Wednesday, 15 December 2010

So long green bank

Arrrghhh! More terrible news. It never stops does it? Looks as thought the much vaunted Green Bank in the UK will be scaled back to little more than a fund for providing grants, with no abiity to raise credit or issue bonds. Basicaly it will not be a bank. It's hard to know where to start with my feelings of disappointment, not just with the apparent demise of the bank (signaled by the Energy Secretary in the Guardian) but with the failure once again of this government to live up to its promise. Its mania with cutting the deficit RIGHT NOW, could set the country back years and cripple infrastructure development and business investment, particularly in new and emerging industries like renewable energy and clean tech where we should be world leaders.

It is terrifying to see our most free market government for decades coming to power just as the free market dream is dying. I only hope we can get through it wih enough intact to build on.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

A call to arms for the green movement

Hi folks, I am tired, but here are some post-protest thoughts.
The green movement, and particularly the climate part, needs to regroup. It has been a miserable year. The nonsense of climate-gate, the failure of the Copenhagen talks and the fact that much of the media seems to have gotten bored has sapped energy out of the campaigns. People are a little lost. They feel they have tried everything. Large protests from 2005-2007 achieved something, but not enough. Direct action groups like Climate Camp and Climate Rush changed the narrative, injected some enthusiasm and won some victories, but even they are changing. Much of the energy, and many of the people, are now focused on the protests against government cuts. This does not mean they are not still committed to slowing climate change (and the two are certainly connected), but simply that the immediacy is elsewhere. Environmental protests have always been harder for certain kinds of people to understand than ones which purely deal with money. Yesterday's climate march through London brought all this into persective. It was well organised, and worth attending, but the lack of energy and optimism contrasted heavily with the Kingsnorth coal protests or student demonstrations. It is also worth noting that it did not get a single mention in the press, which was dominated by an excellent direct action at Topshop that I must admit I was loath to tear myself away from.

So what now? At the march yesterday Green MP Caroline Lucas quoted Emily Pankhurst and called for a new wave of (peaceful) militancy to affect policy on the environment. I think she is absolutely right, and I will make some suggestions below. Before that thought I think it is important to recap on what has been achieved. First of all climate change is a word in everyone's lexicon. It is taken seriously at the highest levels and is discussed by everyone from sitcoms to Heads of State. That was not the case ten years ago, and while the press may be bored for now, the issue is not going away. Other progress has been made too. Since 2005 renewable energy, one of our best hopes, has become increasingly mainstream and respected, with all major parties committed to supporting it. That is also a huge achievement. Protests and campaigns have also made decisions such as building new coal power stations and oil infrastructure diffficult and increasingl risky, and won some significant victories (stopping new coal plants with carbon capture and storage for example). School children all over the country are taught about climate change and the environment, and overwhelming support measures to tackle it.

But will still need to do much, much more. We need to work out how to engage those people who do care, but will never do much about it, apart from vote and make some purchasing decisions, since that is all they do on any issue. There is still a lot of thinking to be done, but for now I will suggest a three pronged approach.
First we need a local movement. Something like re-energised and more activist Transition Towns. They could work on practical solutions (such as community power, local conservation etc), but also become much more political, acting as a power base for more dynamic actions. The practical stuff is important as it gives a sense of empowerment. The political action is crucial too, because groups like this, expanded and organised could have a major influence on local government and council elections, where a lot of real environmental governance takes place. We could draw up profiles of councillors, MLAs, MSPs and MPs according to their green credential and campaign and run accordingly. They can also play a role in supporting more militant actions, issuing statements that support the aims and objectives of demonstrations and occupations, and writing letters to the press and broadcasters.
At the same time we need many more people willing to take part in direct action. Climate Camp did well, but we never got above a few thousand active particpiants. We needs hundreds of thousands, a million, ready to engage in civil disbedience. The local groups above might provide a source of activists. So too may the newly energised student movements. We need to be actively making those links. We also need to be joining 'traditional' protestors with the new decentralised groups, not segregating ourselves into legitimate and illegitimate protestors. We must not be so squemish about the odd broken window or occupied power station.Yes, violence against people is wrong, but that has almost never happened in the environmental movement, and no one is calling for it. Obstruction or minor damage to property is quite different. (I also feel that Direct Action groups must do what they can to restrain their wider political impulses. The green agenda is too important to be held hostage to the factional differences between liberals, social democrats, libertarians, anarchists, socialists or communists. NGOs and networks too must overcome their fears of promoting others activities.)

Finally we need to combine mass civil disobedience and local activism into something high-level. We need to keep the big marches, educational and (dare I say) even celebrity campaigns going for those who can't engage in any other way, but we must try to make them chellenging. A weak message is no message at all. We must support those politicians and groups that do act on climate change to give hope to others. We do not need to support everything they do to back them up on this. We need to support the positive solutions that are available. We need to vote for greener parties, we need to back the think-tanks and NGOs that are best tackling the climate issues. We must use local campaigning, protests, blockades, pickets, infiltrations, on-line actions and our own votes, investments and purchasing power to fight the government, the apahetic, the industries and political parties into a corner, and then welcome those that wriggle out and back us, until there is no one left in the corner.

There will be a lot more thinking to be done in the coming days and weeks, and things will change, but I guess what I am saying is that no one group or method will itself be enough to win this. We need everything. Direct Action will only work if enough people tacitly support it. Protests and marches will only work if enough people feel motivated to take part. Politicians will only act if they realise there is a demand for it, and complaining only works if you are actively pushing some alternatives...



Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Problems with avoided deforestation payments...

I just read a report by some WWF scientists arguing that Reduced Emissions for Avoided Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) could be a good way to get money for protecting forests and in particular tigers. They argue that countries should get a premium on any REDD payments (normally given for carbon) if the density of various key species, such as tigers, increases.. The paper has left me feeling deeply uneasy.

While I agree that there may be a place for direct payments to protect and value forests, I see numerous problems with REDD and its various derivations. First of all if the payments are made in exchange for offsets, then it is simply another way to allow big polluters in the rich countries to keep polluting, for no concrete reductions in another country (offsets with developing countries cannot work as there is no cap on the emissions of developing countries). Secondly there would need to be a very good set of baseline data from which to measure deforestation, otherwise there will be an incentive to increase or fudge defprestation data to ensure an artificially high baseline rate of forest loss. Also, there will be pressure to inflate the numbers of tigers, something that has been a big problem before. And who will recieve the money? It is supposed to help the poorest communities around forests, but the amount of projected money is vast.. how will this be handled?

All of these issues are exaccerbated by basic a structural concern. Basically, there is no incentive on any of the bodies involved in these sorts of REDD schemes to blow the whistle if there are problems. The people paying for the credits want a supply of offsets. The people receiving the money don't what that threatened. The NGOs backing it will want to make it look as though everything is okay (there are similar problems with forest certifications and 'sustainable' palm oil). Even the conservation teams on the ground would find themselves under huge pressure to keep claiming that forests and tigers are in good condition.

