Did I tell you I was going to take a break in August? Well I am - to enjoy more of our long hot summer. More of that later. Actually it’s drizzling here in York in the North of England, but we’re promised more scorching weather before the end of August with a potential hosepipe ban and crops shrivelling in the fields. In this episode, drought, wildfires and keeping cool. The Environment Agency damns the water companies, the candidates for UK PM display their knowledge of the climate crisis (not much) there’s a book review and a new brew from Singapore. You can make your own jokes about that when you’ve heard the story. And it’s goodbye from me until September.
But before I go, I’m Anthony Day with episode number 425 of the Sustainable Futures Report and it’s Friday 29th July.
Yes, we are facing a drought in the UK and last week we saw wildfires which spread to houses. Not nearly as bad as the 17,241 acres (6,977 hectares) ablaze in central California. Called the Oak Fire, by Tuesday 26th it was 16 percent contained, up from 10 percent contained on Monday morning, and 3,700 people had been evacuated. 55 structures had been destroyed, with some 2,400 remaining at risk. California, after all, has experienced 10 years of drought, so the Oak Fire is just one of 428 burning across the US right now. Have a look at the fire map - there’s link below.
While Northern Europe has cooled off since last week’s extremes, temperatures remain high in the South. The European Forest Fire Information System said last week that 19 countries were in “extreme danger” from the wildfires, while Spain, Portugal and France were at “very extreme danger”.
But how do we stop wildfires? An article in the New York Times describes the experience of scientist, Liana Anderson, working in the Brazilian rainforest. Her business is prediction, anticipating where fires are likely to break out. A key driver is land clearances. When trees are felled to make space for agriculture they are frequently burned and this risks getting out of control. Above-average temperatures, below-average rainfall, and the time of year are all factored into the predictions - as well as human behaviour and the likelihood that some people are going to set fires. The predictions help the fire service to take pre-emptive action, such as controlled burning to remove fuel from areas at risk of fires.
The situation in Brazil is notoriously bad under the current Bolsonaro regime. Deforestation rates continue to grow and wildfires still rage. Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies, assigned to protect the forest, struggle with low funding and threats of violence from environmental criminals. Anderson remains optimistic. Her research will help fire services on other continents predict, plan, avoid and control their wildfires.
Too Darn Hot
Whether or not there are fires in the area, these recent temperatures are becoming far too hot for human comfort. What's the solution?
Air conditioning is widely used, but not very common in areas like northern Europe which have recently experienced extreme temperatures. The units extract heat from buildings and expel it outside, making the surrounding areas even hotter.
Air-conditioning uses significant amounts of electricity, much of which is still generated using fossil fuels creating emissions which makes the problem worse. Air-con units using significantly less electricity are available, but there are generally no regulations requiring that they should be used.
Air-conditioning units use refrigerant gases which are greenhouse gases, far more potent than CO2. Unless the units are properly repaired and disposed of, these gases are a serious risk to the environment. Writing in the New York Times, Somini Sengupta describes solutions involving design rather than technology.
For example, a museum in Rio de Janeiro draws in water from a nearby bay for cooling. Similarly, but at a bigger scale, Toronto’s downtown core has a cooling system that uses cool lake water to absorb heat from city buildings. A hospital in rural Bangladesh uses courtyards and canals to create a cooling microclimate. Architects in Singapore, the air conditioning capital of Southeast Asia, are angling buildings in ways that allow wind to flow through city blocks and using vertical gardens to cool high-end hotels and office buildings. Solutions like these need vision and regulation. We need governments with the imagination to recognise the size of the problem and the range of potential solutions.
I mentioned drought. California has had a drought for 10 years. The UK is preparing measures to combat this year's drought. It's all to do with water, a vital resource. A resource which is being grossly mismanaged according to a report this week from the U.K.'s Environment Agency.
Water supply in England is controlled by private organisations. In Scotland it is in public ownership.
In addition to its report, the agency, a government body, publishes a blog. Commenting on the report, it records that seven water companies had an increase in serious incidents compared to 2020. In total there were 62 serious incidents for 2021 – the highest since 2013. It calls for
- Courts to impose much higher fines for serious and deliberate pollution incidents – although the amount a company can be fined for environmental crimes is unlimited, the fines currently handed down by the courts often amount to less than a Chief Executive’s salary.
It calls for
- Prison sentences for Chief Executives and Board members whose companies are responsible for the most serious incidents
It calls for
- Company directors to struck off so they cannot simply move on in their careers after illegal environmental damage
Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency, said:
“It’s appalling that water companies’ performance on pollution has hit a new low. Water quality won’t improve until water companies get a grip on their operational performance. For years people have seen executives and investors handsomely rewarded while the environment pays the price.
