Friday, 30 September 2016

Relatives face extinction

There are seven species of great ape and four of these are close to extinction. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classes the Eastern Gorilla, Western Gorilla, Bornean Orangutan and Sumatran Orangutan as Critically Endangered. That's one step short of extinct in the wild.

Another two - the Chimpanzee and Bonobo - are merely Endangered. 

The seventh great ape - Homo Sapiens - is increasingly numerous though whether our current numbers can be sustained is another matter.

The IUCN estimates the total number of chimps as 170,000 to 300,000 so there are more people in Enfield than there are chimps in the whole world. It estimates the number of bonobos at 30,000 to 50,000 so there are probably more children in Enfield than there are bonobos in the world.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Goodbye Jumbo?

Forest elephants could be nearly extinct in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) - the country that once held the largest population of this subspecies. A major study published in 2013 found that:
  • Between 2002 and 2011 the number of forest elephants in the DRC fell by 62% and the area occupied by the elephants shrank by about 30%.
  • Forest elephants have "likely declined to extremely low density over 75% of their potential
  • About 95% of DRC’s forests are likely to be almost empty of elephants."
  • [This] indicates a decline of more than 80% in less than 25 years which more than meets the Red Book criteria for listing a species as Critically Endangered.
  • Large losses also occurred in Gabon - the country where the majority of forest elephants now live.
These declines are due, above all, to poaching - itself encouraged by the absence of law
enforcement and poor governance (including corruption). But the increasing human population and physical infrastructure, such as roads, are also significant.

A simple extrapolation would have made the species extinct in the DRC by 2015! Of course, that didn't happen  - or not yet - though poachers have continued to kill elephants.

The most effective remedial action is to end the trade in poached ivory. But a more recent study has shown that even if poaching stopped tomorrow, the forest elephants would not recover their numbers for many decades. Indeed, given the other factors it's highly unlikely that they ever will.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Dissappearing ice and gulls

The Arctic ice has now passed its annual minimum and scientists expect ice cover to increase as winter arrives. The minimum was 1.60 million square miles and ties with 2007 as the second lowest extent on record.

Last week Arctic scientist Peter Wadhams told New Scientist "... the trend is so strongly downwards that in one, two or three more years, I expect ... that there will be less than a million square kilometres of sea ice remaining in September ... in one, two or three more years." Of course, one million is just a number - further shrinkage is inevitable.

The effects are already apparent. The same issue of New Scientist reported the rapid decline in populations of Ivory Gulls off Greenland and Svalbard. According to Kyle Elliott at McGill University in Montreal. “... if the ice disappears – they’re not going to be able to survive.”

Wilderness lost

Australian researchers have found that about one tenth of the world's wilderness has been lost in the last twenty years. The lost area is over 3 million square kilometers and the losses have been greatest in South America (30%) and Africa (14%).

This is, unhappily, not a surprise. It's one of a series of recent studies that shows the increasing human dominance of the planet. Indeed, it's one of the less pessimistic. Taking the crude numbers it implies that some wilderness will last 200 years.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

The need for evidence

Sense About Science is conducting a campaign in favour of evidence-based policy making. They asked members of the public to say why evidence is important to them. Here's what I wrote:
Elected politicians are expected to claim total knowledge when seeking election. Any such claim falls somewhere between optimism and dishonesty but after a time politicians come to believe their own words. Attention to evidence is needed as a corrective to this 'optimism'.

But it's also essential if we want policies to work - ie achieve their stated goals. There are almost always conflicting opinions about the likely effects of a policy but an opinion is what you have when you lack knowledge. So to have the best chance of working policies need to be based on the best possible understanding of the situation. That requires evidence and sometimes trials of several policies to see what works.

This is demanding. it requires what Russell called humility in the face of the universe. To attend to the facts and not to ones own prejudices. It also requires a kind of political courage. To be willing to say to the public and the press "Actually, we don't know what would work best - but we are determined to find out!"

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

How Green is Meridian Water? Travel

Meridian Water is Enfield's flagship development.

Here's my view on the green credentials of its travel provision - based on the published Masterplan.

In a previous post I asked for:

  1. Green space within walking distance.
  2. Good walking and cycling routes to shops, entertainment, etc.
  3. Accessible routes for people with nobility problems. - ??
  4. Good public transport connections.
There are green spaces on three sides of Meridian Water and it looks easy to walk to them. The site offers good opportunities for recreational walking and cycling - notably up the Lea Valley and into the Lea Valley Park.

