This is episode number 350 of your Sustainable Futures Report. The main part of today's episode is an interview with Ross O’Ceallaigh of the Green Urbanist podcast.
In other news the Siberian heatwave has led to new methane emissions, foreign control of North Sea oil licences threatens UK’s net zero goal, three and a half average Americans could be causing one death, high speed rail, HS2, may never reach the end of the line and there are new insights from Allegra Stratton, the Prime Minister’s climate crisis spokesperson.
More than half the world’s people live in cities and urban areas, and the way these areas are built, maintained and managed is highly important to them all. Cities have a vital role in mitigating climate change and a key concern is adaptation to the effects of the Climate Crisis.
I spoke to Ross O’Ceallaigh.
Anthony Day: My guest today is Ross O'Ceallaigh. He's the presenter of The Green Urbanist podcast for urbanists fighting climate change. Ross, welcome and thanks for talking to the Sustainable Futures Report.
Ross O'Ceallaig...: Thanks so much, Anthony. It's a pleasure.
Anthony Day: Well, my first question is, what is a green urbanist?
Ross O'Ceallaig...: It's not a term that I've coined unfortunately. The way I like to think about it is that it's someone who works in cities. So that could be an architect, a planner, a policymaker, and someone who's committed to addressing cities' contribution to climate change, but also the quality of life, the health and happiness of residents. So that's sort of my own summary of it.
Anthony Day: So you've got a pretty niche audience then of specialists in urban planning and urban living.
Ross O'Ceallaig...: Yeah, a lot of architects, a lot of people who are studying. But also people who are working, architects, planners, urban designers, that kind of thing.
Anthony Day: And how do you as green urbanists fight climate change?
Ross O'Ceallaig...: Yeah, it's a really good question and it's very multifaceted. So I suppose there's sort of two directions with this. One is that cities are huge drivers of energy use. And so cities need to be reducing the energy use that they use, particularly in transport, but also in how they use electricity in buildings. And in the Northern Hemisphere, that would mostly be through heating homes. It's incredibly energy intensive. And so those are sort of the two big things that cities needs to address in terms of bringing down overall emissions.
But then there's also the question of, well, we're already experiencing the effects of climate change. We're seeing things like the extreme heat dome in British Columbia. We're seeing mass floods all over the world at the moment, just London yesterday, also China, also in Germany and Belgium. And so there's a question of how do cities adapt themselves to this new sort of shifting baseline of extreme weather? So those are sort of the two directions that sort of urbanists need to be moving in.
Anthony Day: My question is, how quickly? How swiftly can you move towards adaptation, and if possible, to mitigation? How quickly can the actions you take have the effects we need?
Ross O'Ceallaig...: It's very, very tricky because large scale infrastructure projects in some cities will certainly need to be thinking about large scale, what you might call gray infrastructure or hard infrastructure projects. These are things like flood barriers or hurricane defenses and that kind of thing. These things take years or decades to plan and then to build out. So it is almost too late. Still worth doing if you have the money. Invest it in good infrastructure to improve the resilience.
But then there's also things you can do which have a much more local influence. And I'm a big proponent of what you call green infrastructure. And so this is planting trees, replacing concrete with natural surfaces, bringing in a lot more natural elements into cities. And these basically help to buffer the city against things like flooding and things like heatwaves because they help to reduce the air temperature. And as we will and we are already starting to see more common and more extreme heat waves hit cities in the UK and around the world, if you can bring the ambient temperature down by just a few degrees through having more tree cover, that's that could be a life saving device for someone who's vulnerable. So I think that's really key.
Anthony Day: Aren't we going to need to get society at large on side and not just the specialists that you've been talking about. For example, during lockdown, there have been a lot of low traffic neighborhoods introduced. Now that has led to lower air pollution. That's led to a lower number of traffic accidents. It's also led to a very intense backlash from a lot of people who will not stand for it. Are we going to see the same sort of backlash, and if we see the same sort of backlash against climate measures, how are we going to address this?
Ross O'Ceallaig...: Yeah, you're right. It's been really interesting to follow the low traffic neighborhoods around the UK because it has been, for someone like me who spends all my time talking about, oh, it's great to be walking and cycling. It's great to take public transport. To see people defending their private car use so strongly, the people who are proponents of these measures, it comes out of left field a little bit and you think, what? I thought everyone would love this. So you're absolutely right. We have to take people along with us. And I think there will always be people who are, let's say conservative by nature. They like where they live. They like the way things are. They don't want things to change. Unfortunately, we sort of don't have that luxury of allowing things to stay in stasis because the status quo is not serving us.
