Posts Tagged ‘political blog’

That’s No McGuffin!

Tuesday, April 27th, 2010

Is global warming the perfect McGuffin?  I have never really understood what Alfred Hitchcock meant by a McGuffin; for me it always seemed like the cinematic equivalent of the Zen concept of “the sound of one hand clapping”, i.e. there is no sound and the question is stupid, irrelevant, pointless and a red herring or a McGuffin.  But perhaps global warming is really the perfect McGuffin.

What is a McGuffin, then?  Well the best and worst explanation comes from Alfred Hitchcock himself in an interview with Francois Truffaut:

“It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train.  One man says “What’s that package up there in the baggage rack?”, and the other answers “Oh that’s a McGuffin”.  The first one asks “What’s a McGuffin?”. “Well”, the other man says, “It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands”.  The first man says “But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands”, and the other one answers “Well, then that’s no McGuffin!”.  So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.”

So I am racked by doubts – is all this noise and technology and science about climate change and global warming merely an apparatus to trap lions in the Scottish Highlands?  But then there are actually rumours of – while not lions – big wild cats in Scotland like the Galloway puma or the Coulport cougar, so maybe a machine to catch lions would be useful.

But I am still not sure and worry that the joke’s on me and everyone is laughing at me for thinking about it too much, or as R.E.M. sang in Losing My Religion:

“That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight, I’m
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
And I don’t know if I can do it
Oh no, I’ve said too much
I haven’t said enough
I thought that I heard you laughing…”

So why “Losing My Religion” – well that’s obvious as I come from the viewpoint of believing in global warming, but now I don’t think it’s such a big deal nor am I so convinced that we’ve got the answer quite sharp enough yet.  Yes, temperature has gone up; yes, greenhouse gases have gone up; but all-in-all it’s perhaps by not that much, and why should we change everything on a leap of faith – a computer simulation of what might happen in 100 or 200 years time and something that might be good for loads of people, incuding Britain!

Imagine this.  We are all now living 5000 years ago in Britain.  No cars, no mobile phones, no roads, no Internet, no watches, no telescopes, no science and so on and so on.  We know that every day a bright light goes into the sky and warms the earth but it comes up in different places at different stages and seems to warm at different rates.  We know that a bright white light comes up into the sky and cycles over a shorter period but it doesn’t warm the world, but mysteriously it seems the same period as the oceans move at and women’s menstrual cycles.  But how do we work out what to do and what these cycles are or when to plant crops and harvest them.  There is no time, there are no diaries.

So we construct a whole mythology and superstitions that seem to help us work these cycles all out.  But it doesn’t always work out, as the weather gets warmer and colder dependent on, maybe a volcano in Iceland or El Nino or some other unknown like sun spots.  So we make our mythology even more complex and after these unknowns we make new sacrifices to appease an unknown, slightly random god.  This goes on and on as we create more and more complexity on a construct with weak foundations.

But them someone works out the clock and then come telescopes and diaries and we develop to now.  What was a key and clear set of rules and prediction mechanisms 5000 years ago is now encapsulated in clocks and time and thermometers and weather satellites and diaries etc, and the mystery has gone, the religion gone, even if the randomness and unpredictability is still there.

I feel that we are in 5000BP and cannot see it all clearly just quite yet, and while everyone creates more and more complex computer simulations – just like those people back then built Stonehenge and created their climate mythology – we’re doing the same without the living sacrifices, but certainly with the cash impacts.  I just cannot make that leap of faith yet from a 1oC change in last 100 years to a 2oC or 4oC or 5oC rise in the next 100 or 200 years (but I am still working on getting there), while in the-here-and-now I need to work out how my family can be fed, educated and kept happy and Steenbergs can be developed, and how you can relieve poverty and crime in the UK and help the poor vanilla growers in Madagascar.

We should be frugal and we should try and look after the world, but not this vast cost for a minor god whose decision will be made in the really distant future.  We must change where we look and focus on bigger gods with a firmer reality and then do today’s things and tomorrow’s things as responsibly as possible in terms of our families, our communities and the world.

