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It really is time to put the brakes on climate change

It really is time to put the brakes on climate change

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has produced yet another report on climate change. The report states clearly that, based on the evidence, more than 97% of climate scientists agree that human-caused climate change is happening. When I first started at university almost 20 years ago, the nature of climate change was a live debate. However by the late 1990’s, when I graduated, the evidence had become overwhelming and the debate was settled. Since that time, more and more evidence has accumulated, but the policy makers have stopped listening, as we hurtle towards the cliff edge. NOW really is the time to put the brakes on climate change before it is too late…

For the record, I have a BSc in Ecological Science at The University of Edinburgh and an MPhil in Plant Ecology, my thesis was on the potential affects of climate change on mountain vegetation in Scotland, so I am in a position to know what I am talking about.

An open letter to Alex Salmond MSP on active travel

An open letter to Alex Salmond MSP on active travel

Dear Mr Salmond,

You may be aware that rather a lot of people are very upset with the proposed cuts to the proportion of transport spending that goes on active travel. Active travel is a great idea, as it achieves so many policy objectives: it is clean, it is green, it reduces congestion in towns and cities, it can boost local economic activity, and it is healthy (active people, such as regular cyclists, live longer). In addition, people who use active ways of travel are more productive at work, take fewer sick days. Supporting active travel is relatively cheap and therefore has great potential to save everybody money (the future savings in health costs alone make worthwhile).

In your 2011 Holyrood SNP manifesto, you told us that your party was committed “to increase the proportion of transport spending that goes on low-carbon, active and sustainable travel”. I assume that you did actually read this document before adding your signature to it, so it is only reasonable to expect you to stand by the commitments you and your party made in it.

However, your Government’s current spending plans show that funding to enable more local journeys to be made on foot or by bike is set to be cut by a third. This will make it much harder for Scotland to achieve its transition to a low carbon economy, decarbonise our transport sector and ensure 10% of all journeys are made by bicycle by 2020. These aims have cross-party support, as they have great potential to bring additional social, environmental and economic benefits.

You are on record as saying that Scotland should be regarded as a Nordic nation, and you frequently hold up other small nations in Europe as examples of what an independent Scotland could be. So why not learn lessons from the Nordic countries on active travel? Denmark, Sweden and Norway clearly show the way, they are actively investing in this concept and are reaping the rewards. It is not just the Nordic countries, The Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland are also embracing the benefits of active travel. These projects have been shown to have the highest Cost Benefit Ratio of all forms of transport investment.

I know that you consider the Scottish economy to be of prime importance, but poor air quality, poor public health, congestion and road safety are all major drags on the Scottish economy. The costs associated with all these ills can be reduced with a relatively small investment in active travel. So, go on, why not put your money where your mouth is?

Yours sincerely,

Kim Harding
A Scottish voter.

A storm in December

A storm in December

December, the darkest month of the year, is also noted for its storms, and we have just had a big one. Neighbours meeting in the street were heard to say “Aye, it’s breezy oot today”, as the wind speeds in Edinburgh hit 70mph (113 Km/h). The winds on the top of Cairngorm reached 165mph (266 Km/h), just 8mph off the highest recorded wind speed there, although there was no standing about discussing the weather at the time.

Meanwhile on Twitter, as the storm broke, the London media started to gather information about something they where calling Storm UK, although this was soon replaced with Scot Storm, so as not to be confused with the “southern drizzle crisis”. The media wanted to portray the whole thing as a major crisis with tales of doom, gloom and crushed cars, which is the standard fare when such winter gales make landfall down south. Noting the wind speed recorded at the Cairngorm Automatic Weather Station, someone declared that Scotland was being battered by a Category Five Hurricane.

At this point it was decided that, if this was a hurricane, it should have a name, so some wag came up with Hurricane Bawbag (exactly who this wag was is a subject of much journalistic interest). Within an hour #HurricaneBawbag was trending worldwide on Twitter (as Americans sought to find out why they hadn’t been warned about this dangerous hurricane, and which state they needed to evacuate first). Meanwhile in Scotland most people had heeded the advice to stay indoors and not to travel at the height of the storm. As a result, there were no fatalities and no reported serious injuries. Overall the Scots’ attitude to the storm was to treat it as a tremendous joke, hence giving the storm the name Bawbag, which is used to mean a stupid, glaikit, foolish or generally annoying person (or thing). This is a point that has been somewhat missed by some media outlets based further south who are trying to make out that it was a great disaster. Whereas in Scotland it spawned a Wikipedia page and a range of merchandise.

