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Greenest Government Ever (But Not Just Yet)

August 18, 2010

Over three months have whizzed by since the installation of the self-styled ‘Greenest Government ever’, but matters environmental are sliding further down the agenda – not necessarily due to a faltering of ministerial commitment, but because of a simple lack of cash.

Take the Environmental Performance Standard (EPS), which would have compelled power companies to restrict greenhouse gas emissions from coal and gas plants.  David Cameron had been an enthusiast when in opposition, but it’s not now going to feature in the autumn’s legislative programme in which priority will surely be given to measures that reduce the oft-quoted deficit.  So instead, officials will be looking at the wider picture of fossil fuel emissions over what remains of the summer.  It seems not  everyone is holidaying in August, as further summer deliberation is the name of the game with the Renewable Heat Incentive too.  There is speculation that this might not be introduced in April 2011 after all.  Ministers at DECC are still keen, but the Treasury is not in a mood to support schemes which, at least initially, will take money out of the public purse.

Although not strictly speaking an environmental body, the Commission for Rural Communities is an independent advocate for affordable rural housing and the rolling-out of broadband.  Not for much longer: it is to be scrapped and its functions brought in-house within Defra, where they will have to compete with the myriad other issues in the civil service and ministerial intrays.

Natural England, meanwhile, will potentially lose one third of its workforce.  Grants to British Waterways could be withdrawn, and the Environment Agency will have to cut spending on pollution and waste controls. 

However, those of us – most people, that is – outside the control rooms of Westminster have to recognise that what we term ‘the environment’  is vital but not urgent in the context of the short timescales involved in reducing public debt quickly, and the general to-ing and fro-ing of parliamentary life.  We cannot criticise the Government for reserving its meagre funds for rebalancing the books, job creation schemes (though these seem thin on the ground too, and could be boosted by renewable energy investment – a subject for another debate), not to mention health and social care. 

Even the greenest person has to live his or her life in the grey present.  The payoff for many environmental measures is some way in the future.  If your household possessions are at risk of floating off down the street in a torrent of water this winter, you may have cause to be grateful for the Environment Agency’s ringfenced flood defence spending.  This work takes up half of its budget, so it is inevitable that its more specifically ‘environmental’ duties – such as tackling pollution – have to be put off till the economic climate brightens.

A postscript: your blogger will shortly experience a climate of a different kind as he is spending a few months on a voluntary work placement in India.  Keep an eye out for an occasional posting – on solar energy or who knows what else – by the autumn-in-Sussex-enjoying SolarUK team.


Diversity of apples and frogs could secure all our futures

August 11, 2010

The Golden Toad, a Costa Rican native last sighted in 20 years ago and one of the stars of our Last Chance to See blog posting, might not be extinct after all.  It might just resurface as a result of the  international search for ‘lost’ amphibian species announced this week.  It’s not merely of interest to biologists, or to admirers of its striking orange skin: along with other frogs and toads, it’s particularly vulnerable to environmental change and is therefore gives advance warning of adverse patterns which could affect us all.  What’s more, the chemicals in their skins can be used to make lifesaving drugs – for us humans, not the frogs.

From Russia, meanwhile, come reports that the world’s first global seed bank, the Pavlovsk agricultural station, is facing the prospect of being obliterated by a new housing estate, wiping out a collection of plants established over 85 years.

Fortunately, there are international organisations working as hard as ever to maintain plant diversity.  The BGCI (Botanic Gardens Conservation International) aims to ensure that specimens of species under threat are kept in garden collections in case the worst happens and they become extinct in the wild.

Like the aforementioned amphibians, plant species at risk include those with known or potential medicinal uses.  The BGCI has published the results of its year-long investigation into the state of medicinal plant species around the world, highlighting the role botanic collections must continue to play.  Plant-based medicines are especially vital to the populations of developing countries.

Closer to home, this is the time of year when the first UK apples of the season appear in our shops.  If you haven’t yet discovered the Discovery, then August is the month to sample its delicious pink-tinged flesh.

If we don’t keep up a healthy supply of and demand for our lesser-known apple varieties, we risk losing them and thus coming to rely on Braeburns, Royal Galas and an alarmingly shallow gene pool.

