abuse of land

wheatOne of the big environmental problems at the moment is abuse of land.  Climate change is making it harder to grow food.  (In a small amateur way, I experience this.)  But also abuse of land makes climate change worse.  Then you have got the problem of increasing population and how to feed them and the use of land for other stuff like biofuels.

Its a really major conundrum.  There isn’t much good news except perhaps on population.  There are increasing indications that birth rates are plunging globally.  There are some exceptions, like most of Africa, but in the last few week we’ve learnt that UK birth rates are way below replacement level.  Up until now migrant groups have had birth rates which has meant the UK population is set to increase, but now rates in this group have plunged as well.  The global population is set to increase until 2050 though, so its still a challenge.

On the land use problem there is not such good news.  UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been looking for some solutions.

They believe we need to:

  • Protect as much forest as we can, particularly tropical rainforest.
  • Eat less red meat and more vegetables.
  • Safeguard peatlands and restore them where possible.
  • Grow plants and trees to produce energy, but only on a small local scale.
  • Do more agro-forestry, where food crops are mixed in with trees.
  • Improve crop varieties to cope with climate change/increased diseases.

There is also a debate going on about whether its best to try and do the above on a large scale or grow food and other stuff in an intensive climate unfriendly manner on a smaller area but effectively rewild unused land to soak up CO2.  Neither option is an easy one.  Both will be challenging.  For example switching from one form of vegetable cultivation to another may make soil erosion worse.

As a general point I would say we need to eat more vegetables grown as closely as possible to our plate.  Plant as many trees as possible (whilst protecting those we have), after all there are a recent report stated many places where the land is is too poor for growing food and cut down on meat eating.


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One thing we have learnt this week – Greta Thunberg is to sail across the Atlantic

Image may contain: sky, ocean, boat, cloud, outdoor, water and nature

Greta Thunberg is to sail across the Atlantic to a UN climate conferences in the US and Chile.  The yacht is owned by a German property developer, Gerhard Senft and built for the Vendée Global race.  Greta will not be travelling in any kind of luxury.  The boat doesn’t even have a toilet.  There is some kind of bucket apparently.  There is no shower and the eight PV modules and turbine on the hull purely power the ship electronics, so no internet.  There is no fridge and a basic camping cooker.  Greta her father and the others going with her will have to crew.  Apparently they do not have much sailing experience.  The trip will take about 2 weeks.  She has still to work out how she will get to Chile.

I’m surprised the boat is quite so basic, the boat above which belongs to a friend has a shower and a toilet along with a fridge and built in cooker.  The small wind turbine keeps the batteries charged the great majority of the time although it does have a diesel engine.  I can only assume the Malizia is purely built for speed and all the above is purely regarded as something that slows it down.

News Corp’s Andrew Bolt in Australia has attacked both Greta and the decision to sail to America.  But hey if you cannot win the argument attack the messenger…

Of course all this does raise a big issue.  In a post oil world intercontinental travel is going to be very very difficult and time consuming.   Greta considered all sorts of other options but decided cruise ships had too higher emissions.  I assume she thought freighters which often do allow a limited number of passengers the same.  Greta Thunberg is to sail across the Atlantic to a heroines welcome from various campaigners and I’m really jealous I would love to sail across to America.


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New nuclear to be paid for up front?

New nuclear to be paid for up front by consumers?  The UK government’s determination to build new nuclear against all the facts never ceases to amaze me.  It seems implicitly that the government accepts that Hinkley Point C was a bad deal in which the consumer is going to pay dearly during its lifetime and I would argue footing the bill for the cleanup and waste.  But far from giving up the government is pressing on trying to get the rest of the so far failed schemes off the the ground.

The latest wheeze out for doing this is the so-called “regulated asset base”, or RAB model.  This model is being used to construct the super sewer under London and has been criticised for giving excessive money to shareholders whilst landing the consumer with higher water bills.

How does it work?  Well get your head around this.  The consumer pays in chunks for the construction up front.  Sounds alright doesn’t it?  But there’s more so read on.   The next question is what happens when as always does costs of nuclear construction soar?  No problem, at least not if your EDF!  The government i.e the taxpayer underwrites the extra costs!   OK so the next question that would be on most peoples minds is of course….  costs soar so much that the new plant becomes untenable.  What then?  That’s easy, you’ve guessed it.  We the taxpayer pay compensation to EDF or whoever it is to withdraw.  What could possibly go wrong?

