Why Renewables Are Difficult

Renewable energy represents one of the most promising solutions to climate change since it emits no greenhouse gases. However, it poses some difficulties for power systems. Source: U. Leone

The issues of climate change and sustainability seem to be everywhere throughout politics, media and public sentiment, and represent a significant challenge for current and future generations. Making our lifestyles sustainable will require, among other things, drastic reductions in worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. One of the biggest sources of such emissions is the generation of electricity, and this proportion is expected to increase as electric cars, heating and the internet-of-things takes off. “Greening up” power supply is essential. The good news is that it is possible to generate electricity without any emissions whatsoever through renewables. Examples include wind turbines and solar panels, which are called renewable since their source of energy (wind and sun respectively) do not run out. This can be contrasted with fossil-fuel generation, which uses finite fuels such as coal, oil or gas, and emits greenhouse gases.

Renewable technologies have been around for years, and public awareness of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions since around the 80’s. However, most countries still generate the vast majority of their electricity from non-renewables that emit carbon or damage the environment in other ways (e.g. nuclear waste). Why, after decades of both the problem and a solution being known, haven’t renewables taken off yet? This article hopes to give the reader a sense of why renewables are “difficult”, and how the world can keep the lights on into the future in a cheap, secure, and sustainable way.

Until recently, the primary reason for the slow uptake of renewables was economical. It was impossible to build wind turbines and solar panels cheaply enough to compete with fossil fuel technologies, which had become highly cost effective after more than 100 years of use. While there was some effort, governments were not willing to spend billions on subsidising renewables when electricity could be generated cheaply in other ways. Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, frequently claimed in debates between 2010 and 2014 that “windmills are only powered by subsidy” (link in Dutch). However, as time passed, improved manufacturing methods, economies of scale and increased competition has sent prices plummeting. The price of solar panels has decreased by a factor over 100 in the last 40 years, and generation through many renewables is now cheaper than fossil fuels.

So, is it just a matter of time before fossil fuel electricity disappears? Why are societies still so hesitant to go 100% renewable? To understand why, a quick introduction to power systems (meaning the industries, infrastructures and markets based around electricity) must be given.

At their core, power systems are simply supply & demand problems. Industries and consumers use electricity that is provided by generators. One key feature distinguishes power systems from other economic markets: there is virtually no means of storing it at large scale (with the notable exception of hydropower, discussed below). This implies that supply & demand must be continuously matched exactly, and makes managing the grid both complicated and essential. Usually, some independent party, called a system operator, is issued this task.

(As an aside, in the UK, there is a fantastic website, called Drax Electric Insights, in which the total UK electricity demand, and exactly from which sources it is being generated, can be browsed through in real time as well as historically. Looking through it for a few minutes will give a better feel for how power systems work than any blog post can).

A still from Drax Electric Insights, where electricity demand and generation levels can be browsed through, both in real time and historically. Source: Drax Electric Insights

Before renewables, most electricity was generated by fossil fuel plants. Fuel (e.g. coal or gas) could be burnt at different rates, and level of electricity supply was directly adjusted to meet demand. One caveat to this is that output levels in some types of plants cannot be adjusted arbitrarily quickly. To combat this, planners use baseload generation to generate most electricity, and peaking plants, whose output could be varied rapidly, to meet short-term fluctuations in demand. For example, the UK’s system operator had to deal with a massive demand spike just after the royal wedding, as millions turned on their kettles at the same time. Throughout the rest of the article, the term conventional generation will refer to generation through fossil fuels for which the output levels can be directly controlled.

A famous graph showing total UK electricity demand during the 1990 World Cup semi-final against Germany, with spikes at times that viewers turned on their kettles en masse. System operators had to rapidly adjust supply to ensure the lights stayed on. Source: National Grid

With renewables, the single biggest difficulty is that their production levels typically can’t be controlled. It’s not always windy or sunny, and times of high renewable output do not always align with times of high demand. How does one ensure the lights stay on on a cloudy day or when the wind tails off?

In most countries, this is not yet a problem since renewable capacity is small and their output never exceeds demand. Renewables produce whatever electricity they can, and the rest is picked up by conventional generation. Two complications warrant mentioning.

Firstly, the flexibility required from the grid increases. As well as just demand fluctuations, systems must also be able to deal with renewable output variability. To prevent blackouts, conventional generation (fossil-fuel power plants whose output can be controlled directly) must be able to ramp up quickly enough to meet a simultaneous demand spike and rapid drop in wind levels. In the Netherlands, in May 2018, the domestic grid was unable to respond quickly enough to an unexpected drop in wind-speeds and associated wind power, and required emergency imports from Belgium at high cost (link in Dutch).

Secondly, the advent of renewables changes the economics of power markets. Power plant owners tend to have a standard business model: build an expensive power plant and pay off the investment cost using the proceeds from the sale of electricity. For this to work, electricity prices need to be high for a large proportion of the time. When renewables are added to the grid, this changes: at times of high wind or sun, they produce electricity virtually free, pricing out conventional generation. This means that investing in a conventional power plant, or keeping an old one open, may no longer be economical. However, if this happens, when renewable output is low, there is no conventional generation left to provide power! To counteract this effect, many countries, including the UK, host capacity auctions, in which they subsidise producers to meet demand when necessary. In this way, while renewables displace conventional generation, they tend not to allow for the permanent closure of conventional plants. Note that this economic reality applies to renewables too: the more wind is added to the grid, the more it pushes electricity prices down at windy times, thus eating into its own profits.

(Two additional complications, which will not be discussed at length here, are the issues of transporting electricity from windy areas to demand centres, and frequency stability through inertia. In Germany and Ireland, these issues have already led to multiple occurrences of wind curtailment, in which wind farm owners are paid to turn off their turbines).

The issues of both flexibility and supply security will intensify as more renewables are added to the grid. Thankfully, there are a few ways that society can both use renewables and keep the lights on in the future. They fall broadly into two categories.

The first is electricity storage. With grid-scale storage, excess electricity production on windy or sunny days can be stored and used in times when renewable output is low. Besides adding to supply security, this would enhance the economic picture for renewables since storage owners buy up electricity when price is low and sell it when price is high, evening out price jumps. At present, the reason storage plays only a small role is economical. Battery prices still have to drop significantly before they can be used at large scale.

The second possible solution is by interconnecting different countries better and allowing them to share electricity. When it is wind-free in London, the chance is high it is in Scotland as well. However, it may be windy in Germany or Spain. Transporting electricity around could help alleviate supply insecurity. The UK currently has interconnections with France, the Netherlands, and Ireland, and more are in the pipeline. This may eventually become what has been termed the European Supergrid, where electricity can be transported across Europe to balance out regional renewable supply peaks and troughs.

There is one important exception to storage being uneconomical: hydropower. It has been around since the early 1900’s, and typically involves a high dam being built in a river, creating an artificial lake and an elevation difference on either side of the dam. Water is allowed to flow down the dam, powering a turbine to generate electricity in the the process. The generation levels can be controlled by adjusting the flow level, and there is a natural storage function: when demand is low, water is allowed to accumulate in the lake. In this way, the lake is “charged” by nature when it rains and water from the mountains flows into it.

Hydropower provides an economical option to store electricity, but requires mountainous terrain. Source: skeeze

Hydropower is a great form of electricity since its output can be controlled and has no associated greenhouse gas emissions. Norway, for example, generates virtually all its electricity from such dams and exports power to other countries when their demand is low. A difficulty is that hydropower requires mountainous and rainy terrain, which not all countries have.

