Hello and welcome to another Sustainable Futures Report. I'm Anthony Day and this is the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday, the 30th of October. Yes, it's only eight weeks till Christmas and now we have changed the clocks, at least here in England, it looks very much like winter.
Let me start by welcoming new patron Daniel Stanley. Thanks for joining us, Daniel, and thanks to all my patrons for your continuing support. I'll tell you later how you, too, can become a patron.
Once again, I'm covering a whole range of issues in this week’s episode. There’s no silver bullet for Boris, and although we reported last time that he’s supporting offshore wind, the IEA tells us that while electricity from offshore wind is cheap, onshore wind is cheaper, and solar is cheapest of all. I’ll be talking about food standards and fishing standards; about air pollution costs and risks and should we increase car taxes? Then there’s troubled waters around Fukushima, a complaint that bankers are doing nothing and a protest in a pear tree.
Meanwhile, there’s news about white houses and how the White House has been getting on in the courts.
Many years ago motorists were urged “Put a tiger in your tank!” Remember? Gosh, you must be old! Now Greenpeace has a Jaguar in the kitchen. More on that later.
But first, how I got put on the spot by the Women's Institute.
Sustainability on your Doorstep
Last week I made a presentation “Sustainability on your Doorstep” to my local Women’s Institute. On your doorstep because things are happening very fast and on your doorstep because the solutions are in the hands of all of us. I know that the UN has 17 sustainable development goals but I tried to compress it into just three: Pollution, Resources and the Climate Crisis. As we closed I was asked, “What’s the most important thing we can do?” Having been presenting this message for more than 20 years I really should have been ready for that. I said, well, change your light bulbs to LEDs, turn your heating down or ideally insulate your home so you can be warmer with less heat, and try to reduce your travel. Those are all good things, but there are so many more. Probably the most important is “Hold the government to account” but that’s also the most difficult, even when you’ve worked out exactly how to do it. And XR, Greenpeace, FoE and all the rest are still trying hard to find the best way.
No, what I should have said is, “Think Carbon. Think carbon in everything you do.”
I’ll come back to exactly what that means later.
Boris Johnson, UK PM at the time of writing, has been accused of looking for silver bullets and relying on technology to enable us to enjoy business as usual while solving the climate crisis. To be fair, he is not the only world leader to face such criticism.
In his speech to the Conservative party conference reported last week Johnson made much of the U.K.'s leading position in offshore wind power. The international energy agency reported recently that offshore wind power is one of the cheapest forms of electricity generation. It also pointed out that onshore wind power - opposed by Conservatives - is even cheaper and solar energy is cheaper still.
The Prime Minister is expected to make a major speech outlining his government’s strategy for a green recovery in which he is likely to talk about carbon capture, hydrogen, clean cars, and zero-emission aviation as well as wind power and solar. There are warnings from many organisations, including the committee on climate change, that there is much more than technology to solving the climate crisis, including new incentives, laws, rules, bans, appliance standards, taxes and institutional innovations. Not something we would normally expect from a party which believes in small government.
I’ll keep you informed about this strategy whenever it’s announced.
In the news this week, as the UK inches inexorably towards Brexit, are our food standards and our fishing standards. The Fishing Daily reported recently that Conservative MPs had voted to remove the sustainability clause from the Fisheries Bill going through Parliament. Opposition spokesman Luke Pollard said, “Sustainability must be the prime consideration of this Bill because although there is a good sound logic to say all objectives are equal, there is one simple truth, that if we overfish the fish in our seas, there won’t be enough fish left in our seas for a fishing industry to exist at all. And that is why sustainability has to be the prime objective of the Bill.”
“We have to manage our fishing at sustainable levels.”
But speaking for the government, Victoria Prentis said “The Fisheries Bill already contains a robust framework of reporting and review requirements in the Bill that will, we feel, provide sufficient information against which inform a drive progress against the fisheries objective.” It doesn’t make sense, does it? It’s what they printed, and I think it makes it clear that the government will not change its position.
I’m with the opposition on this one.
Food regulations have upset Conservative supporter and celebrity chef Prue Leith. She’s resigned from the party which must make family gatherings tense because her son is a Conservative MP. He’s under pressure from his constituents as well, many of them farmers who have just realised that the new legislation will allow the import of food produced abroad to lower standards and so far cheaper than anything they can produce themselves after Brexit. Prue Leith’s concern is that these lower standards are in preparation for a deal on food with United States where they produce chlorine washed chicken and hormone fed beef which are illegal in the EU. This is partly for hygiene reasons and partly because chlorine washed chickens typically have a much lower standard of welfare during their lives than those produced in Europe. She said,‘Everybody who cares about British high food standards should back our farmers. After all, we are what we eat.’
