Category Archives: Sustainability

Sustainable UK – what might it look like?

Thing is, there are two, I kind of want to call them ‘attractors’ working here.

Population keeps increasing, oil (and gas etc) supply dwindles as demand increases, there isn’t enough land to use solar/biomass to keep present standard of living.

The other one is that the oil (and gas etc) lasts long enough to totally fuck things up through climate change instead.

We seem to be headed into one or other of those attractors, and it does seem completely inevitable as long as market forces and economic growth continue to take total precendence over any other human considerations whatsoever.

Most of the post-oil solutions that we hear about aren’t too plausible either when you look at them in detail. For example if you work out exactly how much arable land you need for biofuels and compare it to what’s available, and to what’s required for the people we already have to eat food.

There is a sort of steady drip drip in the media of partial solutions that does tend to make it sound like answers are near at hand. This is accompanied by a steady drip drip of PR effort designed to convince us that there isn’t actually a problem. So people don’t know what to think unless they go do the research for themselves.

It’s subject to assumptions. For example, Pimentel (in ‘Food, Energy and Society’) offers the following assumptions for ‘business as usual’

0.5 ha/cap for food production.
1.5 ha/cap for energy systems.
1.0 ha/cap for pasture/biodiversity etc.

On those assumptions, and assuming soil erosion etc is effectively dealt with using known methods, we get 2 billion sustainable global population with ‘EU-average energy use’. Unfortunately we already have 6 billion and rising, so there are obviously some tricky issues to be figured out here.

What does this mean for the UK?

Given that the policy of the leaders of the US and hence the UK appears to be to continue business as usual, at gunpoint where necessary, albeit with some cosmetic programmes here in the UK, I’d really like to understand what that is likely to mean for all of us.

An increasing weight of evidence has been emerging over the last few years, since the Shell announcements, that the production peak for conventional oil is pretty much imminent. Given rising demand and the failure to implement programmes which could control demand, presumably this means a rising trend in oil prices, and energy prices generally. As far as I’m aware this always causes a recession, and if prolonged, is likely to result in an economic depression of unprecedented dimensions.

The UK is particularly vulnerable, because due to ‘free-market’ policies we’ve been following since Thatcher, we’ve trashed our coal mining infrastructure, burned through most of our oil; we’ve also, since WW2, trashed a whole lot of our arable land and our population has grown to about 6x what it was before the industrial revolution.

It appears to me that any transition to renewable energy is urgent, and best accomplished right now, while we’re still relatively well-off in terms of these resources. While we have it, we should be using it to make the transition. If we wait until we’re in a depression, then the transition becomes much harder.

This is pretty clearly not the likely outcome though. So what are we in for?

I’d be very interested in having a more substantial discussion of the likely implications of this situation for people living in the UK, over the next few decades. Assuming that we carry on with business as usual.

We can do Pimentel’s calculation above for the UK. Here are some very rough numbers.

CIA world factbook says there are (I’ve converted from square miles to ha)

24.4million ha of land in the UK and 6.4 million hectares of it is arable land.

Pimentel says that on the assumptions given in his book, you need per cap:

1.5 ha for energy systems (to get EU average levels of energy supply)
1 ha pasture, biodiversity, etc. (because we’re assuming no petrochemicals)
0.5ha for growing food

If we just look at growing food and assuming (as an approximation) you can only do this on arable land, that means that in the absence of oil (as a limiting case) we have a sustainable population of about 12 million, so 1/5 of the numbers we presently have. This is pretty close to the 10m of the census of 1800, before the industrial revolution got started.

We can also be fairly sure that the remaining non-arable land isn’t all usable or available for pasture, biodiversity or energy systems such as bio-fuels. So we can conclude from this that with our present population, whatever the real sustainable figure is, it probably isn’t the 60million we have right now.

We aren’t going to be totally without oil in the forseeable future though, so this is definitely a limiting case, rather than an immediate problem. It does however give you a pretty good feel for how bad things could potentially get.

The gap between these numbers and present day reality is largely plugged by oil and gas, in a variety of different ways. Fuels, fertilisers, pesticides, etc. Those are all going to become much more expensive and much less available, producing economic hardship on a very large scale over the coming decades. Once we’re in a major economic depression, as a result of global oil shortages, something I think is likely within a decade or so, then we’re in a much worse position to make any investments in sustainable alternatives.