So what actually happened?

At the height of the storm, one wind turbine failed spectacularly, at the Ardrossan Wind Farm. This has been portrayed by some sections of the London media as proof that all wind generation is doomed to fail, and that this should stop all further wind farm development. This is obviously ridiculous, as there are currently over 500 large scale wind turbines on 123 operational wind farms in Scotland, and only one failed during this storm. Nor was this failure responsible for the loss of power to 75,000 homes at the height of the storm, that was due to power lines being damaged. These London based “journalists” (several of the newspapers they work for have recently admitted to making up stories) are totally unaware that this particular wind farm is very popular with the local people living nearby. Nor are they keen on the idea that Scotland has the potential to be a world leader in renewable energy, as this just doesn’t fit with their London centric view of the world.

Transport wise there was some disruption, most of the major road bridges had to be closed for a time. The rail system was restricted to a 50 MPH (80 Km/h) speed limit, but the rail bridges remained open. This is probably due to that fact that Scotland’s major rail bridges are heavily over engineered following the Tay Bridge Disaster of 1879. However, there were some delays due to trampolines on the line, which is more original than leaves on the line. Indeed, trampolines proved to be more disruptive than had been previously expected. Also there were a few roads blocked by fallen trees, and the Eriskay causeway was also temporarily closed. Other reported damage included a house in Gifford hit by a falling tree, the gable end of a tenement in Bellshill fell off (probably due to poor maintenance), and the roof of a cinema in Glasgow suffered some damage.

We are told the storm caused an estimated £100m worth of damage, but walking around Edinburgh in the days after Hurricane Bawbag (or cyclone Friedhelm, if you are a humourless German insist), one of the things that was notable was how little damage had been done, considering that this was the most severe storm to hit Scotland for 10 years. The only signs of storm damage I have seen so far has been a length of zinc flashing laying in a front garden and some severed TV aerial cables flapping about.

It is also worth noting that at the same time as this storm was battering Scotland, the United Nations Climate Change Conference taking place in Durban. If the climate models are right, storms like Hurricane Bawbag are set to become more frequent and more powerful, unless we take serious steps to cut the levels of fossil carbon we are releasing into the atmosphere.

Should we ban Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO)?

Should we ban Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO)?

We are regularly told that there are many dangerous chemicals which are a risk to our health, to the environment, and to the world in general. So today I would like to ask the question: should we ban Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO)?

Now you maybe asking what is DHMO? Well, DHMO is is a colourless and odourless chemical compound, also referred to by some as Dihydrogen Oxide, Hydrogen Hydroxide, Hydronium Hydroxide, or simply Hydric acid. Its basis is the highly reactive hydroxyl radical, this free radical has been shown to mutate DNA, denature proteins, disrupt cell membranes, and chemically alter critical neurotransmitters. The atomic components of DHMO are found in a number of caustic, explosive and poisonous compounds such as sulphuric acid, nitroglycerine and ethyl alcohol.

Should we be concerned about DHMO? Well, yes, although Dihydrogen Monoxide has not be classified as a toxic or carcinogenic substance (as better known chemicals, such as hydrochloric acid and benzene, have been), DHMO is a constituent of many known toxic substances, disease-causing agents, environmental hazards and can even be lethal to humans in quantities as small as a 100ml. Now more than ever, it is important that we are aware of just what the dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide are and how we can reduce the risks to ourselves and others.

Just how dangerous is Dihydrogen Monoxide? DHMO kills thousands of people every year. Most of these deaths are caused by accidental inhalation of DHMO, but the dangers of Dihydrogen Monoxide do not end there. Prolonged exposure to its solid form causes burning and can severely damage tissues. Symptoms of DHMO ingestion can include excessive sweating and urination, and possibly a bloated feeling, nausea, vomiting and body electrolyte imbalance. For those who have become dependent, DHMO withdrawal means certain death.

Not only is Dihydrogen Monoxide hazardous to individuals, it is known to have major effects on the environment as well. In its hydroxyl acid form, it is the major component of acid rain. DHMO is known to have an effect on global warming, and it contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape. It has recently caused billions of pounds worth of damage around the world. There is known to be wide spread environmental contamination by Dihydrogen Monoxide in global ecosystems, it has been found in lakes, rivers and oceans across the world.

