Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Take heart. Renewable energy is much bigger than this government.

In 1433 the Chinese Emperor grounded the Imperial fleet. At the time, it was probably the greatest naval power in the world. No one is 100% sure why this happened, but the Emperor may have felt the cost was unjustified. Ships continued to sail from China and trade with its neighbours went on, but the huge armadas which had dominated the Indian Ocean, conquered lands and projected Chinese military and economic might around the region were finished.

A few decades later two relatively weak European nations, the Portuguese and Spanish, discovered routes to Asia and, most importantly, the Americas. The rest is history.

It need not have happened that way. The Chinese, the Venetians, the Ottomans and even some West African Kingdoms might all have been the ones to ‘discover’ the Americas and lead the conquest and colonization and genocide that followed. Or perhaps they would have done things differently. We will never know.

My point is that technological advances in the 15th and 16th centuries meant that it was only a matter of time before the oceans opened up. New ships and methods of navigation were making what had previously been flukes or rare journeys more reliable and possible. The desire to access essential commodities provided the political and financial support, which in turn drove more innovation.
In Europe, as in other places, some administrations turned their back on overseas voyages. Other embraced them.

The argument I am trying to make is that I believe we are seeing something similar with renewable energy. We are at a stage now where the technology is advancing faster than either policy makers or commentators can keep up with, and it is global in nature. The nexus of advancing renewable technology, IT and political pressure means that energy systems that just a few years ago seemed hopelessly expensive are now outcompeting fossil fuels. Costs are plummeting. Utilities are buckling under the strain. Grids will need redesigning. Fortunes will be made and lost. There will be huge changes to come.

So far the UK has done okay in promoting renewables, and is on course for 30% of electricity supplies by 2020. Sadly things are now changing. The new government appears to have gotten cold feet and is actively hacking away at the energy framework – slashing subsidies and imposing planning restrictions and market barriers to lock out technologies that no longer need support. Its reasons are often spurious. At the same time they are backing more polluting and more expensive systems, for political reasons. Perhaps this is all just a prelude to a fantastic new raft of policies, but I will not hold my breath.

Fortunately I’m an optimist.  Every time one of these new policy attacks is announced there is pressure from the press and some of my colleagues to cry out that the government is ‘killing renewables’ and that all is lost. So far I have tried to resist. The reason is simple. I don’t think this government has the power to kill renewables.

I think renewables are bigger, further reaching and more powerful than this government. We may risk falling behind, the UK may be overtaken by newer, more confident entrants to this field, but the changes unleashed by renewables are huge and ongoing. Like the French government, which tried to develop an alternative internet in the early 1990s, the UK government will be overtaken by events.
I am not suggesting that this means that the government’s attacks on renewables don’t matter – they do, and not just because the UK risks falling behind in the global renewables stakes.

Climate change demands urgent action, and rich countries must be willing to lead. At the same time locking us in to high-carbon infrastructure could put up emissions for years to come, no matter what we do. There are problems too of the kind of new energy system that may emerge – will it benefit the many or be rigged for the few. Nor is the cost of renewables the only relevant factor. In the absence of alternatives we would be advocating renewables to tackle climate change anyway.

I think what I am trying to say is ‘take heart’. Things are moving in ways we cannot predict, and this government will no more be able to kill renewable energy than the Emperors of China killed ocean going travel. 

Monday, 13 July 2015

Do we need to rewild our historical landscapes?

Rewilding is the cause of the day, and one I am completely in favour of. Where we can we should bring back lost species and habitats to the land, and protect our oceans and remaining wild places. In wildlife protection too we must learn to let go a little, and adopt a more hands-off approach to conservation, allowing natural processes greater space to flourish. Rewilding offers, for want of a snappy phrase, the chance redemption through restoration.

I have argued on this blog too that rewilding is a philosophy, not an end process, and one which should be extended to our towns and cities. The corollary of more wild land will be denser, greener cities. I believe it will benefit our health, our economy and make us happier. And there is growing evidence to support that theory.

Yet perhaps we need to extend the philosophy to encompass some aspects of our cultural landscape and archaeological heritage too, for there is, to me, something profoundly depressing and alienating with the way that parts of our heritage are dealt with. The commodification, the huge car parks, the vast visitor centres.

I accept that it is difficult. In world of billions of people and hundreds of millions of tourists, perhaps the potential for mass destruction is simply too great. Perhaps the only way to deal with such an onslaught of global sightseers, myself included, is to chaperone us into a pre-packaged cultural experience and send us on our way before we can do too much harm. Perhaps. But in doing so we are losing something too.