If you want to cycle to actually get somewhere it's on National Cycle Network route 1 which runs north-south through the Valley and not far from the north end of Cycle Superhighway 1 which gives access to the City. There's a greenway to Edmonton Green and, though less clearly, there will be cycle lanes along the North Circular in both directions.

The public transport picture looks good. We're told that "most of the site is presently within a 5-10 minute walk of a bus stop" and the new Angel Road station will be close. (And there will be buses for those who need them). There will be four trains per hour (each way I assume) from Angel Road travelling to Stratford,Cambridge and Liverpool Street and connecting with the West Anglia Main Line and the Victoria Line. We must hope that the additional station capacity and services will be enough to make train travel a pleasant experience.

Drivers will get the doubtful privilege of joining traffic jams on the North Circular and Meridian Way - though they will be able to escape onto the M25 if they choose their times well.

Overall I think the travel facilities will be excellent.

How Green is Meridian Water? Housing

Meridian Water is Enfield's flagship development. It's supposed to deliver 10,000 homes and 16,000 jobs. And, being on brownfield land, it leaves the Green Belt untouched.

I've studied the Masterplan, approved in July 2013, and I'll apply the criteria in my last post.

Of course, I can only comment on the document. As with many other schemes what we get eventually may be very different. And here the experience of the Council's approach to providing a 'community hub' at the Ritz Parade is fairly discouraging.

And because is a complex scheme I'm going to make this several posts, starting with the central issue - housing.

The Masterplan refers to "5,000 new homes" though more recent Council statements have claimed 10,000. I attended an exhibition on the scheme last year but came away more confused about the numbers.

You can get some idea of the intended residents by looking at the list of travel connections: Heathrow, Stansted and City airports and Cambridge, Stratford and Canary Wharf. It's clear that the focus is on jet-setting bankers and entrepreneurs.

We need more homes, especially for those who can't afford decent homes. Developments are supposed to provide 40% 'affordable' homes but this is a distraction because developers generally find ways to avoid providing so many and more because most so-called affordable homes are not affordable by people on average pay.

In my view this problem is insoluble if numbers continue to rise. It is certainly not soluble without some serious creativity about the interplay between population, housing, finance and benefits. And that probably needs a new national policy - or several!

So, while we work on the broader issue, we can ask for 50% affordable homes. It won't solve the problem but at least those 50% won't be luxury flats for offshore investors!

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Consilience: A Philosophy for Green Politics

It surprises me that I've only now read Edward O Wilson's book Consilience. The unity of knowledge. It was, after all, published in 1998!

In Consilience Wilson takes an uncompromising position on the superiority of the scientific method to other ways of establishing knowledge. This is a strong claim but one that I entirely accept. Science, unlike appeals to authority, personal revelation or popular opinion gives us knowledge that we can safely rely one. Or at least it does so more often then  the others!

Wilson then argues that the areas of study not usually seen as part of science - from literature and the arts to ethics - should both adopt similar methods and seek consistency - which he calls consilience - with the findings of physical science. There's is much to be said for this. Anyone who has read what passes for scholarship in, say, cultural studies, will recognise the need for a strong dose of scientific scepticism. And if I cannot, in the end, agree with all his claims, especially about ethics, I do think he's much more right than wrong.

He also makes a claim for the relevance of science to politics (page 313 et seq of the Abacus paperback). His distinctive position here is to insist that politics - the use of power in society - should be understood within a scientific account of what is possible given the resources we have. This leads him to a fairly conventional account of the planetary crisis. 

But the framing of politics as subordinate to the environment is profoundly correct and important. It requires, at once, a longer, wider and deeper view than is available from mainstream politics. It requires, in short, a Green, ecological approach to politics.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Wasting the Water of Life

I want to recommend the work of Prof. Arjen Hoekstra, University of Twente.

Hoekstra invented the Water Footprint, similar to the carbon footprint, and has published vast amounts of data. He also has emphatic views:
In Europe, the average consumer’s domestic use is typically only 1 to 2 per cent of their total water footprint: the vast majority relates to the products you consume ... about 90 per cent of our global water footprint relates to food. About one-third relates to the production of feed for the animals we consume.
In California, for instance, the state’s biggest water use is for feed crops. Meanwhile, you have this drought going on, and all of the time the focus is on how terrible it is to have a drought. But the real focus should be on how stupid it is to have such a big water demand in a region where droughts are fully expected.
You can use less and less water per unit of production, but if your population is growing and your consumption booming, then that is simply not sufficient.

