Monthly Archives: January 2018

The attack on health and safety means residents and workers are no longer always healthy – or safe

Criminal negligence by five companies 12 years ago caused Europe’s biggest peacetime explosion and fire at the Buncefield Oil Depot near Hemel Hempstead.

Miraculously, nobody died, though 43 were injured and hundreds of homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed at a cost of £1 billion. Companies owned by BP, Shell and Total were eventually fined a paltry £5.3 million.

The subsequent investigation resulted in 18 recommendations to ensure that far greater attention would in future be paid to health and safety when deciding planning applications on or close to the most dangerous industrial sites – the Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) sites.

Power stations

At last there was hope that the regulatory authorities would finally have to take the safety of workers and residents more seriously, at least around the approximately 350 most dangerous sites in the UK.

Such hopes were dashed in January 2012 when David Cameron announced: “This coalition has a clear New Year’s resolution: to kill off the health and safety culture for good”.

Funding for the Health and Safety Executive is being cut by 46 percent over the ten years starting 2009/10. Under the Red Tape Challenge, launched in 2011, 2,400 regulations have been scrapped, environmental guidance has been slashed by 80 percent, and fire safety inspections have been greatly reduced.

Although the Red Rape Challenge has formally ended, the deregulation drive has not: the government’s Better Regulations Executive continues to identify ever more regulations to be cut or ‘simplified – including regulations relating to the safety of COMAH sites

As part of my work with Biofuelwatch, I have been supporting residents’ groups opposed to biofuel and biomass power stations across the UK for nearly a decade.

Alarming decisions

In recent years, we have been contacted again and again by residents concerned about proposed plants which come with a particularly high explosion risk: Biomass – and waste – gasifiers.

So far, no such waste or biomass has been operated successfully over a significant period in the UK – many have been built and failed. One of them – a Municipal Solid Waste gasifier – failed quite spectacularly, with hundreds of air permit breaches, an explosion and a fire.

The risks of biomass  gasifiers are summarised in a 2007 report published by the European Commission and include gas leakages, fires, explosions, and suffocation and contamination of workers.

There have been some alarming planning decisions, amongst them the approval of a waste wood gasifier on a site in West Thurrock which has a pipeline for diesel, petrol and ethanol running right next to the proposed planned, partly above ground.

A large sign near the jetty (right next to the site) warns: “Danger – Highly Inflammable Petroleum Spirit – No Smoking or Naked Lights”.

Oil tanks

If it is dangerous to light a cigarette on the site, then how could it possibly be a safe location for a power station and woodchip store? Fortunately, the owners of the site, Procter & Gamble, do not seem to have pursued this any further. Perhaps they have quietly ditched such a high-risk plan? 

After the West Thurrock decision, I wondered whether there would any circumstances in which a planning proposal might be rejected on health and safety grounds?

A current planning dispute in Milford Haven suggests that that answer is no. The proposal in question is a larger biomass and waste gasifier proposed by a start-up company called Egnedol

I believe it must rank amongst the UK’s most dangerous planning proposals.

The site lies within two ‘top tier’ (i.e. highest risk) COMAH areas, due to nearby oil tanks and LNG storage tanks. Milford Haven is Europe’s largest LNG import site and the LNG tankers would be crossing right in front of Egnedol’s plant.

Crucial minutes

Hazards from those sites include flammable liquids and gases, fires and explosions. Two overlapping COMAH sites are defined as “domino groups”, with increased risks and potential impacts of major accidents. 

I believe that the drawings submitted as part of the planning application omit basic safety features for gasifiers. In 2009, the European Commission issued guidelines on how to minimise health and safety risks of biomass gasifiers, to which the UK’s Health and Safety Executive had contributed.

Without a flare, there is no way of preventing a build-up of pressure inside the gasifier in the event that a gas engine malfunctions and shuts down.

If the pressure was to become too high, the plant would explode. A gasifier without a flare would basically be a ticking time-bomb – and in this case, a time-bomb right next to some of the UK’s most dangerous industrial infrastructure. 

Egnedol’s representatives responded to those concerns by claiming that in such an event the gas would be transported to storage tanks across the road – with no indication as to how this could be achieved within a few crucial minutes, and in disregard of the European safety guidelines.

Safety grounds

The Planning Inspector tasked with making a recommendation to Welsh Ministers opened a second consultation round in the autumn. Objectors were told that they could only comment on the impacts of the plant on the site’s ecology.

Other representations, including about the risks to the lives of residents and workers, would be ignored. As was a joint letter by Pembrokeshire Friends off the Earth, the Environment Network Pembrokeshire and Biofuelwatch.

This letter expressed alarm “that fire and explosion risks continue to be ignored entirely, despite the fact that Egnedol proposes to build a plant that contravenes safety guidelines, thus posing a significant explosion risk inside two COMAH zones.”

The Health and Safety Executive commented that it had no objections because there would be no “explosives” on the site – a reference to the fact that syngas is not legally classified as flammable or explosive, even though it is both.

It has shown no concern about the fact that a gasifier breaching vital safety guidance could be built right next to LNG tanks and ships. Its failure to raise an objection has stopped the local authority from objecting on health and safety grounds.

Protect lives

Welsh Ministers are yet to determine the application, but the other agencies’ unwillingness to consider the health and safety of local people does not bode well. Worryingly, the Welsh Government is not merely the ‘neutral’ arbiter of the planning application, because it sold part of the site to Egnedol in 2015. Pembrokeshire Council sold Egnedol the remainder.

The fact that such a – literally – explosive proposal could be granted in Wales is particularly alarming: unlike England, Wales has passed a Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, which should ensure that the planning system prioritises wellbeing goals, one of which is the goal of maximising physical and mental health. 

Fortunately, there is a high chance that Egnedol will never manage to build and start up its gasifier even if it obtains planning permission. 

Yet planning consent for Egnedol would prove to me that the planning and regulatory system across England and Wales will not protect the lives of local people, even from some of the most dangerous proposals. 

