Friday, 16 November 2012

Corby by-election - will it help the Green Conservatives?

Okay, so Labour have won the recent by-election in the Northamptonshire constituency of Corby. This is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, Corby is an interesting bellweather for a whole swathe of English constituencies in the Midlands - old industrial core, with a rural conservative hinterland. If Labour can win these kinds of seats, they can win the election.

More interestingly for me though, this was a campaign marked out by the prominent role that renewable energy seemed to play (at least this is how it looked to an outsider). The Tories candidate was anti-wind, and was busted by Greenpeace describing on camera how he encouraged an anti-wind independent to stand. UKIP is also anti-wind, and more importantly anti-environment in every way I can see. Whatever its arguments with the EU, it is choc full of the kind of anti-science climate deniers who justify their stance with a romantic cry to libertarianism. A lot of its members also seem to be scarily nationalistic. The important point is that these issues managed to push wind power in particular into a prominent position in the election - and they lost.

They lost badly. The combined votes of UKIP and the Conservatives were still smaller than Labour, and would have left Labour with a larger majority than the outgoing Conservative MP had actually enjoyed. Will this help to communicate to the Tea Party fringe of UK politics (in the Conservative right and UKIP) that they are not speaking for mainstream opinion? I doubt it, but it may at least take the wind out of their sails, and bolster the Tory's green wing. The downside is that it may goad Cameron into doing something rash on Europe in an attempt to win some credibility with his party, although I hope he has more intelligence than that.  

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Rewilding the New Forest

I was in the New Forest the other week. For those who don’t know it is an area of forest and lowland heath in Southern England, about 500km2. It is a lovely place and I have been a few times. It is also deeply unsatisfactory. Despite its size, it is completely criss-crossed with road, paths, cycle paths and other bits of human infrastructure. There are many fences too, and houses dotted here and there. Looking at it on Google Earth is like looking at a chess board with no parallel lines. It feels in short, like a very large city park.

Now, given where it is, it is a wonderful resource, but it could be so much better. Do we really need so many paths? Do we need a road that runs right through the middle, cruelly cutting it in two? Would it not be a wonderful  plan, a wonderful dream , to begin to make it a bit wilder, a bit more conducive to wildlife and everything that goes with it?

It wouldn’t take much to make a real difference. Close a few roads, send them around the outside. Reduce the number of paved paths, reduce the amount of signs. There will still be space for many paths, but as someone who has attempted to go off-piste in the New Forest, I can safely say that you hit a path about every 100 metres. And many of them are big enough to drive a car down! Enough.

At the same time, the New Forest ponies, charming though they are, are clearly over-abundant. In many areas the levels of grazing resemble a city lawn. Yes, I know grazing is a natural process, but in the absence of predators, and with so many deer and semi-wild ponies, the ground is stripped bare.

No doubt there will be some who say that this is crucial to maintain the New Forest the way it is, but I suppose I don’t want it to be the way it is. I want it to be better. A 500km2 heart of darkness in the Home Counties. Okay, that may never happen, but we could make a start. 

Thursday, 2 August 2012

My book is launched

Hi everybody, this is just a quick post to say that my new book Desert Energy on large scale solar power in the desert is finally launched today!! It is being published by the lovely people at Taylor and Francis and is a really good introduction to the world of large scale solar power, which is one of the most promising technologies we have for tackling the environmental and energy crises we face.... It covers the basics of the technology, politics and background, as well as providing a good status report on where the technology is and some of the problems it faces... obviously in such a fast moving area as this tings will change, projects will collapse and new companies and ideas will emerge, but this will give you the tools you need to understand what is going on!

You can get it from Amazon etc, or from the publishers (link above). E-books should be available at some point in the future.

Okay, advert over... :)

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Wonderful wildlife - dolphin film and minkes


Just been spending some time in the wonderful western Highlands - that magical area around the mainland and the Inner Hebrides which must be one of the most amazing places in the UK and probably the whole of Europe. On the mainland are beautiful oak forests dripping in moisture that provide homes to wildcats, pine martens, eagles and deer, while the waters around the islands and their coastlines teem with seabirds and provide feeding and breeding grounds to dolphins, otters, whales and basking sharks. Just fantastic.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Do shopping malls kill business creativity?

I've been thinking about shopping Malls and too-shiny reconversions, and why I don’t like them. It's not just that they can be a bit soulless, and are a commercial takeover of what could be public space, it is that they seem to me to be an active drag on innovation, and local business creation.

Think about it. Most new-build shopping centres, or revamped industrial spaces, contain large shops, with lots of glass frontage. Such spaces are expensive and simply too big for most new companies. At the same time the large frontage essentially lets itself to highly branded chains. These factors - large size, and large frontage, produce high prices and mean that it is very unlikely that these are places you would be able, or even willing, to set up a new hole in the wall shop or take your first steps into retail.