Main UK Political Parties On Climate Change And Global Warming

Sunday, April 25th, 2010

There is a general political consensus that climate change is the number one environmental issue and there seems to be general agreement on how to address the problem, now that arch global warming skeptics like Boris Johnson and Nigel Lawson in the Conservative Party have been whipped into line for the election.  However there are definitely differences in emphasis and a big difference in whether nuclear power should be in the mix or not.  Here’s my overview as extracted from each party’s 2010 General Election manifesto.


CO2 targets: presumably will keep to national targets of reductions of 34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 on 1990 levels, including 10% in central government carbon costs in 12 months (why not do it for whole of public sector, which would really be something)
Energy mix: 15% by renewables by 2020, but do state that nuclear is key to this as is clean coal, and Feed-in Tariffs for those doing home electricity generation; coal-fired power plants must have carbon-capture-and-storage with 4 already approved to be built; “smart meters” and “smart grid” to help households reduce energy use; allow local authorities to build local heating networks to use waste energy from electricity generation (Combined Heat & Power)
Transport: investment in public transport and looking at building national charging network for electric vehicles
Buildings: £6,500 per household to get home energy improvements paid out of energy bill savings (i.e. consumer pays I think)
Carbon economy: offshore wind farms and Green Investment Bank, but very vague in this area

Green Party

CO2 targets: reduction of 65% by 2020 and 95% by 2030 on 1990 levels, including setting annual carbon budget and allowing trading in carbon units where half of all carbon units are given to adults and rest to industry and public sector
Energy mix: 50% from renewables by 2020 and 100% by 2030; phase out nuclear power and no new nuclear power stations; £20 billion in one Parliament (ie 5ish years) on renewables and create 80,000 jobs; attractive Feed-in Tariffs higher than offered by Labour government for those doing home electricity generation; do not permit new coal-fired power stations; “smart grid, smart meters and smart appliances” to help households reduce energy use; encourage Combined Heat & Power projects
Transport: reduce speed limits everywhere in UK; stop road investment of £30 billion and invest in public transport; renationalise and re-regulate all public transport; congestion type schemes in more places and road user tolls for heavy vehicles; make more food bought locally and so reduce need to shift food around by road;  stop airport expansion to reduce pollution levels; oppose large scale growing of biofuels
Buildings: free insulation for all houses that need it creating 80,000 new jobs and costing £2 – 4 billion a year; introduce incentives for 1,000,000 solar panels on homes
Carbon economy: government intervention to invest in green programmes, some of which mentioned above; green investment bank like other main parties; £5 billion to create 350,000 new trainee positions offering places to 700,000 unemployed people to get people into green energy sector (not sure if these figures are additive or overlapping somehow)


CO2 targets: reduction of 34% by 2020 and 80% by 2050 on 1990 levels
Energy mix: 15% of energy from renewables by 2020 and keeping nuclear in the mix (they talk about 40% from low carbon sources by 2020 but 25% will come from nuclear and clean coal), and Feed-in Tariffs for those doing home electricity generation; coal-fired power plants must have carbon-capture-and-storage with 4 already approved to be built; “smart meters” to help households reduce energy use
Transport: investment in public transport and looking at electric vehicles
Buildings: through regulating electricity companies, 6 million homes will get insulation by 2012 with every suitable loft and cavity wall insulated by 2015
Carbon economy: creating 400,000 new jobs including development of carbon economy with 70,000 jobs in offshore wind farms by 2020 and £120 million in a Carbon Investment Fund to support wind farms

Liberal Democrats

CO2 targets: reduction of 40% by 2020 and carbon neutral by 2050 on 1990 levels, including push for unilateral move to EU reduction target of 30% by 2020
Energy mix: 40% from renewables by 2020 and 100% by 2050 and no new nuclear power; community owned wind farms encouraged; attractive Feed-in Tariffs higher than offered by Labour government for those doing home electricity generation; coal-fired power plants must have carbon-capture-and-storage; “smart grid” to help households reduce energy use
Transport: investment in public transport, £140 million bus scrappage scheme to replace old buses with new ones; stop 3rd runway at Heathrow and further airport expansion in South to reduce pollution levels; through EU make cars zero emissions by 2040
Buildings: Eco Cash-back Scheme giving £400 back when you install new boiler, double glazing or put in micro-generation kit; £10,000 worth of green home improvements paid for by lower energy bills
Carbon economy: use central government pourchasing power to go for green technologies and products; cut energy and carbon emissions from central government by 30% by 2020
Globally: push for zero net deforestation by 2020, including ban on import of illegal wood into UK for any purpose