Despite all these known dangers, dihydrogen monoxide is often used as an industrial solvent and coolant. It is commonly used in nuclear power stations, indeed its presence was an important factor in the failure of the Fukushima power station in Japan. Despite these dangers, DHMO continues to be used in many industrial processes: in the production of Styrofoam, as a fire retardant, in the distribution of pesticides, and as an additive in certain junk-foods and other food products. It should be noted that even after washing, produce remains contaminated by this chemical.

Companies dump waste DHMO into rivers and the ocean, and nothing can be done to stop them because this practice is still legal. The impact on wildlife is extreme, and we cannot afford to ignore this issue any longer!

There have been a number of attempts to introduce legislation to ban DHMO, most notable in Australia, New Zealand and California. In the UK, there have been a number of attempts to e-petition the Prime Minister, however, so far these have all failed.

I urge you to think about whether we should ban Dihydrogen Monoxide (DHMO)!!

Comments on this post are welcome, but please note the date on the post before making a comment.

Climate Change: breaking the barriers to a low-carbon Scotland

Climate Change: breaking the barriers to a low-carbon Scotland

As this is Climate Week 2011, it is a good time to look at the barriers to a low-carbon Scotland and how they can be broken down. Fortunately the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) has just released a report into this very issue and this rather natty wee video:

The report makes ten main recommendations:

  1. The UK Government should urgently improve the infrastructure and management of the electricity grid in Scotland to optimise the development of renewable energy and to permit the export of surplus renewable energy.
  2. The Scottish and UK Governments need to retrofit existing regulation to achieve a balance with the need to reduce carbon emissions.
  3. The Scottish Government should work with local authorities and businesses to align and sharpen regulation in order to achieve a step change in energy efficiency in buildings and transport.
  4. The Scottish Government and local authorities should jointly introduce truly integrated polices in order to achieve effective reductions in emissions at a regional level.
  5. The Scottish Government should develop a spatially-referenced national land use plan integrated with regional strategic plans in order to optimise carbon sequestration.
  6. The finance industry should take a lead and work with government to create the business environment that will mobilise private finance in support of a low-carbon society.
  7. All organisations should appraise their goals and practices in the light of the urgency to achieve a low-carbon society.
  8. Local authorities should integrate and embed their low-carbon policies across all their various functions.
  9. The Scottish Government and local authorities should actively assist local communities to introduce low-carbon initiatives.
  10. Closer engagement is needed between people, civil society, market and state in the pursuit of Scotland’s low-carbon vision.

If you would like to read a summary of the report, there is a 2.16Mb pdf here, or you can download a copy of the full report as a 42.8Mb pdf. Looking at the recommendations above, you will see that most relate to government and you might be wondering what you can do. Well, always remember that elected governments, both national and local, are there to work for you! Your elected representatives do sometimes need some help in making the right decisions, so write to them and give them reason to do the right thing.

Your views wanted on Active Travel

Your views wanted on Active Travel

The Scottish Parliament’s Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee is holding an inquiry into “Active Travel – walking and cycling”. The Committee is keen to hear your views on walking and cycling. The Scottish Government says that it would like to see 10% of journeys being by bicycle by 2020.

The formal remit of the Committee’s inquiry is to consider – the progress being made in developing active travel; any barriers to further progress; and the further action that may be required by the Scottish Government, local authorities and other bodies to ensure that significant progress is made in the development and implementation of active travel in Scotland.

You are invited to respond to the issues identified by the Committee and posed in the six questions below. You are free to answer as many or as few of these questions as you wish.

The six questions:

  1. What more can be done to encourage people to change their travelling habits and walk and cycle more?
  2. Is enough progress being made in developing and delivering improvements in the uptake of walking and cycling?
  3. If not, what are the barriers to progress? (for example, lack of policy development, lack of political leadership, lack of funding/investment, the lack of prominence given to active travel in transport policy development, project planning and construction etc.)
  4. Why do walking and cycling policies set out in national, regional and local transport plans not result in a greater modal share for walking and cycling?
  5. What further action is required by the Scottish Government, local authorities and other bodies to ensure that significant progress is made in the development and implementation of walking and cycling, particularly if transport is to make a greater and more meaningful contribution to the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions?
  6. What can Scotland learn from good practice/successful implementation in other countries?