(Since hydropower is so convenient, some developed countries are attempting to engineer their own forms of hydropower even without the above-mentioned terrain. In the UK, a notable example is tidal power, in which an artificial lagoon is constructed that water can enter and exit through turbines, generating power. At present, there are fierce discussions about the economics of such a project.)

The prospect of combining hydropower and interconnections between countries is tempting, since it means countries with lots of wind but little storage capacity, like Germany or Denmark, could “use Norway as a battery” by exporting their excess wind power to Norway in windy periods, who allow their dams to accumulate water. In calm spells, the hydropower generation levels could be increased and excess electricity exported back the other way. Making this work will require significant increases in Norwegian hydropower infrastructure, interconnection lines and international cooperation.

The batteries in electric cars can be used for grid management provided that owners agree to this. Source: Marilyn Murphy

Another creative solution to the storage problem is to use the big and expensive batteries in electric cars. Electric car uptake will lead to demand spikes when people return from work and plug them in to charge. An electric car owner could get the option of cheaper electricity if it means her car’s battery is not charged, or even emptied, during demand spikes and recharged when demand is lower. This presents interesting dilemmas: suppose you arrive home from work at 6pm and will leave again the next morning at 8am. Would you accept a cheaper charging price, if it meant your car might not be charged if you had to leave unexpectedly at 8pm?

Current power systems are not yet ready to use renewables for the majority of their electricity supply. However, the immediacy of the climate change danger means business-as-usual is not an option, and a total energy revolution is required, including in the electricity sector. Presently, the most realistic short- and medium-term solution is the use of renewables. This article hopes to give the reader a sense of the problem, why renewables are “difficult” and some the possible solutions. It is an exciting time to be in energy, and nobody knows how the power system of the future will look. But everyone agrees it will be very different.

FAQ: Why do HFCs and CFCs contribute more to warming?

This question came from a young relative of mine doing a school project on climate change and it’s a really interesting one, bringing in a lot of important concepts about the climate that aren’t explained as much as they should be. Here we go!

Ultimately, it’s the sun that warms the planet. Well, okay, there’s some heat coming from the core, but the crust’s rock layer does quite a good job insulating so we can pretty much neglect it. I think we can agree that the sun is the hot thing – much much hotter than the ground.

As the sun heats up Earth, Earth needs to be being cooled down in some other way, otherwise it’d just get indefinitely warmer. There’s enough heat coming in from the sun that if we didn’t lose any, the surface of the planet would get considerably hotter every day!

We lose it through “earth-shine” or outgoing long-wave radiation, in the proper lingo. In the same way that the sun gives off light and heat we can feel when we go outside, the earth is giving off its own electromagnetic waves, just at a wavelength we can’t see. Wavelength is like colour: red, blue and yellow light are all different colours, but so are x-rays and radiowaves and what wifi and cell phone signals are transmitted through.

https://marine.rutgers.edu/cool/education/class/josh/em_spec.html

But since the sun-shine and earth-shine are at different wavelengths, they’re blocked by different things. Glass isn’t see-through to all light and nor is the atmosphere. Let’s take a close look at the diagram below:

http://cybele.bu.edu/courses/gg312fall01/chap01/figures/

The wavelength is measured in micrometers, which are million times smaller than a meter. The middle of the sun’s shine (“black-body”) curve is in visible radiation, very little of which is absorbed by the atmosphere (see the same region on the lower plot). For the earth-shine, it’s not so lucky. About 80% of the outgoing earth-shine doesn’t make it out – it gets trapped and re-emitted by the molecules in the atmosphere.

Those molecules work to block radiation because of their specific shape and how well they resonate (match) with the light at each wavelength. Water is really really good at it absorbing radiation at loads of wavelengths, but CH4 (methane) and CO2 (carbon dioxide) do a reasonable job too. They all block the outgoing radiation and make the surface of the earth heat up, like the glass in a greenhouse lets sunlight in but keeps heat from going out. That’s why we call them greenhouse gases.

Water has a special place because there’s so much of it coming in and out of the atmosphere in clouds and rain. We think of it as a response rather than a cause because you can’t inject it into the atmosphere and have it stay. The same is absolutely not true for carbon dioxide, methane and HFCs (hydro-flouro-carbons) and CFCs (chloro-flouro-carbons). They get added to the atmosphere by some natural processes and, unfortunately, by humans who have use them for fire extinguishers and refrigerants, and once they’re there, they stick around, blocking the earth-shine and changing the natural balance.

The question of how bad a particular greenhouse gas is is a difficult one. The first is whether it’s doing a job nothing else can do. The atmosphere has a lot of carbon dioxide and water in it, so adding a little more doesn’t make as much difference as adding something which absorbs in the gaps. If you look at the diagram below, you can see that CFCs (and the same is true for HFCs) absorb in the ‘atmospheric window’.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0007091217334049

This means that every molecule added absorbs some radiation that would otherwise have gone through. Methane is powerful like that too. For CO2, a molecule added doesn’t have so much power – there’s already a lot of them so that each additional molecule doesn’t go so far. This is measured in the radiative efficiency.

The other thing that makes a molecule strong is how long it sticks around for (the lifetime). Methane turns into CO2 after a little while (10 years) in the atmosphere thanks to the active chemistry (driven in part by the sunshine) that goes on up there. Some CFCs and HFCs stick around much longer – check out the IPCC table here.

Now, suppose you put different things in the atmosphere and wanted to know how bad they are. You’ve got to combine two things: one is how much of a difference they make themselves (that is, how good they are at blocking earth-shine and whether anything else would have been blocking it anyway) and the other is how long it sticks about. That’s why we think about global warming potential.

From the EPA glossary

Global warming potential (GWP): A measure of how much heat a substance can trap in the atmosphere. GWP can be used to compare the effects of different greenhouse gases. For example, methane has a GWP of 21, which means over a period of 100 years, 1 pound of methane will trap 21 times more heat than 1 pound of carbon dioxide (which has a GWP of 1).

It adds up how much damage each gas does times how much of it is around over the course of 100 years. Take those together and you get a table like the one here. CFCs and HFCs come out pretty badly, with a GWP in the thousands!

But there is good news: we don’t make as much of them as some of the less nasty things, especially since the Montreal Protocol which came in in 1989. That’s one big success for global political agreements to curb climate change!

 

A puzzle: 100 year timeline over which to calculate global warming potential doesn’t do such a good job of taking into account your great-grandchildren! Over the molecule’s lifetime, something long-lived (like CO2) might do a lot more harm than something short-lived (like methane). So what should we prioritise?  Comparing 100-year global warming potentials or calculating warming per molecule over the molecule’s entire lifetime?

 

Eco-espresso?

3LpAs of 2011, the top five biggest commodities in the world were (in descending order) crude oil, coffee, natural gas, gold and Brent oil. As a first note, the presence of three fossil fuels in this list means that there is still a long way to go in the transition to a low carbon economy. But, yes, what I was actually trying to point out is that coffee is the second biggest commodity in the world. An estimated 1.6 billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide every single day, with an estimated 55 million in the UK.

As former president of the University of Manchester Coffee Connoisseurs Club (UoMCCC), I set out to try and establish what kind of impact drinking coffee has on the environment, whether it is an issue that so much of the stuff is consumed every day and to what extent it can be sustainably sourced.

Fair Trade coffee has become widely available in recent years, with many big brands displaying the Fair Trade logo on their packaging. In the UK, almost 25% of total coffee sales are Fair-trade – a proportion which is steadily growing. This is certainly a step in the right direction regarding the coffee industry’s treatment of humans. Regarding treatment of the environment, on the other hand, it is not so obvious that improvements are being made.

