The Green Tau: issue 25

Murdo Madleod/ The Guardian

8th December 2021

The first issue of Green Tau included a quote from  Paul’s Letter to the Romans – “Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). – and a quote from the Guardian: “Change is Possible. hope is Power.”

This issue was written looking forwards – without much optimism – to COP26. Six month later I am not sure much has changed. 

But there still has hope. As long as we have hope, however small, then there is something to strive for. Later in his letter Paul suggests that by its nature what we hope for is something we can’t see, for if we could see it, what would our hope be about? (Romans 8:24). Here I think I disagree with Paul. I think in order to have hope we have to have some idea of what it is we are hoping for, however vague or indistinct that vision might be. If our hope is for life after death, we have to have some – however tenuous – understanding of what that life might be: eg a life free of fear and pain, a life of joy etc.

In terms of the climate crisis, I think we have to have some kind of vision, some sort of imagination, of what the world would be like if we could alleviate the crises. Perhaps a vision of  a world where there are great expanses and multiple pockets of re wilded landscape; a world teeming with different plant and animal species; a world of clean air and un-polluted water; a world where there are no extremes of wealth and poverty; a world where there is neither industrial farming nor industrial fishing … and so on. If we didn’t have any such vision, then we what would be hoping for? And if we had nothing to hope for, why would we bother trying to change things?

Hope is important because it becomes our inspiration, a catalyst, a source of energy. And hope that is shared multiplies it’s effect. As a group sharing one hope, we can share the burden of keeping that little flame of hope alive. We can share the load of working for change. We can back each other. We can become each other’s supporters. We can take turns carry each other when the effort becomes too overwhelming. 

It is therefore important that we come together with our neighbours, with our church and faith communities, with local campaign groups, business groups – and work together and share the vision . 

One such group of local businesses came together in Glasgow to create a visual sign, a sculpture, of what hope was, post COP26. “The Hope Sculpture started as a conversation with Ramboll and became a gift from 50 companies to Glasgow. It is a testament to the power of collaboration and dedication to deliver a better future” said the artist Steuart Padwick. His sculpture comprises a 20m tall beacon, on top of which is a child. The child’s arms reach out as if embracing its surroundings, hopeful of a green, better future. It is constructed using low carbon, reclaimed, recycled or sustainable materials, of which, almost all were locally sourced. (https://ramboll.com/media/rgr/gift-of-hope-low-carbon-sculptures-legacy-to-glasgow-and-cop26)

We are often reminded in the Bible how cause and effect spread between generations. From the Book of Exodus when the people are embarking on a new life travelling with God into a new land, a journey surrounded by threat but focused on a great hope for a better future: “I, the LORD, am a God who is full of compassion and pity, who is not easily angered and who shows great love and faithfulness. I keep my promise for thousands of generations and forgive evil and sin; but I will not fail to punish children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation for the sins of their parents.” Exodus 34: 6-7. And in the prophetic words of Mary in the Gospel of Luke, as once again humanity begins a new journey and a new relationship with God: “He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who honour him”. Luke 1: 50 

What we do now in our time will have consequence for generations to come. And maybe that is where  our hope does the environment, for the world, has to lie. We will not turn round the crises we face in one generation. We can only be the instigators of a new way of life, a new journey, that will have repercussions for generations to come. To keep our hope alive, maybe we also need some short term projects where we will be able to see effort rewarded. One of the Advent readings from Isaiah was not a prophesy for the long term, foretelling the coming of the saviour, and for the short term, foretelling a time of peace that would come about in a matter of years.  

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the virgin is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted”. Isaiah 7:13-16.

Maybe we need to focus too on changes that we can bring about by the time this year’s new borns are  eating solid foods – or maybe at primary school learning about right and wrong, giving us a five year time frame. Reducing the numbers of petrol and diesel vehicles on our roads and this reducing air pollution. Changing our UK diets such that eating meat is an occasional treat, leading to a reduction in the factory farming of animals, and an increase in land set aside for rewilding. Halving our carbon footprints, such that global temperature rises are still below 1.5C.

Together let’s us maintain – and work for – the hope of  better, greener future.

Green Tau: issue 24

E-waste 

29th November 2021

Material Focus estimates that as a result of Black Friday and Cyber Monday 5 million electrical items will either be thrown away or will simply be hoarded unused in a drawer or at the back of the cupboard.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/nov/26/e-waste-black-friday-uk-shoppers-donated-recycled-material-focus-campaign

What makes us so wasteful? 