Stonehenge (old visitor set up, but I think the fences are still there)
As with nature the best archaeological encounters and experiences are those which form part of life, which are discovered, which contain some shred of adventure. Do people really take much away from their miniature train ride around whatever the hell it is they are looking at? I don't. Is it really necessary to raise millions and millions of pounds to maintain sites as museums that might otherwise slowly blend into the land around them, waiting to be rediscovered on a daily basis by walkers? Do we need another cafe and reception hub?

Again, I am aware that this may just be anger at the increasing walls we put around ourselves, or pointless longing for something that can't exist. I accept too that there are many many instances where this does happen, but I also think that there is a kernal of truth in this frustration. A site does not seem to be considered complete until it is not only protected but packaged, re-packaged and sold as an up-to-date experience. The interactive displays and virtual tours bored me as a child and bore me more as an adult. And they defeat the purpose, cutting us off ever more efficiently from the thing we are there to experience.

There is dishonesty too. You can, apparently, still walk very close to Stonehenge, it just takes a little effort. Yet almost nowhere will you be told this. The entire apparatus is geared to driving to a designated car park, paying £16 and enjoying the ride. And maybe it is doing its job, for it has stopped me from going.

Nonetheless, I would still like to see it. Perhaps I will try a dawn mission, a manufactured adventure, and see how close I can get, on my own. Again, maybe we are doing it right, but somehow I feel not. 

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Solar powering more than a sixth of the UK right now?

I don't write much about energy any more, but thought it would be interesting to put up this graph showing the impact that solar is having on UK electricity demand. Basically it shows how much lower demand for electricity from the grid was yesterday (Tues 30 June) compared to a similar Tuesday in July two years ago.

I reckon this is from solar.

But why would it show up as a reduction? Well, the grid is made up of two main bits, the national 'high speed' grid and a local grid. Decentralised solar reduces the demand on the main 'high speed' grid, which these numbers show.

The gap between the two lines is the difference in consumption. A little bit of this is falling use of electricity (about 1GW), part of a general trend, but as the day goes on it gets wider and wider, reaching about 4.6 GW... given there are something like 3-4GW of rooftop solar in the UK this fits perfectly!

In fact given that total demand (including the 3-4GW of solar we are assuming) is around 40GW, this means that rooftop and decentralised solar alone may be doing nearly 10% of the UK's electricity. Add in the 2.5-3GW of large solar that feeds into the grid and we could be looking at more than 15% of national electricity!!!

Okay, that's just for a few hours on a very hot sunny day, but it is an indication of how much things are changing, and given that it has happened in just a couple of years, surely a sign of hope!

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

It's official - the beavers are back, and now I'm nervous

Devon's beavers - the ones that escaped and started to breed - have been returned to the wild. They have been tested for disease and are now back in the water. This is great news.

Amid all the congratulations and celebrations we must not forget that this was not supposed to happen. The government and the Angling Trust wanted rid of them. Their return is a triumph of campaigning, not of process.

Credit: Wildwood
Lots of groups were involved. The Devon Wildlife Trust and the local landowners deserve great credit for finding a practical solution, and managing the return. Friends of the Earth deserve recognition too, for helping to turn it into a national story, exposing the lies about disease risks and filing a legal action against the government to stop their removal when it looked most likely.

So I am thrilled, but also apprehensive. The return of these beavers must be just the start. We need to radically alter our relationship with nature. Good news stories like this are amazing, but they are also the exception. Species are in precipitous decline, and many of our habitats have never been in worse condition. We need to change tack, prioritizing wilder lands, removing unnecessary infrastructure and building denser, greener, 'biophillic' towns and cities. We must also redouble our efforts to return native species.

And this is where the Devon example makes me nervous. As the focus moves from the campaign to the implementation, we are once again hearing that this is an expensive business. Costs are high, and money is tight. But costs are only so high because we make it so. The Devon beavers are being released in an intensive scientific trial because that is the only way it is allowed. Let's not forget that they were there already.

Farmers and landowners too are agitating to be paid more in compensation or management fees to allow native wildlife to live on their lands. I can see the logic, but it is all wrong. Most of the time, all animals need to survive is the right habitat and to be left alone. Around the country other groups interested in returning beavers, or other species, will be watching and wondering if they can shoulder the costs.

At the same time there is a risk that this 'trial' will be used to out other reintroductions on ice. That people will say that now is not the time to talk about more.

But we must. There are so many species we need to bring back or reinforce in various parts of the country - wildcat, pine marten, lynx, wolf, golden eagle, sea eagle, wild boar. The point is not just that these are wonderful animals, but that they will help out existing wildlife too. Pine martens help red squirrels. Wild boar create wallows that benefit amphibians. Lynx control deer and aid forest regeneration. Wild cats control rabbits. It goes on and on.

