Sunday, 4 October 2015

Plastic Bag Charge

Tomorrow, England catches up with the rest of the UK in imposing a levy on single use carrier bags. Figures for Scotland, which introduced the charge last year, indicate an 80% reduction in their use due to the levy and large drops have also been seen in Wales and Northern Ireland which introduced charges in 2011 and 2013 respectively.

The charge being introduced in England is not universal - it is limited to larger shops and smaller convenience stores can, conveniently, still hand out single use bags free of charge. And it only covers plastic bags, not other single use bags.  Bur still, its a start.  The Scottish charge applies to all retailers and includes not only plastic bags but also bags made from paper and other materials.  While paper is biodegradable and renewable (in that more trees can grow) it is still not a perfect solution.

Also, the money charged goes directly to the retailer unlike the Scottish charging scheme in which the money is given to charities. It is not, therefore, a "stealth" tax and nor do the retailers profit from it, which is much more palatable to consumers.

Plastic bags are, of course, only part of the problem. Profligate use of "disposable" plastics in all forms needs to be tackled, whether through closed loop recycling or using alternative packaging. This article on plastic in fish highlights need for improving our systems for dealing with plastics -

For the latest on #plasticbags on Twitter, click here

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Friday, 2 October 2015

The Clyde Fastlink - A Follow Up

In the three years and three weeks since EcoWarriorMe's first post on Glasgow's Fastlink priority bus route there has been a whirlwind of inactivity, culminating in a buses running along the dedicated lane along the Broomielaw for a few weeks this summer as the new Southern General hospital opened its doors. Then stopped while some modifications were made. Then back again. And now, according to BBC Scotland:

Bus firms ditch 'too slow' £40m fast lanes in Glasgow

McGill's bus on Fastlink routeImage copyrightGoogle
Image captionMcGill's is one of two operators to withdraw from using the Fastlink lanes
Two major bus firms have stopped using the newly-built £40m Fastlink lanes in Glasgow because they are too slow.

On the positive side, bus shelters have been added to the route in the last few weeks so you can stand out of the rain waiting for the bus that will never come (surely such facilities should be an integral part of a quality bus route and not an add on after the fact).

Those familiar with the route would be right to point out that the Broomielaw is only a small part of the scheme. The route from Finnieston through Govan can only be described as bizarre - with buses and cars swapping lanes and even the side of the road on which they drive. All of this takes up limited road space and adds to car congestion, especially when the buses are sharing the space.  If the extra congestion encouraged people out of their cars and into more sustainable transport modes that would be a benefit but the bus routes are not sufficiently joined up and are not quicker.

There must have been more effective ways to invest this £40m to improve transport across the city, to deliver real improvements for the people who live and work here. Perhaps the council could re-invest some of the bus lane fines in public transport, as the cameras do not appear to have done much to reduce journey times by bus. 

Here's hoping.

(More info on the scheme and its history on the original EWM Post here.)

Monday, 4 November 2013

Connecting with Nature

With fresh reports on how disconnected we are becoming from nature, we took the opportunity this fine weekend to reconnect, see what's out there and get muddy.
The changing seasons show Glasgow's parks at their best. Here is Pollok.
A riot of colour. 
Down by the river.

In the bright sunlit woods

By the old stable block.

In the walled garden.

Leaves on fire.



Ornamental Gardens.




Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Time is Right for GM Crops

That's a fact?

According to environment secretary Owen Patterson, the time is right for GM crops and it is the duty of the British Government to convince the public that this is the case. He then said that GM crops are probably safer than conventional crops and seven million children have gone blind or died over the past decade because attempts to grow a strain of GM rice (Golden Rice) commercially have been thwarted (implying, perhaps, by anti-GM campaigners and that there are no other solutions to malnutrition).

The minister went on to back a scientific approach:
"We need evidence-based regulation and decision-making in the EU. Consumers need accurate information in order to make informed choices. The market should then decide if a GM product is viable," 
A rigorous and transparent scientific evidence-based approach is to be welcomed,  although this goes a bit further than Mr Patterson's statement. Assuming that the evidence based regulation allows only GM crops with a very low risk to health and the environment to be developed commercially, leaving it to the consumer to decide on viability may be an acceptable approach.  If, however, the regulated risk level is not low enough, this may lead to unacceptable damage which the politicians will blame on the "consumers demand" for these GM crops.  While many consumers would make the right choice, inevitably many more would choose cost or marketing hype over other considerations such as nutritional values, health risks or environmental degradation.

The first hurdle in convincing the public that GM crops are acceptable, if indeed they are, is to collate the necessary evidence of their safety, scrutinise it,  assess benefits and risks and present the conclusions in a fashion that can be understood by the lay person but with sufficient supporting documentation that independent experts and others with some scientific understanding can drill down to the details. 

Unfortunately the Government and its environment secretary do not have a good track record of accepting the findings of scientists and applying them to policy. 