This Author

Almuth Ernsting is a co-director of Biofuelwatch

Liam Fox’s ‘new for old’ Brexit trade deals should not bypass parliament and democratic scrutiny

The government’s Trade Bill has now passed through its second reading in the House of Commons. Liam Fox said the second reading was “an opportunity for debate, to counter mistruths and answer concerns.” There is a lot riding on this Bill, not least the integrity of the UK’s democracy.

Yet, when faced with strong opposition to the Bill in parliament, Fox retreated to the dogma that this Bill excludes ‘new’ trade deals. As the Bill moves through to the committee stage next week, it’s important to separate the fact from the fiction about what is and isn’t a new deal.

This Trade Bill was supposed to put in place the legislative framework for the UK to have an independent trade policy after Brexit.

Scrutiny processes

A framework for parliamentary scrutiny and democratic accountability should be a core part of this – it has been over 40 years since the UK directly negotiated trade deals and our procedures need updating for the modern world.

The problem is, in its current format, the Trade Bill contains none of that, and instead starts where the Withdrawal Bill left off – with a government power grab that would give ministers the authority to develop trade deals in secret.

Parliament would not have the right to scrutinise or vote on the final deals and the public would be shut out of the process altogether.  

If we are to believe what Fox is saying, there is no need for the Trade Bill to include vital transparency and scrutiny provisions because it doesn’t cover ‘new’ trade deals, just the process of replacing existing EU deals with equivalent UK ones.

The EU agreements have already been through EU scrutiny processes and the UK ones, he insists, will be like for like, so there’s no need for parliament to review or vote on them. But this is where things start to get murky.

Transparent or democratic

Because – as Liam Fox is well aware – it will never be as simple as cutting and pasting EU deals into UK ones. The UK will, in fact, be developing a whole raft of new trade deals. They may be with the same partner countries as the EU deals, but the content is unlikely to be the same. 

The EU is one of the largest economies in the world. It has the ability to negotiate trade deals on terms that most other countries cannot.

The UK will not simply be able to replicate these agreements word for word. They will have to be renegotiated – as Fox effectively conceded in the debate – and many of our partners will want to make changes, quite possibly substantial ones.

If the Trade Bill passes as it is, the government will have the power to renegotiate these deals without any parliamentary or public oversight. This is neither transparent nor democratic. And it’s the opposite of taking back control. 

While the bill is limited to replacing EU deals, Fox is already getting started on what he refers to as ‘new’ deals – those with countries that the EU does not currently have deals with such as the US.

A smokescreen

While these can’t formally become negotiations until after Brexit, a lot of scoping and preparatory decisions are being made, without any parliamentary oversight. A legislative framework needs to be being put in place now, so that scrutiny and accountability can become a standard, routine part of these preparations.

However, the secretary of state has not as yet committed to developing a second Trade Bill that would cover development of such future trade deals beyond the EU ones.

On Tuesday of last week, Fox mentioned potential ‘vehicles’ for individual deals and ‘proposals’ about consultation, but stopped short of committing to comprehensive new legislation that would set out the framework of how we do trade policy.

This means that, in spite of what the government says, the current Trade Bill may be our only opportunity to reform the system before we leave the EU.

Less oversight

Liam Fox seeks to demonise those with concerns about this Bill, but that is no more than a smokescreen. The government itself recognised the need for trade policy to be transparent and inclusive in its Trade White Paper released in October last year.

We’re not asking for anything more than this – we’re simply calling for trade policy that is transparent and subject to the same level of scrutiny as any domestic legislation.

This is nothing more than good democratic practice and without it, when we leave the EU, our MPs will have less oversight of trade agreements than our MEPs currently do in the European Parliament.

Parliament has a vital opportunity over the next few weeks to ensure this is not the case and to put in place a democratic process for agreeing trade deals.

This Author 

Sophie Hardefeldt is the Senior Network Advisor at the Trade Justice Movement. 

A pesticide ban is necessary to protect our essential bee population – but it is not enough

The humble honey bee has had a rough time over the last few years. Of course, it’s not alone.

Researchers at Sussex University recently published findings that the number of flying insects in German nature reserves have dramatically fallen in the last 25 years, to the extent that Professor Dave Coulson, the research leader, described the decline as “horrific” and a path to “ecological Armageddon.” A very sobering thought.

The decline in the bee population in the UK has been heavily documented. Most recently, the British Beekeepers Association revealed their members were producing, on average, a kilogramme less honey per hive than last year.

Educate the population

It’s been suggested that the widespread use of pesticides is a significant factor in the decline of the bee population. And, thankfully, some respite could be on the horizon, at least in terms of pesticide use, with Michael Gove, the environment secretary insisting the UK will back proposals for a total ban on insect-harming pesticides across Europe.

That respite is much needed. Three quarters of food crops are dependent on pollination, particularly by bees and other insects. And we’re severely lacking in pollinators, presenting profound risks to our food security.

But pesticides aren’t and cannot be the only factor for the decline of the honey bee. Climate change is also a factor, for which we, collectively, are at fault. This is further compounded by the impact of construction and development, coupled with environmental changes that have seen the UK lose 98 percent of its flower meadows (and potential habitats for bees) in the last 70 years.

The humble honey bee is simply being pushed out. That is a problem that won’t be addressed solely by a pesticide ban – as welcome as it might be – but rather by continual effort and education. And this is where partnerships are essential.

Two years ago, Low Carbon partnered with Plan Bee, which helps support biodiversity and sustainability projects across the UK. We discussed how we could help educate the population of the dangers of climate change, and how we could promote better sustainability of the honey bee population and biodiversity.

Activity levels

The answer was to establish hives across solar parks around the UK, focusing particularly on areas in Cornwall, Dorset and Suffolk. Housing more than two million bees, the intention was to provide a much-needed habitat for honey bees, support the recovery of their numbers, and to use the honey produced as a resource help educate on the threats facing honey bee populations.

Yet, even this type of partnership is seeing the effects of the honey bee’s plight. Despite the right placement and trained beekeepers on-site, the hives have mirrored the findings of the British Beekeepers Association. Evidence certainly of the profound environmental factors – climate change included – affecting the bee population.

The situation facing the bee population is – and must be considered – grave. It’s frankly something the public needs to grasp the implications of in full. A dwindling bee population isn’t just bad news for those fans of honey on toast or on porridge for breakfast. It’s far more profound.

