Archive for April, 2010

Environmental Policies from Key Parties – Part 1

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

I have purposely started by reviewing key environmental areas and international development other than climate change first, as they are just as (if not more) important than global warming.  In particular, I have looked at the following key areas – water, wastewater, pollution, solid waste, biodiversity and international development.

Conservatives:

  • Working towards zero waste – incentivising families that recycle and put a floor under landfill tax until 2020 to give business long term certainty to invest in new forms of waste disposal – that sounds like a cop-out to me that will not force businesses to reduce landfill waste
  • Introduce greater competition in water industry to reduce bills and improve efficiency and innovation plus reform to improve environmental standards – once again this seems a bit wishy-washy and may lead to reduced service unless it is linked to meeting specific environmental targets
  • Claims to have called for Marine Act that Labour introduced and wants further reforms to Common Fisheries Policy to protect fisherman and fish stocks even more
  • “Science led policy” on badger control in TB infected areas (whatever science led means!)
  • Broader ecosystem approach to landscape as a whole as well as targeted approach to protected habitats and species
  • Intends to introduce a system of conservation credits in England as “an incentive to invest in biodiversity”
  • £200 million of funding for local authorities to invest in greener transport such as bus and cycling from Transport Innovation Fund without need to introduce a Congestion Charge in regions.  The money is already ring fenced by the Labour Government, however removing the need to charge a Congestion Charge will create a marginal cost for Government were it to actually release the funds
  • Would seek to reverse bans on hunting with dogs and hare coursing via free vote for MPs
  • Committed to 0.7% of Gross National income as aid by 2013
  • Empower people in poor countries as to how to spend aid, and will spend £500 million a year to tackle malaria
  • Block GM crops until shown to be safe

Greens:

  • Has a zero waste policy with comprehensive recycling schemes and support the recycling industry with target of 60% recycled in 5 years (UK is already at 50% so this isn’t very ambitious)
  • Via a Waste Avoidance and Recycling Act impose differential charges for short life products, ie plastic costs more than glass to dispose, and legislate minimum recycled content into some products
  • Ban new waste incinerators and phase out old ones, but invest in anearobic digesters
  • Eliminate plastic throwaway bags from shops
  • Ban GM crops
  • Get out of Common Fisheries Policy, or at least shift to a more sustainable basis (difference between main website and policy website)
  • There is a 404 error on their “Environment and Animal Welfare Page” – however, from their main policy section, the Greens would ban factory farming, cruel bloodsports, badger culling and promote organic farming and vegetarian food
  • Energy: massive investment in renewables to create 80,000 jobs; retrofitting houses, schools and hospitals to make them more energy efficient; phasing out of nuclear power; removal of incentives from biofuels; shifting subsidies from nuclear and coal power to renewable energy
  • Transport: focus on walking then cycling then public transport, especially light rail and trams, then cars plus legislate to get more commercial transport onto rail and water and away from roads and air and congestion charging
  • International development: increase aid to 1% of Gross National income and cancellation of debt to 52 poorest countries – I think it’s “and” but I may be double-counting of debt cancellation as part of aid which is the case of most political policies, but frankly there’s not much detail here

Labour:

  • Biodiversity is important – 2 landmark acts the Countryside and Right of Ways Act and the Marine and Coastal Access Act, 2 new National Parks
  • £3.9 billion Rural Development Programme which includes an agri-environment Environmental Stewardship Scheme
  • Extended Green Belt and focused on developing Brownfield Sites for developments
  • Assess GM crops on case-by-case basis
  • Targetting investment in public transport, green technologies for cars with £400 million fund to develop new technology and invested money in schemes to get cycling into urban environment spending £60 million over last 5 years and getting 500,000 kids doing Bikeability training by 2012
  • Banned fox hunting and hare coursing; banned animal testing of cosmetics and barren cages for chickens – very committed to animal welfare
  • Campaigning to ban illegal trade in ivory, polar bears, bluefin tuna and bobcats, while consulting on banning of cages for gamebirds and wild animals in circuses
  • Working for fairer global society and committed in law to spending 0.7% of Gross National income on aid to support poorest nations, and working to address the 8 Millennium development goals to combate extreme poverty by 2015
  • Under Labour, UK has been world’s second biggest bilateral donor in fight against HIV/Aids, targetting malaria via delivery of 50 million bednets by 2013 and spending £100 million to fight polio around the world

Liberal Democrats:

  • “Zero waste” policy – no more landfill for solid waste, with a rise in recycling, changes to packaging regulations and increase in use of anearobic digesters
  • Introduction of smart meters in areas where issues of water availability
  • Target water companies to reduce wastage of water
  • Cancel third runway at Heathrow to target pollution
  • Ban commercial production of GM crops
  • Revenue neutral road user pricing to reduce congestion and pollution in urban environment (I know I am thick but I don’t know what this means, but I assume it is the same as the congestion charge for London)
  • They also hint at issues of bird, animal and plant habitats but don’t specify what they will do about it unless changes to local planning decisions is meant to address that.  This doesn’t really target biodiversity but does make the landscape more open and free.
  • Their policy on international development has not been specified and there is currently just a consultation document dated February 2010, so this is not reviewable.

In summary, there is some detail in place, however I was disappointed at how lightweight the Liberal Democrats were on this area when they really could have scored some good points-of-difference.  Perhaps it will come in later campaigning, but there was not much on their website on this, and it could be too late for me to change my vote. 

As a result, it was a contest between the Conservatives and Labour on this point as the Greens were good on some areas but less credible on the detail and the international perspective – a lot of negative and regressive policies rather than adaptive and genuinely practical solutions (in my opinion). 

I think much of the issue with the Greens is that their agenda was perhaps not very radical as the good policy ideas have been cherry picked by the main political parties already, so the only things they can show a difference on are minor areas and more radical stances, eg bringing buses under public ownership (I assume that’s what is meant by “re-regulation”) and banning nuclear power, while banning blood sports is good (if a bit late as a policy) but phasing out industrial farming and food production is a ridiculous policy in the real world.  Their positions on animal welfare are basically the same as Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and even the Conservatives have some interest in these areas, while recycling and pollution is already going quite well under Labour, so basically the Greens were not as visionary as I had expected nor as ambitious or aggressive enough for me with their “green” ideas so scored less well when compared to the Conservatives and Labour.  I wonder whether they are trying to seem more sensible and so electable, therefore they have lost some of their radical appeal.

As in many things in life, it depends what you think is most important – Labour definitely are strong on their animal welfare credentials while the Conservatives were better on the International Development – I liked the specifics of the malaria fund.  I couldn’t find much about waste management and recycling on the Labour website, except stuff in the Climate Change debate which I think misses a trick.   However, what it comes down to is Labour have very strong credibility due to what they have already done, but I was less sure about their future ideas.  I know Labour wants to be seen as a safe pair of hands and is campaigning on more of the same, but like many voters I pay little attention between elections so I need to be explained the future now, so Labour should not rest on its past environmental achievements, because that’s been and (I am sorry to say) had largely passed me by.

Overall though, I have to say all parties were a bit weak and woolly which just shows they are not really that interested in green issues, which is a disappointment for me.  So overall, a thumbs down to everyone here and I hope whoever wins will do a lot better than the little that is to be found on their websites, or the Minister of the Environment could be a really cushy, easy-going job for the next Government. 

If I had to give my vote on the basis of what I have read so far on these topics, it would be in the following order of preference: Labour, Conservatives, Greens then Liberal Democrats.  I score the Conservatives above the Greens because I think nuclear power has to be in the mix and factory farming (while often really horrible) does keep food prices down, but they do less well in my mind on animal welfare; therefore, you could argue that my view is coloured by a prejudice here against the credibility of the Green Party, and you are welcome to push the Tories down that list, although the Liberal Democrats have to come bottom as they don’t seem to have completed the work yet (which I cannot quite believe). 

Hopefully, there will be more of interest in everyone’s policies on Global Warming and Energy…

UPDATE 15/4/2010:

The parties have now all launched their manifestoes – why I don’t know as they seem to say just what is already on the web without the need to fell a few forests.  I have put a few notes below for any additional points of interest regarding green issues:

Conservatives: will stop restart of whaling, destroy stockpiles of ivory and stop trade in ivory, campaign to end deforestation of rainforests and ban illegal wood coming into UK under any guise

Greens: nothing new in their policies, but I did do their policy matchmaker and only scored 50% on it which I suspect means that I am not best matched by the Green Party’s policies as it was only my aversion to ID cards that got me up to 50%

Labour: ban illegal wood coming into UK

Liberal Democrats: work to stop deforestation to protect biodiversity (as well as climate change) and ban imports of illegal chopped down timber; 0.7% GNI on development aid; work to tackle HIV/aids, malaria and TB; target clean water supply in developing world (my comment: how about sanitation as well!!); cancellation of 3rd world debt; funds available to develop viable social welfare systems in developing world; stop loss of habitats and so biodiversity in UK

I think that this means that Liberal Democrats are no longer bottom of the pile and I would put them equal with the Conservatives but behind the Labour Party.

