Which Way Now?
|Image by Arec Socha|
It's the Sustainable Futures Report, I'm Anthony Day and it's Friday, the 22nd of November. Soon be Christmas, but I'm already thing thinking about New Year’s resolutions. No, not mine, I'm going to ask all the people who have been interviewed on the Sustainable Futures Report this year what they think we should do in 2020. That will make the first episode for January. It will come out on the 3rd. I'll tell you all about it later.
In the news this week, some capitalists seem to be having doubts about capitalism, the European investment bank is having doubts about fossil fuels, the International Energy Agency has doubts about coalmines, the Lancet gets to the heart of the matter and the BBC does Climategate.
Thank you all for listening. I know I say that every week but I had a bit of a shock on Friday. Normally the number of hits spikes sharply upwards on publication day, but this last week, nothing. Nothing at all. In fact the stats counter on the hosting website had broken down. You were listening, but I just didn’t know. Back to normal after 36 hours. Thanks for listening - I knew you would be. Please tell your friends. It’s my dream to go viral, but maybe that will just remain a dream. I may not have tens of thousands of listeners, but it’s the quality of them that counts. And the feedback. Thanks for your message, Shane. And Ian.
Which Way Should We Go?
A friend sent me a link to David Attenborough’s trailer for Blue Planet ll. It’s as compelling as ever. But in a way it's confusing too. Blue Planet ll showed how we are polluting our planet. How rubbish, largely plastic, finds its way into the oceans, traps sea creatures and poisons their habitat. How plastic breaks down into microparticles which are absorbed by fish; how the oceans are becoming more acid and the coral is dying. It’s a crucial issue. The trouble is that there are two crucial issues. We need to deal with pollution and rubbish and abandoned plastic to keep our planet safe to live in. At the same time we need to do everything we possibly can to cut carbon emissions, because rising emissions lead to rising temperatures, extreme weather events and serious risks to global agriculture. If we can’t feed the world… - well, no-one wants to think about that.
Avoiding plastic bags, refusing plastic straws, reducing, re-using and recycling all help to cut the pollution problem, but that alone will never save us. Mind you, dealing only with carbon emissions and ignoring pollution will leave us in a pretty horrible state as well. We’ve got to deal with both.
Let’s look at what we can do to get plastic under control. Is plastic production going to increase sixfold by 2050? I know I read it somewhere. Even if that’s wrong and it will only double, that’s still an awful lot of potential pollution. We need to control it and that means governments need to control it. That means regulation, which is anathema to some people. Plastic pollution is anathema to me and it’s certain death to parts of the environment, so I think regulation wins. Producers or companies selling products incorporating or wrapped in plastic should be responsible for the costs of collecting and recycling it. At present local authorities are responsible for dealing with all this waste, but why should they be? Surely it's a hidden subsidy to the producers if they can just ship it out and forget it.
Plastic products should be licensed. Surely we should outlaw all those packets marked “Not currently recycled”. Other packets say “Check local recycling”, which clearly reveals that there is no consistent recycling policy across the UK. (Even the different colours of the bins mean different things to different authorities, but don’t get me started on that.) We need a national recycling policy.
Authority A may not recycle plastic B because there is not a suitable facility in its area. That must change.
There is a relatively small number of plastics in use. Suppliers should be licensed and charged a levy in line with the cost of processing the waste they create. Totally unrecyclable plastic should be banned. Of course not all plastic is single-use and thrown away in a week or less. Look around at your computers, your phones, your furnishings, your clothes - even your car. They all contain plastic. It may be years before they are discarded or recycled, but they should still bear a levy. After all, the supplier will have the advantage of paying today’s price for disposal which may not take place until well into the future.
Getting it Sorted
A major problem with plastic recycling is sorting it all out before processing, because different plastics need different processes. If one mismatched bag contaminates a batch of another type of plastic it might mean the whole lot has to go to landfill. Sorting it out isn’t easy. Certainly not at home. We can’t have a dozen different containers for our different plastic wastes. Lots of plastics have recycling symbols on them but many don’t and those that do can be really difficult to read. Many people can’t be bothered and who can blame them?
The Invisible Barcode
We have to move the sorting down the line to the recycling facility, and news from the food packaging industry shows how this could be possible. Here’s a quotation from the Interpak international convention website:
“Experts agree: before long packaging designers will be allowed to let their creativity roam free again without having to take the, at times disturbing, element of black and white barcodes into consideration. A new development by Oregon, highly praised by experts, replaces conventional barcodes with invisible watermark grids. The Global Trade Item Number (GTIN) is encoded and applied - complete with plenty of additional information – to the packaging many times over. While the human eye cannot see the Digimarc Barcode developed by the technology company of the same name, camera scanners fitted with special software capture the product details instantly. This means article number and price are captured without a delay thereby making hitherto unknown communication possible between merchandise, retailers and shoppers.”
