Plastic People

A new age

The Space Age, the Information Age, the Social Age… contemporary culture has gained a number of labels for itself over the past century. These ages typically arise following a major technological breakthrough, such as space travel, computer science or social media in the cases above. But ages need not necessarily be to do with technology. In his excellent collection of essays ‘How did we get into this mess?’, George Monbiot proposes that we are now living in the Age of Loneliness, brought on by the individualism advocated by the capitalist creed.¹

I propose another name, the Plastic Age.

In the past 50 years or so, since plastic became a ubiquitous part of everyday life, an estimated 8.3 bn megatonnes of plastic products have been made. A 2017 study by Geyer et al. estimates that 60% of these products are now in landfill, 30% are in use and only 10% have been recycled, repurposed or incinerated. That the amount of plastic in use today is half of the total plastic dumped shows just how much our dependency on these materials is growing.

Plastic pollution is appalling in some of the most remote parts of the world, as was recently documented in BBC’s Blue Planet series. One example is Henderson Island. On 16th May 2017, Elle Hunt reported in the Guardian that 18 tonnes of manmade debris was lying on the beaches of this previously paradisiacal Pacific island, with 13,000 new items washing up every day. There are sad stories of plastic being used as shells for crabs, seals being strangled by ropes and cords and turtles’ shells growing constrained to the circumference of six-pack rings. As well as causing external injury, plastic ingestion is a massive problem for wildlife, as can be seen in the case of the Layman Albatross below.

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Laysan Albatross, Midway Atoll

And that’s just the plastic we can see…

The deep ocean is largely unaccessible for human exploration and scientific measurements. The lack of sunlight and oxygen means plastics won’t be broken down there, so deep ocean could potentially be worse than we might expect and have unknown effects on ecosystems world wide. Who knows how much plastic accumulates in these depths? Plastic pollution is at an all time high and shows little sign of becoming less of a problem. Some estimates claim that by 2050 there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean (by volume)!

 

Plastic fashion and killer whales

Unbelievably, 35% of plastic in the environment comes from clothes. This is not necessarily just from disposal, but from threads and fibres released during the washing process. These fibres, almost invisible to the naked eye, then make their way into water systems and can enter the food chain. In a recent talk at Manchester Vegan Festival, professional ecologist Emma Thompson (a.k.a. @ThevEcologist) claimed it is probably the case that the micro plastics we can’t see are much more problematic than visible ones.

Whilst a few microscopic pieces of plastic may not pose an existential issue to the bacteria which ingests them, they begin to accumulate as life forms are consumed up the food chain. Residual plastic builds up in small fish which eat bacteria, builds up further in predatory fish and then can be quite great in top predators like polar bears or killer whales. Thompson reported on a 20 year old female killer whale who had been poisoned by the plastics it had indirectly consumed and had possibly also been rendered infertile by it. Females of most species have a higher fat content, which they metabolise to feed their offspring. Toxins from plastics tend to accumulate in these areas, meaning that if a female animal is not made infertile by plastic ingestion then the associated toxins are passed on to offspring.

The accumulation of plastic based toxins in large predators is called the ‘biomagnification’ effect. I use the word toxin because ingested plastic is mostly carcinogenic and can contain a terrifying array of unnatural substances, such as DDT (which was documented thoroughly in Rachel Carson’s pioneering book on pesticides and herbicides ‘Silent Spring’, which arguably started the environmental movement). As a warning, fish eating humans are possibly subjecting themselves to the biomagnification effect, too.

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Source: BBC news

Sadly, biodegradable plastics are probably not the miracle fix that some claim them to be. Biodegradable plastics simply get to the micro scale quicker, meaning they are just out of sight. They can still harm plankton and enter the food chain. Further, biodegradable products which are not oil based have to be grown especially, using valuable land. Is this a good use of land? If they are incorrectly disposed of, biodegradable plastics release methane as they decompose, thereby contributing to the broader climate change problem rather than the plastic problem.

Despite movements to reduce the amount of plastic used in products, plastic items were for some reason in vogue on the catwalk earlier this year, with plastic being declared ‘in’ for 2018. Gladly, there are some designers bucking this trend. For instance Stella McCartney has released a range of clothes which are made from plastic gathered from the ocean.

 

 

Why is this happening?

Admittedly, there are benefits in the Plastic Age. Food waste has greatly reduced now that expiration prolonging packagings are common for food products. Of course, there is also the convenience aspect of picking up a bag of rice rather than having to take your own container to the store.²

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A recent exhibit at Manchester Museum on local waste issues

However these benefits are mainly for the consumer and producer and not the environment. In my opinion, the dawn of recycling meant that the waste issue actually got worse, for a number of reasons. Firstly, recycling itself is an energy intensive activity, typically requiring the burning of fossil fuels. And of course the recyclable materials must be made in the first place, which requires energy input too. Recycling should be the last resort before disposal or recovery, as illustrated by the classic inverted ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ pyramid shown opposite. Secondly, most items can be recycled at most 5 times before their quality degrades beyond (re)usability, implying recycling is only a temporary fix.

It seems sensible to claim that consumerism is the main cause of today’s waste-related woes. This ideology rewards behaviour which involves purchasing, whilst discouraging reduced consumption. The introduction of recycling brings only very minor behavioural change, where a major shift is needed. After beginning recycling, similar products can still be bought as beforehand, with the only real adjustment being to separate out one’s waste.  It could be argued the convenience aspect of recycling simply feeds consumerism and makes one think they are making a change when really they are not.

 

How to hold back the plastic tide

It is very easy to lose all hope and feel powerless in the face of large scale environmental, political and societal problems. But, with enough positivity, it has been shown time and again that together people can make a difference.

Just think of recent successful movements such as the removal of plastic straws from major pubs and restaurants such as Wetherspoons. Think of the number of times Donald Trump has said he will come to the UK and then backed down and postponed upon discovering how many thousands (or possibly millions) of people were planning to attend a mass protest upon his arrival and how many people signed petitions against him being allowed to enter (over 1.6 million in one case). Petitions, protests and local actions can make a difference if enough people put their minds to it. In the following I give examples of some notable efforts, and my own rather small one.

On 19th May 2017, the Guardian reported on a campaign from the circular economy promoting foundation of English sailor Dame Ellen MacArthur. The campaign points out that many household items which are commonly thought to be recyclable generally aren’t, such as Lucozade bottles, black plastic trays and whisky packaging. Further, only 14% of plastic packaging is even collected for recycling. In the face of these issues, the MacArthur Foundation launched a £1.5m competition to reduce waste.

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Before: me in one of the messier areas

July 2018 has been declared by some activists ‘plastic free month’. On 1st July there will be a ‘plastic attack’ action on plastic waste, focusing on supermarkets. This will involve a coordinated refusal of plastic items at the checkout, by paying for shopping, removing all plastic wrappers and then leaving these for the supermarket to dispose of. The 6 supermarkets targeted by this action were chosen because they refused to publish statistics concerning their plastic waste due to their being ‘too commercially sensitive’.

A kickstarter campaign has recently enabled the development of little balls that go in washing and extract micro plastics released by the laundry, meaning that these plastics don’t enter waterways directly. A simpler solution, of course, is to only buy plastic-free clothes, such as bamboo t-shirts.

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After: the sun even came out

Earlier today I participated in a (relatively minor) action against the growing waste problem. To pay respects (not exactly celebrate) on Earth Day, two of my housemates and I went on a community litter pick in our local area. It took us three hours to collect the majority of rubbish from the two nearest streets and local park, although we couldn’t get everything and there were some people littering in live action as we tried to clear it. Amongst the bags and bags of bottles, cans and coffee cups, there were mobile phones, a wrapped burrito, bicycle parts, plastic bags, plenty of NOS canisters, part of a Mobike frame and a number of disposable barbecues following recent sunny weather.

Litter is infuriating because it is just so easy to stop on a person-by-person basis – the problem is more about attitude than anything else. But perhaps it is indicative of the wider waste problem. Of course, picking up litter isn’t going to change the world. But doing the litter pick was quite a humbling experience, revealing just how deep the tendrils of consumerism seep into the fabric of the urban and natural world. We found snails living in crisp packets, rubbish buried in the soil and plants growing in glass bottles.

Through little actions like these, through attending events, contributing to movements and through just talking to people, change can happen. If everyone spared just one day to really consider that the Earth has given them everything they will ever know… perhaps then real progress can be made. Happy Earth Day!

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Total collected: 12 bin bags and 2 full dustbins

 

Further reading, references and notes

Zero waste shopping

Plastic free is the next step from waste free. I’m not proposing everyone should jump straight in and try to rid all plastics from their life. However a sobering challenge is to collect all of the plastic packaging you dispose of in one week, month or year in a separate bin and actually see with your own eyes how much it adds up to. Did you really need to buy it all? Were there not any alternatives involving less plastic being made and then disposed of?

A number of zero waste online bulk stores have popped up in recent years, as well as shops with a physical presence in some more progressive cities:

  • Earth concious
  • Zero waste club
  • Elephant box
  • Ethcs

 

References

 

Notes

  • [1]: An excellent book on this topic is Olivia Laing’s ‘The art of loneliness’, which explores how it is a very common experience for people to live a very lonely life, even in the centre of a busy city. Laing tells this tale through her own experience and the harrowingly lonely tales of some famous artists, including Andy Warhol.
  • [2]: This idea is not new, by the way. In the first half of the 20th century it was common to collect items from shops using one’s own containers.

Possible near futures

I recently read J. G. Ballard’s book of short stories ‘Vermilion Sands’. This 1971 modern classic is set in (what was then) the near future, in an imaginary town after which the book is named. Vermilion Sands is an extravagant resort town in the desert, complete with casinos, not dissimilar to Las Vegas. Additionally, Vermilion Sands has futuristic technologies such as ‘sonic sculptures’ which howl at passersby and mysterious manmade manta rays which fly over the sand dunes. Ballard’s imagined town was once a paradise but is slowly declining. In the pretext, he writes

“That posture, of course, is the hallmark of Vermilion Sands and, I hope, of the future – not merely that no-one has to work, but that work is the ultimate play and play is the ultimate work.”

Recent developments in technology, the state of nature and politics (amongst many other things) pose difficult questions for the status quo and leave one wondering what the future will have in store. We stand at an important crossroads in human history.

Resources

Fossil fuel supplies are running out, with coal dwindling and oil forecasted to be around for just another century, at most. The accumulations of creatures dying over billions of years has been burned up in a geological blink of the eye. This puts a time limit on how long we can continue to generate electricity in what have become conventional means. Additionally, the rare earth materials essential to computer technologies around which society is increasingly centred are being extracted to their limits.

Lying beside a ‘clean’ future involving renewable energies, there also lies the perpendicular ‘dirty’ path, which takes the route through intensive extraction methods such as fracking and taking oil from tar sands. In the face of scarcity of more conventional fuels, such approaches have enjoyed increased investment, particularly in the USA and Canada. This is happening despite the dangerous methods used in fracking, and the heightened cost and energy consumption used in extracting what is a relatively tiny proportion of oil from tar sands, compared with other methods. Oil extraction from tar sands generally uses three times as much fresh water and involves releasing 15% more carbon dioxide as conventional means.

