All posts by Joe Wallwork

As a student of MPE CDT, based at Imperial College, I am currently working on adaptive numerical methods in ocean dynamics, with particular interest in application to tidal power generation and tsunami modelling. I am passionate about finding solutions to the enormous problems posed by climate change and its consequences, and try to incorporate this into my lifestyle as much as possible.

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

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]

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.

[Header image source]

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

Don’t just wait for a movement

A SUPER-WICKED PROBLEM

In my previous blog piece, I referred to climate change as the ‘grandest of all problems’ ever faced by mankind. Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute’s briefing paper ‘Towards a unifying narrative for climate change’ states that the problem posed by climate change is an example of a ‘super-wicked’ problem. This relates to four factors which make it such a fiendishly difficult issue: the requirement for a solution is increasingly imminent; a co-ordinated central authority is required, in a neoliberal age where business trumps government; those who continue to cause the problem are the very ones who seek to find a solution; and policy responses often disregard the future in an almost irrational way.

A powerful quote comes from John Ashton of Chatham House and is as follows:

“Humanity has never faced a problem like climate change. Unlike poverty, hunger, disease and terrorism it affects everybody. Climate change is a ticking clock that we cannot stop or slow down… The essence is not what we must do but how quickly we must do it”.

How on Earth to proceed in this minefield situation?

ONE PROBLEM, MANY NARRATIVES

It has been argued – notably by Al Gore – that the science of climate change is well researched enough and that we have the solutions available. Therefore in order to succeed in solving this grandest of problems we face the bigger issue of getting anybody to care and do something about it. Whilst this may well be the case, scientific study and technological innovation remain crucially important in analysing the problem of climate change, assessing our approaches to its solution and improving the technologies we apply to this end. We should be wary, however, in placing too much hope in a ‘techno-fix’ geoengineering-type solution appearing to the problem. Partly because the prospects are somewhat lacking, but mainly because of the consequent feeling of being off the hook with respect to emission reduction. Indeed, most geoengineering solutions which have been proposed merely mask the effects of climate change and do not account for vital factors such as ocean acidification.

In addition to direct gains of the science, the fact there exist (some very high-profile) climate change deniers is proof enough that scientific research into climate change can still be justified. There are plenty of people who are still not convinced either that climate change is happening or it is an issue. Yet many suggest we now live in a ‘post-truth’ era, wherein facts count for nothing and emotive statements possess the most power. How is it possible to make a case for action on climate change when such arguments rest mainly on science and often only stir in us emotions of fear and worry?

As was discussed at the Royal Meteorological Society’s February meeting, a major issue for the environmental movement is the lack of consistency of narrative. Previous arguments have left many with the view environmentalists only care about polar bears and (hypothetical) future generations. Peter Wadhams, Arctic scientist and author of the excellent book ‘A Farewell to Ice’, argues what is not being communicated enough is the fact the call for action on climate change is no longer about saving polar bears (not that it ever specifically was). It is about saving the human race. The ‘future generations’ narrative is also unhelpful. Psychologists have long-established that humans (and apes) will always choose a small gain in the short term than a greater gain in the long term –  be it with respect to getting one banana now or five later, or with respect to driving the kids to school in a comfy SUV rather than emitting less in the hope they might have a safer future.

The ‘doomsday is near’ narrative is one which is in vogue in some parts of the scientific community (which should be worrying in itself). Clearly such an approach, seen to be advocated by many ‘whingy environmentalists’, is not the way to proceed, no matter how much truth it may or may not hold. In the face of disparity comes the turn to denial and/or ignorance. Such ignorance is a contributor to the ubiquitous ‘disconnect’ between everyday actions and their environmental impacts. This refers to the disconnect between boiling a kettle and the CO2 emitted to generate the required electricity; between having cute pets and eating emission-heavy meat.

But we should not be too quick to lay blame for CO2 emissions. This has historically been the approach of many environmentalists and the result is highly polarising. It is much more productive to provide solutions than to go around blaming people.

THE MOVEMENT WON’T START ITSELF

Millions of journalists, bloggers and activists have already written about ‘what we must do now’, with a vast spectrum of ideas. This array is a manifestation of the lack of consistent narrative that I refer to. Here lies the Catch 22 of climate change: climate change is a problem requiring action on scales unseen before, but proposing a solution merely adds to the lack of consistent narrative, weakening the argument for action. Is all hope lost?

Of course not, and it is hope and positivity which provide the answer, as alluded to earlier. Hope lies at the heart of the many pieces written about the path forward. Only by aiming toward a better future can a movement ever be built. But don’t wait for the mass movement to emerge. Start it. Regardless of whether you go on big marches or arrange protests, you are part of the movement if you speak to people about the promise of acting on climate change. You are part of the movement if you do things in your everyday life like taking few flights, cutting down waste or eating less animal products. You are part of the movement if you convince just one more person that it is not good enough for the status quo to continue.

But just in case you do like to go to marches, there is one in London soon: https://www.facebook.com/events/747422225425039/.

Zero waste living: Minimising waste in the 21st century

THE NEW STATE OF AFFAIRS

Every day millions of products are sold in single-use packaging, usually a form of plastic or ‘mixed-material’: sandwich containers, plastic films, coffee cups, bubble wrap and the like. The resulting vast swathes of disposables discarded, along with many recyclable items, find their way to landfill sites, to clusters in the oceans* and to garbage incinerators. The consequent effect on the geosphere is both detrimental and escalating day by day.