In other words, the checkout operator no longer has to twist the package round to find the barcode, or to pull it tight so it will scan. And this invisible code can be read not only at the checkout, but also in the recycling centre. Presumably even torn fragments of plastic wrapping will bear the codes, so every bit of waste can be accounted for.
Of course all this implies investment by suppliers, shops and recycling centres. If there isn’t a business case they won’t do it. If there’s an environmental and public health case they should be required to do it.
In your supermarket?
Let me know if this system comes to a supermarket near you. Let’s hope it comes more quickly than those sticky blocks that were supposed to replace the plastic rings that hold beer cans together, and also trap turtles, seals and other marine animals.
Plastic Economy Global Commitment
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation published its report on the plastic economy global commitment last month. “The report,” they say, “provides an unprecedented level of transparency on how almost 200 businesses and governments are reshaping the plastics system.”
It describes the progress being made, including:
- Companies set out actions to eliminate problematic plastic packaging, and increase the use of recycled plastic in packaging by more than five-fold by 2025, equivalent to keeping 25 million barrels of oil in the ground every year
- Unilever, Mars, Incorporated, and PepsiCo announce significant reductions in virgin plastic use by 2025
- Analysis carried out for the report shows that on average around 60% of business signatories’ plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable today. Through the Global Commitment, they have committed to making this 100% by 2025
- Government signatories including France, Rwanda, the UK, and the cities of São Paulo (Brazil) and Austin (USA), are putting in place policy measures that include bans, public procurement, extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes, fiscal measures, and incentives for research and development.
It goes on, “This announcement is an important step in the Foundation’s mission to accelerate the transition towards a circular economy. Launched in 2018, the Global Commitment now includes over 400 signatories, which are aligned on a path to build a new plastics economy. Business signatories, including companies representing 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally, are working to eliminate the plastic we don't need, to innovate so that all plastic we do need is 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable, and to circulate all the plastic we use.”
Last week the Financial Times City Network presented a debate on whether capitalism could fix climate change, and Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, delivered an address in which she called for wholesale reform of the current economic system to avert global disaster. And some of the attendees seemed to get the message. The chief executive of Fidelity International said, “The world must end our obsession with ever-increasing GDP,” while the view from Allianz Global Investors was that capitalism in its current form was “borrowing from the future while destroying the environment”.
The surprisingly outspoken interventions from two of the City’s best known asset managers reflected a wider view among contributors to the debate that business and government must urgently improve their response to the growing evidence of environmental catastrophe. “Solving climate change through inclusive capitalism will define our generation,” said the chief executive of Legal & General, another big asset manager.
“A step in the right direction,” says Patron Manda Scott, “but still a long way to go.”
“Our response to climate change today will determine the world we live in tomorrow.”
That’s the opening sentence of the video which launches the 2019 report of the Lancet Countdown: Tracking Progress on Health and Climate Change. It looks at the future for children born today and whether they will thrive or just survive. It warns about air pollution with irreversible damage to young hearts and lungs, food insecurity and malnutrition, heatwaves, storms, disease, mass migrations and social breakdown, which will occur if business as usual on its present path drives a 4℃ temperature rise.
The report itself starts withe the headline:
“An unprecedented challenge demands an unprecedented response.”
It reinforces the urgency of the situation we are in, and while it urges action by individuals and business, it underlines the importance of action by governments. Watch the video, read the key messages or download the whole report. The link is on the blog.
Meanwhile the British Prime Minister continues to refer to climate activists as “crusties” and to avoid them whenever they stray on to the campaign trail. The climate crisis was hardly mentioned in this week’s party leader debate.
On the Energy Front…
The Guardian reports that the European Investment Bank (EIB) is preparing to end investment in oil, gas and coal projects from 2021 and to become the world’s first ‘“climate bank”.
“Climate is the top issue on the political agenda of our time,” said the bank’s president, Werner Hoyer. “We will stop financing fossil fuels and launch the most ambitious climate investment strategy of any public financial institution anywhere.”
Under its new policy, the bank will end all lending to fossil fuels within two years and align all funding decisions with the Paris climate accord. Energy projects applying for EIB funding will have to show they can produce one kilowatt hour of energy while emitting less than 250 grammes of carbon dioxide.
Contrast this with the UK’s Green Investment Bank. The present government removed all the bank’s obligations to invest principally in green and low-carbon projects and then sold it off.
The International Energy Agency reports that methane emissions leaking from the world’s coalmines could be stoking the global climate crisis at the same rate as the shipping and aviation industries combined. They estimated that the amount of methane seeping from new and disused coalmines may have reached just under 40m tonnes last year.
I wonder if fugitive methane was taken into account when permission was granted for the new coal mine to be opened in Cumbria. Or if the Australians will take it into account. The trouble is that the whole issue of emissions is bound up with enormous industries which affect the lives of us all. Because we’ve left it so late it’s going to be close to impossible to take the necessary action to control emissions without disruption to communities across the world.