A wider decline in insect populations and reduced numbers of pollinators is critical to the food chain. It’s premature to consider this a crisis of global proportions, but that’s where we could be headed – longstanding and widespread food shortages caused by a lack of crop pollination.

The answer is, again, education and the establishment and maintenance of sustainability partnerships to develop bee hives and ensure they can survive.

Supermarket shelves

In the case of our solar farm hives, we’re installing real-time monitoring technology, which will provide more information about the bee populations, their health and activity levels and will enable intervention more rapid intervention if there is an imminent threat to the wellbeing of the hives.

Linked to the issue of public education is ensuring there is a clear correlation between the plight of the honey bee and other insects and climate change.

The Government’s commitment to a ban on insect-harming pesticides is extremely welcome, but without constant and supportive action to tackle climate change, the difficulties of the honey bee will sadly continue.

That’s not good for nature. And it’s certainly not good for us, thinking of what we expect to see on our supermarket shelves.

This Author

Quentin Scott is a Director at Low Carbon, a privately-owned renewable investment company that has funded the development of  more than 320MW of solar farms across the UK. 

New environment plan must be enshrined in law, campaigners say

Campaigners are calling for tough laws to back up nature protection proposals outlined yesterday by the government in its 25-year environment plan.

The plan was a 2015 Conservative manifesto pledge, but publication was delayed by the vote to leave the EU and last year’s election.

It proposes a plethora of policies covering waste, the natural environment, air pollution and improving health through access to nature. There is also a plan to create a “nature recovery network” delivering 500,000 hectares of new habitat to protect and restore wildlife.

Plastic bottles

The government’s headline announcement was on plastic waste, which Prime minister Theresa May called “one of the great environmental scourge of our time.”

“Avoidable” plastic waste would be eliminated by 2042, May said. “We look back in horror at some of the damage done to our environment in the past and wonder how anyone could have thought that, for example, dumping toxic chemicals, untreated, into rivers was ever the right thing to do.

“In years to come, I think people will be shocked at how today we allow so much plastic to be produced needlessly,” she said.

In the UK alone, the amount of single-use plastic wasted every year would fill 1,000 Royal Albert Halls, she added.

Plastic waste will be slashed through measures including extending the 5p single use plastic bag charge to all sizes of retailer, and encouraging cafés and transport hubs to offer free water refill hubs to cut plastic bottle use, the government said. It is also considering a deposit scheme to encourage recycling of plastic bottles.

Fundamental flaw

But Friends of the Earth waste campaigner Julian Kirby said that the government’s record did not match its rhetoric: “If it’s avoidable waste, why is it taking us a quarter of a century to get there?”

Under the Conservatives, English recycling rates have stalled and the nation is burning ever more recyclable waste, even though in 2010 the party committed to a zero waste economy, he said.

Other environmental campaign groups were disappointed with the lack of new legislation to ensure that promises made in the 25-year plan were followed through and enforced.

Karla Hill, director of programmes at legal campaigners ClientEarth, which has successfully taken the government to court over its flawed air pollution strategies, said: “The 25 year plan makes the right noises about how our environment will be protected in the coming years. But it makes no solid commitments to new law and it lacks any detail about how we will enforce environment laws once we leave the EU.”

Stephanie Hilborne OBE, chief executive of the Wildlife Trusts, said that the plans ambitions “raised the spirits”, but that the lack of legal underpinning of the plan was a fundamental flaw. For example, the plan wants to encourage development to include green infrastructure such as sedum roofs to encourage wildlife and prevent flooding, but there was no plan to prevent development without it gaining planning permission, she said.

Deeply disappointing

“There must be an ambitious Environment Act in the next Parliament or all this is simply the government saying what the voluntary sector has been saying for a long time,” she said.

Martin Harper, director of global conservation at the RSPB, said that the first environment speech from a prime minister in a generation was a sign of personal commitment from May. But he added that the only way to ensure that the ambition in the plan was met and momentum sustained was to create legislation for the restoration of nature in the way the Climate Change Act has done for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

“Within the plan there is a very clear reminder of why voluntary targets just don’t work – we have yet another target to end the use of peat in horticulture, this time by 2020. This, I think is the third such voluntary target in 20 years but they have clearly failed: recent monitoring suggests 56% of all growing media still contains peat,” he said.

Co-leader of the Green Party and MP Caroline Lucas said: “The very fact that the prime minister is making this speech is a step forward, and the announcements within it are welcome, but we should be very clear that its contents simply aren’t commensurate with the scale of the crises we face.

“It is deeply disappointing that the government has failed to put their vague ambitions in concrete legislation,” she said.

This Author

Catherine Early is regular contributor to The Ecologist.

How ancient pastoral communities across Africa are facing the new challenges to their way of life

Pastoralism is an ancient but viable mode of mobile livestock production that makes extensive use of grazing lands in the lowlands of the Great Rift in eastern Africa and the Horn as well as in parts of the West African Sahel and in southern Africa.  

But from the colonial era up to today, pastoralists have been the subject of unfair stereotypes, prejudices and myths that have greatly hindered the socio-economic and political development of their communities. 

Violent conflicts between nomadic herders from northern Nigeria and sedentary
farming communities in the central and southern zones have escalated in recent years and are spreading southward, threatening the country’s security and stability.

Nutritional value

These clashes are becoming as potentially dangerous as the Boko Haram insurgency in the north east, with an estimated death toll of approximately 2,500 people in 2016.

In Kenya – on the other side of the continent – during the past year there has been a series of high profile armed invasions on ranches and farms in the northern Laikipia region by Pokot and Samburu pastoralists.

There is disagreement about whether the land invasions are related to the recent drought, which was declared back in February 2017. Some observers argue the invasions are instead planned actions by prominent pastoralist elites, mega-rich herd-lords (‘cattle barons’) who have employed many impoverished pastoralists and who have filled the vacuum left by the breakdown in traditional authority.

In spite of these challenges, pastoralism continues to be a viable way of life for an estimated 50-70 million people in Africa who continue to live on the continent’s arid and semi-arid regions. 