Is it the power of advertising? Is it the ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’? Can we not create an alternative fashion message that says sustainability is best, that longevity is beautiful, that minimalism is key?

Is it the lure of cheap bargains? 

But perhaps they’re only cheap for those who buy now, with purchasers during the rest of the year making up the shortfall via higher prices? Perhaps only cheap when we don’t take into account the cost arising from damage to the environment? Perhaps only cheap because large numbers of the workforce have received pitifully low wages?

Is it the built in obsolescence of the items we buy? Phones whose batteries die after a few years? Software that can’t be updated? Things that cannot be repaired?

All this electrical and electronic waste is termed e-waste*, waste that ends up in landfill sites. There it can be a cause of pollution as poisonous chemicals leak out into the soil and water systems. And at the same time, it throws away valuable metals such as gold and silver, platinum, copper and cobalt,  necessitating the mining of such metals in parts of the world where the safety of the workers and the environment receive little attention. (Maybe in years to come we shall be excavating land fill sites to recover valuable re sources.)

Globally the UK is one of the biggest producers of e-waste, second only to

Norway. Each of us on average generates some 23kg of e-waste whilst the European average is just 16kg. We might think e-waste is dominated by  last year’s iPhone but surprisingly it is items like kettles and irons that contribute most. Perhaps these are items are not designed to have a long life, or maybe because they’re are relatively cheap we don’t bother repairing them. 

How can we reduce e-waste?

  1. We can continue to use the items we already rather than being swayed into upgrading to the next model.
  2. We can seek to repair items when they break. We can find a professional repairer to do this or we can carry out our own repair (but don’t fiddle with the electrical wires and connections etc unless you are qualified: in correctly wired appliances can kill). The Restart project based in London has both a directory of repairers –https://therestartproject.org/repairdirectory/ – and offers Repair Parties where people can be guided to carry out simple repairs – https://therestartproject.org/
  3. We can also make sure that we maintain what we own: descaling kettles and irons, cleaning touch screens, removing fluff from washing machines etc.
  4. If we have items that work but which we no longer need, we can pass them on to someone who will use them, either through free cycle web sites, eBay, or by donating them to charities. This particularly applies to smart phones, tablets, laptops plus cables and chargers. Again Restart can direct you accordingly – https://therestartproject.org/where-to-donate-your-computer/
  5. When items become un-useable they should not go into landfill but be recycled. This is becoming increasingly easy –  https://www.recycleyourelectricals.org.uk/electrical-recycling-near-me/ Here in the Borough of Richmond, small electrical items can be recycled at local libraries whilst bigger items can be taken to the Townmead Recycling Centre.  Electrical items large and small can also be recycled at Curry’s PC World store in Twickenham. 
  6. We can campaign, asking manufacturers to produce items that are durable and repairable – check out this web site – https://10yearphone.com/
  7. We can also continue to press the government to legislate for a circular economy. This YouTube clip shows that progress is being made – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=90k2Tk-BUIA

*(I feel there should be another e-waste descriptor for electronic junk mail, all those unwanted adverts, the photos we store in the cloud and never look at, films and books we download but don’t watch or read, the unnecessary emails we send – especially those long chains of emails that don’t need to re-forward the previous messages, or the send-all emails when only a few people need the message! These all have their own – albeit small – carbon footprint). 

0.3g CO2e: A spam email
4g CO2e: A proper email
50g CO2e: An email with long and tiresome attachment

https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200305-why-your-internet-habits-are-not-as-clean-as-you-think

The Green Tau: issue 25

14th November 2021

Governments and world leaders have not take action that matches up to the structures of the scientists. Now it is up to us as the people. We are not insignificant. We have money to spend – albeit not as much as governments and the top “5 percenters” – and we have voices with which to speak out. 

Consumer power saved dolphins from tuna nets, saved puffins by ending the use of sand eel oil in biscuits, saved veal calves and hens from cages, saved whales by ending the use of whale oil in cosmetics, saved minks from becoming fur coats …  Consumer power has swung behind campaigns to wear seat belts, to give up smoking, to end drink driving. Now consumer power is seeing the end of single use plastic straws and plastic bags. Consumer power is feeding the growth of organic and vegan foods, and the popularity of vintage clothing. Consumer power is even increasing the number of cycles on the roads.  

