‘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



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

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

Facts behind the UK’s ‘green’ recovery



The Guardian, 30 July 2020:

The investments made by the UK government in the transport and energy sectors as a result of the pandemic can usefully be compared with France and Germany using data from energypolicytracker.org (The Guardian view on the green recovery: Britain is being left behind, 28 July).

Overall subsidies are £11bn in the UK, £38.1bn in France, and £44.6bn in Germany, which includes their £9bn hydrogen strategy. All three countries are supporting airlines, but in the UK there is no requirement to improve fuel efficiency. The total investment in “green” energy and transport is £8.5bn in the UK, £19.1bn in France and £21.5bn in Germany. So the UK contribution is smaller and only 25% is targeted, compared with 97% in France and 92% in Germany.

An example of an unconditional subsidy is the £3bn allocated by the UK government towards improving the thermal efficiency of buildings. No details have been provided as to how this will work, and most of the £3bn appears to be recycled monies.

A targeted subsidy would be the £1.6bn bailout of Transport for London, but bailing out fossil-fuel dependent industries such as airlines without imposing any climate change obligations is bad policy, particularly in the run-up to Cop26.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Chair, Help Rescue the Planet
Dave Faulkner
Founder, Marlow CAN

Getting to grips with the climate crisis


The Guardian, 27 July 2019:

Our political system has been hijacked by a cabal of ideologically driven free marketeers with no democratic mandate. Air pollution and climate change, the two most urgent issues confronting society, are nowhere mentioned in the bubbles of bombastic rhetoric generated by our new prime minister. Boris Johnson’s main contribution to air quality as mayor of London was to cancel the western extension of the congestion zone. As for climate change, he presided over a 60% reduction in climate attaches as foreign secretary and subsequently accepted an expenses-paid trip to the US courtesy of the American Enterprise Institute, a fossil-fuel supporting free-market thinktank partially funded by the Koch brothers. I no longer recognise our leadership as embodying British values. I feel I’m living in a foreign dictatorship consumed by profit and self-interest.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Chair, Help Rescue the Planet

Air pollution, ill health and the need for a 21st-century Model T Ford


The Guardian, 23 May 2019:

The harmful effects of air pollution during early life deserve greater attention (Air pollution damages ‘every organ in the body’, 18 May). Ongoing research in the US has reported that exposure during pregnancy to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a constituent of diesel exhaust, is linked to developmental delay at three years, an IQ reduction of 4-5 points at five years, increased anxiety, depression and inattention at six to seven years, a reduction in surface white matter in the brain at eight years, and delayed self-regulatory behaviour which became most significant at 11 years. These data are “preliminary” only in the sense that they have not yet been replicated. Benzo-a-pyrene (BaP) is the only PAH routinely monitored by the EU. Due to the rapid growth in the sale of diesel vehicles since 2000, levels of BaP at traffic-monitoring sites has increased by 52%.

These findings have huge implications for public health, educational attainment and the high level of mental health problems currently afflicting schoolchildren in the UK. It is beyond belief that the government’s only response is a vague commitment to halve the number of people exposed to levels above the WHO limit for small particulates by 2025. This is not even a target; it is an aspiration that is legally unenforceable.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones Scientific adviser

Geraint Davies MP Chair, all-party parliamentary group on air pollution

Can we humans save ourselves from self-destruction?


The Guardian, 8 May 2019:

There is a strong case for dating the start of the Anthropocene to 1950, since which time a million species have become threatened; 1950 coincides with the growth of international travel, leading to the introduction of alien species into vulnerable populations which then collapse. Back in 1950, world population was one-third of its current level. A combination of antibiotics, vaccination programmes and ineffective family planning have seen human numbers rocket past 7 billion, and they are still rising. Finally the demands of humanity have led to deforestation and widespread loss of habitat in every part of the globe.

It is entirely appropriate that the UN and other institutions produce reports documenting the disappearance and decline of most species on Earth. But they will have no impact at all unless they are accompanied by measures to limit human numbers.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Chair, Help Rescue the Planet


Dieselgate and the unintended consequences of anti-idling drive


The Guardian, 25 March 2019:

In the US, the Dieselgate scandal has resulted in prosecutions against VW personnel and multibillion dollar fines (Where’s there’s smoke…, 22 March). In Europe, no one has been charged and nobody has gone to jail, though the EU commission has threatened action against the UK government for failing to prosecute VW.

Defeat devices result in higher emissions of nitrogen dioxide, but the real danger from a health perspective are small particulates, notably the ultra-fine nanoparticles that can penetrate tissue, reach a placenta and cross the blood-brain barrier. These are largely present in exhaust emissions, so while all vehicles generate particulates from tyres and brakes, researchers have demonstrated that medical effects such as low birth weight are tied more closely to exhaust particulates than to friction particulates. This is important as the government likes to pretend that all particulates are equivalent, regardless of the source. Thus its clean air strategy emphasises the contribution of secondary particulates generated from agriculture etc, even though these contain little in the way of ultra-fine particles. It is disheartening that the UK government seems more anxious to protect the interests of car manufacturers than the health of its own citizens, but this situation is likely to worsen post-Brexit.

Dr Robin Russell-Jones Scientific adviser

Geraint Davies MP Chair, All-party parliamentary group on air pollution