Archive for [lang_en]the[/lang_en][lang_fr]la[/lang_fr] ‘Environment’ Category

Sigourney Weaver, Ocean Acidification, Avatar, and the Belo Monte dam

Tuesday, January 4th, 2011

Sigourney Weaver is one of my favourite actresses. I first saw her as Ellen Ripley in Alien, when I was at college, and have enjoyed most of the films I’ve seen her in since.

I don’t know if it was “Gorillas in the Mist: The Story of Dian Fossey” that set her on the road to environmental awareness, but whatever got her started, she is definitely a powerful voice for the protection of our world.

Her most recent blockbuster movie, Avatar, has certainly helped throw her into the spotlight in this role, together with its director, James Cameron. Even before that film came out, she was using the publicity it was attracting to divert attention to another film, for which she is the narrator. “Acid Test: The global challenge of ocean acidification” is a Natural Resources Defence Council documentary about what has been called “global warmings’ ugly sister”, the chemical changes in the ocean that are being caused by all that CO2 we are adding to the atmosphere.

Fox News wanted to interview Sigourney about her role in Avatar, even starting the interview with some trailers from the film. But she wanted to talk about Acid Test instead, and completely took control of the interview! It’s worth watching, she was clearly not going to be put off her stride by the hosts. One could almost feel sorry for them, but me, I enjoy seeing Sigourney in those ‘Ripley’ moments!

Now, she’s turning her attention to the Belo Monte dam. This is a hydroelectricity generation project which is planned to be built on the Xingu river, in the Brazilian Amazon. She has narrated a video which describes the impact of the dam (also shown here), and invites us to sign a petition to the Brazilian government to encourage them to cancel the project.

Dams which provide hydroelectric power are widely considered to be ecologically friendly things, so why does she think this one is bad?

Well, there are several reasons. One is that this will become the third-largest dam in the world, and the environmental impacts will be correspondingly huge. Building this dam will require moving more earth than was moved to create the Panama canal, and will block almost the entire flow of the river. An area equivalent to a circle 29 km across (18 miles) will be inundated.

Native peoples will have their way of life destroyed, obviously. It’s not surprising they rely heavily on the river for transport and fish, and that they farm much of the land that will be flooded by the dam. Ecosystems will be totally destroyed too, with several species that live only there doomed to extinction.

Of course, not all species will suffer, malaria mosquitos are expected to thrive in the new expanses of still water.

The dam is also destined to be one of the least efficient in the world. During the dry season, it will produce only one tenth of its maximum capacity. The annual average output will be less than 40% of the nominal capacity. In order to raise the efficiency, the Brazilian government needs to construct more dams upstream, to control and regulate the flow of water all year round. In fact, there are more than 60 large dams planned for the amazon basin over the next 60 years. That’s a staggering number!

Many people are hoping for a sequel to Avatar. For the people of the Xingu river, if the Belo Monte dam gets built, there will be no sequel, their world will be gone. So if you can spare 10 minutes, take a look at the video. Then, if you agree with me that this dam is a bad idea, please sign that petition!

Rescuing birds

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

great tit recovering on my hand

great tit recovering on my hand

A few days ago, a great tit collided with our living room window. It’s always heart-wrenching to hear the thud of a bird against the window, fortunately it doesn’t happen often. This poor fellow was on his back for a while, moving only slightly, and we weren’t sure if he would make it or not. But what do you do when this happens? Should you leave the bird to recover on its own, or try to help it?

Michelle, at Rambling Woods – The Road Less Travelled, is a great source of practical advice in such matters. She posted an article earlier this summer about a study by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on why birds hit windows, and what you can do to prevent it. Just last week she posted a detailed guide on how to help an injured bird, covering everything from songbirds to raptors!

There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye, if you really want to maximise the chance that a bird will survive you need to know what you are doing with it. Bookmark that page if you think you may ever need to help a bird! Michelle herself seems to be quite a dab hand at helping wildlife, just a day after posting the guide, she and her husband managed to rescue a great blue heron. That’s a 4-foot high bird with a wickedly pointed beak and lightening reactions. Definitely not something I would want to tackle. Well done, Michelle!

I hadn’t read her bird-rescue article when our great tit had his collision, it came out just a day or two after I needed it. But Dweezeljazz and I do know the importance of making sure the bird is safe and warm, while not adding to its stress by handling it if that can be at all avoided. We have cats in our neighbourhood that have been known to come into our terrace, and a stunned bird would be easy pickings for them. It was also a cool day with a fresh breeze, and since the bird wasn’t showing much sign of recovery, we decided we had to try to help it.