Meanwhile, there is a ‘Red List’ of Central Asian fruit trees, the ancestors of British varieties, which could disappear for ever unless prompt action is taken.  The geography of the mountainous former Soviet republics, with their scattered enclaves, means that the species are genetically highly diverse and have a higher tolerance of pests and disease than the mass-produced likes of Granny Smiths. 

So in the interests of biodiversity, if you have an interesting variety of apple tree in your garden defend it with some of the passion of the Russian scientists who starved to death while Leningrad was under seige rather than eat the Pavlovsk’s priceless collection of seeds and plants.

Long live raw milk

August 4, 2010

Like toothpaste and loo paper, milk is one of those household goods we must not run out of.  While we probably all know something about the environmental impact of consuming particular foods (fine beans flown in from Kenya, cod caught in the wrong stretch of sea), these can be easily avoided whereas you have probably drunk the ubiquitous white stuff less than three hours before reading this – in your coffee, on your cereal…

A recent UN report found that nearly 3% of the planet’s greenhouse gas emissions result from milk production.  This includes the processing and transportation of milk as well as its production, which probably had a bearing on the suggestion by Defra a few years ago that there should be a radical shift to non-refrigerated milk – UHT, that is.  This would reduce the need for chiller space in supermarkets (indeed, it is the chiller compartments that are the chief villains as far as our big retailers’ carbon footprints are concerned).

Of course, plenty of brickbats were thrown at the UHT idea, including the warning that the UK dairy herd would be decimated.  With dairy farming already on the backfoot the civil servants, probably wisely, took their idea no further.

Interestingly, most of the milk consumed in France, that bastion of good taste, is UHT, compared to only around 8% here.  Maybe they think it’s only the pressed curd of milk (i.e. cheese) that’s worthy of attention.

Vegetarians may feel that their diet is a much lower carbon one than that of the rest of the population, but as they enjoy milk and yoghurt they have no real reason to be smug.  There’s also the often overlooked fact that milk is a byproduct of reproduction: male calves are routinely culled.  A way of getting around this wasteful practice is to promote the sale of ‘rose veal’.  The UK’s organic farmers, meanwhile, are preparing to end culling at birth.

Milk cartons shouldn’t really be an environmental problem – they are made from recyclable plastic – but it seems three out of four go into the rubbish bin.  Introducing  soft, squishy pouches as containers is something of an admission of defeat, as if retailers are saying if an item is destined for landfill it might as well be as small as possible.  In any case, they haven’t proved popular with shoppers (Waitrose did not pursue their trial any further).

As a tentative step in a worthy direction, might we suggest that we seek out raw, unpasteurised milk where possible?  Unlike your standard milk, it contains loads of beneficial bacteria.  As it’s only sold by the producer – at farm gates or at farmers markets – it’s a way of putting your pound straight in the pocket of a small, local business, whose farming practices are inherently likely to be sustainable.

Battening down the hatches against the wind

July 28, 2010

1997 and the days of boom and prosperity weren’t so very long ago, in the context of the sweeping span of human history and society. 

If only the New Labour politicians of the day had displayed the same enthusiasm for green energy investment and job creation as our current Coalition government, then we would already be on our way to meeting our EU green energy obligations and well placed for a low-carbon future.

But here we are in 2010, crawling painfully out of the economic mire, and the public coffers are like sweetie jars after a tuck shop raid.  This leads us to fears expressed by observers of the microgeneration world: namely that FITs will go the same way as HIPs, only they’ll be missed.  (For those of you unfamiliar with the acronyms, that’s Feed-in Tariffs and Home Information Packs).

Everything comes down to money.  If the Government wants to act on its ambitious vision for our future energy system, investment has to follow the talk.  Money for one green initiative means less left in the jar for another.  Alternatively, it’ll be the consumer who pays.

Offshore wind energy will play, according to Energy Secretary Chris Huhne, an important part in our energy independence.  The UK has to generate 30% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, and offshore wind is seen as the deliverer of half of the additional gigawatts of power needed.