 

Can’t see the woods for the lack of trees

Coffee is naturally found and traditionally grown, in tropical and subtropical regions of the world, in forested and often mountainous areas. Under the canopy of trees, the coffee plant is sheltered from constant direct sunlight. The rich biodiversity means the soil in which it lives is healthy and, further, there are few pests which are able to damage the crop before being swooped up by a predator. A human seeking to harvest coffee beans from such a plant cannot expect to get the greatest yield for a unit area, but at least the crop was grown in keeping with nature and without any need for pesticides or herbicides.

Since the 1970’s, monoculture and sun-grown coffee have become the norm. It was recently reported that

“By the end of the 1990’s, sun or reduced-shade cultivation systems accounted for almost 70% of Colombia’s land area devoted to coffee and 40% of Costa Rica’s.”

By clearing away regions of forest, farmers were able to increase their yield. In Central America alone, 2.5 million acres of forest have been cleared for coffee farming. Clearly, this deforestation results in the utter destruction of ecosystems far older than our society and which are among the most delicate on Earth. In the world of coffee, there is a tragic trade-off between a higher yield and less ecological damage. Needless to say, the cutting down of trees implies a reduced capacity of the natural world to absorb climate warming CO2, especially when applied on an industrial scale.

By removing the other flora and fauna which originally lived in harmony with coffee crops, the soil quality degrades and pests have free reign, meaning fertilisers, herbicides and and pesticides are the commonly used, as in the majority of global agriculture. Clearly, less than perfect handling of these chemicals can lead to further ecological problems such as water pollution and contamination.

IntroToCoffeeBeans_Content2Of course, many of the ecological problems discussed above are not unique to coffee and apply to many other crops grown in hot conditions. One factor that is particularly relevant, however, is waste.

As can be seen in the diagram opposite, the marketable product which is the coffee bean is just one, inner part of the harvested fruit, known as the coffee cherry. As any coffee connoisseur will be aware, there are many different processes by which the pulp is separated from the bean such as honey processing, natural processing, semi-dry/wet-hulled processing, washed processing… The enormous variety of flavours of coffee available on the market may be attributed largely to these different methodologies, which have heritage in different parts of the world from Ethiopia, to Indonesia, to El Salvador. Despite differences in what is done after harvest, each of the methods eventually discards the pulp and many require additional water and labour.

For the coffee connoisseur, the diverse range of coffee processes, origins and formats (from espresso, to siphon, to frappe-latte-mochachino), is astounding. The sad truth is that in order to obtain this diversity, an even richer diversity is often sacrificed – that of age-old ecosystems.

 

In the hands of the consumer

Unlike some crops sold on the international market, which are flown, coffee is usually transported by freighter ship or train, meaning that the environmental aspects of its transportation are not so bad. However, once on the shores of the consumer, yet more problems abound.

Not least of these are the problems of the waste theme, such as disposable coffee cups. An estimated 25,000 tonnes of waste is generated by the coffee industry in the UK alone, with 2.5 billion single-use coffee cups thrown away each year.
Further, if you decide to save money and brew your beverage at home, there are climatic impacts due to the fact that the kettle is a profoundly energy intensive device. Assuming you do not have a renewable power source, a recent investigation at Imperial College London revealed that boiling 1 litre of water in the average electric kettle results in approximately 70g of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. England’s all-time highest TV-related electricity demand surge was during half-time of the 1990 World Cup semi-final with West Germany, when the whole country went and put their kettles on to make a brew.

1990-Semi-Final-Pickups
Electricity demand during 1990 semi-final. Source: national grid.

Now I am not going to propose that everyone should give up coffee and all hot beverages along with it, for the sake of the environment. But there are certainly ways in which changes in the consumer habit could lessen the impact of the coffee industry on the world we inhabit.

In direct terms, only boiling enough water as is needed and carrying a reusable cup are two commonly given, but far less often followed, pieces of advice which need no further explanation.

Sustainable coffee does exist. Recent attempts involve shade grown coffee, which mimics the way coffee grows naturally, in tune with nature. Whilst coffee grown in this way is sometimes more expensive, its environmental impacts are much less than the conventional farming methods, the social responsibility is significantly higher and the benefit for ecosystems is great. The Huffington Post recently reported the head of sustainable agriculture at Rainforest Alliance, Chris Wille, as saying that

“Our scientists say a certified coffee farm is the next best thing to rainforest,”

regarding shaded farms. In some cases, these products are even equivalently priced to sun grown coffees. Surely there is no good reason for an environmentally conscious coffee lover not to consider switching to shade grown coffee.

 

Resources

There are a number of shade grown coffees now on the market, which can be found on coffee-direct.co.uk, naturalcollection.com and birdandwild.co.uk.

Image sources: headergif, demand

Let’s make Earth great again

When in November 2016 Americans played their trump card, climate scientists faced a new challenge: how to persuade conservatives to start caring about our planet? Even though this task seems to be hopeless, research is being done – and I recently came across some very interesting results.

Researchers from Cologne discovered that conservatives are more likely to act against climate change when the problem is presented with reference to the past, as opposed to the future. We usually focus on future degradation of the environment, which doesn’t appeal to them. However, conservatives tend to be more concerned about the global warming, when we point out that the planet isn’t as “great” as it used to be.

German sociologists conducted a series of experiments on self-identified liberals and conservatives. As a part of the study participants were asked to donate money to one of two fictitious environmental charities: the one preventing future degradation or the one striving to restore the past state of the Earth. In all experiments conservatives were more likely to support the second organisation.

Does it solve our problem? Of course it doesn’t! Riley Dunlap, a sociologists from Oklahoma State University, commented on this study: “If you’re a good conservative, you need to be a climate change sceptic. Global warming has joined God, guns, gays, abortion and taxes. It’s part of that ideology.”

Even though sadly I must agree with Dunlap, I also believe that we should study ways of communicating climate change effectively to various social groups. One size doesn’t fit all – but we can find a good approach for many. If someone is blind in his or her scepticism, we probably can’t do much. However, I believe that with new communication methods we can persuade many people, who are ready to at least listen.

To make Earth great again.

Source: https://paularowinska.wordpress.com/2017/04/12/lets-make-earth-great-again/

 

Money blowing in the wind

I bet you’re not looking forward to receiving your monthly electricity bills. Can you predict how much you’ll be charged this time? Short answer: assume that more than you’d be willing to pay. Long answer: spend a couple of years studying how electricity prices evolve in time. Yes, that’s exactly what my PhD is about.

Power markets are surprisingly complicated. Trading energy is a relatively new idea, increasingly important because of the gradual liberalisation of the EU electricity industry. Not only do market rules in various countries differ significantly, but relevant laws change frequently. Therefore if you’re interested in any details, please don’t rely solely on my article, but refer to the website of the appropriate market (eg. European Power Exchange).

From the mathematical point of view, modelling any financial processes is an extremely difficult task. Stock values change in unpredictable ways, they also strongly depend on political events and human behaviour. Because of that, financial mathematics attracts increasing numbers of mathematicians with different backgrounds. Actually, not only mathematicians. For example, a building block for many financial models is a so-called Brownian motion, first used by physicists to describe chaotic movement of particles. The tools we can use are limited only by our imagination!

