Welcome to the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday, the 18th of December. In this last episode of the Sustainable Futures Report before Christmas I'm going to concentrate on actions.
Actions promised by governments and others to meet the climate challenge. Recommended actions. Actions criticised either because they are not seen as sufficiently far-reaching or simply because they're not being implemented. And actions that some are still taking to deny that there really is a climate crisis. And as always, there’s other news.
First let me welcome a new patron to the Sustainable Futures Report, Adrien Nihon, who is based in Japan. Welcome Adrien - thanks for your support.
Energy White Paper 2020
Starting this week with energy, there is a new Energy White Paper.
Coming on the heels of the Sixth Carbon Budget from the Climate Change Committee, BEIS, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, launches its Energy White Paper 2020, “setting out how the UK will clean up its energy system and reach net zero emissions by 2050.” It runs to 170 pages and neatly takes care of your wondering what to read over Christmas.
It is well written and worth a read.
It’s called Powering Our Net Zero Future and the introduction says, “We are on the cusp of a global Green Industrial Revolution.” It goes on, “We are reminded on a daily basis why we need this Green Industrial Revolution: climate change is having a real effect on our planet….The cost of inaction is too high.” It has to be encouraging that the government is putting such messages out, only a very few years since our then Prime Minister was dismissing such ideas as “green crap”. His words, not mine.
The document mentions nuclear power but only really in passing. There have been more reports this week that the government is negotiating with EDF Energy for the construction of a new nuclear power station at Sizewell in Suffolk. This would provide up to 7% of the nation’s electricity and be built to the same design as the one under construction in Somerset - Hinkley C. Regular listeners to the Sustainable Futures Report will know all about Hinkley C, how the government has guaranteed a price for its electricity at about twice the current price and index-linked. How it’s way over budget and years behind schedule. You’ll remember that in turn it’s based on the design of EDF’s plant at Flamanville, itself over budget, late and beset with quality problems. People say that nuclear power, emissions-free in operation, provides a constant and steady output whereas renewables fluctuate with the sun and the wind. They overlook the growing importance of storage, which may involve worn but repurposed vehicle batteries or hydrogen generated when there is a surplus of renewable power.
If you check the spelling, you’ll find there’s no ‘c’ in Hinkley. Maybe that’s an omen.
On the coal front, while Coalwire reports that in China the Weiqiao Group, the world's largest aluminium and textile producer, has closed 3400 MW of coal capacity, a weakening of standards in India allowing coal plants to burn coal from any source without reviewing their environmental licence seems to be a move tailored to assist the private companies that won allocations in the recent coal mining auction. More news on this and other coal projects in the weekly coalwire newsletter at endcoal.org .
Down on the Farm
Although I have strong views on Brexit, the Sustainable Futures Report is not generally the forum to discuss them. However, as a result of Brexit the UK will no longer be committed to the European common agricultural policy and the UK government has recently announced fundamental changes to agricultural subsidies. The present scheme rewards farmers simply for owning or renting land. In future payments will be made to pay them to restore wild habitats, create new woodlands, boost soils and cut pesticide use. The largest landowners will face the largest cuts to their subsidies. The goal of the plan is that farmers will – within seven years – be producing healthy and profitable food in a sustainable way and without subsidies. The news has been generally received positively, although Craig Bennett, CEO of the Wildlife Trusts, said: “We are deeply worried that the pilot [environment] schemes simply cannot deliver the promise that nature will be in a better state. Four years on from the EU referendum, we still lack the detail and clarity on how farm funding will benefit the public.”
Doubts have also been expressed as to whether tenant farmers will invest in improvements to land they don’t own.
Soya for Chicken
Further afield, The Guardian reports that supermarkets and fast food outlets, including Tesco, Lidl, Asda, McDonald’s and Nando’s, are selling chicken fed on imported soya linked to thousands of forest fires and at least 300 sq miles (800 sq km) of tree clearance in the Brazilian Cerrado.
The UK slaughters at least a billion chickens a year. Many are fattened up on soya beans imported into the UK by Cargill, which buys from farmers in the Cerrado, a woody tropical savanna that covers an area equal in size to Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined.