Because it imports so many goods, three-quarters of the UK’s water consumption is actually outside of its borders. And about half of that usage is not sustainable.  

We in northern Europe should realise that we are actually quite well off with water, and ask why we import water-intensive goods from water-scarce areas. It doesn’t make sense that we produce so little of our own food.
 All round the world we are mining water rather than recycling it. Ground water WILL run out and if we aren't ready we will all be in bad trouble.

Silly Questions about Air Pollution

I've just filled in the survey that forms part of the Mayor's consultation on air pollution. Since air pollution kills nearly 10,000 Londoners each year (70 times as many as die in road traffic accidents!) this is a big issue. And I'm pleased to see Green Assembly Member Caroline Russell working on the issue.

But the questions!

Take question 2:  Q2. To what extent do you think each of following is responsible for air pollution in London? - diesel cars, petrol cars, taxis, etc.

The contribution of, eg diesel cars, to air pollution is a matter for scientific study - not public opinion. And its something that the Mayor should tell us before asking our opinion on policy options since he and his advisers have access to scientific advice and time to read it. We don't. Without that the results will reflect some mixture of self-interest, time spent with good quality news sources and random prejudice.

Or take question 15: Do you think that residents should receive a 90% discount from the Emissions Surcharge?

To answer that I need to know what proportion of travel is due to residents's vehicles. That sounds simple but if a discount was introduced you can be sure that some smart residents would find ways to hire their vehicles to non-residents so that proportion would appear to increase.

And for every proposed policy we need to know simply this - How many lives will it save?

This is a poor quality consultation and a missed opportunity. Please, Mr Khan, do better next time!

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

How Politics rules out Fracking

In March the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC), a body established by Parliament, produced a report on fracking. The report - The compatibility of UK onshore petroleum with meeting the UK’s carbon budgets - is rather sceptical. (And it does not consider most of the objections to fracking, eg pollution of water supplies, since the CCC is not charged to do so.)

The main conclusion is that:
"exploiting shale gas by fracking on a significant scale is not compatible with UK climate targets unless three tests are met:
  • Test 1: Well development, production and decommissioning emissions must be strictly limited. Emissions must be tightly regulated and closely monitored in order to ensure rapid action to address leaks.... Production should not be allowed in areas where it would entail significant CO2 emissions resulting from the change in land use (e.g. areas with deep peat soils); The regulatory regime must require proper decommissioning [and] ensure that the liability for emissions at this stage rests with the producer.
  • Test 2: Consumption – gas consumption must remain in line with carbon budgets requirements. ....This means that UK shale gas production must displace imported gas rather than increasing domestic consumption.
  • Test 3: ..... .Additional production emissions from shale gas wells will need to be offset through reductions elsewhere in the UK economy, such that overall effort to reduce emissions is sufficient to meet carbon budgets.
The obvious questions are whether these conditions can be met and, if so, whether they will be. The report is clear that the conditions can be met, but will they be?

Test 1
The government's obvious enthusiasm for fracking is based on US experience so its useful to look at that experience. In 2011 Robert Howarth of Cornell Uni. estimated that methane losses during fracking were so large that burning fracked gas was worse for the climate than burning coal! Of course, US regulation is notoriously lax and the UK would doubtless do better but is shows the vital importance of actually doing much better. The committee says that the 'minimum necessary regulation' should reduce methane emissions to 0.5% of gas produced. That's 4-20 times better than the US situation.

Since regulation increases costs and given that a mixture of political and geological factors is undermining the viability of large-scale fracking its obvious that the industry will resist strict regulation. The government's general approach to fracking which includes over-riding local opposition, makes it unlikely that it will be robust in this area.

Test 2
To ensure that fracked gas replaces imported gas would be easy for a government that was prepared to intervene in the economy in order to safeguard the climate. In 2015 the Cameron government backed away from a number of such commitments. It's possible that the May government will be different but early signs, and the inevitable emphasis on BREXIT and protecting the economy make this look unlikely.

And even this assumes that the UK is in track to meet its obligations - which it isn't.

Test 3
It's worth quoting the report directly here: "... accommodating additional emissions from shale gas production of 11 Mt/year may be possible, although it would require significant and potentially difficult offsetting effort elsewhere."

