Friday, November 21, 2014

The road to the One Planet Life

We only have one planet!

Just one. Obviously. But the way some people carry on you'd think we had five - in some cases even eight - wonderful blue, vibrant orbs just like planet Earth, rotating round our life-giving Sun.

Perhaps they imagine these worlds - duplicates of ours except minus human beings - are hiding on the far side of the sun. Sitting there conveniently, so that when we've used up all the resources on this planet, we can go and tap into those. How simple the future might be if we could.

We’d probably need more than one extra planet. But hey, you never know what might turn up.

As far as I know, astronomers haven't detected any more earth-like planets in the attainable vicinity.

What a shame.

Enter the concept of One Planet Living.
Crossing the one planet threshold of our ecological footprint
We crossed the one planet threshold of our global ecological footprint back in the late '60s: the amount of resources we can sustainably use.

In the 1990s the environmental group WWF developed the concept of the ecological footprint. It measures in a form that is very easy to communicate, the environmental impact of our activities compared to the number of people on the planet and the resources it contains and its ability to absorb pollution.

Ecological footprint graphic explanation
In the UK we use over three planet's worth of resources on average. In the United States it is much higher.

In 2002, the Beddington Zero (fossil) Energy Development, or BedZED as it is known (pictured below), was completed in south London. Designed by BioRegional for an affordable housing association with architect, Bill Dunster, the 100 home development aimed to create a whole sustainable lifestyle.
Pooran Desai and Sue Riddlestone are the husband and wife team behind BioRegional. They analysed BedZED, measuring its performance against its ecological footprint, which led them to come up with the term ‘One Planet Living’.

In 2009 “One Wales One Planet” was published, with a vision of putting sustainable development at the centre of government delivery, encouraging others to embrace sustainable development as their central organising principle.
 Jane Davidson
The following year the then Environment Minister for Wales, Jane Davidson (right), saw through the introduction of One Planet Developments into national planning guidance in Wales with the dry-sounding Technical Advisory Note 6: Planning for Sustainable Rural Communities.

The accompanying planning guidance also allows for one planet dwellings and communities in urban areas (though none has yet been tried).

Jane says: "I am a passionate believer in creating an effective and fair planning system that is responsive to ecological challenges and encourages innovation."

Since that time various cities or smaller developments around the world have signalled a willingness to move towards one planet living.

Bioregional operates on four continents.

Brighton in the south of England has fully declared its intention to be a one planet city and Bristol is thinking about it. I'm going to a meeting to discuss this in Bristol next week.

All of this is very exciting and it is the subject of my new book, The One Planet Life, out this month, to which both Pooran and Jane have contributed. In fact some of the above text is direct quotation from the book.

 cover of The One Planet Life

During the course of the writing of the book, together with many existing or aspiring one planet development practitioners, we have founded the One Planet Council. This exists to support all of these trends and those who want to live the one planet life. We are beginning to deliver training programs.

I believe this is the beginning of a trend. It's the thin edge of a wedge that is being driven into planning policy and thinking about the use of land, and who – or what – it is for. Because land is fundamental to the question of sustainable development, of regeneration, of the resilience of communities – the use of the land as well as its ownership.

Pooran Desai said in conversation to me recently that he believes that land speculation should be banned. It artificially drives up the price of land putting it outside of the reach of most of those who need to use it. I believe this is true. It is a fundamental injustice and incompatibility with sustainable development.

With this in mind The One Planet Life acts as a manifesto, stating the following demands and supporting them with a 15,000 word essay of evidence:

We ask:
  1. That to aim towards one planet living should become an underlying principle of planning and official policy as de facto the only objectively-verifiable sustainable strategy
  2. That the same set of social and environmental criteria should be used to assess all planning applications to create a level playing field
  3. That these criteria, amongst others, should be informed by ecological footprint analysis which enables all projects to be compared for their environmental impact
  4. That official attitudes to land use should change to help rural areas use one planet living methods to become more productive and more populated, and urban areas more green.
We make this call for the following reasons, which are substantiated in the book:
The one planet life:
  1. results in more productive land use with far fewer environmental impacts
  2. creates more employment than conventional agriculture
  3. promotes greater physical and mental health and well-being, reducing the burden on the welfare state and health service
  4. requires no taxpayer subsidies, unlike much conventional farming
  5. improves the local economy, resilience and food security
  6. therefore is more sustainable and gives excellent value.
Readers of this blog can obtain a 20% discount on the price of the book by going to this website and entering the code FLR40 at checkout. Tweet using the hashtag ‪#‎OnePlanetLife‬!

Jane Davidson says of it: "Throughout this book you will read how those who have embraced this lifestyle fully feel liberated by their choice: they have reconnected with nature; they understand the seasons and where food comes from and the limitations of what can/cannot be grown or reared where they live; they can offer a different, more sustainable future to their offspring. Not everyone will want to take the great leap into the unknown, but all of us can use this book to help us demonstrate the principles of one planet living in one or more parts of our lives."