The development of pastoralism in Africa about 6,000 years ago was one of humankind’s brilliant innovations. Grasses and shrubs have little to no nutritional value for humans. But through the domestication of cattle, these were converted into nutritious milk, meat and blood.

Livestock herders

At the heart of a pastoralists’ universe is ‘strategic mobility’. This is not simply aimless wandering across barren landscapes, but journeys that are carefully calculated in search of pasture and water for their herds of cattle, camels, donkeys, sheep and goats.

Where pastoralism has the upper hand on farming is that this mobility – with the exception of drought – allows herders to exploit environmental variations. 

However, pastoralists in Africa are grappling with various challenges that are threatening their very existence. These problems range from population explosion and associated pressures, decreasing mobility, overgrazing, land grabs, water scarcity, food shortages/high food prices, livestock theft, armed conflicts and global climate change that are leading to prolonged droughts, intense floods and desertification.  

Long held stereotypes, prejudices and myths about pastoralism have impacted negatively on their socio-economic development. They have led to failed (and failing) policies meant to develop herding societies in Africa and elsewhere.

For example, it’s still widely believed that livestock herders are primitive and inefficient users of natural resources, and that overgrazing is often seen as the main cause of land degradation and desertification.

Pastoral drylands

But analysis from the early 1990s shows that land degradation in dryland Africa has been overestimated.

According to the authors of Expansion and Contraction of the Sahara Desert From 1980 -1990 (Compton J. Tucker and colleagues), long-term satellite monitoring of biomass shows a cycle of contraction and expansion of the northern vegetation limits of the Sahel, and little has changed since 1970. Where degradation occurred it was usually due to long-term climatic trends and not livestock.

The conservation of Africa’s wildlife and habitats started during the colonial era with the establishment of animal sanctuaries, controlled hunting areas, game parks and reserves, nature reserves, protected forests and ‘wildlife corridors’.

Their underlying philosophy was that natural resources needed to be protected from traditional communities. What they failed to understand is that pastoralists have from time immemorial depended on their environment for survival and, precisely for that reason, have devised sustainable ways of living.

Traditional herders are directly responsible for the biodiversity that has made large parts of their homelands worthy of conservation as national parks or wildlife reserves. Furthermore, the genetic reservoir of livestock breeds and cultivated plants that have originated in pastoral drylands are invaluable assets as scientist search for traits in wild breeds of flora and fauna able to withstand the vagrancies of global climate change (e. g. drought resistant/ drought tolerant). 

Misguided development

“Pastoralists have historically helped maintain the rich range of biodiversity of pastoral lands which are filled with an impressive variety of animals and plants,” says Dr. Jonathan Davies, head of IUCN’s Drylands Programme based in Nairobi, Kenya.

“This ecological wealth has translated into a wide variety of protected areas and national parks being located within pastoral areas, such as the Serengeti-Mara region of East Africa.”

The creation of protected areas is changing attitudes and perceptions of herders towards wildlife. For example, some irate pastoralists in east Africa often poison wild carnivores with deadly poisons such as carbofuran because they prey on cattle.

Forced evictions for wildlife related activities such as game hunting has also led to the further impoverishment of some livestock herders in Eastern Africa.

Pastoralist regions are often undervalued or even ignored by national governments. In many cases, they suffer from historic marginalisation, a lack of basic services – such as roads, markets, clean water, schools and healthcare – and misguided development policies that continue to regard pastoralism as inefficient and even backward.

Governance system

In 1995, however, Dr. Ian Scoones of the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex in the UK, published Living with Uncertainty in which he demonstrated that pastoralism is not only viable, but is by far the best option for arid and semi-arid areas, and that African livestock systems can produce more energy, protein and cash per hectare than US and Australian ranches. 

Similarly, the contributions pastoralist systems make to African economies are considerable. Livestock is said to contribute 10 percent to 30 percent of the agricultural Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and from five percent to 12 percent of the total GDP of most countries on the continent. 

Perhaps the greatest challenge for pastoralists today is the socio-economic and political marginalisation they continue to experience. 

The destruction of their traditional systems of land management is a good example. This was developed over centuries and encouraged the sustainable, shared use of common resources among the community.

However, with the emergence of the nation-state came a change in the governance system from tribally held land ownership to open access – government ownership has led to a decline in rangelands and their resources.

Land grabbers

But pastoralists are not simply helpless victims to socio-economic marginalisation. In East Africa and the Horn they have started taking matters into their own hands. By using a combination of local and western technology, they are making innovative changes in order to tackle some of the very important issues confronting them today. 

“There is a lot of innovation going on, but it is not recorded and often not shared,” says Dr. Ian Scoones. 

Even in the face of the present ‘land grabs’ in sub-Saharan Africa by foreign countries and companies, innovative adaptations to change is underway.

For example, huge fertile tracts of land in Kenya’s Tana Delta, a critical source of dry season pasture and water during severe dry periods for Orma herders, have been set aside for large industrial-scale farming by the Kenyan government for export crops, biofuels and minerals.

However, the Orma are marking corridors to save their land from land grabbers, in essence grabbing the corridors for themselves as a grazing/land protection strategy.

This Author

Curtis Abraham is a freelance writer and researcher on African development, science, the environment, biomedical/health and African social/cultural history. He has lived and worked in sub-Saharan Africa for over two decades but is originally from Springfield Gardens, Queens, New York.

Springwatch Unsprung star Lindsey Chapman talks about the importance of immersing in and imagining nature

Springwatch has become an essential date in the TV nature-viewing diary, with its seasonal spinoffs Autumnwatch and Winterwatch shifting the colour palette but continuing the natural drama.

The BBC stalwart reminds us that the natural world is an ever evolving spectacle right on our doorsteps. It prompts us to look up and look out, so that we too can witness the unfolding drama first hand, whether waiting for elusive birds to arrive after a transcontinental journey, following the unfolding story of a family of stoats or sharing the experiences of its loyal viewers.

And the Springwatch presenters are the hosts of this drama. They invite us to join them as they get up close with our great British wildlife and the people who look after it. And they champion the voice of the many curious viewers who want to share their experiences, and explore what their role in it all is.