We can continue to use our money strategically to shape the world we want to live in. We can band together for greater effect. We can boycott products and service – even entire lifestyles – than damage our future. 

We can be influencers and game changers. We can set the example, we can be there trail blazers. We can show others – individuals like ourselves, small businesses and big businesses, schools, civic groups and faith centres, local councils and governments – that this is the way we want to live. 

We can write letters and petition. We can make posters and banners. We can write articles, we can blog and vlog. We can hold coffee mornings and parties. We can sing and we can be theatrical. We can inform and enthuse. We can demonstrate. We can speak out and we can speak up.

We can also be game changers by not spending money! Not everything we do, not everything we enjoy has to cost money. And things that are free seldom have a carbon footprint! A walk in the park. A chat with a friend. A wave to a neighbour. Giving presence not presents. Sharing and lending. Swopping and exchanging. Upcycling and cycling. Swishing and re fashioning. Repairing and recycling. So telling and singing. DIY and home baking. Growing and preserving. 

We may feel that as one individual we can’t make a difference. We may be unsure what is the best action we can take. We may fear that we might fall under the bewitchment of green wash. We may fear that our best intentions may prove to be unwittingly destructive. We may be overwhelmed by choices before us, the flood of information that is out there, that we don’t even know where to start. 

That is why we need to come together, to find like minded companions. To learn from one another, to encourage and support each other. To know that together we can make positive change a reality. 

Next week’s Eco Tips will list some of the many organisations and groups that can help you find answers and/ or provide a framework for eco living. 

The Green Tau: issue 24

5th November 2021

Green Wash or Green Tonic

Half way through the COP26 climate conference and what has been delivered? Green wash or green tonic? Or is it like the mushroom in Alice and Wonderland and it depends from which side you are eating? 

It may be several months before we know whether what we have been given is a green tonic that will invigorate and rapidly promote growth in our transition to a sustainable global lifestyle; or whether it was in fact a green wash of carefully chosen words that don’t actually mean what they say, or don’t actually lead to any action.

Thursday was set aside for discussions and agreements on energy. It should be strikingly clear that fossil fuels in every shape and form can do nothing other than add to the climate crisis. They are termed ‘fossil’ fuels because they are the carbon content of plants and animal remains laid down/ locked away millennia ago. They are stores of carbon intended to be released gradually over not just millennia but eons of time, but which became the miracle power source for the industrial revolution. Carbon dioxide has been released into the atmosphere at a far faster rate than the planet can re-absorb. It is like a bath tub where the overflow is way too small to cope when the taps are open at full bore. Our carbon dioxide bath is all but overflowing and the consequences will be the total loss of icecaps, ice sheets and glaciers that will cause summer water shortages; rising sea levels that will drown not just towns but whole countries; rapidly rising temperatures, expanding deserts, diminishing  agricultural output and the consequential increase in deaths across the globe. Current atmospheric CO2 levels stand at 413.96 ppm compared with the preindustrial level of 280 ppm and predicted maximum, after which climate change becomes uncontrollable, of 440 ppm.

40 countries have pledged to phase out coal-fired power stations by 2030 – or 2040 if they are one of the smaller economies. Note this doesn’t phase out all use of coal, nor does it phase out gas fired power stations, nor the use of oil, petrol, aviation fuel etc. In the UK we have 3 remaining coal fire power stations, which will be phased out by 2025. But we also have 30+ gas fired power stations, and, despite legal challenges, the government has given the go ahead for what will be the largest gas fired power plant at the Drax power station in Yorkshire.

20 countries, including the UK, have agreed to stop providing finance for overseas fossil fuel developments by 2022, and to divert the funds to clean energy projects. However earlier this year the International Energy Association had already announced that the world had already reached the maximum number fossil fuel extracting operations that would be compatible with the 1.5C temperature rise target. Why then provide another year’s worth of funding to develop even more? And why has the UK government given approval for a new coal mine in Cumbria and and oil extraction from the seas around the Hebrides?

Green Tau: issue 23

30th October 2021

Count me in?

This weekend COP26 starts. The coming together of interested parties from all over the world: government leaders, NGOs, scientists, economists, financiers, environmentalists, charities, development agencies – and if not inside the talks, then certainly present, protest groups – with the target of addressing the climate crisis:- 

agreeing and undertaking to implement and finance the action needed to contain the expansion of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,

to limit further increases in global temperatures, 

to enable countries and communities to undertake adaptations to farming and                                             infrastructure, housing and businesses: 

to enable populations to live with the already built-in effects of climate change (rising sea levels, droughts, floods, wild fires, heat waves and cold snaps, storms and changing seasons)

and to do so in a way that is fair to all nations and all people.