Reading the manifestos shows me something interesting – I reckon that New Labour has morphed into the Conservative Party and they are nearly the same thing, however much they argue about the splitting of policy hairs, while the Liberal Democrats have taken up Labour’s place, while the Greens have become the wackier Liberals of the 1970s and 1980s.  It will be interesting what actually happens when people get to vote and whether (because of the expenses scandal) we – the electorate – have the courage to shift from our historic group voting patterns, where we vote by “class” and “background”, ie rural tends to be Conservative and urban is Labour.

My own take on climate change is that the Liberal Democrats have the most practicable and ambitious set of targets, BUT (and it’s a big but), I believe their targets cannot be achieved without the inclusion of nuclear power in the energy mix. 

In some ways, the green movement is to blame for the rise in greenhouse gases because they stopped the growth – and research – in the nuclear power sector, while removal of acid rain gases has bizarrely increased short term potential for global warming, as these molecules have acted as a shield from solar energy – clean fuel will be soon used in global shipping which may result in global warming as their shielding impact is removed, so cleaner air more global warming (there’s always something else, isn’t there). 

So my ideal (from a green perspective) is a parliament that includes the Liberal Democrats with either Labour or the Conservatives, where the Liberal Democrats are given the Environment and Climate Change Portfolio but not the Energy side of things.

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.


  • 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


  • 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


  • 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.

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 – what’s the fuss all about?

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

I have to admit to becoming more skeptical about global warming since I began studying at The Open University on an Environmental Studies and Science Course.  I doubt that becoming less convinced about much of the stuff written about global warming was the expected result from being fed more information on climate change. 

However, by nature and training, I am a scientist (I did Biological Science as a Degree in the 1980s) and scientists are skeptics, therefore the more someone tells me that a particular idea is correct, and the louder they shout it, the more I want to find a quiet space and think about it myself – basically, I hate always being told to take things on trust and like to do my own thinking and understand things myself, and then if they are too complex and cannot be explained in basic, simple english or maths then I reckon it’s got to be a load of hoolley.

So there’s the background to why I have started looking in some more detail at global warming & climate change.  I am going to stick with global warming as that means we can focus on temperature whereas climate and weather is so much more complex.  Perhaps we can look at weather at a later stage.

My journey began in the most obvious starting point – the information published by the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which slightly spookily was an idea of and set up by Ronald Reagan when he was President of America.  Here’s a short paper in the Frequently Asked Section of their website on how temperatures are changing: Now, the key data, that comes from the pretty graph at the bottom is that, depending on which time period you use, and also whether you start a period in a dip going to a peak in temperature, you can get a wide range for the rate of growth in global temperatures.  Their published range shows warming of 0.5oC – 1.8oC every 100 years. 

Now I have to admit I didn’t like their graph as I think you cannot take artificial time periods and force those onto the graph and felt a bit as though it was all being neatly calculated to fit a preconceived viewpoint.  Just like when you did maths at high school, you need to look at the graph and visually work a best fit line for the data, so I printed the sheet out (I am sure someone clever can do this on a computer but I am not that skilled with them but I can use a ruler and pencil!).  Now the graph is pretty small so accuracy is not going to be great but based on 150 and 100 years of data, global warming seems to be growing at about 0.45oC – 0.75oC every 100 years.

Now there are bits of the graph that can show much faster growth, however these are over really short time periods and appear to be picking rates, or periods, when you’re going from a low temperature to a high temperature that may be the result of normal cycles in sun temperatures etc, so I think you should look over longer periods that can remove some of the noise of other factors. 

