Today is the last day of COP26 but I'm not going to talk about that for a change, partly because I have to write this in advance and therefore the conference hasn't closed yet so it's too early for me to be able to comment. You can look forward to that next week. Also next week we will have the Wednesday interview as well as the regular Friday podcast.
In this edition I ask How Green is Green?
I look at Greenwash, at Offsetting and James Lovelock’s warning of Gaia’s Revenge. Should we reconsider Personal Carbon Allowances, and is there really an Anti-Solar Panel that works in the dark?
But first, indulge me as I take a moment to tell you about something which has absolutely nothing to do with sustainability but you might be interested in anyway. It's an event called SteelHaven for reasons far too complex to explain and it's a full day event taking place online on Saturday, 20th November. SteelHaven.info is basically about speaking skills and we have workshops about storytelling as well as planning, imagery and humour. There’s also advice on answering unexpected questions. There’s a cookery demonstration at lunchtime and a drinks reception and the final of our endurance challenge. If I mention campmates, jungle and get me out of here you’ll get the idea.
You can find full details at SteelHaven.info but the most important things you'll find there are that you can sign up and dip in and out throughout the day as you like for only £5. For that you get a limited edition SteelHaven mug as well. However if you believe you already have enough mugs you can get access to the whole day for only £1. Where else could you get value like that? Sign up at SteelHaven.info .
Anyway, back to reality. This week’s Sustainable Futures Report asks How Green is Green?
Greenwash is a perennial issue. Some companies claim to be green, or eco, or carbon neutral for marketing purposes without anything to back it up. Some claim to be environmentally responsible and then find that some parts of their supply chain are riddled with bad practice.
The Advertising Standards Agency insists that any claims should be clearly backed up with facts and this is the reason for most of their decisions requiring advertisements to be withdrawn. Of course, advertising campaigns are frequently short and the message may have been embedded in the public consciousness before the ads have been pulled. From a consumer point of view it's important to recognise that the fact that a company can promote an ethical and environmentally responsible product does not mean that all its operations are equally green.
And some campaigns radically overstate their impact on the environment. I’m thinking of breakfast cereals and vegan foods which claim that by eating them you are doing your bit for the planet. By avoiding meat and dairy you are undoubtedly doing something for the planet, but it's far, far less than if you were to cut down on driving or turn the heating down a bit. If you're aiming for a low carbon lifestyle then using such products is clearly consistent with your overall aims but on its own it's not even a drop in the ocean.
Carbon Offsetting is the strategy of choice for many people. Pay some money to an offsetting organisation and you don't need to worry about the carbon footprint of your flight or of any other carbon emitting activity you might be involved in. It's like Monopoly’s Get Out of Jail Free card or simony, the practice of mediaeval monks selling indulgences to free their lords from the consequences on judgement day of planned or past sins. I was going to say that indulgences didn’t work, but on reflection the jury is still out on that.
Offsetting should be seen as a strategy of last resort, after every possible step has been taken to minimise emissions. There's a wide-ranging controversy around the concept of offsetting. Do they work? Don't they work? Are the schemes reliable or fraudulent? Don’t they falsely persuade people that they are living a carbon-free life?
Undoubtedly the credibility of some schemes has been very poor. Greenpeace takes issue with a number of airlines, claiming that some of the schemes which underpin their claims to carbon neutrality are flawed. For example, certain foresters issue carbon abatement certificates on the basis that they have decided not to cut down part of the forests. The logic is difficult to follow.
And egregious example is Drax power station which receives substantial government subsidies on the assumption that it is a renewable energy operation even while emissions at site are higher than almost any other location in Europe. The theory is that because it is burning wood chip these emissions will be offset by the growth of new trees. This overlooks the carbon footprint of the infrastructure for producing the woodchip, which extends from the forests of North America through the chipping plant to the ports and the ships and the specially built trains which bring the woodchip to the plant.
The better and more reliable offsetting schemes are subject to independent verification. Where the offsets are based on forestry, carbon credits are only issued on the basis of carbon already captured, in other words they relate to grown trees, not to trees to be planted in the future. Verification ensures that credits cannot be issued twice for the same growth.
