21 Apr 2020

On waste and recycling

I’ve always felt that it is a good idea to have a waste strategy for every home I have lived in. Something just a bit more sophisticated than sticking everything in the bin, which is what used to happen. Over the years, it is something which we as a country have been encouraged to do as well. Whereas when I was a child there was one bin, now there are at least three and we are expected to sort the waste we produce into the correct bins.

The first UK bottle bank was opened in 1977 (in Barnsley, naturally). Things started slowly but got moving on a national level in the 1990s. Then, in 2003. the Household Waste Recycling Act was passed. It required every local authority in England to provide each household with a separate collection of at least two types of recycled material by 2010. The age of the wheelie bin was well and truly with us and it seemed like we were entering a phase where the country would stop dumping everything in landfill and start to get to grips with all the waste we generated.

But looking at it now, it seems that perhaps our hopes were misplaced. It turns out an awful lot of our waste was simply being loaded onto vast container ships and sent to China where they did heaven knows what with it. In 2018, China said enough is enough since when we have finally had to confront the fact that, though we collect all this waste, we don’t really have much idea what to do with it. For whilst local authorities are mandated to collect different waste streams, they are free to decide what goes into which stream and they are under no obligation to see that any of it actually gets recycled.

So confusion reigns. Each local authority has its own rules and the rules themselves are often most unclear. Take the vexed example of plastic packaging: we are swimming in the stuff. But it turns out that some of it is recyclable whilst other stuff isn’t. So which is it? As you stand over your kitchen bins with some plastic packaging in hand, do you put it into the black bin for landfill or the blue bin for recycling? Or perhaps your bins are a different colour — they couldn’t even decide on that.

If you are like me, you hesitate then hazard a guess. I sometimes even refer to the council website to see what goes where. But too often I draw a complete blank as the thing I am trying to dispose of isn’t mentioned. Wheareas once upon a time I used to pride myself of recycling almost everything and hardly ever having to put something in the landfill bin, I now realise I was being hopelessly optimistic. 

Recycling itself is run as a market operation. If there is a market for the material you throw away, it can be separated, bundled up and sent of for reuse. All well and good. That’s what you hope will happen. But if the market price drops below what it costs to do the recycling, then what used to get sent to China now ends up back in landfill or in the incinerator, which is where the problem started.

Have we really spent 30 years deluding ourselves about recycling? In that time it’s become the mark of a good citizen that you take your recycling seriously, trying to send very little to landfill. But for all the effort we’ve made in our kitchens and bin stores, it appears that what actually gets recycled is pretty minimal, and it’s not even increasing. The recycling bin labelled "The Chinese will sort it out" has been closed for good.

8 Mar 2020

Wine bottles

I've drunk wine all my adult life. Just how much, I hate to think.  It's an infectious habit for sure, one which I share with probably half the UK population. It seems, from a trawl of the stats, that we consume something like 25 bottles each per annum. Seeing as half the population doesn't touch the stuff, that must be about a bottle a week for those of us that do.

But this blog post isn't about the wine we drink, but the way we drink it, which is almost always poured from glass bottles. Wine as a product is around 40% packaging by weight, which is incredibly wasteful, and would shame most other food and beverage suppliers into extinction.

A typical bottle of wine is 75cl by volume: the wine itself weighs about the same as water (i.e.750gms), the bottle anywhere between 500 and 600gms. And the great bulk of the wine we buy is bottled at source, which may well be on the other side of the world. Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, California — we just love their wines. But what a waste it is to ship their wines in heavy glass bottles. Not that it's much better from nearer European vinyards — it is still a very strange way to organise a business based on the pleasure of drinking.

So why is wine placed into glass bottles? The short answer is that it is tradition. We consumers like to see a nice bottle with an attractive label, and to most of us the pleasure of drinking wine starts when we handle the bottle unopened in the shop. Ever wondered why there are just so many wine varieties in a supermarket? The idea here is that you are making a personal choice that says something about you, your wallet and your taste, something that can't be said for Diet Coke or any other soft drink.