In the end there is huge pressure to make this work, from developing countries, some environmentalists who seem to see it as a way to protect forests, western governments who see it as a way of wriggling out of tough decisions on reduction emmissions and conservationists desperately seeking anything that can help their prize species. I only hope that it will not become a very expensive failure.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Ascension Island wildlife


Ascension Island is a British Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic... about half way to the Falklands, just below the equator. There is no indigenous population, and the people who live there come from the UK, St. Helena (nearest other island, 900 miles away), the US and all over the world. Basically it's only function is as an airbase and listening post. About a third of the island is trashed with military and spy gear, but the rest remains starkly beautiful - ranging from from lava desert and sweeping cliffs round the coast, thorny scrub or sparse grasses at the bottom, right up to rainforest on top of the mountain. Earlier this year I spent a few weeks there working with the Department of Conservation, and I loved it. I have decided to stick a few of the images up...

The wildlife is centred around seabirds, marine species and various plants and land crabs.. and once you get into it is truly fascinating.


Botswainbird island, white with seabirds

Masked boobies are now nesting on Ascension Island proper for the first time in hundreds of years after eradication of feral cats..


Brown booby....

Green turtle - Ascension Island is the biggest green turtle nesting site in the Atlantic. They are huge, and can weight over 200 kilos..

Turtle tracks on a beautiful beach

Related to the piranha, these blackfish swarm in huge numbers around Ascension (the only place they do so) and play a major role in the local ecology

Beautiful white fairy tern... like all the wildlife on Ascension they are surprisingly fearless of humans and will come very close to check you out...

Agave plants up on Sisters Peak mountain. One of the dry peaks. The rain falls almost daily on green mountain, but is very localised. Just a mile or two away, Sister's Peak is bone dry.


Endemic marrattea ferns on Green Mountain
Land crabs in yellow, orange, pink and purple can be found all over the island, but particlarly in the human forests on Green Mountain and round the back of the island
Made up of largely introduced plants, a beautiful rainforest now tops green mountain and clings to its sides.... Anyway, that will do for now... I will put up more pictures another time!

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

California retains climate law despite efforts from Big Oil

Proposition 23, the controversial bill to suspend California's climate change law, has been defeated in a State-wide referendum. The proposal shot to prominance largely thanks to the huge amount of money raised by both sides. While those supporting the measure originally made all the headlines by securing nearly $10 million from fossil fuels companies based in Texas or Kansas, it was those opposing who came through strongest at the end, amassing a war chest of up to $25 million, made up of donations from Silicon Valley software companies, venture capitalists and clean-tech ventures.... Could one day be seen as the turning point, when the fossil fuel lobby finally met its match...?

In the meantime, this looks like good news for California and the development of clean technology. With any luck it will also help to stiffen the spines of those US politicians who support proactive measures to tackle climate change.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Dolphins in the Hebrides

Hey everyone. I just thought I would put up a couple of photos of bottlenose dolphins I took on my phone in the Inner Hebrides the other week... they were just riding the bow of the boat for about 15 minutes.. wonderful stuff.... Not good photos particularly, but pretty cool all the same.

The whole area between Mull, Coll, Tiree, Iona, Ardnamurchan, Sunart and Rum/Eigg really is a global treasure. Breathtaking scenery, an abundance of wildlife, beautiful towns and forests... really restores your faith that there are things worth fighting for...










Monday, 25 October 2010

Roll up, roll up. UK countryside for sale - everything must go.

The UK government, in the person of Secretary of State for DEFRA Caroline Spelman, has announced plans to sell up to 150,000 hectares of state owned forest lands to private interests... This strikes me as a terrible idea. With the exception of nature conservation charities, who are unlikely to have the money, the only bodies willing to pay for this will be those that think they can make a return on investment. I.e. people who think they can make the land work harder. In a country like Britain, with its urgent need for more natural forest cover this is a bad idea. If not properly safeguarded it could lead to increased tacky tourist infrastructure, more commercial pine plantations, housing developments and other industrial activities.

Selling off assets of the forestry commission is expected to raise a mere £250 million, according to a report in the Guardian. This is a pretty poor amount of money to raise, particularly when it is estimated that the Forestry Commission brings in £63 million a year - a 100% return on its annual subsidy of £30 million. Put another way, the amount of money to government will make from a one-off sale is what the Commission could generate for the State in 7.5 years. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that the £30 million 'subsidy' will no longer be necessary. Industry is likely to pick the most profitable land to purchase... so the taxpayer will continue to provide support for the rest (as it should) but without the payback.... This just seems like bad economics.

Okay, so the Forestry Commission has hardly been a benign ecological presence over the decades. It's mononculture pine plantations have caused terrible scarring to the countryside and have little value to wildlife. In recent years though it seems to have changed, with much more emphasis on conservation, mixed native forests (even if they are still commercially worked) and a reduction in the dreaded Norwegian Spruce. It now seems that the government want to go back to the bad old days. And for what?

UPDATE!!! The nice people over at 38 Degrees have started a petition on this. Please go to http://bit.ly/8Y41by and sign.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/oct/24/forests-government-heritage-private-developers

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Round up of UK spending review

The Guardian has a useful round up of the environmental impacts of measures in the coalition governments spending review...

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/oct/20/spending-review-environment

Seems like it could have been worse as far as climate change is concerned, although we really need to wait and see for the green bank. DEFRA has been hacked back though, so who knows what that means for biodiversity and the countryside... my only hope is that there might be less money for micromanaging the landscape, with room for a bit more wildness. in all likelihood it will simply mean landowners being given a free reign to do whatever they want, and less support for restoration programmes and the like...

We must wait an see... nervous times though. This kind of thing can have repercusions for decades.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Will green policies survive spending review?

Fingers crossed people. Today is the government spending review in the UK. What will survive? I don't want to say much about the cuts in general. We surely need some cuts in spending, but are these too much too soon? We will see. On the environment, there are a number of things to look out for that will test the government's committment. Will the Green Bank have the finance and structure to make a real difference? Will the new ports in the North East get the support they need for the offshore wind sector? Will the feed-in tariff or carbon capture research and development fund survive? And will the funding for general science research that is so vital to developing new technologies make it through without too much of a reduction....

Take a deep breath now... this stuff matters.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

EU tells Spain it is okay to keep subsidising coal industry

Interesting post here from Mines and Communities. It seems that the Spanish government has been given the go ahead by the European Commission to continue propping up its unprofitable coal mining sector until at least 2015. This is unsurprising, but still sad. Globally the fossil-fuel industry receives subsidies of $250-$500 billion per year (according to UNEP). This is substantially larger than the entire renewable energy industry. Now I am never one to argue that industries should not recieve some support if it is for the greater good, but it is hard to see what justification there is for bailing out one of the most polluting industries in the world, and also for doing it in such a quiet way...

And on that point, where are the freemarket warriors who so love to attack support for environmental industries when coal is being subsidised?
http://www.minesandcommunities.org/article.php?a=10412

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Ed Miliband - good news?

Ed Miliband is the new labour leader. Now, I like Ed Miliband. He was good at the Department for Energy and Climate Change, and while I might disagree with him on some of the tactics for dealing with climate change, I really do get the sense that he get's it - something I see from very very few politicians in the current government, with the possible exception of Chris Huhne, who is fighting an uphill struggle in the Tory-led administration.