If it really does believe that offshore wind, despite the high construction and maintenance costs involved, will win us the ‘extraordinary prize’ (Huhne’s words) of energy self-sufficiency, then the Government’s challenge will be the funding.  We could all end up paying the costs in taxation or higher electricity prices, but another way would be to increase the Renewables Obligation Certificates (ROCs) for energy from this source.  Under the ROC scheme, licensed electricity suppliers are obliged to source a specified proportion of their electricity from renewables.  Offshore wind receives 2 ROCs for every Mwh of energy produced.  A further option for the Government would be to extend the period of offshore wind’s current ‘banding’, which is due to go down from 2 to 1.5 ROCs by 2014.

But as headteachers who were keenly awaiting gleaming new school buildings have discovered, generosity isn’t the Government’s highest priority.

Meanwhile in the USA, the backdrop to the expansion of renewable energy is looking relatively rosy, not because the economic situation is any better than here but because of our very own BP and its unfortunate spill. 

As Obama said in a speech last month, ‘the tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now’.  He went on to speak of old factories reopening to produce wind turbines and small businesses making solar panels.

‘Seize the day’, the President said.  And governors of a number of Atlantic–facing states are certainly acting, having come together to streamline offshore projects.  But in the UK, the day for seizing may have slipped from our grasp at least three years ago.  It’s a case of waiting for it to come round again.

A sporting view

July 21, 2010

It’s about pitting yourself against nearly 200 of the finest road riders in the world and the agonising climbs up notorious mountain roads, of course, but there is also something else vital to the Tour de France’s essence. 

It isn’t the sometimes bitter rivalry and verbal spats between the main players, nor the escalation that leads to something more physical (such as the Barredo and Costa punch-up last week).  And it certainly isn’t the headbutting, however impressive the achievement of the Australian cyclist who aimed no less than three blows on a New Zealand rival while maintaining a speed of over 40mph.  Nor are we talking about the drugs, which have dogged all recent Tours. 
No, the other point of the Tour de France is the scenery.  From flat coasting past fields of sunflowers in Provence to the towering peaks of the Pyrenees.  No one mentions it, and since the demise of coverage on terrestrial TV most of us cannot see it for ourselves.  We are left to the daily stage maps in the newspapers and our imaginations.  No rider seems to sing the praises of the countryside when he talks about the challenges in pre-race interviews.  Former track cyclist Mark Cavendish, who has won three stages so far, might just as well be back in England going round and round an indoor circuit.
Non-competitive exercise enthusiasts on two legs don’t always appreciate their natural environment either.  The publication of the Long Distance Walkers Association, Strider, is full of breathless articles by Challenge Event participants, who may have walked anything from 20 to 100 miles.  It’s all about my muscle fatigue, my blisters and how quickly I was able to complete the hike.  Nothing about the upland landscape, the shifting patterns of light on the hills as daylight turns to dusk, or the mackerel cloudscapes and quickening breezes hinting at a change in the weather.
Walking and cycling are activities with low carbon footprints (OK, we’ll forget about the convoy of vehicles following the Tour’s peloton), so in contrast to the high-octane world of Formula 1 it seems fitting that players and spectators should try forging a bond with their surroundings.

Trees, cattle and leather footballs: Brazil

July 13, 2010

Their football team may not have been in carnival mood as they flew back from South Africa, but Brazil’s colourful palette of culture – from samba to circus to literature – is being celebrated in a series of events at London’s Southbank Centre this summer.

Brazil’s contribution to the world’s sustainability problems makes for rather less cause for cheer, according to many environmental groups. 

Despite the Government’s efforts to halt illegal logging, deforestation of the Amazon continues apace.   Cattle ranching shoulders much of the blame, with leading footwear brands (and football manufacturers) facing accusations that their leather is sourced from deforested areas.  In a lack of joined-up government, it seems that while the authorities are stepping up efforts to restrain ranchers and enforce environmental laws, the Brazilian National Development Bank funds companies that are expanding cattle farms on illegally-acquired areas of pristine rainforest. 

Meanwhile, the soybean industry is growing (it’s the world’s second largest, after the USA’s), catering for the huge market that is China, with similar environmental implications.

Biofuels are powering Brazil’s motor transport (or, mixed with gasoline, its light vehicles at least) while providing a major boost to the country’s export revenues.