Looking at past achievements, we are expecting a lot of COP26. If we are expecting a lot from the conference delegates then it must be right to expect a lot of ourselves too.

How far will we go? How far will we go in changing our lifestyle to protect the planet? How far will we go in curbing our consumption of limited resources? How far we we go in be willing to pay the true cost of what we buy?

Change has to begin somewhere. If no one takes the first step, then nothing happens, but if someone makes that first step them change can begin.  It can seem really hard to make changes when everyone  around you seems to be ignoring the problem and continuing as if no action is needed. How can we make change easier?

Be confident that you are doing the right thing. 

Be proud to be a trend setter.

Get the support of like minded people. 

Be an encouragement to others.

Raise awareness of why change is needed.

Raise awareness of the consequences of doing nothing.

Find ways in which change becomes satisfying, rewarding, even fun.

Keep focused on why change is necessary. 

See the positives you are achieving – and talk about them to others! 

Be proud to be part of the change.  

The Green Tau: issue 22

22nd October 2021

Green Finance

There is very little in this world that doesn’t somewhere along the line involve money – or as we might more politely phrase it, finance. Our response to the climate crisis is no exception. For whilst there are things we can do that don’t cost a single penny – like walking instead of taking the car, or turning down the thermostat, or not eating meat – there are many more things we need to do that do cost. We need to bring to a halt extraction of oil, coal and gas and instead create jobs and industries around  renewable energy, heat pumps, electrical vehicles and charging points. We need to invest in public transport and reduce considerable the aviation industry – and we need to invest in retraining and creating green jobs. We need to shift the emphasis of agriculture from animal to arable farming. We need to restore and expand the rewilding of land and seas so they can become larger,  more effective carbon sinks. We need to insulate our homes, offices, public buildings – even places of worship. We need improve provision for floods, droughts, wild fires, storms, heat waves and cold snaps, so that people, properties and ecosystems are protected. The list goes on and so does the need for finance.

However much these measures may cost, we must keep in mind what would be the cost of doing nothing: ie the cost of even more infrastructure to cope with ever increasing temperatures, and extreme weather conditions; the cost of relocating homes, businesses and whole communities as sea levels rise; the rising cost of food as all important pollinating and pest destroying insects are lost; the rising cost of food and water as water shortages rise; the loss of life from extreme weather events and the rising number of excess deaths from heat waves and cold snaps; the growing need to relocate whole communities as rising temperatures make large areas of land uninhabitable. 

And on the other hand we should keep in mind all the positive spin offs from investing in a greener world: better health as people walk and cycle more, eat less meat and dairy products, enjoy more green spaces that enhance mental well being, live in warmer, dryer homes, breathe less polluted air. 

So what is happening about finance to tackle the climate crisis? Here are some examples and policy statements for the global to the individual level.

*UN Climate Finance: ‘The Convention, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement call for financial assistance from Parties with more financial resources to those that are less endowed and more vulnerable. This recognises that the contribution of countries to climate change and their capacity to prevent it and cope with its consequences vary enormously.’

‘According to October 2019 data from the World Bank , the world will need to make significant investment in infrastructure over the next 15 years –around US$90 trillion by 2030.  But it can recoup those investments. Transitioning to a green economy, it found, can unlock new economic opportunities and jobs. An investment of US$1, on average, yields US$4 in benefits.

‘In addition to reducing emissions, making infrastructure more resilient avoids costly repairs and minimises the wide-ranging consequences of natural disasters on the livelihoods and well-being of people, particularly the most vulnerable, as well as on businesses and economies.  And a shift  to low-carbon, resilient economies could create over 65 million net new jobs globally out to 2030.