On the energy front there’s more about coal in China and ongoing problems with EDF’s Flamanville station. I’m holding that over until next time.
We heard from friends visiting Australia. They were in Sydney this week. They told us that they could smell smoke and the BBC reported that Sydney residents were warned about severe fire danger, as temperatures soared to 37C (98.6F) in the city's west.
Parts of the city recorded air pollution levels at eight times higher than the national benchmark.
Health officials advised people to stay indoors and avoid physical activity. They also shared first aid guides on how to help asthma sufferers and others with respiratory problems.
"The smoke is likely to hang around for the next few days," warned the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.
Although it’s still spring, Perth in Western Australia has already experienced 40℃. There were fires in WA, too, near Geraldton some 250 miles north of Perth.
The summer heat is still to come.
And in other news…
Last week I mentioned that it was 10 years since thousands of emails were hacked from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit and made public. Just after I uploaded the episode the BBC presented Climategate: Science of a Scandal. The programme looked in detail at how the emails were selectively released and used to attempt to discredit the science. How spokespeople with important-sounding titles but no qualifications were put up to denounce the academics. How some of the scientists received death threats; some were told to watch out for their wives and children. No wonder some of them were still visibly upset after 10 years. Three independent enquiries found there was no malpractice of any kind. Watch the programme. You’ll find it on iPlayer. Link on the blog.
Aramco, the Saudi national oil company, finalised arrangements to sell off part of itself to investors this week, as expected. It won’t be selling as much as originally expected; only 1.5% against estimates of as much as 5%. The price is disappointing as well, valuing the company not at the hoped-for $2trn but no more than $1.7trn. And the what will the Saudis spend their money on? To reform their economy, and that may include investing in renewables.
It’s an Ill Wind
“It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good”, says the proverb. Climate Action reports that a team at Princeton University, has found that as average daily wind speeds are picking up across the globe, it is helping wind power generation. Writing in Nature Climate Change, they showed that while wind speeds decreased by about 2.3% per decade beginning in 1978, since 2010 wind speeds have increased at a rate that is nearly three times faster.
This is having an impact on renewable power. The researchers calculated that a typical wind turbine receiving the global average wind would have produced about 17% more energy in 2017 than in 2010.
Using climate indices to project future wind speeds, they found this trend is set to continue, predicting a 37% increase by 2024.
So climate change isn’t all bad. Just mostly.
I’m Looking Ahead. I’m sending this message to prominent people in sustainability:
“Finally the world seems to be realising that we have a climate crisis and it’s serious. In not more than 100 words, what should we do in 2020? Please let me have your answer, either in written form or as an audio clip which you could record on your phone and send to email@example.com."
Let me have your answers, too.
These answers will make up the episode for 3rd January 2020
Last week’s episode was about carbon offsetting and listener Ian Jarvis came back with a number of questions. What about the role of water vapour in global warming? Could we use faster-growing plants than trees to lock up carbon? How does land management affect carbon emissions? All good questions. I’ve got some ideas but I’ll expand my research and get back to you next time.
Meanwhile easyJet announced this week that it was offsetting all the fuel used by all its aircraft with immediate effect. Julia Hartley Brewer of Talk Radio wanted to know what I thought. You’ll hear that next week as well.
And if you’ve got some questions, or better still some answers, please do get in touch. firstname.lastname@example.org
And that’s it…
As I’ve mentioned before, the Sustainable Futures Report comes to you without advertising, sponsorship or subsidy. I do benefit from the generosity of my sponsors. They pledge to donate a monthly amount, from $1 upwards, which helps to cover my hosting and transcription costs. If you are already a patron your support is much appreciated. If not, you could sign up at patreon.com/sfr. If you do, you’ll get a shout-out, a unique metal badge and my sincere gratitude. I’ll also give priority to any issues you think I should address and you’ll usually get each episode at least one day in advance of Friday publication.
And yes, that’s it for another week. I hope there will be another episode next week but I’m out all day on Monday, at a conference all day on Wednesday and at the dentist on Thursday, and I do have a life outside the Sustainable Futures Report. Tuesday is clearly going to be busy.
Let me leave you with the thought that as cities across the world are choked with increasing air pollution a new car is launched. An electric car? A hydrogen car? A zero-emissions car? No, the DBX from luxury manufacturers Aston Martin is a petrol car. It costs from £158,000, will reach 180mph and emits 269g of CO2 per kilometre, more than twice the European average.
We’ve still got a long way to go to get the message through. Statutory limits on emissions would be a good start, but let’s not be silly.
Bye for now!
Plastic Economy Global Commitment
European Investment Bank to phase out fossil fuel financing
Methane emissions from coalmines could stoke climate crisis – study
And in other news
Saudi Aramco flotation is a failure before it has even begun
Renewable energy: climate crisis 'may have triggered faster wind speeds'