‘We’ve had so many wins’: why the green movement can overcome climate crisis

 

 

The Guardian, 12 October 2020:

Leaflets printed on “rather grotty” blue paper. That is how Janet Alty will always remember one of the most successful environment campaigns of modern times: the movement to ban lead in petrol.

There were the leaflets she wrote to warn parents at school gates of the dangers, leaflets to persuade voters and politicians, leaflets to drown out the industry voices saying – falsely – there was nothing to worry about.

In the late 1970s, the UK was still poisoning the air with the deadly toxin, despite clear scientific evidence that breathing in lead-tainted air from car exhausts had an effect on development and intelligence. Recently returned from several years in the US, Alty was appalled. Lead had been phased out in the US from 1975. Why was the British government still subjecting children to clear harm?

Robin Russell-Jones asked the same question. A junior doctor, he quickly grasped the nature of the lead problem, moving his family out of London. His fellow campaigner, Robert Stephens, amassed a trove of thousands of scientific papers, keeping them in his garage when his office burned down – he suspected foul play.

Their campaign took years. But in 1983, a damning verdict from the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution prompted the UK government to decree that both petrol stations and manufacturers must offer lead-free alternatives. Leaded petrol was finally removed from the last petrol pumps in the UK in 1999.

 

 

Caution and optimism over climate pledges

 

 

The Guardian, 8 October 2020:

Re Barbara Finamore’s article (What China’s plan for net-zero emissions by 2060 means for the climate, 5 October), it would be a mistake to get too excited about China’s announcement of carbon neutrality by 2060.

First, the date is far too late to limit global warming to 2C, let alone 1.5C. Reductions of 7.6% are required every year of the coming decade if we wish to stay within the 1.5C limit: China is planning to increase its emissions over the same period. They may now peak before 2030, but this is small comfort as China already contributes 28% of global carbon emissions.

Second, China’s Belt and Road Initiative is exporting an energy programme that relies on coal-fired power stations, with more than 300 planned or under construction.

Finally, it is looking increasingly inappropriate to define China as a developing nation, since emissions of carbon dioxide per capita already exceed that of the UK (7.0 versus 5.8 tonnes per year using the production-based emissions published by the Global Carbon Project).

The truth is that President Xi has picked a date out of the air that is far enough into the future that it allows China to continue with business as usual for at least another decade, if not longer.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Chair, Help Rescue the Planet

Are electric cars on a road to nowhere?

 

 

The Guardian, 25 September 2020:

Having tried to argue that overpopulation does not contribute to climate change (Opinion, 26 August), George Monbiot now claims that electric vehicles (EVs) are not a key component of our future transport needs.

I have no problem with localism, cycling and e-scooters, but not everyone in the community is fit enough to cycle, or strong enough to carry heavy shopping. For those based in rural locations with non-existent public transport, EVs may be the only clean option available.

It is true that small particulates will still be generated from wear and tear on tyres and brakes, but this can be minimised by regenerative braking and improved tyre production. Furthermore, it is almost certainly the case that exhaust emissions are more dangerous from a medical perspective.

If the government brings forward the phase-out date for fossil fuel vehicles to 2030, it will benefit both air quality and the environment, and it is perverse to pretend otherwise.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Scientific adviser to the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution

 

 

A reputation sacrificed on the altar of free trade

 

Financial Times, 11 September 2020:

It appears that hardline Brexiters are increasing their grip on government strategy, and that there is now nothing that cannot be sacrificed in order to realise their vision of a free trade Britain; not even the UK’s credibility as a nation that abides by the rules-based order. (“UK government admits it will break international law over Brexit treaty”, September 9). So who, you might wonder, will now sign a trade deal with the UK if there is no guarantee that it will be adhered to? The European Research Group morphed from an anti-EU parliamentary study group into an ideological faction within the Conservative party under the influence of their high priest Steve Baker. Furthermore, it did so using taxpayers money. Consenting MPs were allowed to contribute £2,000 each from their expenses. However, the ERG has never published a list of its members and has never revealed the identity of donors to its private bank account. This cabal at the heart of government is now seized with a crusading zeal that is reminiscent of religious fundamentalism rather than a political faction. The outcome is that Britain’s reputation and future prosperity is about to be sacrificed on the high altar of a belief system that has no basis in reality. The ERG claim that free trade is omnipotent and contains the answer to everything. But it doesn’t have any solutions for climate change, and Britain never voted for a no-deal Brexit. I don’t believe that this is just a negotiating ploy. Boris Johnson is being held hostage by the provisional wing of his own party, and is about to do something unprecedented and catastrophic.

