This is the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday the 27th November and I’m Anthony Day. You can listen to me on this podcast as always, but this week you can also hear me being interviewed on Mama Earth Talk with Mariska Nell. Like all good podcasts, including the Sustainable Futures Report, you can find it on Apple podcasts and all your favourite podcast hosts. There's even a link at the end of this article.
I decided to call this episode “It's all politics”. There are certainly lots of politics around in the UK at the moment, but my meaning is that we need to rely on politicians in both opposition and government to make real changes to protect us against the climate challenge. Politicians have the power, so far as we empower them, although there’s a world of difference between letting them do something and making them do something! Only governments really have the power to make significant change. The question in the media is whether Boris Johnson’s 10-point plan, published last week, will make that needed difference, so that’s where I’ll start.
There’s a lot of other news as well. There’s US politics, Chinese politics and Australian politics. There’s more on Hurricane Iota and other extreme weather. And we round off with EVs, CCS and whether sustainability is sexy - well, fashionable.
First, I want to share a quotation with you from a book which I've been reading. It's called Capital and Ideology by Thomas Piketty and I have mentioned that I've been reading it for some time. It is a very big book with profound detail, meticulously researched. Thomas Piketty is a French economist who is Professor of Economics at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences, Associate Chair at the Paris School of Economics and Centennial Professor of Economics in the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics.
Here’s what he says:
Along with global warming the rise of inequality is one of the principal challenges confronting the world today. Whereas the 20th century witnessed a historic decline in inequality, its revival since the 1980s has posed a profound challenge to the very idea of progress. What is more, the challenge of inequality is closely related to the climate challenge. Indeed, it is clear that global warming cannot be stopped or at least attenuated without substantial changes in the way people live. For such changes to be acceptable to the majority, the effort demanded must be apportioned as equitably as possible. The need for fair apportionment of the effort is all the more obvious because the rich are responsible for a disproportionate share of greenhouse gas emissions while the poor will suffer the worst consequences of climate change.
10 point plan
So, will Boris Johnson’s 10-point plan address these issues?
The Daily Mail covered the plan extensively. It claimed that the 2023 target for the end of gas boilers to be installed in new properties was totally unattainable. In fact the government changed this within hours to 2028, and blamed a misunderstanding. The paper itself seemed to be a little confused about the difference, and the fact that there is a difference, between a heat pump and a hydrogen powered boiler. Having said that, as I commented last week, there does seem to be some incongruity in the government’s plan for these two different energy sources. We do already have a national electricity grid and we may have to upgrade it to cope with extra demands from home heating and electric vehicles. We have a national gas grid, but it is certainly not as extensive as the electricity grid and it is largely unsuitable for the transport of hydrogen. While hydrogen may well have a future as a transport fuel or for storage of surplus renewable energy during darkness or low wind, from my layman’s viewpoint it looks like a very expensive project to run it out to homes across the nation.
The mail also reports that the Prime Minister and Business Secretary Alok Sharma held a private meeting with more than 20 powerful British and multinational corporations just hours after the Government published its 'green industrial strategy' last Wednesday to lobby them to invest £40 billion in a clean power revolution.
The Prime Minister’s Office at No 10 put out a video to promote the PM’s 10 points. The Mail gleefully pointed out that the closing shot of a revolving world had no British Isles on it. They did miss that the illustration for CCS pictured industrial chimneys belching black smoke.
Down to Earth, a website based in India, asked, “Will Boris Johnson’s ‘Green Industrial Revolution’ be enough for a net-zero UK?” It’s not hopeful, “to meet the UK’s carbon budgets, CO2 emissions would need to fall by another 31 per cent by 2030, whereas government projections expect just a 10 per cent cut based on current policies. But there has been a historical policy gap between where the UK is heading versus where it needs to be on climate due to a lack of a credible attempt at a plan for years.”
This can be attributed, they say, to the Brexit referendum and consequent policy chaos. This does not reflect well on the UK as hosts of next year’s CoP 26 climate conference.
The eyes of the world are upon us.
In Green World, the journal the Green Party, Molly Scott Cato says, “‘Random and unconnected’ policies don’t hold up to the climate emergency”. She continues,
“Far from providing reassurance, [the plan] reinforces the fear that the Government simply does not understand the climate crisis we are facing. While Biden is promising to spend $2 trillion on his climate plan, Johnson’s plan amounts only to some £4 billion – and his Government is investing more than four times as much in the energy-intensive road-building programme.” (She says £4 billion because it’s widely reported that most of the £12 billion in the plan had already been announced.)
