One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

“[I]nstead of making excuses tomorrow to our children and grandchildren, we should be taking action against climate change today.”David Cameron, COP 21 Summit in Paris

 

I haven’t had much time to write recently. Besides working a day job I’ve been supporting Campaign Against Climate Change with their current campaign, Going Backwards on Climate Change – a cause that’s well worth the sacrifice.

Going Backwards will reach its climax on the 7th and 8th of May, as communities around the UK, in London, Bristol, Manchester, Brighton, Leeds, Leicester, Nottingham and Sidmouth will take to the streets in protest against government backtracking on laws and initiatives fundamentally created to tackle anthropogenic climate change (click here for full event details). 

For a while I’ve been wanting to write a post about what inspired this campaign. Thankfully, courtesy of Claire James from Campaign Against Climate Change, my work has been done for me. Here, in full, is her article.


Going Backwards on Climate Change

In 2008, an unprecedented law was passed in the UK: the Climate Change Act, committing the UK to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. Recognising the crisis faced and the need for urgent action, all major parties supported it: just five MPs voted against.

What has changed since then? More greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, inducing record heat. Even climate scientists were surprised by the record-breaking temperatures in January and February 2016, following 2014 and 2015 consecutively being the warmest recorded. More extreme weather events linked to climate change, including severe flooding in the UK in recent years. Clearer science, including a better idea of the (diminishing) carbon budget we can afford to burn. In short: even greater urgency.

But that cross-party consensus on climate change has fractured. This is not admitted openly: David Cameron still felt able to deliver a speech urging negotiators in Paris “Instead of making excuses tomorrow to our children and grandchildren, we should be taking action against climate change today”. But the sense of urgency in tackling climate change at home has clearly slipped away. And since the current government took office on 8 May 2015, there have been a series of major policy reversals taking us backwards on climate action, just when we should be pressing forward with a shared understanding that the alternative is unthinkable.

We call on the government to start going forwards again – to base all policy-making in a clear recognition of the reality of our situation, facing catastrophic climate change…

Going Backwards on Solar
In December subsidies for solar panels on homes were cut by 65%. The Government has also imposed a cap on the total subsidy paid out, meaning the rate of domestic solar installations is set to halve, according to the Solar Trade Association. Larger solar installations (more than 1MW) on roofs and in solar parks have had their support cut by 85% and 71% respectively, meaning the market for the most cost-effective projects is all but dead.1

The industry said the planned cuts announced in the summer have already cost 6,500 jobs. The government’s impact assessment for the changes shows that between 9,700 and 18,700 jobs in the solar industry could be lost as a result of the cuts.2

Going Backwards on Wind Energy
Perhaps it should not be a surprise that this government has been less than green: the Conservative manifesto even contained a pledge to ‘halt the spread of onshore wind’. Onshore wind farms are the cheapest form of clean energy, recently found to be competitive with burning coal or gas.3 And despite some active campaigns against them, they are relatively popular with the public compared to other forms of energy generation.

New planning obstructions were introduced to make wind farms more difficult to build, and then the tap was turned off on government support. New onshore wind farms are excluded from the Renewables Obligation subsidy scheme from 1 April 2016, a year earlier than expected (with a grace period for projects which already have planning permission).

Going Backwards – Taxing Renewables
The Climate Change Levy (CCL) is a tax on business energy use, from which electricity generated from qualifying renewable sources was exempt, to encourage a switch to clean energy. But this exemption was removed in July 2015 with almost-immediate effect. The additional tax on renewable energy was estimated at £450 million in 2015/16, rising to £910 million in 2020/21, a total of £3.9 billion over the next six years. This is now expected to be even higher from 2017 onwards, because of changes announced in the 2016 budget.