Poetry performance

I recently sat down with Springwatch Unsprung – Springwatch’s interactive sister show – presenter Lindsey Chapman, to talk about our shared love of the natural world, our role in it, and some of the challenges that we now face. I started off by asking Lindsey about her own relationship with nature, and how this has evolved.

 “I grew up outside, playing in the lanes, fields and streams of East Yorkshire. Along with my older sister, I explored the natural world around me, creating records of birds and wild flowers. I relished the changing of the seasons and the opportunities in my own back garden. Once, I found an injured shrew, so I took it home in my bike basket and gave it earthworms to eat! 

“But like all relationships, a connection with the natural world needs space and time to develop. You can nurture or neglect it. Like many others, I moved away from the outdoors in my teenage years, finding a love for theatre and literature, which I went on to study. But it was always the projects about nature in which I flourished. A poetry performance of ‘Hawk Roosting’ by Ted Hughes, in which my imagination allowed me to become the bird, is a poignant memory. 


Plastic in the sea

  • 300 million – tons of plastic produced globally each year. At least 10% of that will end up in the oceans. 
  • 12 per cent – proportion of plastic that is recycled
  • Five trillion – pieces of microplastic in ocean, with one rubbish truckload added each minute
  • 11,000 – pieces of microplastic ingested by humans each year from seafood
  • 780,000 – microplastics humans will ingest by the end of the century if trends continue
  • 8.5 billion – plastic bags used in English supermarkets annually before 5p charge
  • 6 billion – estimated bags removed from circulation annually at last count, an 80 per cent reduction.
  • 12 minutes – useful lifespan of average plastic bag
  • Scientists have found evidence of microplastics in deep-sea sediments in the Atlantic Ocean, Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean.

“My connection to landscape and wildlife rejuvenated in my mid-twenties, and continues to grow. You don’t have to be an expert to have a meaningful relationship with the world around you. Chris Packham is the expert on Springwatch Unsprung. I know my stuff, but it’s my role to try and connect experts like Chris with the rest of us, and help make the natural world more accessible.

“An emotional connection with nature is just as important as an academic one, probably even more so. If we can find the time and space to find a connection with the natural world around us, which will evolve and change over time, then the benefits can be very far reaching. That passion can also drive us to take action where it is needed.” 

Northern gannets

Lindsey and I then explored the TV presenter’s role as a connector and conduit for the detail of the natural world. “My favourite element of working on Springwatch Unsprung is going through the incredible photos, videos and comments we receive from viewers across the UK.

“This is how we build the show each day. As presenters, it is our job to bring in the audience in a meaningful way, whether sharing and making sense of scientific data, live action, pre-recorded footage or campaigns.

“Unsprung reflects what the viewers are experiencing on their own patch, so we get to see what spring looks like right across the whole country, in real time. And we learn from it too – Unsprung is a two-way conversation!” 

Lindsey co-presented BBC One’s Big Blue UK alongside Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. In the programme, they delved into the diverse waters around our islands, and shared glimpses of the marine life that inhabits our coastline, including seals, whales, sharks and seabirds. We talked about how to connect the experience of beauty and diversity with action needed to protect it.

“Working on Big Blue UK is a real career highlight. The seas around Britain are beautiful and rich in biodiversity, but they’re also under threat. I was privileged enough to solar tag northern gannets on a rock in the English Channel.

Share and engage

“The birds were magnificent but the amount of plastic and waste they’d used to build their nests was devastating. This is sadly nothing new – we know our polluted seas affect seabirds, mammals and other marine life [see end of article for facts and stats about plastic in our oceans]. 

“David Attenborough is one of the world’s best-loved communicators and connectors – and no doubt many of us sat down to watch the awe-inspiring cinematography of Blue Planet II. But, whether seeing the impact of plastics in the ocean – or crying at footage of the Walrus who can’t find an iceberg to rest on with her pup – how do we respond?

“We must join the dots, and make our love of the environment – and the issues that affect it – an important conversation at all levels. We can work to change perceptions, making people understand the problem and the idea that they can play an important role in the solution. As Professor Richard Thompson, Director of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit says, ‘We need behavioural change right along the supply chain’.” 

She added: “And so connectors and communicators are important. Let’s talk about the facts and the issues, but then let’s share big and small ways to act. This really makes a difference.

“After TV mentions from the Springwatch team in 2017, the Great British Bee Count app recorded around 7,000 new sign-ups, which accounted for half of the total number of people who signed up since the app went live that year. And in terms of Twitter interactions for the programme, the Springwatch account has the highest programme figures across the BBC during the on air period. People clearly want to learn, share and engage.” 

Desire to explore

“So whether the Great British Bee Count, a #2minutebeachclean, a bottle refill scheme, or planting a tree — when we care for the natural world, we strengthen our link with it.” 

There is mounting evidence that shows how physically being in the natural world is important for all of us for all sorts of reasons including in childhood development, improving mental health, and hastening healing. This goes far beyond immersing in nature vicariously, through TV programmes.

And supporting such evidence and reports, there’s the simple joy we all feel when we watch a sunset or hear a bird call. I ask Lindsey about our day-to-day connection with nature, and what barriers and opportunities there are to deepening this.

“Programmes like Springwatch and Blue Planet give us an intimate view of the natural world, as well as generating new scientific research. However, there is no doubt that being outside and experiencing raw nature for ourselves is a deeper, more holistic experience than watching a TV programme about it. 

“The desire to explore our surroundings and learn is innate, and should be encouraged wherever possible. We know children aren’t free to roam as they were 50 or even 20 years ago and it’s perhaps harder to get out into nature than it used to be – but there is still space to discover. I live in inner city Manchester and my very small garden had long tailed tits for the first time this year. I love watching them!

Changing relationship

“We talk about the ‘digital generation’ – people growing up addicted to being on their ‘devices’. But do we as adults set a better example? I love social media, it’s part of my job, but I also recognise it has many downsides.

“So when you head out to the wild or a local garden or green space, take your phone if you need to – but take pictures of nature. Download the British Tree ID app from the Woodland Trust or join in with the Great British Bee Count through Friends of the Earth, which happens in June. And if you can, why not leave your phone at home – it’s rather refreshing!

