Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Killing renewables is like killing the computer

When the Yongle and Hongxi Emperors grounded the Chinese fleet in the 15th century AD, citing the high cost of exploration, few would have predicted that they were beginning the process which would isolate China from the world for centuries, and impose a technological and political penalty from which it is only now emerging.

Similarly, when the UK civil service decided that commercial satellites and space travel had no future, they condemned the country to be the first in the world to develop, and then give up, an indigenous space launch capacity – technology which would then go on to form the foundation for the French Ariane rocket programme on which much of the world relies.

What these show is that we cannot predict what the outcomes of our actions will be, and that the effects of science and technology will often be beyond what we imagine. We are in a similar situation now in trying to deal with our environmental and economic challenges in the West.

In the UK, and the West in general, I feel there are many on both the left and the right who fail to grasp the position we are in. There are many on the left who feel, like the Chinese Emperors, that we can somehow close ourselves off from the world, that our social and economic policies exist in a vacuum and that we can simply carry on as we have done for the last fifty years. Those who oppose rises in the pension age for example, to my mind, or who believe that deficits do not matter are simply refusing to accept the facts facing them. There are also people who object all aspirational projects, such as space science or ‘Big Physics’ - arguing that every penny should be spent on the health service.

At the same time there are many on the right who are equally blinkered. Those who argue for a purely industrial approach to science, or who do not see that slashing higher education budgets will cripple innovation, for example. The divide on the right is most clearly seen with regard to green technology. In my mind they are in the same mindset as the Emperor or the mandarins who killed the British space rocket. Green tech is the future, and many others are recognising this. Nations that fail to get onboard could be left behind, and short term calculations based on five or ten year projections of cost or production capacity miss the point entirely. If there had been a feed-in tariff for computers in the 1960s you can be sure that someone would have cancelled it, pointing out that we would never have more than five or six, and that at best the PC would be supplying 3% of our computing needs, and if they were such a great idea why did the government need to invest in them in the first place.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Three cheers for the sea!

I was just thinking today about marine wildlife. I have probably spent no more than twelve days out on the seas around the UK in the last three years. None of those were full days, but a mixture of ferry trips, boat trips and wildlife tours. I have spent a few more days by the sea, but not so many. That is not much. Yet in this short time I have been lucky enough to see an astonishing array of wildlife – several sets of dolphins, untold porpoises, hundreds of seals, sunfish, minke whales, sea otters, fishing eagles, sea bird colonies, thresher sharks and more besides. That is actually quite incredible when you think how little time I have been able to spend looking, and how big the seas are. True I have made sure I was looking in good places, but even so, it is a testament to the fantastic amount of life out there, and how much we stand to lose if we don’t take better care of it.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Salmond's oil policy lays bare the double-think in our system

When Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, said that Scotland should use the gifts of energy bestowed on it by the 'creator of the universe' to power its future as an independent nation he revealed the contradictory thinking at the heart of so many of our economic strategies. True he did mention wind and marine, but the focus was very, very clearly on the 50 years of oil and gas reserves that the North Sea may have left (continually declining but still significant). He also mentioned the coal for good measure.

The trouble is that Mr. Salmond is basing not only his economic policy but his vision for the future of Scotland on something that we all know we cannot continue to use. I don't want to get in to the ins and outs of Scottish Nationalism, but if we have not seriously reduced our oil consumption by 2061 then something has gone seriously wrong. Scotland, and the rest of the UK, and Europe are committed to CO2 cuts of 80%-95% by 2050. China, India, Brazil and the rest should also have peaked by then and stabilised, reducing global emissions by around 50%. The bottom line is that there should be far less demand for oil in the future than there is now, since that is how global emission reduction have to be achieved. Coal too should be almost unusable within the next couple of decades.

What we can probably expect is a spike in the next 10-15 years, followed by a general decline. In any case the idea that we can keep extracting oil for ever and selling it on is one we should not be basing anyone's future on.