Going Backwards on Warm Homes
The UK’s renewable resources mean we can quit our dependence on fossil fuels – if we cut down our energy waste by becoming more efficient. CO2 emissions from housing currently make up nearly a third of all the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions4 and we have among the poorest-insulated homes in Europe. There is an immediate human cost to this: there were 43,900 excess winter deaths in 2014/15, of which 9000 are directly attributed to people living in cold homes.5

First the Green Deal was scrapped. With no forewarning or consultation with industry, the scheme offering loans for energy efficiency measures was killed off. Then ECO (the requirement for energy companies to fund energy efficiency measures, targeted on poorer households) was cut back: to be replaced in 2017 by a ‘cheaper’ option.6

The number of energy efficiency measures installed in British homes has fallen by 80% since 2012. During the last Parliament 5 million households were helped but only 1.2 million households are expected to receive energy efficiency measures this Parliament.7

Much more effective than retrofitting existing homes is ensuring new ones are efficient, but the government has also scrapped the Zero Carbon Homes requirement. This would have ensured that all new dwellings from 2016 would generate as much energy on-site – through renewable sources, such as wind or solar power – as they would use in heating, hot water, lighting and ventilation. This was to be supported by tighter energy efficiency standards that would come into force in 2016, and a scheme which would allow housebuilders to deliver equivalent carbon savings off site.8

 Going Backwards – Fossil Fuel Subsidies
For decades, exploitation of the UK’s North Sea oil reserves brought in billions in tax receipts (although whether this was wisely invested is another question…). Now with low oil prices and oil companies pulling out of the depleted fields,9 it is no longer a cash cow.

But in February 2015 the Infrastructure Act legally bound all future governments to ‘maximise the economic recovery of UK petroleum’, in direct contradiction of climate change obligations.10 George Osborne has been throwing tax breaks at the sector (the only G7 country to dramatically increase fossil fuel subsidies, despite a pledge to phase them out).11 Further tax breaks in the 2016 budget mean that between 2016 and 2021 oil companies will be actually receiving up to £1.2 billion a year from taxpayers because of tax repayments to loss-making operators.

There is only one way to protect jobs in the long term: a plan for a carefully managed transition to a sustainable economy based on clean energy, not a desperate scramble to extract every drop of oil while pulling the plug on jobs in renewables and energy efficiency.

Going Backwards – Fracking and Local Democracy
The government continues to look to fracking in search of a new oil and gas bonanza. But they face two obstacles. The first is growing evidence that any significant exploitation of shale gas would breach UK carbon budgets.12Claims that it could be a cleaner ‘bridge fuel’ to replace coal have been shattered by alarming research is emerging from the US on the scale of leaks of the greenhouse gas methane from fracking sites.

The second is determined local opposition. Campaigners in Lancashire celebrated last year when the local council rejected Cuadrilla’s fracking application, but were then told that the decision could be taken away from the local council by the Secretary of State. Councils had already been told to fast-track decisions on fracking or ministers will step in13 (as announced shortly after making it harder for wind farms to get planning permission).14 The consistent message from government has been that fracking is of such national importance that local concerns can be overridden.

Going Backwards –  Coal
The government announced that coal power stations would be shut by 2025 (“if we’re confident that the shift to new gas can be achieved within these timescales.”)15 But in last year’s ‘capacity market auction’, handing out subsidies for electricity generation, a total of £139 million of subsidies were to be awarded to coal power stations in 2019, in addition to £176 million over the next 15 years to small-scale dirty diesel generators.16

Coal burning in the UK needs to stop, and so does opencast coal extraction. However there are currently applications for new or extended opencast coal mines in Wales and North East England. In 21st century Britain, local communities should not be having to mount a defence against these threats to the local and global environment.

Going Backwards on Sustainable Transport
It has been estimated that £30 billion of public money from various sources will be spent during 2015-2020 on roads. This spending is predominantly on large-scale new roads, widening motorways etc.17 In his 2016 budget, the Chancellor announced £75 million funding for research into a Trans-Pennine tunnel, a project which if it goes ahead would have a £6bn budget. Meanwhile local bus services are being slashed under the pressure of shrinking local authority budgets.

Fuel duty has now been frozen for six years. And in July 2015 Vehicle Excise Duty was reshaped to remove incentives to buy less polluting cars. After the first year, rates for new vehicles would be set at a standard rate unless their CO2 emissions were zero. So owners of efficient vehicles get a tax rise, owners of the most polluting cars get a big tax cut, and to round it off, the income will be ring-fenced for spending on roads.