Robin Russell-Jones
Chair, Help Rescue the Planet,
Marlow, Buckinghamshire, UK

 

Will the Cop26 climate conference be a national embarrassment for Britain?

 

 

 

The Guardian, 7 September 2020:

If the government doesn’t get its act together soon, then Cop26, the UN climate change conference due to be held in Glasgow in November next year, could become a national humiliation for the UK and an environmental catastrophe for the rest of humanity.

One likes to imagine that the UK government is taking the climate emergency seriously, but that illusion has been shattered by the appointment of the former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott as a UK trade adviser. Abbott has described global heating as “absolute crap”. One of his first actions after becoming prime minister of Australia was to abolish his own climate change advisory council, followed by a decision to scrap Australia’s carbon tax.

Global heating is starting to run out of control. At a time when the need for concerted international action is greater than ever, the international community is failing to reduce its carbon emissions. The Kyoto protocol was designed to curb global emissions of all greenhouse gases, but annual emissions have actually risen by more than 60% globally compared with 1990, the baseline year for the protocol. More carbon has been emitted as a result of human activity since 1990 than in all previous years since the start of the industrial revolution. By any standards, the Kyoto protocol has proven a spectacular failure, but the fault cannot be laid entirely at the door of the UN.

The main obstacles to progress have been the reluctance of fossil-fuel-dependent nations to change their business model, and the cynical strategy of disinformation launched by the fossil fuel industry, and secretly funded free-market thinktanks, notably the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

Cop26 is probably our last opportunity to turn this situation around, but it won’t happen without a set of game-changing proposals from the organisers. Probably the most critical measure would be to introduce an effective global carbon tax. At the moment we have carbon trading schemes, but these are just a market mechanism for purchasing the right to emit carbon. It is cheaper for industry to pay for its emissions than to invest in greener technologies.

The most fair and equitable method of introducing a carbon tax is to set up a global carbon incentive fund, and to levy the tax on countries whose per capita emissions of carbon dioxide are above the global average. The fund would then disperse grants to countries whose per capita emissions are below the global average. The beauty of this scheme is that it penalises the richer nations for their profligate lifestyles, and it incentivises developing nations to avoid fossil fuels and to develop their energy infrastructure using low-carbon technologies.

For this strategy to work the price needs to be set at the right level initially, and then escalated rapidly. The UN has determined that carbon emissions have to fall by 7.6% each year over the coming decade if we are to have any chance of limiting global warming to 1.5C. The current carbon price on the European emissions trading system is just under €30 per tonne of carbon dioxide, so one proposal would be to set the starting price at $30, and then double the price every two years.

If that were introduced in 2022, the price would be $240 per tonne of CO2 by 2028. Before the fossil fuel industry emits ritual howls of protest, it needs to be remembered that Sweden already operates with a carbon tax of $123 per tonne of CO2, while the cost of air pollution to society, according to the IMF, is $140 per tonne of CO2.

The calculation for the amount of carbon needs to be made on the basis of consumption, not production. Many countries export a large volume of manufactured goods, so their territorial emissions are high, whereas the end consumer is based in another country. China, India and Russia, which together represent 40% of all carbon emissions, would benefit from using consumer-based emissions, whereas the US would lose out, but not as much as would the UK.

At $30 per tonne, the UK’s contribution would be more than three times larger: $7bn versus $2bn, reflecting the demise of the UK’s manufacturing base. However this is still less than half of the annual budget of the former Department for International Development. In addition, the UK started the industrial revolution and would have been responsible for virtually 100% of global carbon emissions in 1750. It is therefore entirely appropriate for the UK to lead the world in demanding a consumption-based carbon tax.

Calculating the figures should be straightforward, as the Global Carbon Project already produces annual consumption estimates. However, it does have limitations. The Global Carbon Project does not include other greenhouse gas emissions, and more importantly it does not estimate carbon dioxide emitted by changes in land use, such as deforestation, crop-burning, ploughing and so on. So there needs to be a supplementary tax that penalises environmentally irresponsible governments such as Brazil’s, which seems to regard trashing the planet as a political accolade.