Overfishing and intensive agriculture are unsustainable.
I’ve mentioned air pollution many times on the Sustainable Futures Report. The legal practice Client Earth has sued the UK government several times - successfully - for failing to meet its own targets. This week we learn from Business Green that air pollution costs the average London resident €1,294 a year and that health costs incurred as a result of air pollution are collectively higher in London than any other city in Europe. This comes from a study by the EPHA, the European Public Health Alliance.
Also this week futurity.org warns that, “contemporaneous exposure to air pollution may influence the severity of COVID-19 illness and increase the likelihood people will die from the disease.” This is based on a report from the US which shows that between January 22 and August 15, decreases in contemporaneous exposure to fine particle air pollution linked to decreases in confirmed COVID-19 cases and decreases in mortality.
“Local governments are weighing the trade-offs between reopening the economy and minimizing the toll of COVID-19,” says Stefano Carattini, assistant professor of economics at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University. “Our paper shows that by keeping current air pollution low, it’s possible to help offset the disease burden created by reopening.”
“For the past few years, the US has deregulated facilities that are responsible for large amounts of emissions,” says Carattini. “During the pandemic, these facilities were exempt from reporting their levels of emissions to the EPA, and other research has shown that this has increased pollution levels around those facilities.”
The effects of air pollution on COVID-19 mortality are relatively large, according to the study. A decrease of one microgram of particulate matter per cubic meter of air (one microgram equals one-millionth of a gram) is sufficient to almost immediately reduce the number of newly confirmed COVID-19 cases by 2% and the number of deaths by 3 to 5%.
This leads to an interesting perspective on the recent presidential debate. Debate moderator Kristen Welker, of NBC asked:
“President Trump, people of colour are much more likely to live near oil refineries and chemical plants. In Texas, there are families who worry the plants near them are making them sick. Your administration rolled back regulations on these facilities. Why should these families give you another 4 years in office?”
This was Trump’s response:
“The families we are talking about are employed heavily and are making more money than they have ever made. If you look at the numbers we produced for Hispanic or Black or Asian, it is 9X greater — the percentage gained in 3 years — than it was under 8 years of ‘the two of them’, to put it nicely. 9X more. I have not heard the numbers or the statistics you are saying, but they are making a tremendous amount of money economically.”
Some have suggested that’s a remark worthy of Mr Burns, the nuclear plant owner in The Simpsons.
Continuing the pollution and the nuclear theme, there’s controversy over the latest plans for Fukushima, the Japanese nuclear plant that was overwhelmed by a tsunami back in 2011. The plant was shut down for safety as an earthquake hit the area and diesel pumps were started to continue to circulate cooling water through the reactors. Then the tsunami drowned the pumps which all stopped, and the reactors overheated leading to three nuclear meltdowns, three hydrogen explosions, and the release of radioactive contamination.
According to New Scientist magazine there are plans to dump around 1.2 million tonnes of water contaminated by radioactive substances into the Pacific Ocean, with approval by the Japanese government expected within weeks. At the time of the disaster substantial quantities of contaminated water escaped into the ocean, but since then a retaining wall has been built to prevent this. Nevertheless, rainwater and groundwater flowing into the site becomes contaminated and to prevent it from causing pollution it has been stored in some 1,000 tanks on site. The total is growing at an average of 160 tonnes per day and storage capacity on site will reach its limit in 2022.
The plan is to discharge the contaminated water very slowly, over decades, into the ocean. Although the liquid will be filtered, some radionuclides, notably tritium, will remain. The debate goes back and forth over the level of risk represented by these chemicals. Some say that the level of pollution will be no greater than that routinely emitted by nuclear plants, or by Fukushima itself when in operation. Others say the contaminated water threatens fisheries, while yet others say that if the liquid is kept in tanks 97 per cent of the tritium will decay within 60 years due its short half-life. Still others point out that extending tank farms full of dangerous liquids in an earthquake zone is a risky undertaking.
I’m glad I don’t have to make the decision.
Here’s another decision.
Should we increase car taxes?