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In countries such as the UK, which have become dependent on Russia for gas and the Middle East for oil, there are political reasons to seek out an energy resource of their own. However this needn’t be derived through such a polluting means, as there are plenty of viable options for mass energy generation by renewable means. Two exciting new examples are tidal arrays and tidal lagoons.

Just when certain natural resources are dwindling, becoming too scarce to support the world population, every government in the world is fixated on ensuring the growth of its economy. Under conventional (pre-crash) economics, striving for this growth makes sense. Of course every finance minister wants the best for their citizens and growth is a clear path towards that aim. In fact, the modern world is built upon credit. Credit allows governments, businesses and individual citizens to improve their state of being based on the promise that the future will be brighter. If the future will bring more resources and new technologies then credit can be repaid using newfound wealth.

However the national debt of almost every country on the planet is now totteringly high. Given the constraints imposed by mother nature (and humankind), these debts are looking increasingly precarious and add a financial argument against investing in new renewable technologies or modern-style nuclear builds, when the requirement to choose at least one of these is becoming increasingly immediate.

Work

Aside (but intrinsically bound to) the environmental and economic predicaments described above, digital technology is fundamentally altering the nature of work. Not just in terms of the work that humans do, but also whether work has to be done by humans at all. Shopping assistant, factory worker and telephone operator jobs have already been largely automated in developed countries, with many other possibilities looming. A recent forecast put between 22% and 39% of jobs in the UK as being at risk of automation by 2050.

Generally, it feels as though automation has only been an issue for the working classes thus far. However, research suggests middle class occupations in medicine and law are less safe than might be assumed: computers are becoming increasingly skilled at making judgement based decisions. Also, automation has drastically changed the nature of scientific research and development.

As a PhD student in mathematical and computational geoscience, my daily work involves running computer models of fluid flow which would at one point have been run by a team of laboratory technicians in the real world. Modelling software means that structures can be extensively tested during the design phase, before a single constituent piece has been made in the physical world. As a side anecdote, the two or three reception staff at the university gym have recently been replaced by swipe-in gates.

One can imagine a (near future) world where the human population is large, but there are relatively few hours of work required of each person. There appear to be a number of ways this could go…

Extrapolating from the present, one would likely imagine that technological innovation will continue unconstrained. Unemployment will continue to rise and big companies who control automated processes to continue to make enormous sums of money. This scenario is bleak for the majority and could potentially end in riots or war.

But it need not necessarily be the case that unemployment rise. A group of people known as ‘accelerationists’ believe that if machines are to take away our work, then we should be able to redefine our lives in a positive way. If one of two people loses their 40 hour per week job to a machine, why shouldn’t the two of them work 20 hours per week at an increased pay rate (which comes from the fact machines are generally cheaper to ’employ’ than people)? This would leave both workers would be able to spend more of their time doing what they really enjoy in life, like playing sports or spending time with their friends and family.

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In the example above, it would likely be the case that the employer would not be able to re-employ the redundant worker in a different role, and that multiple workers would be laid off and replaced by machines at once. In the face of this happening on a wide scale, there is increasing pressure for governments to roll out a Universal Basic Income (UBI).

A universal basic income would give every person of working age enough financial wherewithal to stand on their own two feet and the possibility of raising a family on just a part time job. Contrary to popular belief, studies investigating UBI and similar financial gifts have shown that recipients do not use it consume more alcohol or drugs or fulfil other temptations. Further, UBI could lead to a reduction in homelessness, if implemented in the right way. An initial experiment in testing out UBI with 2,000 inhabitants of the Finnish countryside seems to have been a massive success, although there are claims that the sample size is too small.

In the minds of many, the idea of giving money on a regular basis to every working-age citizen may seem fantastical, considered only by radical leftists such as John McDonnell and Bernie Sanders. However, the cost is actually remarkably small when the trivial implementation of paying the same amount to every person on the list is compared with the expensive, humiliating, complex benefits systems that it would replace, which have to use enormous resources to continually verify that recipients are worthy. Politically, it is not just the left who are interested in UBI, but also the right. Indeed, the Finnish government who initiated the experiment mentioned above are led by a centre-right party.

Another possible future scenario is that a consensus is made to halt the progress of technology, in an attempt to lessen the impact of climate change, improve employment figures or possibly due to a fear of artificial intelligence. Such a halting would be extremely difficult to bring about, and would have to involve a fundamental change in our understanding of ideas like ‘progress’ and ‘growth’, or follow a disaster brought about by our own technological advances. Perhaps this would also include a change in economic status quo, whereby economies are allowed to remain the same size or even shrink. For this reason, this possible future is often referred to using the term ‘degrowth’.

The philosophy of degrowth is to return to the ‘good old days’, when people didn’t stand on the tube staring at their smartphones in silence and it wasn’t possible for terrorist organisations to spread and plan so easily using the internet. Whether there ever was a ‘good old day’ is up for debate and my personal opinion is that every age comes with its own evils, we just have to make progress in overcoming them. Whilst terrorism is all over the front pages of today’s newspapers, the number of people killed by it are miniscule.

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In fact, homicide in general is now a very unlikely way to die. In Yuvan Noah Harari’s excellent book ‘Sapiens’, the statistic is stated that in 2002 more people killed themselves than were killed by another, across the whole world. Just look at the pale yellow wedges in the pie charts above, taken from this article. In today’s rather peaceful society, a man is twice as likely to be killed (one would assume accidentally) in a car accident than intentionally by another person. This is not true for women. However this is because far fewer women die in car accidents than men and, whilst this is true, only 1.6% of female deaths are caused by interpersonal violence. It could be claimed that we are living in the future our forebears dreamt of.

Money

The capitalism of the 19th and 20th centuries profits from exploiting supply and demand systems, making most when resources decrease. However, whilst material goods are in some places lacking, digital resources are essentially infinite. Software packages, videos, algorithms, graphics and even viruses can be copied an infinite number of times without any degradation whatsoever in their quality. Businesses seek to continue to profit from these products, but their value is unclear when there is such an availability and thus prices are essentially arbitrary. Additionally, open source and open data movements stand fundamentally against profits being made from information products, or at least certain types thereof.

In recent years, the information age has spawned another foe of conventional economics: the cryptocurrency. Bitcoin in particular has posed issues for governments. Its anonymous and de-centralised nature means that illegal transactions cannot be traced whatsoever and that taxes cannot be collected when a citizen is paid in Bitcoin.  Like the tar sand and fracking solutions to the resource scarcity problem, Bitcoin mining is an extremely energy (and we may also assume carbon) intensive activity. Recent estimates put worldwide Bitcoin mining as equivalent to one million transatlantic flights, in terms of CO2 emissions. That is, 20 megatonnes – higher than the national CO2 emissions of both New Zealand and Hungary.

In his book ‘Postcapitalism’, economist Paul Mason describes how blooming of the information age spells the end for capitalism as we know it and proposes a path to a brighter future under the book’s title. This path would include UBI and reduction in the hours of the working week, as discussed above, amongst many other new (and old¹) ideas.

Where to now?

Of course, there will only be one future². It is a commonly observed psychological phenomenon that the past seems concrete and that it all couldn’t have happened in any other way. Unless you are a die-hard proponent of predestination, this is complete nonsense and humanity has both its own future and the future of the planet firmly in its hands. Some of the ideas discussed in this blog piece may be regarded as utopian. But ‘utopian’ thinking is what has driven the world forward through history, to the point where murder is a highly unlikely occurrence, the average life expectancy is around twice what it has been in the past and people can travel the whole world on a modest income. Today’s ‘utopia’ is tomorrow’s progress.

Rutger Bregman, a big supporter of UBI, claims in his book ‘Utopia for realists’ that the biggest evil of the modern age are borders, which have divided people and created inequality since their conception. He proposes that we should be rid of them and freedom of movement should be global. This seems an outlandish idea, especially in the era of Brexit and President Trump. However these seemingly eternal lines on the map do not have a physical existence and only really came to be 200 years ago or so, before which free movement was available to all that were able to make the journey. Perhaps cryptocurrencies, globalisation and the information age are asking sufficiently difficult questions that the future of the nation state itself now is unclear.

 

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Street art near Lisbon Orient train station, Portugal.

 

Notes and references

  • 1: The idea behind UBI was first formulated by Thomas Paine in his 1796 paper Agrarian Justice.
  • 2: This is debatable if you interpret quantum mechanics using the ‘Many Worlds’ interpretation, whereby ‘everything that can happen does happen’ in a multitude of separate realities. However, even then, each person only experiences one reality and thus their particular timeline is fixed.
  • Book references:
    • ‘Vermilion Sands’, J. G. Ballard.
    • ‘Postcapitalism: a guide to our future’, Paul Mason.
    • ‘Sapiens: a brief history of humankind’, Yuval Noah Harari.
    • ‘Utopia for realists and how we can get there’, Rutger Bregman.
  • Image sources: header image, UBI cartoon.

Discard everything you own

I recently read Fumio Sasaki’s entertaining and enlightening account of his becoming a minimalist, titled ‘Goodbye, things’. Minimalism comes in many forms, meaning different things in music and visual art, for example. The type of minimalism Sasaki refers to has to do with the number of possessions a person owns, in opposition to materialism.

Material possessions can bring joy, such as a hand-crafted gift, a souvenir from a great holiday or a much-loved musical instrument. But they can also be a burden: all of those clothes at the back of the wardrobe you wore just once; the books that you will read some day; the mountain of CDs you bought before the days of Spotify and iTunes. Minimalism claims that the vast majority of things most people own bring little happiness, are completely unnecessary and simply act to clutter up their life. By greatly reducing the number of objects Sasaki owned, he claimed not only to have become freer, but was also led to give more attention to those few possessions which he really appreciated.

The impediment on one’s freedom brought by material possessions recently came to my attention upon moving house. Since I studied for my undergraduate in the nearest city to my home, I eventually took virtually all of my possessions with me, collecting more and more each time I visited my parents. When I started my postgraduate at the other end of the country, I took everything with me again. When I went through counting all the boxes and bags, I was shocked to find a total of 33 items. Reading Sasaski’s book, I realised there is no better time to shed one’s belongings than at the start of a new year.

I agree with the sentiment in ‘Goodbye, things’, although the particular brand of minimalism which Sasaki proposes is at times a little questionable. Firstly, it seems a central drive in Sasaki’s quest to minimise his possessions is the associated aesthetic. Additionally, in the name of completely de-cluttering one’s existence, he suggests removing all multiples and never stocking up on food or otherwise, to the extent that you  go shopping frequently, only own one pen and have to buy toilet paper in single rolls. This, I feel, is going a bit far and could end up being a wasteful, inefficient and more costly way to live. However there is certainly merit in only owning those things which are either truly needed or indeed loved. What is the point in having an item which does not fall into one of these categories?

Discarding possessions to achieve a higher state of being is no new concept. Buddhists are encouraged to discard their possessions, because the possession of material objects leads to attachment, which creates suffering. The less attachment one has to the material world, the freer one becomes. At the end of the day, regardless of your spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof), no material objects will still be in your possession after you die. On your deathbed, would you really regret spending less time on objects and more time on people and experiences? The converse would certainly be a regrettable life.

