London’s choking

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]

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]

Are you imprisoned in Plato’s cave?

For the past 6 months I have been tutoring an A-level student in religious studies  (focusing on philosophy and ethics). This course seeks to give an introduction to the fundamentals of religious and moral philosophy, in the latter case considering applications of ethical theories to real world dilemmas such as in medical ethics, war and peace and environmental issues. My tutee had her AS-level philosophy exam last week, and during revision classes we discussed some interesting connections between a concept in classical philosophy and a variety of issues in the world of today. Some of these connections I feel are rather poignant for modern society and the environmental movement.

No introductory course in philosophy would be complete without discussing Plato’s famous allegory of the cave. While Plato originally intended the story to provide an analogy describing how closed many people’s minds were to (his version of) greater philosophical truth, there have been many alternative interpretations.* A notable one in recent years is the Wachowski Brothers’ (now the Wachowski Sisters‘) 1999 blockbuster The Matrix, in which the material world as we understand it is in fact just a highly elaborate computer simulation whose purpose is to keep our minds constantly busy whilst armies of machines harvest our biological energy to fuel their war on the real version of humanity.

THE ALLEGORY

Plato dreamt up his cave allegory in his book The Republic, which arguably paved the way for much of what we now know as modern Western society. The rather twisted setup of the story involves a small group of life-long prisoners, imprisoned in a mountainside cave. These prisoners have been shackled down by their limbs and neck for their entire existence, with their only experience of the world being that which is projected onto the wall of the cave in front of them by puppeteers (whose motives are highly questionable), using a fire burning behind their backs.  Plato said the prisoners’ most prized hobby is to name the shadow images which pass by on the wall. They do this without knowing that the horse which they name is in fact a rather low-order approximation to a real horse.

20120823-plato-cave

One day, a single prisoner is let free from his shackles. Turning around, his darkness-adjusted eyes are blinded by the light of the fire which had been the origin of all things he had seen, and he stumbles through the mouth of the cave and outdoors. Upon reaching the mouth of the cave, the escapee is again blinded by the light of the sun, realising his entire life has been a lie – that there was so much more to existence than he could have ever dreamed previously.

Plato speculates as to what the further movements of the prisoner might be, but the most important point is that the prisoner feels compelled to return to his former inmates in order to tell them just what they are missing. Upon returning to the dark cave, the others think him mad and do not believe a word he says. How on earth could there be anything else in the world, when they have everything they could ever want or need? Besides, the first prisoner’s skill in naming the shadow puppets has by this point been drastically reduced, his eyes again needing to readjust to the darkness. Plato goes further: the prisoners say that, if they were able, they would kill their old companion, for his ridiculous claims.

There are, by construction, plenty of parallels here with the narrative of The Matrix. Keanu Reeves’ character Neo, the chosen one, is the prisoner who escapes from the bonds which he hadn’t even realise he was wearing. Through Morphius’ guidance, he learns what existence truly is. Along with his new companions, Neo aims to free all those humans who have been captured and brainwashed into this grand computer simulation. As in Plato’s tale, anyone brave enough to fight against the matrix will be met with much resistance and likely be killed. However in this case the aggressors will not be former inmates, but rather, agents of the matrix – for the cave analogy, the puppeteers.

PLUGGED INTO THE MATRIX

Another allegory is very much closer to home, and yet still shares the same essence of the matrix analogy, in that it centres around a so-called virtual reality. As I discussed in a previous piece, smartphones now form an intrinsic part of many, many people’s daily existence. Some estimates claim the average US citizen spends a shocking 5 hours staring at the screens of mobile devices every day. Even if such estimates are exaggerated, it is clear that an enormous chunk of the average person’s day is spent on apps and websites, almost none of which even existed at the turn of the millennium.

Both the prisoner who spends their existence staring at shadows and the technology user who spends their time looking at a screen are trading off their three dimensional existence for a two dimensional one, giving this particular analogy a special relevance. The difference here is that the former does not realise they have actually made a trade, while the smartphone user becomes willingly imprisoned.

-The-Matrix-the-matrix-23939820-1360-768

Recent work has been done looking into the impacts of the five major social media on mental health. Youtube was the only medium to come out of this analysis as having a positive effect, while Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter were held to have an overall detrimental impact on their users’ mental health. In some cases, survey respondents reported these media as linked to anxiety, loneliness and a lack of self-confidence. There is mounting evidence to suggest that spending one’s time on social media is unhealthy, but the user is drawn back again and again, often implicitly, by the associated dopamine hit, deeply ingrained habits and that particularly 21st century phenomenon fear of missing out.

The aspect of being ‘blinded by the light’ is certainly applicable, with those who give up their technological burdens reporting their deep sense of relief.** However the aggression element of Plato’s cave allegory is probably not so present here, with there being general feelings of agreement toward anyone who speaks out about the evils of social media. However, when a person quits using (or never owned) a mobile phone or laptop, the response from others will often be a comment on how annoying it will be to try and get hold of them, or a question about how they will manage under such old fashioned pretences.

BORN INTO IGNORANCE

If you were wondering why this post is included in a blog which focuses on positive approaches to tackling the problems posed by climate change, the following shows where the relevance lies.

Emitting carbon dioxide is not something we can opt out of. By the very fact of our existence, we are polluters of the Earth’s atmosphere, breathing in oxygen and breathing out this greenhouse gas. In addition, we are (mostly) born into societies which are driven by fossil fuels. As I have previously argued, we still haven’t found any means of electricity generation, mass agriculture or transportation which are completely independent of fossil fuel usage, even if some approaches need them far less than others. In a world where long-distance travel, 24 hour lighting and instant communication form a ubiquitous part of daily life, it is almost unavoidable to inherit a large carbon footprint just by going about in the world. To see this for yourself, I would highly recommend calculating your carbon footprint using the helpful quiz provided by the One Planet Living initiative.

Many, many people are, of course, aware of the fact of their polluting. The (mainly psychological) issue lies in the corresponding ‘disconnect’, which I have mentioned in the past. Beyond awareness is, rather than the philosophical enlightenment Plato eludes to, a distinct change in lifestyle. Your carbon emission can be vastly reduced by a collection of small changes to everyday life, such as cycling rather than driving, changing electricity provider, eating less meat, generating less waste and turning electrical devices off when you’re not using them. These steps, taken separately, provide no enormous disruption to your daily routines. Taken together, they pave the path towards a less carbon-intensive lifestyle.

On the face of it, you may think the aggression part of the allegory does not appear here, since it isn’t often you hear of anyone killing someone for their attitudes towards environmental issues. This may be the case, but aggression is certainly present in the face of environmentalists. Consider the small group of protesters who stood up against the government overturning its banning in their home county of Lancashire. One a day in January, this commendable group’s peaceful outcry at a Cuadrilla site was met with physical aggression by construction workers, who pushed them into a road using fencing.

Anti-Fracking-prot_3350383b

The aspect of oppression is also present, with many governments being well aware of their large carbon footprints, and yet doing very little to cut their emissions, at the expense of worse-off people both abroad and at home, both in present and future. Further, renewables schemes and green incentives are scrapped by those in power bowing to the almighty Pound, with former UK Prime Minister David Cameron scrapping a programme giving homeowners renewables incentives just days after signing the COP21 international agreement in Paris. In today’s London, renowned educational establishments such as the British Library and Natural History Museum regularly have exhibitions which are sponsored by fossil fuel giants. I was particularly shocked when the Science Museum put on its Wonderlab exhibition, which sought to teach children about the science of climate change (amongst other things) and yet drew its funding from the Norwegian company Statoil.

