Category Archives: Environment

Trees to save in Dore: Vernon Oak and the Chatsworth Road limes

On Valentine’s Day there was a gathering in Dore, with red hearts, fervent messages of love, and original artworks.

The subject was shared among scores of people: Vernon Oak, a magnificent 150-year-old oak tree, much valued by the community, which could have another 150 years of prime life. That’s if it isn’t cut down by private contractor Amey with the support of Sheffield Council and (because it will certainly take that) South Yorkshire Police.

I joined Green councillor Alison Teal in a visit there, where we heard from locals how the council’s own independent tree panel had recommended it be saved, but the council has ruled that Vernon is to be cut down anyway.

Around the corner in Chatworth Road is a magnificent line of lime trees, which locals reported are packed with bees when in flower. They’re on a wide road, with big pavements on both sides, yet more than half are scheduled for the chainsaw, despite the fact that their impact seems insignificant, and easily covered by “engineering solutions” such as half-width kerbstones to accommodate roots.

This is yet one more part of Sheffield where the services provided by trees to the benefit of human health – cutting air pollution, combatting flooding, providing a healthy environment – are under threat, as the profit of a private company is put before the public good.

It’s a very obvious demonstration of the failure of the model of providing public services through contracts with for-profit providers. What’s happening here is also what’s happening to our NHS, just rather less visibly.

 

Yes: feminism and environmentalism are essential partners

Reflecting a speech I gave at the Women’s Environmental Network Forum, January 26, 2017

I was asked to speak a little about my personal political history, so I begin with chronologically the first part of my politics: feminism. That started at age five, when I was told “Because you’re a girl, you’re not allowed to have a bicycle.” That was a product of the thought processes of my aspirational working class grandmother, who thought it wasn’t ‘ladylike’.

I didn’t know the word feminism then, and it wasn’t until I accidentally encountered the novel The Women’s Room at about age 16 that I realised other people thought as I did.

My other key political strand came later, in my university years, as I studied agricultural science, and came to understand that Australian farming, using methods transplanted from the other side of the world, was mining the soils, destroying them. In that lay the foundation of my environmentalism.

But it would be decades before I started to see the links between the two sides of my politics.

One element that they share is that feminists and environmentalists seem to keep having to fight the same battles again and again. For feminism, this was brought into focus for me by one of British feminism grande dames, Sheila Rowbotham, in 2010, when I heard her say: “We’ve learned now that you can go backwards. In the Seventies we assumed once you made a gain it would stay there. … It is much harder to argue for equality in a situation where equality is not respected.” As we’ve found now fighting for a ban on companies forcing female staff to wear high heels.

Preparing for tonight, I was struck by the parallels with the latest report from the Committee on Climate Change’s latest report, sneaked out by the government. The Climate Change Act was hailed as a great victory, and it was a success, but not one whose continuation was assured.

The problem is that when we fight battles on individual issues, once that issue is apparently won, the momentum, the energy, heads off in new directions, and the system reverts to status quo settings.

This reminds me of many years ago when I founded the blog Carnival of Feminists. I was also at the time a regular host of the Britblog roundup, a political blogging carnival. I had a lot of trouble getting the (mostly male) hosts of that to see feminism as part of politics, but I also had some problems getting the feminist bloggers to conclude the same.

What we’ve not really grasped in many parts of feminism and environmentalism is that what we are doing is, must be, has to be, politics.

We can’t just lobby politicians – we have to be politicians. In other words, we have to stop electing the wrong people and hoping they’ll do the right things.

What’s increasingly clear now if that the problems identified by feminism and the problems seen by environmentalism are joined up – they are part of a system, a model, that’s broken – that’s based on an economic system that’s trashing the planet while society tramples all over the rights of women, failing to treat them with the most basic respect.

We can’t win by picking off small issues – we need system change, a transformation to move towards a society and economy that works for the common good within the environmental limits of our one fragile planet.

And here’s where I think a concept that comes from agriculture can help us see more broadly what we need: agroecology. I wrote about it recently after returning from the climate talks in Marrakesh.

It’s a concept of farming and land management that aims to work with each plant, animal and microbes natural strengths, to support and go around its weakness, to create a natural environment in which every species can thrive and flourish, not overstretched, not be a cow pumped with hormones to produce heroic quantities of milk, or a soil treated like a cake mix whose ingredients can be fiddled at will.