There appear to be a number of movements springing up around the notion of minimalism. In central London posters can be found with the slogan

“All you love is need.”

providing a cruel, twisted mirror of the original intention of The Beatles, 50 years on. The modern economy and (arguably) society is driven by the desire for material goods. If people stopped buying en masse, today’s financial system would no longer be able to function. As I have repeatedly illustrated in this blog, there are mountains of evidence that the environmental costs of the high capitalist era are enormous. The rate at which many natural resources are being consumed is far from sustainable. Minimalism is one, albeit relatively quiet, voice standing up saying “No, we don’t need that.”. A recent magazine article entitled ‘More is not better. Better is better.’ described the movement as follows.

“It is the simplest and most peaceful act of rebellion against a society that demands we should have more than we need.”

 

Zero waste minimalism?

As I have mentioned, the brand of minimalism Sasaki discusses is very focused on discarding. How could this ever fit in with an ethos of being waste free and reducing one’s impact on the planet? Just because you don’t want something any more doesn’t mean that no-one else will.

I recently discovered the app Freegle, which is run by volunteers and has a particularly active group in Reading, UK. The idea of Freegle is that users either advertise something they want to give away, or put up a request for something they want. I had an old box of guitar effects pedals, some of which were completely broken, along with other cables, knick knacks and plectrums. Who on earth would want all of this junk, with their state openly and honestly advertised? Ten requests came in within four hours and I found myself combing over the messages to see who seemed most deserving!

Other items you may wish to get money back for, of course. Items that are still ‘like new’ or which were very expensive. If you can’t get a refund or shift them on eBay then it turns out they weren’t worth so much after all. Give them to a charity shop, offer them up to friends, or give them a go on Freegle.

The first thing to get rid of (after actual rubbish) is anything you had forgotten you owned. What is the point in having something which you had completely forgotten about, sat there collecting dust? Better off giving it someone who will enjoy it and use it often. Then you can focus on what really matters to you.

Needless to say, items which no-one else would want can often be recycled. Put all those concert tickets you blue-tacked to your walls in your teens in the paper recycling. Throw all those old, over-worn clothes in a textile recycling bin. I put my two favourite t-shirts in the clothes recycling, due to their being suncream-stained after a summer holiday. Despite initially wondering whether this was a good idea, the action was surprisingly rewarding and I haven’t regretted it once.

Take what you want

Continuing the Christmas spirit of giving into the New Year, I thought I would offer up a number of the items I have decided to part with in this very blog piece. All items are available free of charge, in good condition and collection/postage/delivery can be arranged via emailing joe.wallwork@hotmail.co.uk.

Lot 1: Books

I have read all of these books and thoroughly recommend each and every one. Having taken the notes I wanted, they are better off getting read by someone else now. Some of them might have a couple of notes scribbled on, or page corners folded over.

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  • ‘Goodbye Things’, Fumio Sasaki.
  • ‘Zen in Plain English’, Stephan Schumacher.
  • ‘The Universe Next Door’, Marcus Chown.
  • ‘The Fabric of Reality’, David Deutsch.
  • ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’. Milan Kundera.
  • ‘The Lonely City’, Olivia Liang.
  • ‘Red Azalea’, Anchee Min.
  • Lonely Planet Iceland.
  • ‘The Millennium Problems’, Keith Devlin.
  • ‘Flatland’, Edwin Abbott.
  • ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach’, Douglas Hofstadter.

Lot 2: Vinyl records

I went through a phase during my undergrad when I bought some decks and an enormous number of records, some of which I only listened to once.

  • ‘Feel it’, Mr Scruff.
  • ‘Samaris’, Samaris.
  • Foo Fighters greatest hits.
  • ‘Swim’, Caribou.

 

[Image sources: header image]

After the flood

Almost two years ago, on Boxing Day 2015, there was severe flooding across the North of England. Particularly affected were Cumbria, where families had to be rescued from their homes by boat, and Lancashire, where most of my family lives. They live in and around the Rossendale Valley, through which the River Irwell passes on its way south to Manchester. On that fateful day, the Irwell was running dangerously high, due to vast quantities of rainfall both falling from the skies and running off the hills.

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Building barricades in Edenfield

I was staying with my dad, about halfway up the side of the valley, in Edenfield. As rain poured down on Boxing day, water gushed down the (recently resurfaced) track from the top of the hill and was in danger of going straight into numerous homes. Along with all the  neighbours we could extract from their Christmas festivities, we built a number of barricades to stem the flow. In some ways the experience was very rewarding, with the whole community pitching in to try and help their neighbours. Kids used brushes to sweep excess water into drains, whilst pensioners made cups of tea and homeowners supplied pieces of wood, stone and tarpaulin to build up the blockades.

After a few hours of dam building, we were successful in saving the nearby homes from any flooding. However, an ominous marker for people living in the bottom of the valley was presented by the sheer volume of water gushing downhill following one of our diversions, after the rain had stopped.

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Groundwater seepage

The rain had actually stopped pouring for most of the afternoon. However, groundwater continued to rush out and down the hillsides and into the river, to the point where its outward approach along my grandma’s street, near the valley bottom, was visible in real time.

The council arrived in Irwell Vale to deliver what looked a little like red sand bags, but which were instead filled with chemicals which would absorb water rather than just block it. Each house was given half a dozen of these, apparently at a great financial cost to the council.

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My grandma’s house after the clear-out job

As the flood waters rose, families either fled, were saved by boat or left trapped upstairs, as water levels rose to 3 feet or so. My grandma’s dog still hasn’t recovered from the experience of being trapped upstairs and seems somewhat traumatised by the event.

Flood waters receded again and left a truly awful state, with most furniture in need of removal, including a sad christmas tree. I came down to help with this clear out effort and found the expensive red bags provided by the council scattered around the garden almost uselessly. A few of them can be seen in the foreground of the photo opposite.

Why did the water raise so much higher than usual? Was it a freak event or the beginning of a new trend? There are a number of possible responses, which we shall now explore.

 

Response 1: Prepare better next time.

The river in Irwell Vale has burst its banks frequently in the past, but not usually to an extent that poses any risk to residents. The last time it caused a serious flood which led to widespread damage of homes was around 30 years previously. One might argue that this kind of ‘freak event’ only happens two or three times a century and so the residents should just shrug their shoulders, make repairs and remember to ‘be aware in a  couple of decades’. Sadly, this is not quite how probabilities work, so one should always be prepared for the next ‘once in 30 year’ event – it might happen tomorrow.

It was clear from the useless red bags that either the council’s effort to remedy the effects of flooding was far too little, too late, or that the forecasts they had only predicted shallow floodwaters. Indeed, flood forecasting is a fiendishly difficult exercise, with many complex interfering factors such as topography, road surfaces which keep water standing and forests which absorb water through the roots. In a valley bottom, the first hint of a flood should be taken seriously – perhaps more so than just attempting to block it on the doorsteps.

 

Response 2: Plan towns better in the future.

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The doomed Waterside pub

More critically, one might argue that the issue was not severe rain per se, but the fact houses, businesses and public facilities were built near to or in some cases on the river. Further downstream, the slightly misnamed Waterside pub collapsed due to the Boxing Day floods. This restaurant and pub had stood atop a bridge in Summerseat for 200 years and as the river levels rose, cracks began to appear in its walls, which eventually led to the destruction of the building.

As hinted at in the previous response, a less extensive use of tarmac and concrete would help to alleviate the destructive force of floods, allowing water to begin to seep into the ground.

 

Response 3: Stop causing climate change.

This is perhaps the most abstract response to floods, but is used frequently by environmentalists. The terms ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ don’t necessarily imply on their own that flooding will become more likely as these processes continue to make their impact. The diagram below illustrates how a rise in global mean temperature implies an increased likelihood of  extreme heat. The two Gaussian ‘bell curves’ describe the probability of a certain temperature occurring in a particular climate. In the grey case, extreme cold and heat are unlikely, but still possible. These probabilities are ‘shifted upwards’ on the temperature scale under climate change, defining new ‘extremes’.

bell curve increase

Redefining of norms and extremes

A Met Office report claims the likelihood of extremely hot summers has increased tenfold. That is, a ‘very hot’ summer will now occur roughly once every 5 years, compared with once every 50 years in the 20th Century. The 2003 heatwave which killed thousands of Parisians could be a regular occurrence by 2050. Extreme heat records since the millennium are within the bounds of a climate model forced by anthropogenic warming. However they do not fit within the bounds of natural variability so frequently used as an alternative explanation for heightened temperatures, as illustrated below.

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Model simulations of average summer temperature in Europe (black line) versus actual values (red). The left hand plot accounts for anthropogenic climate change, whilst the right allows only for natural variability.

As well as an increased likelihood of extreme heat, there is evidence to suggest ‘extreme weather’ such as flooding and hurricanes will also become more likely as a result of the altered state of the atmosphere. This is largely due to the fact that heightened temperatures mean an increased amount of water evaporating off the planet’s oceans. Many meteorologists claim the Boxing Day floods of 2015 were caused by the extreme weather brought by the periodic El Niño effect, magnified by climate change.

There is certainly plenty of truth in this argument, and a serious attempt to reduce the greenhouse effect would probably help to lessen the number of extreme events occurring across the world. A difficulty in it being widely believed is the fact anthropogenic climate change is hard enough to comprehend itself, let alone the way in which this could increase the amount of flooding across the world. Despite the value of the claims, I do not think temperature rise is the main factor leading to more frequent and more severe flooding across the UK in recent years. The real cause is much more tangible and potentially simpler to avoid.

 

Response 4: Reduce upland grazing and deforestation.

When pupils learn about the water cycle in Geography at school, they learn about how water evaporates off large bodies of water such as oceans, condenses to form clouds, falls down over land and runs back to the ocean in rivers and through the ground. Ideally, this process should take quite a long time in the part between precipitation and return to the sea. If rain falls and very rapidly reaches the sea, the volume of water flowing in rivers could vary wildly, from running dry to bursting their banks. What slows down the water cycle most is vegetation, namely trees and scrub.

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The water cycle

Roots of trees spread far and take in almost incomprehensible volumes of water, providing a ‘sink term’ for the water levels in the ground, to use an expression used in mathematical modelling. When trees are uprooted and removed, this effect is reduced and water is able to flow more freely through the ground, towards the river. Worse still, if forest and scrub are replaced by grass (or tarmac!), water becomes less and less likely to soak into the ground in the first place, tending to just run off on the surface.

I recently read George Monbiot’s excellent book on rewilding, called ‘Feral’, which simultaneously horrifies, educates and inspires. In a chapter called ‘Sheepwrecked’, Monbiot takes aim at farming of those fluffy, white herbivores as one of the biggest problems faced in the UK today, nicknaming herds of sheep as ‘the white plague’. Contrary to common assumption, sheep were at no point ‘natural’ residents of these isles and were imported for farming about 2,000 years ago. Their ancestors hail from Mesopotamia, domesticated there around 10,000 BC. As such, the natural environment in the UK has not evolved any mechanisms to deal with such ruthlessly hungry, low standing and mountaineering livestock.