‘Reaching net zero requires making good on the $100 billion annual climate finance commitment’ – at the time of writing it is hoped that developed nations will make good on their promise to supply this funding.  https://unfccc.int/topics/climate-finance/the-big-picture/introduction-to-climate-finance

  • International Monetary Fund: ‘Long term institutional investors can help with rebalancing and redistributing of climate related risks and maintaining financial stability. Hedging instruments (e.g., catastrophe bonds, indexed insurance) help insure against increasing natural disaster risk, and other financial instruments (e.g., green stock indices, green bonds, voluntary de-carbonisation initiatives) can help re-allocate investment to “green” sectors.’ https://www.imf.org/en/Topics/climate-change/green-finance

* World Economic Forum: Green finance is blossoming. Globally, the green bond market could be worth $2.36 trillion by 2023. It is regarded as a way of meeting the needs of environmentalism and capitalism simultaneously – but what is green finance and how does it work? Typical projects that fall under the green finance umbrella include:

  • Renewable energy and energy efficiency
  • Pollution prevention and control
  • Biodiversity conservation
  • Circular economy initiatives
  • Sustainable use of natural resources and land

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/11/what-is-green-finance/

* The Bank of England: ‘Climate change affects our planet, our economy and our financial system. As such, climate change is relevant to the Bank of England’s central mission to promote the good of the people of the United Kingdom by maintaining monetary and financial stability.’

* All banks are likely to offer customers finances for green projects subject to their normal risks assessment. However some banks – green/ ethical banks – make finance such projects the main stay of their work and at the same time consciously choose not to invest in projects that are harmful to the environment. For example Triodos Bank claims to be ‘one of the most sustainable banks in the world. We make money work for positive social, environmental and cultural change.’

Good with Money notes that: ‘channelling money into companies and initiatives that solve big global problems may be a win-win scenario. For instance, well-run businesses fighting climate change are benefitting from public and private commitments to clean infrastructure. Some are even starting to outperform their badly-managed, polluting rivals, which means bigger profits for investors to put towards meaningful long-term goals.’ https://good-with-money.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/The-Good-Guide-to-First-Time-Investing-FINAL.pdf

*Pension providers, insurance companies, mortgage providers, investment and savings companies, all invest money for the benefit of their customers.  As consumers we can ask whether these funds are invested so as to benefit the environment or whether they are investing in companies that are damaging the environment, such as those in the fossil fuel industries. 

Make My Money Matter says: ‘Your pension is powerful. There’s £2.6 trillion in UK pensions – and that’s your money. But it’s being invested on your behalf, without your say. That means your hard-earned savings are likely driving deforestation and funding fossil fuels. As a result, your money has a carbon footprint – just like you.We’ve looked at how big that footprint is, and the answer is pretty scary. The carbon footprint of the average pension is 26 tonnes…’ https://makemymoneymatter.co.uk/21x/

* Personal spending: we, as consumers, can be seen as investors. When we choose what to spend our money on, we are expressing our preference, our support for that product or service, that market or industry. Whether we are buying petrol or a bus ticket, whether we are buying an air ticket or train ticket, whether we are buying locally grown apples or imported grapes, dairy milk or oat milk, we are influencing the way money will be invested and its impact on our environment. 

Green Tau: issue 21

15th October 2021

Biodiversity and regenerative agriculture

Last week we looked at the tendency for agriculture to a) expand into virgin territory at the expense of flora and fauna biodiversity, and b) to be concentrated around a narrow number of crops and animal species. Agricultural practices are the source of further challenges.  

In a drive to be more productive and more economic, many agricultural businesses have gone for the large scale – large farms, large fields, large machinery – creating landscapes that devoid of trees and hedges and instead are vast tracts of identical crops. Monoculture does not support biodiversity. Fields of rape may provide near endless quantities of flowers that are attractive to pollinators, but once they have flowered there is a dearth of food sources for those pollinators. With their demise, comes the demise of other birds and animals that rely on them as part of the food chain. 

Monoculture also provides a good environment for the spread of plant diseases and the proliferation of weeds – the latter might be suppressed by a diversity of plants, some overshadowing the weeds, or by insects and larvae that might feed on them. The net result is that to sustain monoculture, crops must be sprayed with pesticides and herbicides, neither of which is good for biodiversity. For the soil this can be a particular problem. Soils rely on insects, beetles, and many micro-organisms to keep the soil rich with nutrients and to maintain a good soil structure.  Soils that become damaged or depleted  of nutrients become reliant on the addition of chemical fertilisers to maintain their productivity. However these can be damaging to biodiversity, especially when nitrates are washed through the soil into local water ways where they form algae blooms and damage both flora and fauna. 

Whilst agriculture can be part of the biodiversity problem, it can also be part of the solution. 