That’s my view and everyone will have different thoughts on that, but this does highlight one of the contentions against “climate science” in that it is some ways “climate art” and becomes a matter of representation and debate rather than fact and science.

I was still not satisfied, in fact I wanted to look more closely at the data, so I started the hunt for some data to plug into an Excel spreadsheet and see what the answers would be, which will explain in a blog in the next week or so.

Review of Green Ideas in General Election

Sunday, March 21st, 2010

The UK’s General Election will be held soon – the weight of money is for it to coincide with the Council elections slated for 6 May 2010 but these could probably be shifted to coincide with a later General Election which must be latest of 3 June 2010.  My gut instinct is that Labour will call the General Election pretty soon after Budget Day on 24 March 2010.  Gordon Brown loves detail and he will feel that this gives him an advantage as he will be able to state that he has a fully costed programme and “where are the other parties’ costed budgets!”

However, I think he misses the point which is that Prime Ministers must have vision and focus on the “whys of life” rather than the details of the “what and how of specific policies”.  This made Tony Blair more inspiring for the electorate as a whole rather than specific Labour interested groups, i.e Blair could look outside to the wider electorate rather than just look inwards to his core voters – in fact, Blair perhaps made mistakes by sometimes appealing more to voters outside his Labour core base and hence got kicked out by his own. 

In fact it is vision that seems to be missing in politics generally at present and I need something to stop me joining the most popular party of all – the non-voters!  Even Obama in the US does not seem to be really living up to his hype, and may just be about to repeat the policies of former US Presidents by continuing with policies on nuclear weapons largely unchanged from the past. 

That’s a fairly waffly introduction to stating that the General Election will be soon whatever the details of the actual timing.  So we thought we would look to the Green Vision that will be hidden inside the main parties’ manifestoes and will read through the political programmes of all major parties plus a few extra, so that will be Conservative, Green, Labour, Liberal and SNP, doing them in strict alphabetical order.  That will be hard enough work I reckon.

We thought we would look at a few major things:

  1. How much space is given over to green ideas?
  2. How plausible are policies on the Environment, Energy and International Development?
  3. What money (if any) is given over to support Sustainable Development, Renewable Energy etc?
  4. Are there any surprises lurking in the text, eg on Afghanistan or Genetically Modified Crops or Nuclear Weapons?

We’ll have a go, but perhaps we will have bitten more off than we can chew on this one.

Steenbergs Fairtrade Vanilla – Some Background

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

I tried to post a response online at The Times in relation to their article but they wouldn’t post it – perhaps it was too long or too partisan.  In any case here are some further details on Steenbergs vanilla

The article in The Times is unfortunately in part true as child labour is one of the big problems with vanilla in Madagascar and the developing world.  I am not sure about widespread employment of children below the age of 8 years old, but it certainly might exist in pockets and will tend to happen around harvest time on family farms. 

Other major problems include: very high levels of general poverty and low levels of development within Madagascar where GNI per capita is $410 for 2008 compared to $45,390 for the UK, ranking Madagascar 145th out of 182 countries; and environmental issues such as degradation of the rainforests for slash & burn agriculture and massive losses of unique biodiversity in Madagascar. 

These issues are being addressed in a small way by Steenbergs through a focus on (a) organic agriculture and (b) Fairtrade vanilla, but the fight must still go on to improve further the development prospects of the Malagasy people.

Steenbergs vanilla beans come from three Fairtrade projects in North Eastern Madagascar with about 1000 farmers structured into co-operatives.  Employed staffing is low at 60 people with a large amount of seasonal workers, reaching up to 400 people.  Child labour is prohibited.  All workers are paid above the minimum Malagasy wage and lunch is provided for free and is not deducted from wages.  All employees work 8 hours a day from Monday to Friday and 4 hours on Saturday morning.  If additional work is needed, overtime is paid at a higher rate.  The working week is no more than 60 hours.  Employees are provided with work clothes. 