I went out and picked him up to keep him warm in my hand. He was conscious, and responded by looking at me, but was happy to stay in my hand. After some time, we decided to bring him indoors and put him in a box so he could recover there. As Michelle points out in her rescue-guide, bringing a bird indoors is perhaps not the best thing to do. If it panics indoors it could injure itself again trying to escape. That’s why we kept the box right by the door, ready to open the door the moment he showed signs of wanting to leave.

He was actually so relaxed on my hand that I didn’t want to force him off, so I stayed there, letting him sit as he wished. I was worried he might have broken a bone because he sat with one leg forwards and one backwards for some time, so I didn’t want to force him to move in case I injured him even more.

Eventually he righted himself on my hand, then a few minutes later he hopped onto the rim of the box. We opened the door, and he flew away. We were both very relieved that he seemed to be OK.

I think we saw him again an hour later. The great tits like to take sunflower seeds and perch on the bamboo canes in the garden, holding them between their toes while they hammer at them with their beaks. We saw one who was a little unsteady on his feet, using his wings to stop himself wobbling from time to time, as if he was having trouble using a hurt foot. Other than that, he seemed fine, taking several seeds one after the other. My guess is he’s going to be OK, and that makes us both very happy.

great tit on bamboo cane

great tit on bamboo cane

An Unusual Farm

Sunday, July 4th, 2010

I know of a farm where they don’t feed the animals. They even allow predators to roam freely, taking up to one fifth of their stock. And they’re proud of it.

That sounds pretty awful, but it’s not, it’s actually very good news. You can hear all about it in this video of a talk by Dan Barber. Dan is a New York chef who is quite outspoken in his views on the way we produce food today. He’s also a nice guy, which comes across clearly in the video. If you’d rather read a transcript, here it is.

The farm Dan talks about is Veta la Palma. It’s a fish-farm on the Guadalquivir river, in Spain. It produces 1,200 tonnes of sea bass, bream, red mullet and shrimp each year. Miguel Medialdea, the farm’s biologist, explains that they don’t need to feed their fish because of the way the farm is set up.

Miguel himself says that he is not an expert on fish, but he is an expert on relationships. By working with nature to build a sustainable ecosystem, instead of working against it to maximise profit, Veta la Palma produces fish in a way that also benefits the wildlife of the region.

In fact, their farm is one of the most important private estates for bird life in Europe. Before the farm, there were only 50 bird species there, now they count 250 species. This includes flamingos that commute 150 miles daily from their nesting sites to feed there, following the A92 highway.

If that’s not a recommendation for the quality of the fish, I don’t know what is!

Nuclear power and radiation exposure: should you worry?

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

Mention nuclear power to someone, and, of course, the subject of radiation exposure comes up. Radiation is a subject that, rightly or wrongly, strikes fear into a lot of hearts. But why?

Koeberg Nuclear Power Station
Image by Mark H via Flickr

Some people believe that there is no level of exposure which is safe, and that any radiation of any kind must be avoided. Some believe that nuclear power stations emit radiation, much as coal-fired stations emit smoke. Political parties like Europe Ecologie even claim, in their manifesto, that we should abandon nuclear power in France because of the radiation it puts out. These views are very widely held, but is there any truth in them?

I don’t think so. I think that radiation exposure can be perfectly safe providing the level is low enough, because zero exposure is simply not possible. You and I are exposed to several sources of background radiation on a constant basis, and I feel just fine, thank you very much! Let me tell you about some of these sources.

One source is my own body. No, I don’t glow in the dark, but like all people, my body emits a low level of background radiation. Potassium and carbon isotopes present in the body contribute about one tenth of the total radiation we receive.

Radiation also reaches us from outer space, and it comes up from the ground. It varies from place to place, but there’s nowhere on earth that you can avoid it. Medical procedures, such as x-rays and scans, also contribute to our exposure.

What if we stay indoors, and never go to the doctor? Alas, that might not help. Many things found indoors emit low levels of radiation. Granite, which we might use for our kitchen workspace, is one example. Natural gas, which we use to heat our homes and cook our food, is another. Radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas, can build up in confined spaces such as homes. Radon accounts for fully half of the exposure we get. So staying indoors might well increase your exposure!

Many buildings, such as Grand Central Station in New York, have higher than average background radiation levels, because of the materials they were constructed with. The radiation emitted by Grand Central Station exceeds the levels allowed for a nuclear power plant. Think about that next time you’re waiting for a train!

Taking the plane may not be much better. Airline pilots and frequent flyers can receive twice as much radiation as those of us who stay on the ground, because the thinner air at high altitude provides less protection against radiation from space.

What about nuclear power stations, how much radiation do we get from them? Not much. About 0.014%. That means that, of your daily dose of radiation, nuclear power accounts for 12 seconds worth. Nuclear power plants may actually reduce your radiation exposure, because the fossil fuels they displace emit more radiation than they do!