Compare this with the dynamic around Shoreditch or Columbia Road in London, Leith Walk in Edinburgh or many other local high streets. The diversity of shop sizes and aspects available, make it much more likely that a new business will find a niche to fit it, while the proliferation of space retail units puts off large chains which rely on standardised portfolios and familiar layouts and branding. The ability to sublet spaces (even if not officially) and arrange pop-ups aids this process, as does the ability to hold markets and set up stalls. I have often thought that if I lost my job, and could not quickly get another, I would set up a little shop or pop-up somewhere, and see how it went. I might even sell food at the weekends. Then I realised that this approach would not be applicable in whole swathes of the country, urban and suburban, that simply have no infrastructure to allow such small and fleet footed businesses to come and go.

I am often impressed with the entrepreneurial spirit in cities like London, and the citizens' willingness to take matters into their own hands and create opportunities, whether for money or fun. Unneeded spaces are co-opted, often without explicit permission, while others are used in ways that might not be expected. While this is undoubtedly due in part to critical mass, and also the types of people who move to big cities, it is also I think in part to the diversity of physical infrastructure, and architecture, available to be exploited. A uniform physical space breeds a uniform thinking and a uniform economy, and should be opposed for that reason alone.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Sometimes we get it so wrong

I was in a meeting with a major company the other day. As part of my day job I am involved in trying to get some ambitious pro-environment legislation passed. This business wanted to plug their new product, which is probably much better, but still not great. So as usual there is the discussion over whether we should accept the less-shit-but-still-worrying tech or hold the line and be purists. Usually you have to compromise at some point, even if only inside your own brain. The trouble is, that sometimes something happens that makes you think that we are approaching this from completely the wrong direction.

Yes, some of the technologies we were discussing are essential, and some are so useful that you would be either a kamikaze campaigner or a fool to deny we should try and find workable replacements for. But then there is silly string. As in stupid pink string from an aerosol. At some point in the meeting it transpired that one of the products we were debating on finding a less-shit alternative for was that essential of western civilization, party string. From a can.

Ah well, says the industry, they can't use green chemical A, because it might explode in little Richmond's face. Fair enough, I don't want that. So does this mean we should use the dubious chemical instead?... grumble grumble... I suppose so. Or maybe not. Call me a fanatic, but I don't think we need silly string at all. If we can't find an environmentally friendly way of making it, then perhaps we should let it slide into obscurity. Let it go. Above all, don't let it block the passage of more important changes.

The trouble is of course that there are so many useless but slightly fun things in the world that would have to go the way of the dodo if we used that logic that it is hard to know where to start. Plastic footballs, balloons, the toy spiders in Christmas crackers. Etc etc etc etc. To suggest in a policy meeting that something might actually be completely useless in the first place normally just draws amused stares or sympathetic smiles, followed by a reminder that these things do matter to the manufacturers of silly string, as though that is a good enough reason.

This is obviously just the tip of the iceberg, but to my mind it is a useful example of the need for those involved in the nitty gritty of the environmental struggle to appraise what it is we are really doing, and perhaps everyone, from policymakers to campaigners should be forced to take a step back and examine what we are actually arguing over.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Welsh Government cancels its badger cull, surely England must follow suit

I know this is old news now, but I am just saying a big 'hooray' that Wales has decided to cancel its proposed badger cull, and instead focus on combating TB in cattle through vaccination of badgers and farm hygiene measures. This is an excellent move, since there was no evidence at all that a cull would have been effective, and some evidence that it may have made bovine TB worse - not to mention nearly exterminating a protected species. The move also puts additional pressure on DEFRA to abandon is ridiculous and unscientific culling plan that will see farmers authorized to shoot badgers in the open at night time.

On a wider note, I hope that moves to vaccinate badgers will lead to a more serious appraisal of how we deal with the idea of vaccination in cattle. As I understand it cattle are culled if they have a reaction to TB test, which test for a response to TB antigens. Essentially what this shows is that they have been exposed to the disease at some point in their lives, and developed antibodies. Trouble is that most have no symptoms, so basically the odds are that in culling those with immune response but no symptoms, you are culling the most resistant members of the herd, those who might naturally fight off the disease. It is for this reason too that cattle cannot be vaccinated - because immunized animals will test positive in an anti-body test. Imagine a situation where you killed all those humans who tested positive for measles, but who never developed symptoms.. you are genetically selecting an increasingly vulnerable population...

Monday, 12 March 2012

UK opposing higher EU renewable targets?

Wow. Well, according to some leaked documents on Business Green, elements in the UK government are saying that they are opposing an extension of the European renewable energy targets. Right now they are 20% by 2020, and there are proposals to extend them into 2030 and beyond. The Department for Energy and Climate Change seems to be suggested that it wants a broader mix (i.e. nuclear) and that the targets should include this.

This is a terrible idea, and one will will likely turn into a battle. Nuclear is not necessarily the worst thing ever in my opinion, although I do have concerns over waste, proliferation and cost, but it is a poor excuse for a climate policy. Furthermore I suspect it will be left for dust in the coming decades by the rapidly falling cost of renewables. Failure to invest in renewables now and to cling to the nuclear white elephant could seem like a absurd move in a few years.