Pooran Desai adds: "This thought-provoking book summarises some of the approaches which can help us on the journey - so please read, learn, practise and share. There are many already on the journey and we can, together, co-create a better future."

Some other recommendations include:
  • "A wealth of practical detail" - Oliver Tickell, editor, The Ecologist magazine
  • “Shows the journey to a new life.” – George Marshall
  • "What it means to live a 'one-planet' lifestyle" – Prof Max Munday, Cardiff Business School.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

VIDEO: What Makes a Sustainable City?

A presentation by David Thorpe in Cardiff at the Green City event on Saturday 27 September 2014.

25 aspects of sustainable cities are covered.

Friday, September 05, 2014

How WW1 Killed a Dream of a Solar-Powered World

The world is marking the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. This was not only the bloodiest war the world has ever seen but it saw the start of the West's involvement in carving up the Middle East and interfering in its politics for the sake of oil. We are still mired in the bloody consequences of this.

WW1 also marked the end of the world's first solar power station, which was operating only for one year, in Egypt, before the outbreak of hostilities caused it to be abandoned.

As I explain in my book Solar Technology,  a Swedish-American inventor and mechanical engineer, John Ericsson, working for the British and Americans, pursued pioneering solar work in Egypt, a British colony then, where the first parabolic trough – and the first utility scale solar technology – was developed as long ago as 1883.

The first parabolic trough and the first utility scale solar technology in 1883.

John Ericsson’s design focused sunlight from a curved silvered window glass surface (called a heliostat) onto an 11-foot long iron tube central receiver to generate steam to mechanically drive a Stirling engine. The heliostat was 16 feet wide and 11 feet tall, and tracked the sun across a north–south axis. It had a maximum output of 3 horsepower (2.24kW) and was able to pump 500 gallons (2,273 litres) of water per minute.

Inspired by this, American engineer and inventor Frank Shuman commissioned the first large-scale solar power generator in Maadi, near Cairo, in 1913. Schuman dreamt of a completely solar powered world. It was theoretically possible then, as indeed it is now.

With a solar collector area of 1240m2, his array powered a pump that irrigated elevated farmland with water from the River Nile.

Worlds first solar power plant in Cairo 1913

The world's first solar power plant in Cairo 1913.

This consisted of five rows of parabolic mirrors with a total output of 88kW. This power station was more cost-effective than a similarly sized coal-based plant would have been at the time, and would have recouped its investment in four years. However, despite its success, it was only used for one year, as the First World War intervened and the Turks battled the British for control of the nearby Suez Canal.

WW1 and oil

WW1 and oil map

The location of the oil fields in 1914.

This war began the worldwide predominance of oil as an energy source, as one of its causes was competition for control of the Middle Eastern oilfields. By the end of the war, British forces had secured the entire oilfields of Mesopotamia in a new League Protectorate called Iraq. This put a provisional end to any attempts of pursuing the development of solar energy on a large scale.

The British feared that the Ottomans might attack and capture the Middle East (and later Caspian) oil fields. Their Royal Navy depended upon oil from the petroleum deposits in southern Persia, which the British-controlled Anglo-Persian Oil Company owned the exclusive rights to exploit throughout the Persian Empire except in the provinces of Azerbaijan, Ghilan, Mazendaran, Asdrabad and Khorasan. To secure the oil, the British even worked with Russian Communist troops to prevent the Turkish leader Enver Pasha's goal of establishing an independent Transcaucasia.

Oil was already the lifeblood of the British Empire as the British Navy had converted from coal to oil a few years previously. British and French trucks and aircraft also ran on oil.

On November 6 1914, the day after war was declared on the Ottoman Empire, the British landed ships at Abadan, on the shores of Iraq, with a mission to protect the oilfields and make sure production was not affected. Both the French and the British had invested much money in developing these oil fields.

In March 1915 General Townsend took 30,000 troops up the Tigris to attack the Turkish army and protect the oilfields. He succeeded and continued to march onwards with the intention of attacking and capturing Baghdad. By November, 25 miles away, they battled the 25,000 Turkish army for four days. They lost, and retreated to the coast where they were beseiged for five months before 13,000 troops surrendered.

But the British hatched another plan. They captured Baghdad eventually, on March 11 1917, having marched across Palestine from the Suez Canal. The French and British sealed an agreement to share the oil and protect the oil line from Basra.

After the war, agreements were made, mostly between between France and Britain, which resulted in the carving of the old Ottoman Empire into artificial nations - Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, and Syria.

The struggle is documented in the film "Blood and Oil - The Middle East in World War I" (below), which examines how this conflict laid the foundation for all the wars, coups, revolts and military interventions in the Middle East ever since, all ultimately on the need for oil.