Of course, too much radiation is dangerous. Radiation can and has killed people. But it’s the dose that makes the poison. You can enjoy a beer or a glass of wine from time to time without long-term effects, but drink a bottle of whisky a day and you can expect your liver to pack up. You can smoke the occasional cigar with no worries, but smoke 40 cigarettes a day and don’t be surprised if you end up with lung cancer. So many of the things that we encounter or enjoy in everyday life are toxic in large quantities, yet we don’t notice any adverse effects if we keep our exposure low.

So, you and I are surrounded by radiation, wherever we are and whatever we do. It’s not because we have nuclear power stations, either, the dose they give us is nothing to worry about. Is there any form of radiation that does cause me concern? Well, yes, there is. I try to avoid getting sunburn.

Oh look, a volcano!

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

dust in the air over the Geneva valley

dust in the air over the Geneva valley

Well, maybe not a volcano, exactly, but at sunset yesterday we could certainly see the dust in the air from the eruption in Iceland. The shadow of the cloud shows it very clearly.

Geneva airport is closed, of course. The “Service de protection de l’air” says there’s no need for the population to worry, and that they will let us know if it gets bad. Why is it, then, that at Geneva airport they have put plastic film over the aircraft engines? They need protecting but we don’t?

Maybe the service de protection de l’air thinks that, what with all the industial VOCs that make Geneva smell so bad these days, an extra volcano or two won’t make much difference?

I don’t think I’ll wait for them to tell me the air is bad. We’re keeping an eye on the level of fine pariculates in the air. We’re staying indoors as much as possible with the windows closed and our air filters running.

Sustainable energy, without the hot air

Tuesday, March 30th, 2010

Sustainable Energy – without the hot air” is a book by David MacKay. It’s a thorough but clear analysis of how Britain could attempt to satisfy its present power-requirements without trashing the climate.

The book is available on the web for free download as a PDF and in other formats. David is more interested in having the book read than in making a profit from it. If you’d like to have a taste before reading the whole book, you can start with the 10-page summary he also provides on his site.

I think this is one of the most important books on tackling climate change that I have come across. Anyone who wishes to understand the complex question of how to reduce the carbon footprint of a nation should definitely read it. There are several reasons why I think that, here are some of them.

David MacKay

David MacKay

Though David is a every inch a scientist, the book is written in plain english, you don’t need a PhD to understand it. That said, non-native English speakers may have to look up words like ‘twaddle’ in a dictionary from time to time.

David starts by considering how much energy the British need to run their daily lives. By converting all uses of energy to a single unit he can produce a simple yet useful picture that includes electricity, transport, heating, food, and other lifestyle factors. This makes it easy to see what part of our lives is responsible for consuming energy, which makes it easy to see where we should look if we want to make changes.

He does not promote or favour a particular technology as part of the solution. He is not pro-wind, pro-solar, pro-nuclear, or pro-clean-coal. Nor is he against any of these or other climate-friendly energy-generation technologies. He considers all possible contributions to lowering Britain’s carbon footprint. Then he goes on to see if any different mix of technologies can possibly meet Britain’s energy requirements, or if it simply doesn’t add up. This makes the whole book very easy to comprehend.

He keeps things simple by looking only at what could potentially be done, if we captured all the available sources of energy. So, he looks at the total amount of wave-power energy arriving along the entire Atlantic coast. He looks at the total solar power we could get if we put panels on every south-facing rooftop. He considers the power we could get from wind if we put up turbines everywhere we feasibly could. He clearly and concisely works out what we could hope to get if we deploy these and other technologies on a nation-wide scale.

He is fully transparent about everything he does. All his assumptions are explained, he tells us where all his numbers come from, and he gives references to the material he used. So you can check his numbers yourself, there is no need to decide if you trust him or not. It’s all there for you to verify. He also uses round numbers, rather than quoting calculations to 10 decimal places like Spock in Star Trek, so we can follow the big picture more easily.

He does not rule out anything for political reasons, or for ethical reasons. He concentrates strictly on the basic facts instead. As he says:

This book is emphatically intended to be about facts, not ethics. I want the facts to be clear, so that people can have a meaningful debate about ethical decisions.


I don’t want to feed you my own conclusions. Convictions are stronger if they are self-generated, rather than taught. Understanding is a creative process. When you’ve read this book I hope you’ll have reinforced the confidence that you can figure anything out.

These days, there is so much written about climate change and what we need to do about it, with so many people reaching different conclusions, that is can be very hard to know who to trust. Some authors have their own conclusions that they want to convince us to agree with, so they bias their writing. Some fail to take account of important factors, which makes their conclusions unreliable. Some are deliberately trying to mislead us, working to a hidden agenda, as happens in so many walks of life. Some, finally, are simply too difficult to understand, with complex arguments that non-experts have no hope of following. We live in a world where the opinion of an expert is considered suspect, and is often rejected because, being an expert, we believe that they must be biased.

