Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Transition Handbook

This is for Catherine, whom I hope will be inspired to set up our own Transition Initiative...

Rob Hopkins is the founder of the Transition movement, creating the fertile ground (literally as well as metaphorically) to generate the growth of communities that are resilient and able to embrace peak oil and climate change. He bridges the gap between the individual and the government, and provides an alternative and inclusive approach, one which enables people to work together to explore solutions on a credible scale. Just published, the Transition Handbook, explains the why and how it can be done.

And what a remarkable book it is. So good it kept me up all night until I had finished it, then bought more copies which have already been dished out (the only other book I seem to do this with on a regular basis is David Strahan's The Last Oil Shock. Both are top must-reads). It is a seminal text for our times. I'll wager that this will prove to be one of the most dynamic and important social movements of the 21st Century.

The Transition Handbook is all about the potential to progress and develop resilience within our communities, to adapt to the energy crisis whilst respecting the earth we live on. For me, it has help reshape my vision of our future on a community level and demonstrated the importance of inclusivity and strong support networks. This book is no wishy washy green-love-in. It's about business and life as we want it for a future that is in balance with our planet. One to read, reread and act upon.

Transition Culture
Community Action

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Alistair Darling's peely wally pale green budget

In Scotland the term 'peely wally' denotes a sickly pale green palor. That's the colour of the new Chancellor's budget. It had been touted to be the much needed great green budget - but it wasn't, it was a sop, a tinkering at the edges, but otherwise pretty much business as usual. In environmental terms there was no sense of seriously addressing 'stability' (he used this word a lot, 23 times, in an attempt to convince us all is well. It didn't work - it's the content that counts) at a time when our emissions continue to rise. My conclusion: it was a 'do nothing' budget.

On the up-side Darling threatened a tax on plastic bags (why threat - just do it. This is an old solution which the UK is still failing to implement), plans to penalise the most polluting cars (£950 for most polluting cars; why not make it thousands, or bolder yet - price them completely off the road or simply ban them) and reward the greenest through changes in car tax, tinkered with taxes on new green homes (retrofitting existing stock is a far larger problem that is not being properly addressed - Home Information Packs are not enough) and said a climate levy on business would continue (of course, why would it not?). "We need to do more and we need to do it now," Darling said presenting his first budget. "There will be catastrophic economic and social consequences if we fail to act." So act.

But didn't - he stood peering over the edge of the yawning abyss that lies ahead and instead stepped back. He delayed his planned rise in duty on road fuel, backed further airport expansion (this really is not joined up thinking. What fuel are planes going to be using in 10 years time? Hot air? Hot coal? No mention of the much needed reinforced public transport system to address peak oil) and simply announced a fresh consultation on boosting renewable energy. We really do not need another (sham) consultation. We need decisive decision making.

Darling did however announce the UK government support for all future allocations of carbon emission permits to power generators to be auctioned. (The current phase of European Union emission permits for the power generators were all allocated free, handing them billions of pounds in profits as they passed on the notional cost of the permits in higher energy costs to consumers) and that aviation be included in the next phase of the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme. But what of this? These are not UK decisions, they are EU decisions - and this is likely outcome at EU level with all EU member states voting to support these proposals in any event.

Is this what is called sending out mixed messages? Yes, the UK government supports taxing of flights because they accept they are a large contributor to climate change (4 - 7% CO2 emissions) but, hey, lets expand our airports and get more in the air while we are at it. Hmmm.

Last night I went to hear the Climate Tzar Lord Adair Turner (Chair of the government's Climate Change Committee) speak on Climate Change. He stayed for just two questions at the end and then scooted off. When asked what he would have put in the budget, he neatly side-stepped the question, but did make a few relevant points. In fact, he did that clever thing of completely rephrasing the question. He asked, does Fuel Duty work? His answer: it makes very little impact on using cars less but it can make a big impact on size of car chosen(i.e, more informed consumerism), so yes it does work. And now that it's in place it can be racked up in future years. Yes, fair enough, but Mr Turner you yourself acknowledged at the outset of your talk that it is because of our use of burning of fossil fuels that we have rapidly increasing greenhouse gas emissions. So, surely you agree with me on this: does this not point to the unavoidable fact that we need to stop using the very fuel that is creating our rapidly escalating emissions, rather than merely using it less fast?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Pollution Solution: Feed-in Tariffs