And whether that is air pollution or traffic accidents or emissions from road transport, we know the science tells us we have to address these things. And so I think it is a question of engaging with people early in these projects, speaking their language, not coming out and using professional planner speak that nobody understands, and trying to just be human about it and try to help them along in the process to put their fears to rest. And take on what they say. It's not about bulldozing over people. It's about trying to take on their fears and what they want from their place and trying to get something that actually serves people. It's a tough job, but I think we need to figure out how to do it quite quickly.
Anthony Day: I think you're right. Quite quickly. You were saying just now it's almost too late. People have been saying it's almost too late for the last 10 years and more. Maybe the fact that the extreme weather that you referred to just now has actually made headlines finally, even in the mainstream media. Maybe this is the turning point. But I've seen the letter in the paper this morning where people are starting to deny this. The correspondent says, "Well, listen to David Bellamy," if you remember the late David Bellamy who was a naturalist. "He didn't believe in climate change and he was an expert." All sorts of things like that are going to be [inaudible 00:06:46]. I fear that our debate is going to be very, very difficult to promote.
Ross O'Ceallaig...: Yeah, that being said, I do think that the full-out climate deniers are a minority. And I think if you look at polling data, I think most people in the UK do believe in climate change and consider it to be an important thing. I think where the sticking points comes is when people realize their daily lives have to change.
And one thing that I always talk about on my podcast is that we have an opportunity as we have to take action on climate change. We have an opportunity to make that a really positive change and actually to improve people's quality of life, people's health and the way they live in cities. It will be different to how we live now and that's what's scary for people and that's what's hard to get some people on board. But it could be better. And that means having less traffic on the streets, having more children playing safely on the streets, having cleaner air, having more equitable access to parks, green spaces, trees, nature. All these are fantastic things and most people would agree that they want more of it. And so it's a question of communicating that and actually delivering on it.
Anthony Day: Just turning back to urban infrastructure. There's a bingo hall just up the road from where I'm sitting. I think it's less than 20 years old. For what it is, it's quite a smart building. They're going to knock it down and build 223 student flats. Demolition of a building of that age, can that ever be justified?
Ross O'Ceallaig...: It's very difficult because if you look at the breakdown of the carbon emissions in construction over the whole life of a building, it's something that professionals call whole life carbon. So you look at the construction, the life of the building, and then the end of the building where it's demolished or it's retrofitted or something. The single most biggest contributor to that is the materials, the concrete, the steel that goes into a new building. It's incredibly carbon intensive. It's much bigger than actually the energy use in a building. Even though we talk a lot about energy efficiency and that kind of thing. And so if you have a building that's only 20 years old, it's a very difficult argument and I think it really has to be only in specific circumstances. Now it could be to allow that to happen, to demolish a whole building and to build a new building.
I don't know what the specific circumstances of this bingo hall is. It could be that maybe it was poorly made when it was first built. Maybe it's not structurally sound. I don't know what the details are, but there is a strong movement of retrofit first amongst built environment professionals. As they're saying, in most situations you can actually retain structures and refurbish them or add extensions to them, that kind of thing. So that's definitely one element of it.
But I suppose to put it in perspective as well, the buildings that will be around in places like London and cities in the UK in 2050, 90% of them are already existing. So the big leverage point in terms of reducing carbon emissions is not so much in things that are being built now, although it is important to get that right, it's how do we reduce the energy intensity of buildings that are already existing? So all the terrace properties, all the suburban housing, all the office buildings that will still exist in 30 or 80 years time. And that calls for huge amounts of investment into retrofitting and to making these more energy efficient. And so that's I think a more important goal to aim for.
Anthony Day: So retrofitting, retrofitting installation, so that we don't lose the heat that we pour into these properties. What do you see as the preferred method of putting the heat in, in the first place? The government has said an awful lot about [crosstalk 00:11:01]. Do you see that as the way forward, or are we going to convert our borders to hydrogen, or are there any other ideas that you feel are going to solve the problem?
Ross O'Ceallaig...: Yeah, it's a good question. Certainly gas boilers are being phased out over the next, I think it's the next 10 years. I think it's 2030 is when you'll no longer be able to have your gas boiler in use and everything will need to go to electric. It's difficult. It's part of a wider energy grid question. There's a great report that was put out by the Centre for Alternative Technology, which is based in Wales. They have a great report called zero carbon Britain, and they outlined their own scenario for how Britain using existing technology and methods could achieve net zero carbon anytime we want, basically.
One thing they say is that it's very difficult to supply enough energy for the energy demand we have now, which is why it's so important to, as you said, stop the heat leaking out of our buildings. To retrofit buildings so they're more energy efficient, and then it becomes much easier to supply that electricity for heating through things like wind, offshore wind is the big one in the UK because we're blessed with a very windy coastline, especially up in Scotland. But it could also include a mixture of things like hydro or potentially things like biofuels, although that would be a much smaller percentage. So I think for people who are interested and thinking, what's the future energy grid of the UK? What could that look like? That report makes a really interesting case for how we could do that without relying on any future technologies.