The producers also like it because bottling at source gives them some protection over the content. As much as 37% (by volume) of the international wine trade is done in bulk shipping containers, to be eventually bottled in the country of consumption. But by value, that 37% volume reduces to just 11% in value, which shows you that bulk wines are really aimed at the bottom end of the market. Put another way, the average bottle of table wine enters the country of consumption at €2.84/bottle: with bulk wines, this figure per notional bottle reduces to just €0.60, a quarter as much.

Which begs the question, why don't quality producers think about BiB (Bag in a Box)? It's been available as a method of supplying wine for over 30 years but it only really covers the bottom end of the wine market, except in Sweden, where premium wines are widely available this way. There is nothing intrinsically difficult about pouring wine into bags, and it stores much longer than opened bottles. Only the very finest of wines, bought for their ageing potential, actually require a glass container: 99% of the wine market is designed to be drunk within a few weeks or months of purchase.

And the packaging? Instead of 500 to 600gms of glass per bottle, the equivalent weight in BiB is no more than 40gms,  a mix of cardboard outer and a plastic pouch. It makes sense both economically and environmentally, as currently the world's shipping lanes carry something like 9 billion bottles of wine each year.

The question which of course will bother wine drinkers is whether there are BiB wines on the market that are any good. I'm no expert in this. Maybe I can report back at a future date when I have sampled a few. But to get me started, I have ordered a red and a white from the BiB Wine Company and so far I have been impressed. At £10-£12/bottle equivalent, their offerings are bang in the middle of my price range sweet spot.

To learn more about the international wine trade, I found this site. And calculating the environmental impact, I found this site most helpful.

12 Feb 2020

The risks we face

Back in November 2019, I blogged about plate tectonics and, in particular, how we live - and die -with the earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes that result from us living on an unstable planetary surface. It set me thinking more about the more general risks we face and how we can categorise them.

Plate tectonics covers the below-ground risk. But what about things dropping on our heads from outer space? These could be solid, like meteorites or asteroids, but they could also be unwelcome rays from the Sun or elsewhere. We don't see much evidence of these risks but they do happen and very occasionally they can be very deadly. A single huge collision with another heavenly body 65 billion years ago is believed to have been  responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The third field of risk is atmospheric. The Earth's surface is surrounded by a relatively thin layer of gases which we depend on for life. As the Earth both rotates and tilts on its access, the resulting winds and weather patterns cause all manner of mayhem at the surface. Think Droughts. Storms and Hurricanes. Monsoons. Flooding. Extreme temperatures. Fog. Snow. Ice. Fires (albeit at one stage removed but remember that oxygen is an essential component of fire).

The atmosphere also dictates which life forms, if any, will occupy the surface. No rain = dessert. Frozen rain = snow = Arctic like conditions and glaciers. Lots of heat and rain = jungles. Lots of rain and coolish temperatures = Manchester.

We interact with our atmosphere in ways we don't with the ground beneath or space above. For instance, we can turn fog into smog by adding burnt carbon to the atmosphere. And we can alter the characteristics of the atmosphere itself by tinkering with its component gases. In particular, with carbon dioxide which, despite being only a trace gas making up just 0.04% of the Earth's atmosphere, is known to act as a thermostat for global temperatures.

A more nuanced example of this was our production of CFCs, a 20th century phenomenon, which then drifted into the upper atmosphere and reacted with ozone. This resulted in large holes in the ozone layer which acted as a dampening layer for incoming solar radiation. This made sunshine a far more dangerous factor for those outdoors and led to increases in skin cancer. The Montreal Protocol, in 1987, was a fine example of nations working together to ban the use of CFCs and to bring about a gradual repair of the ozone layer.

An even more nuanced example would be the current fear about the spread of the cornonavirus from China. The atmosphere carries with it not just the threat of challenging external weather conditions, but also as a carrier of communicable diseases.

So there you have it. We live on a Planet with an unstable surface, subject to bombardment by things from outer space and dependent on a thin zone of gases which behave in a somewhat chaotic manner, and which we have started to use as a waste dump.

Having said that, it's a beautiful morning here in Cambridge and it's good to sometimes feel that Earth is not such a bad place to be posited on for a while.