These fuels are blamed for raising global food prices by competing with food crops for the available land.  They are also believed to be pushing cattle ranchers and farmers towards previously-untouched forest areas, thus leading to its destruction.

However, Brazil can claim to lead the way in sustainable biofuel production.  New technology allows it to process plant cellulose, which allows a greater range of plant waste to be used with improved efficiency.

And what do the people of Brazil make of all this?  Well, studies suggest that Brazil as a nation has made rapid strides in recent years regarding its environmental awareness – when judged alongside developed countries as well as its fellow fast-growing ‘developing’ economies.  One survey of attitudes, from 1997, suggests that 97% of Brazilians thought their Government should do more to tackle climate change.  And a BBC report from summer 2008 has the President acknowledging the link between deforestation and global warming: that was only two years ago, so there must be huge potential for the word’s fifth biggest country (geographically and in population terms) to work with the EU in driving forward the next generation of environmental agreements.

Solar eating: barbequeing under the sun

July 6, 2010

After a short break, SolarUK blogging can resume normal service, with the fresh bounce that comes from a holiday in southern Burgundy: the sun shone every day, the food was as good as the weather and – in a effort at French language improvement – a magazine called ‘Cuisine Bio’ was purchased. 

The editorial at the front of this publication examines mankind’s energy use, and divides energy sources into two groups: those that are associated with the sun, and those that aren’t.  Fossil fuels come into the first category, because they are based on carbon – ‘forêts pétrifiées’, we are told, which reminds us that coal is formed from plants which were once alive and enjoying the sunshine.   Wave power is governed by winds, which as consequences of temperature fluctuations are ultimately directed by the sun.  Unlike tidal power, however, which is all down to the moon.

As for using the sun directly, there is of course ‘le photovoltaique’ and ‘le solaire thermique’.

So this leads us past the recipes, which will require rather more effort on the part of the cook than a few sausages and onions in baps, to the feature on solar cooking.  Two appliances are put to the test: a solar-powered barbeque and a similarly-powered oven.   The former has a ‘collector’ that looks a little like a large wok.  It is angled towards the sun, and on a platform in the middle of it a frying pan is placed.  The overall verdict is favourable.  The barbie generates more than enough heat, and can be used in places where direct flames aren’t permitted.  As for the solar oven, it is more compact, but not very ‘esthétique’.  Overall, however, it seems to satisfy the reviewer.

For those who already have a catapult and a treehouse and are looking for another Sunday afternoon project, there are instructions for making your own hybrid cooker/barbeque using cardboard and foil.

These ‘throwaway’ barbeques might not be the greenest option (many local authorities won’t recycle aluminium foil), even if no gas or chemical-filled firelighters are used.  A home-made version built with a few bricks and fuelled by UK-produced charcoal, on the other hand, should be the perfect summer setup for the eco-minded alfresco diner.

Are gardens a waste of space?

June 22, 2010

Would you like your garden grabbed, boosting your property’s value by allowing the developers in to build a block of flats on your urban or suburban green plot?  If, on the other hand, your neighbour’s garden is built on will you object at the eyesore and loss of light?

If sustainability is the consideration, then maybe the financial or aesthetic implications should be put to one side as smaller houses in high density ease the pressure on out-of-town developments. 

Unfortunately, the end result is a loss of a garden.  As Garden Organic (a national charity opposed to the practice of garden grabbing) puts it, gardens are essential for health and future food security.  And The Daily Telegraph aired the views of an American expert on social trends, Joel Kotkin: in the name of the environment, a metropolitan liberal elite is forcing suburbanites to live in ever more cramped neighbourhoods.

The Government has recently jumped to the defence of gardens and is proposing removing them from the brownfield classification they share with industrial sites, while reminding local councils of their obligations when considering planning applications.

Some would point to an irony in the current arrangements whereby authorities often give the go-ahead to big, obtrusive developments while the single house project of the enterprising self-building individual – which is more likely to incorporate energy-saving features and a traditional, regionally-appropriate design – is turned down (and selfbuilders do not have the same financial clout to employ clever planning consultants as the big developers).