The closing date for written submissions is Friday 11 December 2009. To make things easier I created a MS Word doc file you can down load here (16kb).

They ask that before you submit your views, that you read their policy for handling information received in response to calls for evidence (pdf 15kb). Information you provide will be treated according the Scottish Parliament’s privacy and data policy. Your views may be published by the Parliament and will be treated as a public document unless you indicate other. Your views will be made available to the Committee. For more information see here.

Food waste and climate change.

Food waste and climate change.

There was a report on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning, that in Britain 6.7m tonnes of food were thrown away every year. The report went on to say “most of the waste food goes into landfill sites, where it breaks down and causes greenhouse gases”. As an ecologist (I have a BSc in Ecological Science and an M. Phil. in Plant Ecology), I immediately saw the flaw in this argument, the breakdown of food waste is a natural part of the carbon cycle and is not going to have any effect on climate change.

There is a real problem with policy makes and journalists not understanding carbon emissions and climate change. It is the release of fossil carbon, mainly from burning fossil fuels, that is causing the problems with climate change. It is the transport and storage of food that is the main contribution to carbon emissions, nagging consumers and supermarkets about food waste is unlikely to achieve much in the way of reductions. A much more effective approach would be to tax fossil carbon usage and to bring in a system of limits on fossil carbon usage, such are carbon credits and carbon trading.

Heavy Snow

Heavy Snow

The news on the BBC has been dominated by stories about “heavy snow” affecting England and Wales. Apparently snow fall of up to 15cm (yes a whole 15cm!!) have brought large parts of England to a grinding halt. Why?

When I hear of “heavy snow” I think back to winters past.

In February 2001 I got up one morning to find there had been a blizzard overnight and there was 1m of snow lying outside. At that time I was working at the Bush Estate near Edinburgh (home to a number of research institutes and a very famous sheep), and before setting out to work I decided to phone and check that the roads were clear out there. Instead of getting a ringing tone, I heard an error message and deduced, rightly, from this that the storm must have brought down the power line and the building would be closed. When I went in the next day, I found that there was a large “snow sculpture” by the bus stop. A number of my colleges, who hadn’t checked before catching the bus the day before, had arrived to find the building closed and had an hour to wait for the bus home, so they built the “snow sculpture” to keep themselves busy. After all, a meter of snow in winter in Scotland is not considered to be unusual, yet.

Thinking further back, I remember in my youth, when I was living in Sussex, taking great delight in taking out my bike and cycling through 18” (about 45cm) of fresh snow. This was great fun, although I did need to stop every so often to clear the snow from under the mudguards. The road which my family lived on was unadopted, so the local authority never cleared it. Consequently when it snowed, the snow was not cleared and was packed down by cars driving over it. When I came to learn to drive, I leaned under true winter conditions and have been happy driving in snow ever since.

Another winter in Sussex, I was working through a temp agency and found myself working on the bins. We were welcomed in the small villages, as the dustbin lorry was the first outside agency to arrive since the snow had started. In one house, the occupiers had had to climb out of an upstairs window in order to clear the snow from their front door. The snow had drifted up against the front of the house, covering the door and windows.

The most impressive snow drifts I have ever seen were in Norway. In the 1980’s I lived and worked on a farm in western Noway for three summers. In April 1985 I hitch hiked from Oslo to Hardanger. When I set out from Oslo, I was expecting to have to catch a train from Geilo, as the road to Eidfjord across the Hardangervidda was normally closed in winter. Instead, I was surprised to find the road open. That winter they had started using new snow blowing technology, and for the first time in history the road was kept open all winter. It was truly impressive, in places the road passed though 4m high snow drifts, it is something I will never forget.

So when I hear the BBC talking about 15cm (6”) as “heavy snow”, I can’t help thinking it ridiculous. As I have found from recent experience, I know that at least 20cm (8”) of snow is needed to form a ski piste and this amount never stops the skiers getting to the pistes. Let’s keep a sense of proportion. The major problem is that people are too reliant on cars, buses are better able to cope with the snow. If more people were to use public transport (and more effort was made to maintain public transport infrastructure), there would be less congestion and less vulnerability to such events.

Here in Edinburgh there has been very little snow so far this winter, but the weather forecast says that is about to change…

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