Heard the term Feed-in Tariff (also referred to FIT, or REFIT - renewable energy feed-in tariff)? Bet you have. It's the catchphrase of preference for all true RE geeks (that's Renewable Energy, not Religious Education). FIT's will help solve our failing RE targets and if you do not know this already you are sooo behind the times. Our Labour government are now toying with the term and contemplating stealing the march on Tory and Lib Dem sworn FIT policy. There has even been an EDM (Early Day Motion) proposed by Labour MP Alan Simpson that is proving popular with 180 votes so far. Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and the Renewable Energy Association are all shouting loudly for FIT's. And so they should.

So, here for you, is the complete low-down on why we so desperately need to support RE, how to do it and what FIT's are...

Why do we need RE?
If you subscribe to the basic principle that we have no option but to replace our current use of polluting fossil fuel with sustainable non-polluting alternatives (whether it be for reducing greenhouse gases and/or because of our pending energy crisis), then energy from renewables is the inevitable solution.

How can we support renewable energy?
For specific RE technologies to succeed, well-conceived government intervention is required. The simple fact is that without appropriate legislative assistance, RE systems are unable to compete. We are afterall dealing with a historical energy system predicated on the use of fossil fuel. New mechanisms are need to be implemented to open the door to RE being included and indeed, in time, fully replacing fossil fuel.

What legislation is required to make this work?
A FIT law. FIT's are a specific market mechanism to facilitate non-commercial RE technology to become commercialised in as fast as time as possible. In other words, it will take RE technology to mass production levels where it can stand alone. They do this by guaranteeing a favourable price (the tariff) for the electricity produced (feeding-in to the grid) over a set period of time (usually 20 years).

It is well established that FIT's are the most effective, cost efficient and transparent system to facilitate not only introduction of RE into the marketplace, but also to promote homegrown industry in the sector. Just look at all countries that have successful FITs, eg Germany, Spain. One aspect of FIT's that is often overlooked but is so vital is that they place a legal obligation on the utility to buy-in the renewable electricity (at a set price); thus no queueing until some ageing dirty coal plant falls off the radar to finally be accepted ongrid. Priority access for RE is a vital mandatory tool.

In a nutshell:
• work on a tariff rate for specific RE technologies that is guaranteed for a set period (usually 20 years). For instance, Germany has FIT's for small hydro, onshore wind, offshore wind, biomass, biogas, PV and geothermal (each RES set at different levels) but not one for CSP because they do not generate CSP on home turf;
• place a legal obligation on the utility companies to purchase electricity at set pricing levels from RES installations which are produced nationally;
• do not apply to buying in of RES from other EU countries or third party countries;
• are not trans-boundary, nor are they ever likely to be. It is the EC's intention that they remain voluntary as a mechanism for each country to implement as they see fit to promote home-grown RE;
• so far 19 out of 27 EU countries have implemented FIT's under their national legislation. Another 12 countries world-wide have adopted this system, and there also exists the use of FIT's at state level in 10 further countries.

[map of EU countries with FIT's]

FIT Benefits:
• proven to be the most successful mechanism to develop RE markets and domestic industries, and achieving the associated social, economic, environmental and security benefits;
• easy to implement and administer, FIT’s are transparent and cost-effective;
• greater flexibility can be designed into the scheme to account for changes in technology and the marketplace;
• encourage steady growth of small- and medium-scale producers;
• low transaction costs;
• ease of financing;
• investor security;
• ease of entry.

Benefit to you
+ You get to buy your own solar panel, wind-turbine etc at good price;
+ You generate your own clean energy (and sell the excess onto the grid, thus helping others too)
+ You get to keep your bills down whilst helping the planet.

There are various books on RE and potential policy, but the best of the lot is: Feed-in Tariffs, Accelerating the Deployment of Renewable Energy,2007, written by one of the foremost experts in this area, Miguel Mendoca. Amazingly, he makes a very dry subject utterly fascinating.

Even better, FIT's are so easy to adopt as national policy that there are now two websites that shows policy makers how to implement the requisite legislation:
Policy Action on Climate Toolkit - everything you need for implementing a FIT (and a nifty 5 min video too)
World Future Council - comprehensive documentation in support.