Here are some basic facts relating to financial status of region:

  • Vanilla represents over 90% of agricultural income of planters’ families with rest coming from sales of coffee and some rice, but perhaps more importantly it is these cash crops that enables farmers to generate income above pure subsistence farming; the rest of their farming is cassava, rice and vegetables for their own consumption.  Each planter produces on average 400kg a year of green vanilla (unprocessed vanilla) every year which generates income of roughly $600/year per family.  Switching to organic Fairtrade vanilla generates income of over $2,000 for the same crop, an increase of $1,400 per year per family. 
  • So without Fairtrade and organic, vanilla farmers only earn less than $2 a day to live on and so their standard of living is miniscule, and even with Fairtrade and an income of $5.5 a day there is still a long way to go.  On top of this, a typical Malagasy family comprises 8 people plus sometimes some additional grandparents, and they live in  a bamboo hut of 20 – 30m2.
  • As for schooling in the vanilla growing regions, 80% of children aged 6 – 11 go to the local state school, but only 10 – 15% continue to middle school (12 – 15 years old) and 3% continue their schooling beyond the age of 15 years old.  Schools are usually about 100m2, which is then used to teach 4 grades, i.e. 300 children, in the same space.

    Vanilla Planters Walking Along Track

    Vanilla Planters Walking Along Track

  • Other social information: with a few exceptions, mains drinking water is not available nor is electricity.  Transport is by foot along country tracks and average distances of travel to various places are: 5 – 8km to middle school; 25km to high school; 25km to nearest dispensary for pharmaceuticals; and 90km to nearest hospital with first 20km by foot.

The Fairtrade premium has been used in the last year for the following:

  • Purchase of land and construction of silos for storage of rice
  • The repair of bridges and other small structures
  • Improvement of school facilities

Other projects being looked at include:

  • Drinking water supply and sewerage infrastructure
  • Improvement of country tracks to make walking easier
  • Irrigation systems to aid rice farming and stop “slash & burn” farming techniques
  • Plan on AIDS awareness to be conducted at school

For me, even Fairtrade seems like a drop in the ocean and more needs to be done.  But the key is to start taking those small steps towards greater economic stability and social improvements and to halt environmental degradation (stop the slash and burn of the forests). 


Vanilla Flower

Vanilla Flower

Fecondation or Hand Pollination of Vanilla Flowers

Fecondation or Hand Pollination of Vanilla Flowers

Initial Heating To Kill Green Vanilla Beans - Echadaudage

Initial Heating To Kill Green Vanilla Beans - Echadaudage

Curing and Testing the Maturing Vanilla Beans

Curing and Testing the Maturing Vanilla Beans

Sorting And Packing Fairtrade Vanilla

Sorting And Packing Fairtrade Vanilla

Carbon Offsets and Steenberg Carbon Footprints

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010

Every year on slightly ad hoc basis, I sit down and try and calculate our carbon footprint and then offset for the greenhouse gasses that make up our carbon footprint.  It’s a guesstimate because it does not include all aspects of the Steenbergs business, but we cover a much wider proportion of Steenbergs’ impact on the planet than most other people get round to doing.

Firstly, let me explain the things that we include and those that we exclude:

Carbon costs that are included: transport of raw materials and packaging from most recent supplier to Ripon; transport of Steenbergs goods from our Ripon factory to customers; transport of Steenbergs staff on business; and carbon cost of paper used in marketing and office functions

Carbon costs that are excluded: energy (as it is 100% from renewable sources via Good Energy, but see my note i below); staff travel to and from work; embedded carbon within Steenbergs raw materials and packaging (this is something we are still trying to collect all the data on)

We have used the Climatecare model for carbon costs and the total annual cost for 1 January – 31 December 2009 was 3.75 tonnes CO2 which is actually below (and I mean way below) the minimum that Climatecare will offset, which is an annual minimum of 10 tonnes.  So we pay the minimum of £75 + VAT to offset this rather than the actual cost of roughly half that.  Basically we are a carbon minnow, treading pretty lightly on the planet, but I do accept that this excludes the embedded carbon in our packaging materials, which may be horrible!

What is interesting and very shocking (at least to me) is the breakdown of our carbon costs, which shows that the cost of our paper is astronomic comprising half of our carbon costs.  We use even in our small business about 500-600kg of paper a year on stuff – I am going to get this figure down but it will be painful as everyone seems very attached to their own particular piece of paper for processing and/or recording our operations.