Anthony Day: Ross, if you were to pick one issue which you would give top priority to as far as tackling the climate emergency is concerned, what would it be?
Ross O'Ceallaig...: It's difficult to pick a top priority. But what I'd like to do is take this opportunity to maybe flag up an issue that I think is flying under the radar for many people, which is that, if we think about that Canadian town, I think it's called Lytton that had the heat dome over it. There was 250 people in the entire village got destroyed by these wildfires. Now most of the people survived. I think there was only two deaths. Luckily. And you think, well, 250 people, that would be relatively easy to rehouse those people somewhere else. What happens when that's a town of two and a half thousand people or a city of 250,000 people?
Scientists are very concerned that later in the century, we will start to see a massive climate refugee crisis as people are dispossessed from vulnerable parts of the world where cities, towns, suddenly become uninhabitable for humans. Where do those people go? Do we have plans in place to humanely deal with people who are fleeing? Are we even considering this in our politics? It seems like, in fact, we're moving the opposite direction. We're shutting down borders and we're leaving people to their fate. And so I would like the international community as a whole to start taking this issue really, really seriously, because it may be people in Pakistan, in India and the other side of the world, but it may be people in Britain and maybe people in Europe who suddenly don't have a home and don't have a place to go and we have to be ready for that.
Anthony Day: Do you see any initiatives like that coming out of COP26, the United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow in November?
Ross O'Ceallaig...: I'm really not sure. I'm really not sure. I haven't been following it probably as closely as I should have.
Anthony Day: Right. Well, thank you very much for sharing your ideas. Now, The Green Urbanist podcast, that's available on all good podcast sites.
Ross O'Ceallaig...: Yes, indeed.
Anthony Day: Are you able to give us a preview of what's coming out next time?
Ross O'Ceallaig...: I've just had a rather special episode come out this morning because it's with my brother who's a clinical psychologist and we talk about the phenomenon of climate anxiety, or climate despair, as it's sometimes called. A lot of people involved in action climate change feel a lot of anger, sadness, anxiety about what's happening. And he helps us just to understand that these feelings are actually totally normal and that there are ways you can help to manage them. So that might be a really good episode for people.
Anthony Day: Well, I look forward to hearing that. So that's The Green Urbanist podcast available on all your favorite podcast sites. And I've been talking to Ross O'Ceallaigh. Ross, thank you very much for sharing your ideas and talking to the Sustainable Futures Report.
Ross O'Ceallaig...: My pleasure.
Ross mentioned the Zero Carbon Britain reports from the Centre for Alternative Technology. There’s a link below.
And in other news…
Amid all the news about extreme weather, including wildfires in Northern latitudes, you probably heard that Siberian forests above the Arctic Circle have been on fire. The heatwave which made everything dry enough to burn has also led to the release of methane, which you’ll remember is a far more potent GHG than CO2, at least in the short term.
In an article published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA the team led by Nikolaus Froitzheim, professor of geology at the University of Bonn, noted that anthropogenic global warming may be accelerated by a positive feedback from the mobilisation of methane from thawing Arctic permafrost. Beneath the permafrost in some areas there are carbonate rocks which also can leak methane once exposed. Even deeper there may be gas hydrates in fractures and pockets of the carbonate rocks in the permafrost zone becoming unstable due to warming from the surface.
More research needed
The researchers do not expect a catastrophic release of methane, as higher temperatures in previous millennia have not triggered such an event. However they believe more research is urgently needed to quantify the volume of GHG within and beneath the permafrost and the rate it which the warming climate will cause it to be released.
Foreign control of North Sea oil licences
Last time - last Tuesday in the extra edition I’ve just published - I mentioned ISDS, investor-state dispute settlements, and how foreign companies can sue governments if they bring in legislation or regulations which could restrict company profits. This may well restrict the UK government’s ability to wind down oil production in order to meet zero carbon targets.
As noted last time, the UK is the most vulnerable country to this in Europe, having some £120bn worth of fossil fuel infrastructure owned by foreign companies. A study by the Common Wealth thinktank, and research by climate journal Desmog, reveals that more than a third of the licence blocks in the North Sea now have a private or state-backed controlling interest, with fossil fuel firms from China, Russia and the Middle East playing an increasingly dominant role. There is concern that the UK could delay or water down climate change legislation for fear of being sued.
Greenpeace report that UK North Sea oil rigs release as much CO2 as a coal-fired power station, but of course that must be dwarfed by the emissions from the fossil fuels they produce.