So, no reason not to get FIT, Mr Brown. Oh and one other thing - that Permitted Development Order that was shelved back on 10th October last year will need dusting off and implementing too, so that we shan't have the whole thing stymied for microgeneration installers by having to apply for planning permission. And while you are at it, could you overhaul the Low Carbon Buildings Programme too? Easy to apply for grants would be much appreciated also. That really would be a pollution solution package to shout about.

Desktop Direct Action: You can email your local MP to ask them to support the FIT EDM. Not sure who your MP is, or what their email address is? Go to TheyWorkForYou.com Easy - and effective.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Pollution Solution - no more mercury in my mouth

Ever wondered where the expression 'Mad as a Hatter' came from? I did, and out of such a casual query opened the door to a discovery that I cannot ignore. Mad as a hatter was a reference to the mental disorders that occurred in hat makers caused by the mercury once used to process felt for hats. To be more specific, it is the exposure to mercury vapour that proves to be so hazardous. When inhaled, it is easily absorbed into the bloodstream causing toxic buildup in various organs.

Mercury, thankfully, is no longer used in hat making. But it is still widely used as a major component in silver amalgam fillings. Over 50% of the compound is mercury (which equals approximately one half gram per filing = as much mercury used in a thermometer, which is loads), the other metals being silver, tin and zinc. The thing is, every time you chew or brush your teeth, that amalgam filling starts smoking and releasing it's toxic vapour. It's the mercury that causes the problems, with a substantial body of evidence demonstrating the hazards of mercury poisoning affecting the endocrine, the central nervous system, the kidneys and the brain. High levels in pregnant women are attributed to a three-fold increase in sterility, still-births and miscarriages. When mercury enters the blood after leaking out of an amalgam filling, it remains there only for a few minutes. Henceforth it is locked into the cells of our body as we excrete far less than we absorb. This is called 'Retention Toxicity'. Once in our organs it can stay there for decades. As Dr Lars Freiberg, chief advisor to the World Health Organisation on mercury safety put it, "there is no safe level of mercury" (1)

Still not convinced? You can watch this gory but nevertheless informative Youtube video on smoking mercury fillings from the IAOMT.

Given this state of affairs, how is it that mercury is so prevalent? It transpires it was that old chestnut, market economics, that had won the day. Amalgam was a cheaper compound than gold for a dental fillings, and despite health reservations, in 1819 it was introduced into the UK, and later worldwide, dental repertoire - it was touted as the filling everybody could afford. But as we now know, this has come at great cost to humans and the environment. In business terms, the external costs have not been factored in.

Thus, it looked like mercury fillings are pretty much here to stay. But times they are a- changing. So concerned about the high levels of poisoning, amalgam fillings are now banned in Sweden and Denmark. Austria is phasing out mercury fillings, and in Switzerland and Japan the dental schools no longer teach amalgam use as the primary form of dental care. In 1991, Germany's Ministry of Health recommended that no further amalgam fillings be used for children, pregnant women or those with kidney disease. In 1993 this was extended to include all women, and the Health Ministry is now considering whether to ban it's use entirely. Now recognised as such a dangerous substance, that the EU is currently onto it's second reading of a Directive proposing a Mercury Exports Ban by 2010.

Here in the UK, you can have your mercury fillings removed - not a cheap option, but one that I intend doing. It's a delicate job that requires a qualified dentist. Your dentist can measure your levels of mercuy toxicity, as can a good kinesiologist (although remember, your reading will be higher if you have just been munching beforehand) Society for Mercury Free Dentistry adheres to a strict code of practise to ensure extraction is undertaken as safely as possible (see their list for qualified dentists). In London extraction and replacement of an amalgam filling with a porcelain one costs around £700-£800 per filling (enough to make you choke on your methylmercury tainted tuna filled sarnie). In Scotland, it's roughly half the price. If you have like me a few that need replacing, a short trip over the border may just be what the dentist ordered.

If you want to read more, have a look at the following books:
Stop the 21st Century Killing You, 2005 Dr Paula Baillie-Hamilton, Vermilion and Toxics A to Z, a Guide to Everyday Pollution Hazards, University of California Press.