Also, let's be frank. Ed was rightly against the Iraq war, and can say so openly, since he wasn't an MP then. This is refreshing as he is our first post war leader for one of the two big parties. He also seems like a nice chap. Whether he can win or not I don't know. Is he strong enough and decisive enough? Will he be able to fend off the small minded, anti-left, andti-intellectual and frankly anti semitic slant in some of the press? I hope that he can, not even so that he could be prime minister, but so that we can have a strong, pro-environment opposition for the first time.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Climate Camp comes to RBS

Well, I see that Climate Camp has just taken a site in Edinburgh, in the grounds of the Royal Bank of Scotland. I can't be there this year, which is unfortunate, as I love Edinburgh and it is very much my home. Still, I wish them all the best. The bank is a good target, highlighting the links between City finance, climate change, environmental destruction and the bail out..

I have used this blog to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of Climate Camp as a protest movement before, but when it comes down to it, I think it is doing and important job. As the CC video says - 'every movement needs a frontline.'

I do sense however that they may struggle to get the same level of attention this year, partly because the level of hype and hysteria in 2008 and 2009 will be hard to match (Kingsnorth, Bishopsgate, police brutality, death of Ian Tomlinson etc)., partly because being outside London probably restricts the number of media who will get of their backsides to cover it... and partly because the recession and coalition government have changed the political context slightly... still here's hoping for a new round of public activism.

Good luck everyone - stay safe, and look after Edinburgh..

Monday, 16 August 2010

Is UK coalition a green disaster?

Okay, after a long pause the blog is back, and I’m going to start off with a rant.

Is the Con-Lib coalition the UK’s most environmentally unfriendly government, since, well, whenever we had our last terrible one?

Based on the proposals they have floated so far – removing pollution limits on coal power stations (despite this being an explicit manifesto promise), pushing through deepwater drilling, pointless badger culling, reducing support for renewables, slashing investment in research, privatising nature reserves, selling off the forestry commission, increasing incentives for oil companies etc. – it’s pretty bad. In fact let me rephrase that. It’s fucking awful.

Don’t get me wrong, the last government wasn’t great, but the current coalition seems to be systematically scratching away all the tiny improvements that were made over the last few years. Not that Tony Blair ever cared, but Gordon Brown and Ed Milliband did finally seem to be getting it, although sadly by 2007 they were almost out of political capital.

There are only two good things in this situation. One is that a lot of these plans may never get implemented. They may even be scare tactics designed to make whatever they do come up with look better. The second is that they may not be round for long.

No doubt someone will pipe up and ask what the strategy for clearing the deficit should be. Well, the departing government had already put in plans for up to 20% cuts in public spending, and this had calmed The Market. The extra 5% planned by the coalition seems purely ideological. Also, I would remove the ludicrous ring-fence on the NHS funding, since this is the largest department. That would take a lot of the pressure of smaller areas like the environment, research, energy and universities.

More to the point, we have no choice. We have to invest in the environment… the only other option is to close our eyes and hope it all goes away – at that strategy hasn’t done too well so far.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Solar, politics and rediscovering extinct species...

Aaaaarrrghhh. There are too many things going on, and I have been simply neglecting the blog. Work at the NGO is busy, I have been travelling all around the country to various events, and I am currently working on a possible book on solar technology, which taking up a lot of time... add to that we are enjoying a wonderful summer in London, and it has been hard to put much effort into the online communications....

I'll try and write something meaningful in the coming weeks.... promise...

In the meantime here is link to some of the work I was involved in on Ascension Island. I can't claim any of the credit, as the discovery was already made before I got there, but I did work with team on other stuff, and I think I even took the photo in this article....

Extinct fern rediscovered on remote island


Byeeeee......

Sunday, 27 June 2010

In the Nile?

A recent pact has been signed between five of the nine Nile basin countries. It seeks to redress an ancient imbalance whereby Egypt got to use 55 of the Nile's 84 billion cubic metres of extractable water. Unfortunately the pact excludes key countries including Egypt and Sudan.

While I understand that the countries which feel they are being hard done to want to increase the water available to them, I can also understand that Egypt, which cannot exist the Nile, will want to protect its interests. In fact I suspect that without resolution, this situation is far more dangerous than you might think. Egypt is the Nile, and they will probably go to war any day to protect their access. In once sense they have to. Sudan too is heavily dependent on its only major river.

What is the environmental message here? Not much, except to say that as consumption and populations increase (the Nile basin countries have some of the fastest growing populations in the world) these sort of tensions can only mount with resulting strain on nations and the environment as the pressure to extract all they can increases......

That's it.... short and pointless, but the Nile is a river which means something to me, so I thought I'd comment...

Friday, 11 June 2010

BP should not be the scapegoat for the world's oil addiction

Over the last few weeks, I have been horrified by what has happened in the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion on the Deepwater rig and the massive leaking of oil is a tragedy of epic proportions. Those responsible must pay for the clean up, no question.

What disturbs me though is that one company, BP-Amoco, is being made a scapegoat for the whole industry. It seems to have been singled out by the US administration (with a good dash of petty nationalism) as a means of deflecting attention from the wider issues of oil dependency and the subsequent need to search for unconventional reserves, of which deep water oil is an example.

BP is responsible, but so might other companies be, like Transocean and Halliburton that were involved in maintaining or operating the platform. But the net goes much wider, to the franchise petrol stations and the investors around the world. In fact, the blame goes far beyond even that. It extends to each and every one of us. Anyone who has ever bought a product containing oil is culpable, and the citizens of the US more than most (thanks to their exceptional thirst for gasoline).

Yes, we must ensure that BP, Halliburton and the rest pay the price – but simply putting all the blame on one or two companies as though they were a ‘rotten apple’ in a good barrel is nothing short of a diversionary tactic. It could have been any oil company – they are all the same. The culprit is oil, and our society’s need for it. The sooner we realise that and end this dysfunctional relationship the better.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Badger culling blues

Hey all. I wanted to write a clever post about the new proposed badger cull in England (supposedly to control TB), and Caroline Spelman's (new Minister's) strange doublethink on the issue. On the one hand they want to appear to be dispassionate and science-based, even if the facts are 'unpalatable'. On the other hand they really want to kill badgers.

Anyway, I am too annoyed to write something good. So here is the gyst. There appears to be next to no evidence that culling of badgers will actually work - unless you pick a confined space and kill every last one. For ever. There is also some evidence from the Krebs report and some papers published in Nature that suggest that culling actually makes bovine TB worse, by causing badgers to disperse and migrate, spreading TB. In any case, it makes far less difference than farm hygiene and reductions in cattle transport.

I am also incensed by the government's assertions that the ban on fox hunting is 'unenforceable'. I am sure it is difficult to enforce, but they seem to have no problem hiring balaclava'd heavies to force their way onto private land, with police escorts, to conduct culling.

I was trying to think of a reason for all this, and why the Liberal Democrats are also going along. Sadly I came up with just one - pandering. The rural vote in the South West is crucial to both parties. It seems that might be explanation enough.

Some links

Independent Scientific Group on Cattle and TB concluded: ‘Badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain.’ (see http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v450/n7166/full/450001b.html)..