Sheep will eat more or less any plant that they encounter, be it grass, bushes or small trees. Since resident plants have little means of deterring them, they largely succeed in eating whatever they want. Monbiot lists the mounting evidence to support the claim that sheep farming is highly responsible for the degradation of the UK’s rural heritage. For instance, sheep farming has been listed as a reason for the decline of wildlife in Wales in 92% of cases. Wales is well known for its sheep and an enormous 79% of the country is marked as reserved for livestock farming, with just 3% reserved for crop-based agriculture. Sheep are not the only type of livestock farmed in Wales, but they are by far the most common. Despite this extreme skew of land resources towards the raising of sheep, Wales imports seven times more meat than it produces and makes rather little on what it does.

A fascinating concept Monbiot discusses in detail is what he calls ‘shifting baseline syndrome’: You might think that your natural environment has degraded since your childhood, and wish for it to return to that state. But little do you know, it was already in a state of degradation then! This effect means many people underestimate just how badly humans have ruined the countryside and it is nowhere more evident than in the UK.

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Wast Water from Lingmell, Lake District

Despite its high population density, the UK boasts a number of large, popular natural parks and ‘wild’ areas – Snowdonia, Dartmoor, the Cairngorms, the Peak District, the Lake District. Whilst often staggeringly beautiful in their own ways (as seen above), none of these regions contains even a moderate amount of forest. All of these areas contain vast, open grasslands, scrub or bog, and all are grazed by sheep. Monbiot claims, with a large amount of scientific evidence, that the UK was covered in forest up until a thousand or so years ago. Personally, I have encountered very few forests in this country which couldn’t be crossed in an hour’s walking.

I am sat writing this piece at my mum’s house in the North East of Cumbria, which is often held as one of the UK’s most rural and ‘wild’ counties. Cumbria is not ‘wild’ in the sense of a natural environment. Cumbria is staggeringly barren and covered in sheep. Cumbria has arguably suffered worst from flooding in recent years… This is not to say that sheep farming is solely responsible for increased flooding, as I have discussed in the previous sections. However there is a strong, well-reasoned and inspiring argument that rewilding could provide at least part of the answer to the flooding problem, and I aim to look into it in detail in a future blog piece.

 

 

[Image sources: headerWaterside, bell curves, water cycle, Wast Water]

 

Has the Paris agreement been Trumped?

“I REPRESENT PITTSBURGH, NOT PARIS”

It came as no surprise when Donald Trump, President of the United States of America, announced earlier this year that he intends to pull his country out of the 2015 Paris agreement, joining just Syria and Nicaragua as countries unhappy with the deal’s terms. Since that time, both Syria and Nicaragua have now accepted the deal, leaving the US as the only nation not supporting the international agreement.

Although announcing rejection, Trump said he and his team would ‘begin negotiations to re-enter either the Paris accords or a really entirely new transaction, on terms that are fair to the US’. He went further to say

‘We will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. If we can, that’s great. If we can’t, that’s fine’.

I hope it is not only me who is shocked by the last sentence there. The president seems to be implying action on climate change is somehow optional, that it doesn’t really matter. Trump is well known for being sceptical of and misunderstanding climate science. In a speech last year to the Republican National Convention in the run up to his election, Trump managed to make an entire speech without mentioning climate change, whilst still managing to get his facts on the matter wrong. For instance, he said ‘Excessive regulation is costing our country as much as $2 trillion a year, and we will end it.’  The source of this statistic was the National Association of Manufacturers, which is known as being very much against regulations imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The estimate covers only the compliance cost, and does not mention any financial benefits of regulations, such as savings on sick days and health issues. Other studies found that the economic benefits of EPA regulations massively outweigh the costs.

On the face of it, Trump’s claim that the Paris climate agreement treats the US unfairly seems reasonable. For instance, the US emissions reduction pledge accounts for 20% of those global emissions to be cut by 2030, which poses a potential strain on a country so far not particularly geared up for lowering its fossil fuel usage. However, the lack of such an emission reduction in the form of a US regression to ‘business as usual’ scenario would warm the world by an extra 0.3ºC by 2100, according to the World Meteorological Organisation. That is a substantial obstacle to avoiding the 2ºC ceiling imposed by the Paris agreement, and this is to be expected since the US is the second largest polluter in the world.

That the 2ºC ceiling is even achievable under current circumstances has been thrown into serious doubt as of late, as I flagged in a recent blog post. Indeed, it has so often been the case in recent years that top-down attempts to act on climate change have failed miserably, and there is no clear evidence to suggest the Paris accords will not simply follow this trend. It is for these reasons, amongst many others, that I usually advocate bottom-up action as an alternative, and will continue to do so.

The US think tank ClimateInteractive claims if the pledges made in late 2015 are met, a total average warming of 3.3ºC will result by end of century. In this scenario, the US’ rejection implies a heightened total average warming of 3.6ºC. Either case would have dire consequences for millions of people across the world, meaning any replacement of the Paris agreement must only take a stronger stance on emission control. It is for this reason Italy, Germany and France issued a joint statement in response to Trump’s withdrawal, stating that the treaty is non-negotiable. Regardless of whether the remaining signatory countries who haven’t ratified the deal yet do so, or whether any country at all meets its target, it is important at least that there is a cap which is intended to be met. The presence of a cap provides a goal for governments to work towards, meaning at least some effort should be made to reach it. This is not to say any cap will do. I would argue much smaller and stricter emissions caps are required.

 

A GLIMMER OF HOPE?

Despite all Trump’s talk, there is a chance he will never even get to withdraw from the Paris agreement at all. Sneakily, the small print of the Paris agreement dictates a time delay on exiting until 2020, which just so happens to be a US presidential year. In addition, Trump is coming under pressure from businesses, activists and even his own family to change his mind. His daughter, Ivanka, compels him to reconsider, alongside influential business leaders such as Elon Musk and Michael Bloomberg.

If one was disappointed that Exxon Mobil’s ex-CEO Rex Tillerson was given the position of Secretary of State in Trump’s cabinet,* one should now rejoice that shareholders of the oil giant have backed a motion requiring the company to reassess risks of climate change. The motion was supported by 62% of investors, including the Church of England. This comes as welcome news, especially since Exxon’s alleged concealment of information from shareholders regarding climate science in the past. Another business which has made a statement despite its deep involvement with the climate problem is General Electric. The chair and CEO Jeff Immelt recently said both that ‘climate change is real’ and that

‘industry must now lead’.

There seems to be an interesting variation on the top-down action theme arising. It seems is no longer about governments, but about companies and self-declared billionaire philanthropists. If politicians can’t be trusted to act in the interests of the environment (and, indeed, in the interests of their populace) then industries must step up to the plate, they say. How great that fossil-fuel-burning megacorporations suddenly care about the public and the natural world. How convenient for them that we should feel they are now acting altruistically on a matter which they have ignored for decades.

If you can’t tell, I am not convinced high polluting companies are going to change their tune quite so quickly. (What exactly does a oil company sell when its policy turns against the use of oil?) This is not to say I do not think industry plays a role in progress towards a green economy. Industry certainly must play a role, for instance in developing low emission, efficient vehicles, finding new ways to capture and store carbon dioxide and in encouraging lifestyles which have less of an impact on the planet. Due to limited resources of rare earth materials and fusion power still not being fully operational, amongst a plethora of other issues, there need be continued industrial involvement, alongside that of research establishments and universities, in taking steps forward.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

Liberal poster boy Justin Trudeau and self-declared climate messiah Al Gore at COP21 in Paris.

Recently watching Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Sequel, I was interested to see just how much the political dimension of the climate problem was focused upon, and how rarely Gore considered the looming crisis through the prism of business or personal lifestyle. It is this aspect which is the common focus of environmental discussion, in particular the issue of green energy generation. This is despite the fact energy generation methods rarely enter the average person’s daily life, while transport choices, diet and waste habits certainly do.

 

WHAT DO WE WANT? CLIMATE JUSTICE!

Two years ago, I travelled to Paris with my partner Georgia for the COP21 conference at which the so-called Paris agreement was made. Travelling with Friends of the Earth, we were to attend a mass protest on the streets of the French capital to insist that real change be demanded – something which was very much lacking in previous congress conclusions. The slogan ‘Never trust a COP’ was visible on many signs and t-shirts to mark this.

Just a few weeks before the protest, the terrorist attacks of November 2015 shook the cityclimate-justice-peace (and world), and led to a banning of all major outdoor gatherings within the city. (Or, to be more precise, banning of all major political gatherings outdoors in the city, as I later discovered.**) This meant Friends of the Earth were forced to put on an indoor event where we made signs and banners and heard speeches from people we agreed with. The following day, they put on a ‘geolocation’ event as a major protest to mark the end of the conference and make clear the dissatisfaction of many activists. Along with thousands of other activists, we were given specific locations across Paris to rendezvous at a particular time and tweet photos of our protests. When overlaid onto a city map, our collective tweet locations spelt out the words ‘Climate, Justice, Peace’, as shown opposite.

As inspiring as it was to be part of such a mass, coordinated demonstration, the words were only really written over the Parisian map on the Twittersphere. At the end of the indoor event prior to our geolocation, the organisers suggested a few other events to go to in Paris during our stay. One in particular they stressed they were not at all involved in (for legal reasons), but was happening. This event was one of significant civil disobedience – thousands of protesters marching from the Arc de Triomphe to the Eiffel Tower against the crossing of red lines by governments and corporations affiliated with the COP. After two weeks of bureaucratic nonsense and cross-governmental back-patting, this was not a happy crowd. All but two countries had signed up to keeping average global warming below 2°C, despite staggering evidence suggesting doing so will require extreme measures unseen in political history… Needless to say, such measures are still far from even being considered for implementation in most of these countries.

Following the end of the conference, climate scientist James Hansen was quoted in The Guardian as follows:

“It’s a fraud really, a fake,” he says, rubbing his head. “It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2º C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.”

In and amongst the negative summaries and comments, however, there were some positives. Jagoda Munic, chairperson of Friends of the Earth International said: 

“Instead of acting with ambition and urgency, our governments are acting in the interests of powerful lobbies and corporations, but people are taking back the power. History will not be made in the convention centre, but on the streets of Paris and round the globe. The climate justice movement is unstoppable and will continue to expand in 2016 and beyond. A handful of politicians will not stop the energy revolution.”

Two years on and another follow-up conference is here, this time held in Bonn: COP23. Will it just be a case of same-old, same-old? Or will Trump’s declaration of rejection cause delegates to make real, necessary progress on these important issues deciding the future of both the planet and humanity?

 

NOTES:

*: In a recent interview, Naomi Klein said, ‘In any other moment, the very fact that the CEO of Exxon Mobil is now the secretary of state would be the central scandal. Here we have a situation where there is so much else to concern us it is barely a footnote.’

**: The Paris christmas markets, amongst other non-political but potentially terrorist targetable gatherings still went ahead that year, throughout the ongoing ban on explicitly political events. Naomi Klein documents this in her book No is not enough, as an example of the Shock Doctrine, whereby political leaders use the panic surrounding a shocking event to sneakily push through unpopular laws and to gain political footing.

 

[Image sources: header, Trudeau & Goregeolocations]

One year, zero waste

IMG_2774One year ago, on 1st October 2016, I decided to go zero waste. This involves recycling and composting everything possible and only purchasing items with disposable packaging if absolutely necessary, as motivated by reducing one’s impact on the planet and encouraging a turn away from overconsumption. Any non-recyclable waste is kept to analyse just how zero waste you can manage to be. In the past year, I generated a grand total of just 519g of waste,* as shown on the right. Following my six month update, I have a few more tips and further steps, as I will describe now.