Other schemes involve the promotion of renewable energy. These do not actually absorb carbon from the atmosphere, but they do avoid increased emissions which would occur if the energy were generated from fossil fuels instead, for example.
As I said, offsetting has to be seen as a last resort because it is undoubtedly an inadequate strategy. It goes some way towards protecting the planet and if you decide that offsetting is for you, it is extremely important to choose a verified scheme.
Personal Carbon Allowances
Another approach to managing carbon, and it's been around for some time, is the idea of personal carbon allowances. Each citizen is assigned a carbon allowance and this can be used towards things like the use of cars running on petrol or diesel, home heating running on gas, and flights, which for the moment all use fossil fuels. The average citizen’s allowance should not be enough for those people who take regular long haul holidays, drive large cars or keep the heating high. To be able to do these things they would have to go into the market and buy additional carbon allowances from people who don’t need them. People who never fly, don't own cars, and live in well-insulated homes could profit from this. Arguably it’s is a win-win situation. It contributes to levelling up by providing additional funds for those on lower incomes and allows big spenders to spend and emit with a clear conscience. Well, fairly clear. Of course the allowances will have to be set at a realistic level, otherwise it could simply make things worse. There will also have to be a cap on the number of credits available. I can see all sorts of controversy coming out of this, but I still think it's an idea worth considering. Existing carbon trading schemes have been ineffective because the price of carbon has been set too low. We must not repeat the same mistake.
There is a link below to an article in the journal Nature.
James Lovelock is a distinguished scientist and a member of the Royal Society who developed the concept of Gaia, the Earth as a living organism that tolerates the presence of humanity but which could turn against us if humanity’s activities become unsustainable.
In a recent article in The Guardian, Lovelock says Covid-19 may well have been one attempt by the Earth to protect itself, and that Gaia will try harder next time with something even nastier. He says we cannot afford to treat global heating and the destruction of nature as separate problems. He warns that nature is non-linear and unpredictable, implying perhaps that a tipping point could come upon us rapidly, unexpectedly and catastrophically.
He joins the chorus of those urging a rapid end to the use of fossil fuels. At the same time he does not believe that the energy that we need will come wholly from renewables, and supports the expansion of nuclear energy. He speaks from experience as a nuclear scientist and is sceptical of the dangers of radiation from nuclear plants in operation. In one of his books he even said that he would be quite happy to have nuclear waste buried in a bunker in his back garden and for his grandchildren to play on top of it.
Small Modular Reactors
This week the British government announced financial support for the small modular nuclear reactors of the type being developed by Rolls-Royce: much cheaper and quicker to build than the monster still under construction at Hinkley C. These units could be part of the solution which Lovelock recommends, although at the age of 102 he is unlikely to see the programme completed.
The Anti-Solar Panel
I bring you the anti-solar panel. We all know that the sun shines down on the Earth and heats it up. Any of that sunshine falling on solar panels generates electricity but much of the energy falling on the Earth is actually reflected back into space as infrared radiation. Now researchers at the University of California, Davis are working on a solar panel that will keep generating power after the sun sets, by harvesting that radiation. In fact it can work 24/7, because the infrared emissions are constant.
The current prototypes produce only about 25% of electricity compared with traditional solar panels. However, this is very much more than panels working on sunlight achieved when they were first developed. It looks as though one of the arguments against renewables - intermittency - may be overturned.
And that’s it for this week.
Thank you for being a patron, if you are, and of course you're always welcome to become one at patreon.com/sfr .
Thank you anyway for listening.
You've heard of the linear economy, you've heard of the circular economy. Next Wednesday's interview brings you details of the OVAL economy.
I'm hoping to set up an interview with an observer who has been in the blue zone at COP26, but plans for that are fluid at the moment. You can be sure, nevertheless, that there will be another Sustainable Futures Report next Friday, 19th November.
Before that, don't forget to check out SteelHaven.info
I’m Anthony Day
That was the Sustainable Futures Report
Until next time.
Offset Verification Bodies
Verified Carbon Standard
Small Modular Reactors
The Anti-Solar Panel