Our carbon costs from transport are actually quite low because we do not have our own transport and through using consolidated carriers from the Royal Mail to Palletline we optimise space utilisation on transport vehicles rather than inefficiently running our own vans at below full capacity.  In addition, we do next to no mileage for business purposes – we hardly do any direct face-to-face selling or account handling which perhaps we should do but is just not part of Sophie or my inner psyche.

As part of my Open University course, I also had to do my personal carbon footprint last year using their Quick EYE-OU greenhouse gas emissions programme.  This came up with a personal score of 9.2 tonnes CO2e per year which is actually 3.2 tonnes (-25.8%) below the UK average.   This comprised direct CO2e from home energy, personal food and travel of 6.0 tonnes CO2e and embedded carbon of 3.2 tonnes CO2e from indirect goods and services (such as goods and services purchased and my share of governmental CO2e).

To put it into perspective, the US average is 19.9 tonnes CO2 per person, but the Indian average is 1.2 tonnes CO2, the Brazilian 2.1 tonnes CO2 and the Chinese 4.8 tonnes CO2  per person (see Timesonline article).  The article also shows UK’s carbon to be 9.3 tonnes CO2 per person, which does not match the information above, because this study does not include all greenhouse gas emissions or non household carbon.  So even if my contribution to climate change is low compared to the UK average, it is a big clumpy footprint stamping down on our planet.

It is interesting to see that my personal totals are much higher than Steenbergs as a business.  This is partly because we have ignored the embedded CO2e at work from goods and services purchased, as well as in packaging materials.  But also, we are much more profligate with energy at home than at work, plus travel is less efficient than the consolidation carried out at work.

One of the conclusions I came to when I did calculations for work back in 2007 was that personal travel is the real swinging factor.  Energy will eventually be tackled via nuclear power (whether you approve of it or not, and I don’t, but Professor James Lovelock is probably correct on this one).  More CO2e is generated by staff travelling to and from work than the business as a whole; similarly, more CO2e is probably generated by shoppers going to and from the shops than the embedded carbon in the products and/or services that they purchase in those shops. 

Basically the cost of our personal freedom through the car is hugely inefficient and as a nation we must come to terms with reconfiguring our relationship with transport if we ever want to really grapple with climate change. 

But I suspect the price of this will be too hard to bear and it just won’t be tackled by any MP or Minister in any UK Government, of whatever political persuasion.

Note i: if you did include office and factory energy, we used 2572kWh which equates to 1.36 tonnes CO2 and would add another £20.17 in offset costs.  So while I exclude this from our calculations, it is actually covered by the minimum carbon cost per reporting period that we have bought carbon offsets for.

Trying To Build A Better Spices Business

Monday, February 1st, 2010

When Sophie and I set up Steenbergs, we were very clear in our own minds about what Steenbergs as a business wanted to offer as products – the widest and most exotic range of great spices, herbs, seasonings and teas from around the world that are grown under organic agriculture and ethically sourced.  But we also wanted Steenbergs to be run as a different sort of place to those that I had been asked to expect since I entered the corporate world.

We didn’t want a one dimensional pursuit of money to the exclusion of everything else  – I remember being interviewed for a job at Lazards in the City when I was maybe 25 years old and being told in that interview by an American gentleman when asked “why do you want to work in corporate finance?” that my waffly answer about “interesting, intellectual work” was wrong and that he wanted people that wanted money, were turned on by money and were motivated by greed, so luckily I did not get a job there.

Steenbergs also needs to be a fun, happy place to work where no-one blames people for mistakes and that when things go wrong we all muck in and clear up the mess, sort it out and get on with life.  Firstly, we all make mistakes and secondly, you need to make mistakes to learn.

We hope that we have created a decent place culturally to work rather than one driven by profit and fear.

Finally, we are following a middle path, one that is decent, fair and reasonable to all people within and outside the business that come into contact with Steenbergs as an entity, and that we need to carefully consider Steenbergs impact on the world, on Gaia – our planet, and try to ensure that we make as small an impact as possible on the world.