The result is that we are left with a choice among different viewpoints without knowing the facts, without knowing who is right or wrong, who is honest and who is not, or who is trying to manipulate us for their own gain. That’s not a good position to be in. That’s why it’s refreshing to find a scientist who wants us to reach our own conclusions.

That, in a nutshell, is why this book is important. Rather than pushing an agenda, David wants us to understand the limits of what we can do, and must do. He looks at the possibilities to see how they adds up, and he wants us to understand how he does it.

energy use per Briton per day (left) and energy available in renewables (right)

energy use per Briton per day (left) and energy available in renewables (right)

David’s simple way of looking at how we use energy is to convert everything to kilowatt-hours (kWh). One kWh is the amount of energy used by a 1 kW appliance left running for one hour. A 100 watt lightbulb running for 10 hours also uses 1 kWh. A 40 watt bulb would take 25 hours to use one kWh, and so on. Your electricity meter measures consumption in kWh, so it’s a sensible unit, we can all relate to it because it appears on our monthly bills.

Other forms of energy can also be expressed in kWh. Driving the mythical average car 30 miles (50 km) consumes about 40 kWh of energy in the form of petrol. So if your commute to work is a 30-mile round trip, 5 days a week, that uses about the same amount of energy as running a 1 kW heater all day long, every day. The heater would use 1 kW x 168 hours per week = 168 kWh per week, the car would use 40 kWh per day x 5 days, which equals 200 kWh. That’s close enough to being the same thing, as I’m sure David would agree.

Similarly, if you take one long-distance flight per year, that also works out to be the equivalent of 30 kWh per day for that year. So just getting to your holiday destination uses the same amount of energy as if you left a 1 kW heater on all day long, every day, for the whole year.

That’s not to say that these things are exactly equal. After all, if you do leave your heater on for a year, you won’t suddenly wake up in the Bahamas on New Year’s Day (more’s the pity!). But it does allow you to start comparing things. 1 long-distance-flight = commuting 30 miles per day to work for a year = a 1 kW heater left on all year long. So, if you want to reduce your carbon footprint, you might consider car-pooling with a colleague, which will halve your energy consumption for your commute. Or, if you could cut out that long-distance flight, that’s going to be twice as effective, equivalent to taking your car off the road completely!

David does all the other sums for us too. Heating accounts for 37 kWh per person per day. Lighting accounts for 4 kWh, electrical and electronic gadgets (such as computers, phones, stereos and vacuum cleaners) consume about 5 kWh. The food we eat requires about 15 kWh to produce, when you add up everything that goes into it. Consumer goods (from cars to newspapers and other things that we buy) come with a cost of about 49 kWh. That huge number comes up when you take account of the energy needed to produce the raw materials, manufacture the object, use it, and dispose of it. Packaging alone adds 4 kWh per day to our consumption.

So do you unplug your phone-charger, as we are often told to do? Sure, go ahead, though it won’t make much difference. Change your light bulbs and turn down your thermostat? Definitely some savings to be had there. Trade in that SUV for a real car? Great idea! Don’t overlook how much you can save in other ways, like not buying stuff you don’t need, and not throwing things out when there’s still some use in them. Small economies and reducing waste are always a good idea, but we need to make bigger changes, on a national scale, if we want to save the planet.

David also tackles the question of how to look at the energy needs of the entire country. This is where many analyses come unstuck. For example, take the recently announced wave and tidal energy projects in Scotland. These are described with phrases like “major milestone”, and “Saudi Arabia of marine power”. These projects between them will yield the same amount of electricity as a large nuclear power station. That sounds impressive, but is it really? Could we simply build more of these and satisfy our energy needs that way?

David MacKay points out that Britain has about 1000 km of Atlantic coastline, and the waves crossing it have an energy of 40 kW per metre of coastline. If we build wave-machines that can collect half of that, and build enough to cover half of our coastline, we would get (drum roll please) 4 kWh per person, per day. [update: See also “Tidal power – no thanks” in New Scientist]

That’s not so much after all, just enough to keep the lights on. Is it worth covering half the coastline with wave machines for that? It certainly doesn’t sound like Saudi Arabia to me!

Using a similar approach, David calculates that if we were to cover one tenth of Britain with windmills, that would give us each 20 kWh per day, or one sixth of what we currently use. Covering every south-facing roof with solar water-heating panels would give us 13 kWh per day. Biofuels? If we converted all the farmland in Britain to producing biofuels, that would give at most 36 kWh each per day (and no more food!).