“The whole ‘10-point’ format”, she says, “comes across as a random shopping list of nice-to-haves when what we need is a clear plan to reach defined targets. The Paris Agreement sets out the reductions in CO2 emissions we need to achieve to stay within a 1.5-degree warming limit. The Government has set a target of net zero by 2050 and has its own Committee on Climate Change to keep it on track to reach that target. Yet, this plan ignores those very real limits and throws out a number of random and unconnected policies. The very epitome of government policy not being joined up.”
Event organiser Edie asks, “Is Boris Johnson's Ten Point Plan enough to reach net-zero?” They say, “A new 38-page document has been released by the Government, going into more detail about the Ten Point Plan. Despite a more in-depth look at the low-carbon transition, the document somehow manages to raise more questions.”
They quote Dr Simon Evans of Carbon Brief whose analysis demonstrates that the planned measures are not enough to achieve net zero. The fact that CO2 is down one third in a decade still leaves the UK off track against future carbon targets. He shows UK government projections getting further from targets, and he too points out that this is not a good place to be for the nation hosting next year’s COP26 conference. You’ll find a link to Simon Evans’ very detailed analysis of the plan at the end of this episode on the Sustainable Futures Report website. He makes the point that this is a strategy and there is much more detail to come out with this week’s spending review, the final decision on the planned Sizewell nuclear station and the revised NDC (Paris Agreement Target) expected on 12th December.
Further Education News says that the plan will require major investment in trade skills and apprenticeships right now if the UK is to deliver it. Maybe there will be something about that in the spending review.
And in Cumbria, the deputy leader of Copeland Council welcomes the clean energy announcements in the 10 point plan. That's the same Cumbria where the council has given permission for the development of a new deep coal mine.
And in other news…
USA - John Kerry
President-elect Joe Biden has appointed John Kerry as his climate envoy. It was John Kerry who represented the United States in Paris in 2015 at the signing of the Paris Agreement. His first task will be to reverse the exit from the Agreement implemented by the Trump administration.
China Carbon Zero
In September, in a speech at the United Nations, President Xi of China announced that the nation would reach peak carbon emissions before 2030 and be carbon neutral by 2060. An important message from the world’s biggest emitter. It seems that the announcement took many by surprise, including many emissions experts within China itself. After all, for many years China has argued that emerging economies should not face restrictions on emissions. Restrictions should apply instead to the industrialised nations which have produced unconstrained emissions for decades, if not for centuries.
The Straits Times attributes the change of policy to Professor Xie Zhenhua of Tsinghua University. As China's top climate diplomat and a member of the Communist Party Central Committee he also led research demonstrating how the 2060 target could be achieved. 2060 is a softer target than most nations have set themselves but it is a change of policy in the right direction. And there is no doubt that there is resistance within the nation. It's not climate scepticism that drives the resistance. Chinese schoolchildren are taught the science of global warming from a young age, and citizens are eager for the government to clean up the polluted air and water.
The main issue is the coal industry. On the very same day President Xi addressed the UN, a commentary in the People's Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, argued for the future of coal: "As long as coal is utilised in a clean and efficient way, it should be called clean energy.”
Across the world two former prime ministers are going head-to-head with media mogul Rupert Murdoch. The concern is partly over media concentration in Australia, which means that Murdoch controls the majority of news outlets in the country. Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull are seeking a Royal Commission into Murdoch’s News Corp, sparking a wave of negative comment against the two across the News Corp titles. They are concerned too, about climate denial in the Murdoch papers. Rupert Murdoch himself says there are no climate deniers here but there are many outright deniers writing regularly for his papers. Son James Murdoch resigned from the board of News Corp this year, citing “disagreements” over editorial content, widely believed to mean disagreement about presentation of climate science.
Many consequences of the climate crisis occur in far off countries of which we know little. Last week's news was Hurricane Iota as it made its way through Nicaragua and other countries in Central America. Last week's news for most of us, but a very present crisis for those living in those countries. Iota’s winds and heavy rains have killed around 40 people across Central America and Colombia, including at least two in the island of Providencia, where most of the infrastructure was damaged or destroyed.
According to CNN, “Iota is the 13th hurricane of the historic 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. So far, there have been 30 named storms, the most ever recorded. The combined devastation from Iota, Eta and the coronavirus pandemic will likely plague the area -- already suffering from a poor public health system -- for years to come.”
It’s not just Central America suffering extreme weather. The Washington Post reports that Cyclone Gati hit Somalia as the country’s strongest storm on record after an explosive intensification. “A broad four to eight inches of rainfall accompanied the system through northern Somalia, the driest part of the country, drenching desert regions with a year or two’s worth of rainfall in just a matter of hours to a couple of days. Rains also swept through the Gulf of Aden and brushed up against Yemen.”