Oil also figured in a major conflict between the Ottoman Empire and the German Empire at the strategic port of Batumi on the Black Sea and Baku on the Caspian Sea, with the arrival of German Caucasus Expedition. This was established in the formerly Russian Transcaucasia around early 1918 during the Caucasus Campaign. Its prime aim was to secure oil supplies for Germany and stabilize a nascent pro-German Democratic Republic of Georgia.

The century of conflict over oil

Oil was the black gold that motivated, and still motivates the West to constantly interfere in the Middle East, without taking into account its widely diverse population, without seeking to understand the complexity of its many cultures and ethnic composition. This is well told in William Engdahl's book `A Century of War'.

After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the Arab population was betrayed by the British who were their allies at the time. The British and French agreed a secret treaty to partition the Middle East between them and the British promised via the Balfour Declaration to create a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

It not until 1947 that the UK withdrew its forces from Iraq.

Solar pioneer Augustin MouchotAs long ago as the 1870s, visionary solar pioneers such as Augustin Mouchot (right) foresaw the time when the coal would run out and began to develop alternatives that could deliver the same benefits from solar power.

Mouchot, demonstrating a solar powered device that made ice at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1878, said:
"Eventually industry will no longer find in Europe the resources to satisfy its prodigious expansion... Coal will undoubtedly be used up. What will industry do then?"

It is a great tragedy that the Earth's crust contains so much fossil fuel; not just because of global warming, but because of the millions upon millions of lives that have been lost in the wars that have been fought over access to oil in the last 100 years.

Mouchot demonstrating his solar powered printing press in the 1870s
On 6 August 1882 this printing press produced copies of Le Chaleur Solaire (Solar Heat) by Augustin Mouchot, a newspaper that he created in the Tuileries Gardens, Paris, for the festival of L’Union Francaises de la Jeuenesse. It printed 500 copies an hour, using solar thermal technology.

The competition between nation states for access to these resources has time and again over the last century brought violent conflict, suffering, widespread destruction and loss of life. The presence of oil, coal and gas in a territory has been a curse as much as a blessing.

Nowadays, the phrase ‘energy security’ is being used by those who want to see local, sustainable sources of clean energy replace dirty fossil fuels. This is because the sun, wind and other renewable sources of energy are available abundantly, everywhere on the planet, with no need for conflict over their use.

Looking at the history of solar power it is clearly obvious that its development has suffered as a result of the abundance of fossil fuels. The world’s economy is currently predicated upon their use. Despite all the scientific evidence of the imminence of catastrophic climate change as a result of our continued use of these fuels, the companies and economies which rely on them are as enthusiastic as ever to exploit them.

Humanity – or its leaders – are now faced with a clear choice: whether to stick with the status quo and vested interests that aggressively promote as inevitable a continued dependence on fossil fuels; or whether to accelerate the deployment, research and development into solar and other renewable, sustainable technologies and practices.

The potential of these technologies is completely clear and proven. The scientific case for the likelihood with business-as-usual of a runaway greenhouse effect, has been conclusively established. The stakes could not be higher and the choice more stark.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

How Sustainable is a 'Sustainable Building' in Practice?

The first major review has been published of pioneering development One Brighton's performance against its challenging 2020 One Planet targets and show where it has succeeded and where it has failed over its sustainability targets.

One Brighton is a development by Crest Nicholson BioRegional Quintain LLP in Brighton, the coastal city south of London which has set itself the goal of being a one planet city.

The One Planet Brighton policy was decided on 18 April 2013 in Brighton & Hove by the local authority. As an evolution of BioRegional's One Planet Living philosophy the local authority approved a Sustainability Action Plan that would use BioRegional's methodology and embody the city's existing initiatives and climate change strategy, to be carried out by a wide-ranging partnership.

In this context, BioRegional worked with developers Crest Nicholson to develop an example of how this might work in practice with a development called One Brighton. This contains 172 residential units and 10,000 sq ft of office and community space on a former locomotive manufacturing site. The 0.39 ha parcel of land is close to Brighton train station.

The development has achieved an ‘Excellent’ rating under EcoHomes, a now-defunct national sustainability standard assessment for new homes, and was considered to be “Zero Carbon” under this assessment. Construction started in 2008 and the first residents moved in during 2009.

A post-occupancy assessment has now been completed to see exactly how well the development has performed against expectations. Was it really zero carbon? On the answers to this type of question hinges the performance of future buildings and developers should take note.

 One Brighton embodied carbon emissionsThe developers are relieved to find out that One Brighton has significantly reduced lifetime greenhouse gas emissions, when compared to the average UK home, by 60%. However, its current emissions performance is not yet achieving design targets: its ‘as built’ lifetime CO2e emissions are 53% higher than those of the
‘as designed’ model.

The gap is mainly because of the intermittent availability of the wood-pellet (biomass) burning boiler which supplies space heating and hot water. This has met approximately 30% of building’s heat and hot water demand, the remainder being supplied by natural gas.