“Company directors let this happen. We plan to make it too painful for them to continue like this. The amount a company can be fined for environmental crimes is unlimited but fines currently handed down by the courts often amount to less than a Chief Executive’s salary. We need courts to impose much higher fines. Investors should no longer see England’s water monopolies as a one-way bet.”
When privatisation was proposed decades ago, the argument was that the water infrastructure needed substantial investment and the only way that this could be achieved was by selling it to the private sector. Not sure of the logic of this, as governments can borrow money for investment far more cheaply than commercial organisations.
The privatisation provided a one-off cash inflow to the Treasury, but recently investment has fallen well behind what is needed. Water companies have a dispensation which allows them to discharge raw sewage into rivers and water courses when there is an emergency such as a flash flood or a breakdown of sewage processing plant. There are allegations now that the water companies put returns to shareholders far above benefits to the consumer. Instead of investing in new infrastructure they find it cheaper to release raw sewage whenever they have a capacity problem and to just pay the fines.
I reported a while ago that the Environment Agency admitted that it could only attend major breaches, because of staff shortages. Since then the government has announced a reduction of the civil service by 90,000 posts, which will no doubt affect the agency, making it even less able to fulfil its duties.
On the other hand Liz Truss, probably the UK’s next PM, says she will cut “red tape” and remove all EU regulations from the UK statute book as soon as possible. When we originally joined the EU the regulations on water quality led to a rapid improvement in Britain's rivers and beaches. Some red tape and regulations are about health, safety and quality of life. Wholesale repeal is reckless and irresponsible.
Climate Crisis and the New UK PM
What is the position of our potential PMs on the climate crisis?
This week I wrote a letter to The Guardian, not so far published. It followed an article “Highlights from Our Next Prime Minister” which said, “The environment finally got a mention”. Yes, I responded, although Sophie Raworth phrased the question about the climate crisis in light of last week’s 40℃+ temperatures and neither candidate recognised it as an international crisis, or recognised it at all. Both muttered about recycling, which will do nothing to help us to achieve Net Zero. Truss promised to cut the green levy, Sunak admitted that his two daughters knew more about the issue than he did and he wants to block on-shore wind turbines, the cheapest form of renewable energy. We’re clearly damned whichever becomes PM.
And now, a book review. I was wandering through the local public library the other day when I saw this book entitled How to Save Our Planet: The Facts, by Professor Mark Maslin. I thought I ought to check it out to see if I'm getting things right. It's a paperback, it's about 200 pages and I strongly recommend you get it for your holiday reading. Those 200 pages are full of bullet points, in fact nothing but bullet points. Some pages have just a single message.
“Good governance is our greatest weapon against climate change”, for example. “By 2050 climate change could cost over 20% of world GDP.” “Individuals are the catalysts that allow the rest of us to demand change.” You get the idea.
The book is written by Mark Maslin, professor of Earth System Science at University College London. He is the former director of the UCL Environment Institute and described as a leading voice in the battle against climate change. The book is divided into nine chapters and you’re recommended to start with the one of most interest to you. There is History of our planet, History of humanity, State of our world, Taxonomy of denial, Potential futures - nightmare or ecotopia? Power of the individual, Corporate positive power, Government solutions and finally, Saving our planet and ourselves.
It’s a very easy read, backed up with detailed references, extra facts about the Earth and a list of further reading.
I might disagree with the emphasis of some statements, but chapter 6, Power of the Individual, is particularly good for answering the perennial question, “But what can I do?"
Buy it, read it, share it.
How to Save Our Planet: The Facts, by Mark Maslin.
One thing you can do is support XR. They are planning action in September. They say,
“Politics as we know it is a barrier to rapid action on the climate and ecological emergency. That’s why upgrading the political system, putting ordinary people at the centre of decision making, is what Extinction Rebellion believes is the key to real change.
“Starting on September 10th, our action will focus on the third demand, for a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice. On our open call series, we will discuss the plans, answering any questions, and helping you find your place in the action.
“The next Open Call is on Sunday 31 July at 8pm. Do you have a spare hour to join the call?”
If you do, you’ll find the link below.
There’s also a film just out: Conscientious Protectors: A Story of Rebellion Against Extinction. It’s the story of the development of XR. There are showings at selected cinemas across the UK. There’s a link below to help you find your nearest.