In a Guardian commentary, Alan Wenban-Smith, who coined the term ‘brownfield’ in the 70s, claimed that the Government’s initiative will lead to an accelerated loss of green fields: it is the constant replenishing of industrial sites and redundant gardens that keeps a city alive and vibrant – and prevents it creeping into its surrounding countryside.  Of course, an attractive grassy patch is not the same as the site of a demolished factory.   But one of the online comments on Mr Wenban-Smith’s article suggested that ‘large and dreary’ gardens which are ‘inefficient’ should be built on and so help to ease pressure on virgin land.

In the final analysis, a satisfactory solution could be to merely remind councils of the discretion they can exercise under their Local Plans.  They have the local knowledge, and ought to judge each application on its merits.

Is SolarUK prêt à Portas?

June 15, 2010

Retail guru Mary Portas has been entertaining BBC viewers recently with her efforts to help small shops reshape their businesses, offering often uncomfortably frank advice to enable them to remain viable and compete with bigger names. 

Others may know her from the long-standing column in the Daily Telegraph weekend magazine in which she visits a well-known shop and gives it a score out of ten.  She is looking at range, product quality (with price naturally a strong consideration), the layout of the store and more.

The business’ image comes in for scrutiny too.  This is trickier area for any retail business, because much of this is based on history or origins.  Portas will ask around her office to find out what colleagues think of a company, and many will have an opinion even if they haven’t set foot in the shop for years.  Take McDonalds: it might have become a vegetarian oriental noodle outlet overnight, but on hearing the name we conjure up images of Big Macs, thick shakes and screaming children.

Then there’s Portas’ ‘was I being served?’ question.  Did the staff appear friendly, and could they provide helpful answers to her queries?

Her column this Saturday is due to examine HSBC, so as there are no items to actually take home after popping into one of their branches (not even the pens are removable) the customer service issue will presumably loom especially large.

So what would Portas discover if she turned her attention to SolarUK?  Well, to judge from client feedback she would experience very good customer service coupled, crucially, with the technical know-how to answer any points she raises and also to sort out, in the unlikely event of its occurrence, any problem that might crop up.

Other solar energy companies may present a pleasantly cooperative face but rather too often the person who picks up the phone will lack the technical nous the customer really needs.  It’s a tribute to the staff at SolarUK, and an indication of the lack of  an ‘after sales’ policy on the part of some rivals, that they are often called in to sort out the problem resulting from another company’s product or installation.

Post-it Notes: great idea, but…

June 8, 2010

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the US-wide launch of the Post-it note.

The cleverest ideas are often the simplest, and so it is with the Post-it.  But one wonders about the extra paper that has been ‘consumed’ in the last three decades as organisations both private and public order supplies of Post-its along with mountains of printer paper. 

Consider those solar hot water panels in place on office and domestic buildings: they are a simple concept too, albeit more technical, but the difference is there is no wastage.  Quite the opposite: using the sun to heat your water saves money and reserves of fossil fuels.

So back to the office, and when we want to leave a note for a colleague, there are methods other than sticking a coloured square of paper on their desk or computer screen:

–          Send an electronic message (admittedly, this only works if your colleague starts up their computer).

–          Write your message on any old scrap of previously-used paper and place it securely under the colleague’s mouse (these convenient paperweights weren’t around in the pre-Windows era of the Post-it’s youth)

–          Arrange for everyone to have a small blackboard and a piece of chalk on their desks.  The slate can then be wiped clean once the message is read.

–          Get your colleagues to keep a large crocodile clip on their desks, to which your messages can be safely attached without being blown off by gusts of wind – after all, Post-it notes aren’t infallible in their stickability.

This last idea is a good chance to get your fellow workers’ input on ways of saving money and paper around the office.  While you are at it, you can suggest everyone takes their own mugs with them to meetings so that they don’t use the disposable ones on offer. 

Small sheets of paper, torn from pieces only printed on one side, can already be seen in many workplaces, clamped together by crocodile clips to form improvised notepads.  The blackboard and chalk idea could be a new one.  Entrepreneurs out there, please feel free to develop smart mini blackboards and earn a place in the corporate history books, like Spencer Silver and Art Fry of the American stationery conglomerate 3M, the Post-it note’s developers.  But just remember you heard it here first.