With our current political system, only pro-capitalist parties can get elected, so if we’re assuming ‘business as usual’ then we’re assuming this is happening in a capitalist context, with major unemployment due to economic depression.

Assumptions are obviously being made to arrive at Prof. Pimentel’s figures. You can find them articulated in great detail in his book ‘Food, Energy and Society.’ What he’s assuming, roughly, is business as usual, only with sustainable energy and agriculture. So he’s not for example assuming big changes in population distribution. This is quite important. In practice, a fairly large amount of the energy used by the average family is spent in putting food on the table, far more than on running cars or heating their homes for example.

The relatively massive energy use in food production arises because of the process that puts food on the table. Pimentel offers a figure of 10 units of oil energy to put 1 unit of food energy on an average US table. This breaks down as petrochemicals used as fertiliser, drugs for animals and pesticide, transport of fertiliser, drugs for animals and pesticide, harvesting, transport of cereals, vegetables and fruit, transport of animals, transport and disposal of wastes, food processing, packaging, transport to supermarkets etc. See for example what’s in your bag of supermarket salad? for a discussion of just some of these process stages in a bit more detail.

If I eat a tomato grown organically 3m from where I’m sitting right now, then clearly these costs don’t apply. I don’t want to spend my whole life growing food however. So in order to minimise these kinds of costs, but maximise the efficiency of food production and hence radically reduce the energy needs of our way of life, I would suggest that one should cooperate with others to grow food close to where one lives. Eco-villages with a population in the 2-500 range are optimal and experience with these models seems to imply an average of say 8 hrs per cap per week spent growing food.

You can do a fair bit better than Pimentel’s assumed 1.5 ha for food, pasture, biodiversity etc, and also reduce his 1.5 ha for energy. You need about 0.25 ha per cap for this system to produce a complete and balanced diet, but you still need some space for energy systems, to heat your home etc. But around 0.5 ha or somewhere around one acre per human, is enough to provide for a decent way of life.

Assuming that acre is decent arable land, that still only implies a sustainable UK population of around 12m though, while we have 60m citizens at present. If you assume only half of it needs to be arable, you get 24m, but in practice, you mostly don’t get land that’s half arable and half marginal and that matters if were talking about something as localised as an eco-village.

I think that you still need to find some way to recover land that presently isn’t viable, in order to sustain our present population in the absence of oil, but assuming big changes in our way of life.

I think it’s in the realms of the possible, but not with ‘business as usual’ assumptions, or population distribution.

Let’s break down where the oil inputs to agriculture go and analyse them a bit. I suggest we separate two cases.

1) The difference between agricultural efficiency using pesticides etc and by standard organic methods. Typically organic gives about 20% less yield (see e.g. this 21 year study ), but is much more efficient in its use of say nitrogen inputs. Nor does it damage the soil, which petrochemical agriculture does. Given that erosion is also a major food security issue, this is pretty important.

2) All the other stuff. This includes fuels for farm equipment, which is mostly replaceable by work animals given sufficient land for pasture. It’s mostly a matter of fuel for food distribution and packaging and waste disposal though.

The solutions to the latter case would appear to me to be localisation of food production so that you don’t need to use lots of oil for fuel, packaging etc.

So we need to look at the localisation model to see how much extra labour would be required. If a vast amount of extra labour is required, that’s presumably where it comes from, as we can get fairly comparable yields from conventional organic vs chemical farms without the need to greatly increase the labour inputs.

The furthest extreme is everybody just grows their own. Even on that basis, organic smallholders who seek self-sufficiency (rather than those farming commercially) generally seem to manage to produce their food with a fairly reasonable *average* day, although this means pretty heavy labour at some times of year, with relatively light labour the rest of the time. You can get a pretty good feel for what’s involved from Borsodi

It makes more sense to share the labour over a locality though. With an eco-village of 400 people, the figure I’ve seen quoted is 20% of working time spent on growing food, which I believe is based on Swedish eco-village results (I’ll check this)

Now to be sure, the resultant way of life is not at all that promoted by the corporate ‘lifestyle’ industry, but it’s about as comfortable as that of village life circa 1910, plus a few low energy impact forms of modern technology. It’s interestingly, rather similar in some important ways to what Kropotkin describes in ‘Fields, Factories and Workshops’ although he’s coming at it from a rather different direction and isn’t aware of some of the resource issues.

I would argue that if we keep using unsustainable methods to provide food and energy, no matter how cleverly we do it, we just defer the problems. I think that unsustainable energy sources will probably be needed to enable a sane transition to sustainability, given any believeable projections of global population, food and energy supply vs demand etc over the next century.

