that the 100% target depends on Hinkley C coming on stream by 2025. Meanwhile Centrica announces its path to net zero and commits to supplying 7GW of clean energy systems by 2030.
In view of this it’s not surprising that The Guardian reports that there has been a global 'collapse' in number of new coal-fired power plants. China originally took the lead in this but the signs are that faced with an economic slowdown they have restarted some of their suspended power station projects. But Christine Shearer, of Global Energy Monitor, said even emissions from the existing coal plants were incompatible with keeping global warming below 2C. “We need to radically phase down coal plant use over the next decade to keep on track for Paris climate goals,” she said.
News comes from the Green Left Weekly that mining giant Glencore has decided to cap its production of thermal coal at 150m tonnes and at the same time China is limiting coal imports. “Is this the beginning of the end of coal?” they ask.
But more news comes from The Guardian that Glencore spent millions bankrolling a secret, globally coordinated campaign to prop up coal demand by undermining environmental activists, influencing politicians and spreading sophisticated pro-coal messaging on social media.
This is the problem. The science is clear but commercial interests with vastly deep pockets will use everything they can to deny the problems caused by their industries. We saw it with the tobacco industry. We saw it with Exxon and other oil companies. We’re still seeing it, even though it may be very subtle, with many other fossil-fuel companies. As I mentioned before, I’m researching denial. I hope to understand it well enough to discover how to counter it.
Journalist George Monbiot, together with three colleagues, has set up a new organisation called Natural Climate Solutions. Its stated mission is, “To catalyse global enthusiasm for drawing down carbon by restoring ecosystems: the single most undervalued and underfunded tool for climate mitigation.”
Monbiot explains how we not only need to cut down carbon emissions across the world but we also need to extract some of the carbon dioxide that's already in the atmosphere. Several technological solutions have been proposed. One is bio energy with carbon capture and storage or (BECCS). This involves growing trees which will absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, then burning them for energy and capturing and storing the carbon dioxide that is emitted. He rejects this because the land needed for growing the trees would be vast, would cause hunger by displacing agricultural crops and make the problem worse by creating emissions from fertilisers and from the cultivation process. Although carbon capture and storage has been under development for many years it has not so far been operated on a commercial scale.
Another option is direct capture of CO2 from the air. This involves vast machines which would be used to collect the CO2. Although the actual concentrations of CO2 have reached levels which are dangerous for the planet they still represent a tiny percentage, significantly less than half of one percent of the atmosphere, so truly enormous amounts of air would have to be processed to extract useful amounts of CO2. Presumably these machines will need energy to operate them and of course they will be made of steel and possibly concrete and the production process of the equipment needed to have a worthwhile effect will itself create significant carbon emissions. And there will still be the problem of how to store the captured carbon.
The approach of Natural Climate Solutions is to use natural sequestration of carbon. They believe this is the only practical way to reduce atmospheric carbon and the only way of doing it in time. They recommend that we restore natural forests and mangroves. That we protect and recover peat bogs which are drying out as they are drained and dug out for horticultural use, releasing their stores of CO2. They recommend that bottom trawling should be stopped, as this releases CO2 stored on the seabed. They believe in the protection of the animals and fish which prey on the herbivores which destroy the carbon-locking vegetation if unchecked.
The Natural Climate Solutions website shows a wide range of allies from the United Nations Environment programme to the Leonardo di Caprio Foundation and the WWF. Together with Greta Thunberg, Michael Mann, Naomi Klein and 20 other notables they have written an open letter to the UNFCCC, the UNCBD, governments and NGOs warning of the dangers and urging global support for their actions.
As they say on the website,
“A better world for wildlife is a better world for people.”
Hotting up in Canada
Meanwhile, global warming goes on and seems to be particularly acute in Canada. Canada’s Changing Climate Report 2019 finds that both past and future warming in Canada is, on average, about double the magnitude of global warming. Northern Canada has warmed and will continue to warm at even more than double the global rate. “It is likely,”they say, “that more than half of the observed warming in Canada is due to the influence of human activities.” The report goes on to study changes in rainfall, snow and ice, climate extremes, fresh water availability and sea levels.
They warn that, “Scenarios with limited warming will only occur if Canada and the rest of the world reduce carbon emissions to near zero early in the second half of the century and reduce emissions of other greenhouse gases substantially.
“Beyond the next few decades, the largest uncertainty about the magnitude of future climate change is rooted in uncertainty about human behaviour, that is, whether the world will follow a pathway of low, medium, or high emissions. Given this uncertainty, projections based on a range of emission scenarios are needed to inform impact assessment, climate risk management, and policy development.”
Foot off the Gas!
One way to cut carbon emissions is to cut down on the use of gas for home heating. The UK government has floated plans to exclude gas heating from new homes in a few years’ time, but what are the alternatives? Patron Tom de Simone caught a documentary on BBC Radio: Costing the Earth - Dash from Gas. Here’s what he thought:
“It was not bad. They talked to people who are using/developing:
- district heat networks
- water source heat pumps from abandoned flooded coal mines (I spoke to Prof Jon Gluyas of Durham University about that back in October.)