Don't get me wrong, the SNP have done some good stuff for renewables, but their continual 'fetishisation' of oil and their desire to turn Scotland into an oil state does not bode well for the environment, or Scotland's future.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Mekong River Dolphin nears extinction

Sad news on the Guardian today. It seems that according to an NGO, Mekong River Dolphins are nearly extinct. I am not sure what to say. I remember that I once spent a sunny, happy morning in a small wooden boat about 8 years ago, scanning the lakes of southern Laos and shouting in delight at the sight of the grey-pink mammals playing on the surface, splashing their flippers in the tropical sun. They were rare then, but now we are told there are as few as 85 individuals left in the border area between Laos and Cambodia. Perhaps as worryingly very few young are being born, meaning that the species is pretty much on the way out.

I think it is worth thinking about these numbers for a second, because we have become so used to endangered species being counted in hundreds and thousands that we have forgotten how few that is. Species with a few tens of thousands are considered abundant. 85 dolphins – that’s the same number of individuals as two or three classes in a busy school. Similarly there are perhaps 20,000 lions in Africa. The same number as there are people in the small town I grew up in, spread across an entire continent. Even in the great wildebeest migrations a herd might have 250,000 animals. It seems vast beyond imagining, yet that is about the same as the Glastonbury Festival. I guess you can see where I am going.

Anyway, it looks as though I will probably never see a Mekong River Dolphin again. It is just one among many species, but the world already seems a bit more lonely and dark.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Initial thoughts on London riots

There can be no excuse for the riots that are happening in London. I do not condone or apologise for those behind it. I will wait to do a longer follow up. One story though that made me think was about a random gang smashing a Halfords. A crowd gathered and a woman stopped a car and shouted - 'I want a SatNav'. Now this is just one story. It might not even be true. But one thing that is true is that this explosion of violence is directed as much against property as anything else. Part of this is looting for gain, but I feel there is something else going on too. Fear from bystanders is one facilitator (how else could twenty kids trash a street while fifty people film?), but is there also a sense in which people are lashing out, probably unconciously, at the symbols around them? In a world in which humans are largely reduced to consumers, shops and brands become objects of fetish and of hatred. You may long for the product, but you hate the provider and celebrate its downfall, in the same way a prisoner may rely on and hate his captor. I am not suggesting this is some moment of class conciousness or some other such nonsense. It is young people with no sense of belonging to society as a whole or the country. There is no excuse, but society cannot go on like this, and crass greed and consumerism, from the top to the bottom is part of the problem.

On the other hand, I also subscribe to the Southpark philosophy which states that one quarter of any population is an asshole. At least.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Musings on India

The MushyPea is lucky enough to be back on the Indian subcontinent at the moment, and while there are many wonderful things about the region, it also serves as sobering reminder of the sheer scale of environmental, economic and social problems which the world faces.

Despite its recent development, most of India is incredibly poor. Even to people who have visited many other emerging countries it is hard to describe the sheer squalor, pollution and filth endured by the nation's urban poor, and the isolation and powerlessness of the rural masses. 50 million Indians may have gotten rich, but many of the other billion still struggle to survive.

At the same time, India needs to preserve its environment. This is not just some middle-class academic pursuit. The sheer scale and density of human population in India places incredible strains on its natural resources, ecosystems and habitats. Increasingly it feels as though those who can afford it in India isolate themselves in bubbles of affluence, while dumping their waste on those less fortunate - shuttling themselves from A to B through an increasingly poisoned land (this is much the same attitude taken by most rich nations to the world in general!).

Just today the Prime Minister announced a cabinet reshuffle in which the energetic and largely green Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh was moved to another post. The satellite TV and business news here are delighted. For days they have been describing him as a roadblock to development, highlighting a number of large projects opposed by him on environmental grounds, or because they lacked such trifles as legal permissions or sufficient safeguards for human rights. India's oligarchs are increasingly omnipotent and industrialists are regarded as rock stars - they are powerful enemies.

But in a country that needs development, was it not right to remove a man who they claim was more interested in trees than people? No - for the simple reason that this is a totally false premise. As an example, only 4% of India is protected forest land (the areas were most of the conflicts occurred). That means that 96% of the nation is already open for development in some form or another. What makes us think that this last 4% will make all the difference? At the same time poor Indian's depend on the environment for their livelihoods, their water and their food. More important than all of this though is the simple fact that with 1.1 billion people,more than Europe, North America, Japan and Australasia combined, India cannot develop on traditional, environmentally catastrophic lines. It simply cannot be done. Like China there is not enough of anything to allow this to happen. A few people will get very rich (and of course that is the point), but the country as a whole may be doomed to an increasingly toxic poverty.

