Last week I wrote a short blog on what I thought the three most pressing environmental problems were. For all three I gave a brief assessment on the will to deal with them. In no particular order I decided to deal with particulate pollution first. This is in part due to several things I read in the paper. The first is that air pollution is linked to changes in heart structure. Its been known for many years that particulate pollution causes heart disease now a recent study may suggest why. The second is my councils potential new transport strategy.
Its obvious that most pollution is caused particulates from transport (mostly diesel) with some contribution from other combustion such as open fires/wood burners and gas central heating systems. The political problem is considerable. Governments/councils are frightened to take on the motoring lobby. They have hidden behind blaming wood burners. They have also promised a transition to electric vehicles. Wood burners make a contribution (or at least wood burning does, it may be open fires) although there are many more cars on the road than wood burners or open fires. Switching to electric vehicles will help but 50% of the particulate pollution comes from the tyres/brakes/road etc so this is a help but not a total solution. Also as we pointed out in our book electric vehicles don’t solve the shear unpleasant nature of traffic infested cities.
Edinburgh council is bravely preparing to take on motorists with a plan to severely restrict cars in the centre of the city thus reclaiming the streets for cyclists and pedestrians, as well as public transport. Edinburgh is a growing city with an increasing number of tourists. At the moment the city is rammed full of cars (most driven by local residents but also some tourists). The only solution to particulate pollution and traffic volume is to ban cars from the city centre, encourage cycling and improve public transport. The council is going to start with a series of car free Sundays (this will affect my church so I will see the effects first hand) and consulate the public on further measures to extend the ban more permanently.
Climate change is bad for your health. The whole of the northern hemisphere has been suffering from a heatwave this summer. The technical cause is the path of the jetstream. However the path of this is affected by other factors – its complicated. What’s not so complicated is the outcome. Very high temperatures. Records have been broken in Japan and almost in Europe. In southern Europe and California and even inside the Arctic circle in Sweden there have been very bad forest fires.
Its not just trees that are dying though. Or animals. Humans have been dying as well in large numbers. Climate change is bad for your health. Not just your mental health as we looked at in recent post but physical health as well. The health system in the UK has been operating at winter levels and there have been lots of deaths even in countries which are more used to the heat. Its obvious that if you are elderly or younger with a variety of underlying health conditions extreme heat conditions are not good for you.
What makes the situation more difficult is when the temperature doesn’t drop at night. People in Portugal who are more used to the heat were being driven crazy by the night time temperatures a few weeks ago*. All this is yet another reason to act as these very hot summers become the norm.
*In Germany a store was selling people time in a walk in freezer. Not very eco friendly.
Hearing an article on the news on plastics the other day got me thinking about I thought were the three pressing environmental problems. I came up with plastic pollution, Climate change (obviously) and particulate pollution. I’m going to have a look at each one in separate blog posts first looking at particulate pollution. But considering each one is there a political will to deal with and societal will, which there has to be in every case since significant lifestyle changes are inevitable?
I think on plastics there is. There are an increasing number of techno fixes and there is massive public backing for solution to what is partly a litter problem caused by a small minority. “Blue planet” really did have an effect. I think in 5 years there will be huge progress on sustainable alternatives. The huge problem will be dealing with what’s out already there.
On climate change we are half way there. There is a good deal of political and societal will but not enough. Some people think this summer’s northern hemisphere’s heat wave is a tipping point. I hope they are right, but such moments have been predicted before.
On the last of our three pressing environmental problems particulate pollution I think we have a long way to go. For the most part we are talking about traffic pollution although in India and China there are other causes such as coal and wood burning combined with other natural sources. Governments reaching are for the electric car as a solution. This is only a partial one. We will start looking at this most pressing of problems first with an proposed scheme in my city of residence.
This site supports all sorts of tax reforms, a citizens income, a carbon ration and also a land value tax. What has the land value tax got to do with the environment? I’ll come to that but first a brief history of local taxation in the UK.
In the beginning was the rates. Actually I’m not sure this was the beginning but was certainly the system of local taxation as I knew it. Property had a rateable value set by local government (notionally based on the property value). The owner then paid a sum each year. The money was meant to go towards local services although gradually over my lifetime the amount of money collected locally has declined and now most (about 80%) of money spent by local government comes as a block grant from central governments in the UK. With austerity this block grant has been cut back hard meaning huge cuts to services. The rates system seemed to work reasonably well it wasn’t widely popular but there were no major uprisings against it.