Krebs Report (Randomised Badger Culling Trial) shows that culling can reduce TB in a small area, but increases it in surrounding areas:
http://veterinaryrecord.bvapublications.com/cgi/content/abstract/160/21/723

Review of science in Nature paper indicates culling is not a solution… http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v439/n7078/full/nature04454.html
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v426/n6968/full/nature02192.html

Badger culling is widespread in the Republic of Ireland (where badgers are extremely rare, but TB is worse). This cull has not helped lower the incidence of TB in cattle, and according to some sources the incidence has actually increased since the cull.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6653691.stm

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Blue flag beach dilemma?

Readers of this blog may know that one of my pet hates is conservation measures or departments which seem to spend all their time promoting development and extra construction. I have recently become aware of the criteria for the ‘blue flag’ awarded to clean beaches and this seems to fit the bill.

Ok. I like the fact that blue flag is a way of promoting clean beaches, and that they pay attention to things like recycling and sustainable transport. The problem is that they demand things like signs, bins, toilets, water supplies and disabled access. Dogs must be kept on a lead and camping must be restricted. While this may be absolutely fine for beaches that are already developed and decked out with facilities, where does it leave the rest? What if, for want of a better word, there is a wild beach? It will have no toilets, or bins, or signs, or water sources, but it might be clean, beautiful and a haven for wildlife.

In one sense there is no problem, the ‘wild’ beach simply won’t get listed. I suspect however that there is intense pressure on districts and councils to get blue flags, as many as possible. This may lead to well meaning local governments opening up ‘pristine’ beaches for development, potentially fatally undermining them.

I am all for water testing and schemes that put pressure on authorities to keep the landscape and oceans clean, but this must not be confused with branding, commercialisation and tourist development. In fact, the two should be kept as far apart as possible.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Power blocks?

Right now in London there is a slew of skyscrapers going up all over the place – each one purporting to be a new ‘green’ development. Some of these contain renewable energy, some efficiency measures. But just how green are they? Critics slate the environmental measures as meaningless greenwash, while others think they are exciting glimpses of the future.

Personally I think these new towers are broadly positive. Okay, as with everything it would be greenest if they were never built at all, but assuming that they must be constructed, how have they done?

One of the most high profile of the new towers is the 42-storey Strata in South London which comes complete with three building integrated 19 kW wind turbines – the world’s first. These are expected to produce around 8% of the building’s electricity, or 50 MWh. Critics have been quick to point out the poor record of urban wind, and condemn the turbines as a gimmick. This would certainly be the case if the developers had made no effort to improve efficiency, but actually things aren’t too bad on that front, with the flats as a whole expected to produce 13% less CO2 than the required standards. As to the efficiency of the turbines, the height of the building and the clean air around it should give them the best chance of generating meaningful energy.

Similarly, the new under-construction Heron tower in the financial district has over 200 kW of building integrated PV on the south side. As with the Strata, architectural opinion

is mixed, but the building was recently awarded an ‘excellent’ by the BREEAM rating system. Aside from the PV, the building uses a multi-layered skin (like the Gherkin building) to minimise heat build up and reduce cooling loads.

Finally, just down the road from the Heron Tower is the just started Bishopsgate Tower. Again once complete this building will contain more than 200 kW of PV, as well as double layered skin to reduce heating and cooling costs. Interestingly the whole building will have only 6 parking places, for more than 8000 workers.

So what do we make of these developments? Personally, I am positive. Yes, there is far far more that needs to be done, but these buildings are positive in a number of ways. First they help to normalise renewables and green design, providing high profile examples of renewables in the city. The energy efficiency measures are the quiet side of this, hopefully ensuring the renewables are not purely cosmetic. Finally, they are a first step, and first steps matter.

Lib-Con environment policies

So we now have a broad outline of the environment policies from the new Liberal Democrat - Conservative coalition in the UK. Nothing too surprising in there, as most of this was already on the table in some form or another. Good to see a committment to a green bank and banded ROCs, but I think that would have happened anyway. Also good to see that the Tories did not get to overturn Ed Milibands rule that any new coal plants must integrate carbon capture and storage. A fair amount of it is also very vague (measure to encourage marine energy?) and improve biodiverdity (?) but at least it is in there.

The only thing that disturbs me a little is that there is no mention of the Marine Bill or the urgent need to establish an extensive network of marine protected areas.. let us hope that this is an oversight, and not a reflection of the coalition's reliance on coastal constituencies in the South-west, North East and Wales....

Friday, 30 April 2010

What the hell is this?









Seriously – I was in the Co-Op in Edinburgh and I bought some bananas. Look at them! When did it become necessary to wrap small numbers of bananas in plastic. Are they not well enough wrapped? Okay, so this is not the first time I have seen it, but it really hit me as I was standing at the checkout. Ridiculous, as if there wasn’t enough f**king plastic in the world. Aren’t Co-Op supposed to be good when it comes to this sort of thing? If I had any self-respect I would have torn the plastic off and thrown in the managers face. But I didn’t. I didn’t say anything. I have however sent Co-Op a strongly worded letter (that’s right readers!). I’ll let you know how I get on……

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Peak nuclear?

I am not a supporter of nuclear, but neither am I implacably opposed. I do have serious concerns over cost, safety and the disposal of waste. I am also concerned that nuclear will be a distraction from getting on with the job of building a renewable economy. Then again it is relatively low carbon, and we might need it.

One thing though which I had not given too much thought to though was availability of nuclear fuel – uranium and thorium. I had heard a few rumours that uranium might run out, but hadn’t really looked into.

Well in the last couple of days I have been doing a little research, and I have been surprised. According to some estimates, at current rates of usage uranium (including reprocessing and using what is in our nuclear weapons) could run out by 2035.1 The situation with thorium is little better. Not will this uranium be cheap. The 2035 figure assumes we use uranium up to a cost of $130 / kg, far more than the current price of $50 / kg.

These figures are on the ‘pessimistic’ side, but even according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (whose role is to increase and accelerate the role of civilian nuclear power) supplies will last for just 85 years at current usage. This caveat is crucial, since many of the supporters of nuclear advocate it as a substitute for coal and oil. Given that nuclear supplies only a small percentage of global power the level of expansion necessary would appear inconsistent with the available fuel.

Now as with oil and gas there are ‘unconventional’ sources of uranium fuel. It can be extracted from seawater for $300 / kg. Given the already high price of nuclear this seems to make it an even worse deal. Fast breeder reactors are an option as these create their own fuel, but so far there is little indication that these are being widely adopted.

The bottom line is that it seems nuclear fuel will be nowhere near as cheap and available in the future as many would have us believe. Coupled with the predicted peaking of cheap oil in 2020–2030 (IEA), the need for an energy revolution is more urgent that ever.

1. Schindler and Zittel (2007): Alternative world energy outlook 2006: a possible path towards a sustainable future published in Advances in Solar Energy, Vol. 17, 2007 (Earthscan Publishing.



Thursday, 22 April 2010

UK offshore wind passes 1 GW mark

The UK has now installed more than 1 GW of offshore wind power, more than any other country, following the completion of the Robin Rigg and Gunfleet Sands wind farms. This is good news, and means that offshore wind is finally on its way to making a serious contribution to UK energy needs. Currently there are more than 40 GW of offshore wind in the pipeline, which if completed, would generate around 40% of the country's electricity.