It might just be a useful way for feminists to think about the kind of society that we need, one in which everyone has access to light, and air, to space and time, to the opportunity to flourish without undue demands and pressures.

It’s one more way in which we can join up feminism and environmentalism.

Bad news: three more peaceful Sheffield tree protectors charged

I was very disappointed to hear the news that three people, who were roused from their beds in the early hours of the morning on a cold November morning in November, who stood in their night clothes to peacefully defend the trees in their street, have after months of uncertainty, been charged for their non-violent action.

The Rustlings Road Amey/council/South Yorkshire Police action achieved notoriety around the world.

The Green Party understands that sometimes nonviolent direct action is necessary when authorities decline to listen to democratic voices. These brave actions have already highlighted an inappropriate official action and led to the council climb down.

The Green Party will continue to offer support to the now five people charged for peacefully defending their communities and our democratic rights.

A protest is planned at 9am on January 26, outside Sheffield Magistrates’ Court. Sheffield Green Party will be there.

Smithy Wood – not the site for a motorway services!

On Sunday I found a very productive – if muddy – way to spend the morning, in the beautiful Smithy Wood.

The idea that this ancient woodland (and the bell pits that are remnants of mining dating back to the 1400s) might be levelled for a motorway services really is ridiculous.

fungi on a tree

A wide range of biodiversity

hawthorn

A very old, twisty hawthorn

tree

The beauties of nature

Happily the Woodland Trust is backing a campaign to save it.

Spending the time plucking plastic drinks bottles out of puddles and extracting them from the middle of brambles really did provide time to focus on the urgent need for replacing these single-use plastics with a bottle deposit scheme – and moving to complete end single-use plastics. (One good thing, I suspect there would have been a lot more carrier bags a couple of years ago – there were very few, and a lot of those were clearly old.)

rubbish bag

One of the many rubbish bags we collected

Oddest thing I picked up – a car muffler. I don’t know what kind of car it was from, but it was very heavy!

Responding to populism: we need more politics in energy, not less

I write for The Ecologist:

“It’s a pall that hangs over almost every meeting in every sector of society at the moment: the rise of the populist right. And it was certainly hanging in the air at the University of Exeter Energy Policy Group conference in London this week. …

One speaker from the floor summed it up very well: “we need more politics in energy policy, not less.”

Amy Mount from the Green Alliance suggested that the answer to ‘post-truth’ politics was more transparency.”

More

Agroecology and “climate smart” agriculture: there’s one way forward

Looking at sustainable farming practices with Shopshire Wildlife Trust

Looking at sustainable farming practices with Shopshire Wildlife Trust

Just published on the Ecologist, I reflect on the discussions I joined at the climate talks in Marrakesh.

I started with some context: “there is currently plenty of food in the world. The fact that 800 million people regularly go to bed hungry is a failure of distribution, not production. But the world’s population is growing, and production is under threat from the damage being done by the industrial agriculture that’s trashing our soils, drawing down fossil water supplies and polluting our rivers and oceans. Adaptation means ensuring there’s enough food to go around in future in our changing climate. That’s a huge ask.”

I conclude: “agroecology is the only possible approach: climate change is only one of many pressing environmental issues that threaten our future and that of the Earth as a balanced ecosystem. Agroecology addresses such diverse problems as biodiversity loss, soil degradation, pollution of our rivers and oceans. And it can create huge numbers of jobs, sustain small businesses, and offer far greater food security.

Understandably, there was at COP a lot of talk about the development of agroecology for the Global South, where food security is the most obviously pressing issue. But I’m interested in how we can develop this in the UK – where we also need to think hard about food security – given that we import 40% of our food, and 75% of our fruit and vegetables, which are particularly critical for health.”

How I got to the COP climate talks in Marrakesh from London by train

Guided by the invaluable Man in Seat Sixty One, I booked my tickets for the journey to Marrakesh a couple of months in advance, which kept the costs down.

mara1

The trip started with a simple Eurostar hop to Paris, then I left Paris Gare de Lyon in the early afternoon for the long but comfortable and relaxed run to Barcelona.I’m working on a book, so the power point by the seat (European plug of course) came in very handy, and glancing up from my work to see the countryside rolling by was very pleasant, as was the chance to get up and stretch my legs whenever I wanted.