- air source heat pumps in conjunction with a gas boiler (for top-up when it's really cold)
- electric radiators in combination with solar PV and battery (which is charged overnight when electricity is cheap)
- normal gas central heating, but with per-room temperatures and schedules
“What they didn't mention once was making your home more efficient to heat in the first place, which was pretty disappointing. I think some of these systems would work well with extra insulation i.e. not a full retrofit; if you can reduce your home's heating requirements by, say, half, options like ASHP (maybe without the gas backup) and electric radiators start to look more viable.
“They didn't really favour any one approach, and they basically finished by throwing their hands up and saying "I dunno, it's hard"... which is kind of a fair assessment of where we're at! They briefly touched on the money side of it, but only to say it's going to cost £450 billion and add £300 to everyone's bills, which wasn't really helpful. No hint that maybe governments might want to help with some of the cost of, you know, saving the world and all that.”
Find the programme on the BBC Sounds app, or via the link on the blog.
Time for a coffee?
The BBC reports that independent coffee chain Boston Tea Party (BTP) has seen sales fall by £250,000 since it banned single use cups last summer. Owner Sam Roberts said it had factored the loss in takings into its plans and that too many operators were "putting their profits before the planet".
The chain, which has 22 branches around England and is based in Bristol, started the ban in June 2018. Although they tried giving people 25p off for bringing their own cup, only about 5% of customers responded. They calculate that they have saved 125,000 disposable cups from going to landfill since they started the scheme.
If you go to BTP without your own cup you’ll have to buy a re-usable cup or go thirsty.
My question about these schemes is will they wash your cup? If you drink out of a reusable cup you’re left with a dirty cup. If you want to go back later in the day for another drink will they rinse out your cup and refill it?
Cleaning up Bristol
Concerns about pollution were also expressed in Bristol many years ago. Newly discovered letters written by engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel reveal his concerns that factory waste was polluting water supplies in Bristol, although he said this was “in some measure unavoidable”. Fortunately we’ve moved on since then.
Not far enough according to Greenpeace. They’re piling the pressure on to Sainsbury’s, accused of being the supermarket doing the least about plastic pollution. Greenpeace have a spoof video on Facebook claiming to be a response from Sainsbury’s head of PR, Polly Ethelene. Link on the blog.
Costing a Packet
Walker’s, the nation's biggest crisp manufacturers, were the target of a campaign by pressure group 38°. The packets which Walker’s use are notoriously difficult to recycle and mainly end up in landfill. Walker’s fought back with an agreement with Terracycle who claim to be able to recycle almost anything. More than 8,500 collection points were set up across the country amid a fanfare of publicity and Walker’s recently announced that 500,000 packets have been recycled, recovering enough plastic to make 250 benches. Not good enough, responded David Innes, a campaigner with 38 Degrees. While it's great that people are recycling their packets, 500,000 packets is a very small drop in the ocean when you consider that 11 million packets are produced each day. UK consumers eat 6bn packets of crisps a year and plastic-free packets can’t come soon enough.
The company has made a commitment to make crisp packets recyclable, compostable or biodegradable by 2025.
Climate Action reports that the European Parliament has approved a new law, banning throwaway plastics such as cotton bud sticks, cutlery, straws, stirrers and plates by 2021. The directive will also ban plastic balloon sticks, single-use polystyrene cups and those made from oxo-degradable plastics (plastics that fragment into tiny pieces). This of course will apply only to EU member states.
Last week I was able to have a conversation with Gillian Julius in New York who told me what she’d been learning about regenerative farming. It’s the principle of mainting the fertility of the soil by returning goodness to the earth in the form of compost. It’s something I’m going to research in more depth, but in the meantime Gillian gave me a couple of links. The first is to a blog called Post Veganism. The latest article is a detailed assessment of the sources and effects of methane, with particular reference to methane from livestock.
The second is a presentation from the California State University called Regenerating the Diversity of Life in Soils: Hope for Farming, Ranching and Climate.
She also told me about Singing Frogs Farm in California, a business built on regenerative farming.
As the pressure finally grows and climate change starts to get press coverage naturalist David Attenborough has launched a documentary series about the climate crisis on Netflix. For those of us who don’t subscribe he has an hour-long documentary called “Climate Change - The Facts” on the BBC. It airs on BBC1 next Thursday 18th April at 9pm.
That brings me to the end of another episode of the Sustainable Futures Report. It brings me to a short break although I will probably comment on Extinction Rebellion’s activities which are planned to take place next Monday. Today, that is Friday, 12 April, when this episode is released to the public domain, another Youth Strike Against Climate is scheduled. As I said before, it's taken a long time to get people to even notice climate change let alone believe that it’s something serious. This is only the start. The changes we need will be challenging because in many cases we will need to abandon accepted practice and give up business as usual. We’ll need imagination and determination to shape a sustainable future. I believe we can do it, I believe we will do it, and that we’ll end up with a better future for ourselves, for our children and for their children as well.
That's it for now.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
I'm Anthony Day and don't worry–I'll be back!