Going Backwards on aviation expansion
The lack of concern for carbon emissions is shown most dramatically in Cameron’s own personal U-turn on a third runway at Heathrow – emitting more than the whole of Kenya, this would make it impossible for the UK to meet its legally binding climate targets, even if a coherent carbon-cutting policy was adopted for the rest of the economy.18

Going Backwards – One Step Forwards, Two Steps Back?
To avoid being accused of caricature or unfairness, it should be said that not every decision made by the government in the past year has been relentlessly negative for the climate. However, overall these decisions have taken us in the wrong direction. And the way decisions have been taken has seemed almost designed to undermine the confidence of potential investors in clean energy or energy efficiency. Drastic changes have been made at short notice with no forewarning or consultation; existing schemes scrapped with a vague promise of replacing them at some point in the future; and despite ambitious long-term targets, there is a lack of clarity on how the UK will meet them.

 Going Forwards on Climate Change
Looking globally, there is a huge shift underway to clean energy. But it’s not happening fast enough. The only thing that can get us on the right track in the UK is huge public pressure. We are building a mass movement and it needs participation from people from all walks of life. There is an urgent need for both inspiring direct actions and millions of conversations on climate change among ordinary people – breaking the silence and bringing the message to politicians that we will not accept any more backtracking on climate change.

1. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2015/dec/17/uk-cuts-renewable-energy-make-a-mockery-of-its-pledge-paris-climate-talks1

2. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-35119173 

3. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/oct/07/onshore-wind-farms-cheapest-form-of-uk-electricity-report-shows

4. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jul/10/uk-scraps-zero-carbon-home-target

5. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/fuel-poverty-killed-15000-people-last-winter-10217215.html

6. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/energy/12017361/autumn-statement-2015-30-energy-bill-saving-as-Chancellor-cuts-insulation.html

7. http://www.ukace.org/2016/03/treasury-slammed-following-9000-cold-home-deaths/

8. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jul/10/uk-scraps-zero-carbon-home-target

 9. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/02/23/north-sea-oil-standing-at-the-edge-of-a-chasm/

10. http://www.desmog.uk/2016/03/29/not-even-osborne-s-1bn-fossil-fuel-tax-break-can-convince-some-oil-companies-stay-north-sea

11. http://www.desmog.uk/2015/11/12/uk-government-has-ramped-fossil-fuel-subsidies-nearly-6-billion-year

 12. http://www.carbonbrief.org/mps-brand-fracking-incompatible-with-uk-climate-targets

13. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/aug/13/government-will-step-in-if-councils-dont-fast-track-fracking-applications

 14. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/giving-local-people-the-final-say-over-onshore-wind-farms

15. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-34851718

16. https://sandbag.org.uk/site_media/pdfs/reports/Capacity_Mechanism_analysis4.pdf

 17. http://www.bettertransport.org.uk/blog/roads/231114-road-spending-30-billion

 18. http://www.aef.org.uk/2015/06/19/aviation-emissions-to-soar-under-airports-commission-proposals-new-aef-report-shows/

 

In-Out, Shake it All About

History seems to have taught us nothing. Those who experienced the world wars have almost all departed us, and with them we’ve lost the memories of what a divided Europe looks like. We forget why the EU was established in the first place.

Originally formed to increase European cohesion through geopolitical and social inclusivity, the EU is now seen predominantly as a platform for economic gain. Reductions in the scale and regularity of conflicts between European states are seen as merely incidental. But in a world torn by scores of armed conflicts (1, 2,), by the effects of corrupt and mismanaged plutocracies (12, 3), with Russia roughhousing it’s neighbours, with the emergence of overpopulation and climate change, cohesion is crucial. It’s plain to see that if we are to stand even the slightest chance of surmounting these obstacles, we desperately need to enhance our unifications, not divide them.

As our biggest global challenge, the inevitable effects of climate change in a world of broad geopolitical division are huge. With increasingly sporadic and extreme weather events, rising sea levels and ocean acidification, the collapsing of ecosystems, consequently diminished crop yields and fish stocks, economic ruin, together with a plethora of other issues all causing the displacement of communities and wide-scope civil unrest, tackling climate change requires a great deal of collaboration. If our efforts are not collaborated, we risk intensifying these already inexorable natural disasters, not to mention humanitarian crises. Yet, heedlessly, the majority of discourse surrounding the in-out debate mentions almost nothing of the importance of the union the EU is supposed to embody. Instead, it obsessively procrastinates over conjectural economics.