I don’t think we have any acceptable choice besides making such a transition, but I think that the political influence of capitalists, religious fanatics and other nuisances will make that transition more difficult than it needs to be and may even succeed in making it disastrous for billions of us.

What needs to be done is pretty clear to me though, global population has to be reduced over time (ideally by family planning rather than by the Four Horsemen), unsustainable energy use needs to be phased out, while we still have sufficient of it to boot-strap the transition to sustainable energy use.

Our way of life has to change to make this happen. It won’t be business as usual, but it needn’t be some hellish dystopia either. It depends how we do it. The problem I forsee is that we’ll wait too long to take the necessity seriously and end up trying to make the transition to a lower energy society after the demand for energy has overtaken the supply permanently, with predictably dire economic results. At that point everything gets much harder.

åIf we mess it up badly enough, instead of reducing energy demand through appropriate technology, improving food security through sustainable forms of agriculture and reducing demand for both food and energy by managing global population down over the course of a few generations; we all just pretend that there isn’t any problem until those Four Horsemen arrive to solve these problems for us the hard way. This appears to be the solution favoured by certain factions within those countries most able to do something about it.

Stern Review (Continued): adaptation measures for the UK

Winter is Coming

What is any likely future UK government going to try to do?

One thing you could say for Stern is that his target of 550ppm CO2 equivalent is better than nothing at all and his approach has more chance of working, because it doesn’t conflict with capitalism, than any approach that could stabilise at 450ppm, which is what the scientists mostly reckon we need to be aiming at, but which Stern effectively dismisses as unrealistic due to the economics. There might be some doubt in the models about what happens around 550ppm but there is very little doubt (outside of the Scientific Aliiance and other PR front groups) that things will get pretty bad with unconstrained emissions, taking us to 750ppm plus before the end of this century.

If mitigation is going to fail or fall seriously short, probably because the three major emitters of the next century won’t come on board even with capital-friendly proposals like Stern’s, that leaves us only with adaptation. Adaptation to climate change, unlike mitigation to prevent it, is largely a local matter and very frequently has local benefits, such as improved food and energy security (ie lower bills) and less local environmental damage. If we’re going to follow that chain of thought though, the first step is to figure out what we’re adapting to exactly. Here are the basic headlines.

We’re in a globalised world right now, significant amounts of our food and basic commodities come from areas that are already having severe problems due to climate change and are likely to get a lot worse. So one immediate question that arises is the impact on our own food security, especially if mitigation fails or falls short and we’re into the worse scenarios, both from ecosystem collapses elsewhere and from severe weather effects in the UK. In the North and West we can expect much heavier rains and weather damage to crops, in the South and East drought.

Another implication is a 1930’s style economic depression. So we’d be likely to experience a severe fall in our standard of living by say 2050. Many people here will certainly still be alive to experience long-term unemployment, unreasonable costs for basic necessities and probably some fairly repressive government action to protect ruling class interests from angry poor people. Of course a small ruling class will still be fat and happy, just as they were during the Great Depression, but most of us will be in deep shit.

We’re also talking about some hundreds of million people from closer to the equator becoming refugees, probably quite pissed off because they’ll understand why they’re refugees. They’ll be refugees because their crops have failed due to drought, pest invasions, severe weather damage or desertification, or because their lands are being flooded or because nutters with guns are fighting over the leftover crumbs.

I am personally quite concerned that the adaptations we’ll see will be highly repressive and reactionary and I think stealth taxes are far from the worst of what we might see as the situation worsens over the next few decades, as capitalism frantically tries to keep getting a good return on investments.

I would want to see adapatation that makes us less dependent on the global economy, in order to both minimise the impact on the UK and to reduce the pressure that the UK’s need for economic growth and a healthy return on investments, puts onto the developing countries.

In the meantime, I think the nuLabour spin machine intends to present us with “Green Gordon: Eco-Saviour” and exploit this issue in order to push through a bunch of regressive policies of benefit mainly to fat-cats rather than ordinary people either here or in the developing world. Paul Wolfowitz, neo-con president of the World Bank has already said that he and his pal Gordon will be getting together next year to decide on a sustainable development investment framework for the developing world. Which may mean the IMF selling poor countries “climate change insurance.”