“In a wider context, we need to shift away from a culture of instant gratification. We are bombarded with short-form news, talent shows give the illusion that success is attained overnight, and government policy changes every time there is a cabinet reshuffle. But change is gradual — we need to empower people, plan for the future, take action, then give it time.”

When we’re not physically immersing in nature, there’s another way we can all experience it — through words and imagination. Hearteningly, our hunger for nature writing and poetry is growing.

In 2017, Robert Macfarlane & Jackie Morris’ launched their powerful new art and nature collaboration The Lost Words, and the AHRC-backed project Land Lines is currently looking at how literature reflects our changing relationship with the natural world.

Environmental degradation

Lindsey recently presented a Radio 4 show as part of the BBC’s Contains Strong Language spoken word festival. The show took us on a poetic tour of Hull (UK City of Culture 2017) through the voices and words of the poets who have lived, loved and experienced it. We talk about the importance of a sense of place, poetry and fiction in kindling a love of the natural world.

“I think there’s a lot to be said for exploring through imagination. It opens your eyes and mind to new ideas and opportunities. In his recent article for the RSPB, Simon Barnes wrote, ‘Learn more. Not just about issues but about everything. Read – pursue your interests…Understand more about the way life works’.

“Books like The Children of Cherry Tree Farm and Watership Down had a huge influence on me when I was younger. Why the Whales Came is a gorgeous book and one that I come back to time and time again to get lost in the landscape and wildlife of the Isles of Scilly. Literature, storytelling and imagination are powerful.

“Poems like The Trees by Philip Larkin illuminate the natural world whilst highlighting the fragility of human life. These are big ideas in small stanzas. The crossover between the natural world and our own artistic and cultural heritage is an area that I find hugely fascinating. From Shakespeare to the evocative language of Diane Ackerman, art and emotion open up a whole new perspective on the natural world. 

Lindsey and I spent time talking about the unique perspective, strengths and challenges that come with being women in our 30s. And following on from the theme of nature writing and poetry, we discussed how creativity and the feminine voice are as vital as facts and statistics when it comes to tackling environmental degradation.

Female voice

“One of the most fascinating things I’ve found as a wildlife presenter is the amazing stories that people share about their emotional connection to the natural world. If we’re going to make any kind of positive change we have to help people see themselves in the heart of nature.

“It’s no secret that emotive storytelling is powerful, but we need all kinds of voices telling these stories. When the eminent voice becomes too strongly any one thing – whether privileged, male, scholarly, political, or something else – it can switch off whole swathes of people who don’t recognise themselves in that voice. And we cannot afford for that to happen.  

“As I grow into my 30s I’ve found that my feelings for the natural world have deepened. I believe that the expressive feminine voice is a powerful tool for protecting the environment, especially if we are to inspire other women and girls to do so too. Now is the time for a strengthening of the female voice – both the artist and the scientist.”

This Author

Elizabeth Wainwright is Nature Editor for The Ecologist. Elizabeth spends her time between Devon and London. She also co-leads a global community development charity, Arukah Network. She tweets at @LizWainwright. 

You can hear more from Lindsey by listening to her recent Radio 4 show about the arts in Hull, 2017’s City of Culture, broadcast in December last year and available online here. She tweets at @Lindsey_Chapman.

Academic research confirms – more mining leads to more fighting

Mining conflicts are not uncommon in Latin America, but the Andes now resembles a war zone. In Peru – the world’s number-two producer of copper, zinc and silver – many peasant groups are revolting. Mining accounts for 12 percent of Peru’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 57 percent of its exports. As it’s mining export grows, so does it’s number of mining conflicts.

Clashes between demonstrators and the authorities between 2015 and 2016 left four dead following the opening of the Las Bambas mine – owned by Chinese companies – displaced thousands of people.

But Peru is just one hotspot. A recent study ‘did the math’ on the link between growth in mining exports and growth in environmental conflicts across Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

So-called externalities

The correlation is almost perfect, thereby debunking the carefully crafted myths around new and better corporate social responsibility and sustainable mining. The study was based on Environmental Justice Atlas data from 244 environmental conflicts.

The El Cerrejon mine in Colombia is also one of them. The Colombian Government left the structure completely in the hands of foreign capital – not only with regards to its administrative, structural and financial aspects, but also including rights on all the territory that such exploitation embraced.

Entire populations of indigenous peoples and farmers were forcibly displaced. Polluting the only available water sources was just part of a strategy to make the remaining communities move away when investors wanted to expand the mine. With billions of dollars at stake, anything goes.

What happens in the Andes is related to what happens elsewhere. The last half century has been marked strongly by what economists call ‘the theory of comparative advantage’. This proposes that local communities specialise is a limited number of commodities which they can then trade globally. 

But when this model is taken to extremes, the so-called externalities – costs to society not recorded on the company balance sheet – bite back.  

Defending the environment

Digging in Andean countries went ballistic in the 1970-2012 period: from 336 mega tonnes to 1,145 mega tonnes. Digging is the appropriate name for this frenzy, as the extraction shifted from biotic to abiotic material.

We’re talking about fossil fuels, building materials and metal ores such as copper and gold. To put it in terms of domestic extraction per square kilometre: the numbers went from 72 to 244 tons/km2. 

Exports have grown even faster, at an annual average growth of 5.4 percent. Both the shift from living to death material and the rise in absolute numbers increased environmental pressures on the affected territories in unprecedented ways.

The scale of the digging frenzy is such that the traditional productive and cultural dynamics of a fast increasing number of communities was disrupted, thus paving the way for a range of new environmental conflicts to arise.

There is evidence from a range of sources that in the Andean countries the quantity of social conflicts involving civil society groups defending the environment and human rights increased during the last four decades.

Conflicting values

The Environmental Justice Atlas data shows that for the Andean countries, only 28 environmental conflicts started before 1990, 45 started in the 1990s and a distressing 171 started since the turn of the millennium.

When these conflicts are looked at in greater detail, most new conflicts are also related to metal mining and fossil fuel extraction, and also to commodities such as hydropower and oil palm plantations, all of them forms of extraction that grew fast.