But the truth is economics are nigh-on redundant in this debate. This obsession with financial gains is de facto a primary cause of the climatic mess we find ourselves in. For many this is a hard pill to swallow. It’s almost tautologous that capitalism produces climate change, which eventually comes with the added cost of complete economic collapse. This is just the paradox of capitalism: As an economic system which necessarily commodifies nature, capitalism relies on the destruction of nature for its own development. While innovation speeds up market efficiency, the speed of nature’s regeneration remains constant. Without curbing innovation, without slowing down market efficiency, our natural resources dwindle and the complex tapestry of our biosphere begins to rapidly unravel. In other words, “the Earth is f**ked unless somehow the market can be prevented from working so well.” So, clearly, focusing on the economic aspects of the in-out debate is not only imprudent but entirely absurd.

On the rare occasion when economics is not at the forefront of the debate, patriotic calls for sovereignty tend take the spot light. Similarly, this argument can be severely damaging to the war on climate change. After all, it consists in the very antithesis of unification. But the flaws in this argument run a little deeper.

Putting aside the many psychosocial aspects of patriotism (how and why it develops etc.) – many of which I respect and find fascinating – as a phenomenon, I find it deeply disturbing. Just thinking about patriotism one can sense it has something strangely sinister about it. It’s designed to promote a sense of national individualism, a sense of national pride. A sense of self-worth. The perverse and competitive sense that we are better, superior, more valuable. In this way patriotism is comparable to ordinary pride; it’s one of arrogance’s inconspicuous siblings.

“[E]ach person’s pride is in competition with everyone else’s pride… Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever, or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer, or better-looking than others.”C.S. Lewis

So these calls for sovereignty aren’t just damaging because they reject the value of geopolitical unification. They’re damaging because they foster a culture of narcissistic individualism. And this is so clearly undesirable, because any system of people joined by common aims is automatically disadvantaged by it. The soldier that puts his pride before the ambitions of his army tends to die and/or frustrate his army’s efforts. The footballer that puts his pride before the ambitions of his team gets dropped to the bench and/or sold. Only once they becomes a little more modest and trust in the abilities of their colleagues do their partners better utilise them and discover their full potential. After all, there is no in ‘team’ (or ‘army’ for that matter).

In short, the value of unification is much greater than economics and sovereignty. Unification breaks barriers. It re-enforces bonds. Union will help us navigate the minefield of issues facing the world today. Most importantly, it’ll allow us to hone our efforts in the fight against climate change. Let’s learn from history. Instead of building walls, let’s knock them down

We are all Stronger In.

A.C. Stark

 

Vertical Farming: A Huge Piece to a Gigantic Puzzle

Our beloved British landscape is withering. It’s on its knees, begging for relief. It’s pleading for freedom, longing to be rewilded. The countryside is dying. With less than 3% of Britain built uponthis is a difficult truth to accept. But our country, celebrated for its ostensible natural beauty, is almost entirely engineered. It is, quite paradoxically, exceptionally unnatural.

The farmlands, which constitute a significant portion of the patchwork-landscape we call our countryside, are barren. They’re agricultural deserts; wastelands, inhospitable to a huge fraction of our native fauna. The handful of creatures capable of living a solemn existence resultantly overwhelm the heaths and woodlands and are persecuted as if they were at fault. Yet, we made our country this way.

Man-made monocultures specialising in crops inedible to pollinators (particularly our chief pollinators, the beesbecome impotent as they fail to house the creatures upon which their cross-fertilisation relies. Those crops which could otherwise provide nourishment are usually doused with pesticides, poisoning their prospective residents, killing them. With 87% of all flowering plants relying on pollinators these methods of farming are ecologically disastrous, and broadly so. Causing drastic reductions in pollinator populations, and thus reducing pollination in our few remaining non-agricultural countryside areas, they foster environments incapable of sustaining even moderate levels of wildlife.