When an official body says "significant and difficult"it genesally means 'probably won't happen'.

The bottom line here is that the use of fracking is only compatible with the UK's carbon budgets if associated with resolute efforts by successive UK governments. Nothing in the recent behaviour of the UK government makes that seem likely.

So the conclusion is obvious and unoriginal - No fracking here!

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Another Reason for the Rebellion of the 'left behind' People

Is Trump's triumph due to rising US death rates? Looks likely.

A study by Nobel-prize winning economist Angus Deaton and Anne Case showed that death rates for white Americans aged 30-64 has have risen significantly since 1999. This is remarkable because death rates for US blacks and hispanics and for all citizens of other developed countries and for US whites before 1999 all fell. And, strikingly, the mortality increase is concentrated amongst the poorly educated.

The main increasing causes of death were suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning and chronic liver disease. “I don’t think there’s any single explanation,” says Angus Deaton who went on to blame booze, drug addiction and financial anxiety. He drew particular attention the the greater availability of heroin to US whites from the 1990s.

I think Deaton is missing the point here for suicide, drug and alcohol poisoning and chronic liver disease have something in common. They are diseases of despair. They reflect the situation of poor whites who have seen their incomes, social standing, political influence and health decline as the USA has become more unequal and more multicultural.

These are just the factors implicated in the rise of UKIP by the authors of Revolt on the Right. So what more natural than that they should find expression in support for the US's answer to Nigel Farrage - Donald Trump.

The US and UK situation are not the same. The NHS and better pension and welfare system provide protection against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But the parallels are real for all that.

Monday, 25 July 2016

A Lesson from Jellyfish

Jellyfish aren't really my thing. I'm not a biologist and on the now rare occasions when I'm in the sea I don't see them. I suppose they're interesting - they're certainly weird - and I'm willing to be concerned that their numbers are increasing as those of ordinary fish (those with backbones) are falling. So I read a recent New Scientist article with interest.

The article documents the growth in numbers and the problems they cause then looks at ways of controlling the numbers. (The increased numbers are due to human activities such as overfishing, run-off of agricultural chemicals and global warming.) Those ways include swarms of specialised robots (!) and manipulating their fertility with hormones but nothing seems to work well. And, given how little we know about them, a killing spree seems a bad idea.

And jellyfish, like everything else, are food for something. Probably the main predators include those very fish we've been removing by overfishing! So the right answer to the jellyfish problem is to restore the health of the oceans by stopping overfishing, over-use of agricultural chemicals and global warming; and possibly by releasing lots of little fish.

The Jellyfish lesson, then, is to show restraint and restore the balance of nature. A true ecological lesson.

Friday, 22 July 2016

World Biodiversity on the slide

A recent major report in Science magazine by 23 scientists shows that biodiversity has fallen to dangerously low levels across two-thirds of the Earth’s surface. By ‘dangerously’ they mean likely to undermine the natural services, such as food production and waste disposal, on which we depend. The loss of biodiversity is mainly due to changes in land use.  

They authors found that original species are more than 14% less abundant as before we started changing the land and are at least 10% less abundant – the accepted warning level – over 90% of the Earth’s surface.

The authors further show that this is true for that 58% of the planet on which 71% of people live; so this is not a small issue for our species. 

Should we panic?

Probably not. The loss of biodiversity does not imply the immediate collapse of world farming (though there are certainly risks) or the pollution of all ours rivers. 

But, it will make the ecosystems more vulnerable to shocks such as the droughts, floods, storms, etc. that climate change will make increasingly common and severe. Over and over we’ve seen how areas of original habitat are reduced to patches in which all the species seem present. But after shocks, or just lapse of time, key species disappear. Though we don’t know the tipping points we do knows that they are there.

The changes in land use have neither stopped nor slowed. Neither will they stop whilst our numbers and impacts grow. The extrapolation is obvious: Further loss of habitat and biodiversity.

So though we shouldn’t panic we should ACT. We need to adopt genuinely sustainable policies – as the Green Party has always said.

·         Title: Has land use pushed terrestrial biodiversity beyond the planetary boundary? A global assessment
·         Author: Newbold, Tim, et al.
·         Ref:  Science  15 Jul 2016: Vol. 353, Issue 6296, pp. 288-291
·         DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf2201

The paper is behind a paywall but there’s a summary in ZME Science.