Like the rest of the world India needs to develop a greener model of economic growth, and with speed, because one of that country's most powerful environmental champions has been moved aside.

The good news is that India is a land with a deep streak of environmentalism at its heart. It's respect for wildlife is legend - there are many problems, but mere fact that people can co-exist in such crowded conditions with so many wonderful and dangerous creatures would be unthinkable in much of the world. It is also a hugely innovative and creative country, capable of world changing inventions and concepts. We can only hope that these attributes can be combined with the best ideas from the rest of the world to create a greener vision of prosperity, before it is too late.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Why we need to celebrate spectacular wildlife

I've been attending some recent meetings on UK conservation policy and there has been a lot of talk about making conservation relevant to everyday life and bringing it home to people, particularly in schools. What they mean is that studying wildlife is not just about the big stuff, but about the little things in our back garden, the domestic, the seemingly mundane.

In one sense they are right - studying and appreciating wildlife is about much more than the Serengeti, and the small and hidden has as much value as the showy and grand. In a country as urbanised as this, so they say, we should be making things accessible to those with little natural experience. At the same time though this approach leaves me feeling dispirited. It has merits, but it must not lose site of the power and inspiration that we can get from spectacular wildlife.

The trouble is that people will get this anyway from TV. Endless shows about Africa and South America provide a diet of breathtaking natural spectacle. There is nothing wrong with this at all. The problem arises because almost none of this spectacle focuses close to home in Europe and even less in the British Isles.

Now there is no use pretending that we have as much spectacular wildlife left as some other places, but there are still awesome sights to be seen. Nobody who has seen basking sharks bathing in sun, come close to a gannet colony or watched an owl hunting on a wild open moor could dispute that. By focusing the study of British wildlife on the small scale and suburban, we help to create the impression that real wildlife is something that happens elsewhere. It is a foreign concern. Growing up in Ireland and Britain this was exactly the view I learned. I had no idea that whales swam in our waters, along with countless sea-birds and 40% of the European seal population. How many people in Britain know there are resident populations of Orcas off the coast, hunting seals in much the same way as they have seen in images of Patagonia? By creating the impression that there is little of value worth saving I think a lot of people switch off from local wildlife, and perhaps from wildlife completely. We still have a hell of a lot worth saving, and we have awful of restoration to do. Yes we can look at the small as well as the big, but we still need to inspire and to celebrate the great things that are worth fighting for. Let's do it.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

We need a federal UK, and positive reasons for the Union

The United Kingdom as it stands has become unsustainable. The tensions and imbalances unleashed by the half-formed devolution currently being employed are slowly pulling the country apart. In Scotland, the Nationalist SNP won a decisive victory in May and is planning to hold a referendum on independence in 2015. As things stand the nationalists will lose that vote, because most Scots currently want to remain part of the UK (roughly 30% favour independence, although more will vote SNP for Holyrood),1 but opinion could shift and the calls for ever more devolution could make a sustainable settlement hard to maintain.

At the same time, grumbling in England about their own lack of devolution is threatening to turn bad tempered, further fraying the fabric the Union. The fact that Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs can vote on purely English matters is patently unfair. So, while neither Scotland are England so far look likely to declare independence anytime soon,2 the long term direction is unstable.

Why does that matter? Well there are all sort of reasons I could give - the fact that Scotland would be bankrupt now thanks to the financial crisis were it not part of a larger union, the deeply uncertain future of the European Union and the fate of small countries in a world of giants (USA, India, China, Russia, Brazil), but actually my real reasons for supporting the existence of the United Kingdom are much more positive. Quite simply I think that the country is greater than the sum of its parts. It gains something by binding historic nations and units into something more encompassing and cohesive. Scotland and Wales gain by being part of a larger unit, giving them a voice on the world stage and a less parochial politics and society than they might otherwise have, while England gains by being taken out of itself, given a broader world view and made slightly less subservient to the needs of London and the South East.

