Sorry, rant coming up

There has been quite a lot in the press recently about our disappearing wildlife  – the Guardian and Independent ran just two examples in the last few months.

The State of Nature Report in 2016 gave two main reasons for the decline in UK wildlife – climate change and agricultural practices.  One of the best things to do to reduce climate change is to stop flying.  Simple.  It has more impact than going vegetarian as far as climate change is concerned – halving meat intake for a year would only have the same impact as not going on one return flight to New York.  But, of course, there are other environmental impacts related to farming beyond climate change such as pesticide use, monocultures and pollution.

So, in order to help wildlife we should stop flying, reduce our travel in general, eat less meat and be more aware of where our food comes from (and associated food miles) and how it is produced.

Why then, do wildlife NGOs not try and positively influence the behaviour of their members.  The BTO has a long standing partnership with Syngenta which manufactures the neonics that have recently been banned for flowering crops in the UK due to their harmful impact on pollinators.  As many farmland birds rely on insects for food one can only assume that the use of the neonics is not a positive thing for them either.  I cancelled  my membership of the BTO when I discovered this.  The RSPB magazine (when I was a member) was littered with adverts for foreign holidays round the world.  Indeed they even have a section on their website about Eco Tourism which admittedly does push the benefits of staying in the UK or travelling by train.  But, it states on the page that 45% of members surveyed had been on three holidays in the last 12 months.  I cancelled my RSPB membership because of their constant push of foreign holidays and foreign birding articles.  Even my beloved Butterfly Conservation is not immune – they had 5 adverts for foreign holidays in the latest edition of Butterfly, two less than last time I suppose.  At least two out of three of the Woodland Trust’s holiday adverts are for train journeys into Europe.

So, I implore those at the conservation charities, and anyone who is worried about the decline in UK wildlife to think about their travel and their food choices, otherwise you are directly contributing to the decline of the wildlife that you purport to conserve.

A bit of realism required?

I’ve seen a few posts recently talking about how to convince the general public change that climate change is real and it will have a devastating effect if we don’t do something about it now.  Not soon, not in the near future, but now (although it is too late to stop any changes at all, but the sooner we do something the better the outcome.)

One of these posts was quite pragmatic.  The basis was that as 97% of peer-reviewed papers published by climate scientists agree that it is happening and it is aggravated by man made emissions, then we should accept it as fact and, rather than talking about how to convince the general public about climate change the press should start talking about how we are going to limit the effects.  I applaud this sentiment, and look forward to this change in the general media, although I won’t hold my breath.

However, much of the press / social media is still asking the question ‘How do we convince people that they need to act now to stop the worst effects of climate change?’  They tend to liken the problem to the requirement to get people to stop smoking and use this as a ray of light showing that true enlightenment can be ours and mankind will be saved.  Sorry, I think that you are wrong and living in false hope if this is your example of a major shift in behaviour change – but I think it is a good example of why we (i.e. society at large) are not likely to do anything dramatic about carbon / resource use anytime soon.

Firstly, there are still an awful lot of people out there smoking and it is not because they don’t have the information to tell them that smoking is bad for them and is a major cause of many diseases that are likely to kill them.  It is because they don’t want to give up.   They will come up with all sorts of reasons why they shouldn’t give up.  These reasons include ‘I’m stressed / depressed, giving up will make it much worse’  (sorry, I think there is a lot of published information saying the opposite is true), ‘I’ve cut down a lot already’, ‘I’ve been smoking for so long it is too late to do anything now, I’ve probably already got any disease that I’m likely to get’  (also wrong).  I’ve even heard of pregnant ladies who say they’ve been told by their doctor that giving up would be worse for the baby than carrying on smoking through their pregnancy – really, I’m not a doctor, but I find that hard to believe.

Anyway, to cut a long rant short, the gist of it is that they don’t want to give up because they believe bad things happen to other people and it would involve them making a change to their lifestyle.  Now do you see the parallels with climate change?  Bad things (climate change) happen to other people (we won’t talk about how hot it was last summer, or how wet this winter was) and in order to do something people would have to change their habits and that’s hard.  (Actually it isn’t that hard.)   Besides, we all know that China is spitting out coal fired power stations faster than we can smoke a cigarette so what difference will turning off a light, or not taking a holiday somewhere that involves getting on a plane make?  We can come up with excuse after excuse should we bother to ever think about climate change (which most people never do) – as Machiavelli once said ‘ for every deceiver there is someone willing to be deceived’ – and sometimes they are both the same person.