Energy markets are problematic, as they behave differently than traditional stock exchanges, so we have to come up with completely new ideas to model them. The main difference is that the supply and demand for electricity must always match. Storing electricity is almost impossible, in the best case very expensive, so we cannot produce (or buy) more and leave it for later. On the other hand, the supply is inelastic, because industry and citizens require a specific amount of power for their regular activities. You don’t like blackouts, do you? And they happen exactly as a result of a significant imbalance in the energy market.

Thankfully many people work very hard (this is how I like to think about myself) to make sure that you don’t have to dig out these candles too often. Mathematical models help producers decide how much energy to generate and traders to buy and sell its appropriate amounts. Most of trading takes place in electricity markets.

Two main types of contracts are traded. First, spot contracts (traded at noon) oblige producers to deliver a specified amount of energy for 24 hours, from midnight of the following day. Second, one can also trade futures contracts for a specified delivery period: a week, a month or a year. For example, if a producer signs a “2 months ahead” contract today (June 2017), she or he would have to deliver the electricity between 01/08/2017 and 31/08/2017.

However, predicting the prices so far in the future is a difficult task. We don’t know the general state of economy or if Donald T. decides to build a *huge* bridge from New York to the Moon (which would require a lot of power, I guess). And, what interests me most, what the weather will be.

Weather conditions significantly influence electricity prices, both the demand and supply. In countries like the UK or Germany, in general the demand is higher in cold months, when we need to heat our houses and offices, as well as use more light due to shorter days. In warmer places, also in the summer a lot of energy is needed for air-conditioning. On the other hand, renewable energy production strongly relies on the weather. We can’t generate wind energy without wind!

This is why in my models I have to take into account weather forecasts. As you know, they’re pretty useless a few weeks in advance, not to mention a few years. Therefore the models need to account for uncertainty related to these forecasts.

You might wonder if these factors really matter. They actually do! Now many markets even allow the prices to be negative, which means that we get paid for the electricity usage. It happens rather rarely, so you won’t even notice. However, it’s interesting to note that almost all negative prices are observed in early morning hours after a windy night. This means that a high level of wind energy generation, combined with a low demand (most factories are closed at night, we also tend to sleep), can significantly decrease electricity prices.

In other words, the chance for a lower electricity bill is literally blowing in the wind.

Source: https://paularowinska.wordpress.com/2017/06/11/money-blowing-in-the-wind/

A tale of a statistician without an umbrella

You should have seen our office today – our cycle to work resembled swimming rather than biking, so wet clothes were hanging everywhere. Well, I can blame only myself, since a normal human being would assume that 98% probability of rain means “it WILL rain, take a bus”. However, being an incurable optimist, I counted on these 2%. In the end, improbable things happen a lot, as Jordan Ellenberg (a mathematician, of course) says. But how improbable was a bit of sunshine in London today? And why on Earth do I try to squeeze some maths even in the weather prediction?!

If you live in the UK, chances are that you begin your day checking your favourite weather app. Based on the information you gained, you know what to wear – unless you’re a proper Briton, then you wear shorts, no matter what, don’t you? Regardless of the website you use, the forecast is probably provided either by Met Office or ECMWF, who constantly compete to produce the most reliable weather prediction in the world. Despite, or maybe because of this rivalry, their forecasts are more and more accurate. So again, why can’t they just get it right, why do they give us percentages?

Weather is chaotic. You might associate chaos with the butterfly effect, a term coined by Edward Lorenz. If you think that it means that a butterfly in Asia can create a tornado in America, then please, please forget this concept; or, even better, read an excellent book by Ian Stewart, Does God Play Dice?, or request an article about it in the comments. The bottom line is that weather forecasting centres will never be able to predict the weather with the accuracy of 100%, no matter how hard they try. Never. Ever.

lorenz
A chaotic system: a slight change in the intial conditions can lead us to a different “wing” (by Computed in Fractint by Wikimol [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Instead, they calculate their confidence in a particular weather forecast. For example, 98% PoP (probability of precipitation) between 8 am and 11 am in London means that there is 98 in 100 chance that in this period we’ll get at least 0.1 mm of some precipitation. Basically, if you kept going back in time and went for a walk in London today between 8 and 11 one hundred times, twice you would be lucky and came home completely dry.

What?! It doesn’t make any sense! We can’t go back in time! But computers can. Even better, they can look into the future. Because weather is chaotic, small changes in the initial conditions (so the temperature, pressure, clouds etc. in the moment when we start simulations) can lead to big changes in the outcome. This is why Met Office and ECMWF use so-called ensemble forecasting. They run many simulations starting from slightly different conditions and look at their outcomes; it’s a bit like in Groundhog Day, but less creepy. And this means that today I believed in these 2 measly forecasts out of 100 – and that’s why my neighbours asked me if I cycled into the Thames on my way home (not funny).

Learn your probabilities and figure out your chances for a dry day. Or take an umbrella, just in case.

Source: https://paularowinska.wordpress.com/2017/08/09/a-tale-of-a-statistician-without-an-umbrella/

 

One Planet Living

If everyone in the world lived as the average UK resident, three planets’ worth of natural resources would be required to support humanity. By no means is this a responsible example of sustainability. But any such negative statement is useless unless accompanied with a proposed better alternative. Are there countries on Earth which pose as a model society, whereby extrapolation of their consumption rates would give true sustainability?

 

HOW LONG WILL RESOURCES LAST?

Last month, a fellow MPE CDT student and I volunteered on a project with the Nuffield Foundation, which saw six maths students spend 2 weeks at Imperial College London during the summer between their A-level years. Together, we brainstormed some ideas about important aspects of mathematics (such as geometry, calculus and numerical methods) and important elements of Planet Earth (such as the atmosphere, oceans, flora and fauna).

Following their brainstorming, the students ranked by importance and urgency some related problems, such as predicting temperature rise due to climate change, analysing the way in which glacier melt leads to sea level rise and trying to estimate how many years’ worth of natural resources remain for humanity’s usage. In the end, the students decided they were most interested in the latter problem and set to work trying to figure out how they could use their mathematical abilities to tackle this problem and what the implications of their findings might mean.

The students decided to consider two developed countries (Japan and South Africa) and two developing countries (Cuba and Uganda), in order to see the range of impacts being made across the world. Assuming the birth rate and death rate of these countries to be constant, the students considered two simple models of population growth: the Malthus model and the Logistic model

The former model prescribes an exponential growth or exponential decline of population, with the rate of increase or decline determined by the birth rate and death rate.  For the logistic model, a so-called carrying capacity must be specified, beyond which a population could not be sustained by the planet whatsoever. Demographers estimate this value to be around 10 billion, which we are not so far away from at the present time. From these simple models, the students could make basic predictions of the future populations of the countries considered, and indeed, the world population if everyone gave birth and died at a constant rate.

As well as birth and death rate data, the students collected information regarding the biomass, coal, gas and oil stocks and consumption rates of their chosen countries. Using the previously estimated population curves, the students were able to approximate the associated usage of the four fuels. The latter three models are fairly simple, since a constant rate of consumption per citizen is assumed, and there is effectively no return rate of the fuel stocks. In the case of biomass, however, the students had to consider the fact that trees grow back over a few years, and so the resulting equations are a little more difficult to solve.