1 Feb 2020

Carbon-free electricity

The race is on to produce zero carbon electricity, which is the most straightforward way of slowing/stopping climate change. But how realistic is this goal, and how long will it take? Here's a summary of the situation in the UK.

When we say 'zero carbon electricity' we are referring to how electricity is made, not what's in it. Using fossil fuels to make electricity (the traditional method, if you like) burns lots of carbon which releases loads of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. Renewable technologies, hydro power and nuclear power produce electricity without burning any carbon and are therefore said to be zero carbon. The electricity we now use is from a mix of sources and therefore can be said to have a carbon intensity factor, depending on how much is derived from fossil fuels (carbon) and how much from zero carbon sources. The higher the proportion from fossil fuels, the greater the carbon intensity is said to be.

The standard measurement (or metric) used to express the carbon intensity of electricity is grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh (kilowatt hour) of power, written XXXgCO2ee/kWh. The word "equivalent" is in here because other climate changing gases (notably methane) are also released during the production processes and these have to be taken into account when considering the global warming effect of the different gases. It's a complex field and the maths is not quite as straighforward as we might hope for. Methane has a large global warming footprint, but only stays in the atmosphere for a few years, unlike CO2 which hangs around for centuries before slowly being absorbed by the oceans.

When we first started making electricity on a commercial scale, the preferred method of production was to use coal-fired power stations to drive huge turbines. Coal-fired electricity has a very high carbon intensity factor, as it releases masses of CO2: anywhere from 750 to 1,000g/kWh, depending on the type of coal and the efficiency of the plant. Coal also happens to be a dirty, toxic fuel which poisons a lot of people, but that is not what concerns us here. Using gas to make electricity is a much better option than coal (and it's cleaner) but it still produces a lot of CO2 —  it scores between 380 and 480g CO2ee/kWh/kWh.

In contrast, with the notable exception of biomass, all the non-fossil fuel production methods are zero-carbon. That doesn't mean there aren't other issues surrounding their use: nuclear power maybe zero-carbon but it is not zero-problem (Chernobyl, Fukashima etc). But from a carbon intensity point of view, they all score zero. Or 0g CO2ee/kWh. To be pedantic, there are carbon costs with renewables but they are solely to do with the construction or manufacture of the equipment — known as embodied carbon.

The carbon intensity of fuel table can be summarised thus (all in g CO2ee/kWh):
Lignite: 850 - 1100
Coal: 750 - 1000
Oil: 550 - 700
Natural gas: 380 - 480
Biomass: 50 upwards
Nuclear: 0
Wind, solar: 0
Hydroelectric: 0

More details via Google or Wikipedia but a good source is here.

The history of UK electricity production shows the carbon intensity was high, at around 700g CO2ee/kWh in the 1970s when it was almost all produced by coal-fired power stations. As the switch to gas took place over the following decades, the intensity falls to around 450g CO2ee/kWh. Here is a useful summary of the situation up till 2015.  However, since 2015, the rate of change has accelerated dramatically, as you can follow here. The principle reason for this is the switch to offshore wind farms, which have had a massive effect. Maybe because it is happening out at sea, we are only barely aware of this major infrastructural change. Other factors include decreasing demand for electricity overall (which makes it easier to drop coal from the energy sources), an uptake in solar PV and a switch from coal to biomass as the huge Drax power station in Yorkshire which alone accounts for around 8% of the UK electricity demand. Currently UK electricity averages around 230g CO2ee/kWh

What it means is that electricity has gone from being a much higher carbon intensity than gas to becoming much the lowest carbon intensity power source, all in the past five years. And it is due to head lower still over the next 15 years, as we move to decarbonise the grid. Electricity is, however, over three times the price of natural gas, so a switch to electric heating is still unlikely any time soon, especially as the cost of heat pumps, the obvious technology to employ here is way more than a standard gas boiler.

I for one hadn't realised quite how quickly this change would take place and as a result fitted a gas condensing boiler in our new home - a decision made in 2017 - on the basis that we had done everything possible to minimise the heat load and that, as electricity released rather more CO than gas, it made sense to go with the cheaper power source.