If BioRegional’s target of meeting nine tenths of the building’s heat demand from biomass is achieved, One Brighton’s overall lifecycle carbon savings would be 78% lower than the average UK home’s (UK per capita CO2e emissions = 9,122 kg/yr in 2011). This would be in line with achieving the (near) Zero Carbon target for operational emissions by 2020.

But under this assessment it's a good job that the EcoHomes standard is now defunct since it was clearly erroneous in its judgement.

One Brighton's sustainability features

One Brighton operational inputs to the building envelopeRight: features of the building envelope and operational inputs affecting carbon emissions.
One Brighton was designed and is managed in a way to facilitate sustainable lifestyles. Design and management initiatives include:
  • Only a very small number of parking spaces for disabled car users and shared car club vehicles, encouraging low levels of car ownership and use;
  • Food-growing space on rooftop terraces, facilities for taking in deliveries of ‘veg boxes’ to individual apartments and a vegetarian cafĂ©;
  • Recycling and waste disposal initiatives (including the on-site in-vessel composting system for green and food waste).
The construction used a ‘green concrete’ frame containing blast furnace slag and an exterior wall made up of highly insulating clay blocks fired at low temperatures. Both features helped to reduce the building’s embodied carbon emissions, which came in 25% lower than for the average UK home.

Developer Crest Nicholson BioRegional Quintain set up an energy supply company (ESCo) for One Brighton to purchase electricity entirely generated from renewable sources. All owners/tenants sign an energy supply agreement with the ESCo. All of the electricity sold by the ESCo is backed by UK ‘Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin’ (REGO) certificates issued by energy industry regulator Ofgem. This was a main plank of the near Zero Carbon strategy for the building devised at the outset.

One Brighton key lessons

The results of the one-year post-occupancy study have allowed comparison with the expected performance over its lifetime with actual performance to a limited extent. The report is honest about the conclusions, which also form recommendations for other developers attempting a similar kind of project:
  • 67% of the buildings ‘as designed’ life cycle GHG emissions are attributed to embodied emissions and 33% are attributed to operational CO2e.
  • Largest embodied impacts come from concrete in the floor slab, plasterboard and recurring impacts associated with painting and carpets.
  • Largest operational impacts associated with energy consumption (REGO very low carbon grid electricity scenario) are due to gas backup for hot water and for the emissions associated with water supply and waste water treatment.
  • Considering the model under a standard PAS2050 scenario (using UK average grid intensity) than the dominant emissions from electricity use come from appliances, cooking, white goods, refrigeration and MVHR (mechanical ventilation with heat recovery).
 The impact of building materials on carbon emissions
Pooran Desai, BioRegional ‘s cofounder who led the organisation’s involvement in One Brighton, said: “We’re really encouraged by the findings of this LCA, which shows the very low carbon fundamentals of this building are sound. But we are working to get greatly improved performance from the biomass boiler, to reduce operational emissions significantly and take us to our 2020 target.”

The life cycle analysis was conducted by eTool, whose director, Patrick Hermon, observed: "An LCA never fails to raise interesting design questions surrounding not only material selection but operational energy, water, transport, waste and functionality. This LCA of One Brighton is no exception, particularly thanks to the transparency of the developers and post occupancy monitoring - an important step forwards in closing the performance gap.

"The LCA will also be compliant with international standard EN15978. This methodology (also broadly used in BREEAM LCA credit criteria) standardises the LCA process and verifies the environmental performance benefits claimed within the LCA given the upstream data used, the methodologies applied and the documentation provided. A complete EN15978 report will be completed very soon."

It concentrates mainly on factors associated with the building itself, including materials, assembly, maintenance, transport of materials, operational energy use and end of life disposal. But there are other factors that would significantly influence the total LCA CO2e emissions of the designs, to which the developers should take at least some responsibility, including:
  • Personal transport of the occupants;
  • Impacts associated with foods, goods and services (purchases made by residents, clothes leisure activities etc);
  • Impacts associated with occupant waste and recycling;
  • Embodied impacts of non permanent building fixtures such as furniture and appliances;
  • Embodied impacts relating to building planning and sales.
These factors listed are considered out of scope of the LCA but nevertheless warrant declaration.

The main conclusion in general terms is that developers should beware of declaring that a development is zero carbon, and that there continue to be difficulties in achieving anything like this in practice. All credit to the developers in this instance to taking the trouble to examine their building's performance. If only more developers were to do the same.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Updated standards on the way for Environmental Management

ISO 14001 logoA milestone has been reached in the development of a new draft of the standard many city administrations will be familiar with for helping to ensure the environmental quality of their infrastructure and operations: ISO 14001 for Environmental Management Systems (EMS).

The first formal draft produced by the expert committee tasked with bringing the standard up-to-date describes the potential requirements of the revised version of ISO 14001 and gives an indication of what might be included in the final version of the standard scheduled, which will be published in one year's time. The last draft dates from 2004. The committee is composed of representatives of national standards organisations from up to 91 countries.