And these animals must not just be returned, but allowed to be wild. We must learn to accept them and make space for them and if necessary manage them. They should become the fabric of our every day lives - wild creatures that can fill our myths and imaginations - not biological curiosities forever tagged and monitored and confined to tiny areas.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Whatever happens next, this is a great day, and great step forward.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Imagine if we could turn a city's derelicts into jungles?

TheMushyPea is currently residing in Bristol. It's a wonderful city, bursting with sustainable innovations, beautiful buildings, great bars and an alarming amount of patchwork clothing. It is also filled with a large number of derelict buildings. Old warehouses, abandoned 50s office blocks, yards and car parks. You name it, Bristol's got it.

There are strong positives to this state of affairs. It provides opportunities. It means opening a gallery or exhibition space is possible. It gives the potential for new housing and work areas within the city. Green cities must also be dense cities after all - otherwise we gobble up greenbelt and force people into their cars.

Having said all that there are a lot of pretty ugly urban catastrophes around. Some have been this way for decades, and might remain so for decades more. Furthermore many of the redevelopment plans, while perhaps an improvement, are hardly inspiring.

Imagine buildings like this coated in luscious greenery,
their forecourts a riot of wildlife. 
I think we could do better. Imagine if we could start to take just a few of the big hulking eyesores that dot the city, just a fraction of the most egregious concrete canyons, and 'rewild' them. We could coat the exteriors in green walls of native species, put in bat boxes and holes for birds. Shrubs and climbers could explode in the abandoned foyers and parking spots. Squirrels and polecats would battle through empty offices. It would be radical, and incredibly beautiful. It would be acknowledged around the world.

And it would be relatively cheap. There might need to be a few compulsory purchase orders, but in the scheme of urban renewal I would wager it would be a steal.

At a time when we know we need to bridge the disconnect between nature and urban living, what better way to show that Bristol is prepared to really do things differently.

Some sort of tropical overgrown building. Ours won't have these plants, but they'll still be beautiful. 

Friday, 16 January 2015

London's got a new tree

Just behind Kings Cross, in the middle of a huge sea of construction, is a special tree. Around it is a bench, so you can sit and stare at it. It looks old, and venerable. Yet it is not some remnant preserved from before the development. Those have long since been removed. This is a new tree, a 63-year old swamp oak imported from Germany. Britain cannot even grow its own plants anymore.

Behind this woody museum stretches a short row of plane trees. They drop straight into the tarmac and concrete, kept alive by some underground network of drains. Around them steel and glass soar upwards. There are no birds but pigeons. It is amazing anything can survive at all. I would die in a matter of days if Pret a Manger could not keep me supplied.

Re-wilding has become the conservation issue of the day. The idea of reintroducing species, of releasing large areas of land to the forces of nature, of letting our own hearts wander is inspiring, enervating. But there is one area where I think the debate needs to progress more rapidly, and that is in rewilding our towns and cities. Yes we need the reforestation, but we must also begin to break down the barriers that surround the places where most of us live, and make wildlife an everyday event.

Old cities are not too bad at this. They are thick with stone and trees, riddled with old lanes and gardens. They provide green holes and quiet spaces. Newer cities are dreadful. They are neat and polished and smooth. The ground is sealed from the soil. They are ringed by roadways more effective than medieval fortifications – ditch, wall, death trap, wall.

The huge new developments I pass through in London and Bristol seem okay as far as shops and offices go, but they are a colossal missed opportunity for wildlife. Hedges and trees by Regent’s canal have been grubbed up and replaced with neat grass and pointless shrubs. The animals have gone. Not one of the new buildings that I can see has a garden, or even a green wall. There are no parks. The few plants, like the museum tree, are ornaments.

We must do better. We must make our cities conducive to life, make them ‘biophilic’.

Suburbs and garden cities will not do. Almost nothing is more destructive to the environment, wildlife and human interaction as a satellite town built around the motorcar. They have helped lead us to where we are. Dull lives. Sink estates with no economic activity, isolation and road-kill. At the same time our population keeps on growing. If we build on the greenbelt now, where will the next lot of houses go? No – the cities of the future must be dense and urban, but a new kind of urban which welcomes wildlife.

Lots of things will need to change to make this happen. Planning laws and buildings regulations for a start. Perhaps most of all though we will need to change what we think a city is for, and rethink ourselves. Yet I am convinced it will be worth it. By changing our cities, by insisting that new developments are built with wildlife in mind, it might even help our society. I would bet any money that a host of problems, mental and physical, could be eased with a little more beauty and wildness in our lives.