Regenerative Agriculture 

Whilst the term ‘regenerative agriculture’ was first used in the early 1980s as concept that aimed to make agriculture not just sustainable, but positively beneficial for the environment. However it has only more recently gained popularity.

There is as yet to fixed definition of what regenerative agriculture is, nor how it is to be practiced.  Terra Genesis International working in Thailand has determined its principles as:- 

  • Progressively improve whole agroecosystems (soil, water and biodiversity)”
  • “Create context-specific designs and make holistic decisions that express the essence of each farm”
  • “Ensure and develop just and reciprocal relationships amongst all stakeholders”
  • “Continually grow and evolve individuals, farms, and communities to express their innate potential”

What I think is interesting here is the inclusion of the people involved in farming and their communities.

The UK’s Regenerative Food and Farming (https://regenerativefoodandfarming.co.uk/) recommends the following farming practices:-

  • No or low tillage, ie not ploughing the soil or removing the remnants of the previous before sowing, and maintaining some form of vegetative cover at all times. This helps to keep both CO2 and water in the soil, rather than it escaping into the atmosphere.
  • Diversifying what is grown using mixed planting, intercropping (including sylvan agriculture which grows crops in between trees), and relay cropping. There is a focus on growing more of what is needed locally which minimises the distance food has to be transported.
  • Using animals as part of crop rotation.
  • Not over grazing fields.
  • Stimulating micro-organisms in the soil by maintaining living roots in the soil at all times and by adding organic compost.
  • Avoiding the use of chemicals on the land and minimising antibiotics given to animals – sometimes these are used to stimulate growth rather than for treating diseases.
  • Adding tree, perennials and wild flowers to the landscape.
  • Rewilding areas of landing and creating corridors between them.

Such agricultural practices not only benefits biodiversity, they also improved get capacity of the soil to sequester carbon, reduce the carbon emissions of the farming industry, assist with flood prevention and reduce the water needed by farms.

If you are interested in regeneratively farmed produce, google to see what’s available locally. On a larger scale companies such as Ben and Jerry, Nestle and McDonalds are seeking to source their ingredients from regenerative farmers. 

The Green Tau: issue 20

Biodiversity and food production 

Last week’s Green Tau weekly began a mini series looking at biodiversity. We noted that despite the relative smallness of humanity in terms of global biomass, we humans are dramatically and drastically altering the planet’s biodiversity. This week I want to look at the impact food production has on biodiversity. 

Over the millennia humans have domesticated both animals and plants, selecting and breeding species, and developed farming practices that would best provide food. In the process, humans extended their control over land that had previously been wild, which in turn has limited the land available for wild animals and plants. 1000 years ago, less than 4% of habitable land was farmed. This increased over the centuries, and particularly so from the mid 1800, when the area of farmed increased from under 25%  to the current 50%. (Habitable land is land not covered by glaciers, 10%, nor barren land such as deserts, sand dunes, bare rock, salt flats etc, 19%). In Europe the area of farmed land is now declining slightly, whereas it is continuing to expand in Africa, Asia, China and parts of South America.

Currently there is much media coverage about the clearance of the rain forests in Brazil to create new agricultural land plus accompanying access roads. This process destroys unique habitats with the loss of many plants, animals, birds and insects etc. It also destroys the millennia old way of life of indigenous people.  It is easy to see how such expansion of farming land exacerbates biodiversity loss. The same problem also arises in Africa, Asia and China. Mangroves have also been cleared to make way for shrimp farms, palm oil plantations and rice fields. 

A perhaps previously ignored consequence of expanding farming into previous areas of wilderness, is the increased contact between wild and domesticated animals. This allows diseases to spread more rapidly between the different species. What might be an insignificant virus infecting a wild animal can become a highly infectious virus in domestic animals. These virus can then spread to humans. Such zoonotic diseases include the Ebola virus, SARS and the current Covid 19.

Over the millennia, much of the UK has also been deforested to make way for farm land. Tree coverage  in the UK stands at about 12% which is much lower than most other countries in Europe. Top of the league is Finland with over 50% tree cover; Spain and Portugal are around 35%; France, Germany and Switzerland around 30%. As trees provide a great many habitats for other plants, birds, animals and insects, as well being good stores of carbon, the government’s climate advisers now recommend  tree cover should be increased to 17-19%. As well as planting new trees, it is also important that existing trees are protected: it takes many years for a tree to reach maturity and whilst they are still saplings they do not provide much habitat for other wild life. 