Pale Blue Dot

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

Sometimes you read something that says things so much more clearly and beautifully than one could ever hope to do oneself.  And I have recently read one of those – it comes from Richard Dawkins‘ brilliant anthology of science writing called “The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing” and it’s a passage by Carl Sagan called “Pale Blue Dot” from “Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space”. 

For me, it sums up so much better than I can ever explain why I think that we should all come from the stewardship angle regarding our relationship with the earth and nature rather than to exploit it for the here and now.  It comes from a deeply-held philosophy that stems from earth as my home and everyone else’s home, as well as the home of all creatures and plants and microbes past, present and future.  We are but briefly passing through for the tinest fraction of time and we must be careful of our impact as the world is a unique, beautiful and very blue place in a universe full of cold, dark, black and dead nothingness.

“Look again at that dot.  That’s here.  That’s home.  That’s us.  On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you have ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.  The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar”, “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.  Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.  Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.  Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.  In our obscurity, in all its vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life.  There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.  Visit, yes.  Settle, not yet.  Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience.  There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.  To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Recipe – Sweet Tart Dough or Sweet Pastry

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

I am not very good at making pastry.  Some people say that you need cold hands to make pastry and dough, but I have warm hands as I seem always to be burning away all that food – perhaps I just never sit still or my metabolism runs too fast. 

So I asked our good friend, Anthony Sterne to come up with his easy pastry recipes and then for us to have a go at them ourselves.  Anthony used to be a development chef at Pret A Manger in London before setting out on his own, originally making pies and pastry with exotic fillings and has now branched out into quiches and (very successfully) into delicious cakes.  His business is called Independent Foods – originally I’s Pies – and his great creations are available in Booths, Morrisons and Waitrose, but in our opinion should be more widely available.  You can check his web site out at http://www.independentfoods.co.uk/

In Anthony’s words “this recipe creates a crisp, biscuity pastry that is perfect as a base for tarts or mince pies.  As long as the oven is well preheated it generally works really well without blind baking.  The most important consideration is to make sure all the ingredients are at room temperature (especially the butter and eggs) before starting.”

400g / 14oz plain flour
160g / 5.5oz good butter (softened)
140g / 5oz caster Sugar
2 large eggs (we only ever use free-range)
1 tsp Steenbergs Organic Vanilla Extract 

Use an electric mixer with the beater attachment or a bowl and a wooden spoon to cream the butter and caster sugar together.  The mixture should be light in colour and slightly fluffy in texture.

Beat the eggs and add gradually with the teaspoon of Steenbergs Organic Fairtrade vanilla extract, mixing all the time.  If the mixture starts to split, you can add a tablespoon of flour, however it shouldn’t split as long as everything isn’t too cold.

Once all the egg has been incorporated, you can add the flour and continue to mix until a smooth dough is formed.  The pastry should be soft but not sticky, if it sticks to your finger when poked just add a bit more flour.

You can leave the pastry in a cool place (not the fridge) for half an hour to relax although it is fine to use it straight away.  Roll out on a well floured surface.  It doesn’t keep well in the fridge as it becomes hard and unworkable although any excess is fine to make into shells and freeze for later use.

First Impressions On UK Political Parties From Green Agenda

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

As promised, I have started the process of looking at the main political parties from the perspective of the environment and international development.  I think I may have bitten off a bit more than I had expected with this, but I will continue.  Yesterday, I wasted an idle hour of my time looking at the websites for the Conservatives, the Greens, Labour, Liberal Democrats and the SNP, and downloaded background information about their policies on these two areas.  Here are my first impressions – I have not looked at a single policy yet so this is more about websites and general look, feel and philosophy taking into account the environmental agenda.

Firstly, the SNP.  Well I couldn’t find anything relevant on their website as regards the general election or environmental policies; their most recent Westminster manifesto is from 2005.  The best I could come up with was their section on Government, ie Scottish Government.  Unfortunately, this means I will not be going back to their website to get any more information; in this day and age, you need to have all the information up there all the time and it’s just not good enough to be waiting until a full official manifesto is launched.