The other side of the media debate that I think we’ll have framed for us is a lot of scare stories and moaning from the Daily Mail et al about ‘Green Taxes’. This will be all the more plausible because undoubtedly these issues will be used as a rationale to impose taxes on individuals (in preference to businesses)

I strongly suspect that the tax issue is being used a bit like the ‘business as usual OR going back to the stone age’ media frame we so often see.

It’s being used by those who want to avoid any progress whatsoever on this issue to frame our choices as being EITHER higher tax OR complete inaction.

What should we be trying to do? (Whether the Government and the City want us to or not)

I would suggest that a very good thing to do would be to invest substantially in improving the energy efficiency of our housing stock and food systems and in the provision of effective public transport to get people out of their cars.

We’d probably get a lot more real security out of that, per pound spent, than out of paying the yanks tens of billions for the Trident replacement for example.

There are also obvious intrinsic benefits to the average punter in improving energy efficiency in those three key areas, Food, Transport and Housing.

If those things are more energy efficient, all other things being equal (which I agree they are not due to the needs of investors to turn a profit) then the cost of heating, eating and travelling should be reduced.

The main problem that I can see is the potential for conflict between energy efficiency and the needs of investors. For example, power companies make less money that way. The nuclear industry is salivating at the prospect of being paid out of our taxes to build more reactors. Train companies are now privatised so any public investment made in them goes to pay for ever more spectacular Branson ballooning expeditions and so on. Large landowners are doing very nicely thank you out of being subsidised to do energy-inefficient farming methods. Property developers interests conflict strongly with most of the things you’d have to do to spread the population out to improve food system efficiency and with tighter regulations on energy efficiency for new builds.

The fundamental problem with nuLabour or any government that is likely to be electable is that they are there to put those interests ahead of ours.

Stern says something I found quite revealing, to the effect that: “We recommend taxing undesirable outcomes rather than sponsoring desirable outcomes”

Most of what I would like to see comes down to redirecting existing subsidies for undesirable outcomes towards desirable ones. That is against the religion (neo-liberal economics) of our current rulers however. Whether more taxes need to be raised is a moot point while we are subsidising and regulating in favour of more climate change. Maybe additional taxes are required, but while current policy provides perverse incentives, it would seem to be sensible to fix that as a matter of urgency.

Making the UK more sustainable has impacts beyond global mitigation. It also, particularly if it’s done with this in mind, tends to reduce our vulnerability to the likely global impact. So we get local adaptation benefits whether or not it has any effect on global mitigation.

Concrete example, if a serious effort were made, either with or without government sponsorship (it’d be a lot easier with) to improve the sustainability of our food systems, then when food prices go up as the result of climate change damage elsewhere, the impact on the less well off in the UK is reduced.

In addition although the focus above is on UK sustainability, by removing the perverse incentives which make it more profitable to fly lettuces in from Africa, we also reduce the pressure in Africa to grow food for export instead of for feeding the locals. Which acts to improve local food security there. It acts to remove perverse incentives for destroying woodland which provides a much needed carbon sink and helps to mitigate soil erosion, drought etc. We also reduce the amount of carbon emitted flying lettuces halfway around the world when we can perfectly well grow our own lettuces right here.

Is the UK debate about energy being framed by nuclear industry PR to exclude sustainablity?

Rose Glow

For the last couple of years we’ve been hearing stories about the long-rumoured plans to build a number of new nuclear power stations in the UK.

One thing I don’t see any discussion of is reducing UK demand for grid power by improving our energy-efficiency and by integrated local energy schemes. I think it’s a great pity that demand reduction has been largely left off the media agenda and that the subject of new nuclear builds is being framed in terms of the need for extra grid capacity and excludes any discussion of reducing demand for unsustainable energy systems.

Spin: Nuclear Power will save us from Climate Change

The latest PR justification for scaling up nuclear power in the UK is that it helps to mitigate the effects of climate change and will reduce our dependence on e.g. Russian natural gas over the coming decades. This is not exactly a cut-and-dried argument however. There is currently some debate over whether nuclear energy does have a significant net effect on greenhouse emissions and whether it’s even a viable source of energy, if the costs are fully accounted and limits to the supplies of high-purity ores are considered.

Here’s a site with a great deal of detailed information making a strong case against nuclear power being able to live up to the promises being made for it.

The use of nuclear power causes, at the end of the road and under the most favourable conditions, approximately one-third as much CO2-emission as gas-fired electricity production. The rich uranium ores required to achieve this reduction are, however, so limited that if the entire present world electricity demand were to be provided by nuclear power, these ores would be exhausted within three years. Use of the remaining poorer ores in nuclear reactors would produce more CO2 emission than burning fossil fuels directly.