The National Infrastructure Commission a quango set up by the government to advise on big infrastructure project think the whole idea is a disaster.  In fact they seem to have changed their tune on nuclear and think that renewables are so much cheaper we shouldn’t bother with it.  What’s in it for the developer?  We pay the construction costs, they make the profits.  We, or our great-grandchildren will have to sort out the waste issue and supposedly we get cheaper electricity than would otherwise be the case.

New nuclear to be paid for up front?  No thanks.  There is a consultation here if you are interested.


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One thing we have learnt this week – fuel poverty grows

DSC_1715Fuel poverty grows.  Actually this might be better news than it first sounds.  Unusually for a Tory government which normally massages figures so that there appears to be less poverty than it really is, this one has done the opposite.  Quite frankly its so surprising I wonder whether May did it to dump on Boris.

It might be good news since those in fuel poverty (now 3.66 million on the revised figures) get help.  The ideas is to move all homes for the fuel poor up band C energy efficiency by 2030.  The main problem is this is going to take a lot of money (£15.8 billion) and is going very very slowly.  At such a snail’s like pace that on current rates it will take 96 years.  Currently the government is spending £6 billion.  In the meanwhile energy prices are not exactly falling, fuel poverty grows and the problem is getting worse – not better.  In the meanwhile since subsidy cuts were made the rate of energy efficiency measures generally has fallen by 85% since 2014.

There clearly needs to be a step change in commitment to get this problem solved in less than a geological timescale and its hard to avoid the conclusion that the government doesn’t really care despite the climate emergency.


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Air passengers may have to a pay carbon offset tax.

1280px-heathrow_lon_04_07_77Air passengers may have to pay a carbon offset tax.  “Failing Grayling” the soon to be gone transport minister? is consulting on some kind of carbon offset tax on transport.  Although air travel is mentioned at the top of the newspaper article (since its the most controversial aspect of it) it might apply to all forms of transport.  Of course with a new Prime Minister taking over today everything might change and seems unlikely Grayling will keep his post.  Even if he does, he has an uncanny way of turning gold to base metal and screwing anything up he goes near.  In the process wasting vast amounts of taxpayers money.

In the admittedly unlikely event this goes ahead, would a carbon offset tax be a good idea?  I have my doubts.  At the moment very few people who fly offset.  The main danger is that it acts as a get out of jail free card.  I offset then I can fly.  There is actually a risk that people might fly more often therefore making things worse.  It also assumes offsetting schemes work.  Have come across one where all the trees had died of something (not sure what) and that was in the UK.  Many of these schemes are in the developing world.  Overcoming corruption and keeping an eye on what is happening to the money is going to be tricky and who would decide what the money would be invested in anyway.

On the plus side anything that raises the price of flying and driving and makes people think about what they are doing would be good.


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One thing we have learnt this week – Goldsmith Street is the future

Another week and another look at architecture.  This time its Goldsmith Street in Norwich.  Last time I had a quick look at refurbishment.  Refurbishment is clearly more eco friendly with the rider that it maybe very difficult to get to very high levels of energy efficiency.  There is no such excuse for new build, except there is.  The UK government cut the mandatory need for very highly efficient housing in England and there seems to be no particular laws in Scotland either.  So its impressive that Norwich council when they decided they had to build new council housing after many years of not doing so designed  Goldsmith Street to passive house standard.  But it goes beyond that with some very thoughtful design.  For starters the bins are hidden.  A nice touch.

Passive houses at least in this country have a reputation for being clunky looking.  Although personally I think they look OK.  They are usually on their own as solo ‘Grand Design’ projects.  This project is bigger.  There are three rows that back onto each other.  Space needed thinking about.  The architects packed them in tighter than they would normally do (14m apart).  There were two issues that immediately arose.  The first is privacy.  This was sorted by designing the placement of windows to minimise overlooking.  The second which is very important to passive design is the capture of natural light for solar gain.  The architects cleverly angled the roofs so that the terraces to the north or not blocked by the ones to the south in winter.  I know how much difference solar gain makes.  There is another advantage to this from the design point of view.  It gives some variety to the housing.