ISO standards 14000 through to 14064 plus ISO 19001 constitute a family of standards related to environmental management that exists to help organizations minimize how their operations (processes, etc.) negatively affect the environment, comply with applicable laws, regulations, and other environmentally oriented requirements, plus put in place a methodology to continually improve management. The standards are voluntary.

The ISO 14001 process

Its aim is to set out the criteria for an environmental management system (EMS), providing a framework that a company or organization can follow to set up an effective EMS. It can be used by any organization that wants to improve resource efficiency, reduce waste, and drive down costs, and is used in many public administrations and their suppliers as a condition of procurement contracts.

Using ISO 14001 can provide assurance to management and employees as well as external stakeholders that environmental impact is being measured and improved.

ISO 14001 is currently being reviewed. The International Standards Organisation (ISO) has identified the following emerging changes to ISO 14001 as a result of the revision:

  1. Strategic Environmental Management
  2. Leadership
  3. Protecting the environment
  4. Environmental performance
  5. Life-cycle thinking
  6. Communication
  7. Documentation
Strategic Environmental Management
There is a new requirement to understand the context of the organisation implementing the standard in order to factor in relevant external and internal issues. Particular focus is on the needs and expectations of interested parties that can affect, or be affected by, the organisation. In this context the organisation should identify risks associated with threats and opportunities, significant environmental aspects and compliance obligations and determine actions to address them within the EMS.

Leadership: Commitment to environmental management
A new clause has been added with specific responsibilities for top management to demonstrate their leadership and commitment to environmental management. This is because having senior management buy in is a surefire way to ensure the policies become embedded in the organisation.

From prevention to protection
Environmental policy adopted by organisations should include a commitment to the “protection of the environment”. There is no definition about this but it includes “prevention of pollution” and other commitments such as sustainable resource use, climate change mitigation and adaptation, protection of biodiversity and ecosystems, etc.

Improving environmental performance
The emphasis is now on improving performance related to the management of environmental aspects. The organisation shall determine criteria to evaluate its environmental performance, using appropriate indicators.

Life-cycle thinking
Organisations will need to extend their control and influence to the environmental impacts from raw material acquisition/generation to end-of-life treatment. This does not imply a requirement to carry out a life-cycle assessment, but it is obviously advantageous to do so in order to maximise resource efficiency and minimise costs, wastage, etc.

Equal emphasis on external and internal communications has been added. The decision to communicate externally is retained by the organisation but taking into account its compliance obligations.

The term “documented information”, is used instead of “documents” and “records”. The organisation has the flexibility to determine when “procedures” are needed.

Today there are over 300,000 organisations around the world implementing the standard and you might be surprised to learn that China is one of the most enthusiastic holder of certificates. In 2012 the top three countries for the total number of certificates issued were China, Japan and Italy, while the top three for growth in the number of certificates were China, Spain and Italy.

That year experienced a growth of 9% (+ 23,887) in the issuance of certificates, in 167 countries, nine more than in the previous year.

My books:
are both designed to help with reaching the related standard ISO 50001 for energy management. Click on the links for more information.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Radical Carbon Offsetting: A New idea To Finance Climate Action

Last time I wrote about my despair at the idea that global leaders can ever agree to effectively slow or even reverse the growth of greenhouse gas emissions and save their peoples from the catastrophic effects of serious climate change.

I suggested that the only way to avert disaster this would be to pay fossil fuel companies to leave the gas, oil and coal in the ground because as long as it is profitable to remove it, they will do so. Just as countries with valuable rainforests need to be paid not to fell them, so companies whose profits rest upon the extraction of fossil fuels would demand to be compensated for not doing so.

The bottom line is that concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have continued to increase regardless of any international negotiations. The challenge for Paris 2015 is to find an agreeable legal framework that every nation can sign up to that is actually effective. It does not matter what people say; only the measured results count. Given that by 2020, when any legally binding agreement takes force, we will have passed the point at which emissions can be limited to 450 ppm, it will become necessary not only to reduce emissions but also to remove carbon from the atmosphere in order to make the future safe for the majority of the human population. That is why I have come up with this proposal.

The solution I'm proposing I am calling radical carbon offsetting. Conventional carbon offsetting involves paying someone to invest in a renewable energy project. A prime example of this is the Clean Development Mechanism associated with the Kyoto Protocol, a key criteria of which is that any power generation project financed must be additional to those which would have happened anyway. But key areas of doubt have always been about whether any project can truly be additional, and whether the provision of power always leads to a thirst for more power – which may not be renewably supplied.

Radical carbon offsetting, by contrast, involves capturing carbon from the atmosphere and putting it in a place where it cannot escape, at least for the foreseeable future. Radical carbon offsetting schemes would permit the extraction of fossil fuels providing that an adequate and equivalent amount of carbon was removed from the atmosphere to that which will be released by the fossil fuels' combustion.