Having forecasted the diminishing of the fuel reserves, the students were able to go on to say how much CO2 would be released into the atmosphere by each country, estimate the consequent concentration in the atmosphere and provide a first approximation to the associated temperature increase to the planet. Here they made a major assumption that CO2 is not re-absorbed, which is of course not true in reality. However the project centred on making a first approximation to what is going on, so many simplifications must be made.

eff892564d7c8014da2261b2d04229e015c1c05e

Rather than copying their results, I have considered similar calculations for four other countries which pose as markedly different examples in their approaches to environmental protection and resource consumption. Consider India, China, UK and USA. As can be seen in the map above, the One Planet Living initiative claims these countries fall into the categories of using less than 1, 1-2, 2-4 and more than 4 planets when their trends are projected onto the worldwide populace, respectively. That is, if the entire world were to behave in the same way as these countries in terms of population change and resource usage, the number of planets’ worth of resources needed would be as indicated. Python code is available for how I calculated these projections on GitHub.*

world_Oil_Malthus

In the following plots, only the contributions of domestic coal, natural gas and oil are considered. As has been mentioned, the Nuffield project students also considered biomass, but they discovered that it is rather difficult to get data on the consumption thereof and the mass to CO2 conversion varies depending on the particular biomass fuel used. Of course, there are plenty of other resources (such as food, clean water and rare earth materials) and plenty of other sources of pollution (such as emissions from livestock, waste and aviation) which could be considered, but here we focus on the three main fossil fuels since they make contributions in both categories.

For an example of the predictions relating to one resource, if the whole world acted as the USA, the graph above indicates that oil reserves would drop dramatically, completely drying up after 70 years. Similar plots can be made for the other fuels, through which we can get a picture of the total resources used, and hence the total carbon emissions. Subject to a number of assumptions both stated here and neglected, the associated additional mean warming to the atmosphere would look as displayed in the plot below. From this plot, if the whole world acted as the UK or India in terms of its population change and fuel usage, we should expect an extra warming contribution of around 2°C after one century has passed. In the case of China, this would be more like 4°C and in the case of the USA 10°C.

temp_change_Malthus_g=OFF_trees=OFFThese are very rough estimates, as has already been mentioned, but there seems to be significant evidence to suggest that we shouldn’t only be concerned with using the resources of one planet, but also which resources we choose to use, and at what rate. This is especially true when taking into consideration that the international agreement made at COP21 aims to keep warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels. UK Met Office research indicates the world has already warmed 1°C since then.

Calculations above were performed in the Malthusian case. In the case of the Logistic model, predictions are more conservative, due to the world population being unable to breach 10 billion. The resulting plot is indicated below. There the range of additional temperature increases is approximately 0.3-3°C. Even under this more conservative approach, it doesn’t look likely that we could meet the cumulative 2°C target in any case.

temp_change_Logistic_g=OFF_trees=OFFNot only are there some countries which use ‘more than one planet’ and some which use ‘less than one planet’, the average taken across all of humanity is currently actually about 1.6 planets. The interpretation of this claim is not that we are generating resources out of nothing or collecting them from space, but that we are consuming resources faster than they can regenerate naturally. Resources are being used at such an alarming rate, and the natural environment is being damaged so badly, that the regenerative ability of the planet has been significantly reduced.

 

CAN YOU BEAT THE AVERAGE?

This summer’s Nuffield Project was not the first time I considered mathematical problems related to One Planet Living. On Open Data Day in March this year, I attended a hackathon at the European Centre for Medium-range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) in Reading. There, a team of us attempted to create an app which enables the user to calculate their carbon footprint and thereby to find out whether or not their contribution is greater or smaller than the average for their country of origin. Whilst in the Nuffield Project we only had time to consider fuel usage, in this project only road, rail, bus and aviation transportation was taken into consideration.

Sadly, the app we worked on in the hackathon never came to a particularly user friendly stage, due to tight time constraints and a lack of app developing experience. However, the Bioregional initiative provides a calculator for finding out how many planets would be required to sustain a planet of Yous, covering far more aspects than we could ever have hoped to consider. Even if you produce zero waste, cycle everywhere and never fly or drive, it is fiendishly difficult to become a One Planet Citizen. My output is shown below, and I clearly have some progress to make.

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 09.23.36.png

The different coloured sections on the bottom bar correspond to energy generation, transport, food, goods, government, capital assets and services, respectively. I’m not going to start making excuses for why the calculator tells me I use more than one planet, but I will just make a few comments on its output:

  • Notice that at least 28% of my footprint is purely due to the government, dispelling the myth that individuals can tackle climate change, resource conservation and ecology deprivation completely on their own. Authorities have to make an effort, too.
  • Goods, food and services have extra footprint included because there is a large implicit contribution in supply chains. This factor points out that businesses have an environmental responsibility, as well as governments. Personal impact in this case can be reduced by shopping at second hand shops, charity shops and local markets.
  • Finally, it is difficult to improve on the energy contribution if you live in rented accommodation, since it is up to your landlord to install things like loft insulation, condensing boilers, cavity wall insulation and solar panels. However, if you get on with them you could maybe consider suggesting these.

 

UNTO THE FUTURE

Last month I attended a symposium of talks at Imperial College entitled ‘Balancing sustainability and development: cities in the 21st century’ on the need to adapt future cities to the omnicrisis of issues faced by present and future citizens, such as overpopulation, rising temperatures, inequality, resource scarcity and overstressed infrastructures. The symposium was opened by a talk by David Thorpe, author of ‘The One Planet Life: a Blueprint for Low Impact Living’. He claims the world’s ‘biocapacity’ was breached in the early 1970’s and since then we have been running on ‘borrowed time’. The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) lists nine ‘planetary boundaries’, four of which have already been passed: climate change, biosphere integrity, soil quality and nitrate pollution.

slide.5planetintroThorpe claims, with the present population, the only way to ‘get back on track’ is for the entire world to have a ecological footprint as in Central Africa. This does not, imply the reduction in living standards one might expect for more privileged citizens, as in the West. For instance, whilst research by the One Planet Living initiative indicates that residents of the USA use ‘two more planets’ worth of resources than the average European (see diagram opposite), there are many metrics by which one might claim Europeans are better off than Americans.** Does all that extra resource and carbon impact really make for a happier, more fulfilled life? Who says the UK couldn’t reduce its impact and maintain the same quality of life or, indeed, improve it?

Thorpe works on a One Planet Living initiative in Wales, where the word ‘sustainability’ has been made equivalent to the ‘well-being of future generations’. His motto,

“if it gets measured, it gets saved”

motivates the reduction of ecological footprint in line with closer control on consumption levels and methods. Thorpe’s thinking recently influenced a public advice spreadsheet available on the Welsh government website. In principle, the creation of a One Planet society is not an enormous undertaking. All that is required is some careful planning of how waste is to be dealt with, how electricity is to be generated and which materials are to be used for construction and packaging (if any). What is difficult, on the other hand, is converting a currently damaging society to a One Planet one.

Model cities do exist. Thorpe points to Freiburg, Germany, which has been heralded by many as a leading example, through its restrictions on polluting traffic, energy saving schemes and use of efficient technology. Perhaps unexpectedly, China also provides an example in terms of its recent efforts to develop vertical farming, which requires less space, water and effort and can bring impressively increased yields of staple foods.

One conclusion of the symposium was that there are very real limits to growth, to quote the Club of Rome (1972). This is something discussed by John Burnside in his once-three-weekly Nature column in New Statesman this January. There he pointed out the inherent contradictions between the growth modern countries are fixated on and the very clear bounds enforced by the forces of nature. That we can continue as we have in the past decades indefinitely and with little to no consequence for the residents (human and otherwise) of this planet is an utter lie.

Can you take up the One Planet challenge? In a way it is the least you can do.