All of us gain through the freedom of movement and more importantly, belonging, we can enjoy as part of the UK. I refuse to accept that any of us should be foreigners in any part of this island. I claim as much ownership over the hills of Devon as I do over the mountains of Mull. Cardiff is as much my homeland as Edinburgh.

Finally, and personally, there is something nice in being part of a country that is not purely based on historic ethnic boundaries. Born in England to Scottish parents and brought up in Ireland, Scotland and England I can feel 'British' far more easily than Scottish or English. My Chinese-Indian-Irish partner feels the same. She can assimilate into a broad 'British' identity far more easily than Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, English, Orcadian or whatever.

So what can those of us who support the union do? Well first of all we need to make the case for the Union and hope that the SNP's referendum fails, but more importantly we need to begin a radical reform. I am in favour of a Federal approach. The United Kingdom would have a Federal Parliament responsible for Foreign Affairs, Defence, dispensing federal funds etc.. while each of the nations would have a State or national government. In order to improve regional representation, these state governments could have further autonomous regions (this is common in many countries). For example Shetland could become and autonomous region of the state of Scotland in the UK, if they so wished. I would also encourage cities to have mayors and councils. At the same time I would also like to see the Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies given the offer of joining the federation and electing an MP or two, while not diminishing their current autonomy. While proud and independent, these people also feel strong ties to the UK and should be allowed to be part of the new federation, as equals. If they declined they could stay as they are.

Of course all these arrangements would require much greater fiscal autonomy than is currently offered to the devolved governments, although there would still be a federal fund for emergencies, bail-outs etc. Obviously there would be a lot of complications on the way, but I think if we did all that, we might have made a crucial first step to a prosperous, democratic and stable United Kingdom. Oh, and let's make it green as a priority while were at it!

1 Recent polls for Yougov, take after the SNP victory, put support for separation at 29%, with 58% opposed. Another for TNS showed 36% in favour, 45% opposed. While higher, TNS normally gets slightly higher results in favour of independence and this is in line with their normal fndings, probably due to the wording of the question. Opposition to independence remains fairly static.

2 While there does not appear to be any great shift in pro-independence feeling, supporters of the Union would be most unwise to be complacent. Alex Salmond is a highly capable and popular politician, has momentum and his personal popularity could be decisive in any referendum – particularly compared to the poor, negative character of many of his opponents!

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Solar panel update

Just a quick update to say that my solar panels have been up and running for one year now. So far they have produced 858 kWh from a 1.06 kWp system. That is slightly over half my annual electricity usage, so they are certainly making an impact. It is also worth mentioning that the installers gave me a prediction of 880 kWh for the year, so they were pretty damn close - just 2% out.

While I am on the subject the panels set a new March record on Monday, producing 4.9 kWh for the day. That is normally the sort of generation I would expect in late April or May, so it just goes to show that when the sun is out, they work perfectly happily in the cold.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The end of climate camp? Raise a glass.

Is this the end of climate camp? In a statement put out tonight, the Camp for Climate Action has announced that it will not be hosting a Climate Camp in 2011, nor will it be organising gatherings under a national banner this year. To be honest this is neither a surprise, nor should it be a disappointment.

As the statement clearly says, the world changes and movements must change. For all its flaws, I love and respect the energy and vitality that Climate Camp has brought to the environmental movement. It stopped the Kingsnorth Power Station, it held up the runway at Heathrow and it highlighted the sheer absurdity of bailing out the banks as our environment fails around us. One of my fondest memories is lying on the road in Bishopsgate in 2009, looking up at the skyscrapers around me as my friends and colleagues hung banners proclaiming 'Nature doesn't do bailouts' between the buildings. That is as true now as it was then.

Climate Camp has had a wider impact too. It has inspired the big NGOs, however much they might have tried to ignore it, and many of these groups are belatedly beginning to realise how entrenched they are in a system that is failing. Its tactics inspired the current students, UKUNCUT tax protests and movements in many countries around the world. It was far from perfect, but it gave the activist community a boost and the traditional campaigners a kick.

I will be sad to see it go, but also happy. In one sense Climate Camp has served its purpose. It has motivated and radicalised a generation, and as the Camp's 'high command' has acknowledged, times change. New tactics, new targets and new strategies must be found. The environmental crisis is real and ongoing, from climate change to deforestation, to over-fishing, plastic waste and mass extinctions. We have to act, for our own sake if nothing else.