As with seat belts in the 1980s, the last time a major change in smoking habits came about was when the law in the UK about smoking in public came into effect.  Therefore, the only way to do something about climate change is to enshrine it in law.  Whilst we are a long way off that, I agree that it is time to stop debating how many people are convinced about climate change and whether it goes up or down with changes in the economy, weather (insert current news event here) and lets just get on with making a difference anyway.


I’m not sure what to make of this…

Apparently Richard Branson has written on his blog that ‘businesses should stand up to climate change deniers’ according to an article in the Guardian.  He is citing the case of Apple whose CEO recently told climate change sceptics to ditch their shares in Apple.

So, whilst I am sure that Sir Richard’s remarks will actually have an influence on other CEOs (otherwise there would not be so many quotes on LinkedIn attributed to him) and it is fantastic that someone with his clout is being positive about the need to move on in the climate change arena and go from debating to doing, I can’t help feeling that there is something a bit wrong here.  After all, one of the messages that a lot of environmentalists try to get across is that flying is bad and for the founder of Virgin Atlantic, someone who made flying more accessible to the masses, to be talking about climate change seems a little bizarre.  It appears yet another example of do as I say and not as I do (as he lives on an island now I can only assume that he has not minimised the travelling that he does, particularly by plane).

So, whilst I applaud anyone trying to make the world a more sustainable place, I wonder why it is someone like Richard Branson, rather than governments making these statements.  Will the fact that Sir B. makes his money from areas that are inherently sustainable will lessen the impact of his message or will it just give more publicity to the climate change deniers instead of just pretending they don’t exist.




Carbon Taxes and Cap and Trade

I recently completed an Economics Diploma for which I had to choose a topic for a research project.  Bearing in mind my interest in most things environmental I stupidly supposed that this would be a good subject area and decided to look at the effectiveness of government policy in reducing carbon emissions from business.

Now this was a more tricksy issue than originally expected.  I quickly decided to avoid anything relating to transportation for two reasons.  Firstly I am a little biased about car, plane etc usage, and, more importantly, it is difficult to differentiate business and private travel in government figures.  After a short time I decided that there was no point looking at the CRC scheme or the Feed In Tariffs even though I had gathered a lot of information about them – the problem is they are just too new and therefore data relating to their effectiveness (or not) will not be available for some time.

So I concentrated on the Climate Change Levy, Renewables Obligation Certificates and the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.

The Climate Change Levy is a tax on energy use by business and was introduced in 20o1.  From what I could see, probably due to its relatively low level, the fact that it didn’t change in level for 6 years and came in just after the price of electricity dropped dramatically, it has had no perceivable effect – after all it is just another number on the bottom of a utility bill (a quick calculation gives it a price of around £9 per tonne of carbon).

The renewables obligation certificate was meant to encourage energy suppliers to invest in renewables by obliging them (wonder where they got the name from?) to either obtain a specified amount of energy from renewables or to pay a fine which was then distributed to those that did comply.  It seems to have increased the amount of renewable energy generated, but the costs are passed onto customers (business and domestic) and government targets (10% by 2010) are nowhere near being met.  An improvement was made when they changed the level of certification for different types of renewables so that newer technology was worth more than established sources such as wind.  I think that the renewables obligation has also helped reduce methane emissions from landfill as the majority of these are now capped and used as an energy source.

The final scheme is the fabled EUETS – a cap and trade scheme.  This hasn’t worked to reduce emissions either.  It was aimed at power suppliers and high energy users such as cement manufacturers.  However, initial allocations appear to have been higher than business as usual scenarios – perhaps they were optimistic about growth prospects, more likely the government had no way to check the figures and did not want to ‘impair competitiveness’ – it was not just the UK government that was guilty of over and free allocations.  The first phase of the scheme has passed and the second and third do not look any more promising.  No minimum price has been established for carbon and probably never will as there are too few participants and the cap on emissions is not low enough meaning the true value of carbon is not seen.

So, overall I found that when I looked at emissions figures from 1997 (the year of the mythical Kyoto treaty) although emissions had dropped in some cases, it was not by much and did not seem to have been as a direct result of policy.  The only thing that did seem to have occurred, particularly with the EU ETS (and I think is the saving grace of the CRC) is that the issue of energy usage has become a talking point in the board room.  A favourite quote that I found was that for business to change their energy use they needed not only a carrot and stick approach but a tambourine as well.  As usual I think that government was too afraid to annoy business, energy companies and voters to do anything radical or useful – I came away from the project feeling more than a little demoralised.