 

[Also posted on my personal blog Cut Waste, Not Trees Down]

 

NOTES:

*: References for resource consumption data used:

**: In a New York Review of Books article, Europe vs. America, Tony Judt points to the following statistics:

  • “[T]he EU has 87 prisoners per 100,000 people; America has 685.”
  • “[A]ccording to the OECD a typical employed American put in 1,877 hours in 2000, compared to 1,562 for his or her French counterpart.”
  • “Whereas Swedes get more than thirty paid days off work per year and even the Brits get an average of twenty-three, Americans can hope for something between four and ten, depending on where they live.”
  • “45 million Americans have no health insurance at all.”

[Image sources: headermap, plots (and Python code), calculatorplanets]

Why Climate Change needs its Playboy Bunny.

This is inspired by an interaction between George Marshall, author of a great book “Don’t even think about it. Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change” and Professor Dan Kahan, the head of the Yale Cultural Cognition Project. When talking about Climate Change in the Media, Dan Kahan is a straight shooter. “Face it”, he says, “even if it does get mentioned on MSNBC or Fox News, ten times more people will always be watching funny animals”. He then urges George Marshall to watch “The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger” [1]  on YouTube, a video which has gained over 82 million views. Over on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change YouTube channel [2], the climate scientists have a hard time reaching an audience in the thousands combined with a poorly performing Instagram account. There are a couple of concerns here. Firstly, Climate Scientists are not good at getting their message out to a big enough audience and secondly this message isn’t as “cool” to share with your friends as a badass Honey Badger.

Later in the interaction, Kahan argues that people obtain their information through the people they trust, or, beyond that, from parts of the wider media that speak to their worldview and values. Most of the time, this is a highly effective shortcut and works fine, unless, in Kahan’s words, the information becomes “contaminated” with additional social meaning and becomes a marker of group identity.

Kahan uses Gun Control as a case in point. Polls in West Virginia show that 62% of people want more gun control but, you would be a fool to run for election in the state campaigning for gun control. In fact, 85% of the people in West Virginia know you can’t trust politicians who say that they want gun control [3]. Why? Because gun control in politics is associated with college educated liberals, a group the people of West Virginia have a hard time trusting.

Climate Change is similarly contaminated, where activists are again, for the most part, college educated liberals. In fact, I have fallen into this trap by beginning this post with George Marshall and Prof. Kahan. When people get their information from people they trust and these people don’t include the college educated liberal type it’s clear all the facts in the world won’t convince them. Allow me fall into the trap once more and quote philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer “Hence the uselessness of logic: no one ever convinced anyone by logic… To convince a man, you must appeal to his self-interest, his desires, his will”.

Keeping in mind that to convince people we must appeal to their self-interests and desires, allow me to introduce you to a man you will most likely know well, Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy. Now here is an individual who knows how to appeal to man’s self-interests and desires. So, what can we learn from Hugh Hefner? In fact, a lot. He was way ahead of his time, not just in making the topic of sex more socially acceptable but also tackling two big issues in American history, the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. It begins with the TV show ‘Playboy’s Penthouse’ in 1959. This was going to be one of the first times that black and white people were seen socializing on television, with guests like Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. As you might guess in 1959, southern broadcasting companies were going to refuse to air the TV show. So, Hugh had a tough decision to make, either cut Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald or lose half the potential audience. He chose talent over views in the end, putting both Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald in the first episode [4]. The southern broadcasting companies were true to their word and refused to show the TV show. Regardless ‘Playboy Penthouse’ aired for two seasons and in the late 1950s this was huge for the civil rights movement.

Playboy didn’t stop here. In the famous uncensored interview section of each magazine, it gave a voice to Martin Luther King[5] and Malcom X [6] when no others would. It condemned the Vietnam war [7] long before Time magazine and other media sources at the time as well as using its magazine to educate Americans about HIV/AIDs during the 1980s. It is clear that Playboy used its platform to instigate social change. This was a magazine that was selling millions of copies each month, hitting a broad audience and using this to tackle some of the most important issues in human history. Climate scientists and activists need something similar, to distract from the additional social meaning associated with climate change and create a platform to show people the problems and how we can solve it. Climate change needs its playboy bunny.

What I propose is to use influencers on social media, particularly Travel Bloggers. I am talking about the people who travel the world putting up wonderful pictures and telling us stories of places we can only dream of going. Why would these people make good Climate Change bunnies? Well they are interesting, showing us a life we’d all love and more importantly they travel the world. Scientists are always telling us about various places affected by climate change, but these people have actually been there. I envision interviewing such a blogger who has just visited an exotic island in the pacific and asking what the place it like. The response is perfect, as I am told “the island is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It is awful that rising sea levels is resulting in most of the island’s inhabitants having to relocate”. This is brilliant and let me tell you why. Firstly, rising sea levels have been brought up without politicians, liberal celebrities or scientists losing that contamination. Secondly, there is the potential to hit the million or so followers that this blogger has. Finally, as Prof. Kahan had mentioned, people obtain their information through the people they trust, or, beyond that, from parts of the wider media that speak to their worldview and values. Travel bloggers I believe fall into this category. They consistently tell their story, keeping you up to date with their daily doings and issues which such an openness that it creates an almost friendship like relationship. I imagine there are even people who know more about a blogger than they do about a good friend.

Travel bloggers are already using their platform for good. Take Jonny Ward for example with his blog One Step 4 Ward[8]. He has cleverly developed an audience with his travels, storytelling, good advice and motivation and as I write this he has just finished riding around Sri Lanka in a tuk tuk, over 1000km and you should check out his Instagram @onestep4ward to see more. With this audience he has, thankfully, decided to give back with a current project to build a playground for the Burmese migrants in Thailand with an aim to “inject a little fun, a few more smiles and a bit of colour”. This is on top of other projects he has completed in Senegal and Gambia. This is the kind of platform and audience climate scientists need capitalise on. There is no doubt that Johnny Ward would make a good playboy bunny.

So, what am I trying to say with all this? Firstly, climate change activists are in competition with funny and cute animals in terms of getting the message out there, and even when they manage to get their message out there it is often contaminated with this additional social meaning. So, to generate a larger audience I propose we, like Hugh Hefner with his bunnies, use or create a platform which appeals to people’s desires and avoids this additional social meaning  to spread the message and inspire solutions. Travel bloggers are ideal for this. Their use of social media is some of the best out there and they help us imagine, understand and care about places on earth we may never get to.

 

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4r7wHMg5Yjg

[2] https://www.youtube.com/user/IPCCGeneva

[3] https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=yz4kAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA23&lpg=PA23&dq=gun+control+west+virginia+politician+poll&source=bl&ots=XXKtWmaeDw&sig=ZOsGbvLABWTKIT0wNwRPHUaLmtk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiIhYXr29HTAhVHCMAKHaesDR4Q6AEIQzAF#v=onepage&q=gun%20control%20west%20virginia%20politician%20poll&f=false

[4] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052503/fullcredits?ref_=tt_cl_sm#cast

[5] http://www.creativeloafing.com/news/article/13065559/mlks-1964-playboy-interview

[6] http://www.malcolm-x.org/docs/int_playb.htm

[7] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/284001876_The_Playboy_Way_Playboy_Magazine_Soldiers_and_the_Military_in_Vietnam

[8] https://onestep4ward.com         

 https://onestep4ward.com/help-us-build-playground-burmese-migrant-kids/

Lick your teeth and recycle: The power of Habit and climate change.