It is not only trees that have been cleared to make way for farming in the UK. Wetland areas such as marshes and bogs, have been drained. This destroyed the unique habitats of many different plants, insects and animals. In the same way, clearing hedgerows has had a detrimental affect on biodiversity. There is now a growing awareness of the importance of restoring and maintaining a diverse range of habitats to support different plants and creatures. Where the area of a particular habitat becomes too small, it may fail to maintain populations of plants and creatures at a viable level. However creating a corridors between habitats enables larger populations to be supported. Hedgerows perform this task on a small scale, as can railway lines and road verges.

Not only has farmland been expanding over the centuries, but what is farmed has changed. Increasing global trade, colonialism and the intensification of farming, has produced a agricultural system that now grows a very limited number of plant species. Two thirds of the world’s food comes from just nine plants: sugar cane, maize, rice, wheat, potatoes, soybeans, oil-palm fruit, sugar beet and cassava. 

Such a concentration makes our food supply vulnerable to the effects of climate change and diseases. This year’s durum wheat crop has been much reduced because of  exceptionally dry conditions in Canada (the harvest is down by a third) and wet ones in Europe. Nearly half of all the bananas grown in the world are one variety, Cavendish, even though there are approximately 999 other varieties. The Cavendish banana is now threatened by a fungus which could wipe it out.  

This over concentration on a limited number of species has meant that many local and older plant varieties have been marginalised – another form of biodiversity loss. However the value of such plants is now being recognised. They can provide alternative crops better suited to local growing conditions and/or changing climatic conditions. Such species include quinoa, which  can be grown at high altitudes, teff which like quinoa can be grown at high altitudes and where water supplies are limited, millet which can tolerate high temperatures, and einkorn which needs less nitrogen – ie can grow in less fertile soils – than wheat.

The same pattern of concentration occurs in animal farming too. Nearly all the world’s diary cows are based on one single breed, the Holstein. As with arable crops, there are advantages of protecting and promoting rare and ancients breeds of farm animals. But in terms of biodiversity what is more incredible is the sheer biomass of farm animals. They account for 60% of all mammals on the planet (of which cattle and buffalo  account for 40%); we humans account for 36% whilst the remaining wild mammals a mere 4%.

Globally 77% of agricultural land is used to raise livestock. This includes land used to grow animal feed. Yet this 77% produces less than  20% of the world’s calories. Land used for livestock could be better used to produce plant based food that would feed a greater number of people and/ or rewilded to increase biodiversity. Factoring in the carbon footprint of livestock, especially cattle, there are even more benefits to be gained from reducing livestock levels. 

The Green Tau: issue 19

Biodiversity part 1

What do we mean by ‘biodiversity’? 

The WWF defines it as ‘all the different kinds of life you’ll find in one area—the variety of animals, plants, fungi, and even microorganisms like bacteria that make up our natural world. Each of these species and organisms work together in ecosystems, like an intricate web, to maintain balance and support life. Biodiversity supports everything in nature that we need to survive: food, clean water, medicine, and shelter.’ 

The pictogram shows the relative proportions of different life forms (in shades of green on the left) and from within that the relative proportions of animals (in shades of orange on the right). All these  life forms have been measured in terms of their carbon mass, otherwise known as biomass.  It creates a surprising image! Humankind appears to be almost insignificant. Yet we are increasingly aware that this is not so. Humans are highly significant because they are dramatically and drastically altering life on earth. 

What is the issue?

The WWF estimates that since 1970 there has been a 60% decline in the number of animal species on the planet. Mass extinction on this scale has not been seen since the age of the dinosaurs. Almost all the causes are man-made: destruction of natural habitats; forests clearances for agriculture and industrial use; road and rail building programmes; overfishing; pollution of air, water and soils; degradation and erosion of soils; over extraction of water and loss of rivers and lakes; tourism; introduction of invasive alien species; mining operations;  climate change etc.

 It is not just large creatures such as polar beers, tigers and rhinos that are threatened with extinction – only two white northern rhino still exist and they are other female – but smaller ones too. In Australia the Bramble Cay Melomys, a small rodent, is the first mammal whose extinction is due to climate change. Here in the UK creatures at risk of extinction include the Scottish wildcat, a cicada native to the New Forest (no sightings have been recorded since 2000), the natterjack toad, the turtle dove, dormice, the Cosnard net-winged beetle, and 30 or more species of solitary bee (13 are now already extinct). Each species lost is in itself a loss of biodiversity but also diminishes the eco system of which it was apart and potentially puts other creatures that prey or otherwise rely on it, at risk. That risk extends to humans too. Many of our food crops (apples, strawberries, tomatoes, green beans, coffee and cocoa, kiwi fruits, avocado, cashew nuts, to name but a few) rely on bees and other insects to pollinate them.  In the UK there has been a 30% decline in pollinating insects since 1980. 