David MacKays five plans for powering Britain

David MacKays five plans for powering Britain

David then goes on to consider what mix of technologies might be used to balance the energy needs of the UK in some foreseeable future, and proposes a number of simple plans to illustrate the possibilities and the limits of what might be achievable. Rather than go into details about them here, I’ll let you read the book for yourself and see if any of them appeal to you.

If you have the slightest interest in sustainable energy, I urge you to read this book. It’s the best illustration I’ve seen of what it means to wean a nation off of fossil fuels. That’s something that is really difficult to grasp, it’s such an enormous undertaking, yet David presents it in a way that makes sense. If you don’t want to let yourself be fooled by people with their own bias or hidden agenda, this is the book you need.

March diary

Monday, March 8th, 2010

For the eco-minded individual, March is a good month. There are events of all shapes and sizes that you can take part in. Here are a few of them.

Earth Hour - LogoThe biggest event this month will undoubtedly be Earth Hour. It takes place at 8:30 pm local-time on Saturday 27th, wherever you are in the world. Participating is simple, sign up on the website (so they can know how many people take part) and then, when the time comes, just turn off your lights for an hour. The idea is not to save electricity, one hour of lighting won’t make that much difference to anything. No, the idea is to show your support for solid action in favour of tackling climate change. There’s more information on the Earth Hour FAQ, if you’re interested.

Last year, hundreds of millions of people worldwide took part. Towns, cities, and major landmarks across the globe darkened to show their support for action to tackle climate-change. The fact that world leaders let us down in Copenhagen in December only makes it all the more important that we send the message loud and clear once more. So go on, sign up, switch off, and do something different in the dark for an hour!

Bottled water free day logoIf you’re in Canada, there’s another event that might interest you. March 11th has been declared Bottled Water Free Day.

This has been organised by the Canadian Federation of Students, the Sierra Youth Coalition and the Polaris Institute. Their aim is simple, they want to encourage people to pledge to stop drinking bottled water.


Why? Because bottled water represents a great deal of plastic and fuel used to transport water that is no better than tap water – and often is tap water – so that people can pay 1000 times as much as it would cost them to take it from the tap. The bottles leach chemicals into the water, which is not good, and then they often end up in landfill instead of being recycled, which is also not good.

If you’d like to know more, take a look at the video, or click on the logo above to go to the Bottled Water Free Day site.

preparing pesticide - courtesy of

preparing pesticide - courtesy of

Week without pesticides

Week without pesticides

On this side of the pond, there’s the next edition of Semaine sans pesticides (Week without pesticides) coming up, March 20-30. Pesticides are used so heavily these days that people in developed countries are contaminated from birth, which can’t be good. Take a look at the protective gear this guy is wearing in order to spray that stuff on your food!

There are ever-growing numbers of organic farmers out there, so healthier food is becoming more and more available, which is a good thing. For that matter, you can grow your own vegetables organically with little effort, so it’s quite possible to get off the pesticides. It would be great if more farmers took the organic route!

Semaine sans pesticides is a growing event, with participation from all over the world, though most of the events are in France. Why not check out their map and see if there’s something of interest near you. You can turn up and show your support, or simply find out more about the pesticides on your plate.

On a smaller scale, if you’re in Ferney-Voltaire on Monday 29th, drop in to the Cafe du Soleil (14 Grand Rue) at 8pm. The association Eco-pratique will be meeting to discuss reducing electricity consumption, swapping personal experience and ideas. If you’re in the area, drop in and join the fun!

FLOW – For the Love of Water

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

In the latest James Bond film, A Quantum of Solace, our hero thwarts the plans of a major international criminal organisation. They were planning to take control of the government in Bolivia by taking control of the nation’s water supply. That sounded a bit far-fetched to me when I saw it. I didn’t know then that it had already happened! The World Bank forced water-privatisation on Bolivia back in 1997, as part of their preconditions for receiving aid. The companies that took the contracts explicitly excluded many poor city-districts from the water supply, and increased prices dramatically for those that did get water. You can see for yourself some of the bills people were getting. Maybe this James Bond film isn’t so far from the truth after all?

I learned about this by watching a film called FLOW, For Love Of Water, by Irena Salina. You can see this film for yourself via YouTube, it’s available in 8 parts, and they are linked at the end of this article. I can highly recommend it, it’s an eye-opener. Here are some highlights for you.

Water is a $400 billion dollar global industry; the third largest behind electricity and oil. It seems odd to make an industry out of something which is as fundamental to human life as air and food, and which falls from the sky. You’d think there would be enough for everyone, and indeed there ought to be. According to the UN Human Development Report 2006 (chapter 4, page 133):

But absolute scarcity is the exception, not the rule. Most countries have enough water to meet household, industrial, agricultural and environmental needs. The problem is management. Until fairly recently, water has been seen as an infinitely available resource to be diverted, drained or polluted in generating wealth. Scarcity is a policy-induced outcome flowing from this deeply flawed approach, the predictable consequence of inexhaustible demand chasing an underpriced resource.