Fundamental studies of geology teach us that the geologic timescale of Earth is divided into periods (perhaps the most famous being the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous), which are themselves divided into epochs. The current epoch is known as the Holocene epoch and  it began roughly 11,700 years ago, following the end of the last ice age and the Pleistocene epoch. What an epoch refers to is the structure of the rock deposited during a certain length of time, perhaps providing us with knowledge concerning the type of creatures which existed then (through examining fossils), the constitution of the atmosphere or the relative sea levels. Until the Holocene, the defining characteristics of each epoch were all derived from natural processes. However there is now so much waste buried in the ground and the atmosphere has changed radically enough that some geologists believe it is time we declare a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. This name was coined in 2000 by Paul Crutzen in the journal Nature.

The advent of the Anthropocene means mankind has had such an enormous effect on the constitution of the geosphere that humanity’s industrial byproducts are recognisable from examining rocks and also through proxies such as ice cores and tree rings, for example. As mentioned above, it is not just the ground beneath our feet which is changing. It is an almost universally accepted fact that the atmosphere which we breath has changed beyond recognition due to human influence, for example through an increase of around 100pm of carbon dioxide composition in the last 250 years. The consequent alterations comprise what we call (anthropogenic) climate change.

WHY SHOULD WE CARE?

As is mentioned in the excellent, inspiring review paper ‘The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship’, whose list of authors includes the pioneering Paul Crutzen, the Holocene is the only state of the Earth system wherein we can be certain that contemporary human civilisation can exist. This epoch is known to have been relatively stable, allowing mankind to develop to the highly intelligent state as in the present. The Anthropocene, on the other hand, is far less certain to be so gentle on us. In the vastly altered environment which we are increasingly finding ourselves, extreme weather events such as severe storms, floods, heatwaves and droughts will become only more frequent. This is threatening for the many people who live in delicate geographical circumstances, particularly in equatorial countries such as those surrounding Saharan Africa and low-lying coastal regions such as Bangladesh and the Netherlands.

Alongside the problems posed directly by climate change, there are numerous other serious, related issues, including a shortage of food resources and (fertile) land in many areas of the world, all with the ominous backdrop of an exponentially increasing population. In the paper mentioned above, the authors outline the necessity of a renewed approach to the way in which mankind views and is treating the world, both for its sake and our own. This movement is not completely new – James Lovelock in particular has long supported the notion of a vengeful ‘Mother Earth’ Gaia interpretation of nature, which is very much capable of evolving of its own accord in order to outlast the threat posed by humanity, and encouraged a much more co-operative approach to civilisation than is currently exhibited. In terms of problems posed directly by the waste issue, landfilling and over-production of packaging not only inflates land shortage, but can pollute nearby soils and rivers, damaging delicate ecosystems, and lead to an increased level of shipping.**

WHERE TO GO FROM HERE?

Some researchers refer to the status quo production methodology of the modern era as a ‘linear economy’, in that materials are mined, farmed or grown, then made into single-use products, which are thereby used by the consumer and disposed. In this paradigm, products are often cheaply made in order to maximise profit and therefore are not built to last. Above I have made the case that this is simply unsustainable and infeasible. An alternative approach is sometimes known as a ‘circular economy’, wherein there is a real focus on making the most durable products as possible, using the minimal quantity of resources, and always giving preference to regeneration and recycling of materials, rather than extracting anew.

There are multiple movements which fit within the remit of a circular economy, including the break free from plastic movement and the Zero Waste Europe movement, the latter of which is making waves across the continent, with many local councils and companies already pledging to move towards a zero waste-to-landfill regime. On a more personal note, as of 1st  October 2016, I have committed to becoming a zero waste individual. All new products I have purchased since then either come in recyclable or compostable packaging, or indeed in no packaging at all! If absolutely necessary, I allow myself up to 500g of disposable waste per year, as other zero wasters suggest.*** I have found that in going waste free, it often naturally follows that one reduces one’s carbon footprint also – for instance, buying fresh in-season fruit and vegetables from local markets, collected in reusable bags. One thing that has really helped me on my way is the discovery that supermarkets across the country, including Sainsbury’s, have installed plastic bag recycling points in their stores to account for those awkward products such as toilet roll that you just can’t buy without a plastic film wrapper.

I have heard many people argue that the waste problem is not directly related to climate change – that recycling alone is not going to save the world. This is of course true, but through aiming to tackle the enormous waste problem that is now afoot in the world, the approach of a circular economy refocuses our influence not on endless (or so we think) extraction for maximal profit, but on making the most of what we have and ensuring there are enough resources remaining to sustain many, many generations to come. In making this change of purpose, one also takes a step towards a greener economy, and moves to provide a safer and more stable future for all. There are many pieces to the grandest of puzzles that is solving the problem of climate change, but surely committing to reduced waste is one clear step in the right direction.

 

FOOTNOTES

*: My fellow MPE CDT colleagues, Ben Snowball and Birgit Sützl, are currently undergoing MRes projects centring around mathematical models for tracking plastic waste in the world’s oceans.

**: I was disgusted to find out from a friend who works in the shipping industry that the main physical export of the United Kingdom is… waste! There have also been numerous cases of illegal smuggling of waste out of the UK.

***: I still feel ‘zero waste’ is an accurate term even if one creates a small amount of it. After all, the average American produces over 500kg per year!