 

GO NO POO

 

This isn’t what you think. This non-shampooing movement started in the US, where the word ‘poo’ doesn’t have the same toilet humour connotations as in the UK. Going No Poo is about cutting consumption, stopping doing something that can paradoxically degrade the quality of your hair and reducing the levels of chemicals being poured down drains and making their ways to nature water resources. In her book on the subject called Happy Hair, Lucy Aitken Read says,

 

“I am also sure that the No Poo community hold a significant place in the environmental movement. We are challenging an industry whose reliance on heavy packaging and damaging chemicals is draining the earth’s resources.”

My hair has only been washed once since February this year (when a trainee hairdresser forgot to wash with just water as I had requested) and I would like to think that my hair isn’t particularly greasy. (Please tell me if I have been misled!) I know a number of other people who do the same, all of whom stand by how unnecessary modern shampooing habits are.

Interestingly, when shampoo as we know it today was first created in the first half of the 20th Century, it was only recommended as being used once every 6-8 weeks. Commercial hair products generally aim to remove sebum, to which dirt sticks. As described in Happy Hair, sebum mixes with sweat on the scalp to create acids which protect the skin and impedes growth of harmful bacteria. Upon contact with water, sebum dissolves not only itself but also any dirt or grime in the hair, providing a natural cleaning process. When all sebum is removed through regular shampooing, the hair cuticle is exposed, leaving the hair itself open to potential damage.

Whilst it is certainly a good idea to regularly massage your scalp in a shower to remove dirt, along with some of the sebum, there is no real reason to strip it entirely of sebum using a commercial shampoo. Regular removal (every few days or even every day) of this natural substance is exactly the reason your hair keeps gets greasy in the first place, thereby continuing to spin the wheel of over-shampooing to get it back to a non-greasy state. Due to this, your first couple of weeks of being No Poo will leave you with pretty greasy hair. However, after this ‘transitional stage’, your hair will certainly thank you.

There are plenty of natural alternatives to shampoo from across the world which were used for many centuries, if you really insist on using a product, have particularly difficult hair or live in an area with very hard water. Aitken Read documents these comprehensively and notes that applying a mix of bicarbonate of soda and water once every six weeks does well to counteract the effects hard water can have on your hair, through neutralising pH balance. And the majority of these products are much cheaper than commercial shampoos – in some cases you may already have the ingredients you need in your kitchen cupboard.

 

B.Y.O.W.

Going zero waste is not just about using recyclable products instead of non-recyclable ones. The world has a serious addiction to using plastic bottles, using an alarming one million bottles per minute. There is not only the effort, resource depletion and considerable emissions related to the recycling process to be considered in evaluating the environmental cost of this habit, but also the significant use of fossil fuels in the making of plastics. Besides, drinking bottled water is expensive – in the UK it is usually more expensive than oil.** If you have a clean supply of drinking water, you could probably save a lot of money by just remembering to take your own flask or reusable bottle with you. If you absolutely have to use a plastic bottle, you should note that the lids aren’t typically recyclable in standard recycling bins. However they can be handed in in bulk, for example in Lush. In Portgual, plastic bottle lids are collected by schools and turned into wheelchair frames!

 

IMG_2770

 

NOTES:

*: Disclaimers:

  • On two occasions this year I was abroad and without facilities to compost or recycle food waste. If you are being harsh you might claim I should have kept the apple cores and vegetable trimmings generated in a little bag and brought it home or something. I think customs might have been a bit confused.
  • The disposable packaging of anything given as a gift was not counted, in line with the ethos of freeganism.

**: A litre of bottled water bought from a high street shop or corner shop in the UK commonly costs over £1. The current price of oil per litre is around 33p (assuming a barrel of oil contains 159 litres). If you are savvy then perhaps you get your bottled water in multipacks from supermarkets, probably ending up paying less than 33p per litre. However even then you will end up paying significantly more than the approximately one sixth of a pence you would pay for a litre of tap water. Whoever decided to start selling bottled water in countries with clean drinking water must have been ridiculed at first, but (oh boy!) they are probably laughing now.

 

[Header image source]

One Planet Living

If everyone in the world lived as the average UK resident, three planets’ worth of natural resources would be required to support humanity. By no means is this a responsible example of sustainability. But any such negative statement is useless unless accompanied with a proposed better alternative. Are there countries on Earth which pose as a model society, whereby extrapolation of their consumption rates would give true sustainability?

 

HOW LONG WILL RESOURCES LAST?

Last month, a fellow MPE CDT student and I volunteered on a project with the Nuffield Foundation, which saw six maths students spend 2 weeks at Imperial College London during the summer between their A-level years. Together, we brainstormed some ideas about important aspects of mathematics (such as geometry, calculus and numerical methods) and important elements of Planet Earth (such as the atmosphere, oceans, flora and fauna).

Following their brainstorming, the students ranked by importance and urgency some related problems, such as predicting temperature rise due to climate change, analysing the way in which glacier melt leads to sea level rise and trying to estimate how many years’ worth of natural resources remain for humanity’s usage. In the end, the students decided they were most interested in the latter problem and set to work trying to figure out how they could use their mathematical abilities to tackle this problem and what the implications of their findings might mean.

The students decided to consider two developed countries (Japan and South Africa) and two developing countries (Cuba and Uganda), in order to see the range of impacts being made across the world. Assuming the birth rate and death rate of these countries to be constant, the students considered two simple models of population growth: the Malthus model and the Logistic model

The former model prescribes an exponential growth or exponential decline of population, with the rate of increase or decline determined by the birth rate and death rate.  For the logistic model, a so-called carrying capacity must be specified, beyond which a population could not be sustained by the planet whatsoever. Demographers estimate this value to be around 10 billion, which we are not so far away from at the present time. From these simple models, the students could make basic predictions of the future populations of the countries considered, and indeed, the world population if everyone gave birth and died at a constant rate.

As well as birth and death rate data, the students collected information regarding the biomass, coal, gas and oil stocks and consumption rates of their chosen countries. Using the previously estimated population curves, the students were able to approximate the associated usage of the four fuels. The latter three models are fairly simple, since a constant rate of consumption per citizen is assumed, and there is effectively no return rate of the fuel stocks. In the case of biomass, however, the students had to consider the fact that trees grow back over a few years, and so the resulting equations are a little more difficult to solve.

 

Having forecasted the diminishing of the fuel reserves, the students were able to go on to say how much CO2 would be released into the atmosphere by each country, estimate the consequent concentration in the atmosphere and provide a first approximation to the associated temperature increase to the planet. Here they made a major assumption that CO2 is not re-absorbed, which is of course not true in reality. However the project centred on making a first approximation to what is going on, so many simplifications must be made.

eff892564d7c8014da2261b2d04229e015c1c05e

Rather than copying their results, I have considered similar calculations for four other countries which pose as markedly different examples in their approaches to environmental protection and resource consumption. Consider India, China, UK and USA. As can be seen in the map above, the One Planet Living initiative claims these countries fall into the categories of using less than 1, 1-2, 2-4 and more than 4 planets when their trends are projected onto the worldwide populace, respectively. That is, if the entire world were to behave in the same way as these countries in terms of population change and resource usage, the number of planets’ worth of resources needed would be as indicated. Python code is available for how I calculated these projections on GitHub.*

world_Oil_Malthus

In the following plots, only the contributions of domestic coal, natural gas and oil are considered. As has been mentioned, the Nuffield project students also considered biomass, but they discovered that it is rather difficult to get data on the consumption thereof and the mass to CO2 conversion varies depending on the particular biomass fuel used. Of course, there are plenty of other resources (such as food, clean water and rare earth materials) and plenty of other sources of pollution (such as emissions from livestock, waste and aviation) which could be considered, but here we focus on the three main fossil fuels since they make contributions in both categories.

For an example of the predictions relating to one resource, if the whole world acted as the USA, the graph above indicates that oil reserves would drop dramatically, completely drying up after 70 years. Similar plots can be made for the other fuels, through which we can get a picture of the total resources used, and hence the total carbon emissions. Subject to a number of assumptions both stated here and neglected, the associated additional mean warming to the atmosphere would look as displayed in the plot below. From this plot, if the whole world acted as the UK or India in terms of its population change and fuel usage, we should expect an extra warming contribution of around 2°C after one century has passed. In the case of China, this would be more like 4°C and in the case of the USA 10°C.

temp_change_Malthus_g=OFF_trees=OFFThese are very rough estimates, as has already been mentioned, but there seems to be significant evidence to suggest that we shouldn’t only be concerned with using the resources of one planet, but also which resources we choose to use, and at what rate. This is especially true when taking into consideration that the international agreement made at COP21 aims to keep warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. UK Met Office research indicates the world has already warmed 1°C since then.

Calculations above were performed in the Malthusian case. In the case of the Logistic model, predictions are more conservative, due to the world population being unable to breach 10 billion. The resulting plot is indicated below. There the range of additional temperature increases is approximately 0.3-3°C. Even under this more conservative approach, it doesn’t look likely that we could meet the cumulative 2°C target in any case.

temp_change_Logistic_g=OFF_trees=OFFNot only are there some countries which use ‘more than one planet’ and some which use ‘less than one planet’, the average taken across all of humanity is currently actually about 1.6 planets. The interpretation of this claim is not that we are generating resources out of nothing or collecting them from space, but that we are consuming resources faster than they can regenerate naturally. Resources are being used at such an alarming rate, and the natural environment is being damaged so badly, that the regenerative ability of the planet has been significantly reduced.

 

CAN YOU BEAT THE AVERAGE?

This summer’s Nuffield Project was not the first time I considered mathematical problems related to One Planet Living. On Open Data Day in March this year, I attended a hackathon at the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) in Reading. There, a team of us attempted to create an app which enables the user to calculate their carbon footprint and thereby to find out whether or not their contribution is greater or smaller than the average for their country of origin. Whilst in the Nuffield Project we only had time to consider fuel usage, in this project only road, rail, bus and aviation transportation was taken into consideration.

Sadly, the app we worked on in the hackathon never came to a particularly user friendly stage, due to tight time constraints and a lack of app developing experience. However, the Bioregional initiative provides a calculator for finding out how many planets would be required to sustain a planet of Yous, covering far more aspects than we could ever have hoped to consider. Even if you produce zero waste, cycle everywhere and never fly or drive, it is fiendishly difficult to become a One Planet Citizen. My output is shown below, and I clearly have some progress to make.

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 09.23.36.png

The different coloured sections on the bottom bar correspond to energy generation, transport, food, goods, government, capital assets and servicesrespectively. I’m not going to start making excuses for why the calculator tells me I use more than one planet, but I will just make a few comments on its output:

  • Notice that at least 28% of my footprint is purely due to the government, dispelling the myth that individuals can tackle climate change, resource conservation and ecology deprivation completely on their own. Authorities have to make an effort, too.
  • Goods, food and services have extra footprint included because there is a large implicit contribution in supply chains. This factor points out that businesses have an environmental responsibility, as well as governments. Personal impact in this case can be reduced by shopping at second hand shops, charity shops and local markets.
  • Finally, it is difficult to improve on the energy contribution if you live in rented accommodation, since it is up to your landlord to install things like loft insulation, condensing boilers, cavity wall insulation and solar panels. However, if you get on with them you could maybe consider suggesting these.