Perhaps the connection to Plato’s cave is not as immediately clear as in the case of The Matrix, since most of us are at least partially aware of the damage we are inflicting upon the planet. However consider the case of pushing climate change combatting lifestyle changes to the extreme. It is certainly the case that if you give up eating animal products completely, stop flying in planes and don’t generate any disposable waste at all, you will receive plenty of resistance from people around you; expect to be labelled as ‘being ridiculous’ or ‘idealist’.

Upon giving up flying, you will undoubtedly hear comments such as ‘if you don’t book that seat then the plane will still fly anyway’. Upon quitting meat, you will surely hear ‘if you stop eating meat then this won’t stop any pigs, cows or chickens being killed’. Upon going zero waste you will hear ‘There is still waste involved in the production of those so-called waste-free products you are consuming’.

Of course the world isn’t going to stop turning because one person stands up and says it isn’t right – no one ever expected it would and that is not the point. Environmental organisations such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have attempted many times to try and arrange for action on climate change to come about from the top down, for governments to change their electricity generation methods, cap their emissions and encourage more environmentally friendly lifestyles. Sadly, little effect progress has been made in this direction, with many environmental policies being expensive, sub-optimal and unattractive. Consider, for example, the attitude of UKIP’s Paul Nuttall towards green levies and environmental regulations: the country would be more prosperous without them. In a free market capitalist world, the state being willing to impose any sort of environmental regulations on businesses or citizens seems unlikely.***

Considering the failure of most attempts at top-down action on climate change, it is increasingly apparent that solutions to the climate crisis must have grassroots, bottom-up origins. Bottom-up environmentalism means lifestyle change and coordination of local groups and organisations. It means fundraising events, outreach activities and general word-spreading. The hope is that eventually top-down action will become a necessary response to mass public demand, but for now my personal belief is that the best bet on tackling climate change is to do everything within your own power to reduce your emissions and encourage others to join you in doing so.

There is a way out of climate oppression by the so-called elite class. You may have heard some refer to it using the word revolution.

NOTES

* : As well as those mentioned and discussed here, there are some other awakenings to which Plato’s famous story could be applied. Firstly, in modern day North Korea, learning of the ‘outside world’ and speaking of this to fellow citizens is considered utmost treason. An application which is relevant to the RS course I am tutoring is, for Christians, the transfiguration of Jesus, following which his disciples were labelled as mad for their ‘seeing the light’ and their dedication of their lives to Jesus. Further, Simon Amstell’s mockumentary Carnage hints at non-veganism (also known as carnism) as a Platonic cave imprisonment.

** : I will be giving up my second hand iPhone 5 and returning to the world of the so-called dumb phone when my SIM contract expires in September. I’ll let you know how it goes.

***: Having said that, the UK seems to be heading away from the small state associated with free market capitalism. Both the Conservative and Labour Party manifestos are much more communitarian than the politics of the past couple of decades, both making a clean break from Tony Blair’s neoliberalism. This is not to say, however, that either party is planning to make real efforts to protect the environment.

[Images: headercave, matrix, fracking]

Nuclear power: the ongoing green controversy

A RECIPE FOR DISASTER?

Just over six years ago an earthquake off the coast of Tohoku measuring a whopping 9 on the Richter scale sparked the largest tsunami ever recorded to hit Japan. It struck the coast at Fukushima, causing much destruction, including 15,894 lost lives and major damage to public and private property. The tsunami and earthquake also played large parts in causing the meltdown of Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Although the meltdown event itself caused no deaths, the radiative aftermath is still being felt across the Pacific ocean and there is still plenty of nuclear waste to be disposed of on site, largely in black bin bags. Earlier this year, robots were sent in to commence the clean-up operation, only to have their circuits fried before being able to start work.

Many people, even in Japan, are unaware just how bad the disaster (and its associated fallout) at Fukushima were. In the present day, nearby residents have been told it is safe to live where radioactivity recordings of 20 milliSieverts per year have been made. Compare this with the notorious Chernobyl disaster, where readings of 1-5 milliSieverts per year led to evacuations. Clearly, it is greatly desirable to avoid such disasters in the future.

One approach to the problem is to upgrade the early-warning systems for an approaching tsunami to make them much more efficient. As my MRes project for MPE CDT I am currently researching how adaptive meshes can be used to improve the efficiency of computations in the numerical modelling of tsunamis, with the Tohoku tsunami as a case study.

Another possible solution is for Japan to review its usage of nuclear power in its energy grid in light of the country’s vulnerability to extreme weather events. This is indeed something which has been done by the Japanese government since the event. However, the problems posed by climate change are making it increasingly important that the world turns away from fossil fuels and toward lower CO2 emitting options.

Provided nuclear power plants can be managed such that meltdowns are highly improbable, many argue we should not abandon this relatively ‘clean’ alternative to fossil fuels, which has the potential to generate vast amounts of electricity.  Nonetheless, much of the environmental movement rejects nuclear power, usually with the opinion it is just too risky. This was something I found particularly clear during the events surrounding COP21 in Paris, 2015, when I accidentally upset quite a few people by showing support for nuclear power.

This controversial issue strikes a strongly dividing line between environmentalists and I am determined to get to the bottom of what exactly drives this. I recognise that this subject is far too vast to be covered in one blog piece and so my intention is merely to start a discussion and see what the possible alternatives might be.

GONE FISSION (SORRY)

There are two ways to extract energy from atoms: split them or fuse them. Nuclear fission corresponds to the former, and is the mode of electricity generation used in plants world over. In a highly controlled, contained atmosphere, heavy atoms such as those of uranium or thorium are split, leading to an enormous amount of atomic energy being released, resulting in extremely high temperatures.

Just as when heat is released from burning coal, gas, oil and biomass fuels, the high temperatures due to nuclear reactions are used to boil water, resulting in steam rising therefrom and turning the turbines which would be turned manually by wind or water in the case of most renewable sources. Thus, the only immediate byproduct of nuclear power is harmless water vapour. But surely some radioactivity somehow ‘leaks’ out of the plant? In fact, a traditional coal-burning plant emits more radioactive materials than a modern nuclear power plant.

fission

After a year or so has elapsed, another byproduct must be removed from the reactor, however: nuclear waste. These byproducts include radioactive isotopes cesium-137, strontium-90 and iodine-131, and are potentially very harmful to humans. Despite this, the nuclear industry is generally very thorough in its safe handling of waste, transporting it in thick, coated containers.

One major proponent of a turn to nuclear power in the face of climate change is James Lovelock, who can be quoted as requesting for the UK government to agree to store a large proportion (but small quantity) of its nuclear waste in a lead-lined box in his back garden (for no price, except the delivery), which he would happily tend to flowers nearby and pose for photos with. The government declined his offer. An alternative fate for nuclear waste stems from recent developments concerning the recycling of nuclear waste, potentially creating simplified waste forms. One possible approach is provided by the newly developed integral fast reactor, which could meet the UK’s energy needs for 500 years through consumption of its nuclear waste stockpile.

The second type of nuclear energy generation, fusion, is a magical world-provider, future-ensurer, climate-change-trivialiser… the power of a star inside a power plant. The process fuses low mass atoms such as hydrogen, under extreme temperatures, to create heavier ones, releasing untold amounts of energy in the process. Unlike fission, this type of energy generation contributes zero nuclear waste, meaning it is both perfectly ‘clean’, and cheap to fuel. There isn’t even any need to go mining for exotic elements, since hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe.