Before I go…
Last week I reported that the gas pipeline Nord Stream 1 from Russia to Europe was scheduled to open but there was some doubt as to whether it actually would come back into service after summer maintenance. In fact it did reopen, but is delivering only 20% of capacity. There is some dispute between the Russians and engineers Siemens over whether all of the turbines needed to power in the pipeline can be used.
The reduced flow will make it difficult for European nations to refill their reserves in advance of the winter, and if the flow stays low winter will be very difficult. The UK imports only about 5% of gas from Russia, but of course in the face of shortages it will have to pay the market price.
That Patrick Vallance Presentation
You'll remember that Sir Patrick Vallance, chief scientific advisor to the British government, made a presentation on the climate crisis two members of parliament, most of whom did not turn up, last week. I’ve found a link to the recording of the presentation, so if you are an MP who missed it, or even if you're not, you'll find that link below.
RIP James Lovelock
You've probably heard of James Lovelock, the creator of the Gaia hypothesis, the theory that the Earth is a single self-regulating organism. He died on his birthday this week at the age of exactly 103. There is a link below to his obituary. His life was long and varied. He believed we needed to protect the Earth but disagreed with many environmentalists. For one thing, he strongly believed in the benefits of nuclear power. Somewhere I have a letter from him where he says he wouldn’t mind storing nuclear waste in his back garden and he’d be quite happy if his grandchildren played on top of it.
He started as a lab technician, worked at the National Institute for Medical Research and later at NASA. He was one of the very first people to use microwaves for cooking, he filed more than 40 patents, and wrote more than 200 scientific papers, as well as several books on the Gaia theory.
And Finally - a New Brew from Singapore
Singapore is prosperous and populous. It always has a problem with water as it has few natural sources. It needs to harvest every drop of rainfall that it can and it makes up the difference by using desalination of seawater. It's an energy intensive process.
In order to emphasise the need to make best use of every drop of water and minimise waste, Brewerkz, a local craft brewery, has created a beer called NEWBrew. It uses NEWater, water recycled from sewage. NEWater is micro filtered and then put through a phase of reverse osmosis and ultraviolet disinfection that is aimed at killing the remaining bacteria and viruses, ensuring purity. Drinkers claim that there’s absolutely nothing to indicate its origin.
You’ll notice that I haven’t made a single joke about this. I’m sure you’re way ahead of me already. However, if you are into homeopathy please look away now. As I understand it, homeopathy treats complaints with poisons, but dilutes those poisons to such an extent that they can do no harm. In fact they are diluted, diluted again and again and again until all agree that there can be no trace of the original material left in the solution. “Ah”, says the homoeopath, “but the water remembers the material.”
I wonder what Singapore's NEWater remembers.
And that’s it…
And that’s it until September. I’m not going anywhere in particular, but I’ll be spending less time behind a keyboard and more time in our allotment garden dealing with an unprecedented glut of fruit - apples, pears, plums, damsons and quince. And there’s tomatoes and cucumbers coming on in the greenhouse. It’s been a good year for the bees as well. I’ve already had 40kg of honey and I’m hoping for more at the end of the month.
I’ve invested in a new microphone and I hope it’s made a difference. I am using it at this moment. I hope it’s cut out the pops as well making it sound less as though I’m speaking to you from inside a tin can. Do let me know.
From September the Sustainable Futures Report goes back to one episode a week and in future it will be on Wednesdays. Some weeks it will be a magazine episode with various reports. Some weeks it will be an interview. Patron Carol Dance has drawn my attention to the fact that the new Australian government has some 27 applications for new coalmines to consider. I'm planning an early interview to look at how the new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has changed his country’s environmental policies in his first 100 days. I also plan to cover regeneration and regenerative agriculture and there will be news to report on September’s action by XR, and whatever else is topical by then.
I’d like to build the number of followers who become patrons. I’d like to pay tribute to my existing patrons, most of whom have been supporting me for years. Thank you to all of you for your loyalty and for the funds which pay for the hosting, the research and many of the transcriptions. You help keep the Sustainable Futures Report independent and ad-free. Details of becoming a patron are, as always, at patreon.com/sfr .
Now I’ll leave you until Wednesday 7th September, although patrons will get their episode a day or two earlier. Have a great summer, and don’t spend too much time in traffic.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Until next time
Environment Agency Report
Environment Agency Blog
“Conscientious Protectors: A Story of Rebellion Against Extinction_Trailer” from Leap Productions on Vimeo.
Nord Stream 1
Patrick Vallance Climate Briefing
Beer from Sewage
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