 

UNTO THE FUTURE

Last month I attended a symposium of talks at Imperial College entitled ‘Balancing sustainability and development: cities in the 21st century’ on the need to adapt future cities to the omnicrisis of issues faced by present and future citizens, such as overpopulation, rising temperatures, inequality, resource scarcity and overstressed infrastructures. The symposium was opened by a talk by David Thorpe, author of ‘The One Planet Life: a Blueprint for Low Impact Living’. He claims the world’s ‘biocapacity’ was breached in the early 1970’s and since then we have been running on ‘borrowed time’. The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) lists nine ‘planetary boundaries’, four of which have already been passed: climate change, biosphere integrity, soil quality and nitrate pollution.

slide.5planetintroThorpe claims, with the present population, the only way to ‘get back on track’ is for the entire world to have a ecological footprint as in Central Africa. This does not, imply the reduction in living standards one might expect for more privileged citizens, as in the West. For instance, whilst research by the One Planet Living initiative indicates that residents of the USA use ‘two more planets’ worth of resources than the average European (see diagram opposite), there are many metrics by which one might claim Europeans are better off than Americans.** Does all that extra resource and carbon impact really make for a happier, more fulfilled life? Who says the UK couldn’t reduce its impact and maintain the same quality of life or, indeed, improve it?

Thorpe works on a One Planet Living initiative in Wales, where the word ‘sustainability’ has been made equivalent to the ‘well-being of future generations’. His motto,

“if it gets measured, it gets saved”

motivates the reduction of ecological footprint in line with closer control on consumption levels and methods. Thorpe’s thinking recently influenced a public advice spreadsheet available on the Welsh government website. In principle, the creation of a One Planet society is not an enormous undertaking. All that is required is some careful planning of how waste is to be dealt with, how electricity is to be generated and which materials are to be used for construction and packaging (if any). What is difficult, on the other hand, is converting a currently damaging society to a One Planet one.

Model cities do exist. Thorpe points to Freiburg, Germany, which has been heralded by many as a leading example, through its restrictions on polluting traffic, energy saving schemes and use of efficient technology. Perhaps unexpectedly, China also provides an example in terms of its recent efforts to develop vertical farming, which requires less space, water and effort and can bring impressively increased yields of staple foods.

One conclusion of the symposium was that there are very real limits to growth, to quote the Club of Rome (1972). This is something discussed by John Burnside in his once-three-weekly Nature column in New Statesman this January. There he pointed out the inherent contradictions between the growth modern countries are fixated on and the very clear bounds enforced by the forces of nature. That we can continue as we have in the past decades indefinitely and with little to no consequence for the residents (human and otherwise) of this planet is an utter lie.

Can you take up the One Planet challenge? In a way it is the least you can do.

 

[Originally posted on Why it rained today]

 

NOTES:

*: References for resource consumption data used:

**: In a New York Review of Books article, Europe vs. America, Tony Judt points to the following statistics:

  • “[T]he EU has 87 prisoners per 100,000 people; America has 685.”
  • “[A]ccording to the OECD a typical employed American put in 1,877 hours in 2000, compared to 1,562 for his or her French counterpart.”
  • “Whereas Swedes get more than thirty paid days off work per year and even the Brits get an average of twenty-three, Americans can hope for something between four and ten, depending on where they live.”
  • “45 million Americans have no health insurance at all.”

[Image sources: headermap, plots (and Python code), calculatorplanets]

There are many, many substances which may be considered as a pollutant of local air, from chemical byproducts, to aerosols from dirty industry, to car exhaust fumes. Three of the main ones which significantly impact air quality are ozone, particulate matter (PM) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Concentration of the latter is the usual metric by which a city’s local pollution is measured, and mainly results from emissions of diesel fuelled vehicles. Limits on NO2 levels were set for EU countries in 2010, in accordance with recommendations of the World Health Organisation (WHO). NO2 is limited annually, such that only a certain number of breachings of the recommended maximal concentration are allowed per year.

grey-plaque-brixton-high-street-cropped

A number of locations in the UK, including Brixton Road, London, exceeded the yearly recommended maximum within the first four days of this year. To raise awareness of this sorry state of affairs, a number of grey plaques have been put up in the most polluted parts of the capital, also including Putney High Street and Oxford Street. Like the blue heritage site plaques which they mimic, these signs indicate a hidden element to the location which the visitor finds themselves, which they may have otherwise been unaware of, only in this case the aspect is present, not past. Don’t be tricked into thinking that the problem is just localised to ‘hot spots’, and that living somewhere else in the city will save your health. As of 2012, 78% of London’s main roads exceeded EU imposed NO2 limits, with the City of London, Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, Camden and Hammersmith and Fulham failing at 100% of measurement sites.

Levels of pollution in London are dangerously high, but at least some attention is being paid and some effort is being made to tackle it. Other mega-cities have it worse. For instance, the WHO guideline for seafront presence of PM2.5* is 25 micrograms (μg) per cubic metre, but readings in Beijing have reached as high as 671μg. Further, the US government has so far failed to recognise WHO recommendations, only considering 250μg or greater as a hazardous amount.

Cities such as Beijing are often singled out as far more polluted than European cities. Whilst this is true, the opinion may well be skewed further in this direction by the much more visible pollution there, sometimes called the ‘brown cloud’. I visited Beijing for over a week in 2010 and didn’t see the sun for the entire time, just a bright spot in the sky where it lurked behind the smog. Smog such as is common in Asian megacities is typically the result of dirty industry. Since the UK started on the road to de-industrialisation, and began importing goods made by dirty industry instead (mainly from China), air pollution has become much less visible and, arguably, trickier to deal with.

In the UK, the main problem is no longer brown smog from industry, but NO2 from diesel vehicles. In the first 11 years of the century, London saw the proportion of diesel cars registered increase from 6.9% to 21.7%, partly under encouragement from the governments of the time, with some sadly misinformed environmental recommendations.

 

WHY SHOULD I CARE?

Particulates of size PM10 and smaller are the big issue in terms of public health. They can get into our airways and from there settle in the lungs, causing potential complications. In 2010, a London Assembly report claimed up to 9% of deaths in London are caused by man-made airborne particles. Such statistics are understandably difficult to establish, since pronouncing a person as ‘dead by air pollution’ can never really be a clear judgement – there are too many other intervening factors. Analogously, a person could smoke their whole lives and never get lung cancer, whilst someone else could smoke a single cigarette which results in a chance mutation leading them to develop cancer. Nonetheless, recent estimates suggest that somewhere in the range of 4,000-10,000 Londoners and 23,500-40,000 UK citizens on the whole die every year from poor air quality. With statistics like these, there can be no reasonable argument that air pollution does not pose a very serious problem, despite the fact it often seems so invisible and intangible.

And it’s not just humans who are affected by air pollution. Paradoxically, British wildflowers actually thrive in poor quality soil, with few nutrients, such as nitrogen. However the large quantities of nitrogen finding its way into British roadsides via the compounds of NO2 emissions has enabled weeds such as Cows Parsley to thrive, outdoing the more attractive wildflowers.

Recent, horrific terrorist attacks in the UK have lead to the deaths of tens of people and have rightly been met with large displays of public solidarity. Whilst these were truly devastating events, the numbers of victims are minuscule compared with the thousands of early deaths due to air pollution every year. Why are discussions of air pollution so much less vocal? That there is no direct perpetrator cannot excuse air pollution. Modern life dictates that we all play a part, meaning it is up to us to choose how much of an effort we make to try and clean up our act.

 

HOW DO WE STOP IT?

Recent governments have made pretty poor attempts to tackle air pollution so far, although somewhat better ones than their approaches to the wider climate change problem. In the current short-termist political paradigm, whereby parties rarely make any plans that go beyond the 5 years to the next election, it makes sense that politicians do more to try and stop harm to citizens’ health in the immediate future, than to make efforts toward even tricker problems like tackling mega-polluting corporations or working towards worldwide emissions reductions.

Missed opportunities include George Osbourne blocking the creation of clean air zones during his time on the front benches. Following this, and upon his election as Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan labelled government plans as “woefully inadequate”. In February he released figures which showed NO2 limits breached near to 800 London schools, precisely where pollution should be cracked down on the most. It is often argued younger people are most at risk of health problems resulting from poor air quality, since their respiratory systems are not yet fully formed. Khan said on the matter,

“Toxic air causes more than 9,000 early deaths a year in London, as well as stunting the growth of children’s lungs, causing dementia and strokes.”

The problem is surely made worse by parents who drive their kids to school and wait in the car nearby with the engine on.

Finally, the government is beginning to establish some real policy on tackling air pollution, with a pledge to ban all new sales of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2040. However many environmentalists, including the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, have said that these efforts go nowhere near far enough, and will come into place far too late. Hopefully more effective policies will be implemented soon.

A common theme running through this blog is that matters of climate change often need taking into public hands, at least initially, when governments and companies fail to act responsibly. There isn’t time to just sit around and hope things get changed from the top down.

The surest way to reduce your personal impact on local air quality involve commuting by bicycle, on foot or using public transport (although preferably not a mode of transport with heavy diesel fumes, such as older style buses). If you absolutely must have a car, either opt for an electric one or be aware of manufacturers such as Vauxhall, Renault and Fiat who find loopholes which enable them to make cars which emit ten times the legal limit. Whilst electric cars do a very good job of reducing local air pollution, there are still implicit C02 emissions, since the UK national grid relies heavily on fossil fuels. Additionally, there are small leaks of local air pollutants, such as from the wearing of brakes. However hopefully these issues will be addressed in the coming years and electric cars will creep closer to being zero carbon.

In the above, I have mentioned the impact of government and council policies on the air pollution problem. Whilst these are certainly important factors, today’s capitalist world dictates that businesses are arguably more impactful. Businesses have the power not to flout regulations. Businesses have the power to make greener lifestyles cheaper. Businesses have the power to reduce their emissions. But they will only do these things if the consumer has interest in them. By opting for responsibly sourced produce, by asking these things of companies and by choosing energy efficient technologies, steps are made towards them taking interest.

IMG_2535

If you are worried about air pollution and happy to compromise on style a little, it is probably worth your wearing an air-filtering mask, such as those made by Totobobo. Doing so fulfils two purposes: cleaning the air which you breathe and raising awareness that others should consider doing so, too. A range of air pollution masks are available on the market, from flimsy paper ones to World War II gas mask style things. Reviews suggest the thin paper masks don’t actually do very much at all, only blocking the very largest particulates from being inhaled. On the other hand, the more heavy duty masks are very cumbersome and make a short cycle an unnecessarily difficult task.

I wear an intermediate type mask on my cycle commute which is light, but which claims to block out 96% of harmful particulates. I find that after just 2 weeks the filters become dark grey and are in need of changing, as shown in the photo above. Images like this shatter the invisibility nature of air pollution and can be quite shocking, when you think how much is being breathed in otherwise.