I have been struggling with a question for couple of months now: how to motivate people when there is no return on investment? So, what do I mean by this and why is this important? This is how I see the future of our planet with regards to climate change(1). There are two obvious outcomes, we (humans) either fail and live in a world of rising seas and prolonged droughts, or we succeed and live life in a world that looks the same as the one we live in today. Success without gain troubles me. It is a far cry from the idea of success you see with the likes of Conor McGregor, Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey and Phil Knight. How can you motivate someone to make a change in their life when this change (if made by all of us) will make essentially no difference? I write now with the belief that we will tackle climate change and win.

The first thing I’d like to answer is, what else is this like? Is there a situation where we do something every day just to be the same? I believe I have found the answer. BRUSHING OUR TEETH. Please, bear with me here. I know it’s a bit ridiculous.  For the average person, we brush our teeth so they don’t fall out. Fair enough, some toothpastes make your teeth whiter, but in general we do it so our teeth don’t rot and decay. Can you see that parallels to climate change? If we fail to brush our teeth they will fall out sooner rather than later, and if we do decide to brush we will have the teeth we have now, as they are, for the foreseeable future. We tackle something now so that it can be the same in the future. Not so dissimilar to climate change in my opinion.

This wasn’t always the case, people didn’t always brush their teeth. So, what caused the change and can the community tacking climate change learn from this? Let me take you back to early 1900s America and introduce you to a great man, Claude Hopkins. He was an original ad man turning unknown products into household names and did so for the likes of Quaker Oats and Goodyear tires.

In the early 1900s Hopkins was approached by an old friend who had discovered an amazing product, Pepsodent, a minty and foamy toothpaste. Now Hopkins was at the top of the advertising industry, and frankly at the time this was financial suicide.  Hardly anyone brushed their teeth, and prior to Pepsodent only 7% of Americans owned a tube of toothpaste. It was no secret either that the health of Americans teeth was in sharp decline. As the country became wealthier, people were buying larger amounts of sugary, processed foods. When the government was recruiting people for World War One, so many recruits had rotten teeth that officials said poor dental hygiene was a national security risk.  Regardless, Hopkins took the job.

Now almost everyone brushes their teeth, so what exactly did Hopkins do?

He created a Habit Loop, and more importantly (and by mistake) he created a craving. The habit loop is a well-studied phenomenon and in its simplest form has three stages: Cue, Routine, Reward. First, there is a cue, a trigger, to tell your brain to go into automatic mode. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. And finally, the reward, which helps your brain figure out if the loop is worth remembering. Over time, this loop – cue, routine, reward, cue, routine, reward, cue, routine, reward –becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become intertwined until a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges.  See here for a deeper explanation, http://charlesduhigg.com/how-habits-work/. I got this information from Charles Duhigg’s book: The Power of Habit.

(3)

So how did Hopkins develop this habit loop for brushing your teeth? To sell Pepsodent, Hopkins needed a trigger that would justify toothpastes daily use. He focused on tooth film, the mucin plaques found on teeth. This film is a naturally occurring membrane that builds up on teeth regardless of what you eat or how often you brush. In fact, toothpaste didn’t do anything to help remove the film, but that didn’t stop Hopkins. This he decided was the cue to trigger the habit. So, he plastered ads all over America. One read “Just run your tongue along your teeth. You’ll feel the film – that’s what makes your teeth to look off color and invites decay”. The brilliance of this ad is that the cue was simple and almost impossible to ignore. Tell someone to run their tongue across their teeth and most will, and sure enough they will find the film. In fact, did you just run your tongue along your teeth?

After the campaign launched a quiet week passed. Then two. In the third week, demand exploded. There were so many orders for Pepsodent the company couldn’t keep up. In three years, the toothpaste went international. Before Pepsodent, as I said earlier, only 7% of American households had a tube of toothpaste, a decade later 65%, and after World War 2, the military downgraded their concerns about recruits’ teeth because most soldiers were brushing anyway.

However, there is something more needed to ingrain the habit loop, something that Hopkins didn’t know about: the reward, the craving.  Unlike other toothpastes at the time, Pepsodent contained citric acid, as well as doses of mint oil and other chemicals. The inventor of Pepsodent included these ingredients to make the toothpaste fresh, but what he didn’t realise is that they are irritants that create a cool, tingling sensation on the tongue and gums. People began to crave this sensation, and believed that if this sensation wasn’t there, their teeth didn’t get cleaned. Hopkins wasn’t selling beautiful teeth, he was selling the sensation. As the German/American economist and Harvard Professor said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole”.

So, bringing it all back to climate change. What have we learned?  To create a habit you need a cue, routine and a reward. This is the same with anything, for example exercise. Create a cue, an alarm maybe, then exercise and perhaps give yourself a nice smoothie when you’re finished. Another parallel to the climate change is sunscreen and skin cancer. If you apply sunscreen every day you reduce the risk of skin cancer, yet less than 10% of Americans do it. Why? No cue nor reward. So, to tackle climate change and create small changes in our daily lives we need to create the Habit Loop. Let’s take waste for example. You may see a cue on the packaging which causes you to recycle, then a reward of some kind. What this could be I have no idea, perhaps the recycling bin says, “good job”. Similarly, with cycling to work, the cue could be a sunny day and perhaps the business gives you a free coffee when you arrive.

I don’t know what we could use create these habit loops, but I believe they are the way forward. I find that many reasons we are pushed to make small positive changes is because of guilt and I don’t believe this is good way to motivate people. I think the Habit Loop is key, like the teeth brushing, it will help us to make many small positive changes even though there isn’t a direct or immediate return on investment.  Perhaps it isn’t the best way, but I believe it is a good answer to the question, how to motivate people when there is no return on investment?

 

  1. True, the climate is always changing, but here I am using United Nations definition of climate change. “Attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability”. https://unfccc.int/files/essential_background/background_publications_htmlpdf/application/pdf/conveng.pdf
  2. For a bit of fun check out this old pepsodent ad: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=pepspdent+ad+1956
  3. https://mustbethistalltoride.com/category/stuff-i-need-help-with/page/2/

The case for freeganism and flexitarianism

I take the following definitions from the excellent (if containing rather too many exotic ingredients) cookbook ‘V is for Vegan’, by Kerstin Rodgers (aka Ms Marmite Lover).

Freegan: a portmanteau word combining ‘free’ and ‘vegan’; freegans do not buy animal products. This is an anti-consumerist, anti-food waste movement, so they will eat animal products if they would otherwise be discarded.

Flexitarian: semi-vegetarians. They occasionally eat meat. These are people who are ‘meat reducers’, that is, trying to reduce the amount of meat they eat, or at the very least, trying to source meat from ethical suppliers.

A DIFFICULT STANDPOINT

The environmental issues relating to the meat industry are numerous and this blog would be incomplete in its approach without addressing them. However, as the nephew of a butcher who consequently worked in my uncle’s butchers shop for over eight years, I hope you understand it is tricky to maintain a position which both avoids hypocrisy and maintains respect for my uncle and his business. Without the experience of working at the butchers I would certainly not be in the position I am in today, and would certainly have far less of a work ethic.

In 2014 I started to become very uneasy about the conflict of interests between my part-time job and having deep concerns for the well-being of the environment. The carbon footprint of the meat industry, largely due to methane emissions from the animals themselves, but also due to CO2 released during transportation of feed, livestock and meat products, accounts for almost 15% of the emissions from the entire world. That is considerably more than the aircraft industry. The energy requirement to make the meat eaten world-over comes with an increased need to grow crops, just to feed the farmed animals. If meat continues to grow in popularity as it has recently, this will require yet larger fields for growing crops. All of this comes at a time when we are failing to sustain millions of poor and hungry people across the world. Much, much more energy is being consumed feeding intensively-bred cattle to feed ourselves than would be required to feed the entire planet on those crops alone.