Fossil fuel companies would finance radical carbon offsetting schemes involving technologies some of which are traditional and some of which are currently in development and expensive but which, when they achieve scale, would be cost competitive. They would help accelerate their route to market.

Removing atmospheric carbon 

Removing atmospheric carbon at scale is the only way that the current rate of increase of concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere can be reduced and perhaps even reversed so that it may reach again the safe limit of 350 ppm which it was around the middle of the last century. Currently it is at 400 ppm and the international negotiations that are ongoing are designed to limit the maximum concentration to 450 ppm, at which it is alleged global average temperature rises would peak at 2°C.

During the Eocene geological period between 56 and 34 million years ago atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was up to 4000 ppm. There were no ice caps and the sea level was much higher than today. The means by which it reduced to 350ppm, enabling human life to flourish, was, according to paleoceanographer and climatologist Professor Paul Pearson, through the carbonisation of calcium to create limestone. But this took millions of years.

What other, faster, techniques are there for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere? Below I list a few so that you can see the potential and the wide variety of opportunities that exist:

Techniques for removing atmospheric carbon 

Building with timber

Simply building with timber creates a market for forest products and encourages their plantation. Provided that the trees are harvested when mature and not allowed to decay (emitting methane) then they will have absorbed a significant amount of atmospheric carbon. Using the timber in construction then locks away that carbon in the building fabric for at least the lifetime of the building. If we consider Tudor architecture and how many Tudor buildings survive today, we can see that timber is a durable construction material, so this lifetime can be long. And it's not just timber. Many building materials exist which are made from plants that will have absorbed atmospheric carbon, including forms of insulation, cladding, sheeting, flooring and so on.

Zero or negative carbon concrete

Concrete accounts for around 5-8 % of total CO2 emissions in the form of greenhouse gases, making it the third highest producer of CO2 after transport and energy generation. A major disadvantage of concrete is its large carbon footprint, one tonne of Portland cement resulting in the emission of approximately one tonne of CO2. In conventional cement manufacture the majority of the CO2 is released from the conversion of limestone (CaCO3) to lime (CaO).

Whilst there are several low carbon cement alternatives in development, only two actually absorb atmospheric carbon. These are Hemcrete and magnesium silicate cement.
timber frame building with hempcrete

Building with timber and hemcrete. Courtesy Lime Technologies.

Hempcrete, a hemp-lime composite, is sold by Oxfordshire-based Hemcrete Projects. Hemp produces a very strong fibre which is used to bind the breathable lime to create a concrete-like product. The carbon locked up in the hemp compensates for carbon produced during lime manufacture, resulting in a zero-carbon building product which is excellent at regulating temperature and humidity inside buildings. The company has combined it with hemp-based insulation and wooden frames to create two products, Hembuild – used to build the wall of a building - and Hemclad, used for cladding timber frames – that can be manufactured off-site and quickly installed during construction. Both Hembuild and Hemclad products use a layer of Hemcrete on the inside, and a layer of hemp insulation on the outside, combining thermal inertia and insulation in a single product. Together they create a kit that can be used to construct a negative carbon building.

Hemcrete does not have the same tensile or resistive strength as Portland cement, but can be used for small buildings such as houses. It could not be used for the foundations of large buildings, roads, etc., so a different product will be needed. This would instead be cement made from the accelerated carbonation of magnesium silicate (commonly known as talc) under high temperature and pressure. The resulting carbonates are then heated at low temperatures to produce magnesium oxide, with the CO2 generated being recycled back in the process.

The use of magnesium silicate eliminates the CO2 emissions from raw materials processing. Also, the low temperatures required allow the use of fuels with low energy content or carbon intensity (i.e. biomass), thus potentially further reducing carbon emissions. Furthermore, production of the carbonates absorbs carbon dioxide by carbonating part of the manufactured magnesium oxide using atmospheric/industrial CO2. A number of companies are developing this method. Overall, manufacturers claim that making one tonne of cement using this method absorbs up to 100kg more CO2 than it emits, making it a carbon-negative product.

The only disadvantage of this (besides the current cost) is that magnesium silicate is not as evenly distributed throughout the world as the calcium carbonate in limestone that is used to create Portland cement.

(Aside: other techniques for making low carbon cement such as CeraTech's, which uses a process located at power plants to convert waste fly ash (otherwise landfilled) into a cement-like product, do not sequester atmospheric carbon, although they are laudable. The same is true for the high temperature cement-making process developed at George Washington University which a patent application says could be provided by concentrated solar thermal power, yielding a low-carbon cement at a price of $43/tonne.)

Zero carbon Hemcrete infographic 1
Zero carbon Hemcrete infographic 2

Zero-carbon concrete infographic, courtesy Cemfree: similar math applies to other brands.