But more than just damaging to ecosystems, these farming methods are both operationally and economically unsustainable (especially given the projected growth of our population). After all, “[c]rops relying on animals for pollination account for about $1 trillion of the world’s $3 trillion annual sales of agricultural produce”.

The Chinese are already having to adapt to this reality. With bees entirely extinct in certain regions of China, many farms have resorted to hand-pollination. That is, equipped with feather-tipped paintbrushes, labourers young and old are forced to pollinate every single flower individually by hand. An exhausting, inevitably underpaid and, frankly, unnecessary task. But the problem is not exclusive to China. Almond farmers within central California, relied upon for some 82% of the worlds Almond produce, spend $290 million annually hiring bee hives in order to make up for the lack of natural pollinators. Unsurprisingly, the majority of these costs are passed down to the consumers.

Considering that wild bees are capable of providing pollination services for free, these measures are nothing short of farcical. What a phenomenally effective way to waste money – destroy the natural, free and sufficient processes and then pay to replace them. Yet these examples outline fiscal procedures soon to be employed domestically, unless drastic action is taken.

Another paradigmatic example of how we are destroying our countryside, which is attracting more and more attention thanks to the work of George Monbiot and Chris Packham, is seen in the state of our highlands, hillsides and woodlands. As a result of having to keep their lands in ‘good agricultural and environmental condition’ (as mentioned in my previous post, Ramble On) farmers are literally paid – with public money, nonetheless – to prevent the growth of vegetation. Their sheep ransack our pastures, preventing woodlands from advancing, reducing the availability of potential habitats, preventing the growth of our most effective natural carbon capture and storage sinks. All the while these farms are paid subsidies in order to remain economically profitable. Its a fiscal, ecological, climatic nightmare.

We need to fundamentally rethink how we approach farming, making it compatible with an economics which doesn’t take the environment for granted (an environmental economics‘ – see Tony Juniper’s ‘What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?’  for a fantastic introduction). Do I have the answer? No. Most definitely not. This deeply complex issue has nuances too delicate to mention upon without sufficient research and deliberation. But I do believe that a huge piece to this gigantic puzzle has already been discovered. And it’s called vertical farming.

Vertical farming, as a component of urban agriculture, is the practice of producing food in vertically stacked layers, integrated within urban structures. The general idea is to bring agriculture into the urban sphere, for the benefits this offers are unprecedented. Grown inside controlled environments, crops require no protection against ‘pests’ and thus produce no contaminated runoff. Internal climate control enables year-round, rather than seasonal, harvesting of crops – creating more and cheaper produce. Situated inside buildings, crops are inherently protected against severe weather events. They also use less than 10% of the water typically required in open-field farming. And, most notably, vertical farming radically reduces the amount of fossil fuels required in the production and transportation of the harvests as their produce is locally consumed.

Moreover, entwined within all of these advantages is a grand opportunity. An opportunity to return some our countryside back to nature. An opportunity to rewild our deserted landscape, or to at least allow it to rewild itself. An opportunity for nature to re-establish itself naturally. Pollinators, big and small, could greatly prosper and, with them, our wildlife could flourish.

With less demands upon rural farms, we could utilise unneeded land. We could reforest vast areas and allow natural floodplains to return. All the while we’d tremendously increase the capacity of our carbon capture and storage sinks, helping the fight against climate change or/and mitigate its effects. There’d be room for urban developments. Room for new towns, new houses, new opportunities to create jobs, to redistribute wealth. Vertical farming provides so many solutions.

Despite being relatively young an idea, vertical farms are already starting to spring up around the world. However, no government or city is yet committed to, nor explicitly supports, a complete transformation of their agricultural infrastructures. I expect most of them are too scared or lazy to seriously consider fundamental change. Who knows what our government here in Britain thinks of the idea. But I reckon it’s about time we asked them.

An agricultural reform is needed now more than ever. Let’s save ourselves from the inevitable collapse of our current agricultural system. If we’re lucky, we might just liberate our countryside in the process. Let’s give Britain a new lease of life.