I was pleased to find a number of other Britons travelling to Barcelona by train, and I swapped coffee runs with a lovely couple travelling for their daughter’s wedding in the Spanish city. They’d chosen train for its reliability – they’d had some bad times with flights being hopelessly delayed and cancelled, and this was one journey they wanted certainty on.

I overnighted in Barcelona at the one star but surprisingly good Hotel Transit (budget accommodation has improved a great deal since my backpacker days), and the next morning had only a short stroll from the hotel for the 8.30am train.

That whizzed me in high comfort on to Antequera-Santa Ana, where there was time for a quick lunch in the station cafe before boarding the local train to Algeciras. The views along the way were spectacular – the snow-capped Pyrennes, great stretches of olive trees standing strong in apparent desert, and as long as I didn’t glance at the speed indicator I wouldn’t have had any idea I was travelling at 300kh/h. Announcements were in a range of languages, but there was no difficulty in understanding the necessary details. If I got an orange juice when I was trying to order pineapple, that was undoubtedly my own fault in trying to speak Spanish – English would have worked fine.

This was a local, slow train – and one with a great many British accents (this is just inland from Malaga) – but there was still a power point at every seat and plenty of room between the comfortable seats.

Arriving at Algeciras, it was a five-minute stroll to the port. You could see the sea from the train station, and from there I walked straight on to the bus transfer to Tarifa, the port for the fast catamaran across the Med, which took only an hour. It was a sober thought as I stood looking at the sea I was about to cross in air-conditioned comfort, the same sea where so many thousands have lost their lives in a desperate bid for safe European refuge.

But I was soon in Tangier, and settling into the wonderful, economical, comfortably aged grandeur of the Continental Hotel. I’d arrived at 9pm and could theoretically have caught the 9.55pm sleeper to Morocco that night, but I chose to take 24 hours of holiday in the comfortable, relatively untouristy streets of Tangier.

I was able to buy my ticket at the train station next day, left my bags at a hotel nearby, and took the day to explore, before settling into my comfortable £28 couchette – sharing with three Moroccan women – a bargain.

mara2

All up, the trip cost about £200 – the most ridiculous bargain being Paris-Barcelona for 33 euros. It was a great way to travel, and provided excellent work time.

By contrast, my journey home on BA (forced by a long-booked appointment) was a tale of cramped misery. I was probably cutting it fine in arriving at the airport 90 minutes before the flight, then on a fully booked plane I spent four hours packed into sardine conditions. The gentleman beside me had his elbow in my ribs the whole way, he had nowhere else to put it, ditto his knees in my space. I’m seldom glad of being only 1.6 metres – this time I was, for the man on the other side also was in “my” space, for want of any alternative. I didn’t move for four hours – I couldn’t without causing widespread disruption. I couldn’t even reach the bag under the seat in front of me, while my other carry-on bag was travelling in business, for want of any space in the cattle cabin. I didn’t get any work done, and when I arrived at Gatwick, train delays meant it took 2.5 hours to get to King’s Cross station – as long as from there to Paris. It “only” cost £80 – some of the worst £80 I’d ever spent.

Of course there’s no justification for this travel mode costing less – and it doesn’t, if you count the externalised costs of greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, noise pollution and taxes avoided. (For aviation is avoiding taxes under worldwide regulations brought in when it was fledgling industry governments wanted to encourage).

mara4

And there’s no single rail ticket to Marrakesh – why not? Without the invaluable contribution of an individual’s website, it would be hard to organise. Governments could do so much more to encourage this mode of travel – if only they had the will.


Ten years on from the Climate Camp: A message about ‘big biofuel’ at Drax

The belching giant chimneys of the Drax power station sit in the middle of pleasant countryside in North Yorkshire. The bus from the train station at Selby, is by the low standards of today, not bad: hourly, and the driver kindly drops us at the closest possible point to the power station gates.

Greeting us are a phalanx of police, a reminder that today’s event marks the 10th anniversary of the Climate Camp here – the foundation of so much climate and other activism in the following decade.
img_20161022_140302

Celebrating that – and the progress that we have made on renewable energy, despite rather than because of government policy – is one purpose for my presence today with many scores of other protesters in a family-friendly event big on theatre and performance.

The other is to highlight how far we’ve got to go, for Biofuelwatch and the Campaign Against Climate Change have called this protest to highlight the continuing massive subsidies this plant receives while burning more coal than any other UK facility.