Aside from the environmental concerns, there are of course many arguments from ecological and animal rights. Deep ecologists recognise that there is value in all living creatures beyond their usefulness for our purposes and, further, animal rights activists insist that farm animals be kept in far better circumstances than the almost industrial ones they frequently find themselves at present. Beyond (but not far from) the meat industry, cows are periodically artificially raped by a farmer so that they become pregnant and can therefore lactate the milk which people enjoy on their cereal world over. This is the real, sickening answer to the commonplace myth that cows somehow need to be milked constantly. They do not, this is very unnatural. And when the cow does have her baby, this calf is stolen away, never for her to see again. Heavy stuff.

For some time I had been happy with the idea of only eating leftover meat I got from the butchers, which was going to be thrown away anyway. But after learning of the things I have mentioned above, the contradictions and excuses were becoming too much. Eventually, in the September of 2015 I put it to my uncle that I was going to become vegetarian (with the consequence of my resignation being somewhat obvious). You can imagine the response I got from that, and who could blame him, as someone whose career is built around the sale of delicious meats? Despite the upset my departure initially caused, along with my transition to veganism (well, freeganism) soon after,  I greatly respect my uncle for his eventual understanding and acceptance of my way of life. This recently included his recommendation to me of a vegetarian restaurant!

On a personal level, I feel the best side-effect of becoming a vegan was completely unexpected. Previously, being a good Northern lad, I enjoyed a meal of meat, carb, veg and some form of gravy for every evening meal (i.e. tea). Consequently, due to the delicious marinated meats I got cheap from the butchers, my cooking skills were somewhat lacking. Ripping up this whole cooking routine involved combining different foods, trying new things and structuring meals in a way which means the plate doesn’t revolve around a piece of meat. This is not only an interesting and enjoyable exercise, but also made me really appreciate what I was eating and the effort which had been made to get it to my plate. Cooking is so much more interesting within (even relatively minor) constraints.

NOTHING WORSE THAN A WHINGY VEGAN, EH?!

Veganism has been traditionally sidelined in public opinion, just like environmentalism. Stereotypes of the former involve vegans being attention seeking, whingy and with a lofty sense of superiority (all of which have been applied to the latter, too). I am not saying no vegans possess these traits, as some certainly do, but by and large the intention behind this particular lifestyle choice is heart-felt, not selfish. As what has been a tiny proportion of the population, little media attention has been paid historically. As I am writing now, I realise that none of ‘veganism’, ‘freeganism’ or ‘flexitarianism’ are words in the WordPress dictionary.

However, with 350% rises in veganism in the UK over the past few years, there has been much new media attention, particularly being drawn by 2014’s highly controversial documentary Cowspiracy and Simon Amstell’s feature length film of this year, Carnage: swallowing the past (currently available on BBC iPlayer). The mockumentary Carnage imagines the overhanging shame of a society which previously relied so heavily on the meat industry, but where in the vegan utopia of 2067 the exploitation of animals for any purposes whatsoever is strictly outlawed. However, as with action on climate change, blaming and shaming is not the way forward. Blaming a person for the worlds ills because they eat meat is unlikely to generate a positive response or reaction. The more likely outcome is the strengthening of the aforementioned stereotypes.

Like environmental movement, vegans and vegetarians are divided. Divided in their reasons, divided in what exactly they will and will not eat and divided on other aspects of animal rights such as whether or not to keep pets or go to zoos. Building upon these issues, my opinion is that the clear way forward is provided by freeganism and flexitarianism. Of course, very few people would ever actually label themselves with these names. In fact, it is suggested in Carnage that it is better to name those who eat meat as carnists than to endow a plethora of confusing titles to those who do not. My sister recently told her boyfriend’s grandma that I was a freegan (for some reason) and apparently she now thinks I only eat free food, following another usage of the term. Whilst dumpster diving can be an attractive prospect, completely consistent with the form of freeganism I refer to, that isn’t really what it is about. I use the names here merely for reference purposes and would not recommend labelling people as one thing or another. (The reputation of veganism in some circles already highlights the damage labelling can do.)

Flexitarianism focuses on reduction of meat and dairy consumption. Given the environmental and ethical problems mentioned above, it is hard to make a case that such a reduction would be a bad thing. By eating meat only a couple of times a week, as a treat, and by avoiding red meats, it is possible to drastically reduce one’s carbon footprint, be less at risk to heart disease and save the lives of numerous creatures. I recently met a woman on the tube who, after asking about what I was eating for lunch, remarked “I’d really like to stop eating meat, but I could never give up chicken!”. I feel flexitarianism is exactly what she was looking for, where you can still have a Sunday roast chicken, yet are making an effort to reduce your impact on the world. Besides, things are often more delicious when you only get them once in a while.

Freeganism is somewhat different in motive to flexitarianism, but shares the values of reduced consumption for the aim of a greater goal. As kindly defined by Ms Marmite Lover,  freeganism is a waste-free movement. As a freegan, I will never buy any animal products. However, if I happen to find myself somewhere where animal products are about to be disposed of, I will eat them. This is about efficiency, but also allows the reminiscent vegan the potential to enjoy that spot of blue cheese they found so hard to give up. In addition, situations where the vegan diet has not been accounted for. Those awkward conference lunches with only cheese sandwiches and times when you order chips at a pub and they bring you a little pot of mayonnaise that almost certainly will be thrown away if you leave it, are no longer the drama that some vegans are known to make them. (“What do you mean you don’t have soya milk for my latte?!”)

MOOVING FORWARD

I take much inspiration from John Burnside’s column on nature in New Statesman, which appears every three weeks in between pieces on both food and wine. Many of the things he promotes there remind me of what I feel drives the movements of freeganism and flexitarianism, with efforts made to rebuilt relationships with nature, reduce environmental impact and become more aware as a person. His first column of 2017 urged the reader to start the year by making the most of simple things and reads as follows.

‘As Ronald Reagan said: “just say no”. No to shiny, homogeneous fruit. No to bulking agents. No to farmed meat, unless it comes from a source we can verify ourselves. No to roundup. No to sick bees. No to subsidies for fat landowners and corporations.’

The environmental problems faced in the world today are most likely not going to be solved by hypothetical quick-fixes like a worldwide switch to nuclear fusion (which has been 20 years coming for decades), widespread application of (also as yet uninvented) geoengineering techniques or the shuttling off of millions of people to live on another planet (at precisely the time when many once space-faring countries’ interest in space exploration is at its lowest). These problems can only truly be faced by a widespread change in attitude towards consumption, collective responsibility and the kind of lives we wish to provide for ourselves and the generations who will follow. For, if there were no attitude and yet a quick-fix was found, we would be left still with a complex of over-consumption and therefore merely postponing an impending climate disaster.

In my opinion, the key lies in virtues such as those supported by Burnside above. That is, the key to solving the grandest of problems posed by climate change is to take time to reconsider the way in which we are living our lives, and thereby find happiness in alternative ways much more harmonious with nature. I believe freeganism and flexitarianism are steps in that direction.

On the tube, after meeting the stranger who was interested in vegetarianism, we arrived at Green Park, said our goodbyes and she went to exit the train. She then ran back and exclaimed “I’m gonna do it!”. What exactly it was is unclear, but whichever branch of vegetarianism she referred to, I am glad she felt so impassioned to act upon it and wish her the best of luck.

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[Originally posted to my personal blog Cut Waste, Not Trees (Down)]