Duke Energy is piloting a system at East Bend Natural Gas Power Station in Northern Kentucky that recycles the carbon dioxide in flue gas to grow algae in photobioreactors. The algae can later be fed into an anaerobic digester to produce methane gas that the power plant can burn for fuel, or it can be dried and processed into fish food or animal feed, or processed into biodiesel or even jet fuel. Ways to use algae as a third generation biofuel are being pioneered by many companies across the world.
Ethylene glycol

Liquid Light of Monmouth Junction, New Jersey is also intending to capture carbon dioxide from power plants' combustion processes using a technology currently being prototyped to produce ethylene glycol. This is a building block of products as diverse as polyester fibre, plastic bottles and antifreeze.

Acrylic acid

Dioxide Materials of champaign, Illinois, has another prototype in development aimed at producing acrylic acid – a constituent of paint and glue – from carbon dioxide. It has partnered with glue maker 3M to bring the product to market.

Carbon capture and storage

The last three examples place carbon capture and storage, the current great white hope of the fossil fuel industry, in perspective. Why go to all the trouble of piping the carbon dioxide to a nearby suitable geological repository when you can turn it into something profitable right on your doorstep, one might ask? The great expectations pinned upon CCS in the past have proved relatively chimeric because of the cost: power produced with add-on CCS is at least 20% more expensive – if not double the price. Yet the algae and glue- or plastic-making chemicals do not sequester the carbon – they turn it into a form which is temporarily out of the atmosphere but to which it can return (with algae almost immediately), so merely displacing fossil fuels. An advantage, true, but not as great as putting it out of reach for a century or more.
My proposal for radical carbon offsetting could provide a way of financing some of these projects and more. It would encourage innovation and new markets. I love the concept becaude it is a win-win-win solution: it has at least three benefits:

  1. we tackle global warming,
  2. create employment, and
  3. produce useful and valuable products that displace the need to burn fossil fuels.
To make the idea work, a global market for carbon with an appropriate price attached would be needed, plus, of course, a legal agreement that all countries in the world must sign up to. It could for example form part of the agreement being progressed for post-2015 by the UNFCCC. A summary of progress of the negotiations is here and the US' ideas for it are here. It's a distant hope for me, but at least it provides a potential route out of despair.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The Failure of Political Leadership on Climate Change

Wales first minister Carwyn Jones Despite 26 years of international negotiations on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, these emissions have been steadily rising. It is clear that world leaders are incapable of committing themselves and their nations to the required measures. I witnessed this first hand last Thursday when I watched Wales' First Minister dodge question after question on whether he would take the necessary action.

Right: Carwyn Jones, Wales' First Minister.

A brief history of climate change and global negotiations

In June 1988 politicians and scientists attending the World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere in Toronto concluded that "humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose  ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war." The conference recommended a 20% reduction by 2005. At this point the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 350 ppm.

In November that year the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has its first meeting in Geneva and was charged by the United Nations with assessing the state of scientific knowledge on climate change, evaluate its impacts and come up with realistic solutions. In August 1990 it produced its First Assessment Report. Subsequent reports have only changed the detail, not the general conclusions.

At the Rio Earth Summit, two years later, 154 nations took responsibility for the overwhelming majority of emissions and pledged to "aim to stabilize" those emissions at 1990 levels by the year 2000. But the Kyoto Protocol wasn't ratified for a further five years. It bound 38 industrialized countries (called Annex 1 countries) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2012. Concentration of CO2 has now reached 358 ppm.

Later, President Bush made sure the United States never ratified the agreement and Canada withdrew in 2011. In 2012 an agreement for a second commitment period has never entered legal force.

In July 2009, G8 countries agreed that 2 degrees Celsius of average global warming above pre-industrial levels is a limit which should not be exceeded, but this would mean reducing global greenhouse gas emissions by at least 50% by 2050 and emissions from developed countries should be reduced by 80% or more. It is agreed that global emissions must peak and then decline rapidly within the next five to ten years for this to be achieved.

In November of that year the Copenhagen Accord was signed to endorse the continuation of the Kyoto Protocol, but it is not a legally binding document. Concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere then reached 388ppm.

Now we are looking towards a legally binding global agreement next year, when concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere will be 400 ppm, but it will not take effect until 2020, and then it will still take some time for any effects to kick in.

Meanwhile, concentrations of greenhouse gases in the upper atmosphere continue to increase:

Major greenhouse gas trends 1979-2015

It's for this reason that I'm extremely pessimistic that it is possible for national leaders, whose agendas are all short-term, whose interests are local and subject to lobbying from special interest groups, have the courage or capacity to show the required level of leadership. Even Obama's recent efforts fall far short of the true level required.

Carwyn Jones plays the politicians' game

the Welsh Government’s 2010 Climate Change Strategy cover

The basis for his extreme pessimism was confirmed for me last Thursday. I had been invited to give evidence to the Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister in Wales about progress made to date in implementing the Welsh Government’s 2010 Climate Change Strategy for Wales. In particular, how actions to tackle the causes and consequences of climate change are being implemented by all departments of the Welsh Government and how this work is being co-ordinated and monitored.