Then came Thatcher. Mrs Thatcher didn’t like local government. She did everything she could to undermine it. The Tories didn’t like the rates system at all. They thought it was paying for local government excess with the wealthier paying more. The official objection (which I will return to below) was that for a little old lady in the big house who was cash poor it was unfair. The Adam Smith Institute in Scotland came up with the idea of the “poll tax” a flat rate tax per person not per property. In other words a millionaire would pay the same a dustman (as it was put at the time). Scots Tories persuaded Thatcher to introduce it in Scotland a year (1989) before England (1990) (in pre-devolutionary times). It went down like a bucket of cold cyanide. The Scots refused to pay. The English rioted. (Those are the only major national trait differences in my view).
The whole debacle helped (along with Europe!) bring down Thatcher. John Major came to power and realised he could not win an election with it in place. Civil servants who presumably were working off their own bat came up with a fusion of the rates and the poll tax called the council tax. This was based on the property value with bands A-H but each person resident pays. There are exceptions and discounts for single people. In the lower bands (A) the tax is reasonably progressive but at the top end its capped so those in huge mansions pay the same as someone in a smaller expensive house. With Labour in power the tax went up (higher than inflation) with the Tories back in it was squeezed again (meaning cuts in local services) (the increases set by national government). Its never been popular but the main problem was governments in the UK (post devolution) have feared revaluing the bands (with the exception of Wales and that was in 2003). In Scotland the Nats toyed with the idea of a local income tax. This was a misnomer it was an additional national income tax that would have been collected by Holyrood and then parcelled out by them to local government giving them a stranglehold over local government. Luckily it was dropped.
Here we stand with no one very happy. The Department of Economics at Oxford University has had another look at the idea of a Land Value Tax (LVT). This idea is used in Singapore (Denmark?) amongst other places. The idea is that you tax the value of the land, not the property on it. This pure LVT has been toyed with by some political parties in the UK such as labour in the past (they are thinking about it again). The main objection to it is that of the little old lady above (remember her) and the fact that would be at a higher rate than the council tax. However in Denmark where I believe its used you are allowed to defer it until you die then your estate pays it (this has some disadvantages in my view but could be tweaked). How much you would pay depends on the % of the land value is set at.
The clever people at Oxford have come to a scheme that avoids the “garden tax” middle England Daily Mail headlines. The tax would have three elements. An element based on the value of the land, an element based on the % of the land built on and an element based on the eco accreditation of the buildings on it. The first would encourage developers to stop sitting on land they own waiting the value of it to rise (land banking) and would ease the housing crisis. A land value tax would also its believed slow down house price rises. The second element would protect green space within cities and the third would encourage the nations housing stock to become more eco friendly. The authors make a lot more suggestions to fix the UK’s broken housing market and the whole proposal can be seen here.
Does cycling racing success encourage cycling in everyday life? This is the question I’ve been thinking about since Geraint Thomas won the tour. It seems to be question that not many people are either thinking about or have an answer to since there does not seem to be any information out there on it. When I say everyday life I mean in crude terms does Geraint’s win make people make the step of cycling to work or the shops? As opposed to leisure cycling.
I’d like to think it does but I’m not sure. At least with older people. I think his win will encourage many children to have a go at competitive cycling. Most of course will not go onto win the tour or anything like it, but hopefully they will continue to cycle in later life. I started cycling seriously as a teenager (around town), gave it up when I passed my driving test and then took it up again as a student. London – no helmet – doesn’t bear thinking about. So if the Froome’s and Thomas’s and Hoy’s can encourage children to get on their bikes they will be doing us all a favour.
Cycling as a means of transport is on a gently rising curve in the UK but there does not seem to any correlation with our sporting success. Its more to do with lifestyle/environment/traffic concerns.
Climate change is regarded as a threat to all sorts of things, civilisation itself, wine, beer, skiing…. Now there is said to be a link between climate change and mental health. So far there has been too little action. You would have thought the threats to wine and beer would be enough? Now a group at Berkeley California has found a correlation between rising temperature and suicide. For a 1ºC rise in temperature suicides in Mexico and the US went up 2.1 and 0.7%. It has to be said that if you search for climate change and mental health all sorts of links to all sorts of mental conditions come up not just suicide.
Of course correlation is not causation. There is some evidence to support their assertion from social media with higher temperatures in these places people are more unhappy. So what’s going on? I’m happy when its warmer. I’m sitting in the garden in the sun and its stewing. However the difference is in the UK heat and a decent summer is an added bonus. Living somewhere where its already hot to start with and it gets even hotter I can see could drive people to desperation. Of course its probably not just the heat but that is the final tipping point. It seems likely that increasingly hot summers could lead to 10,000’s of thousands of deaths worldwide and are another reason to do something about climate change.
Somewhere recently I read that renewable energy investment had stalled and according to the latest report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) this is true. Overall energy investment declined (which is in itself surprising). By 2% in real terms. But this energy investment was in “conventional” sources of energy nuclear, coal and hydro. Renewable energy investment in the from of solar continues to soar. Offshore wind investment also soared but this was offset by a fall in onshore wind and hydro. Overall there was a 7% fall in Renewable energy investment. Nevertheless investment in conventional sources makes up two thirds of all investment still. (I wonder how long before we call solar conventional?) There is still an ongoing shift towards cleaner sources of energy though its % has fallen slightly this year with a modest increase in oil and gas spending.