One in every 10 Bolivian children dies before they are 5 years old, mostly from lack of clean drinking water. Privatisation of water-resources has been a disaster for them. But what about you? Who owns the water you drink? Who owns the water that falls on your land? Probably not you. Some of the earliest empires in the world relied on control of water for their power. Even today, however, it seems that “hydraulic empire” are still very much in existance.

In South Africa, river water can carry cholera and other diseases. Privatisation has led to the installment of pre-pay water meters, at prices that can amount to one fifth of a persons’ income, replacing what used to be free communal pumps. Many families cannot afford to pay for water that used to be freely available. They have no choice but to resort to using untreated water, with all the health risks that involves. Hardly a service to the people.

Jean-Luc Touly, a former accountant with Vivendi/Veolia, asks the question: How can Vivendi shareholders wait 10-15 years for profit from poor people? Obviously they won’t, they’ll be looking for a faster return on their investment. Jean-Luc is now very outspoken against such monopolies controlling our water, and is actively engaged in making another film, “Water Makes Money” on that subject. They are looking for public donations to help cover the costs, follow the link if you’d like to make a donation.

South Africa and Bolivia may seem a long way away to some of us, but there are other stories in the film that may be closer to your home. One story features Michigan residents, who have fought a long-running battle to stop Nestle from pumping their rivers and streams dry. Nestle were originally pumping water at 400 gallons (1500 litres) per minute to bottle and sell. They were not required to pay anything for it, either, so you can imagine how keen they were to get as much as they could. It’s a license to pump money.

The UN estimates it would take $30 billion per year to provide safe clean drinking water to the entire planet. That’s less than $5 per person per year. Consumers in the US spend $100 billion annually on bottled water, which is about a dollar a day for every American. That’s about 70 times as much as they should need to spend.

Clearly water is a lucrative business if it can be provided so cheaply, yet sold so profitably.

Of course, it helps the industry that most of us can’t tell if the water that comes out of a bottle is any good or not. This point is brought home by a hidden-camera scene in a restaurant, where customers happily approve of the bottle of ‘Chateau Robinet’ they are offerred. That’s literally tap-water, to you and me. If we can’t tell the difference, how do we know we’re getting a good product?

Nations go to war to protect access to resources, and water is certainly valuable enough to fight for. Conflict in Africa has been linked to climate-change, and shortage of water is just one of the factors that will make these conflicts worse over time.

Water is a precious thing. Access to clean, safe water should be considered a basic human right, not something to be bought and sold. That’s just wrong.

Copenhagen – now what?

Sunday, January 10th, 2010

The Copenhagen meeting finished some time ago now, and didn’t succeed in delivering anything useful. I’ve resisted the temptation to write about it earlier, rather I wanted to see what others said first, before making up my own mind about it. There’s been an awful lot of analysis published in the blogosphere since the meeting ended, I’m sure I’ve not encountered every view, but here are my own conclusions.

One thing is obvious, we did not get the fair, ambitious, and legally binding document we were all hoping for. Not even close. All we got was the ‘Copenhagen accord’, a piece of paper with no legal weight written by a few of the participants. That accord has no numbers in it that we can use to actually set policies. It does not state when emissions should peak, what reduction in emissions is required, in what timescale, or anything like that. There is no way to turn it into a plan of action, to decide how to tackle climate change based on what it says. It is worthless in itself, and is quite possibly worse than having no agreement at all.

By stepping outside the UN framework to produce that accord, those few countries that created it have seriously weakened the UNFCC process.
President Obama announced the accord to the press before most of the national representatives had even seen it, which shows a distinct lack of respect for protocol. How can the UNFCC be taken seriously now that a handful of leaders have ignored it and made up their own agreement?

On the other hand, it is not at all clear that anything else was on the table. I have not seen anything mentioned anywhere that the formal process of the UNFCC had created a document that was ready to be signed at the end of the meeting. If you know otherwise, please let me know via the comments. And, worthless as it is in practise, it is nonetheless significant that America and China have both signed even so weak a document as they did.

In the aftermath, the inevitable finger-pointing has taken place, with most people blaming someone half the world away for the failure. It’s difficult for an observer like myself to know what really happened, who is at fault, and why the process broke down. There was clearly a lot of good intention from many places, I doubt so many world leaders have ever been assembled in one place before. They wouldn’t all go there to look bad, I’m sure many of them wanted to come away with something real. Many countries went to Copenhagen having made pledges which, while inadequate, were much stronger than anything they have comitted to in the past. So what happened?