Right: the Welsh Government’s 2010 Climate Change Strategy cover

Wales as a nation has a non-binding target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 3% per year to 40% of 1990 levels by 2020 in policy areas of over which it has control (some powers are not devolved but still held in London, such as control over transport spending and energy generation). This compares to the UK overall target of 34% reduction by 2020. Additionally, Wales is almost unique in the world by having the duty of government to take due account of sustainable development written into its constitution.

These facts alone would lead one to suppose that Wales was serious about tackling climate change. But let me tell you what happened in those meeting and committee rooms of the Welsh Government offices in Cardiff Bay on the afternoon of Thursday 26 June.

The first half of the event consisted of three members of the Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister quizzing members of the Climate Change Commission for Wales on what they thought the Committee should be asking Carwyn Jones (who is leader of the Welsh Labour Party).

The Commission's members represents a huge body of expert opinion from other organisations such as the Carbon Trust, the Energy Saving Trust, Sustrans, the Federation of Small Businesses, National Resources Wales, WWF, the One Planet Council, and even young people represented by the youth parliament known as Funky Dragon.

There was no shortage of extremely sound advice given to the Committee members. The key points were as follows:

  1. The First Minister should take overall responsibility for the climate change agenda, which he currently does not have, in order to show leadership and make sure that all government departments work together to achieve the targets;
  2. He should set statutory targets rather than the current non-binding ones;
  3. He should benchmark the current level of emissions in different sectors, by end-user;
  4. He should quantify by default the climate change impacts of all new developments as part of their impact assessment. In particular, reference was made to a proposed £1.5 billion new extension to the M4 around Newport;
  5. He should create a programme of action that would detail how the different sectors would act to reduce overall emissions, which currently does not exist.
There were many other excellent suggestions about land use, transport, education, planning, building regulations and renewable energy. If they were all put in place, Wales would be a beacon of low carbon sustainable development.

This part of the event concluded and the members of the Committee then withdrew to a Committee Room where they proceeded to quiz the Minister. Many of us stayed to watch the proceedings from the viewing gallery.

What happened? Well the first thing to note is that the Committee scrutinises the First Minister on many topics and few of its members are experts on climate change. The second is that as officials, it was clear that they somewhat lack the passion and commitment that the Commission on Climate Change members have. For these reasons they are not equipped to respond to the First Minister's rebuttals with knowledgable counter-arguments or with the necessary level of emotion. Urbane mandarins, their language is couched in measured and leisured terms.

Carwyn Jones was able to refute every suggestion without significant censure.

  1. He refused to take ultimate responsibility and show leadership on climate change as a cross-cutting topic because, he said, "there are many cross-cutting topics and I can't take responsibility for all of them. I leave climate change for others."
  2. He refused to set statutory targets for carbon reductions on the basis that the government does not have control over transport and energy spending.
  3. On the question of the M4 relief road he trotted out the line that cars in traffic jams will emit more greenhouse gases than having them freely moving. Yet, as Paul Pearson pointed out that evening, the consultancy document on the project never even calculated the total comparative carbon budgets for the options under consideration.
  4. On the question of why building regulations for the energy efficiency of new homes are being watered down, he said it was because Wales needed more new houses and the big building firms had told him that it was too expensive to make them low or zero carbon. Yet I know several developers who can build affordable zero carbon homes - but clearly Carwyn is not aware of them and nor were the members of the Committee.
Shortly after this, in despair, I walked out. Wales has an opportunity to shine on the world stage by showing leadership on climate change beyond that being shown in England by the Westminster government. But Carwyn Jones is not up to this challenge.

Jane Davidson, Wales former Environment MinisterThe environment minister who created Wales' climate change strategy, Jane Davidson (right), has sadly left government now. She was the driving force behind several policies that championed sustainable development. Unfortunately Wales no longer has any one of her calibre and commitment in government.

But Carwyn Jones is no different from virtually every other leader of a nation state in the world, as the history of climate change negotiations shows. The fear of missing short-term other targets for housing, jobs and the economy, makes them ignore the bigger picture. They do not have expert advisers on hand – or refuse to give sufficient weight to their advice – to help them understand the multiple economic as well as social and environmental benefits of taking the requisite actions. Instead they respond to the demands of industry lobbyists and a public largely unaware of the issues and potentials.

So, is it possible for the world to act to reduce and turnaround the seemingly inexorable growth of the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere? Increasingly there are calls from the business sector and leaders of cities for action, but for my part, I fear all this will result in action that is too small and too late. They just do not have the economic and legal clout. I believe what is really required is for people to be paid to leave carbon in the ground – because if there is money to be made then they will take it out and sell it – but this obviously will not happen.

Barring a miracle, within 300 years sea level will have risen by up to 10 metres, the ice caps will have melted, the equatorial areas of the planet will be uninhabitable, and humanity will have suffered a population collapse. The prediction made by the scientists meeting in June 1988 will have been shown to be correct. I do hope I am wrong.