The issue with fusion, however, is a developmental one. The fact the process requires reactors to be able to reach, and sustain, temperatures on the order of millions of degrees Celsius is not something we can crack easily. Stars are able to contain such unbelievable heat because of their gigantic gravitational field, holding their plasmic entrails within. On Earth, however, we would need to achieve containment within a solid casing. Materials science hasn’t, so far, been able to find anything which could feasibly do this. As such, we aren’t currently able to maintain fusion for more than a few seconds, and the joke goes that our achieving nuclear fusion on a sustainable, useful level is ‘always 20 years away’ from fruition. Perhaps it will indeed turn out to be too good to be true, but surely the only way to ever have the ability to control this dream energy source is through continued investment in the nuclear sector.

RISK VS. EFFICIENCY

Pro-nuclear arguments are largely utilitarian: supporters accept that terrible meltdown events might very occasionally happen, thereby causing environmental damage and severe health risks, but also hold that these concerns are vastly outweighed by the amount of clean electricity generated, as compared with the corresponding greenhouse emissions of fossil fuels which themselves have climate-catastrophic strings attached.

In Lovelock’s book ‘The Revenge of Gaia’, he tabulates the fatalities of workers and public due to different energy-producing industries from 1970 to 1992. The resulting deaths per terawatt year (which is possibly the most utilitarian metric conceivable) of the coal industry is 342, natural gas industry is 85 and hydroelectric industry is 883. The nuclear industry, by contrast, corresponds to only 8 deaths per terawatt year. Some have even argued that, had Japan never adopted nuclear power as a fuel source, many more deaths would have occurred from coal power sources than were caused by the Fukushima event.

Despite the fact nuclear power is extremely efficient, producing vast amounts of electricity from tiny amounts of fuel, we may derive from the fatality statistics that nuclear accidents rarely lead to many deaths. What is not accounted for in this data is the fact that a nuclear meltdown can cause environmental and health-related damage long after the event. Later deaths and severe illnesses can not always be so easily correlated with one particular disaster event. This is an intrinsically difficult thing to quantify, since many, many things in our daily lives are radioactive on some level, from smoke detectors, to rocks… even food.

three-eyed-fish-simpsons

The word clean perhaps isn’t something that immediately springs to mind when someone mentions nuclear power. 20th and 21st century TV and film have more often than not portrayed nuclear power as a ‘dirty’ form of energy – think Mr. Burns’ nuclear power plant in the Simpsons, giving rise to three-eyed fish. However, many studies suggest not just that the nuclear fission process as a whole yields very low greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but also that nuclear waste is not so much of an issue, when handled properly.

A graph displayed in my previous blog piece illustrates the results of one study which found nuclear power to be less carbon intensive than solar power. That piece also explored the murky origins of rare earth materials found in modern technologies, including renewable power sources, suggesting that there are both ethical issues and shortages. As one might imagine, the mining of uranium isn’t the most ethically responsible either. Upon my accidental upset of a group of environmentalists at COP21, I heard the story of one woman who had spent a lot of time visiting African communities which have been ravaged by the nuclear industry coming in, getting local residents to mine for uranium and going off to generate vast amounts of electricity for the West, leaving very little for the communities to benefit from.

WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?

History shows us that competition frequently leads to technological innovation. The space race lead to the invention or development of long distance communication, Velcro, water filters, MRI and CAT scanners. Today, the capitalist system means profit drives tech companies to make wickedly fast, portable, energy-efficient computers, be able to transport an item from warehouse to doorstep in a matter of hours and develop incredibly powerful apps that can, err… make the user have the face of a dog or age by 50 years in live motion. In the same way, warfare has been a major driver of innovation, especially in the fact that nuclear power is only an option for us today because nuclear weapons were brought into existence in 1945.

historyofnucleartesting_header_03

In ‘The Revenge of Gaia’, Lovelock remarks that two of the central fears in the ‘pampered and cosseted developed world’ are cancer and nuclear war, neither of which were in the forefront of people’s minds in times when life expectancy was lower and technology less developed. It is interesting that humanity pushes forward into uncharted territory through innovation and soon becomes utmost afraid of these new things it discovers and invents there (respectively).

The reason for Lovelock’s comment is that, in fearing the horrors of cancer, we should beware of placing too much emphasis on the aftermath of past weapon deployment. The impact of the nuclear bombs dropped in tests and on Japan over the 20th century on the likelihood of our developing cancer is in fact negligible. Following nuclear tests leading to and during the Cold War, enough radioactive material has been carried across the globe by atmospheric and oceanic currents that radioactive substances such as strontium-90 can be found of the teeth of any person on the planet born after 1963. Tests conducted between 1945 and 1980 alone had a total yield of approximately 510 megatons, with atmospheric testing alone accounting for 428 megatons. That is, more than 29,000 times the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Fear not, however, as the quantities of these substances found in your teeth are so small, and pose such a small risk to your health, that you should be more worried about the radioactivity of certain rocks when on holiday in Wales or Cornwall.

Putting aside, for now, any discussion of the objective morality of possession and potential usage of nuclear weapons, surely now that nuclear fission exists, we could pursue its development without military intentions. An important development in this vein is the discovery of nuclear fuels which cannot be used in missiles. Thorium-based fission uses fuels which are not only much more abundant in the earth’s crust, but crucially un-weaponisable. Great! Now we can build extremely efficient energy sources, even in unstable countries, without worry. Sadly, it hasn’t panned out quite like that. Investment in thorium-based nuclear fission is minuscule. I suspect the reason why is exactly the reason you might think it is so good: you can’t make missiles out of it.

That competition drives innovation so clearly highlights a big issue within the climate change problem: it is difficult to derive any notion of competition from acting in a ‘green’ way. In my opinion, it is crucial that we find ways to make tackling climate change a desirable thing for businesses to do. Kevin Synnott, contributor to this blog, has come up with some good ideas in this direction, many of which are linked intrinsically to climate science communication.

WHITE ELEPHANTS AND OTHER MONEY WASTING SCHEMES

I hope you would agree from what I have discussed above that, in principle, implementation of nuclear power on a large scale might well prove to be an effective means of combatting climate change. This is not to say that all nuclear developments are necessarily a good thing.

1279

In the UK, the government, along with the energy provider EDF Energy and others, are making plans to plough vast sums of taxpayer money into a nuclear facility in Somerset, called Hinkley Point C. This is not the best type of reactor we could build right now and, frankly, its development involves a real waste of potential. The planned reactor is of an outdated, overly-expensive and relatively inefficient 1980’s model. Money would be much better spent on a more up-to-date model, but long-standing funding ties are blocking this from coming into being. There is even evidence to suggest this particular reactor might be unbuildable, as with uncompleted projects of the same type in Olkiluoto, Finland, and Flamanville, Normandy.

As George Monbiot has argued in a recent article, whilst nuclear power provides a path towards a green future, so-called white elephant projects such as Hinkley Point C are not the answer. They give nuclear power a bad name, through expense and risk, and continuation of waste contribution.

As one goes through the list of possible energy sources open before us – fossil fuels, wind power, solar power, biomass-burning, nuclear fission… – it is difficult not to feel a sense that they all have flaws which cannot be ignored, be they ethical, economic, environmental, or some combination thereof. But this makes perfect sense! As Milton Friedman famously said,

“There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

The idea that we can generate electricity to turn the wheels of human civilisation with absolutely zero cost to the Earth or to ourselves is, when you think about it, rather ridiculous. Assuming that we insist on continuing to have a sustained provision of electricity for our usage, the question is not how to get this for free, but how to obtain it by means which inflict least destruction and which ensure the brightest possible future.

We can debate all day long about whether nuclear power or renewables provide the best solution to the grandest of problems faced by climate change, but in reality the best, clearest approach is the way of reduction. This opinion on energy is gaining traction, with even Peter Wilby of New Statesman showing support in his column last week. Reducing energy requirements not only lessens demand and the consequent emissions, but also means less new infrastructure is needed, less money is spent on both personal and governmental levels, and a simpler, more fulfilling life could be lived by all.