President Obama was clearly a key player, and he went there empty-handed. He didn’t offer anything new, much to the disappointment of many. The offer of ‘mobilising a fund of $100 billion annually for mitigation’ by 2020 is not worth much. Americans spend that much each year on bottled water, so it’s not exactly digging deep into their pockets. Besides, the International Energy Agency estimates that, for each year we delay action, the cost of tackling climate change will increase by $500 billion. So having $100 billion per year by 2020 really isn’t impressive.

It seems likely that, had America made a bigger comittment to cutting its own emissions, the conference could have gained a lot of momentum. With one of the highest levels of emissions per person in the entire world, America, like many western countires, has a clear debt to pay for the wealth it has accumulated. People were looking to President Obama to take the leading role he claimed he would when he was sworn into office. He failed to do that. To be fair, when you see the political pressure and tactics wielded by the fossil-fuel industries in America, it’s hardly surprising that President Obama couldn’t offer more. He simply doesn’t have that much power.

George Monbiot of the Guardian points out that Obama demanded concessions, despite offered nothing in return. On the other hand, Mark Lynas blames China for systematically blocking all attempts to name concrete targets. In Mark’s own words:

it was China’s representative who insisted that industrialised country targets, previously agreed as an 80% cut by 2050, be taken out of the deal. “Why can’t we even mention our own targets?” demanded a furious Angela Merkel. Australia’s prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was annoyed enough to bang his microphone. Brazil’s representative too pointed out the illogicality of China’s position. Why should rich countries not announce even this unilateral cut? The Chinese delegate said no, and I watched, aghast, as Merkel threw up her hands in despair and conceded the point. Now we know why – because China bet, correctly, that Obama would get the blame for the Copenhagen accord’s lack of ambition.

China, backed at times by India, then proceeded to take out all the numbers that mattered. A 2020 peaking year in global emissions, essential to restrain temperatures to 2C, was removed and replaced by woolly language suggesting that emissions should peak “as soon as possible”. The long-term target, of global 50% cuts by 2050, was also excised. No one else, perhaps with the exceptions of India and Saudi Arabia, wanted this to happen. I am certain that had the Chinese not been in the room, we would have left Copenhagen with a deal that had environmentalists popping champagne corks popping in every corner of the world.

You can read more on Mark’s views of Copenhagen at the New York Times dotEarth blog, it’s worth reading.

I think that both George and Mark make good arguments, as do many other writers, but I have to say I give a lot of weight to Mark’s analysis. Mark was in the room for the negotiations, he saw it all first-hand. I’ve read Mark’s book, Six Degrees, and was impressed at how well he took such a large body of research and summarised it in terms we can all understand. He’s also one of the few environmentalists who has come to understand the importance of nuclear power in addressing climate change. That’s why I trust him as an observer and a critical thinker, and take his opinion seriously.

So, given that the UN framework didn’t yield a result, and that those who wanted to do something were prevented from doing so by those that don’t, what does that mean for the future? Here, the blogosphere seems to be more in agreement, people-power still matters, and there are a lot of people who aren’t giving up.

People from all walks of life have been calling for action on climate change. George Monbiot, in that same article above, is quite blunt about blaming people for complacency.

For the past few years good, liberal, compassionate people – the kind who read the Guardian – have shaken their heads and tutted and wondered why someone doesn’t do something. Yet the number taking action has been pathetic.

I guess he’s right. I know I came late to the party, and wish I had acted sooner.

At the other end of the scale, a group of international investors managing $13 trillion in assets also called for strong action (full report (PDF)). You can bet that they wouldn’t be asking for strong legislation to attack global warming unless they thought that it was needed for the global economy to survive.

Young people are getting in on the act too. Take a look at the video below, produced by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. Their message to world leaders is load and clear:

Those of you who say it can’t be done should get out of the way of people already doing it. Our future will not be written for us, but by us. You’re not done yet. And neither are we.

It’s great to know so many people from such different levels of society want action, but it won’t be enough to simply tell governments to act. It’s important that people both understand what is needed and agree on how to act, so a clear, unified, and sensible message is sent to political leaders. One of the biggest problems here is that a lot of people think that renewable energy sources can solve our energy needs, and many environmental groups remain opposed to nuclear power.

Advocates of ‘renewable energy’ regularly fail to consider the cost or effort required to satisfy demand. Replacing conventional electricity production with renewable sources is simply not sensible when you look at the amount of raw material (e.g. concrete and steel) that is needed, or at the amount of land that would be needed for the installation. Never mind the fact that solar or wind power are useless in a cold spell of weather like we are having at the moment, so we would still need something reliable to provide power when we need it most. See David Mackay‘s free ebook, Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air, for some clear discussion about the theoretical limits of renewable energy and decide for yourself if you think it’s really a viable option.