Also, according to RenewablesUK, it was revealed that the load factor (the amount of time the turbines are running at full capacity) for offshore wind averaged 35% in 2009. This is broadly equivalent to hydropower in the UK, and only 5%-10% less than standard thermal power. In coming years this seems likely to increase, making offshore wind a generally exciting prospect..

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Cartoon fun

Hey, check out this cartoon by the fantastic Marc Roberts on the same World Bank issue I wrote about below.... and read more about the adventures of Frank on his website...




Monday, 12 April 2010

World Bank blues

Several years ago I edited an article by a guy from the World Bank saying how it was essential to shift investment towards renewable energy. Well I have just come back from a consultation meeting called by the Bank to help them decide their new energy strategy. The same guy was there, heading up the consultation. He spoke of the need to shift investment into renewables, and the difficulties they face. His slide show had plenty of pictures of turbines and solar panels. So far so banal.

The interesting point came when the floor was opened up and questions were asked about the World Bank’s recent investment of $3.75 billion in a massive new coal power station in South Africa (see here). This will produce millions of tonnes of CO2, increase demand for coal (which brings with it mining) and, according to many NGOs and energy companies, do little to alleviate inequality, since the electricity is to be provided cheap to large industrial interests.

The guy from the WB was fairly defensive, but after rattling on about how little power there is in Africa (true, but South Africa is the exception) and saying they took many things into account it came down to this (I am paraphrasing): We looked at how many megawatts we could get for our dollars and coal came out cheapest. Well, if that is the sole criteria for World Bank decisions, why bother with the consultation?

So we now have the ludicrous situation where the donor countries for the Bank are accepting that they will need to provide money for climate change adaptation to the poorest countries, as well as technology and money for mitigation. At the same time, the Bank is providing cheap loans to build hugely destructive infrastructure. So the western taxpayer is being asked to fund the coal power station, and fund the mitigation measures to deal with it. Somewhere in the middle big business makes money. The World Bank says it is powerless to intervene or put green qualifiers on its loans.

The UK is currently the single biggest contributor to the World Bank. While it is admirable the country puts so much money into a development institution, one can’t help but feel that the WB is not fit for purpose. I would propose that the UK, and any other country which was unhappy with the South Africa decision, should consider withdrawing their money from the WB, and using it to form the nucleus of a Green Infrastructure Development Bank.

As an aside, I never fail to be amused by the cheek of some in this business. There was a guy from an oil major who stood up and said that the primary function of the WB in energy should be ensure the functioning of the market. He then went on to say that his company (one of the biggest) needed money to help it develop its carbon capture and storage. Now, you will never hear me say that the job of anyone is to defend the market, but you can’t have it all ways.

Friday, 2 April 2010

UK sets up world’s largest marine reserve

Good news. The UK government has set up the world’s largest marine reserve around the British Indian Ocean Territory. I know that some of the Chagossians who are looking to return to their home in the territory are upset about this, but from everything I have heard the two things are not really connected. If the Chagossians do return to the archipelago then at least the seas should still be in good condition. If it is still ruled by the UK, a deal can be worked out to allow the islanders fishing rights in the reserve. If not they can do what they like. The Mauritians are also upset, because the UK has agreed to give them the islands when they don’t want them any more. Again though, I don’t see the problem. If they get them, they can change their status, but in the meantime anything which can protect the region from commercial fishing, deep sea mining and illegal exploitation can only be a good thing.
Now, let’s see what we can do to speed up the creation of National Marine Reserves around the British Isles.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Wildlife and marine energy

Hey everybody. Sorry for the prolonged absence, but I am currently at a UN convention on endangered species (CITES), fighting battles on tigers, elephants, rhinos and a whole bunch of other stuff. Suffice to say that it is exhausting and there is not much time for writing blogs and communicating with the outside world!

I don;t want to talk about CITES just yet, as it is all ongoing, and I don't want to interfere with the outcomes, but there is a lot of stuff in the press. Just google CITES DOHA followed by tuna, ivory or tigers and you will see some of the main issues.

In other news, the Crown Estate in the UK just issued leases for seabed sites which could eventually see up to 1.2 GW of marine and tidal power developed in Scotland. This is by far the largest marine energy programme now underway in the world, and while it is still in its early stages, it gives the UK a chance to build on its world leading position in marine renewable energy. There is a press release from RenewablesUK here.

There is an interesting link though between wildlife and renewable energy. As pressure on our seas and coastlines grows for essential renewable energy deployment, we must be ever more rigorous and sensitive about protecting the creatures of the sea. Sadly, these programmes will inevitably lead to a loss of habitat, so I would like to see these developments go hand in hand with a systematic network of marine reserves and no-take zones, covering up to 20% of the UK's waters. This would benefit wildlife and people – both by providing beauty and wildlife, and by enhancing fish stocks and regeneration of biodiversity.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Pathetic UKIP party broadcast

Just saw a UKIP party political broadcast on Channel 4. Okay, I actually only saw half of it, as I got bored and turned off, but I got the idea. Suffice to say it was pretty pathetic. It centered around wind farms, and how bad they are. I guess that the point is to try and win disaffected Tory voters in rural seats.

They trotted out a lot of the old nonsense about wind farms, clumsily relayed through a bunch of old men talking to camera. 'It's the inefficiency that gets me', said one man, without qualification. Inefficiency of what? What does that even mean in an energy system where the fuel is free? Does he seriously resent the wind energy that gets away? Or does he mean capacity factor (the amount of time it runs at full power), which in the UK is usually around 25%? In any case, since the generators only get paid for the electricity they produce, it is not exactly inefficiency.

Then there were about three people who said they thought wind turbines were ugly. Well, that is a matter of choice. Personally I quite like them. I don't want them on every piece of land, but that is really not on the cards. I travel all over this country, and to be honest you rarely see wind farms. In the future most turbines in the UK will be offshore in any case.

The next problem was the cost. Okay, I agree that we need to make wind power cheaper, and there are innovations happening in this department all the time. Already costs have fallen around 40% in the last 15 years, and they will likely fall further in the next. I did find it ironic though that UKIP is so outraged by the public subsidies paid to wind farms. I haven't heard a peep from them about the bank bailout which was several orders of magnitude higher. Also let us not forget that the fossil industry is also heavily subsidised, both now ($250 billion a year worldwide according to the UN) and in the past (coal, oil and nuclear were all developed as strategic state-run industries, with the costs grand-fathered in).

Also, perhaps UKIP should look at the Danish example. The Danish government spent $1.2 billion building up its wind industry in the 1990s... now it is one of the world leaders and its wind industry generates $2.7 billion a year!!!!! The UK's offshore wind and wave power industries are in a similar position to Danish wind 10-15 years ago.... let's hope UKIP don't get to pull the purse strings....

And let's not forget that it was Godfrey Bloom from UKIP who only a few weeks ago described the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior II as one of the most truly fascist ships since WWII, and congratulated the French for blowing up the original boat in 1989, killing a man. I'm not sure what relation Greenpeace bears to the National Socialists, but I guess somewhere in Godfrey's brain there is one. Glorification of terrorism aside it was a stupid thing to say... but then that's UKIP for you – inefficient, expensive, poorly thought out and ugly.

Monday, 1 March 2010

The revolution starts here!