The houses were clearly demanding for the builders to construct.  The passive design calls for very level of air tightness.  But this attention to detail has paid off.  They look OK and the bills will be no more than £150.  The only question is why all houses are not being built to this standard.


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Granby St


Granby St is a street in Liverpool 8 postal district.  In fact when we talk about it we are talking about 4 streets.  Its near to Toxteth where there were riots in the 1980’s.  The area had been declining for years before that and this decline accelerated afterwards. Since then Liverpool has to a certain extent recovered although life for many of residents is still hard.  In this context the story of Granby St is both inspiring and instructive.   The residents decided they’d had enough of boarded up empty houses, demolition and the threat of demolition so they did two things.  They started guerrilla gardening in the street and fighting further demolition.  It took decades of struggle to start winning and in the meanwhile they set up a community land trust.   The definition comes from the Granby Four streets CLT website.

A Community Land Trust (CLT) is a not for profit community-based organisation run by volunteers that delivers housing and other community facilities at permanently affordable levels for local people.

Then in 2015 the design collective Assemble won the Turner prize for its work on Granby St.  Its just opened a winter garden in a house on the street.  This is like a greenhouse with trees inside it.  The Winter Garden as it is known was inspired by a house with a tree growing inside of it.  The CLT has done up 10 houses which are for sale at below the average Liverpool price or for rent at half the average rent (tied to local wages).

So why is all this on the blog?  There are a number of lessons here to do with sustainability.

First there is no reason to demolish the houses.  The houses are small but attractive and can be restored, which is more sustainable than building new ones.  The record on moving people out to new estates is not a happy one.

Second the area has been beautified with gardens and plants.

Third arts and crafts businesses have been started which are also based around recycling materials from the houses that cannot be saved.

There is clearly a long way to go and progress is slower than the local residents would like but this whole project is an inspiration.


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One thing we have learnt this week – how many trees does it take to save the planet

Beech trees on St Cuthberts wayHow many trees does it take to save the planet?  This is a question I’ve been asking myself for a while as I have a developing interest in re-wilding.  I was going to try to find some data to do a rough calculation but fortunately a group of academics have beaten me to it.  The answer is its a lot of trees (a trillion) but a surprisingly small amount of land area (11%).  The land area is the equivalent to US and China combined.  Yes that’s a lot, but the researchers have not proposed any trees on agricultural land except where there are grazing animals.  They say trees can benefit such land use.  If you look at the maps then the tree cover looks sparce if everyone does a bit.  They have also not considered tree planting in urban areas where there is huge scope.   Another aspect of tree planting that could be considered is the use of trees for growing food, either directly or indirectly.  How much CO2 will it mop up?  A whopping 66% of what’s in the atmosphere that’s been put there by humans.  That’s a lot.

Will this happen.  I believe it will.  There is a growing realisation that trees are good for our health and wellbeing.  Planting trees is never going to be unpopular.  A couple of warnings though.  Trees need looking after and its no substitute for cutting emissions in other ways.  How many trees does it take to save the planet?  A lot, but its doable.  Lets get on with it.


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The joys and lessons of commuting with a bike

2016-09-14-17-16-48I’ve spent two weeks on holiday and two weeks on a course hence the lack of posts on FB and the blog.  The course required commuting.  It was near enough to my mum to allow me to stay with her and far enough to be a hassle.  I originally thought I would use her car and drive.  Then I looked into the trains and thought about commuting with a bike.  My mother’s car is a diesel bought when they were thought to be more eco friendly.  She doesn’t use it much and is about to stop driving.  In the end I decided to drive would probably take as long and would be just as stressful.  (Notionally according to google and bing maps this is untrue).  I also think you have to practice what you preach.  So for two weeks I took two trains and cycled 3 miles in each direction.  What have I learnt?

Information is contradictory.  The rail companies gave different information about whether I was allowed to travel with my bike in the rush hour.  In fact I was.  Ditto whether I could use my ticket on the inter city trains.  Ditto I was.  Although apparently not the 08:10 Virgin train from New St.