Solar costs are still continuing to fall (by a huge 15%) last year as well. This bodes well for the future.
There is a huge increase in electric and hybrid car sales and they now make up 1% of all sales globally. The IEA interestingly give an estimate of their reduction in oil demand. Its 30,000bpd. To put this in context oil demand is about 98 million currently.
Heat pump sales have continued to soar although from a low base. As this blog has covered before several times renewable heat is a problem. Solar hot collector sales although high in value terms continued a long term decline (why)?
Finally encouragingly investment in energy efficiency continued to grow albeit more slowly than in previous years. Much of this is due to the fitting of LED’s which is very cost effective. Worryingly energy intensity reductions are slowing though and this is one to watch as we need to cut our energy use sharply in the West so as to allow the developing world more energy use to catch up.
I’ve been reminded about indirect gadget energy use this week. I’ve blogged on this before but the article I read was a real eye opener. Here are some of the claims.
- Soon data centres will have a bigger carbon footprint than the aviation industry (and that is big).
- Bitcoin “mining” will use produce more CO2 than 1 million flights.
- Most astonishing of all. The use of the internet in Japan by 2030 may use more power than the countries current generating capacity.
There are two trends going on here. The first is that the devices we actually use are getting more efficient. The EU has pioneered this. So my new sophisticated boiler has a standby of 1W, my laptop uses less power than my old one etc. This however is being outdone by the “internet of things”. This connectivity which we are just at the start of will increase the “need” for big data. (I would question whether its desirable to have an internet connected fridge).
The second trend is more and more people are getting connected to the internet. This is great especially in the developing world but it does mean that the internets’ energy use is rising. Of course this is countered by the trend of more efficient sever centres, with companies putting them in cold places or even trying them underwater. Plus computer are getting more energy efficient.
Is there a solution to indirect gadget energy use? I’m not sure there really is. We can hold the big tech companies to account on where their power is coming from. But ultimately we need to learn to be less obsessive bout our devices.
I’ve been thinking about insect armageddon a bit over the last few days. With one of these rare very hot summers (by that I mean no rain and consistent sunny days) I have been out in the garden a lot. There has been a lot of talk of insect armageddon over the last year or so. As more flowers have come out (and due to the very long cold winter many are late) I’ve been examining the insect population. Or rather lack of it. Earlier on in the year bumblebees were out on my thistle (below) which they love.
To be fair the plant is past its best but insects there are none. Another plant they love is the sage. This year its noticeably had less flowers, but also very few bees visiting. Another herb they love is oregano. Bees and hoverflies fight over the small mauve flowers. This years visitors are almost absent although the flowers have only just come out. Encouragingly there were two honeybees on the flowers earlier. Its really rare to see a honeybee at all. Its not just bees but hoverflies, flies and the irritating midges that live in the vegetable patch and only bite you under your clothes and you don’t notice the bites for 24 hours are also in low numbers. There are very few social wasps, I have yet to to see any solitary bees or many of the more unusual social wasps or parasitic wasps. When we went to the highlands in the first week of June there were myriad insects of all sizes and types where we were staying but few elsewhere. Our car had few insects on its number plate something that has continued since and was noticeable last year.
Another strange thing is that both my neighbours had bumble bee nests along my boundary. Both have disappeared something I found in the past when I had a nest on my compost heap. Logically I would expect them to last out the whole summer.
This is all anecdotal but does suggest a drop in numbers. This has very serious implications for the natural world and for us. We need these pollinators. I’m hoping that the strange weather we went straight from winter to summer may have something to do with it and next year numbers will recover. However I fear its pollution and climate change.
People are coming up with new uses for roads apart from for driving. I heard this week of a researcher in India who is experimenting with using plastic combined with tarmac to build road surfaces. Whilst this is not a new use per se its a way of tying up carbon and also a use for waste plastic which we know is a huge problem at the moment. Apparently the waste plastic prevents potholes forming. A company in Scotland is also trying using plastic as a road surface.
I learnt today of others coming up with new uses for roads. These include embedding solar PV in them (surely relies on less traffic over time not more). Growing flowers to encourage bees and even growing crops. The short film was sold as making toilet paper. I suppose you would not want to eat food grown in the central reservation, but then I’m not sure I would want to eat honey produced by bees foraging there either. Bees are very sensitive to pollution so I suppose this is one way of indirectly measuring it. I’m not absolutely sold on with of these new uses for roads (apart from the use of waste plastic), but keep thinking people.