I’ve written before about green-groups misguided opposition to nuclear power. Few of them seem to understand the realities of modern nuclear power, which is cheaper, cleaner, safer, and more reliable than it was during the cold-war days of the nuclear arms race. By perpetuating this myth, they are supporting the fossil-fuel industry. How? as Steve Kirsch said recently:

If you want to get emissions reductions, you must make the alternatives for base-load electric power generation cheaper than coal. It’s that simple. If you don’t do that, you lose.

Needless to say, weather-dependant renewable energy cannot provide that base-load, and the only real competition to fossil-fuel is nuclear power. If I were a fossil-fuel CEO, I would certainly want to spread fear of nuclear power, and would happily let the green-groups do my dirty work for me!

If you want a good idea of what it takes to replace fossil-fuel with either renewable or nuclear power, take a look at They consider the practicalities of cost and build-rate for a range of options, and conclude that anything other than massive deployment of nuclear power simply won’t cut emissions in time.

Until green-groups embrace the need for nuclear power instead of renewable energy, we are not sending a coherent or useful message to world leaders, one that they can use to enact legislation that will genuinely cut emissions. Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu surely understands this, so President Obama must know it too. Small wonder that he couldn’t offer much at Copenhagen when the environmental movement don’t want the changes that will work, and the coal and oil industries are spending a fortune to mislead and misinform the American public.

That’s not to say that this problem is specific to America, it’s a drama that is repeated the world over. The sooner we realise that, the sooner we can start making the changes that matter. Maybe then we can persuade others to do the same too.

Free Petrol? Free Pizza!

Saturday, January 2nd, 2010

At the end of 2008, I explained how changing my driving habits had effectively given me free petrol for the month of December. Time to review the figures for 2009!

In 2008, my car travelled 10400 km, using 621 litres of petrol. That works out at 47.3 mpg if you’re British, 39.3 mpg if you’re American, and 6.0 litres per 100 km if you’re French. In 2009, the same car travelled 9440 km on 552 litres. I’ll let you do the math, but by my calculation that’s about 2% better on the mileage. More importantly, the total fuel consumption went down by 11%, which is quite a chunk. The difference is worth about $100 (70 euros), enough for another good meal out with Dweezeljazz.

Free pizza for driving less, I can handle that!

According to the 538 blog, the average American family of 4 uses about 2000 US gallons of petrol per year. That’s over 7500 litres. Imagine how many free pizzas they could get if they saved 10% of that?

I’ve also been following my electricity consumption for the past year, and have found that we average about 30 kWh per day. According to Wikipedia’s list of electricity consumption per country, we’re a fair bit lower than the average for France, which would be 40 kWh/day for the two of us. Not bad at all.

I only monitor our electricity use by reading the meter once per week, but that’s enough to start getting useful information on where it all goes. For example, our water-heater broke down in summer, allowing me to estimate how much goes into heating water for us. Some people go much further. Tom Harrison uses a TED 5000, a gadget that can show electricity use by the second as it happens. That’s how he found out that his gas oven uses 300W of electricity. How many people would even guess that a gas oven uses electricity, never mind as much as that?

If you’re interested in checking your own use of resources such as petrol and electricity, there are a number of ways of going about it. You can get an idea of your petrol use by looking at the service-records for your car, the total number of miles on the clock is typically recorded there. If you know how often you fill up your petrol tank (credit-card receipts, perhaps?) you can get a fair estimate of your mileage that way. For electricity or gas, you can look at your bills over the last year to get a starting point (make sure they’re actual readings, not estimates).

Once you know how much you’ve been using in the past, you have a good incentive to reduce it in the future. You can compare your petrol consumption with others by recording your results at My Astra is there.

link to 10:10 websiteIf you’re serious about wanting to reduce your consumption, why not sign up with the 10:10 campaign (there’s a separate link for people in the UK). The 10:10 campaign wants people, businesses, and other organisations to reduce their carbon footprint by 10% in 2010. That’s a modest but significant goal which is easy to achieve, and is intended to focus on actually doing the things that are needed, rather than just talking about them. Over 50,000 people have signed up so far, including Pete Postlethwaite, star of the Age of Stupid film.

It has to be said, the 10:10 website is not very well laid out. It took me ages to find the 10:10 blog, for example. They’re looking for a web developer if you’re interested in helping them improve it. You can actually get a better idea of what it’s about from the Wikipedia 10:10 page, which also lists some of the people and organisations that have comitted themselves to action. They include the British cabinet, the Science Museum, Microsoft UK, the Guardian, and a whole bunch of celebrities. I’ll be checking there again in a few days to see if they’ve added my name to the list.

The Guardian are throwing a lot of their weight behind the 10:10 campaign. It’s worth reading their articles by Andrew Simms, Chris Goodall and Ian Katz, among others. I’m convinced 10:10 is worth doing, so I signed up. After all, you can look at it differently, and just think of it as free pizza.