The government has recently published the Future Homes Standard which is a mixed bag of proposals outlining measures to decarbonise our housing over the coming decade. It's received a very lukewarm review from almost every commentator, but the headline move contained in the proposals is that ‘new homes should not be connected to the gas grid from 2025’. 

Given the huge change in the mix of energy sources we are using to make electricity, this single proposal will rank as the most significant decarbonising measure we have ever taken.

25 Nov 2019

On the Tragedy of the Commons

The theory known as the Tragedy of the Commons was first postulated by British economist William Forster Lloyd in 1833, but it was popularised by the American philosopher Garrett Hardin in 1968 in an article in Science Magazine. It is now widely used in the field of environmental studies.

So what is it?

Imagine an area of common grazing land. By common, I mean it is owned by everyone, rather than by an individual. Such common areas have been a feature of European culture since mediaeval days. Now, the population at large enjoy grazing rights and are free to let their cattle graze on the grass growing on the common. Furthermore, it’s a good use of the grass because otherwise it would have to be cut by machines and taken off-site for hay storage. 

Over the years, more and more people take advantage of their grazing rights on our imaginary common and the number of cattle put out to graze there grows steadily. Then one summer, there are just too many cattle grazing and all the grass is eaten long before the winter comes. The common land turns to mud and the cattle starve. The land has been overgrazed. What a tragedy we have cooked up here – we've been undone by our own greed! 

Well, technically speaking, this is not a tragedy at all, it’s a balls up, but let’s not get too Shakesperian about this. It’s known as the Tragedy of the Commons and the name has stuck.

So what to do about it? The basic question is to first work out what the sustainable level of cattle grazing is for our common. Say, for argument's sake, it is 25. 25 cattle on the common in the summer and everything stays hunky dory. But put 26 on it and, pretty soon, the grass can't keep up with all those hungry cattle. So a logical approach here would be to limit the grazing rights to 25 cattle. This is where it gets tricky.

Who decides which 25 cattle get to graze the common?  You could do it by drawing lots, but what then would the unlucky losers do with their cattle? Sell them on? Or hold out for a better draw next year? 

Alternatively, you could sell grazing rights to the highest bidders – but then it has stopped being common land. Or maybe you could subdivide the common into 25 plots and sell the land. Then it’s called enclosure and you have really moved way away from the common ground idea. 

By and large, when it comes to land ownership, we have as a planet moved away from common grazing rights towards private ownership as a solution to this conundrum. You could sort of see the history of agriculture as being mostly about enclosing common land. The fence is the enemy of the common. But there are lots of assets (the oceans? the atmosphere?) which can’t be divided up like this and where we have to work out a common destiny in order not to queer the asset. 

It’s not hard to see how this question plays out in a world of many billions of people. It is just possible that our planet can cope very comfortably with, say, 3 billion people living a Western lifestyle enjoying full bellies, good housing, social security, pensions and foreign holidays, but that at 10 billion the grass will stop growing and we will all fall out of bed with a bump. Yes of course it's possible. It is quite likely even. But how would we know where the sustainable boundary is? It is not as though we will find out in the course of one summer's grazing.

We move here into the subject of planetary boundaries which explores just where our limits may lie. The most sophisticated model for this hails from Sweden. Planetary Boundaries: the Stockholm Resilience Centre.  

They suggest there are 9 boundaries of which climate change is but one. But, as with the cattle on the common, it is one thing to identify just how much developmental pressure our planet can take, quite another to decide how to implement best practice. It is horribly compromised by us having divided the world up into a series of nations who jealously guard their own boundaries. Some countries (Russia, Canada) are well equipped to deal with planetary changes and resource depletion. Rather more countries are poor, have high populations and are very vulnerable to shifting climates.

Environmentalists like the metaphor of the Tragedy of the Commons because it sticks it to the neoliberals. It's a great example of market failure and it cannot be sorted out without some form of political intervention. The planetary boundaries are real enough and the technical solutions are understood. But what actually happens is all down to politics. And international co-operation-type politics, something we are very poor at.