The committee on climate change welcomes the publication of the UK Government’s response to its June 2020 Progress Report and it welcomes the government’s renewed commitment to a greener, fairer and more resilient economic recovery from COVID-19. According to Roger Harrabin of the BBC, it says that we should increase taxes on cars and fuel but it goes a lot further than that. They say ministers should bring forward the date for ending sales of new conventional cars from 2035 to 2032, the chancellor should consider increasing the tax on gas for home heating and the changes should be made as the UK looks to recover from the Covid-19 crisis by creating jobs.
The CCC chair, Lord Deben, says it makes sense to raises fuel prices when the cost of oil is low - and use the proceeds to subsidise low-emissions vehicles, but commenting on increasing the cost of gas he says said the poor must be protected from high prices.
Benny Peiser, from the libertarian group the Global Warming Policy Forum, doubts that the PM will fully follow the committee’s advice.
He told BBC News: “Any policy that prioritises climate change policy over a rapid economic recovery would be suicidal for both the UK economy and the government. While Boris may talk the talk, he is unlikely to walk the walk.”
We’ll just have to wait for the PM’s speech.
While we’re waiting, there’s news from consultancy PwC that less than a third of UK banks have net zero targets in place. A survey of 17 of the UK's largest banks found that just five of them had net-zero targets or science-based emissions targets, meaning they risk breaching their legal requirements on climate change. The five which have publicly announced net-zero targets or science-based targets which match or exceed the UK’s national long-term climate goals include Barclays and NatWest Group, formerly RBS. But eight of the banks in the survey are yet to conduct scenario analysis on their current portfolios.
If the banks are not prepared what’s the story for the rest of UK industry and commerce? With all sectors of the economy under extreme pressure from the immediate concerns of COVID and Brexit, time for looking at net zero is likely to be scarce.
a protest in a pear tree.
We come now to a protest in a pear tree, or rather a protest about a pear tree. The tree in question was estimated to be some 250 years old and had been nominated as British Tree of the Year in 2015. Last week it was cut down. It was in the way of the route for the HS2 high-speed train line. The Telegraph’s headline screamed, “The ecological catastrophe of HS2 is the final proof that this isn't a conservative government.” It was pointed out The Telegraph was a major cheerleader for the election of this government. The Telegraph’s article is behind its paywall, but there was widespread coverage from the BBC and others.
Environmental group Friends of the Earth expressed its indignation as it presented a report on the opportunity costs of HS2. It says,
“HS2 is using money that's needed for buses, trams, walking, cycling and other railway projects if we are to beat climate change and cure commuter hell.”
“The government and main opposition parties have identified how much public money should be spent on infrastructure investment.
“How much to spend is a political choice; some commentators suggest much more money can and should be spent1, others will argue for less spending.
“Either way, it's a reality that there isn’t a bottomless pot of money for the government to fund transport projects, or indeed any other public services.
“Funding decisions need to be guided by a transport strategy that clearly sets out how transport in the UK will deliver on environmental objectives, social wellbeing and economic development.
“Sadly there is no such strategy in place.”
It goes on,
“The government’s Transport Infrastructure Strategy, which guides the Department for Transport's spending decisions, has four priorities. Climate change is not among them, despite the document stating that “The need to combat climate change is one of the most significant challenges of our time.”
I know I have talked critically about the HS2 project on several occasions, including last week. I think it is important because I believe it represents a serious mis-allocation of resources. Remember, the current budget is some £80 billion and it's confidently expected that the final price will be well over £100 billion.
The FoE report points out that “In over 100 towns and cities across the world, bus travel is now being made free, resulting in increased use. For just £3 billion a year, all bus journeys could be made free in the UK.” And of course, this would reduce traffic congestion, and help far more people than those who might travel on HS2.
Let’s have some good news!
New Scientist reports that superwhite paint can cool buildings even in hot sunlight. Xiulin Ruan at Purdue University and his colleagues developed a white paint that was so reflective and good at radiating heat that it cooled a surface to 1.7°C below the surrounding noon air temperature during tests in Indiana. Compared with existing, commercial heat-reflective paints that reflect about 80-90 per cent of solar energy, the new one managed 95.5 per cent.
This is important on a warming planet, particularly as mechanical cooling, or air conditioning, just moves the heat around. These surfaces radiate the heat back out into space - subject to getting through the GHG layer of course. My first thought was that painting roofs white would displace solar panels, but the illustration with the article shows walls painted white. Apparently, light-coloured surfaces normally radiate heat overnight, but the new paint achieves radiation in daylight.