Clearance in Brazil’s Cerrado
At least nine of Cargill’s suppliers in the Cerrado have been involved in recent land clearance. Analysis by the consultancy Aidenvironment of the land owned or used by these companies since 2015 found 800 sq km of deforestation and detected 12,397 recorded fires.
Avara, a chicken producer part-owned by Cargill through a joint venture, says on its website, “You might not have heard of us but there’s a good chance you’ve enjoyed our products.” Makes you feel a bit powerless, doesn’t it?
At the other end of the world Ivory Coast and Ghana are cancelling all cocoa sustainability schemes that U.S.-based Hershey runs in their countries, accusing the chocolate-maker of trying to avoid paying a cocoa premium aimed at combating farmer poverty. Hershey is accused of sourcing unusually large volumes of physical cocoa on the ICE futures exchange in order to avoid the premium, known as a living income differential (LID).
In a separate document seen by Reuters, the world’s top cocoa producers said they had withdrawn from membership of a U.S. cocoa industry association, accusing the body of helping companies including Hershey avoid paying the LID.
The Cocoa Merchants Association of America (CMAA) is “condoning and conniving with American companies against poor West African cocoa farmers”, the document said.
Maybe Hershey is working against these countries’ best interests, but it’s not clear how the countries will improve their position by making the break. However, Ivory Coast and Ghana produce some 66% of the world’s cocoa between them, so they do have some market clout. Nevertheless, the COVID pandemic has depressed global demand for cocoa.
The government announced its 10 point plan a few weeks ago for taking the nation to net zero emissions by 2050. This has been met with scepticism by a number of organisations, not convinced that the plans as announced will go far enough. A website called Red, Green and Blue quotes Carbon Brief’s policy editor Simon Evans on this. Independent Catholic News raises a number of questions: can we possible convert our vehicle fleet to electricity quickly enough? Are SMRs - small modular nuclear reactors - safe, affordable and feasible? And should we be building offshore wind farms which will devastate seabird populations and migrating birds?
Others have questioned the degree of reliance on electricity and on that latter-day philosopher’s stone, CCS. On the other hand the capture of methane emissions will be a fairly easy and quick win, but how easy will it really be to reform agriculture?
My view is that there are always grounds for criticism, but let’s be constructive. Net zero by 2050 is a realistic goal. If there are better ways of achieving it let’s promote them tirelessly. If not, let’s hold the government to its promises.
One policy announcement broadly welcomed this week, and not before time, is that the UK will end direct government support for the fossil fuel energy sector overseas. This is a significant change. In the last four years, the government supported £21 billion of UK oil and gas exports through trade promotion and export finance. The policy will be implemented after a short period of consultation and is intended to come into force as soon as possible, and before COP26 next November.
Denmark is to end new oil and gas exploration in North Sea, while the European Parliament is planning to reduce its carbon footprint by ceasing its regular sittings in Strasbourg. The EU has committed to cut carbon by 55% by 2030, a softer target than the one set out for the UK in the 10-point plan.
Consultancy McKinsey believes that the European Union could achieve net zero emissions at net zero cost. Here’s partner Hauke Engel to explain.
There’s a link to the full report below.
Not everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet. The Guardian reports that BP, Glencore and Rolls-Royce are among eight FTSE 100 companies who have refused to comply with investor demands to disclose their carbon dioxide emissions, as the UK government prepares to compel firms to report their climate impact. The good news of course is that that means that the 92 other FTSE100 companies are disclosing their emissions. Credit to CDP, the Carbon Disclosure Project, which has been working for years to achieve this.
The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, last month announced UK companies would be forced by law to report emissions data by 2025, following in the footsteps of New Zealand under Jacinda Ardern’s government. The UK Treasury’s plans show that all companies listed on the stock market will be forced to report climate data by 2022.
At an international climate conference organised last week by the UK, the UN and France UK Business Secretary Alok Sharma expressed disappointment.
"Have we made any real progress at this summit? And the answer to that is: yes," he said.
"But they will also ask, have we done enough to put the world on track to limit warming to 1.5C, and protect people and nature from the effects of climate change? To make the Paris Agreement a reality?