Does that sound like a better world to you? Cutting waste, reducing energy demands and being aware of product origins really isn’t that hard. I whole-heartedly recommend at least trying all three.

[Further myth-busting: here]

[Image sources: header image, fission diagram, fishbomb test, Hinkley C]

The murky path to high-tech production

SMARTPHONE… OR DUMBPHONE?

So-called smartphones now form a ubiquitous part of modern life. There are more smartphones active in the UK than there are people. Most of us carry one around in our pocket, and a Nottingham Trent study found the average person to check their smartphone an astounding 85 times per day. Why exactly we feel the desire to make such frequent peeks is a mystery, especially since they are usually uninteresting and are mildly exciting at best and in either case inherently short-term.

The social implications of smartphone ever-presence are astounding. Apple released the first iPhone model just ten years ago, and look at how society has changed in that time. Before the advent of the smartphone, my experience was that text conversations were very much like in-person ‘real-life’ conversations, in that responses would be fairly prompt and when one converser had something to go and do, the conversation ended with a goodbye.

I have fond memories of the third-hand, near indestructible Nokia 3310 which I held onto for 6 years or so, until the ‘s-t-u’ key fell out (vastly reducing the number of words in my lexicon), at which point I reluctantly got a second-hand iPhone 4. On the old 3310, the only text message you could see whilst replying was the one you were typing, meaning there were some memory exercises involved. There was no copy and paste function, either. These factors meant conversations took effort and therefore were not something to be done in-between working or watching a TV show. Suddenly, smartphones made not just the previous message available for viewing, but also all previous messages, reducing the effort and enabling the re-kindling of a long-stagnated, half-forgotten discussion.

In contrast to the days of the ‘dumb phone’ (as they are now called), it is now considered perfectly decent manners to ignore a text message reply for a day or more, with no particular reason given. Just imagine if you were talking to someone in person and then, completely unannounced, they got up and left, returning two days later at exactly the point you left off. This is the way we are learning (and are implicitly teaching the younger generation) to communicate. I have spoken to many people who have noted that they find it considerably harder to spark a meaningful in-person conversation than they used to and almost everyone will admit to having a short attention span.

The social impacts go on and on: notably, smartphones heralded the origin of the selfie and have thereby had the effect of turning many inward, quite literally, taking photos of themselves rather than of the outside world.

Why is this important for Cut Waste, Not Trees (Down)? Because climate change is possibly the longest-term problem humanity has faced, and a blinkered, distracted person with a very short attention span is unlikely to spend much of their time considering the environmental problems faced and the means by which we might tackle them.

Of course, there is a case to be made for the usefulness of smartphones: the ability to never get lost so long as you have GPRS; the fact you can communicate across continents extremely cheaply; the extension of the pronoun Google to the status of verb. Whether this convenience culture in which we find ourselves is healthy for the mind and body is up for discussion, but it is increasingly difficult to argue that smartphones do not impend on our ability to perform certain tasks, or to concentrate deeply. What is clear in any case, is the important role played by smartphones in many, many people’s lifestyles, for better or for worse.

 

TECH ORIGINS

In a previous blog piece, I have advocated shopping for vegetables at local markets, and the importance of trying to connect with the path which the foods we consume have travelled along. This helps not only to obtain an idea of the associated ‘carbon footprint’, or ‘food miles’, but also a sense of respect and gratitude for the efforts of many farmers, distributors and animals involved along the process of transporting from farm to plate. It makes clear sense to try to gain an understanding of what exactly we are feeding into our bodies, and where they have come from. But what about other aspects of our daily lives? What is the path of the smartphone, from mine to jeans pocket?

Like computers, car batteries and wind turbine motors, the construction of smartphones relies on rare earth materials. These exotic, mined materials are becoming harder and harder to come across as these technologies become more widespread, driving up prices and also causing tension in the (typically poor) regions from which they are mined. Rare earth metals such as tellurium, neodymium and cerium are less abundant in the Earth’s crust than gold, making them highly valuable substances. Above and beyond their rarity, these metals gain instrumental value by their usefulness for the development of contemporary technological innovations.

One essential component of many technologies is tin, with one third of the world’s supply coming from Indonesia. A Friends of the Earth field study in that region found shocking evidence of

“silt from tin mining boats choking coral, driving away fish and marine life and ruining fishermen’s livelihoods; forests and farmland destroyed, loss of soil fertility and little or no restoration of mined land; injuries and fatal accidents when pits collapse.”

Cobalt is another element required for the production of tech products and is found most abundantly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the poorest nations on Earth. Much of the mining there is performed in unregulated, dangerous artisanal mines, where child labour is common and disease and injury are rife. In some cases, 7 year old children are expected to carry sacks heavier than themselves. Many miners suffer breathing problems and have significantly impacted life expectancy.

In recent history, China has controlled the flow of rare earth materials from mine to factory. The products of unregulated mines such as those described are often distributed by Congo Dongfang Mining International, which forms a subsidiary of the Chinese company Huayou Cobalt, suppliers of the household tech brands Apple, Dell and Microsoft. In addition, there have been numerous reports of terrible working conditions for the assembly workers in the Chinese factories of Apple et al, pushing some to the extremes of suicide. What can be done to try and avoid purchasing products of such dubious origin, and generate a real demand for more ethically sourced, environmentally-friendly alternatives?

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The approach I have used so far is a not-so-distant cousin of freeganism, whereby one’s moral responsibility is reduced by only buying second-hand versions of these products. Whilst this avoids any money slipping directly into the pockets of those who originally funded the production process, it does not negotiate around the problem of indirect profit via unintended product advertisation due to the omnipresent Logo.

There has been some interest in recent times in the concept of a more ethically responsible smartphone, manifesting notably in the Fairphone. Whilst these devices provide a clear step forward from the standard, they come with quite a price tag and are therefore unlikely to attract many current smartphone users.

What many might consider to be the most extreme solution is the modern equivalent of the 1970’s ‘society dropout’: the smartphone quitter. Someone with concerns about the social, environmental and ethical implications of the smartphone era may wish to abandon it entirely. This approach is akin to the half-ironically titled digital detox, and has been made fashionable by the much anticipated relaunch of the retro 3310, and the consequent sky-rocketing of price tags on old Nokia models on eBay.

Acting on the problems discussed here does not necessarily need to involve the abandonment of one’s current lifestyle. The issue of rare earth material scarcity can be combatted by effectively recycling old, unwanted or broken phones and computer hardware, ensuring that the valuable ‘magic’ substances needed for technology production are not wasted, lost in landfill sites. To quote Friends of the Earth again,

“Our purchasing choices do matter – but they can’t create change on the scale or at the speed needed. It’s companies, not customers, who understand the complexities of their operations and are in a position to address how they make products.”

As such, there is a real need for commercial rare material recycling schemes, as well as domestic ones – something with Friends of the Earth and others are campaigning towards.

 

RENEWABLE ISSUES

Mining and production problems are not limited to domestic digital products, either…

The opinion of most environmentalists and perhaps even general public opinion is that renewable sources of electricity provide the clearest path towards tackling climate change. Wind power is a popular source in Europe at the minute, with vast swathes of wind farm being rolled out across fields and oceans across the continent. Denmark is now even able to run entirely on wind power on some days. In the UK, wind power is now the cheapest mode of electricity generation. In many areas, a switch to the renewables-only electricity provider Ecotricity will not only reduce your carbon footprint, but also your bills. At the same time, the UK, where coal power first started out, is close to abolishing the energy source, recently going coal-free for the first time since the industrial revolution (although there are plans for new generation, coal-biomass plants…).