Next, the Green Party.  Firstly, it would seem clear and bleeding obvious that central to the Green Party’s political philosophy is “taking into account the environment in all policy decisions”, but I was surprised that when I went to their policy section that there were no environmental policies.  Now I know where they are coming from being that everyone knows we are green but what they don’t believe we can deliver on is basic policy areas like Health and Housing and the Economy, so we’ll major on these areas, however why hide the Green Agenda?  Or as they say “We are not just an environmental party. Our policies extend across all areas of life.”  When Steenbergs first set up our website, our bank manager said to us that he was surprised that we never mentioned that we were focused on organic spices and herbs, so we realised that what’s obvious to us/them is probably less obvious to other people, so you need sometimes to keep on stating the bleeding obvious.  I did eventually find more detail about policies within the main website in the About the Green Party section hidden in a side bar, but to get those policy statements you keep needing to go back to this side bar.

To find the Green Party’s information on the Environment, you need to go to another website called Green Party Policies and download various pdf files across a range of topics.  Now this web site is truly horrible – it’s clunky, slow and really hard to work out what and where to get information.  Also, because of it’s structure, you end out having to print out loads of paper to actually read the policies because the pdfs are really hard to read.  While the web site had errors all over the place – the Policy Statements page comes up with a 404 Error Page Not Found.  As for detailed policies, I was surprised to find that many of the Policy Downloads were offline pending revision although they will be up in a few days.  So all in all this was fairly hard work to trudge through and really difficult to find stuff  about the environment and international development, which meant that you really had to want to find the detail to want to use the website.  Were I a teacher I would have to say “Could do better”.

Next, I am going to lump together the Conservative and the Liberal Democrats – that’s probably a first.  Both of their websites are clean looking and easy to use, and have a similar structure, so you can find the general policy stuff about the Environment and other policies by clicking on information bars on the left hand border.  All the information is there with detailed policy statements and backgrounders dowloadable quickly from links embedded in the relevant areas.  I liked both sites and found them similar in style.  As for general feel about the seriousness of the Environment to these parties, the Liberal Democrats give higher prominence for the Environment sitting at the top of their “What We Stand For?” section, while the Conservatives do not put the Environment or International Development in the “What We Stand For?” section but they do have a vast amount of detail as Consultation Papers and detailed policy papers – so the Liberal Democrats weighed in at 520g of papers when printed out and the Conservatives a whopping 940g (and I hadn’t even printed out their long report on “Rebuilding Security”).  As a negative for the Liberal Democrats, I couldn’t find anything within the main website about International Development and had to get to it via a search where I found a consultation paper for download, so that wasn’t great.

Now, for the Labour website.  Its structure is completely different to the other major parties.  They do not include the Environment within their Pledges on the Home Page, but it does come as a subsidiary pledge under “Ed’s Pledge“, which is all about Climate Change.  The Labour website is structured as a highly functional blog or social networking site, which means you can go from the Environment and then onto “Further Reading” or “Related Policies” in the right hand pane.  This gives you the ability to move around the website and through policy ideas and threads, but I quickly got lost and then would need to get myself back to the start and follow another line of thought.  Also, I struggled to find detail on any of the policies, and was (I assume) expected just to believe what I was being told on the website and that I wasn’t allowed to question and query, nor want to delve deeper into the philosophy and reasoning for the resultant policies that Labour is proposing. 

Now, I have to be honest here – I am 42 years old and don’t live in London and I am not massively computer literate and I hate social networking sites, nor do I have a mobile phone.  Also, I like to question and query things and am by nature a sceptic, and am very, very dubious about anything politicians say – unfortunately, I come from a viewpoint that all politicians are going to promise you the earth, feed you a load of cock and bull, then do something else when they get into power.

So while I get completely what Labour is doing with their website, I loathed it.  I want to find the information about policy areas in a simple format saying “Environment” or “Community Relations” or whatever area interests me.  Also, I want to be able to print out stuff and read it, rather than post it to Twitter or view it on by Blackberry (I don’t have one you’ll be pleased to know), or some other gizmo.  I am not interested in politics per se nor am I in the Westminster Village; similarly, I am not in the 18 – 30 year old bracket that has been brought up on Facebook or Twitter.  Hence, for me, the Labour website was a horror story, but I reckon it will appeal to lots of people who like that style of thing and it is really, really well orchestrated and controlled, which I assume will go for the whole Labour compaign – the Labour site is without a doubt an awesome website and the best party political campaigning tool of the three major parties.