 

NOTES:

*: PMx refers to particulate matter of less than x micrometres in diameter.

[Image sources: header, plaque]

London’s choking

Fly less, it won’t cost the Earth

Research recently conducted at Lund University, Sweden, investigated the effectiveness of various approaches to reducing personal contribution to climate change, including common approaches such as recycling and using energy efficient light bulbs, alongside more extreme life choices like having fewer children or getting rid of your car. As the diagram shows, these latter two options fall into the top three most effective means of reducing one’s carbon footprint, followed by avoiding long distance flights. These could all be perceived as somewhat restrictive life decisions, albeit on different levels.

themosteffec

Supposing you take the third recommendation and choose to be greener by minimising your long distance flying, a strategy might be to go on holidays closer to home, say on the European continent. Here I argue that avoiding flights and opting for rail when travelling in Europe is not only feasible, but doesn’t have to break the bank and makes for a vastly more interesting journey.

The main reason I haven’t written any blog posts in the past month or so is that I have been on a couple of holidays. Firstly, I went to Barcelona for a long weekend and then a couple of weeks later I went for a week in Portugal and a week in France. All of these trips I managed to do without flying, travelling mainly by rail, with a few bus journeys thrown in here and there. For instance, after embarking from London on the Eurostar, my journey through France, Spain and Portugal was all possible on an Interrail ticket, going from Paris to the Spanish border and then to the Algarve via Lisbon. Having given up flying in 2015, I have so far had very little issue getting to European destinations from the UK. In September I will also be attending a conference in Germany, travelling exclusively by train.

Many counter arguments to avoiding air travel are fundamentally short-termist: “I need to get to such-a-place as quickly as possible, and minimum cost and discomfort to myself”, regardless of the impacts the journey might cause. Flying may be all well and good for the traveller, but what about the effects on the environment (and future of the human race)?

The IPCC claims that air travel accounts for around 3.5% of global environmental damage, and warns that this could rise significantly if current trends continue. Numerous reports have warned that airspaces are becoming increasingly packed near major cities. London has a particularly bad problem, as is illustrated by this terrifying video (partly because of the accompanying minimalist music). This week a record 8,800 flights entered or left UK airspace. I recall earlier this year when one weekend I cycled from London to Reading, stopping near halfway in a park not far from Heathrow for a packed lunch. During the 15 minutes I sat there, I counted (and at one point lost count) at least 12 planes coming in to land on just one runway.

Rail travel poses an alternative to air because of the sheer number of people transportable by a train, and the relatively low typical carbon emissions. The carbon footprint statistics come out as significantly less than those corresponding to taking a plane. For instance, travelling from London to Paris by Eurostar is approximately 91% less carbon intensive than making the same journey through the air. The only modes of transport greener than that would be to cycle, walk or ride the distance on horseback.

 

GETTING TO EUROPE FROM THE UK

For a UK citizen to start a European journey without flying, there is an essential element of channel crossing. By Eurostar, this can be done pretty cheaply, if booked far enough in advance. Travelling to Paris or Brussels takes just over two hours and can cost as little as £60 for a return. That seriously rivals air travel both in terms of cost and time duration, once a couple of hours have been spent getting to the (usually) out-of-city airport, checking in, going through security and wandering aimlessly around the departure lounge. For the Eurostar there is no such faff: St. Pancras is at the heart of London’s transport network, checkin and security takes a maximum of 10 minutes and there is no problem with taking your own food or drink through. There is no first class on Eurostar, but I always feel like the whole train feels like first class: it is both spacious and aesthetically sleek.

 

TRAVELLING WITHIN EUROPE

Of course, time efficiency is less evident the longer the journey over land. My journey from London to Southern Portugal was admittedly rather long, taking over 24 hours because I took a sleeper train from the Pyrénées to Lisbon. However central European journeys tend to be much shorter. It is possible, for instance, to travel from Rome to Venice, Madrid to Barcelona or Vienna to Budapest in 3 hours or less. But at the end of the day, a long journey is only really an issue if you need to be somewhere quickly or if you don’t enjoy the travel experience. So perhaps it is more an issue of outlook on travel, considering it as part of the holiday, or as a component of leisure time within your business trip, rather than just the means by which to get somewhere. I certainly find train travel far more relaxing and interesting than getting a cramped, stressful flight.

Alongside considerations of travel duration, one may want to consider reliability of the transport provider to be on time. Here train travel comes out on top, too. In particular, European high speed trains and Eurostars arrive and depart on time 90-95% of the time, whilst short-haul flights often have reliability as low as 65-70%.

If you are lucky enough to be under 27, five days of unlimited European train travel (within a period of 15 days) currently costs just £188 on an Interrail Global Pass*. The standard adult ticket isn’t too much more, currently costing £243. Of course, a return flight between European cities with a budget airline like Easyjet or Ryanair is often vastly cheaper than this, on the order of £50 or so. However, as anyone who has used these providers will know, there are always further fees for seat reservation, baggage and, of course, getting to the airport. Further, when considering a trip with more and more destinations, the Interrail ticket becomes better and better value than flying. Last summer I travelled to Brussels, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Malmö, Prenzlau and Berlin on a total travel budget less than £250. Thus, to get better value out of your rail ticket, it may well be the case that you end up visiting more places and getting more out of your trip, too.

If you want to be more specific in your travels and only explore one country at a time, Interrail offer numerous single country passes. For example, a one month Italy-only pass can cost as little as £82. Reasonably priced rail tickets are also available to single destinations, with useful European online booking services provided by trainline.eu and voyages-sncf.com. Further, travel planning suggestions for a comfortable and efficient are provided enthusiastically by the Man in Seat 61. As can be quoted from the site,

“Train travel is a more rewarding, low-stress alternative to flying, which brings us closer to the countries we visit and reduces our contribution to climate change.  It’s time to rediscover the pleasure, romance & adventure of travel by train or ship.”

 

REST OF WORLD?

I am aware some readers may not live in Europe, or may wish to travel outside of the continent without flying. I don’t claim to know too much about the possibilities in this regard and my only experience thereof is catching a sleeper train from Beijing to Xi’an in 2010. However I have been looking into possible means of travelling to Asia by rail at some point in the future. The best option is probably to go on the Trans-Siberian railway, which advertises luxury journeys, but which also offers a route from Moscow to Beijing which takes 6 days and costs around £500 each way. If you are intending to travel for over a month, this could be a good option and is within the price range of some intercontinental flights. Bear in mind that £500 does include board as well, so perhaps isn’t as expensive as it might first seem. Best of all, what a journey it would be, through vast expanses of Russia.

Trans-Sib-departure-board

Again, the Man in Seat 61 comes to the rescue, suggesting various routes you might have previously thought near impossible without air travel. These include travelling from London to Australia, Southern Africa and the USA. If you are willing to integrate the journey into your holiday, it seems the possibilities are truly endless. Stop flying and start considering the alternatives, for the sake of the planet and for your own enjoyment.

 

NOTES:

*: Somewhat misleadingly, the Interrail Global Pass does not cover worldwide rail travel. It just refers to the majority of European countries which participate.

 

[Image sources: header, choices, departures]

Summary of the UK parties on climate change

If you somehow haven’t heard, the UK has an election coming up… But what are the stances of the parties on action on climate change? Is the Green Party the only party with responsible views and pledges, or do any of the bigger parties have promising green policies? In particular, do Labour or the Conservatives really care about environmental issues?

In a recent Observer article entitled ‘Our undecided voters: who will they back?’, Raheela Shah, 21, from Tooting is quoted as deciding not to vote Labour this time and instead of backing the Greens.* She said

“I’m pretty attracted to the Greens as I think the environment is often overlooked; it would be good if more parties focused on it.”

Climate change isn’t something we can continue to postpone. In 5 years time, given insufficient action, we will be significantly further along the path which will see global mean temperatures rising at least 2°C above the pre-industrial average. It is not good enough to postpone a vote for the environment until the next election. This has never been more the case, with Donald Trump extricating the United States from the 2015 Paris agreement.

Will voting for the Green Party make a significant enough difference? Is Raheela’s approach the best to take, with so little time to act to stop or, failing that, mitigate the damage climate change will inevitably cause? Here I will attempt to establish how committed the major parties are to tackling the grandest of problems posed by climate change, and the plethora of related issues. In each case, parties are graded on a greenscale, from climate-championing bright green, through ineffective grey-browns to dangerous reds.

Colorscale

Ratings will be based on the following ten categories. In each category, 1 point will be awarded for a good policy, 0 points for a mediocre policy and -1 points for a damaging policy, with half-points available.**

  1. Zero carbon target (ambition; feasibility)
  2. Renewable energy (support for)
  3. Fracking, oil, coal and nuclear (opposition or reasonability of argument)
  4. Energy efficient homes (policies)
  5. Air pollution (level of concern; policies to tackle)
  6. Sustainable transport and airport expansion (support for; expense)
  7. Education, research and development (into e.g. carbon capture and storage)
  8. International agreements (e.g. Paris accord) and post-Brexit environmental regulations
  9. Lifestyle encouragement (e.g. cycling; vegetarianism)
  10. Green belts, national parks and conservation.

[Disclaimer: I have tried as best as I can to leave my own personal politics out of this piece. However (as a human being) I cannot guarantee absolute objectivity. 😉 ]

CONSERVATION-CONSCIOUS CONSERVATIVES?

The Tories currently being in power means we have the clearest view of what they actually think and how they plan to act. A particularly memorable event was when Theresa May abolished the Department for Energy and Climate Change, sidelining the issues. This left them to be addressed by Andrea Leadsom, who was at the time unsure whether climate change is even real. The previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, didn’t have any problem scrapping a solar power incentives scheme just days after signing the COP21 agreement.

Putting recent history aside, the Conservative manifesto claims they will “meet [their] climate change commitments… as cheaply as possible”. In addition, they support having sources of “reliable, cheap and clean power”. In a political debate at the University of Bath broadcast on the Radio 4 Today Programme on 15th May, a Conservative representative argued the party seeks environmental rules and regulations “which fit us” post-Brexit. All seems pretty reasonable so far, albeit being focused on local rather than global aspects.

However, the Tories also plan to “halt the spread of onshore wind farms”, will “develop the shale industry in Britain” and will “continue to support the development of North Sea oil and gas”. It is now a well-established fact that wind power is the cheapest form of electricity generation available in the UK. Evidence also suggests that fracking (of shale gas) is a very risky activity indeed, with numerous environmental issues on local and global scales, affecting both public health and countryside beauty. Needless to say, oil is one of the dirtiest fossil fuels.

So whilst the Conservatives claim to want to aim the trajectory of the UK towards a cleaner, safer and cheaper future, they are in fact promising exactly the opposite. At best, they will very slightly reduce the status quo emissions, but this is unlikely to be in line with their 2015 pledge to “push for a strong global climate deal later this year… that keeps [2°C]… firmly in reach”. In addition, the infamous ‘three Brexiteers’ are hardly examples of politicians who seek environmental justice. Tellingly, the Conservative manifesto starts with a section entitled ‘Five Great Problems’; none of these problems is climate change, or any related issue apparently…

I have previously written about nuclear power as a potential means of tackling the climate change problem, at least in theory. There I wrote about how there are various types of nuclear power generation, with some vastly cheaper, safer and more efficient than others. The “significant expansion in new nuclear” which the Conservcameron-edatives promise in their manifesto is of an oudated, overly expensive and sub-optimally safe type, the leading case in point being Hinkley Point C. In my opinion, reactors of this type are not the answer to any of our problems and therefore conclude that the Tories are not looking particularly hopeful as far as this blog piece is aware.