Thoughts about Copenhagen and Kyoto.

Copenhagen left me puzzled, not by the lack of agreements from the parties involved, but by my own ambivalence towards the whole thing.  After all, I am supposed to be an environmentalist, I should have been avidly following all the reports, debating the successes (if there had been any) and failures.  In truth, I paid no attention to it, yes, I read some of the pre-meeting reporting, added a tck tck tck ribbon to my Twitter image, agreed that time was running out and we needed an international resolution, but I didn’t actually think that anything would happen there.

In the meantime I have just finished reading a book (Why We Disagree About Climate Change) which has helped me to clarify my thoughts about Copenhagen.  The basis of the book is that everyone has different priorities in life, and perceive the risk of Climate Change differently depending on their circumstances, nothing that is not obvious there.  However, one of the later chapters talks about how the idea of an all encompassing agreement at Copenhagen was flawed and was never going to happen.  Climate Change has now been altered from a physical manifestation into something more, it is linked to world poverty, economic development and even to religious beliefs.  With so many facets to the problem (a so-called ‘dirty problem’) how will we find one solution, a magic silver bullet that will fix everything.  The plain answer is that we won’t and, while we are convinced that we will (i.e. we will get  an extension to Kyoto) we will stop looking at the solutions to the parts of the problem that we can fix.  OK, they may not be the ultimate best answer, but making some progress until something better comes along is surely better than waiting for a solution that may never come.

For example, why was deforestation under discussion?  Surely most people believe that it is wrong, so why wasn’t an agreement made by the interested parties, does someone in Iceland have to agree about rainforest destruction?  I am sure they agree that it is bad, but put it in with something they don’t agree with and they will vote against.

I have come to the conclusion that I, personally, if I am honest, don’t care about climate change.  Any changes to be seen in my lifetime are likely to be already set in motion, I don’t have children and therefore have no future generations to directly care about.  I do, however, care about other things that are affected by or do affect climate change.  I care about needless waste, lack of energy resources, reduced levels of oil available for the important things because we have wasted lots for electricity and transport, loss of biodiversity, lack of water, lack of available education and the fact that there are just too many people on this planet to consume as much resource as we do, but climate change – not really.  Start to look at solving these problems individually and then we will solve the problem that we perceive to be climate change and, if not, we will still be making the world a better place.

Baby Steps

Today is Blog Action Day, the theme this year is Climate Change, influenced no doubt by the upcoming Copenhagen summit.  These days it is hard to go through an entire day without finding a reference to Climate Change or Energy Saving, the Energy Saving Trust even has an annoying advert on the television.  I am not sure how much all of the reminders and the small snippets that appear on the news will make a difference.  I think there are two major problems; firstly people get bored with hearing about how we are all doomed, there is often the feeling that there are enough things to think about in life as it is, why worry about climate change when there is nothing we can do about it anyway?  It is everyone else that is causing the problem, besides, the worst will happen elsewhere in the world, and probably not in my lifetime.

Then we come to the second problem: what can you do about it that will make a difference?  There is so much information out there, some of it conflicting, that it can be difficult to know where to start and who to believe, no matter which level you are at in terms of ‘green-ness’ it can be confusing.  It is probably easier to not bother yet, better wait until more information is out there, until the ‘experts’ make their minds up.

The problem is, time is ticking and we all have a responsibility, why waste resources when it is just as easy not to, why waste money just because it is too much effort to turn a light out when leaving a room?  If you can make the changes at home then take these good and virtuous habits to work – your example can make a difference, I have seen it happen.

So what practical changes can you make?  How long have you got?  Everything you use, whether it is energy, water, fuel, food, resources such as paper, they are all, to some extent, finite, we can’t replace them all at the same rate that we are using them, and the planet cannot absorb all of our activities as they currently stand.

Firstly, energy.  Turn lights off, don’t leave things on standby, only leave your mobile etc plugged in for as long as it takes to charge (you’d be amazed at how many people leave them in overnight – they don’t stop drawing power because the battery is fully charged), turn your computer and monitor off when you leave work.  One of the best things you can do is to buy an energy monitor – they will help you find where energy is being wasted.  Want to think bigger – try switching energy supplier to one that uses renewables – they may not be the complete answer to our problem at the moment, but the more that is invested the bigger the improvements that will be made in the technology.