So here’s my initial impression and order of success in giving me the right feel about their Environmental and International Development credentials:

  1. Liberal Democrats
  2. Conservatives
  3. Labour
  4. Green Party
  5. Scottish National Party

But as I have said, the Labour website is really effective, but just not conceptually for me.

Note to all political parties, none of you (and that includes the Greens) have a button to enable you to print the information on a page, so you get all the side bars and rubbish around the edges.  The result 3 or 4 pages of print, where most goes straight into the bin.  Yes, I could read it on screen, but I am too old for that – I like to read paper and scribble on it etc.

And now I will start looking in more detail at the individual party’s policies and statements on the Environment and International Development…

Global warming – reworking out the actual changes

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

As already discussed, I have become sanguine about the global warming information that I have been reading and hearing from the media – lots of noise and jumping up & down by all sorts of people.  And perhaps, I have taken too much on trust and should have looked in more detail at the raw information from scientists rather than listened to politicians and journalists, who don’t always know the detail but like the spin of a story; some of my earlier blogs specifically take the line fed to me in the media, which I am now thinking could have been a rash way to go – see for example https://steenbergs.co.uk/blog/2009/12/un-climate-change-conference-in-copenhagen/

Hence, the next stage of my quest was to hunt down some raw data that was simple enough for me to process and see what the results came up with.  That was actually harder than I thought, so while The Met Office in the UK has data linked into The Hadley Centre, I couldn’t understand their data at all – there was too much and not enough explanation.  I did try and contact them and an email was sent via The Met Office to The Hadley Centre, but I never got any response. 

Note to UK Climate Scientists – you have got to be much more open about what you’re doing as this lack of openness really increased my scepticism, and as a publicly funded body, I think you have no right to secrecy on this one.  Allied to issues of leaked emails etc, you’ve got some serious work to do on your PR and credibility!

So, as often seems to happen in life, the USA came up trumps.  I have often been very surprised by how helpful, open and progressive America can be, when at times it still sometimes is stuck in the Dark Ages (on things like good food and packaging waste and energy consumption etc).  I got useful data from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies Surface Temperature Analysis which is available at http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/; ironically, this data incorporates the Hadley Centre Data that I never was given when I enquired direct.  I then downloaded the information which is at the bottom of the web page on “Combined land-surface air and sea-surface water temperature anomalies” and used the Global Mean Analysis.  This comes with some caveats as does the alternative data which is also available on that page – “Means based on Land-surface air temperature anomalies only”.

I spent a merry time copying the data from the hard copy – I am sure some whizz could have automatically downloaded this and got it all pretty in spreadsheet, but as I have said before computers really are a bit of a mystery to me.  Next I sorted the data so I could represent the data graphically and I did this for monthly, seasonal and annual data.  Finally, I got a ruler and pencil out and worked out some best fit lines to come up with my own views on global warming.

The result: yes, it does appear that global temperatures have risen over the last 100+ years, BUT (and it’s a big BUT) not by as much or as quickly as all the media and political hype has been telling me, us and the world.

The data shows that global warming is running at about 0.7oC every 100 years with a maximum of about 2oC and a minimum of about 0.4oC, but it is definitely in line with my original blog that said 0.5oC – 1.8oC every 100 years.  The particular data used comes with a caveat that it might be understating temperatures, however I reckon that this will be a consistent error over the period so the trend should be the same.

Well that’s not the 3 – 4oC imminent global catastrophe that I had been led to believe with everyone being flooded away in a biblical onrush of melting land-ice drowning all of coastal Britain.  It does not mean that I must rush off down to Jewson’s to buy lots of timber and build an ark to save the planet, or at least not quite yet.

I come from eco viewpoint so I am not especially happy about my conclusions, so as I am not yet 100% with this result, I will be cross-checking the information with some specific country data if I can come by it.  But I do have to say that the data came via a web site that promotes better understanding of Climate Change and is for the issue as opposed to against, so if there is any bias it will be to promoting the likelihood of global warming rather than the skeptical position – www.realclimate.org.

The graphs that I got out from the data are below (if you want better detail just email and ask):

Graph of Average Annual Temperature Anomalies (10 x degrees celsius)

Graph of Average Annual Temperature Anomalies (10 x degrees celsius)

Graph of seasonal temperature anomalies (10x degree C)

Graph of seasonal temperature anomalies (10x degree C)