"Friends, we must be honest with ourselves, the answer to that, is currently: no. As encouraging as all this ambition is, it is not enough."
Disappointment and Dissent
Unsurprisingly there are constant voices of disappointment and dissent. Let's not get too bogged down in them, but let's not totally ignore them either. For example, in a letter to The Guardian, Prof Gesa Weyhenmeyer, Prof Will Steffen and more than 250 other signatories argue that we must discuss the threat of societal disruption in order to prepare for it.
“As scientists and scholars from around the world, we call on policymakers to engage with the risk of disruption and even collapse of societies. After five years failing to reduce emissions in line with the Paris climate accord, we must now face the consequences. While bold and fair efforts to cut emissions and naturally drawdown carbon are essential, researchers in many areas consider societal collapse a credible scenario this century. Different views exist on the location, extent, timing, permanence and cause of disruptions, but the way modern societies exploit people and nature is a common concern.
“Some of us believe that a transition to a new society may be possible. That will involve bold action to reduce damage to the climate, nature and society, including preparations for disruptions to everyday life. We are united in regarding efforts to suppress discussion of collapse as hindering the possibility of that transition.”
I’ve only quoted part of the letter - you’ll find a link below - but it’s another example of serious and responsible people urging governments to take action.
You could say it underlines the prediction from McKinsey that 80m people in the EU will need to be retrained. If they are abandoned, as those in the UK coal and steel industries were a generation ago, the consequences for society will be profound.
Labour losing the youth vote
The British Labour Party is facing criticism for its approach to the climate crisis. The campaign group Labour for a Green New Deal said the party’s recent green economic recovery plan appeared to water down or abandon key planks of the previous manifesto – such as public ownership of energy companies, levels of investment, the number of homes that would receive retrofitting and solar panels, and the number of well-paid unionised jobs a GND could create.
School climate strikers and key youth groups within the party say they have been dismayed by what they see as the party’s failure to fight for the full “green industrial revolution” programme set out at the last election. And they warn that the party risks losing support among young people who have backed Labour in the past few years.
Another angry young person is Greta Thunberg. On the date when COP26 should have taken place but it’s now postponed for a year, she issued a video. It calls leaders to account for failing to reverse rising carbon emissions. “We are still speeding in the wrong direction,” she said. “The five years following the Paris agreement have been the five hottest years ever recorded and, during that time, the world has emitted more than 200bn tonnes of CO2.
“Distant hypothetical targets are being set, and big speeches are being given,” she said. “Yet, when it comes to the immediate action we need, we are still in a state of complete denial, as we waste our time, creating new loopholes with empty words and creative accounting.”
She was critical, too, of Jacinda Ardern’s New Zealand government, retweeting a comment which claimed that the country had just committed to reducing less than 1 percent of the its emissions by 2025, but PM Ardern responded robustly.
“It is not our sum ambition. And it is not the totality of our plans on climate change,” she said. “But again, I think that it’s actually for us just to get on with the business of fulfilling our obligations and expectations.”
Last week, Ardern declared a climate emergency, and said the government sector will be required to buy only electric or hybrid vehicles, that the fleet will be reduced over time by 20% and all 200 coal-fired boilers used in the public service’s buildings will be phased out.
An accompanying motion tabled in parliament sets up a Climate Change Commission tasked with putting the country on a path to net zero emissions by 2050, making New Zealand one of few countries to have a zero-emissions goal enshrined in law.
On Monday, Ardern said she was not going to pass judgment on whether Thunberg should have done more research, before her tweet.
“But equally I think it’s only a good thing [that] there are people out there continuing to urge ambition in action.”
Other angry young people in the news this week include environmental protester Swampy, although he's probably not that young these days. He’s been sitting in a 30ft bamboo structure over a river in an attempt to stop HS2 building a works bridge through the Colne Valley nature reserve.
International lawyers are drafting plans for a legally enforceable crime of ecocide – criminalising destruction of the world’s ecosystems – that is already attracting support from European countries and island nations at risk from rising sea levels. Probably not soon enough to help Swampy, though.