19 Nov 2019

On Plate Tectonics

The theory of plate tectonics is much more recent than our understanding of climate change. It was first postulated by Alfred Wegener in 1912, and what he talked about came to be known as continental drift. I can still remember learning about this phenomenon at school in the 1960s. Around that time other researchers took Wegener's hypothesis and ran with it so that soon theories started appearing about just how vast Continents could actually move around on top of the Earth’s crust.

Plate Tectonics postulates that there are nine major plates and many little ones and that they are essentially floating around, bumping into each other, and over many millions of years, they are shifting quite long distances around the planet's surface. For instance, the largest plate, made up pretty much of the Pacific Ocean, is currently moving northwards at a rate of 7cm/annum. It seems incredible, but it has quickly become accepted as a scientific fact. In comparison, the basics of climate change theory was established in the 19th century and is in many ways far more readily understandable as it's all down to demonstrable physics.

Why are there no plate tectonic deniers? Good question, but the answer is very easy to spot. We have no part in its processes — other than suffering the consequences when the colliding plates periodically erupt. 

And what consequences do we suffer. This century has already witnessed two terrifying tsunamis: the 2004 Indonesia event killed 230,000 and the 2011 Japan tsunami killed 20,000, not to mention devastating Fukishima nuclear reactor. Besides these, we have also suffered 13 earthquakes with death tolls above 1,000– the worst ones being Haiti 2010 (300,000), China 2008 (87,000) and Pakistan 2005 (87,000). All since the year 2000: about a million deaths, all through people happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In contrast, the most severe storms rarely result in huge death tolls. Typically a really awful hurricane or typhoon may cause deaths in the low thousands, but nothing compared to the devastation caused by earthquakes. Unlike earthquakes and tsunamis, people know about storms before they arrive and take defensive action. Similarly with wildfires. They may look horrific, but most people are able to evade the flames. When there are death tolls, they are measured in the tens, not the tens of thousands.

Even if the number of typhoons and hurricanes and wildfires were to double in frequency and intensity over the coming decades, which most climate scientists predict, the resulting death tolls are unlikely to come close to the damage caused by our tectonic plates shifting. Other effects of climate change are more subtle and long lasting, mostly to do with weather patterns changing and people being forced to move to different regions because of droughts and desertification, but events like this rarely get into the headlines.

It is also worth bearing in mind that the death tolls from extreme events, whether climate-related or not, are as much a feature of the ability and wealth of the local population. The reason 300,000 people died in Haiti in 2010 was not because their earthquake was so much worse than others (it was a 7.0 event on the Richter scale, high but by no means exceptional), but because Haiti is so poor that the population weren't able to protect themselves either from the quake or the devastation left behind afterwards. 

That poor countries get knocked sideways by events which wealthy countries take in their stride is a truism that keeps cropping up. It is frequently used as an argument for re-distribution of wealth from rich countries to poor ones. This may be equitable and even desirable, but the way the political winds are blowing, it seems unlikely to happen any time soon.

This is the main reason that the climate change "debate" is so terribly charged. Whereas what plate tectonics throws at us is not in our control, climate change has our fingerprints all over it and so we have to take responsibility for the consequences. Let's rephrase that. We ought to take responsibility for it. To date, all we've really done it talk about it a lot and make a few tentative steps towards reducing our CO2 footprint.

Arguably, the two phenomena are not really quite so different. Whereas we cannot be held responsible for earthquakes and tsunamis, these events can be mitigated against through pre-planning and good building codes. And these are things you get right when there is wealth and good politics.

As an endnote, it is worth considering that globally over 1million people die each year in road accidents, and most of them are young and physically fit. If things carry on this way, that will be over 100 million deaths this century, a figure which far outweighs the likely death toll from plate tectonics. In all probability is also likely to be far higher than deaths arising from the effects of climate change. Road accident deaths are very much in our control. We could restrict car speeds to 20mph which would reduce road deaths by 90%, but we choose not to because we value speed so highly. Is there a parallel here with CO2 emissions?