Climate Change

The environment secretary revealed his ignorance of the science of climate change in a recent radio discussion. This is what he said:

"The climate's always been changing, er, Peter [Hain] mentioned the Arctic and I think in the Holocene the Arctic melted completely and you can see there were beaches there - when Greenland was occupied, you know, people growing crops. We then had a little ice age, we had a middle age warming. The climate's been going up and down, but the real question which I think everyone's trying to address is, is this influenced by man-made activity in recent years and James [Delingpole] is actually correct. The climate has not changed - the temperature has not changed in the last 17 years …"

It would appear that the environment secretary is ignoring the scientific evidence despite a study that found that of 13,950 peer reviewed scientific articles on global warming published between 1991 and 2012, only 24 rejected global warming and a further study found that less than 1% of almost 12,000 scientific papers published between 1991 and 2011 disagreed that human activities are the main cause

The Skeptical Science website discusses this statement more fully here.

Badger Cull

Then there is the decision to ignore any scientific evidence supporting alternative approaches to reducing bovine tuberculosis other than a badger cull.  They even cherry pick parts of the government's own research - playing down the risks it identified that a cull could increase the spread of TB and even if it is done effectively (ca. 90% kill rate every year for 5 years), the best that can be achieved is a modest reduction.  


Despite a growing body of scientific research linking use of neonicitinoid pesticides to declines in bee populations and other non-target species, the British government lobbied hard to prevent a Europe-wide ban. The justification for continued use was primarily that its ban may effect crop yields and that further assessment of the damage caused should be made before deciding on a ban. The 
opposite of the precautionary principle whereby you don't use a new product until it has been proven safe. 

Fortunately, Britain was in the minority and there will be a two year ban, which gives a window for further research. Pesticides are not the only threat to bee populations: changing weather patterns, the verola mite, alternative crops and land use changes affecting habitat all play a part and, if we want to avoid losing these key pollinators, all threats need to be identified, quantified and controlled and not blindly ignored until it is too late as appears to be proposed by the environment secretary. 

Big Business and the Corporate Agenda

This government has consistently shown blinkered support for big business, whether the giant agribusiness or fossil fuel companies, without due consideration of the consequences or the effect on individuals or the environment. Regardless of whether there is a genuinely a place for using genetic engineering in crop research and development, support by a government that can not be trusted when it comes to interpreting the scientific consensus will be viewed with the same suspicion as the large self-interested corporate GM developers such as Monsanto.

If the debate is to move forward then someone without a commercial interest needs to act as an independent arbiter:at this time, when government can not be trusted, then who? 

Tuesday, 14 May 2013


We humans like round numbers.  We don't celebrate the 23rd annual summer fete or the 49th anniversary of an organisation but the 25th or 50th respectively. This is why the quantity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has hit the headlines this week. The daily measurement at Mauna Loa on Hawaii has passed 400 ppm (parts per million) for the first time. Not so much a cause for celebration; more a cause for commiseration  The actual measurement was 400.03 but was subsequently revised down to 399.89 (but what is fourteen hundredths of a part per million between friends). Breaching this threshold was not particularly unexpected but it is symbolic in human terms; it is a memorable number.

But what are the implications of exceeding a CO2 concentration of 400 ppm?

Some climate change skeptics will be quick to highlight the scientific evidence that shows the atmospheric CO2 has been at this level and higher on the past. They are absolutely correct. Somewhere in the region of three to five million years ago similar levels were present and the world was, on average, three or four degrees Celsius warmer with some areas up to ten degrees warmer. Life survived and flourished and it is likely to have influenced the evolutionary path that led to Homo Sapiens but humanity in its current form has never experienced the like, and as far as we can tell, the changes in CO2 levels were never as rapid as over the last 150 years.

We will not wake to a radically different world tomorrow.  Climate change does not work like that.  If we maintain CO2 levels at 400 ppm, without any further increase, it will take decades or even centuries for a new "normal" climate to become established.  Some areas will dry out, others will become wetter, some will cool and others warm, all of which will change natural vegetation and agricultural practices which will feed back into local and global weather systems.  The biggest threat for the human population will be the increased frequency of crop failures.  In order to cope with the still growing human population combined with  climatic changes will require more wilderness to be tamed for agriculture.  Perhaps the tundra will be drained for fields once the permafrost melts.

Longer term effects will be the thawing of glaciers and ice caps which will raise sea levels and affect ocean currents and hence the climate.  Some estimates indicate that when the world last saw 400 ppm CO2 sea levels were 40 metres higher than now. While a rise in sea level of that magnitude may not happen for a century or more, it would be catastrophic for the world as we know it. It wouldn't just be island states such as the Maldives that would disappear but large parts of low lying countries, such as Bangladesh and the Netherlands.  Our ever more crowded cities will be badly affected too.  The first few floors of the newly topped out One World Trade Center in New York will be submerged as will many parts of the Eternal City, which has been inhabited for two and a half millenia.  Some of the world's most densely populated cities, such as Tokyo, Cairo and London, will be much depleted.