Indeed as I have said before this is my big hope for this issue - that pretty soon renewable electricity will be cheap enough to make all of these arguments seem academic, and that all the people who said it would never worked now claim to have backed it all along.

Friday, 17 February 2012

If the Falklands were any other country, the 'Left' would be rallying to its side

I have long been fascinated by the Falkland Islands. As a zoologist their isolation, wildness and spectacular wildlife is the primary draw, but I admit to interest in the idea of a distant community of British people living so far from home, particularly since I spent time on Ascension Island, one of its fellow South Atlantic islands (although very far away!), where I met some of its citizens and got an insight into life in these remote enclaves.

Unfortunately the Falklands are now back in the news for all the wrong reasons. The Argentine government is attempting to isolate them and their people, and to accuse the UK government of militarizing them (although I can't help but think it might have been the invasion that militarized them!!).

What really bugs me about the Falklands issue is the attitude of so many on the left who basically assume that because the UK is involved, it must be in the wrong, and that the Falklands must naturally be 'returned', or that defending the islands is gun-boat diplomacy.

Now, I am an environmental campaigner, generally of the left, mildly anti-capitalist and no stranger to blockading a power station or being smacked by police. What really frustrates me is that I can't help but feel that if any two other countries were involved, the Falklands would be a left wing cause celebre. If Argentina was America or China, and Britain was Peru, students would be hanging the Falklands' sheep-based flags out their windows.

The only claim that Argentina has is that a) its predecessor the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata inherited the Falklands for a few years between its independence from Spain and losing them, and b) it is the nearest country. Yes maybe at the time it was wrong for the tiny Argentine colony to be driven out, but they themselves were part of the colonial game, and by that logic Ireland belongs to the UK, the UK belongs to France, Europe belongs to the Mongols and Argentina should hand back all its land to the descendants of the Amerindians.

On the other hand, there was no indigenous population in the Falklands, and the people who live there are perfectly clear where their allegiances lie. They have been under British jurisdiction for nearly 200 years, and have their own unique identity. They have been given the right of self-determination, and could join up with Argentina if they wished. But they don't.

I think one of the problems for the 'Left' is that they forever associate the Falklands with the rebirth of Margaret Thatcher's fortunes, and can never forgive them for that. The trouble is that whether the war was botched, or whether it should have been prevented, the point is that after the invasion it was the only thing to do. Anything less would have been the shameless abandonment of those people. Just because you hate Thatcher, doesn't mean you should take it out on the Falklanders.

There are others who claim to be upset because they see it as a big waste of money. I can only assume that they mean the military presence on the Islands, because the people pay their own way in every other respect. Well yes, it is expensive and that is sad, but so are lots of things, and we have no right to abandon the people just because it might be convenient. And in any case, if Argentina stopped threatening the islands, the military could leave. Then maybe the people would get to mix and become friends after all.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Environmental implications of Scottish independence

I have given my views on Scottish independence elsewhere, but in general I am opposed. Not because I think Scotland is weak or anything like that, but simply because I think we are better off united. However right now I want to have a think about what some of the environmental implications of separation might be.

Clearly in many areas it would make no difference. Biodiversity, fisheries and rural management are all devolved anyway, and short of leaving the EU there is little that can be done about the Common Agricultural or Fisheries Policies. In England and Wales the more zoophobic elements of the Tories might be emboldened, but other than that there would be little impact. More intangible might be the loss of affinity with wildlife and landscapes in other parts of the country if they become separate, but that is hard to quantify.

Where the big differences could take place would be in energy policy. Scotland is busy trying to turn itself into a renewable energy powerhouse. Right now it can do this as part of much larger energy market, and the ROCs that help to subsidise its renewable energy development are paid for on a UK wide basis through a levy on energy bills. In an independent Scotland, these bills would need to be paid for by a much smaller population. Certainly the electricity could be exported, but the rUK would be unwilling to pay the ROCs, any more that it would be willing to pay for the feed in tariffs of Germany, France or Ireland. At the same time the rUK would continue to account for the largest share of the offshore wind market (of the more than 40GW of offshore wind in planning, more than 30 GW are in England), and would likely pursue closer links with Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands in the Southern North Sea. This would encourage offshore wind developers and manufacturers to base themselves in the rUK to avoid regulatory or currency risk by attaching themselves to the smaller Scottish market.

At the same time, oil will account for a significant percentage of the Scottish economy, so much so that it is hard to see the government taking any environmental or economic decisions against its will. An independent Scotland will be even more in hoc to the oil and gas industry than the UK as a whole is to financial services.

On the opposite side, an oil starved rUK would be forced to look elsewhere. This could go several ways. In the worst scenario it would involve widespread search for and extraction of unconventional oil, coal and shale gas to cover the gas. Next could be massive investment in nuclear power. The best case would be that the loss of the bulk of North Sea fossil fuels gives the rUK a kick up the ass and forces it to invest heavily in renewables and energy efficiency, but I would not hold my breath.

To be continued...