There's also been controversy this week with rumours that the government will shelve the plans for the eastern arm of the HS2 high-speed rail link to Leeds. Instead the money could be spent on upgrading east/west routes between Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. Leaders in the north seem very upset about this which I find hard to understand. Surely links between the principal cities in the north of England are crucial if these cities are going to develop and work together. A high-speed link which makes it easier to get to London than to these other cities in the north will simply benefit London to the detriment of Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool.
Continuing the theme of dissent, architect Norman Foster has withdrawn from an environmental coalition in a dispute about the destructive role of aviation in the escalating climate crisis. His critics say that developing airports is incompatible with tackling the climate and ecological emergency. The group, called Architects Declare, had called on practices to leave if they remained committed to business as usual.
“We believe that the hallmark of our age, and the future of our globally connected world, is mobility,” Lord Foster said. “Mobility of people, goods and information across boundaries. Only by internationally coordinated action can we confront the issues of global warming and, indeed, future pandemics. Aviation has a vital role to play in this process and will continue to do so. You cannot wind the clock backwards.”
Luxury carmaker Aston Martin is implicated in a row about a report which claims that that electric cars would have to travel as far as 50,000 miles before matching the carbon footprint of a petrol model. The report comes from Clarendon Communications, a company recently registered by the wife of Aston Martin’s government affairs director. It is based on studies undertaken by Polestar, an electric vehicle maker owned by Volvo. The company’s chief executive, Thomas Ingenlath, said it had left out key data points that would lower the emissions footprint of the vehicle by up to a third.
Amid widespread criticism of the report’s methodology and conclusions Francis Ingham, director general of the Public Relations and Communications Association, said: “We have a duty to fight misinformation, not purvey it. PR agencies should be fully transparent about who they represent. Failure to disclose client relationships damages trust in our industry and lends credence to misleading perceptions of PR as a sinister practice.”
The fight against denialism continues.
In other climate news, scientists at the Royal Society urge us to avoid watching online movies in HD. The difference between watching in HD or in standard definition reduces power demand and associated emissions. They also recommend upgrading tech like smart phones less often. Apart from the energy involved in making new ones, they also need rare metals, which are finite which is why they are called rare. Too many old phones which contain these materials are still being left unused in drawers rather than being recycled.
Prof Corinne Le Querre from the University of East Anglia, told BBC News: “To be honest, digital tech is a small fraction of your emissions compared with, say flying even once a year – but every bit of CO2 saving is significant.
"What’s more, we’re trying to prompt people to harness the power of digital to help tackle climate change.
"The way we heat our homes, for instance, is a nonsense. We occupy part of house but heat the whole thing. We can cure that by using digital technology.”
The effects of climate change are all around us. An article in the journal Science reports that trees are dropping the leaves earlier as a result of climate change. The shorter growing season means that the amount of carbon stored by trees will be reduced.
At least in many countries we still have trees. Deforestation in Brazil has reached a 12 year high. A total of 11,088 sq km (4,281 sq miles) of rainforest were destroyed from August 2019 to July 2020. This is a 9.5% increase from the previous year, and unlikely to change under the current presidential regime.
I mentioned recently a talk at the Yorkshire branch of the Royal Meteorological Society about wildfires. There’s a link to the online recording. Ailish Graham spoke about air quality and health impacts of wildfires on Saddleworth Moor in the UK and in Australia. She explained how fires were getting larger and were occurring in new places. She cited the Indian Ocean Dipole, a climate mechanism like El Niño, which was occurring more frequently and driving rains across the globe to fall in Africa rather than Australia. Actions we can take to address the issue include using goats to remove low-level fuel plants, as in California, to remove forest litter with managed pre-emptive burning, to encourage less flammable plants to grow in at-risk areas and to encourage peat bogs which will increase biodiversity and reduce floods by slowing run-off. In Australia they also ban the sale of barbecues in some areas and you can be fined $11,000 for discarding a cigarette end. She also mentioned that we should do something about climate change - almost too obvious to mention!
One startling fact that came out of the lecture was that poor air quality is the leading environmental risk in the UK.