However, renewable energy generators require the same rare earth materials discussed above, and in much greater quantities. To make a set of earphones requires a tiny amount of neodymium, whilst a high-spec wind turbine requires around two tonnes of the stuff, causing a real demand for the rare earth material.

Renewables are frequently held to be the best way forward. However factors related to their construction are not always included in the carbon-intensity evaluation. Consider the plot of the GHG emission intensity of various common modes of electricity generation below, taken from a World Nuclear Association study. As one would expect, the fossil fuels are held to be most polluting and renewables like hydro and wind power being the least. What may be surprising, however, is the evidence suggesting solar power is in fact much more polluting than nuclear power. Whilst solar panels generate electricity from sunlight alone, their manufacture can be rather carbon intensive. The processes of mining and transporting raw materials and assembling the solar technologies are not things which we are currently able to do without GHG emission.

Lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions

There are, inevitably, emissions involved with the construction of nuclear plants, especially in building cooling towers out of concrete. However, the high efficiency of nuclear power and the low efficiency of solar power stack the odds toward the former in terms of which is the least carbon intensive in the long run.

Of course, the study results here cannot form a conclusive proof that any one energy source is optimal. Taken along with the discussion of mining above, we make the important observation to be wary of climate tribalism – no one mode of electricity generation is inherently better than all the others, since there are so many factors to consider. In my opinion the greenest way forward must lie in some combination of the less environmentally damaging sources, rather than a wholesale transfer to nuclear or to wind power, say. Remaining to be debated are the proportions.

 

FURTHER INTEREST

If you are interested in rarity and usefulness of some earth metals, you may well enjoy the excellent geoscience exhibition currently on at the Natural History Museum in London, also covering topics such as earthquakes and volcanoes.

Cities of the future

IF A TREE GOES UNSEEN IN A FOREST, DOES ANYONE CARE ABOUT IT?

In this blog, I am attempting to make a case for showing positivity in the face of climate crisis, and seek to illustrate the plethora of possible solutions thereof. But why should we care about environmental issues? This is an entire debate in itself and the associated responses strike a dividing line through the environmental movement.

One response commonly made in the face of climate change is the argument of shallow ecology. Shallow ecologists* value nature by its instrumental use for humanity and are therefore motivated to act towards its protection whenever its degradation or destruction impinges on our prosperity. For the shallow ecologist, a tree is valuable by virtue of the fact it can be made into a table or doorframe; a dog is valuable because it can assist with hunting and guarding property; natural gas becomes valuable when one realises it can be burnt to cook a pan of beans or to generate electricity.

Along this line of argument, a shallow ecologist might campaign against the mining and burning of fossil fuels because these resources are diminishing, take millions of years to regenerate (meaning they will soon be unavailable for future generations to use as we have) and the greenhouse effect resulting from their use threatens the continued existence of the human race. For the shallow ecologist, the extinction of the dodo and the impending extinction of the great panda are issues of no great concern, since these creatures are of little practical use in maintaining or improving our quality of life.

Shallow ecology seems at first to be at odds with the recognition that we humans are not separate, but part of nature. This is not necessarily the case. For instance, a shallow ecologist may support their belief that the extinction of the great panda and dodo are not important by remarking that it was largely mankind who caused these extinctions and, at the end of the day, we just play a part of nature’s process. In this view, the urban landscape exists not only suspended within, but as an inextricably bound component of the natural environment. One might argue the growth of a city should therefore be allowed to continue undamped, paving over fields and ripping up forests for the sake of economic prosperity. It is easy to see how these can be potentially ruinous positions when extrapolated to a global scale. The main motive behind an extreme shallow-ecological approach to nature is possibly an attempt to absolve responsibility.

Shallow ecologists such as Peter Singer argue the expansion of cities is largely independent of the true nature. In his book ‘Practical Ethics’, Singer advocates the preservation of world heritage sites. These unspoilt parts of the world, such as the tropical rainforest, acquire a ‘scarcity value’ as they diminish over time. By preserving heritage sites, it is possible to ensure their survival for future generations to enjoy. In this way, Singer prefers to leave future generations to decide whether they prefer unspoilt countryside or urban landscape. In the case of the rainforest, deforestation to make farmland is in many cases a pointless exercise, since the soil is often unsuited to monocultures after millennia upon millennia of very niche evolutionary development.

On the other side of the fence are the predictably named deep ecologists. A deep ecologist sees value in natural entities beyond their use for humans. A cow, for instance, has value beyond the milk, meat and leather it can provide. A deep ecologist will motivate their tackling of climate change by the claim the ‘natural world’ itself is worth saving, regardless of the fact humanity forms part of it. The millions of years of evolution that have developed the rich diversity of life forms found today should be held with utmost respect, rather than disregard for the sake of mere human worries. After all, on the timescale on which life has existed on Earth, all human history is a mere blink of an eye.

A deep ecologist is more likely to be interested in conservation independently of protecting resources which are useful for our sakes; more likely to campaign to keep fossil fuels in the ground full stop rather than to reduce their consumption; more likely to  reduce meat consumption for animal rights reasons, rather than environmental ones.

WHERE IS THE LINE?

In the above paragraphs a problematic term has crept in, one which is crucial in evaluating the spectrum of approaches to ecology: what is nature? Is a garden nature? A house plant in a pot? The Amazon rainforest? In a lot of ways, nature is a rather poorly defined word. Most people would agree that cities are not natural places, and that areas largely untouched by humans, such as desert plains, the Arctic tundra and the deep rainforest are the best examples of natural places – the world heritage sites Singer refers to. But what about the places ‘in between’ these two extremes, such as farmed countryside, national parks and the valleys surrounding ski resorts?

As with much philosophy of language, the solution essentially lies in a personal choice of definition, disappointingly. What you or I mean when we use the term nature need not be wholly consistent for us to have a meaningful conversation. What is important however is one’s attitude towards whatever it is that is defined by ‘nature’. Many today see nature as something outside of everyday life, whereby engagements with nature occur only on a camping trip or on a Sunday walk. Certainly embracing the natural world in these ways is beneficial on one’s outlook of the environment, but is it really healthy (for humans or for the planet) to think only in such terms?

The distinction between civilisation and untouched nature has been blurred for some time now. As Joshua Molyneux writes in Untrue blog,

“We resist nature in order to survive, building material and social protections that we hope will insulate us from the harsh weather. The dream of times past was that human progress would mean that we could civilise nature, delivering a utopia where people would be emancipated from the unending toil of survival.”

Everything we have we owe to nature, including our own existence. If all plants on Earth were killed, humans would die out too. We rely on plants, animals and bacteria for the air we breathe, the food we eat and the continued sustenance of ecosystem we inhabit. Without all of these components our civilisation, too, would fall apart. We are intrinsically a part of nature and therefore should see it permeating throughout everything we do.

The problems of climate change faced today make it clear that humankind does not have the full dominion over Earth that was once assumed. As James Lovelock argues in his influential book The Revenge of Gaia, the Earth will ensure we repay the damage inflicted upon it one way or another. The question is, how we are to both reduce the damage inflicted upon the planet and also mitigate the disastrous consequences for humanity (thereby fulfilling the desires of both deep and shallow ecologists)?