Regardless of the manifesto promises, the government has changed its outlook on clean energy forms and gas, providing some hope that a Conservative victory wouldn’t mean a total climate disaster. The main criticism I have, however, is the total lack of any visible commitment this government has had to tackling the climate change problem in the past seven years.

Shade: Stale and Stinky mouldy brown bread

ARE LABOUR STUCK IN THE COAL MINING ERA?

It is more difficult to analyse the Labour party’s policies, since a government such as the hypothetical one run by Jeremy Corbyn isn’t something which has been seen in UK history. Corbyn has gained popularity mainly by appealing to young people, for whom climate change poses even more of a problem than older generations. As such, if he is to be successful, it is imperative that he address environmental issues, at least to a greater level than the Conservatives have done so far. In this way, the Labour manifesto states that “tackling climate change is an economic necessity and the most important thing we must do for our children, our grandchildren and future generations”.

Additionally, Labour plans to set an ambitious “legal target to remove carbon2CC8865700000578-3250138-image-m-65_1443283338398 from our electricity supply by 2030″. One way in which they would attempt to achieve this is through creating “a million additional green jobs” over the next decade, thereby also addressing the UK’s unemployment issues.

How Labour aims to reach the target is not quite crystal clear. Labour would “ban fracking because it would lock us into an energy infrastructure based on fossil fuels”, a sensible argument which is undeniably better than the hap-hazard implementation of the risky approach supported by the current government. Further, Labour recognises the inefficiency and instability of old fashioned nuclear reactors, with the “UK [having] the world’s oldest nuclear industry”. They insist newer-style nuclear must however remain part of the mix, highlighting the “considerable opportunities for nuclear power and decommissioning both internationally and domestically”.

Labour recognise the need to drive an environmental revolution via localising our energy resources. The manifesto rightly states that  “a clean economy of the future is the most important thing we must do for our children, our grandchildren and future generations…Renewable energy projects…can help create manufacturing and energy jobs”.

On the topic of airport expansion, Labour supports expansion of Heathrow airport, but promises to “balance the need for growth and the environmental impact”. Labour is, however, in support of the £40bn+ controversial HS2 rail project, which many, many people regard as an unnecessary vanity project. Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, has been made a great stand for tackling local air pollution since his election, and has a lot of ideas for tackling London’s horrendous NO2 issue.

I hope both that Khan manages to bring his ideas to fruition and that Labour’s many promising policies in this area are things which really would be put into practice by a Labour government.

Shade:  Jeremy Corbyn’s prize marrow green

DO THE LIB DEMS REALLY CARE ABOUT THE ENVIRONMENT?

Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, caused much disruption on Wednesday’s BBC election debate. In the debate, he said

“If it is simply for hair shirt, muesli-eating Guardian readers to solve climate change, it ain’t going to solve the problem. We’re all stuffed… we can make ourselves energy self-sufficient in renewable energy”.

Why exactly Farron decided to turn on Guardian readers, who are amongst the likeliest groups to vote for his party, is a mystery. That said, this statement does express the view of the Lib Dems that “climate change, one of the greatest challenges of our age, is by its nature global”, as it reads in their manifesto.

The Lib Dems’ zero carbon target is somewhat less ambitious (but arguably more realistic than) Labour’s. In their manifesto, they claim they would “pass a Zero Carbon Britain Act… to bring net… emissions to zero by 2050.” In addition, they propose to set an “indicative target” for 2030, by which 60% of UK electricity should be obtained from renewable sources. In my opinion it is unlikely that, even if such pledges were met, emission levels would be reduced in sufficient time. Perhaps the sense of urgency Farron purveyed in the TV debate should be better reflected in environmental policy.

Like Labour and the Conservatives, the Lib Dems accept that “new nuclear power stations can play a role in electricity supply” with the proviso that “concerns about safety, disposal of waste and cost are adequately addressed”. Further, they support an increase in research and development for tidal, CCS, storage and “ultra-low emission vehicles”, each of which hold enormous potential. Providing somewhat of a cocktail of electricity generation techniques, the manifesto proposes to “use biomass primarily for heating and small-scale power generation”.

Of course, the Lib Dem’s campaign in the run-up to this general election has been greatly focused on their firm belief that the UK should remain within the European Union, despite the referendum result, which gave toast-tweets-fbsupport to the opposite. They claim that “[i]f the UK were to leave the EU… our voice would not be heard in climate change negotiations”. As such, the Liberal Democrats throw the environment in as another bargaining chip in the Brexit debate.

Shade: Guardian reader’s avocado toast green

DO NATIONALISTS CARE FOR THEIR COUNTRYSIDES?

UKIP

It seems the UK Independence Party has achieved its sole purpose of driving the country out of the EU (with very little real accountability). Shortly after Nigel Farage proclaimed 24th May “Independence Day”,*** UKIP supported May’s scrapping of the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

bus-300x300In a statement of further dislike for top-down action on climate change, their manifesto reads, “The Climate Change Act is doing untold damage. UKIP will repeal it.”. Further UKIP would “withdraw taxpayer and consumer subsidies for new wind turbines and solar photovoltaic arrays” and claims that, for cheap energy security, “coal must be part of the solution”.

I hope that I do not need to summarise how dangerous such an approach to the environment could be, and leave UKIP to summarise itself: according to their 2015 manifesto it is

“time to get fracking”.

Shade: “£350m for the NHS” Vote Leave bus red

As an English citizen, the environmental policies of the Scottish National Party, Plaid Crymu or Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland are not things I have looked into in great detail and so I will only discuss them briefly here.

In contrast to the UK government’s current approach, the SNP and Plaid Crymu would “continue to support a moratorium on fracking” and “continue to oppose opencase mining”, respectively. Plaid Crymu also continues “to oppose the building of nuclear power plants in new locations” and “will not support the creation of a major new UK airport to the east of London”.

Whilst the SNP seeks “to maximise support for offshore wind… [and] press for onshore wind to continue to receive support”, they also continue to support investment in the oil and gas industries, mainly due to job protection. Plaid Crymu makes an appeal in their manifesto to recognise “the impacts of climate change upon poverty”, something which is rarely brought up by the other parties.

Pivoting to their respective countries, the SNP “will call on… the UK… to adopt Scotland’s ambitious carbon reduction targets”, whilst Plaid Crymu seeks to improve public transport in order to “reduce carbon emissions and safeguard Wales against future fuel shortages”.

It seems climate change is not on the agenda of the DUP, with  very little mention being made in their public statements and documentation.

Shade: mixed paint, with some separation of  layers

ARE THE GREENS THE GREENEST?

The Green Party’s raison d’être is to speak up for environmental issues. As such, one would hope that they provide an excellent, well thought out and considerate approach to action on climate change. Indeed, they state “climate change is the greatest challenge of our time” and claim that “only the Greens are determined to tackle it”.

Like Labour, the Greens hold an ambitious zero carbon target, with the belief that the UK should reduce emissions to 10% of 1990 levels by 2030. Further, the magreen-party-rednifesto insists all coal-fired power stations should be closed “by 2023 at the very latest”.

I have previously written about how energy sources such as nuclear power are neglected in the environmental movement and that tribalism directs attention more towards renewables, which do themselves hold carbon costs and have other associated ethical issues. The Greens “oppose nuclear power… [which] poses unacceptable risks”. However, the party supports the potential use of CCS on existing gas and biomass plants, but “only as a transitional technology”. To me, this seems a sensible, cost-effective approach. I agree most with the Greens in the sense that rather than putting too much emphasis on the mode of electricity generation,

“Renewables can supply all the energy we need… if we manage our demand”.

As such, it is cutting the need which has the greatest importance – an approach very much in-tune with this blog.

The list of policies towards action on climate change (expectedly) goes on for the Greens, including the provision of cheaper public transport, encouragement of walking, cycling and electric vehicles and research, promotion and support of “farming methods that reduce greenhouse gas emissions”.

Shade: Green Party logo green

CONCLUSION

As far as this analysis is concerned, the Green Party provides the clear best approach to tackling the problem of climate change, in terms of ambition, effectiveness of approach and cost-efficiency. Of course, neither is climate change the only thing on the voter’s mind, nor is a vote for the Green Party necessarily going to help their approach to the environment become adopted on a country-wide scale. This is especially true now that Corbyn has rejected the possibility of any (official) sort of progressive alliance.

As promised, I have tried to keep the analysis centred upon the policies and approaches of the political parties, meaning the above sections do not take into account the other policies, such as on education, the NHS or on national security. Instead of looking to my own personal views for a conclusion, I will instead look to the polls and seat predictions. By multiplying the numerical green scale value by the average poll over the past three weeks, or by the forecast vote share, we may determine an evidence-based assessment not just of how to make a green vote, but how to make it count. Due to the first past the post system, some parties receive much more support than their seat numbers account for. Included in the table is the number of votes per seat in 2015, along with an associated scale factor for the seatscore. This amplifies the impact of UKIP, for example, who won just one seat but has an enormous effect on national politics and attitudes. The seat scalar is approximately the factor of votes more than the Conservatives required per seat.

The 11 greenscale values range from -10 to 10, with -10 being reddest and 10 being greenest. The poll ranges as of 3rd June, green scale ratings and consequent rating are tabulated below.

                      Conservatives        Labour        Liberal Democrats         UKIP               Green

Poll average               44%                    35%                         8%                            4%                       2%

Seat estimate          359                     220                              7                                1                            1

Green scale                0.5                         7                                6                              -1.5                      10


Pollscore                0.22                      2.45                       0.48                          -0.06                         0.2

Votes / seat         34,244                40,290                 301,986               3,881,129         1,157,613

Seat scalar                 1                          1                              10                             100                          50

Seatscore                0.28                     2.43                        0.66                       -0.23                      0.79


Overall                   0.25                     2.44                         0.57                            -0.15                        0.50

Take from this analysis what you will, and please let me know if you think I could measure how far your vote will go towards action on climate change using a better metric. The following table summarises the findings of this article.

Pure greenscale rank                          Weighted rank

  1.                                 Green                                                      Labour
  2.                                Labour                                                    Lib Dem
  3.                               Lib Dem                                                     Green
  4.                         Conservative                                      Conservative
  5.                                  UKIP                                                          UKIP

The former column is the idealist, non-tactical-voting recommended order of preference, while the latter is the tactical-voter’s recommendation. Happy voting!

NOTES

* : In the latest edition of this series, Shah has now reconfirmed her faith in Labour, saying they have “proved themselves”.

** : For a full table of my numerical ratings, see this table. For the main source of much of my research, see Carbon Brief’s handy manifesto evaluation. For polices which are unmentioned, I referred to the 2015 evaluation, amongst other sources.

*** : The claim that the UK could have a so-called independence day is frankly disgusting. Take a look at this map of countries who have gained independence from the UK.

[Images: headerCameronmarrowavo toastbusmelon]