This will lead to hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of people being displaced by rising sea levels again putting pressure on the wilderness.  The new homes and infrastructure that will be required on a scale never before experienced will demand vast quantities of energy and natural resources. It won't be the end of the human race but it may suspend our humanity as wars, famine and pestilence of biblical proportions are likely as greater numbers compete for limited resources.

Such a dark future is by no means certain. We still have a little time to act, but not long.  The more we procrastinate the harder it will be to head off the worst extremes coming our way.  If we continue with "business as usual" we are on target for 450ppm by the middle of the century, accompanied by six degrees Celsius temperature rises. That doesn't bear thinking about.

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Saturday, 30 March 2013

Testing Times

What is the point of exams?

Is it to test the candidate's knowledge of the subject or is it to test the candidate's skill in passing exams? In theory at least, it should be the former but when there is a lot riding on the result there is a tendency towards the latter with students placing more emphasis on training to pass the exam rather than gaining a deep understanding of the subject. The student may gain some knowledge of the subject, but only those parts that will gain most marks in the exam as part of a strategy to maximise the result for minimum effort.

This doesn't only apply to academic exams.  Similar strategies can also be adopted for all sorts of tests.  For example, if a car maker wants their car to get a good fuel efficiency rating they can work on scoring better in the test, rather than improving the car's performance.  They can use non-standard high performance lubricants, disconnect the alternator, over inflate the tyres, remove door mirrors and even tape up joints in body panels to improve the test results. Car manufacturers have got so good at performing well in tests that the average gap between quoted fuel efficiency and actual real world fuel efficiency has grown from 7% in 2001 to 23% in 2011 according to figures from Germany.  In fact the real world fuel consumption has been shown to be as much as 50% higher than the official test figures for some vehicles.("Mind the Gap:Why official car fuel economy figures don't match reality")

While no rules or regulations are broken by manipulating the test results, there is certainly an intent to deceive or mislead the consumers and governments (some of which set taxation levels depending on the results of the tests).  This approach to testing taken by car makers could account for as much as half of the fuel efficiency improvements between 2002 and 2010 according to a study undertaken for the European Commission. This makes it difficult for car buyers to make an informed judgement about which models are more efficient. There is, apparently, further scope to improve test results without improving the performance of the production car.

Once you've bought a shiny new supposedly fuel efficient car it is fairly easy to compare your real world fuel consumption with that advertised.  To calculate your fuel consumption:
1) Fill the tank completely and note down the odometer (mileage) reading;
2) Fill the tank again after a few hundred miles, note the odometer reading and the amount of fuel used to fill the tank;
3) Calculate fuel consumption in milers per gallon (mpg):
       [(2nd Odometer reading) - (1st Odometer reading)]/(fuel used in litres/4.55) = mpg
Once you have calculated your fuel consumption and found it to be significantly greater than advertised, what recourse do you have? Under trading standards regulations, you would expect recourse if the product differed from that advertised and advertising standards, manufacturer's must be able to justify their advertised claims.  Unfortunately the consumer loses out in both cases as the manufacturer has testing data to justify their claims and they do not advertise the real world performance or the performance that you should expect, only the performance under a set of loosely defined test criteria.

The Future of Fuel Savings

The European Union is considering future emissions from new cars including setting a target to 95 g CO2/km on average for new cars by 2020.  According to some reports motorists will save £350 per year on fuel thanks to the new emission levels, which will pay for the additional cost of the new car in three years.  Presumably this is based on average mileage and real world fuel efficiency improving at the same rate as the quoted tested efficiency.  If real efficiency savings are half of the test values then the pay back time would double and, for those who drive less,  there may never be enough savings of fuel to cover the additional capital cost of the car.  This is not the incentive we need to reduce fuel consumption.

Media Perception

The New York Times recently reported on a road test of a Tesla electric car, in which it highlighted major shortcomings in its energy use performance, specifically its range.  This clearly of much greater significance than the fuel efficiency of a petrol or diesel car as they can be quickly and easily be topped up with more fuel  at one of many filling stations unlike the electric car which takes time to top up the battery at much less common charging points.  Nevertheless, the emphasis on fuel consumption seems disproportionate with the media generally accepting manufacturer's performance claims, perhaps accepting that real world fuel consumption may be a bit higher than test conditions but certainly not emphasising the growing disparity between quoted performance and actual performance.  One may suspect that they do not want to challenge the car makers to much in case the supply of shiny new toys to test drive is curtailed...


In conclusion, we need:
1. A more accurate test that better simulates real driving conditions and is based on sample cars off the production line or from the forecourt without any modifications.
2. More robust challenging of fuel efficiency claims across all car types by the motoring press.
3. Genuine increases in fuel efficiency.
In addition, we must also focus on alternatives to the car, such as active travel, public transport, private group travel and reducing demand for travel, some of which will be covered in further posts.