LIVEABLE CITIES

Last month there was an excellent photography exhibition on at Somerset House, London, called Grow/Conserve. The common thread running through the constituent pieces was an examination of the dependencies of humankind on nature and of plants and animals upon the urban landscape. One such study was provided by the British-Chinese artist Yan Wang Preston (see header image), whose photography centres around the reintroduction of trees to major Chinese cities which have become vastly over-polluted and are in dire need of some CO2 being absorbed. Like a boulder that slowly gains unstoppable momentum when pushed from its steady state atop a hill, by cutting down more and more trees to expand the world’s cities we are implicitly contributing more to the devastating greenhouse effect by creating a negative feedback (without even necessarily releasing more greenhouse gases).

A powerful statistic stated in Grow/Conserve is that every second the cities of the world gain two more inhabitants, be that through birth or migration. That is, 77 million new city-dwellers, per year – an annual exodus greater than the entire population of the UK. Clearly this means either cities need to expand rapidly to cater for their new inhabitants, or face the consequences of becoming extremely densely populated, with associated issues such as heightened crime, extreme pollution and homelessness. The extreme scenario image of a city-planet like Star Wars’ Coruscant is both infeasible and highly undesirable.

Surely there is an alternative to simply expanding cities upwards and outwards in the conventional way? Grow/Conserve seeks such alternative solutions, with a large emphasis on future sustainability.

A particularly vogue solution is the concept of a vertical garden. Numerous projects across the world aspire to re-think the conventional approach to gardening and vegetable growing. Most such projects have the aim of absorbing more CO2 than is required for their construction, thereby combatting climate change and local air pollution. In addition, they are usually more pleasant on the eyes than the many concrete nightmares of the past.

Building materials are much more important than they are given credit for. The majority of the environmental debate focuses around electricity generation and transport, with little time for thought left for the carbon footprint of concrete, for example. For every tonne of concrete made, a whopping 150kg of CO2 is released into the atmosphere. But, as is clear from the efficiency ratings of modern-style glass buildings, the environmentally-friendly choice does not lie that way either.

As Geoffrey West recently said in a very interesting seminar at University of Reading,

“the fate of the planet is now entwined in the fate of our cities”.

Cities give opportunity; cities promote diversity and innovation. Yet modern cities require vast amounts of externally farmed, mined and harvested consumables, contributing asymmetrically to environmental problems. As such, cites provide both the problem and the solution.

To help reach the solution faster, what is needed is increased innovation into technological developments like carbon capture and storage (CCS) and sustainable building materials, more international projects like Felix Finkbeiner’s childhood-dream-on-the-way-to-becoming-true project to plant one trillion trees** and more public involvement with, engagement in and discussion about achievable solutions to the problems posed to humanity by climate change.

Next time you find yourself at the heart of a big city, revelling in is almost chaotic busyness, take a moment to ask yourself whether this state of being is really sustainable in the long term.

 

NOTES

* : To be a shallow ecologist is a rather unfortunate title, don’t you think?

** : Bear in mind, there are only approximately three trillion trees on Earth, and Finkbeiner isn’t yet 20 years old. This project is one of the most impressive environmental efforts I have ever come across.

 

[Header image: Yan Wang Preston]

Never mind clean Brexit. How about a green Brexit?

BREXIT MEANS BREXIT MEANS…?

One week ago UK Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 of the European Union, beginning the process of divorce therefrom. Over the past year or so we have heard extensive forecasts, speculations and downright lies concerning what will happen in the future for UK citizens. Whilst what will actually turn out to be the case remains unclear, the future is even less certain for the state of the UK’s environment.

Many (including myself*) were quick to assume leaving the EU would mean nothing good for the environment. After all, there are many examples of the EU being a shining beacon of hope in terms of action on climate change, whilst the UK has been burning fossil fuels longer than any other country in the world. Bearing in mind most pollutants, including CO2, remain in the atmosphere for at least 100 years, continually contributing to the greenhouse effect, there is no doubt we have a responsibility in this country to step down our emissions significantly. What would be a tragedy is if the UK were to break free of the EU and return to its polluting old ways. This is certainly what UKIP would want.

Here I would like to briefly analyse to what extent I may or may not have been unfair in my hasty declaration of an ‘independent’ UK as a newly unhinged polluter, earning a swift return of the nickname ‘the dirty man of Europe’. Further I would like to motivate the possibility of turning the now inevitable Brexit from environmental disaster to a big step forward.

DID THE EU MAKE US ANY GREENER?

The UK originally earned the nickname of dirty man when joining the EU in 1973, for the joint reasons that it failed to meet the pollution control regulations other member states obeyed and because the prevailing winds from the Atlantic tend to blow British air toward the continent and Scandinavia, leading to numerous cases of acid rain in Norway. In addition, the UK was known for disobeying regulations on pesticide use.

It may be hard to believe now but in the 1980’s the UK had just 27 coastal areas which were designated as ‘bathing waters’, the remainder being too polluted for swimming to be recommended. Craig Bennett, director of Friends of the Earth, has recalled,

“As a boy, trips to the coast were often spoiled by filthy beaches and sewage-filled seas.”

Today, however, following formal proceedings of the European Commission, the number has reached 632, meaning there are plenty of beaches where children can play safely and where wildlife can flourish. The EU similarly enforces laws on clean rivers and on conservation.

In more recent times, the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive is making progress in providing increased levels of clean electricity to the continent by 2020, aiming for the target of a 20% share. Whilst there are many debates about which forms of electricity generation provide the best means of sustaining future society (which I leave for another day), most environmentalists would argue an increase in renewable power sources is for sure a good thing.

Not everything EU directed is peachy, however, and there are multiple examples where regulations have led to vast wastage and even direct environmental damage. A clear example is provided by the Common Fisheries Policy. This well-intentioned policy seeks to conserve fish stocks in the seas surrounding Europe. The issue lies in the fact that imposing quotas on particular fish stocks often leads to the mass depositing of dead, unwanted fish which lie outside the quota. I can think of no argument in which the mass killing and disposal of animals in this way may be deemed moral, and in addition, the practice goes precisely against the goal of conservation which it seeks to address.

Similar things can be said about the Common Agricultural Policy, which Greenpeace describes as

“incentivis[ing] farmers to keep land fallow without allowing it to re-wild, so the land is both unproductive and low in biodiversity.”

In effect, the CAP maximises yields at the expense of damaging the environment. Another example, as I have referred to in a previous piece, of business trumping concerns of climate change.

Again along the agricultural vein, the EU is largely held as being against genetically modified crops. Whilst most environmentalists would agree with this position, this is yet another issue which divides the movement. Plenty of scientists argue there are in fact very few risks associated with the majority of GM crops and it may even be the case that they provide the key to solving world hunger. This argument is of course dubious, and relies on a degree of altruism from mega-corporations like Monsanto which hasn’t seemed particularly present so far…

IS THE FUTURE BRIGHT? OR SMOGGY GREY?

It seems that, as with the impact of Brexit on UK citizens, the outcome isn’t entirely certain, but it is difficult not to feel that it isn’t going to turn out for the best. The UK has one particular environmental issue which is likely to go on unmentioned in the face of a departure from the EU: that is, the capital’s horrific air pollution levels. As is often commented, the air pollution in parts of London reached the yearly recommended limit in the first five days of 2017, with the UN declaring a state of crisis. When this happens in a city such as Paris, the majority of emissions are banned for a few days and the situation clears up somewhat. But this kind of thing would never happen in the homeland of capitalism and therefore the pollution continues to increase and increase. The EU has recently begun to crack down on air pollution, and it is likely that these changes will go largely unnoticed in the UK during the departure procedure. This all comes at a time when, according to RSPBover half of the UK’s native species are in decline, with 15% facing extinction. The future doesn’t look particularly bright.

Nonetheless, this is a blog about showing positivity in the face of climate crisis. Whilst all may seem pretty smoggy, the future is not set in stone and there are certainly plenty of things to be positive about.