Keep it in the Ground
Unless we keep oil and gas in the ground we will destroy our environment - not just the pretty flowers and the birds and the bees, but the land and the oceans that produce our food and the forests that produce the oxygen we breathe.
If we insist that oil and gas must remain in the ground it will cost some people a considerable amount of money. Expect them to fight with every possible means at their disposal to recover those losses.
Mortality Cost of Climate
In a paper published in Nature Communications the authors find that the lifetime emissions of 3.5 average Americans cause one excess death globally. This is not an attack on Americans, it’s an illustration of the fact that one person’s carbon emissions contribute to another’s shortened lifespan. They point out that in the current method of calculating integrated assessment models (IAMs) that determine the social cost of carbon (SCC), human mortality impacts are limited and not updated to the latest scientific understanding.
In light of their findings they believe that the true social cost of carbon is $258/tonne, rather than the current figure of $37. Carbon pricing at this level would close many industries overnight, and it illustrates the urgency of carbon reduction.
Although substantial advances in climate impact research have been made in recent years, the authors warn that IAMs are still omitting a significant portion of likely damages, not just the mortality effect. These models underpin a wide range of programmes designed to mitigate or adapt to the challenges of the climate crisis. If this revised valuation were adopted, far more schemes would be viable and value for money. Governments may resist such a change as it would lead to calls for more investment. Of course that might be difficult in the short term, but the SCC demonstrates starkly the long-term cost of doing nothing.
And now to transport…
HS2, the high speed railway from London to Birmingham and the North has been mentioned with scepticism many times in the Sustainable Futures Report. Dissenting voices are getting louder and the railway is increasingly seen as another of the PM’s vanity projects. It cost £40m to cancel London’s unbuilt Garden Bridge but it’s estimated that it would cost £6bn to cancel HS2. Still, says Steph Spyro in the Express, that’s a drop in the ocean by comparison with the £100bn that the project is now expected to cost.
Stopping at Birminham
Linking Leeds and Manchester to London via Birmingham with this high-speed line is seen as an important part of levelling up the North. Except that numerous commentators are now predicting that cost overruns mean that the line will never be extended beyond Birmingham. It will merely bring Birmingham into the London commuter belt.
No Business Case
Fare levels have not yet been decided and the viability of the line is based on passenger growth and trends which existed before the pandemic. There is no sign that these levels will return as we adjust to new ways of working.
Spending £100bn on HS2 leaves nothing for the rest of the railway network - no electrification, no upgrading of the East-West line from Liverpool through Manchester to Leeds and Hull, nothing for the northern commuter lines still relying on 50-year old trains.
£100bn is believed to be the likely cost of a comprehensive social care programme. That money would build dozens of hospitals or schools, or fund mental health services or a myriad of other projects serving thousands of people, not just the wealthy few who want a quick trip to Birmingham. It will take only £12bn to establish a catch-up programme for school students. The government has allocated just £2bn. The project director has resigned.
High Speed Ahead
Of course HS2 will probably go ahead, if only because stopping now would leave a scarred countryside, felled ancient woodlands and tunnels to nowhere as a massive monument to incompetence - and vanity.
PM’s Spokesperson won’t go electric.
More insights from Allegra Stratton, the PM’s spokesperson on the COP26 Climate Conference. She says she’s not going to give up her diesel car for an electric one. This is because sometimes she visits family in Scotland or Wales and she wouldn’t want to set out on a 200 mile trip if she had to stop and recharge in order to complete her journey.
A number of people commented, including the president of the AA, a motoring organisation. He said most electric cars now have a 200 mile range. And anyone making a 200-mile trip should take a break for safety’s sake and the car can be recharged to 80% in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
The most worrying aspect of this story is that Allegra doesn’t seem to understand the damage that a diesel car is doing. If it’s inconvenient to go electric she seems to have no concern about the consequences for the climate. Surely not the sort of person who should be handling communications from COP26. The UK is chairing the conference. The PM wants the UK to be seen as a leader in addressing the climate crisis. This level of ignorance from a government spokesperson is not a good start.
And that’s it…
…for another week. Remember this is the second episode this week. Last Tuesday I published Extreme Weather - Extreme Warnings: don’t miss it!
And yes, you’ve had two for the price of one. If you feel like making a small contribution to the costs of producing this podcast please become a patron at
Another interview next week, about a new synthetic and sustainable product.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report.
Bye for now.
The Green Urbanist
Siberian heatwave led to new methane emissions, study says
Foreign control of North Sea oil licences threatens UK’s net zero goal
Mortality Cost of Carbon
Diesel car suits me better than electric, says PM’s climate spokesperson
Centre for Alternative Technology - Zero Carbon Britain