The arguments to this effect are presented at a technical level comparable to a popular science article in this article

There are other more technical documents available on the site for anyone who wants the heavy details, but that article I linked is pretty accessible.

There is clear evidence of a pro-nuclear industry PR campaign in the UK, which will explicitly try to leverage the climate change argument.

Regaining public acceptance of nuclear power will be one of the PR world’s biggest challenges according to PR guru, Dejan Vercic. Speaking at the 2004 AGM of the UK’s Institute of Public Relations, in June, he said that within 5-10 years PR agencies would have to win back the nuclear industry’s (and biotechnology’s) “licence to operate”.

As the articles I quoted above illustrate, the issues are already being framed in terms of meeting demand using nuclear, rather than reducing that demand. The media debate we’re being presented with currently frames the question about the UK building more nuclear plants, in such a way that improving efficiency of energy use and reducing demand is already excluded in advance. In fact, it appears that no serious consideration of this approach has been made at government level and it is not being discussed in the media now that the debate has reached the public sphere.

I’m suggesting that it should be on the agenda for public debate.

Simply saying “there is no alternative” doesn’t convince me one bit.

According to the Carbon Trust, who aren’t proposing any sort of radical measures, the average business can cut use by 10-30% cost-effectively. At the family level, something on the order of 46,000 kW/hr per household per annum of overall savings are forseeable, through better insulation, by rationalising transport and by evolving away from supermarket consumption of industrial agriculture products and towards sustainable local food systems

In addition, integrated community energy systems can usefully be employed to take a large chunk of the remaining demand away from the national grid.

None of these measures seem to be up for discussion in what passes for public debate on these matters.

Instead the debate is being framed as “Do you want Nuclear or Climate Change?” which seems like industy PR bullshit to me.

The problem I’m describing above seems to me to illustrate one of the key issues with privatizing public services, in this case energy services. When it’s a matter of maximising profitability, the firms in question deliberately distort the debate with the aid of PR companies and lobbyists in order to survive.

Whereas if we were maximising sustainability, a very different set of solutions which are potentially detrimental to the profitability of those firms would tend to emerge. These are precisely the kinds of solutions which are invisible in the public debate we’re now witnessing about the UK’s energy future.

I would frame the question differently. Instead of saying “Do you want nuclear or climate change?” let’s frame it as “Do you want an Enron-ised energy future or a sustainable one?” Markets and the state will never give us the latter of their own accord, so if we want to put real sustainability on the agenda we have to put it there ourselves.

It may perhaps be that nuclear is the only feasible alternative in the circumstances, but I don’t think it’s legitimate to act as though that were a given, without first showing how these other possibilities were considered and eliminated for reasons supported by proper evidence.

Alternatives

There are obviously a great many possibilities. The one I’m most interested in is community level autonomous action to reduce demand. The most effective measure overall, when you do the maths, is probably moving towards sustainable food systems, e.g. by urban agriculture, effective nutrient reclamation and ruralisation measures to reduce food system energy inputs.

In terms of grid electricity, it’s probably insulation and passive measures, followed by integrated community energy systems. (e.g. Combined Heat and Power, various kinds of solar, local storage etc.)

It’s worth considering though, just to get a baseline on this issue, that when the Soviet Union went out of business, Cuba had to adjust to losing, and that means losing virtually overnight, not just 70-odd% of its energy inputs but 70-odd% of its food imports, fertilisers and pesticides and 80-odd% of its raw material inputs. They had a really tough decade or so, but they managed to adapt

We’re talking about building a whole bunch of nuclear plants, a short-term measure at best given the global supply of high-quality ores, apparently in order to cover a much smaller shortfall, someone above said 20%. That seems rather odd unless you factor in the impact of nuclear industry lobbying.

Getting Sustainability onto the Agenda

I think autonomously doing something about it ourselves is an excellent way to help put it on the agenda, because it demonstrates in a concrete way that reducing demand and improving effciency is quite possible. If you can get a whole bunch of people moving in that direction together, its also a flat challenge to the corporate/state approach, and it forces the issue, especially when combined with well-established environmentalist campaigning methods for doing that stuff.

One straightfoward thing to do is start badgering the media and your MP and so on via a letter writing campaign for leaving this question off the agenda.