Solar panels have arrived! Yes yes yes. The future starts here. This is the single greatest step in the revolution - ever!

Okay, so that is not really true, but that is a little bit how it feels. I am now the proud owner of a beautiful new photovoltaic array on the roof of my house. It is a small system, but it should produce around 900 kWh a year, enough for about 65% of our electricity. The panels were assembled locally, so green jobs for everyone... and they will earn me about £420 a year. Not only that, but I am filled with a warm and wholly inaccurate sense of self sufficiency. That is worth £3900 any day.

Here are a couple of photos taken from the scaffolding leading up to the roof. Actually, I am thinking of keeping the scaffolding as the view from the top is amazing. We were up having a beer, and London is looking particularly beautiful at the moment.

So far the only downside is the cat, who has been most affronted by all the builders and electricians. Still I explained that this would probably offset her carbon emissions for the next couple of years and she is coming round.

Anyway, the final commissioning should take place in the next few days, and then I can reclaim my grants from the council and government. Thanks Camden. Once the electricity starts flowing I will be sure to report on the performance of the Sharp Solar system.








Friday, 26 February 2010

Offshore wind bringing green growth to UK?

Several months ago when a Vestas blade factory on the Isle of Wight closed down, there were howls of protest. Four hundred people lost their jobs and it seemed to show that all the government’s talk of green collar jobs was just hot air. The staff went on strike and occupied the building. Some people were even calling for the nationalisation of the company in order to develop green power.

At the time I cautioned against any such language, arguing that the blades from the closing factory were made for use in the US, and that nationalisations and buy-outs of large foreign owned players like Vestas would be highly counterproductive, to put it mildly (if not illegal!). A better strategy would be for the government to invest in research and development, and building up the market for offshore wind.

Well it is always nice to have someone follow your advice, even if it was obvious and they never heard it! Since the closure of the Vestas plant, the issue of green jobs has taken a higher priority (and we have the strikers in part to thank for that). At the same time the government has given the go ahead to two important pieces of legislation – the licensing of over 25 GW of round three offshore wind sites (on top of the 9 GW or so already licensed and under development) and the introduction of a Feed in Tariff for small wind.

Already these moves seem to be having an effect. Late last year Clipper Wind Power confirmed that the would be continuing with the development of the Britannia Project, a prototype 10 MW offshore wind turbine and its accompanying blades which will be built at a factory in the North East of England (as an aside, what is it with Clipper’s patriotic names. The American one is called the Liberty, the UK one the Britannia! Is this cunning lobbying?). Soon afterward a company in Wales announced it was setting up a factory to build large turbine towers, while back in the North East a cabling company has announced a major expansion to supply offshore wind.

By far the best news came just this week however, when Mitsubshi signed an MOU for the investment of £100 million in a research and development facility in the North East, building turbines and blades for the offshore wind market. At the same time the government provided grants for the expansion of the blade test bed and offshore wind prototype facilities at the New and Renewable Energy Centre nearby in Blyth.

Okay, the reason that these moves are so exciting is precisely because the UK is starting from a low base in the wind business, and even now the investment is relatively small. In Germany, Spain or Denmark these developments would be minor news. The UK is, in effect, fifteen years behind. Having said that, the fact that such a large expansion of offshore wind is now planned means that there is real potential to build a world class, low carbon industry, and every little step along that route is to be encouraged.


Thursday, 18 February 2010

Why has environmentalism become a left wing issue?

Something important has been happening in the last couple of years. The right, at least in the UK where I live, has been getting more and more anti-green. I suspect the same is happening in the US. I am not sure why. There seems no particular reason why being green should be anti-right. In fact it was only a few years ago that I found that most of the objections where being raised by the hard left, who saw environmentalism as a middle-class conspiracy to stop industrial development. What has caused the change?

Take pollution control for example. While the right may struggle and thrash against the idea of rules and regulations on industry, in many cases these are laws that have existed for decades. In terms of dumping, chemical discharge, pesticide use, illegal logging etc.. these could just as easily be issues of law and order, which the right normally takes a strong line on.

The same is true about the misdeeds of British companies abroad, or foreign companies here. In many, many cases, the actions of these companies are already in breach of law and order, or of international corruption treaties.

Climate change though is the issue which has really split the right. Some see it as a communist plot. Others see it as the mother of all regulation. Some just see it as a tiresome distraction. Many believe it is completely made up. But why? Many of the solutions of climate change should appeal to the right. Decentralised energy puts power in the hands of individuals, and takes it away from monopolistic companies or state controlled actors. Renewable energy should free us from complicated entanglements with the Middle East and Russia, and stop us supporting foreign dictators. Moving away from coal would avoid the threat of being held hostage by organised labour. Trying to cut airmiles by building a local, more self sufficient economy again seems to fit with the right wing ideal.

And what about conservation? Well this is the one area that seems to the environmental strong suit of the right. The idea of maintaining parks and protecting impressive species seems to appeal. But the broader aspects of conservation, such as rewilding, species reintroduction, inviolate zones etc.. seem harder to swallow (for many on the left too).

I am not sure what the reasons are. Perhaps right wing people just don’t care about the environment or other people? I don’t want to believe that. Perhaps the fact that the hard left has adopted environmentalism so readily (and this is of concern to me too) put them off? It shouldn’t. Is it simply that crimes committed by companies and business men don’t count? Is it the Americanisation of the UK right? I suspect there is an element of all these things, but I have another theory as well. In order to communicate the environmental crises facing us, politicians and NGOs have been forced to turn to the people they felt would be most responsive, and in many cases this was the broad left. Recent studies show that people respond to science that agrees with their own point of view. Thus is the messages have been pitched to the left, they may have alienated the right.

Either way we are now in position where we need to urgently engage the broad right. There are simply too many of them to ignore.

Monday, 15 February 2010

In partial defence of the IPCC

Hi folks. Well well well. The climate scandals keep on coming don’t they? Except that they don’t. Nearly all of them, with the exception of the original email hacking incident and the inconsequential mistake over the Himalayan glaciers seem to be pretty tame affairs, or just wrong. RealClimate have a good discussion of the facts on their website. Okay, I know die-hard conspiracy fans will point out that RealClimate are pretty chummy with the University of East Anglia, but they do provide evidence and links to back up their statements.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is to take a look at the IPCC report. I have just downloaded one section of part one, which is 26 MB. As the guys on RealClimate say, the whole thing is 3000 pages long, with 450 authors and 2500 reviewers. It received 90,000 comments before publication. This is all publicly available. That there have been two or three mistakes found in such a highly scrutinized work is astonishing. I would expect dozens. That all of these mistakes have been found outside of the section on physical science shows the robustness of the climate data. I am sure mistakes will be found in volume one, given time, but it remains to be seen if they are fundamental.

I also expect tens, if not hundreds of pieces of evidence to be refined and superseded in the coming years. That is how science works. In contrast Ian Plimer has been peddling many of the same errors for years. I say that not to denigrate ‘scientific skeptics’, but to show the difference between scientific process and denialists like Plimer.