Much was said during the referendum campaign about the UK becoming more like Norway upon exiting the European Union. Theresa May has confirmed that this will not be the case in terms of membership of the EEA, but perhaps there are other ways in which the comparison could be valid. Norway is on track to becoming the world’s first carbon neutral country by 2030.** The country aims to do this through various environmental protections put in place outside of the EU, along with investment in electrified roads and renewable energy sources. There is similar potential in the UK, due to the country’s geography. For example, a tidal power project in the Bristol channel would have plenty of electricity demand-meeting potential. Projects like this will only go ahead if there is pressure on governments to invest in such alternatives to fossil fuels, rather than continuing with fossil fuel subsidies and out-dated nuclear projects like Hinkley Point C.

Similarly, in order for the government to be motivated to preserve the British countryside, it is imperative that the public show enthusiasm for it. If no one goes on holiday to a particular part of the coast, there is little opposition to its degradation for purposes such as industry.

In order to reduce inner-city air pollution, it is imperative that fewer people drive cars. Since moving to London, many people have asked me if I dare to cycle on the busy streets. My response is that the cycle superhighways make this not just straightforward and safe, but also fairly pleasant.  Large cities such as Manchester are also developing excellent, well-defined cycle routes. If you live in a particularly polluted city, there are now plenty of life-saving breathing masks on the market. It is not only cyclists who benefit from these, but pedestrians too. Perhaps by increasing the number of masks worn on the street, there will be mounting pressure on councils and government to do something serious about air pollution.

Wearing an air pollution mask is not just better for your health. It is also a political statement. If enough of us wear these on the streets of the UK’s major cities, not only will others question how good an idea it is to breathe in the polluted air, but hopefully those in power will be forced into action and make a step towards a green Brexit.

NOTES

* : I shared this article on Facebook on 24th June 2016.

** : Although it does sell oil across the world, which in my opinion should negate this somewhat.

Six months waste free

… ZERO-WASTING, CONTINUED

In my earlier piece I made the case for lessening your climactic impact on the planet by reducing the amount of waste you generate. As I said there, on the face of it there seems to be less of a direct link with combatting climate change than there is with the conventional advice of driving and flying less or switching unused lights off. However there is certainly a case to be made for reducing waste in terms of the mindset it encourages.

Something which is not always realised is that the Zero Waste movement is about much more than recycling. Recycling is actually near the bottom of the hierarchy. Zero-wasting is principally about reducing consumption of products which involve any packaging. Of course, it is only really possible to live packaging-free if you grow or forage for all of your own food and do not use any electricity. This is not a blog about abandoning modern life in this extreme way and instead some concessions must be made with respect to purchasing. After reducing packaging comes maximising reusable packaging (such as jam jars) and only then maximising recyclable packaging.* The recycling process can itself be rather polluting, both during transport and during processing. In addition, there are many cases of items (such as coffee cups) which are technically recyclable but for which there are rarely the correct facilities in place, meaning contents of your recycling bin may well end up in landfill.

On 1st October 2016 I decided it was time to join the Zero Waste movement officially. In these last 6 months, I have generated just 390g of disposable waste: two non-recyclable tubs, filled with other bits and pieces, as shown in the header image, along with various stickers and labels. My target is to only generate 500g per year, so there is a little way reducing to go yet. However, as I have mentioned before, the average American generates around 500kg per year, so contributing such an insignificant fraction is in my opinion okay, but there is still room for progress to be made.

TIPS!

In these past 6 months, a number of people have asked for tips on how to reduce waste. I am certainly no guru, and still have little advice for how to replace makeup-related waste such as cotton wool, for example. However, what I can offer is a few ideas which I have found very helpful.

  • Shop local! Buying fruit and vegetables at a local market is a sure-fire way to avoid food waste, reduce food miles and help local commerce.
  • At first I was concerned Whole Foods is the only well-known store in the UK which has a bulk section, where you can bring your own containers for grains, nuts, oats, dried fruit and pulses. Upon my first visit, I was delighted to find it isn’t even that expensive! (Well, at least in the bulk section). In addition, walking around the aisles of Whole Foods, seeing and smelling the delicious products is wonderful. It’s like going to Harrods without the feeling of revulsion. Sadly, as far as I am aware, the Whole Foods route to zero waste is accessible only to those in the UK, USA and Canada; in the UK, only to Londoners and possibly dwellers of Edinburgh. However I am sure there are various co-operatives and local stores elsewhere across the world which provide a similar service.
  • If you absolutely must buy some foods in a plastic wrapper, Sainsburys stores (and others) now have facilities for recycling certain types of plastic bag and wrapper. As a rule of thumb, the types accepted are ‘stretchy’ rather than ‘stiff’. This service also helps out with those awkward products like toilet roll that are not available without packaging.**
  • Toothpaste tubes are (as far as I am aware) rather tricky to recycle. No problem! Lush have a range of tooth powders. These strange sounding (but absolutely fine, except perhaps the wasabi flavour) substances come in a small pot which can be returned to the shop for reuse. Five used pots can even be exchanged for a free face mask. Not only paste, but also brushes can be accounted for, with plastic-free toothbrushes now available online.
  • Start a Terracycle collection in your workplace. This organisation runs drop-off points  across the country for various items which are usually difficult to recycle, including used pens, biscuit wrappers and coffee packaging.
  • Try and find alternative uses for waste products. I recently ended up being given a free coffee in a disposable cup and decided to use it as a plant pot for some home-grown garlic.

DO TRY THIS AT HOME

Hopefully my comments on the Zero Waste lifestyle are useful. I am happy to respond to any questions or suggestions and really encourage anyone to attempt the Zero Waste challenge, even for a fortnight or month. On top of the environmental benefits, it can be a rather therapeutic exercise and, if done carefully, usually leads to financial savings.

NOTES

*: When I say ‘maximising’ here, what I really mean is maximising the amount of reusable and recyclable packaging after already minimising packaging in general. It is against the Zero Waste movement to be encouraged to buy things just because they come in a recyclable package.

**: The waste issues concerning use of toilet roll are something I am currently looking into. You will be pleased to know I do not keep used toilet roll in a jar as part of my 500g per year.

The case for freeganism and flexitarianism

I take the following definitions from the excellent (if containing rather too many exotic ingredients) cookbook ‘V is for Vegan’, by Kerstin Rodgers (aka Ms Marmite Lover).

Freegan: a portmanteau word combining ‘free’ and ‘vegan’; freegans do not buy animal products. This is an anti-consumerist, anti-food waste movement, so they will eat animal products if they would otherwise be discarded.

Flexitarian: semi-vegetarians. They occasionally eat meat. These are people who are ‘meat reducers’, that is, trying to reduce the amount of meat they eat, or at the very least, trying to source meat from ethical suppliers.

A DIFFICULT STANDPOINT

The environmental issues relating to the meat industry are numerous and this blog would be incomplete in its approach without addressing them. However, as the nephew of a butcher who consequently worked in my uncle’s butchers shop for over eight years, I hope you understand it is tricky to maintain a position which both avoids hypocrisy and maintains respect for my uncle and his business. Without the experience of working at the butchers I would certainly not be in the position I am in today, and would certainly have far less of a work ethic.

In 2014 I started to become very uneasy about the conflict of interests between my part-time job and having deep concerns for the well-being of the environment. The carbon footprint of the meat industry, largely due to methane emissions from the animals themselves, but also due to CO2 released during transportation of feed, livestock and meat products, accounts for almost 15% of the emissions from the entire world. That is considerably more than the aircraft industry. The energy requirement to make the meat eaten world-over comes with an increased need to grow crops, just to feed the farmed animals. If meat continues to grow in popularity as it has recently, this will require yet larger fields for growing crops. All of this comes at a time when we are failing to sustain millions of poor and hungry people across the world. Much, much more energy is being consumed feeding intensively-bred cattle to feed ourselves than would be required to feed the entire planet on those crops alone.