It’s a middle path that accepts we must make compromises and so will not please everyone, but we will try and improve what we do, while also striving to make a small profit.  Without being profitable, it would be impossible to earn any income and to generate cash to re-invest in our business – we do not have the private wealth or big income to have the luxury of running Steenbergs as a loss-making entity without the need to consider how to grow sales, where to scrimp and save to keep costs down nor where to make pragmatic choices that may not always be the best choice for the environment (especially in packaging).

Recently, I have come across the the concept of the triple bottom line concept (“TBL” or “3BL” or “the three pillars”) which means that a business should think about “people, planet, profit” in its business dealings, rather than just to be in it for a quick buck for ourselves.  I like it as an idea as it encapsulates more rigorously what we have been trying to do in our own haphazard style.

We see the triple bottom line model as a better way to run a business, being a virtuous circle of slow but constant improvement in our business operations and the impact we have as a business on the world environment and people within Steenbergs and those who become involved with us, such as suppliers, buyers or just interested people.

So I thought it worthwhile to be very open about some of our thoughts and start explaining ways we think about and address certain key social and ethical questions within our business.  These can now be found at the following links on the web site:

Over the next few months, I hope to address packaging as an issue area and embedded carbon costs, so I will keep you informed of when I get somewhere there, but the information available to small businesses on these things is limited and the advice on how to look into it almost no existent.

Keep Governments Out Of Saving The World

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

One of the areas of society that is exercising my thoughts at present is how societies organise themselves, are governed and whether we (as citizens) are actually free … or just whether we are being told that we are free, but in reality are all just tax and regulation slaves beholden to some amorphous and distant SuperState.  And one of those areas of concern relates more specifically to how society addresses environmental problems, such as climate change.

Will there be a tragic destruction of the commons?

Elinor Ostrom is a relatively controversial winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Economics.  She is not an economist, but a political scientist with a current interest in social-ecological systems, which is the cause of the ruffled feathers amongst pure economists.  The Nobel Foundation cites that her award (she actually won ½ the prize with the other ½ going to Oliver Williamson) is in recognition of “her analysis of economic governance especially the commons”.

However, the concept of social-ecological systems and how to manage the commons is fundamental to all our environmental concerns, and since the potential destruction of the environment is regarded as one of the most pressing medium-term issues for the global economy, we can surely regard her work as impacting on the global economic system.  Or as Stern wrote in his seminal report on the economics of climate change: “Climate change presents a unique challenge for economics: it is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen.” (Source: Stern review on Economics of Climate Change, HM Treasury, October 2006).

What is Ostrom interested in?

Firstly, let me explain what is meant by the commons.  It is the natural resources of the earth, ranging from the fisheries, lakes and forests and the soil through to the air quality and temperature and the planet’s biodiversity in animal, plant and microbial life.  Pretty serious stuff.  These are being impacted by everything from massive climate change and local pollution to overpopulation, the advancement of cities and urban developments.

The basic theoretical concept is called the tragedy of the commons.  In 1968, Garrett Hardin coined the phrase “the tragedy of the commons”.  In this case, the tragedy is that people, businesses or countries will continue using a bit more of the the earth’s free natural resources, the commons, while there is still some economic benefit left within Mother Earth until those resources are finally wiped out.  Then everyone suffers.

So for example, in an arid climate, herders will graze their livestock on all available vegetation until finally all the vegetation is destroyed and this method of farming collapses, ie there is no capacity within humans to mediate their actions to maintain the vegetation so that they can continue with their particular agrarian lifestyle.

Or forest communities in the equatorial rainforests have a reputation that suggests they will trash their forests, slashing them down for timber or burning them to clear land for small-scale agriculture.  But is this really so?

Even worse than this, there will be a short-term tragi-comedy where businesses and Governments see significant short-term benefits deriving from global warming as the Arctic becomes ice-free during the summer months within the next 20 years, and largely ice-free within 10 years.  This will open up shipping lanes across the North Pole and will expose land in Greenland, Northern Russia and Canada that can be exploited for mineral, oil and gas resources.  So businesses like Angus & Ross, a British minerals exploration company, which owns large tracts of land in Greenland has seen what were large areas of valueless ice are now fast becoming regions of prospectable mineral wealth as the ice retreats.