Unsurprising then that the case of Ella Kissi-Debra which I mentioned last week has found that she died as a result of air pollution in the area where she lived. It will be interesting to see the implications of this ruling.
And in other news…
Beer and crisps
are being used to help tackle climate change. Sounds like the circular economy. Crisps firm Walkers has adopted a technique it says will slash CO2 emissions from its manufacturing process by 70%. They mix CO2 captured from brewing beer with potato waste to make a fertiliser. This is then used to fertilise the next year’s potato crop.
The BBC reports that “Covid drives a record emissions drop in 2020”. Yes, that’s true, but it’s another case of a BBC headline which suggests that everything is all right and there’s no need to worry. The truth of course is that the rate at which emissions have been added to the atmosphere has slowed down. We’re still adding emissions to the atmosphere faster than nature can absorb them. We’re not on track to net zero.
Some good news of positive actions.
There are plans to serve tea on Indian Railways in earthenware kulhads, small pottery vessels, instead of plastic cups. Given that 23 million people travelled each day on Indian Railways before the pandemic, the number of cups of tea consumed is vast. Whether or not the kulhads are re-used, they are environmentally friendly, unlike the plastic cups. Their manufacture will also provide employment for thousands of potters across the country.
If you prefer something stronger, wines or spirits can now be delivered in paper bottles. Frugal Bottle is a paper wine bottle made from 94% recycled paper with a food-grade liner to hold the wine or spirit. At just 83g it is five times lighter than a normal glass bottle, it has a carbon footprint up to six times (84%) lower than a glass bottle and of course all but the liner can be recycled.
I understand that whisky brand Johnny Walker is looking into using bottles made of woodpulp.
Finally from Bristol in the West of England there’s news that the city council is considering banning advertisements for junk food, polluting cars and gambling from billboards, bus shelters and digital screens. Civic chiefs warn it could put a dent in the £1m annual income the local authority receives from the advertising, but councillors agreed it was a price worth paying.
And that is finally it for another year…
I did say that I was going to take a break, but there will be another episode on Friday 8th January. It’s an interview about smart labels and their role in transparency, traceability and sustainability.
Until then I wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and I hope that 2021 will be better for all of us. Many thanks in particular to my patrons for their support and to everyone who has sent me messages and ideas. And if you've got time over Christmas, do write to me. Tell me what you like, tell me what you don't like. Write to your friends and tell them as well. Well, about the bits you do like at least.
Here's an idea for a New Year’s resolution. Why don't you become a patron like Adrien Nihon did? Go to patreon.com/sfr or find a link on the website.
Just before I go to stuff the turkey and put the sprouts on cook so they’re properly done in time for Christmas, here’s a thought. A lot of my stories this week have come from The Guardian and the BBC, but also from the UK government website, endcoal.org, Climate Action, Red Green and Blue, Reuters, Independent Catholic News, McKinsey, Our World in Data, The Royal Meteorological Society, Frugalpac and Bristol247. Detailed links to all of these below.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Until next year.
Energy White Paper
Ministers would be wise to play for time before ordering Sizewell C
Sizewell C: government reignites £20bn nuclear power station row
UK supermarket and fast food chicken linked to deforestation in Brazil
Farmers to be paid to regenerate countryside
Member states agree 55% cut in carbon emissions by 2030
Denmark to end new oil and gas exploration in North Sea
European parliament 'should stop Strasbourg sittings to hit carbon-neutral goal'
FTSE giants fail to disclose their carbon footprint
Not enough ambition
A warning on climate and the risk of societal collapse
'We are speeding in the wrong direction' on climate crisis
Veteran activist Swampy among protesters in HS2 site standoff with police
Ardern disputes Thunberg view on climate policy
Aston Martin linked to anti-electric car study
Architect Norman Foster pulls out of climate coalition in row over aviation
Labour risks loss of young voters by 'going backwards' on climate
International lawyers draft plan to criminalise ecosystem destruction
Climate crisis making autumn leaves fall earlier, study finds
Saddleworth Moor and Australian wildfires
Recording is on line.
In Other News
Beer & Crisps
Good news - but it’s not that good.
Record emissions drop
All change: railways bring back tea in clay cups in bid to banish plastics
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