A recent report, The State of the World’s Trees, concludes that 30% of trees are at risk of extinction. With each species that is lost, there is a knock-on threat to other plants and creatures that rely on its unique ecosystem. The biggest threat for trees is deforestation for agricultural purposes. Disease also plays a role and here in the UK ash trees are under threat from ‘ash die back’. This fungus originates from Asia where indigenous ash trees have a natural resistance to it. It is likely it was inadvertently introduced here with imported saplings, but now it is could destroy up to 80 or 90% of our native ash trees. 

Why is biodiversity important?

  • Protection of food supplies (as mentioned above)
  • Protection of ecosystems: loss of one species can radically change or destroy an ecosystem, so the effect can be cumulative
  • Many species are key contributors maintaining the well being of the planet:

keeping soils fertile – eg earth worms

controlling pests – eg ladybirds and wasps

keeping water clean – eg oxygenating plants

removing decaying material – eg slugs and snails, crows and vultures 

keeping the air clean – eg trees

keeping oceans healthy – eg sea grass which absorbs CO2 and provides food for fish etc 

  • Source of medicines, many of which have perhaps yet to be discovered
  • Green and blue spaces – ie nature – is good for mental health and well being
  • Aesthetic and cultural values – eg oak trees are symbolic of England, tigers are culturally significant in India, as are reindeer for the Sami. Even here in London biodiversity is embedded geographically: eels must once have swum through Eel Brook Common, beavers once lived along Beverly Brook and presumably nightingales once sang in Berkeley Square.
  • And above all, because it’s out there, it’s amazing and it’s God-given.

Slowly work is being undertaken to restore and protect the world’s biodiversity. It will feature as part of the forth coming COP26 climate change conference as well as being the subject of its own COP15 conference which should take place April 2022 in China. More immediately here in the UK the Government’s Environment Bill which will set binding targets for the recovery of biodiversity. After it’s third reading in the House of Lords on 13th October it will return to the House of Commons for a final reading. Do write to your MP and ask them to vote down any amendments that attempt to water down this Bill.

The Green Tau: issue 18

Changing the Face of Business 

B Corps – Benefit Corporations – are the fair trade equivalent for businesses. Whilst remaining profit making concerns these are businesses that also undertake to meet certain in social and environmental standards. Their bottom line is threefold: profit, people and planet. 

To attain B Corp status companies are assessed against five categories:

  • Governance – the way their business is run internally
  • Workers – how they are treated and paid
  • Social sustainability – how they support or contribute to society, including charitable donations
  • Environmental – how they contribute to environmental sustainability 
  • Product – the social and environmental benefit of what they produce

Provided they meet the minimum standard, they are awarded B Corp certification. This is reviewed on a three yearly basis.

The benefit for the business is an enhanced brand image, and improved ability to recruit staff  and investors. The downside is the cost of obtaining certification which might exclude some small but ethical businesses.

There are 2778 B Corps world wide and 193 based in the UK. They include OddBox and Riverford veg boxes, Innocent and Danone drinks etc, Triodos and Coutts banks, Judes icecream, Lilly’s pet food, Volcano coffee roasters, Camden Town brewers, Vibro Barefoot shoes, and various media, marketing, and management companies. A full listing can be found here: https://bcorporation.uk/directory?search=&industry=&country=United%20Kingdom&state=&city=&page=5 

Social enterprises also aim to make a profit, which they then use to create positive social change through providing training and employment opportunities, supporting businesses in marginal areas, helping end homelessness, making donations to support communities in need etc. Increasingly social enterprises are focusing on environmental outcomes too. They tend to be small concerns, including repair workshops, bakeries, cafes, arts venues, grocery stores, gardening units, local energy generation, recycling units etc. Social Enterprise UK lists how you support these enterprises through what you buy: https://www.socialenterprise.org.uk/buysocial/where-can-i-buy-social/

The money in our pockets, like (or perhaps better than) our vote in an election, can change the world we live in.