Water – old fact, but, 9 litres of water for every flush if you don’t have a dual flush toilet, put a bottle of water in the cistern to reduce the level down, save water and money at the same time.  Fit a water butt to your drainpipe to use for garden watering – they may look a bit unsightly, but, lets face it, so do satellite dishes, but most of us find somewhere to put one.  Don’t leave a sprinkler on your garden for hours – grass is hardy stuff, that’s why it is used for lawns, it doesn’t need constant watering and nobody else notices how green your lawn is!

Fuel – School run- why are there so many people dropping their children off?  Can’t they walk, I worry more about people being run over by someone on the school run than about other dangers facing children today.  How about just walking to work once a week for a change.  I would suggest public transport, but in Daventry, unless you are willing to set off 24 hours in advance it is a little pointless.  Planes – I love planes, I think they are a fantastic feat of engineering – but they are used too much and deliver their pollution to just the wrong place.  I can’t go on one again, maybe you can, but just one return transatlantic trip would double our household carbon footprint for the year (in terms of gas, electricity and transport) – I don’t think it is worth it.

Food – one of my major worries.  Why buy food only to throw it away?  There is a lot of talk in the press about food security and can Britain feed itself.  We probably can’t, we probably shouldn’t, our national income increased when we started trading with the world; there are some things that can be done better elsewhere.  But there are things we are good at growing, and, if we stopped throwing so much away we could grow all the staples that we need.  After all, the Romans didn’t invade us all those years ago because they were fed up of living somewhere dry and sunny!

Resources – whether it is paper in the office, packaging on our food, why is there so much that we are throwing away?  Admittedly the levels of recycling have grown massively, and Daventry District Council should be applauded for its household recycling (although, if you are a business, tough, you have to sort that out yourself), but wouldn’t it be better to just use less.  Does your broccoli really need a bag to make sure it gets home safely, does your Easter Egg need so much cardboard and plastic that your child could live in it?  I don’t think so.

So, what has this to do with Baby Steps?  If we all make a small change, one step at a time it will make a difference.  Then, if we make the next step, and the next step who knows what kind of change we can make?  There are so many resources out there if you need help.  If, as recently reported, the onset of power shortages has been put back by 3 -5 years because of the recession, an unintentional change in our habits, what can we do if we really try?

Bitterns – booming good news.

When I was younger I heard various references on the television to booming bitterns (I watched quite a few nature programmes as a child). I have never seen or heard a bittern, but, as I don’t live near a reed bed, I am not surprised or too disappointed (although I have seen reports of one at Brandon Marsh, so maybe one day…).

I have always thought of them as secretive and elusive, but never as incredibly rare in the UK, which is what I discovered when reading an article in the June 2009 issue of British Wildlife. The RSPB website estimates that there are 75 breeding (booming) males, but the magazine article puts the number of nest sites as closer to 40. So, why the interest? There are two reasons.

Along with many other species of animals and birds, bitterns used to be quite common, and, yes, you’ve guessed, they used to be regulars at the dinner table. However, bittern pies and the decline in suitable habitat (reedbeds) led to their extinction, although they resettled in the 1950s and have been making a slow and steady comeback.

The second reason is linked to climate change. By far the majority of the current breeding population is in Suffolk – that LOW lying part of the country. There is a fear that the increased possibility of storm surges in this part of the country poses a major threat to the reed beds that are frequented by bitterns. (Did you know that the Thames barrier, when first built in the 1980s was operated approximately once a year, more recently it is in use 6 times each year because of increased storm surges.) The worry is that saltwater incursion from high tides and storm surges will make the reedbeds uninhabitable for many species, including the bittern.

However, there is some good news. Bittern numbers have increased since a major initiative was launched to safeguard their habitats, and, at a faster rate than was initially hoped for. The RSPB, Natural England and the Wildlfe Trust are joining forces to make new habitats for the bitterns away from the coast. It is hoped that by siting these close to current nesting areas some pairs will move over. They are also trying to make sites which have booming males but no evidence of nesting activity a little more attractive in the hope that the forlorn male will have more chance of attracting Miss Right – more fish maybe.

In addition they are allowing nature to take its course – some sea defences (shingle banks) which were naturally formed have been buggered about with by well intentioned people resulting in a change of profile. This was in the misguided hope of boosting sea defences, but it hasn’t worked, the water has still breached the defences, vegetation hasn’t colonised and the water hasn’t been able to percolate away – bit of a mess really. At last common sense has prevailed and we are learning that nature made something for a reason.

So, fingers crossed for the bittern and its associated friends that live in the reed beds, hopefully we will soon know how many and where they are and give them a chance of survival, if not a sea view.