And there are other extremes. In July 2016 the temperature in Mitribah, north-west Kuwait, reached 53.9C (129F). Higher temperatures, although not authenticated, have since been claimed in Tunisia and California.
Vladivostok ice storm
And at the other extreme, this week the Guardian reports that the Russian city of Vladivostok, in the extreme east, was overwhelmed by an ice storm which left 150,000 people without power or water. Cars were encased in ice and trees collapsed, bringing the region to a standstill as transport links and energy infrastructure were destroyed. Probably because it’s near the coast, temperatures in the region rarely fall below -6C, but last weekend it got down to -10C.
A few more stories to round off this week’s episode.
First carbon capture and storage. Writing in Briefings for Britain, Catherine McBride suggests a number of natural ways to sequester carbon. Not cutting down trees to make way for a railway that no one will use is one of her ideas. Farmers could be paid to plant cover crops in empty fields over winter. These plants absorb carbon and are absorbed back into the soil prior to re-planting in the spring. She estimates that this would trap some 3.3 million tons of CO2 each year with benefits for the fertility of the soil. Not a great deal in the context of the U.K.'s annual emissions of around 350 million tons but probably worth doing nevertheless. However, a controversial aspect of this is that glyphosate weedkiller (Monsanto’s Roundup) would be used in the spring to kill the plants so that replanting could be done on a no-till system; that is direct planting without ploughing first.
Another suggestion is to plant hedges along the nation’s roads and motorways to absorb both CO2 and noise. Every little helps. It almost certainly won't be enough to solve the problem, but that's not a reason for not doing it.
Eden Project North
In Manchester in Northwest England, centre of the Northern Powerhouse at least in name, leaders are calling for government investment including into Eden Project North. The original Eden Project was built in an abandoned clay pit in Cornwall. It consists of a group of biomes - enormous glass domes - which contain plants from all parts of the world. As a tourist destination it has brought some £2billion to the region.
Eden Project North is projected to attract around one million visitors a year and directly employ more than 400 people. The business case estimates a visitor spend of more than £200m per year in the region (not including money spent at Eden Project North itself) which would support an additional 1,500 jobs. Nothing specific in the Chancellor’s review about the £70m that the project needs.
Sage, the scientific advice group for emergencies, has been regularly in the news over the last two months as it provides advice to the government to deal with the COVID pandemic. Until recently there was criticism that the committee’s deliberations and advice were kept secret, and a group of equally prominent scientists set up a parallel organisation: Independent SAGE. Now they have decided that their expertise could be used to address not just the pandemic, but other emergencies as well. This week they announced that they were turning their attention to the climate crisis and will hold the government to account. I shall watch developments with interest.
In a report out this week, Carbon Tracker says a shift to electric vehicles in emerging markets will ‘end the oil era’. They say, “China is leading a switch to electric vehicles (EV) in emerging markets which will save governments $250 billion a year in oil imports and cut expected growth in global oil demand by 70% by 2030. Countries can finance the shift to EVs from the huge savings they will make on oil imports.” Carbon Tracker calculates that the cost of importing oil for the average car is ten times higher than the cost of the solar equipment needed to power an equivalent EV.
Controversy in the New York Times: is sustainability fashionable? Apparently watch companies claim that younger consumers expect sustainability to be built into every product as a matter of course. Luxury watches should follow this trend. On the other hand, others said claims of sustainability were a veneer. “How is a recycled or sustainably produced watch strap on a production run of 500 watches going to impact the environment in any way?”
I started with politics and a 10 point plan. This is not a political podcast, so I'm just saying: that the day after the 10-point £12 billion climate plan the PM announced an extra £16 billion for the defence of the realm. Military spending, in other words. Is there an increase in the threat level? Are there threats more serious than the climate crisis? Let us not fund our defence by impoverishing the realm we seek to defend. Let us be sure that we are defending ourselves from the right threats.
And that’s it..
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report. Thank you as always for listening.
There will be three more episodes before Christmas, then I think I might take January off. For research, you understand, to ensure that the Sustainable Futures Report in 2021 will be better than ever. Of course I aim to produce things of interest to you, my audience, so please do continue to come back with ideas and suggestions so that I can develop topics which interest you.
As I say, three more episodes before Christmas, so there will be another next week. I wonder what it will be about.
Don’t forget to listen to Mama Earth Talk.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report
Mama Earth Talk
Down To Earth is a product of our commitment to make changes in the way we manage our environment, protect health and secure livelihoods and economic security for all. We believe strongly that we can and must do things differently. Our aim is to bring you news, perspectives and knowledge to prepare you to change the world. We believe information is a powerful driver for the new tomorrow.
Biden appoints Kerry
Kuwait among world's hottest countries – and it's getting worse
Ice storm leaves thousands without power in Vladivostok