Science is never about being 100% right. It is about looking at the balance of evidence. Over time, the amount of evidence can be so overwhelming as to make something appear an absolute, but it never is. There are thousands of pieces of evidence which appear to show that man-made climate change is a reality. In fact a quick glance at the IPCC synthesis tells us that 89% of well over a thousand temperature studies indicate warming. That means you can find 100 that don't! All we can do is act on the evidence. If this fundamentally changes, then so will our outlook, but a bit of hysterical howling from the press and a couple of derived errors should not.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Climate confusion - blame the press

Unless you have had your head buried in the sand ­– which I have been trying to do ­– you will know that these are hard times in the climate change debate. There have been a couple of scandals and mistakes, and we have gone back ten years to discussing whether climate change is even real. Those who say that the evidence supports the idea that humans are altering the climate are under attack, with even sympathetic journalists lining up to say that scientists need to show their workings, and a little more humility. But these calls from the press miss a real problem with the climate discussion, and that is the inability of the media to understand and communicate complex science.

The reasons are obvious. By and large the media do not have the training, the time or the inclination to process papers and data, and so they need to ask the scientists to summarize extremely complex information in soundbites. At the same time, every normal twist and turn, every refinement and retesting of climate science is pounced upon by the press. ‘Does this undermine/support the case for climate change’, is asked of every single new piece of information. This forces scientists to state their views, to become political.

Perhaps the scientists should be above this. They should simply publish and let the scientific press, policy advisers and businesses make the scientific judgements. The trouble is that this assumes that we have a policy neutral world that will respond to the best science – not so. If the climate scientists remain silent, PR savvy pundits will jump all over their work. Since the majority of the media will not understand it anyway, they can put any spin on it they like. So again the scientists are forced to become politically involved.

So we now have scientists who are involved in the press game. They must be commentators and pundits. They are needed to communicate and comment. They are the gate keepers to a language the press cannot interpret. They are figures of authority, and like politicians, journalists like to find and exploit their weaknesses and contradictions, because we – the public – like to read about them. These scientists are also sensitive, used to conspiracies and tricks against them (particularly climate scientists who have endured nearly two decades of orchestrated misinformation against them). They are now set up for a fall. When mistakes are uncovered (as is inevitable) suddenly the climate scientists are the deceivers… a monolithic block to be vilified.

Sadly, scientists by and large are not good at PR. Some are, most not. They are not trained in it. They respond by restating their data, but since the press did not understand this in the first place it makes them seem arrogant to the press. Out of touch. Their opponents can attack. So the scientists must defend the conclusions of their work, which makes them more political. The press, and in this case climate deniers say they should stick to the science. And so on.

I am not saying that these scandals are not damaging or wrong. If people have mislead intentionally, they must take responsibility for their actions. Mistakes must be scrutinized and the data examined. If it turns out that climate change is not a problem – great, we can get on with dealing with the other problems. But it seems that there are still many thousands of lines of information saying climate change is happening, that we are causing it, and that it is a problem. Perhaps the media need to show a bit more humility and realise that reporting does not create reality, but the perception of it. Unfortunately that is almost as important.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Solar panels for MushyPea Towers!

The mushypea is getting solar panels. Yes, that's right, I am taking the plunge... It has been in planning for a while but the UK government has finally announced a feed-in tariff for solar which will make it all affordable...

Okay, it might be 5-10 years late in coming, and some may complain that it won't give enough support to large renewables (although others might say that this is exactly the point), and the targets are unambitious........ but still! We have a feed-in tariff for electricity, and soon we will have one for heat too..... This is a positive step from DECC.

Small solar will get 41.3p/kWh... which is pretty respectable. More than I was expecting. So I am investing in a shiny new PV system for the roof of the house. I would have gone for solar thermal too, but we have no heat storage tank, and a brand new and highly efficient condensing boiler... so it would make no sense.

The system will be small, as our roof is quite small... probably 1.08-1.16 kWp... or there abouts.. believe it or not though, this should still provide about 55%-70% of our electricity throughout the year... and more if we can reduce our consumption.. ( we only use about 1400-1600 kWh per year).

Panels will be monocrystalline silicon, made by Sharp Solar in the UK..... (in Wrexham I think)....

Anyway, just thought I would share that, and I'll let you know how we get on! Photos will be posted when the time comes!




Monday, 1 February 2010

Conservation blues

Why are some conservationists, particularly in the UK, so obsessed with building roads and picnic spots? Seriously, there appears to be a real institutional bias towards spending the budgets on nature trails, path clearance and interpretive centres, all of which are on my list of things most likely to destroy an area of natural beauty and biodiversity.

Okay, I know that the odd path is useful both for conservation staff and also to prevent visitors from having to cut a new path each time they enter an area. They are also useful for finding your way around. The aim though, in protected areas, should surely be to keep these to a minimum, particularly those which are semi-paved and signposted, or which can take cars.

Much worse though than too many paths are car parks, educational centres and café gift shops.

Now I know that national parks and protected areas in UK and Europe are different to those in North America. There is no true wilderness left in Britain, and I understand that many landscapes that appear to be wild are effectively man-made. There are however areas which are more wild than others, and others which have become ‘wilder’ or ‘minimally managed’ thanks to changes in use or population. In my view the ultimate aim of conservation is to preserve (and promote) as much wildness as possible in a landscape and to protect, encourage and study the wildlife. It should not be the primary job of conservation or national parks to focus on opening up these areas to increased traffic.

Don’t get me wrong, I think that we need to ensure right of access, and (particularly in England and Wales) there is much more which could be done on this, but that is not the same as saying that access needs to be spoon-fed. Driving in protected areas should be minimised and discouraged (i.e. new roads really should only be built in extreme circumstances). Wherever possible the role of conservation and park management should be to examine what pieces of human construction can be removed. Obviously this is very difficult in areas where people are living, but in many cases there are redundant forestry ditches and tracks which can be blocked. Similarly if there is no use for a decaying building, far better to let it collapse and fade than for it to be turned into a pointless interpretive centre, complete with access roads, power supply and café.

It is not just areas of ‘wilderness’ or nature reserves where this is a problem. The cliffs of Moher in Ireland are a classic example of how individual natural features can be destroyed in this way, These are a set of breathtaking sea cliffs on the west coast, dizzyingly high and dropping into the pounding Atlantic. Sadly they are hard to appreciate, as the most spectacular stretch has been ‘enhanced’ with a paved foot path along the top, a protective wall, installed telescopes and a large café, gift shop, ‘museum’ and interpretive centre. Interpret what for goodness sake? If you don’t get a kick out of staring 400 feet into the ocean, you are in the wrong place. As a result of all this the cliffs have been reduced to a sort of ‘cliffs museum’ were the viewer is separated from the natural spectacle and directed to a host of ugly and inane attempts to get your cash.

Please please please. I understand that conservation is difficult, I do it, but I am begging conservationists, civil servants, politicians and the public to understand that in order for conservation to be a success an area does not need to become better tended, easier to enter and more appealing to commercial interests. The benefits that biodiversity, wildlife and increasing wildness of land can bring are far more valuable than that.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Conversations with a Nihilist

Why are eco-sceptics so predictable? I mention this because I was recently cornered in a bar by a chap who, knowing I was an environmental campaigner, decided he wanted to make a point.

‘I am a sceptic’, he announced proudly.

“About what?’, I asked.

‘I’m just sceptical.’