The solutions are clear, but as host nation, Britain is in desperate need of a leader with vision and determination. The question is: can anybody identify anyone in Boris Johnson’s cabinet who might have the political will to carry this forward?

• Robin Russell-Jones is chair of Help Rescue the Planet and scientific adviser to the all-party parliamentary group on air pollution

Abbott would be a blow to UK’s green credentials

 

Financial Times, 1 September 2020:

In the run-up to COP26, one likes to imagine that the UK government will at least pretend to take climate change seriously, if only so that it is not humiliated in Glasgow next year. But that illusion has been torpedoed by the proposal to appoint Tony Abbott to the Board of Trade (“Former Australian PM set to become UK trade adviser”, August 27).

If the global community is to have any prospect of curtailing the inexorable rise in greenhouse gas emissions, then it is critical that environmental standards are central to all future trade deals. Mr Abbott has described global warming as “absolute crap”. His first action as prime minister was to abolish his own climate change advisory council, closely followed by a decision to scrap Australia’s carbon trading scheme.

Although he seems to have had very little input into Australia’s trade deal with China, he took credit on the grounds that he was not “sidetracked by peripheral issues such as labour and environmental standards”.

One suspects that his indifference to climate change is the qualification that has endeared him to this government and Liz Truss in particular. He is ideologically aligned with Brexit diehards, and doesn’t have to worry about being voted out by his own party, which was his fate in Australia.

Robin Russell-Jones
Chair, Help Rescue the Planet,
Marlow, Buckinghamshire, UK

 

A sad song of ice and fire

 

The Observer, 30 August 2020:

Global warming is worse than portrayed by Robin McKie (“Revealed: Earth loses trillion tonnes of ice in less than 30 years”, News). Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center estimates that the world has warmed by just over 1C since 1880, but temperatures are higher over land than water. Thus Europe has warmed by 2C, and the Arctic by more than 3C.

Loss of ice leads to loss of reflectivity, which aggravates the warming, but wildfires in the Arctic are also dirtying the snow, which increases heat absorption. This can only end badly. Melting of the permafrost has the potential to double the amount of methane in the atmosphere. If the Arctic seabed starts to give up the vast amount of methane stored as clathrates, global warming will become irreversible and it is game over for human civilisation. Politicians seem transfixed by this unfolding tragedy. Their latest excuse is the pandemic, but they have done almost nothing over the past 30 years. The Kyoto protocol was designed to reduce carbon emissions but since 1990, the baseline year for Kyoto, annual emissions have increased by 50% globally. The UK is hosting COP26 (the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties) next year. We can only pray that the government recognises the awesome responsibility it carries.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
chair Help Rescue the Planet,
Marlow, Buckinghamshire

Identifying the culprits behind river pollution

 

 

The Guardian, 17 August 2020:

The failure of the government to protect our rivers extends beyond the Environment Agency (The government is looking the other way while Britain’s rivers die before our eyes, 12 August).
Defra’s Clean Air Strategy 2019 focused on the need to control emissions from agriculture, notably ammonia, which is a precursor for small particulates (PM2.5). Ammonia is released from nitrogen-containing fertilisers, and manure/slurry spread on to fields, particularly during the spring. Releases of ammonia can be reduced significantly by choosing the right sort of fertiliser, and injecting the manure into the soil. This would also protect rivers.
Yet the list of financial incentives offered to farmers in the government’s current agriculture bill does not include air pollution. This is a glaring omission, as the government’s own data shows that the UK is set to breach the EU National Emissions Ceiling Directive for both ammonia and PM2.5.
The government’s solution to this dilemma is to leave the EU and create its own green watchdog, the Office for Environmental Protection, which will doubtless prove as toothless as the Environment Agency, and other similar government-funded organisations.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Marlow, Buckinghamshire

Killer cars

 

 

The Observer, 2 August 2020:

The problem that needs to be solved by car manufacturers is not so much the 1,800 deaths that occur on our roads each year, but the 64,000 premature deaths that occur annually from air pollution (“Driving may never be the same again. But what a ride it’s been!”, Focus).

This has been given renewed urgency by the realisation that Covid-19 mortality is closely linked to levels of air pollution. Thus city dwellers are between 40% and 80% more likely to die from Covid-19 than their rural counterparts, an observation that would go a long way to explain the higher mortality among members of the BAME community.

Robin Russell-Jones, scientific adviser, all-party parliamentary group on air pollution
Marlow, Buckinghamshire