In the Courts
Meanwhile, talking of white houses, the White House or American government has been having its day in court. Numbers of young people have sued the American government for damaging their life chances by permitting the fossil fuel industry to poison the planet. You'll remember that I've commented on many occasions on the Juliana case which in fact was finally lost in January of this year after 5 years of litigation.
Plaintiff Kelsey Juliana is involved in a similar case, which names Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon as the defendant and claims the state has failed to protect vital resources from the impacts of climate change. Filed in 2011, the case was finally dismissed by the Oregon Supreme Court this week.
Despite the fact that she’s named as a defendant, Governor Brown said she agreed with the plaintiffs on the fundamentals of the case.
“As I have said throughout this legal process, I agree with the plaintiffs, and other young people across Oregon and the world, when they say there is an urgent need for climate action,” Brown said in a statement. “To all of Oregon’s young people: If you’re frustrated by the speed at which your government is addressing the most urgent crisis of this generation and the next, know that I am too. There is a place where Oregonians can make their voices heard –– the ballot box.”
Fortunately, since they started their action the plaintiffs are now old enough to vote. Note everyone in the US is banking on a political solution. Similar cases continue across America.
Do you remember that back in 2018 supermarket chain Iceland was banned from screening its Christmas TV commercial? It was an animation with a voice-over from Emma Thompson explaining the plight of wildlife in the face of forest destruction for the production of palm oil. Now Greenpeace have a similar video - A Jaguar in my Kitchen - making a similar point. If you’re quick they’re running a webinar about this today, Friday 30th October. Links to both videos are on the blog which you will find on the new website, still at www.sustainablefutures.report. Links to all these stories are there as well.
Think carbon. Yes, that’s what I should have said when they asked me what was the most important thing to do. Carbon emissions are growing, even now while there’s reduced activity due to the pandemic. Almost everything we do generates carbon emissions. Carbon emissions are destabilising the climate.
Let's start when we get up in the morning. At this time of year the central heating may already be on and if it has a gas boiler it's making emissions. If you have electric heating about 50% of the U.K.'s electricity is generated by gas turbines: making emissions. Turn the tap on to clean your teeth. At least it's cold water, so there is no energy or emissions involved in heating it. But water has to be pumped, purified and delivered, and the sewage has to be taken away and treated and all that uses energy and all that energy will have consequences in terms of carbon emissions. Your toothbrush, whether electric or manual, will almost certainly be made of plastic. Energy is involved in extracting the raw materials, manufacturing the plastic, and delivering the toothbrush to the shop where you bought it. At least it's not single-use plastic: it’s a responsible use of plastic. Just be sure you get the maximum use out of it and make sure it's recycled when you’ve finished with it.
We can go on throughout the morning looking at the carbon footprint of your coffee, your toast, your boiled egg and whatever else you have for breakfast. Don’t waste any of it. As much as one third of food is wasted globally. That means that one third of the emissions created along the supply chain are polluting the planet in vain.
And don’t forget the carbon footprint of the things you use like the kettle and the toaster and the cooker. And your laptop and your phone and your car and the list goes on and on. These things don't just create emissions when you use them or charge them, there is a major carbon footprint in their manufacture. So get the very most out of them and if they're worn out then recycle them, but if they're not and you want to get rid of them then give them away on Freecycle or sell them on eBay. Together we can get the maximum out of the emissions created when these things were originally manufactured.
So that's the thought for the day. Think carbon.
And that’s it…
And that's it for this episode. Actually, I wish it was, but I don't write these sections in order. Well now that you are hearing the recording I must have done it but I hadn't at the time of writing.
Anyway, welcome and thanks again to Daniel Stanley for becoming our latest patron. Patrons usually get the Sustainable Futures Report at least a day in advance and there is also a unique enamel Sustainable Futures Report badge. Depending on your patron level I'll try and research topics you suggest and from time to time we get together online, although a lot of people I know have had more than enough of zoom these days.
If you'd like to be a patron and I'm more than grateful for the ideas and financial support that I get from my patrons, then hop across to patreon.com/sfr and you’ll find the details there.
So with that I wish you a good week.
I believe there is an election somewhere before we meet again. No comment.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Until next time.
Climate Change Committee
In the Courts