What followed was the sort of tedious conversation which will be familiar to anyone used to talking about environmental subjects, full of unhelpful contradictions, broad statements and no facts.

I won’t bore you with the details, but the main things I could distil from the argument were as follows:

  • He did not believe that humans were responsible for climate change, either in whole or in part.
  • The planet has been around for a long time before humans and would be around for a long time after us. Therefore what we do does not really matter in the long run….
  • He liked nuclear and wanted a lot of it (this was in response to my saying that we might need a bit, but surely we wanted as little of everything as possible).
  • He did not like wind turbines.
  • Humans are a cancer on the planet, and fundamentally not worth saving. This is an interesting one which crops up so often I am wondering if this is the fundamental reason why people choose not to act.
  • He did not seem to mind if 90% of humans died in a resource constrained world, saying we would adapt to a world without power. I am not sure what the point of this was as I had never suggested that we should be in a world without power. I can only assume that he is so opposed to shifting our technology and lifestyles that he does not mind it all stopping when the oil runs out. I mention it to underline the above.
  • He asked why I cared what happened after I died. I asked if he supported those who fought in WWII. For some reason this was different.
  • He had not a single fact or piece of evidence to back up anything he said, and when presented with some evidence said I was trying to bamboozle him.

Okay, enough. I don’t think he really believed most of this stuff, if only because none of it made sense. I also don’t believe for a second he would sacrifice his children to purge the planet of the human race. The point though is that this sort of reaction comes up again and again from what I would term ‘second tier sceptics’… a general sense of defeatism, apathy and nihilism. Nothing much matters, the greenies are wasting our time. The future is shit, lets just leave it that way.


I tried to explain that as I saw it, the environmental movement is about trying to build a happier, cleaner, wilder and better future. He scoffed predictably.

Perhaps it simply comes down to a lack of self worth and a sense of insecurity? There certainly seems to be a smouldering resentment against environmentalists, and even the environment, in much the same way that there is a resentment of academics, artists and scientists in much of British society. Maybe the anti-enviros are simply scared of a future which they do not see themselves as part of, or which they don't feel will value them?

If this is even partly true, we need to learn from it. Guilt is a dangerous thing, and the green movement exploits it at its peril.



Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Ocean rubbish

Just a quick comment on the rubbish which turns up on the beaches at Ascension. We are more than 1000km from the nearest land and 1500km from the nearest mainland. The main shipping routes and cruise ships bypass the island. At the same time, there is still a fair amount of plastic washed up on the beaches. Not much, but enough to illustrate just how much debris there must be floating in the ocean. A sad thought, and one which needs to be tackled at every level. On a UK level, when I was a child there were adverts everywhere telling you not to litter, and they did seem to have an effect on casual polluters. I haven't seen those for a while - perhaps they are out there, but if not, can we have some back?

Also we have spotted some ships out at sea at night. The consensus seems to be that they are illegal fishing boats. This is a massive problem across the world, and one which is still not taken seriously enough.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

Wind, fish and climate on Ascension - and do we need a green MI5?

Currently the German company Enercon are constructing some new wind generators on Ascension Island (I believe they are 5 x 330 kW for the RE geeks among you). Obviously in a place like Ascension, with its seabird colonies and delicate marine wildlife large structures like turbines can be a source of concern. Some of the birds and animals here are found nowhere else in the world, and they are only now making a tentative recovery after years of abuse .

On the other hand, the windmills are probably the least offensive towering structures on the island, since the western third is littered with radar stations, satellite dishes, transmitters and other weird and wonderful military stuff. So the fact is that the turbines are going into an area which is already pretty unsympathetically developed, and they will replace imported diesel, which can only be a good thing. In my heart I would like to see a one-in one-out policy for Ascension (i.e. you build something new, you take something old and rusting down) but I can't have everything.

The presence of new clean energy generators ties in nicely with a current 'mystery' on Ascension, and one which would potentially be a much bigger threat to the bird and marine life that any turbine. It is the absence of fish, and the changing weather. Now I have not seen any empirical evidence, but the locals agree that there are not many fish around at the moment, which is affecting the birds (and them). Similar stories are emerging all over the Atlantic from the Falklands to the Hebrides. Birds are trying to hunt different species like squid or pipefish which contain fewer nutrients than their usual diet, and chicks die as a result.

Some people in other areas are blaming climate change, suggesting that changing water temperatures are causing the movements of fish to change, or to disappear altogether. Others suspect that unsustainable and illegal fishing may be to blame, or that it may simply be a cyclical change. Still others suspect a combination of the above.

And herein lies the problem with climate change. It is hard to predict and impossible to solve with the kind of local mitigation measures which conservationist are used to dealing with. It is also a phrase which must be beloved of those causing other environmental crises. If the wildlife dies, blame climate change, which in many cases amounts to saying 'Oh well, not our problem, nothing much we can do'.

Undoubtedly CC will be the demise of many species, but I suspect that many more would be able to adapt if we keep their habitats in good condition, and don't hoover up all the fish (trees, whatever). In any case we need to be seriously investigating the health of these ecosystems - if it turns out there is no problem then great, if not it could be an early warning of very serious problems to come. Perhaps we need an agency or institute to collate information on ecological security and provide 'environmental intelligence'? Or something international to do for ecosystems what the IPCC has done for climate change?

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Ascension species


Hello all. The mushypea is currently on Ascension Island carrying out some work with the conservation department. At some point I must write an article on the complicated ethics of conservation work which so heavily favours some species over others (not specifically on Ascension) but for now I want to write about something happy.

Attached is a photo of a small rock pool in one of the lava flows near the coast of Ascension (not me in picture). Incredible though it may seem, this tiny pool is home to a small species of shrimp found nowhere else on earth. It's nearest relatives are in Hawaii and the Caribbean, but here in this muddy pond it exists in its own world, along with an endemic form of algae, and probably a fair few other undescribed species.

At the most basic level, I find something truly wonderful and exciting about the ability of life to adapt and survive in the most improbable of environments. It took over an hour of clambering over rocks in the baking sun to get to this little pool, but it was worth every second.

Next time, something about windmills and climate change on Ascension.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Why is UK not making the most of its gas?

It seems that in 2010 the UK will become a next gas importer for the first time in a long time. Now I might just be stupid, but from what I had seen in the papers and heard on the TV I thought it had been a net importer for quite a long time.

So, even though the UK becomes an importer, it will obviously still be capable of producing a significant amount its own gas requirements for some time. Which begs the question as to why there is not a much more significant drive to increase the efficiency of gas use, and reduce consumption. At a time when the UK's balance of payments is worrying many politicians, this seems to be a win-win. Good for the environment, and good for the economy (okay, we need to make sure the gas is not replaced by coal or nuclear, which would be one obvious solution, but still!).

I am not suggesting that the UK should not import gas. On the contrary the relative abundance of gas is a good thing, as it is far cleaner that coal and can be used as a stop-gap, along with efficiency, until renewables can take the strain. But surely, as with everything, the country would want to use what it has as efficiently as possible first, before importing?

The money currently available for new boilers and insulation is a start (warm front), but it is not well promoted and is confusing. A simple one-stop shop for insulation / efficiency would be invaluable. There you go, dull, but practical. My idea for the day.