New Year’s Climate Optimism
Climate optimism? Why on Earth is a serious writer on climate change writing an article called ‘Climate Optimism’? Simply, because the solutions to climate change have multiple benefits for people, society and the environment. Action on housing, city and rural land-use, travel, shopping and our diets will all improve the quality of our lives in so many ways.
Powering our Homes
Do you want your electricity to be supplied by coal or by gas? Coal mining is locally destructive and burning coal causes regional air pollution and global climate change. It is also a dangerous occupation for the workers and is a bulky, dirty material to transport. Gas emits less carbon dioxide, but methane can leak at all stages causing further climate warming.
Conversely, most renewable sources of electricity are far cleaner, eliminate air pollution and are generated more locally. Jobs are created in your country and you can cut your dependence on foreign imports – Europe has an unhealthy financial and security dependency on importing gas from Russia and the Middle East. Prices are more stable because you are no longer dependent on the fluctuating global price of fossil fuels.
In the UK most homes are heated by so called ‘natural’ gas. We bring a dangerously flammable material into our homes that also heats our planet. Traditionally it is cheap so we don’t even bother to insulate our homes. We can, and should, build homes with very high levels of insulation. That way our homes will be cheaper to run and it will reduce fuel poverty. If we need some heating, this can be provided from heat pumps that run off electricity. No need to pay for an annual safety check. A cleaner fuel, local jobs and more comfortable warm homes.
Have you ever cycled in a dangerously busy city centre street, been overtaken by fast driving cars passing too close to you, then being stuck at a red light behind an old bus belching diesel fumes into your face? Not a nice place to be.
Electric cars and buses are not perfect (batteries and weight), but they are quieter, emit no air pollution and are carbon free at the point of use.
Now imagine a future where the traffic volume is reduced and calmed. Where there is a segregated cycle lane and all the buses and lorries have been converted to electric or hydrogen. The air is clean and safe to breathe making it safer for families with children to live in cities. This future could be coming soon – if we choose it.
Many young people live in cities whilst attending university or college then move out to the suburbs when they start a family. This results in wasting your valuable time commuting and more travel to visit shops. Often children are driven by private car to school. We need to revitalise our cities to make them cleaner, greener and more attractive places to live. We need to stop building on greenfield sites and restructure our suburbs so that schools, shops, leisure centres and workplaces are within a 15 minute walk or cycle of where we live. We need to refurbish existing apartments and ensure there are parks and gardens everywhere.
That way we can walk or cycle more, live in densities that are suitable for public transport and therefore reduce our dependency on private cars. Walking is healthy, more sociable and will reduce road congestion and air pollution.
Car parking spaces can be massively reduced, freeing up land for more productive uses – more homes, cycle lanes , more parks and greenspaces. Perhaps children could meet their neighbours outdoors and play on traffic calmed streets once more?
Our natural lands have been devastated by the expansion of intensive agriculture and extensive grazing land. Biodiversity has retreated into small pockets of protected land. Our soils are being degraded and rainfall washes straight off the soils along drainage ditches to cause flooding downstream. Pesticides have decimated all insects, not just the ‘pests’.
We need to restore some of this lost natural wilderness to benefit nature and ourselves. Planting new trees, restoring soils and protecting peat and wetlands will all store carbon, reduce soil erosion and flooding and benefit wildlife. Rewilding our countryside will bring more jobs – in tourism, outdoor hobbies, forestry, craft industries and specialist food and drink services. Attractive countryside is good for our mental health, encourages us to take exercise and encourages pollinators which are required for our crops and fruit.
We also need to rewild our seas which have been devastated by overfishing, pollution and fishing boats dragging their nets along the seafloor. By regulating fishing, and replanting seagrass and mangroves nature will respond quickly. The seas can store more carbon, storm damage will be reduced and young fish will thrive in the new habitats. By temporarily reducing fishing pressure this can lead to an increase in sustainable fishing in the future.
Have you ever been indecisive over which product to buy? Perhaps can’t choose between many different brands of umbrellas or which mobile phone to buy? The umbrella then blows inside out the first time you use it, the phone needs to be replaced after 18 months. And at the back of your mind you fear that a child has been labouring under the hot African sun to mine the metals needed for your new phone.
My proposal is for government to mandate compulsory product guarantees, say 10 years, on consumer products like washing machines, fridges and even the humble umbrella. Overnight this would force manufacturers to design their products to a high quality standard. Retailers would offer repair and refurbishment services – creating jobs and a long-term relationship with the customer. Although we might pay a bit more up front we would all benefit from buying quality, long lasting products. And the Earth would benefit too, from less need to extract more raw materials.
Our diets are unhealthy and fattening; full of salt, sugar and fats. Much of our food is produced on the other side of the world, perhaps on land that was recently tropical forest now cleared for agriculture and dowsed in pesticides, fungicides and insecticides. The soil is exhausted but kept ‘productive’ through the application of artificial fertilisers which emit nitrous oxide. Meanwhile we have a high dependency on meat and dairy products resulting in the excessive use of antibiotics, methane being belched out and ammonia causing air and water pollution.
Fortunately there is a strong correlation between a healthy diet and a low carbon diet. We can choose to eat local food, change our diets to a predominately vegan or vegetarian diet and reduce our intake of chemical residues if we eat organic or at least crops with fewer chemical inputs. ‘Regenerative’ farming is the future – no ploughing, avoid bare land by growing winter cover crops and the use of crop and animal diversity and rotation. Remarkably, this will increase the carbon content within the soil which reduces the need for fertilisers and retains water preventing flooding and soil degradation. Another win-win.
Amidst all the bad news, there are grounds for hope and optimism – Carbon Choices is an easy to read but comprehensive popular science book that concludes with a green action plan for government, business and individuals to make better Carbon Choices.
You can see more from Neil at http://www.carbonchoices.uk.