So cheers Climate Camp, I'm sure you will be back in some way. In the meantime, the revolution goes on! I salute you.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Save the beavers of the Tay river

There are beavers living wild in Scotland. Not the few that have been released in the controlled programme in Knapdale (great though that is), but a completely seperate group living wild and free in the Tay River system. These beavers are of unkown provenance but have probably been released by activists or have escaped from farms or collections.

The bottom line is that they have been living wild and free for almost ten years and are breeding. By all accounts they are European beavers - a native species. We should welcome their return. Instead Scottish Natural Heritage are planning to capture them and put them in the zoo. The reasons? Apparently the animals are not part of an official programme, may be the wrong genetic type and there is no welfare plan. Strange reasons indeed.

In the first instance, while it is regrettable that the beavers were not released as part of an official programme, the fact that they have successfully established themselves and caused no damage to the river system (although what damage they could cause I am not clear about) is an excellent thing, achieved at minimal cost to the Scottish or UK Governments. The animals have lived freely for many years, surely fulfilling any quarantine requirements. These are a native species, one which we are both obliged to return to our landscape and that we should be happy to see.

The idea that there is no welfare plan for these animals is absurd. Are welfare plans usually established for wild animals? If that is the case I would be interested to see the weasel welfare plan for the region. Similarly, since these animals have lived freely for years, and in some cases have been born wild, surely capturing them and placing them in zoos is the greater welfare issue.

Finally the suggestion that these beavers are the wrong genetic ‘type’, is to my mind a product of bureaucratic biological thinking. Species are not definitive and sub-species and type or race even less so. Assuming these animals are European beavers (as they are reported to be), they are the same sub-species as those released in Knapdale. The fact that they may be Bavarian type as opposed to Norwegian is of little interest. The beavers cannot tell the difference and will happily breed. We cannot tell the difference without genetic tests. Put simply – they look like European beavers, they act like European beavers and will over time breed and evolve to form a uniquely British form of beaver in any case. In any case, Bavarian beavers have already been introduced to enclosures in England and so are present on this island.

Rather than pressure SNH to recapture healthy wild animals from one part of the country, while we are attempting to reintroduce them at great expense in another, we should be fully supportive of the beavers in both Knapdale and Tay, and should implement a programme to monitor and protect them. Or we could simply leave them alone and let them get on with their lives. We should not be caving in to the prejudices of landowners and salmon farming interests, or giving in to humankind’s depressing desire to control every aspect of our natural world.

Show your support for these animals and join the Facebook page.

Or read this article in the local paper.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Saudi oil reserves 40% below reported levels?

Story from wikileaks about how the Saudis may have over estimated their oil reserves by 40%. This is a huge deal, with huge implications and it fits with many other bits and pieces I have heard in the last couple of years. OPEC countries have their export quotas (not to mention their political level of importance) set in relation to their reserves and since these are state secrets, there is huge potential for mistakes and lies.

More than ever we need to reduce our oil dependence to get ahead of the inevitable price rises and shortages - not to mention environmental impacts.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Government forest sale in disarray.

Seems the first phase of the Government's great forest privatisation may have begun, as these posters in Islington testify...

Fortunately, although the first phase of the sale may go ahead (boo)... the second phase, were the government planned to sell the whole estate, looks to be in total disarray, with the Government in retreat. Hooray! If this is true and the plan is ditched we should all celebrate, and look to reform the Forestry Commission into an environmental organisation, dedicated to wildlife, biodiversity and wild spaces - rather than commercial timber and gift shops. To victory!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Renewable energy jobs surge, emissions drop

Employment in wind and wave energy has doubled in the last three years to ten thousand in the UK accoring to Renewable UK. While it is still pretty small as sectors go, recent announcements of facilities in Hull, Edinburgh, Belfast and elsewhere show that this could be just the tip of the iceberg.

At the same time the country's carbon dioxide emissions have fallen by nearly 9%. I wish I could say this was the result of some big turn in technology or behaviour, but it is pretty much just down to the recession. The important thing to take from this, apart from the welcome reduction in GHGs, is that we need ambitious targets, otherwise we will hit them by default.