The maths behind this study offers non-ideological arguments against the “extractivist” economic model – whether it is fuelled by neoliberal ideologues (as in Colombia and Peru) or nationalist-populist ones (as in Ecuador and Bolivia).

More often than not, the new battle lines or commodity frontiers are in territories with indigenous populations. These populations find themselves on the frontlines of a global resources war. However, there’s also another way to look at this trend.

Some academics now argue that these ecological distribution conflicts have an important role for sustainability, because they relentlessly bring to light conflicting values over the environment.

Environmental justice movements, born out of such conflicts – so goes their argument – become key actors in politicising unsustainable resource uses. As the authors of this study points out: “They can turn from ‘victims’ of environmental injustices into ‘warriors’ for sustainability.”

These Authors

Mario Pérez-Rincón is researcher at Universidad del Valle – Instituto CINARA, Cali, Colombia. Nick Meynen works for the European Environmental Bureau, Brussels,

This article is based on two recent papers published in Sustainability Science:Trends in social metabolism and environmental conflicts in four Andean countries from 1970 to 2013” (With Mario Pérez-Rincón as lead author) and “Ecological distribution conflicts as forces for sustainability: an overview and conceptual framework”.

Campaigners demand democratic role for MPs and voters in Brexit in trade deals

Campaigners at Global Justice Now have urged MPs to take control of post-Brexit trade policy and uphold democracy ahead of a parliamentary debate on the Trade Bill on Tuesday 9 January.
The Bill currently gives MPs no power to scrutinise, guide, amend or stop trade deals being signed, and fails to mandate public information, consultation or impact assessments. As a result, Labour, SNP, Green and Plaid Cymru are supporting amendments to deny a second reading to the Bill.
A petition signed by 265,000 people has been handed to trade secretary Liam Fox demanding public and parliamentary involvement, while Early Day Motion 128 containing the same demands is the third most popular among MPs out of seven hundred.

Trade deals

A coalition of social justice groups, trade unions and environmental organisations including Trade Justice Movement, Global Justice Now, Traidcraft and Unison is calling for a more democratic system of agreeing trade deals.  Charities and campaigners have long expressed concerns that poor trade deals could have a devastating impact on the environment, stripping away life-saving regulations. 
Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, said: “The Trade Bill is another power grab away from parliament, comparable with the EU Withdrawal Bill.

“We’re abolishing the scrutiny of MEPs but rather than handing it to MPs, Liam Fox is taking it for himself. He’s flying around the world meeting tyrannical regimes and proposing outlandish ideas like joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and yet MPs are in the dark.”
“Trade deals affect an enormous range of public policy – from public services to food standards to intellectual property rules. It’s astonishing that Brexit was supposed to be about taking back control, yet our MEPs will have more say over a final UK-EU trade deal than our MPs in Westminster if this Trade Bill comes to pass.”
The government claims the Trade Bill is primarily about translating EU external trade deals into UK trade deals. However, campaigners have responded by arguing that the bill is still about creating new trade deals, some of which have yet to receive ratification in the EU even in their original form. Moreover, as this is the only system there is for agreeing trade deals, it will therefore set a precedent for all post-Brexit trade deals.

Giving people control

Barry Gardiner MP, Labour’s Shadow Secretary for International Trade,  said: “The Labour Party will be fighting every step of the way to ensure the Trade Bill provides for proper parliamentary scrutiny of our future trade deals. We totally reject the idea that this government can bring back the power to negotiate trade agreements from Europe and then bypass Parliament.”
Hannah Bardell MP, Trade Spokesperson for the SNP said: “Trade deals nowadays not only touch on tariffs, as important as they can be to a national economy, but also regulations, public services and more. That is why nations and regions need a say in these trade deals – setting guidelines, scrutinising, and being able to stop them if they don’t work for everyone. Scotland won’t let the Westminster government threaten our devolved powers through the Trade Bill.”

Caroline Lucas MP, Green Party co-leader,  said: “As the Government ploughs ahead with Brexit we face the very real possibility of a trade policy devoid of proper democratic accountability. We know the risks associated with bad deals – a race to the bottom on regulations, companies suing democratically elected governments and the outsourcing of jobs.

“If the Government is serious about giving people control over their future then it’s crucial that future trade deals aren’t just stitched up in backrooms by ministers, but instead are debated and voted upon by MPs before being passed.”

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist. He tweets at @EcoMontague.

Young Norwegian activists lose historic case against arctic drilling 

Environmental activists Young Friends of the Earth Norway (Natur og Ungdom) teamed up with Greenpeace to take the Norwegian Government to court for opening up new areas for Artic Oil Drilling in November last year.

The environmental group of over 7,500 members called for the Norwegian government to halt all 10 new oil licenses in the arctic, as this would violate both the Paris Agreement and Norway’s own constitution which states that authorities will take measures to secure the right for people and future generations to a healthy environment.

Disappointingly, it was announced yesterday that this historic case was lost, as the Oslo district court decreed that exploration for new reserves did not violate citizens’ constitutional right. Instead, it claimed: “Norway is only responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions within its borders, not those causes by burning exported oil and gas“.

Designated borders

Therefore Norway, one of the world’s largest exporters of oil and gas, has self-decreed that it is not responsible for CO2 emissions caused by hydrocarbons exported to other countries, avoiding all climate responsibility to its people, its future people and the planet for bringing new oil and gas reserves into production.

This kind of individualist thinking, inspired by the neoliberal doctrine, hampers the collective action required to meaningfully mitigate climate change. We risk serious consequences if this ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude becomes another Norwegian export.

In response, Ingrid Skjoldvær, chair of Young Friends of the Earth Norway, told The Ecologist: “Of course we are disappointed. We know that fighting the most powerful industry in Norway is going to be tough, so the verdict is not a huge shock.

“But we still think that we have a strong case, and we want to take this case further. Hence our next task is to see if this is economically and legally feasible.”

In a twist of cruel irony, the verdict, just like the oil and gas it concerned, will have implications far beyond its designated borders.