A.C. Stark

 

 

 

Ramble On

The UK produces somewhere in the region of 500 million metric tonnes of carbon emissions annually. Mature, dense forests are amongst the most effective carbon capture and storage sinks that we know. Paul Lister, the heir to the MFI fortune, having already planted over 800,000 trees, intends to reforest and rewild some 50,000 acres of Scottish highlands. These facts speak for themselves. Regardless of what you think about Paul Lister – madman, businessman or philanthropist – what he is doing is nothing short of exceptional. Though, for some reason a naive group of ramblers tend to disagree.

Now, we’ve heard it all before, the incessant humdrum tones of free-thinking, liberals badgering on about the importance of tackling global warming. As they tell us again and again the same old hypotheses of what’ll happen if we fail to take it seriously, it’s easy to switch off. It’s not that we don’t believe them. It’s not that we don’t care. It’s that we feel un-empowered, entirely incapable of contributing toward any significant change. The fact that the UK has approximately 220,000 farmland holdings which cover roughly 71% of the land mass, underscores the issue. With a population approaching 65 million, this equates to roughly 0.34% of the population controlling what we do with the vast majority of our countryside (and country!).

Unfortunately for us, our farmers are encouraged to keep their land in ‘good agricultural and environmental condition’ (GAEC) in order to receive full government subsidies. Which, skipping all the technicalities, requires keeping the land clear of any foliage to enable grazing, water flow, land conversions, etc. Whilst many farmers argue for the necessity of vast grazing pastures, the evidence is heavily stacked against them (see George Monbiot’s Feral or his blog for details). Ultimately, this means that taxpayers, the un-empowered majority, are paying farmers to destroy the land. We finance a subversion of landscapes which are, or could quite easily become, effective carbon capture and storage sinks. In turn, we create broad, bare and lifeless areas, uninhabitable to the majority of our native fauna.

This is why we switch off. When presented with the facts about global warming, most would agree that creating carbon-absorbing landscapes should be at the top of our priorities. Mitigating the inevitability of widespread population crises, the consequence of a world torn apart by extreme weather systems, with food and resource shortages and inexorable political mismanagement, is clearly in everyone’s interest (mine, yours, all systems, states and businesses, even ramblers; everyone’s!). Yet, it appears we’re doing quite the opposite. Far from mitigating, we’re proliferating, and it feels almost impossible for us to do anything otherwise.

And that’s why Paul Lister’s plans are admirable and why the ramblers ought to retract their condemnation of his work: Lister is going against the grain. He is doing what the disenfranchised would do, had they the power. He’s building something that serves the interests of everyone. He’s building a carbon storage sink, and we ought to encourage more people in comparable positions to do the same.

In an attempt to avoid appearing entirely biased I will concede that the subject of the ramblers discontent truly is an issue, albeit one of far less magnitude. Lister’s vision of rewilding his Alladale Estate is controversial for a variety of reasons. Not least being his plan to fence off the entire area, which currently spans 23,000 acres. Not only would this cut off a number of public footpaths (potentially contravening The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000) but having recently applied for a zoo licence, some believe Lister intends on creating a lucrative paradise for native fauna, simulating private South African wildlife reserves which allow access exclusively to those wealthy enough to pay a hefty premium. So, those who disregard Lister’s plans do so for reasons of law, liberty or equality.

I tend to sympathise with these arguments. I think it’d be an incredible feet if were able to ramble on throughout a rewilded highlands. Just imagine walking through a vast densely packed forest with trees as thick as coaches are long, exploring natural marshlands, rivers and lakes, following the tracks of elk or wolves even, watching nuthatches break nuts upon the trunks of trees older than our great-great-great… great grandfathers, or sea eagles plummeting through the canopies; imagine being able to appreciate the true honesty of a healthy and diverse natural woodland. That being said, tackling global warming clearly supersedes any desires we have to explore an enchanted wood or quell issues of liberty and equality. It’s not that liberty and equality are unimportant – far from it! It’s that when sacrifices are necessary, we mustn’t sacrifice our chances of escaping the event horizon of global warming.

I’m not entirely sure what Lister’s bigger plans are. I’m also undecided as to whether he yet deserves the title of philanthropist. But I do know that his rewilding projects are extremely commendable and serve to preserve something much greater than a mere walkway.

Quit rambling, ramblers.

A.C. Stark