Cost.  £9 return; probably could have got this cheaper.  Taking £0.45/mile as the true cost of running the car (depreciation/fuel etc) then the train would be cheaper.  A surprise.  I would paid my mum for the fuel.  In actual fact I had to spend a load of money on my bike (tyres/wheel straightening) although this has needed doing for years (second bike) so now its good for some time.

Bikes on trains.  With Virgin you have to book in advance, which for practical reasons was not possible if you are commuting with a bike.  Others you turn up, albeit for limited spaces.  After a few days of struggling on and off trains in the rush hour I risked leaving my bike at the destination station.  This worked very well.  There were at least 100 other bikes there and I spoke to some police you were keeping an eye on them.  My fellow commuters did not appreciate the bike, although the bond between cyclists is amazing.

Commuters.  The trains were rammed pretty much all the day.  Those who oppose HS2 on capacity grounds are wrong (although I think there are better alternatives).  Part of the problem is that people chose to live a long way from where they work.  I experienced this where I used to work.  The lab moved location.  The old one was fairly near the station the new location wasn’t.  Many people commuted 30 miles and suddenly they had a huge problem.  Last week I met people who commuted very long distances.  Another problem is the companies run too shorter trains.  Its all about money of course.  I learnt which trains were quietest.

Its not just commuters.  There are a lot of homeless people who ride the trains now.  One man tried to beg off us.  Its obvious why especially in winter, but desperately sad.

Its not just the train stupid.   Commuting with a bike is also about cycling!  I gradually improved my cycle route to make it safer.  Most of it was on an off road cycle route (tarmacked).  This was a national cycle route.  I used the rest of it when I worked it out.  There are no reliable on line maps of the cycle routes as I write this.


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Electrified railways a short history

In the last post I had a quick look at the controversy over electrified railways in the north of England but the history of electrification is both interesting and meshes quite well with the ethos of this site.  The first electric railway in the world was demonstrated at a Berlin fair in 1879.  The first electric railway in the UK was pleasure railway in Brighton, England (1883).  Its still working.  Illustrating one of the many advantages of electrification, longevity. The same year a line in Austria was opened using overhead wires.  From that point forward progress was slow.  The first obvious targets for electrification were underground lines.  In 1890 parts of the London Underground were electrified and parts of the Mersey rail system (which has long tunnels under the Mersey).

By the 1930’s very large numbers of countries had some electrified lines.  There were several major problems to overcome and these are still present today.  An existing technology (in those days steam was dominant and this was hard to replace.  The Swedes did the maths and decided coal was very expensive in 1920.  By the time they had electrified the ore line to Narvik in Norway the price had plunged.  Nevertheless the advantages of electric traction (speed and reliability) outweighed this and they increased their electrification in the 1930’s.  However, steam was still dominant until the 60’s, then in some countries like the UK diesel took over.

Another issue at least in the UK and France until after the war was that the rail companies were private.  This is now potentially an issue again (in the UK).  This made it more difficult to come up with a common standard which as the Swedes found reduced costs.  However most European countries had state owned railways in the 1930’s which does not explain the slow uptake.

Looking at the maps of electrification in the 1930’s one thing stands out.  There is a clear correlation between where the lines were electrified first and hydropower.   This is particularly clear in the map shown below.


Intriguingly as you will see from the map there is almost no electrification in the alpine sections.  This is because the route ownership was different.  What is also surprising was that what we think of as pioneers of electric traction such as Norway (now 64% electrified) had low levels, probably due to the dominance of steam mentioned above.  The same link between hydropower and electric railways was seen in Germany and Austria.  Indeed the Austrians built power stations specially.  Swiss federal railways were largely electrified. What is surprising that countries without hydropower had the same levels of electrification (Belgium, Denmark, Holland) as Norway.  These four electrified suburban commuter lines first.  Although the % of total lines was low the % of total traffic was much higher.

There was one last advantage that countries that electrified lines found, that it increased traffic.  This is especially true in the UK where Southern railways electrified lines that were quiet and built coal fired power stations to provide the electricity.   In Belgium they started with the boat train lines to increase speed.

The battle in the UK continues with about a third electrified (below European average) despite the many clear advantage outlined above.  There is little doubt that we will need to increase this total greatly over the near future.


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