Decision makers

The loss has been felt not simply by Greenpeace and YFoE activists, but by the global environmental movement attempting to scour corporate interest with people power, by future generations that will walk into a warmer world and by the youth voice that continues to struggle above water.

More physical impacts come from the drilling, which will put more greenhouse gas into our atmosphere, contrary to the plethora of evidence that if we are to avoid 2 degrees centigrade warming, all fossil fuels need to remain in the ground. The accumulating scream of science is again muffled by the obnoxious noise of drills.

However, there is cause to celebrate victories, as small as they may seem. Firstly, the case was historic in that it saw young people mobilising for democracy and their future.

Since 1988 when James Hansen first testified in front of Congress that the world was warming, decisions about climate change have been dominated by the very bodies made up of people who won’t be around to feel it.

Whilst climate change will affect young people the most (particularly those that are BME, female and from the global South), the majority do not have the age credentials even to vote. This court case has been a symbolic step in reinstating the youth seat at the decision makers’ table.

Summer success

Secondly, it’s a loud reminder that young people are not alone in their strife. Cases like these that pit money versus man seldom inspire hope for young people.

However, as Ingrid poignantly argues: “If you feel disenchanted then look around! Young people all around the world are making a difference. My best tip if you feel a bit dis-empowered is to organise yourself in an organisation. It’s a great way to meet other like-minded and to put more force behind your demands.’

In the UK, grass roots action is already happening, with the UK Youth Climate Coalition celebrating its 10th year anniversary and mobilising for its 2018 campaign against fossil gas. 

Thirdly the case perhaps signals a shift in global governance. The drilling was stunted not by the bounds of international regulation, nor the condemnation of neighbouring allies, but by the incumbent force of Norwegian youth power.

Perhaps we are shifting to an environmental paradigm where young people are taking centre stage? If Jeremy’s Corbyn’s summer success is much to go by then perhaps collective youth are far more able than generations of repression suggest?

Perhaps youth power will become a key weapon in the environmental arsenal?  Though this battle has been lost, the war is far from over. 

This Author

Katie Hodgetts works with the Economic Justice Team at Friends of the Earth Europe and can be found on twitter at @katiehodgettssx 

A just transition from coal demands a cross-regional sharing of benefits and costs

The world has to stop burning coal to produce electricity. We cannot afford the dirtiest fuel, killing with its air pollution, heating the planet with its carbon. That’s a reality that’s dawned in increasing numbers of countries, with the UK among them, who have signed up to the Powering Past Coal alliance, launched at the Bonn climate talks.

In Britain, the reality is this signature is more symbolic than practical. The government had already promised a phase out by 2025 (which could be a lot earlier). In August only 2 percent of electricity was produced through coal and its financial cost is increasingly ruling it out.

But the politics of coal are very different in Poland, where 80 percent of electricity is still produced with highly-polluting fuel, and the government is one of the last in the developed world still building new coal-fired stations.

Industry viability

It’s also not the case in Spain, where when I was in Madrid recently, Greenpeace was unfurling a banner showing the rightwing People’s Party leader Rajoy, embracing Alvaro Nadal, his energy minister and coal enthusiast.

Only about 10 percent of electricity is produced from coal, and some areas of traditional mining have effectively closed down, due to its low quality, but others continue, and the miners’ union is a significant political force.

In both places, I was recently at conferences where these issues came under close discussion.

In Poland, I was at the Industry Forum, an event held annually by the Foundation Institute for Eastern Studies, to talk on a panel about solar energy. At a number of sessions on energy, I didn’t hear anybody outright supporting the government’s policy of all-out coal, but it was pretty well taken as a political given.

One of the strongest expressions of concern I heard was from a steel industry representative, who was worried that coal-fired electricity was already heading towards being – and in the future was certain to be – more expensive than renewables, which would affect Poland’s industry’s viability.

Financial benefit

And I learnt that while coal is often defended as a national energy security issue (meaning Warsaw doesn’t have to depend on Russia gas), in fact Poland is importing Russian coal, for both financial and supply reasons. And oddly, recently, even US coal.)

Employment in the coal industry has already plunged, from a high of over 400,000 to around 100,000, which has had a big impact the main coal region, where, uncomfortably, the global climate talks will be held next year. But, coal miners remain a potent political force, and the current government is almost defining its highly nationalist politics with coal.

I was in Spain with Equo, the Green Party which is part of the Podemos coalition in parliament, to share Britain’s experience of the Climate Change Act with those seeking to introduce similar legislation in Madrid.

I spoke of how a “just transition” – compensation and alternative ways of life – needs to be offered to regions affected by job and income losses in the move away from fossil fuels. (We also need to think about the structure of the new renewables economy.)

Also a focus was the way in which the opportunities of renewable energy, particularly solar and onshore wind, (and energy conservation) are shared around countries, with many regions having the opportunity to financially benefit.

Energy transition

Every city can have its own collection of small solar and battery installers, its own community of energy-efficiency providers, small businesses who provide jobs, use other local businesses from accountants to hardware wholesalers, and who employ people who put money back into the local economy.

Onshore wind too, can be developed locally, often by municipalities who can use the returns to support public services. (Bristol’s wind turbines are just one example of this.)  With electric cars taking off fast, there’s also the potential for income to households owning them from use as grid storage (Vehicle to Grid, VtG in the jargon).

So when we think about what this transition means, we’re seeing jobs and income that used to be concentrated in one part of nations, being replaced by a far more decentralised, equitable arrangement.

When we think about “just transition” the usual focus is on those who are losing out, but it is also important to focus on that side of the equation. While former coal regions make the case for significant extra funding, other regions with significant needs might understandably ask “why them and not us?”

If it is understood that this is a new sharing and spreading of the benefits of energy generation (as well as the greater resilience that is the other great advantaged of a decentralised system), then there’s likely to be far more political “buy-in” around nations where this energy transition can and should be understood as a great economic opportunity, rather than a threat.

It is a transition that can put the returns from energy generation in the hands of the many, helping every region of the country, so it’s both fair and reasonable that they should all make a contribution to those few regions that see a net loss from the change.

This Author

Natalie Bennett is a regular contributor to The Ecologist and a former leader of the Green Party. She tweets at @natalieben