Aside from the environmental concerns, there are of course many arguments from ecological and animal rights. Deep ecologists recognise that there is value in all living creatures beyond their usefulness for our purposes and, further, animal rights activists insist that farm animals be kept in far better circumstances than the almost industrial ones they frequently find themselves at present. Beyond (but not far from) the meat industry, cows are periodically artificially raped by a farmer so that they become pregnant and can therefore lactate the milk which people enjoy on their cereal world over. This is the real, sickening answer to the commonplace myth that cows somehow need to be milked constantly. They do not, this is very unnatural. And when the cow does have her baby, this calf is stolen away, never for her to see again. Heavy stuff.

For some time I had been happy with the idea of only eating leftover meat I got from the butchers, which was going to be thrown away anyway. But after learning of the things I have mentioned above, the contradictions and excuses were becoming too much. Eventually, in the September of 2015 I put it to my uncle that I was going to become vegetarian (with the consequence of my resignation being somewhat obvious). You can imagine the response I got from that, and who could blame him, as someone whose career is built around the sale of delicious meats? Despite the upset my departure initially caused, along with my transition to veganism (well, freeganism) soon after,  I greatly respect my uncle for his eventual understanding and acceptance of my way of life. This recently included his recommendation to me of a vegetarian restaurant!

On a personal level, I feel the best side-effect of becoming a vegan was completely unexpected. Previously, being a good Northern lad, I enjoyed a meal of meat, carb, veg and some form of gravy for every evening meal (i.e. tea). Consequently, due to the delicious marinated meats I got cheap from the butchers, my cooking skills were somewhat lacking. Ripping up this whole cooking routine involved combining different foods, trying new things and structuring meals in a way which means the plate doesn’t revolve around a piece of meat. This is not only an interesting and enjoyable exercise, but also made me really appreciate what I was eating and the effort which had been made to get it to my plate. Cooking is so much more interesting within (even relatively minor) constraints.

NOTHING WORSE THAN A WHINGY VEGAN, EH?!

Veganism has been traditionally sidelined in public opinion, just like environmentalism. Stereotypes of the former involve vegans being attention seeking, whingy and with a lofty sense of superiority (all of which have been applied to the latter, too). I am not saying no vegans possess these traits, as some certainly do, but by and large the intention behind this particular lifestyle choice is heart-felt, not selfish. As what has been a tiny proportion of the population, little media attention has been paid historically. As I am writing now, I realise that none of ‘veganism’, ‘freeganism’ or ‘flexitarianism’ are words in the WordPress dictionary.

However, with 350% rises in veganism in the UK over the past few years, there has been much new media attention, particularly being drawn by 2014’s highly controversial documentary Cowspiracy and Simon Amstell’s feature length film of this year, Carnage: swallowing the past (currently available on BBC iPlayer). The mockumentary Carnage imagines the overhanging shame of a society which previously relied so heavily on the meat industry, but where in the vegan utopia of 2067 the exploitation of animals for any purposes whatsoever is strictly outlawed. However, as with action on climate change, blaming and shaming is not the way forward. Blaming a person for the worlds ills because they eat meat is unlikely to generate a positive response or reaction. The more likely outcome is the strengthening of the aforementioned stereotypes.

Like environmental movement, vegans and vegetarians are divided. Divided in their reasons, divided in what exactly they will and will not eat and divided on other aspects of animal rights such as whether or not to keep pets or go to zoos. Building upon these issues, my opinion is that the clear way forward is provided by freeganism and flexitarianism. Of course, very few people would ever actually label themselves with these names. In fact, it is suggested in Carnage that it is better to name those who eat meat as carnists than to endow a plethora of confusing titles to those who do not. My sister recently told her boyfriend’s grandma that I was a freegan (for some reason) and apparently she now thinks I only eat free food, following another usage of the term. Whilst dumpster diving can be an attractive prospect, completely consistent with the form of freeganism I refer to, that isn’t really what it is about. I use the names here merely for reference purposes and would not recommend labelling people as one thing or another. (The reputation of veganism in some circles already highlights the damage labelling can do.)

Flexitarianism focuses on reduction of meat and dairy consumption. Given the environmental and ethical problems mentioned above, it is hard to make a case that such a reduction would be a bad thing. By eating meat only a couple of times a week, as a treat, and by avoiding red meats, it is possible to drastically reduce one’s carbon footprint, be less at risk to heart disease and save the lives of numerous creatures. I recently met a woman on the tube who, after asking about what I was eating for lunch, remarked “I’d really like to stop eating meat, but I could never give up chicken!”. I feel flexitarianism is exactly what she was looking for, where you can still have a Sunday roast chicken, yet are making an effort to reduce your impact on the world. Besides, things are often more delicious when you only get them once in a while.

Freeganism is somewhat different in motive to flexitarianism, but shares the values of reduced consumption for the aim of a greater goal. As kindly defined by Ms Marmite Lover,  freeganism is a waste-free movement. As a freegan, I will never buy any animal products. However, if I happen to find myself somewhere where animal products are about to be disposed of, I will eat them. This is about efficiency, but also allows the reminiscent vegan the potential to enjoy that spot of blue cheese they found so hard to give up. In addition, solutions are provided in situations where the vegan diet has not been accounted for. Those awkward conference lunches with only cheese sandwiches and times when you order chips at a pub and they bring you a little pot of mayonnaise that almost certainly will be thrown away if you leave it, are no longer the drama that some vegans are known to make them. (“What do you mean you don’t have soya milk for my latte?!”)

MOOVING FORWARD

I take much inspiration from John Burnside’s column on nature in New Statesman, which appears every three weeks in between pieces on both food and wine. Many of the things he promotes there remind me of what I feel drives the movements of freeganism and flexitarianism, with efforts made to rebuild relationships with nature, reduce environmental impact and become more aware as a person. His first column of 2017 urged the reader to start the year by making the most of simple things and reads as follows.

‘As Ronald Reagan said: “just say no”. No to shiny, homogeneous fruit. No to bulking agents. No to farmed meat, unless it comes from a source we can verify ourselves. No to roundup. No to sick bees. No to subsidies for fat landowners and corporations.’

The environmental problems faced in the world today are most likely not going to be solved by hypothetical quick-fixes like a worldwide switch to nuclear fusion (which has been 20 years coming for decades), widespread application of (also as yet uninvented) geoengineering techniques or the shuttling off of millions of people to live on another planet (at precisely the time when many once space-faring countries’ interest in space exploration is at its lowest). These problems can only truly be faced by a widespread change in attitude towards consumption, collective responsibility and the kind of lives we wish to provide for ourselves and the generations who will follow. For, if there were no attitude and yet a quick-fix was found, we would be left still with a complex of over-consumption and therefore merely postponing an impending climate disaster.

In my opinion, the key lies in virtues such as those supported by Burnside above. That is, the key to solving the grandest of problems posed by climate change is to take time to reconsider the way in which we are living our lives, and thereby find happiness in alternative ways much more harmonious with nature. I believe freeganism and flexitarianism are steps in that direction.

On the tube, after meeting the stranger who was interested in vegetarianism, we arrived at Green Park, said our goodbyes and she went to exit the train. She then ran back and exclaimed “I’m gonna do it!”. What exactly it was is unclear, but whichever branch of vegetarianism she referred to, I am glad she felt so impassioned to act upon it and wish her the best of luck.

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