Mercury Free Dentistry

See also: Summary of the United Nations Environment Programme on Mercury Assesment

EU policy tracker: EU proposed Directive on the Banning of Exports and the Safe Storage of Metallic Mercury

(1) Panorama, Poison in the Mouth, 1994

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Post Carbon Living: Beyond Technofix

by Richard Heinberg
Published on 4 March 2008 by The Ecologist

On January 12, The Guardian quoted departing chief scientific adviser Sir David King as saying, “any approach that does not focus on technological solutions to climate change—including nuclear power—is one of ‘utter hopelessness’.”

It is useful to have this view so succinctly stated, because it is nearly the reverse of the position I will be exploring in this column, which is that there is an overwhelming need for non-technological responses to our global environmental crisis.

I could debate the point with Dr. King, I would begin with a discussion of our differing understandings of the nature of the crisis itself. In his view, climate change is caused by technology and therefore must have a technical solution. But to me this is a blindingly superficial framing of the situation. It’s not just climate change that threatens us, but depletion of resources including oil, natural gas, coal, fresh water, fish, topsoil, and minerals (ranging from antimony to zinc, and including, significantly, uranium); as well as destruction of habitat and accelerating biodiversity loss—which is exacerbated by climate change, but is also happening for other anthropogenic reasons. In essence, there are just too many of us using too much too fast.

Thus the problem is not merely technological; it is cultural in the deepest sense. Starting a couple of centuries ago, our species embarked on a path of unprecedented growth, founded on a temporary subsidy of cheap hydrocarbon energy. Climate change is a side effect of fossil fuel consumption, and has emerged as the most critical symptom of our growth binge. But unless we address the core of the problem, other symptoms will soon overwhelm us even if we manage technically to resolve the dilemma of carbon emissions.

Addressing the core of the problem means letting go of growth; in fact, it means engaging in a period of controlled societal contraction characterized by a stable or declining population consuming at a per-capita level far lower than is currently taken for granted in the industrialized world.

For anyone who understands the basics of ecology—having to do with relationships between population, resources, and carrying capacity—nothing could be clearer. But for those who insist on seeing only technical problems with technical solutions, the forest remains lost from sight behind a single tree.

To be sure: minimally polluting technologies must be part of our response to climate change and all the other symptoms of global crisis—whether those technologies include wind turbines, better public transit systems, or more efficient electrical storage devices. But just as important are changes in individual attitudes, habits, and expectations; and more essential still is a fundamental reworking of economic institutions and policies, so that endless growth ceases to be seen as good or even possible.

Some (Sir David King among them) would say that climate change is so serious and pressing a crisis that we may have to put off grappling with other environmental problems and use any means at our disposal—including otherwise problematic technologies such as nuclear power—to address it. But there is no way we can substitute alternative sources of energy—including nuclear—for fossil fuels to reduce carbon emissions as much and as quickly as the science says we must, unless we also dramatically reduce overall energy consumption. No matter how you slice it, we’ve got to downsize and re-localize our economies, and so culture change is indispensable to the required response.

King says that wrongheaded environmentalists are keen to take society back to the 18th century or further. Yet there are few indeed who want to ditch the humanitarian and scientific advances of the past decades. This is a straw-man argument. A fairer formulation of many environmentalists’ views is this: unless we use technology within the context of a controlled, planned, sustained period of economic contraction, we will see a chaotic, depletion-led societal collapse that could make the 18th century look like paradise by comparison.

Once one accepts this larger framing of the problem and its solutions, a whole world of possibilities opens up—a world I intend to explore in future columns. Far from being a world of utter hopelessness, it is one that engages human responsibility, creativity, and community. It is one characterized by cultural maturity, rather than the advertising-fueled teenage—even infantile—attitude that assumes that the world exists only to supply an ever-expanding list of human wants. It is the world of post-carbon living toward which tens of thousands, perhaps millions, of citizens worldwide are beginning deliberately to transition.

*Richard Heinberg is a Senior Fellow of Post Carbon Institute and author of The Party’s Over, Powerdown, The Oil Depletion Protocol, and Peak Everything. He also has his own excellent website where you can sign up for his Museletters

* Richard Heinberg is to have a regular column in the The Ecologist. This column apears in the print copy of the March issue.