Those subsidies total more than a £1m a day, enabling it to pay for the destruction of precious American forests whilst maintaining its dirty coal production. It burns 12 million tonnes of wood pellets every year; Britain’s total wood production was 10.8 million tonnes in 2015.

It is emitting about 12% more carbon dioxide from burning wood than coal – the claim is that this will be replaced by new trees growing, but of course that takes decades, and in the meantime those burnt trees aren’t sequestering the greenhouse gas they could have been.

Drax’s annual profits total £46 million – it couldn’t operate without the subsidies, money that could be going into Britain’s long-term energy future of renewables and energy conservation.

The company’s books suggest it thinks it is going to keep operating until 2040 – despite the fact the government is committed to (although failing to plan for) phasing out all coal-fired electricity generation by 2025.

The dinosaur motif is prominent in the placards (and in one tightly uncomfortable home-made dinosaur suit – well done to its wearer. It was symbolically slaughtered at the end of the day – Draxosaurus meeting its rightful end).

img_20161022_140918

The greenwash crew also put on a show – demonstrating how coal (sort of) disappeared, when mixed in wood pellets and doused in green paint (or wash…)

img_20161022_160244

The Coal Action Network was also supporting the action, and a powerful performance recounts how coal from Colombia, which helps to fuel the plant, is produced only at the cost of massive ecological damage to communities and wide scale human rights abuses by rightwing militias.

Drax is a reminder of just how disastrous recent government’s energy policies have been – supporting big multinational businesses in the fossil fuel industries, while pulling the rug out from under small British businesses in solar, renewable heat and energy conservation, in the process throwing thousands of skilled workers into unemployment.

On the day that Selby District Council allowed through Drax’s new biomass infrastructure, it rejected a wind turbine application because these would “spoil the view”. When it was being built, opponent calculated the money spent could have insulated all of the homes in East Anglia – saving much of the energy it would produce, and cutting fuel poverty and carbon emissions.

As with the government, so the council was out of step with public opinion: 83% of the public are in favour of solar farms, 73% in favour of wind farms. By contrast, the government’s continuing fracking fantasy – pursuing a form of energy that no professional in the field I’ve met believes will be a significant energy source – is opposed by the public. And the more they learn about fracking, the less they like it.

The public understand that coal is a dinosaur, “big biomass” a dead-end, and renewables and energy conservation are the way forward. Most of the rest of the world is racing in that direction, we’re being left behind in the UK.

Swanage: Protection camp in place until December 3

The location of the Swanage Protection Camp is a beautiful one. There are butterflies, birds, at least one newt, found by chance by residents, blackberries, and a beautiful view out to sea and across to the white cliffs of the Isle of Wight.

This little patch of land is an Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty and a Site of Nature Conservation Interest and is beside Sites of Special Scientific Interest, in the setting of the World Heritage Jurassic Coast (a designation which UNESCO says should protect it from oil and gas drilling).  The tourist town of Swanage is just over the slope (within the 2km zone that would require evacuation in an emergency) and a large caravan and holiday home camp even closer. That it could ever have been considered for oil and gas drilling is astonishing, but permission was given to drill here, with little local discussion or awareness, years ago.

But awareness has grown, and an important deadline is approaching – that’s December 3. That’s when the drilling permission runs out.

The company that holds the rights has said it won’t be drilling. But that promise doesn’t stop it selling the rights on.

Which is why the protection camp is here, supported by a wide range of local residents, some of whom I met during the visit.

swanage fossil fuels stay in the ground

In the autumn sunshine it was almost idyll, although it was also very windy – and I’m sure that conditions will get a whole lot tougher before that December deadline arrives.

But well done to those who are prepared to tough it out, and those supporting them.

The issue here is of course local environmental impact, but it’s broader than that.

For the International Energy Agency tells us that we have to leave at least two-thirds of our known fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we’re going to avoid catastrophic climate change – what we don’t need to be doing is looking for more.

What we should be doing is of course developing low-carbon energy alternatives – which makes this site particularly ironic, for it overlooks what should have been – in the distance – was the Navitus Bay wind farm.

More about the issue from Fossil Free Dorset (including link to a petition against it).

December 4 update: Good news, the date passed without incident, and the planning permission has now lapsed.