How do you protect the commons then?

The mainstream argument goes on that it is best for Governments to intervene, taking ownership and control of the land and so protecting it.  In fact, the United Nations intends to pay Governments to protect their forests ascribing a price per hectare in a way that the European Community offers farmers a subsidy for unused agricultural land under the set-aside scheme.

The climate change meeting in Copenhagen this December 2009 is expected to formalise this method by agreeing a formula for a scheme called Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (or REDD). 

But Ostrom’s work contradicts this State driven paradigm.  Elinor Ostrom addresses social-ecological systems at the ground level and how natural resources can be best managed without Government input and without the free market.  She highlights that while the free market might work in many circumstances the non-market part of society is also vitally important. 

She poses questions like the following: “”Why do some locally managed forests thrive better than government protected forests?…what factors affect the likelihood that farmers will effectively manage irrigation systems?…When will the users of a resource invest time and energy to avert “a tragedy of the commons”?” (Source: Ostrom, Science, Vol 325, p420, 24 July 2009, edited by Axel Steenberg and annotated with my emboldening for emphasis).

She suggests that communities will, in certain circumstances, self-organise to protect and manage their resources rather than let them be razed to nothing.

This propensity to self-organise depends on a large number of factors, including the size of the territory (a large resource is hard to manage while a small resource has no value), the predictability of the system (a forest is fairly easy to monitor whereas fisheries are chaotic), the mobility of the resource (trees stay still whereas herds of caribou move around), the number of users (large groups are harder to manage than smaller groups), leadership (respect for the leadership or elders), norms/social capital (where all users have the same moral-ethical code they are more likely to pull together), knowledge of the social-ecological system (you need to understand the resource to be able to manage it), importance of the resource to the users (fisheries off Mauritania are important to the Mauritanians rather than the British, even if the British and the rest of the EC are overfishing the North-West African Shelf, hence this disconnect between the beneficiaries of the overfishing and the actual resource has been and continues to be fatal to fish stocks in this highly productive area for marine biomass) and collective-choice rules (if locals have control over their destiny without interference they are more willing and able to defend their resources).

To quote again from Ostrom: “Larger-scale governance systems may either facilitate or destroy governance systems at a local SES level.  The colonial powers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, for example, did not recognize local resource institutions that had been developed over centuries and imposed their own rules, which frequently led to overuse if not destruction” (Source: Ostrom, Science, Vol 325, p421, 24 July 2009) and (my words) a 100 or so years later local conflicts have arisen across ethnic groups where the colonial powers rode roughshod over traditional structures as they carved up Africa in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

She shows that if the State gets out of the way, local communities will respond by forming their own local, specific systems to manage scarce natural resources to prevent resource collapse, using their own rules (for which they have local buy in as they are home grown rules) and that this local social-ecological system is an adaptable framework that can apply in numerous different circumstances.

In other words, we (as in the human race) do not have an uncontrollable desire to self-destruct if we are left to our own devices and allowed to develop our own social-political systems on a local scale. 

So when we go back to the concept of REDD as introduced above, we find that perhaps the State is not the solution but perhaps the issue. 

Ashwini Chhatre and Arun Agarwal of the University of Michigan have compared data on carbon sequestration with types of forest ownership and have found that tropical forest under local management stored more carbon than those managed by Governments. 

One reason, per Ostrom, is that locals tend to be better at looking after forests if they own them as they then have an interest in ensuring the long term survival of the natural resource, as it is their livelihood.  Conversely, Governments (however good their intentions) will usually issue licences for destructive logging or free-for-all land grabs that strip forests bare.  The authors also suggest that locals may be better at managing common pastures, coastal fisheries and water supplies.  (Fred Pearce “Let the people look after their forests”, New Scientist p 12, 10 October 2009).

And then with all the best will in the world, you will get local political disasters that will create chaos with globally orchestrated plans, for example:

  1. The Burmese military government does not care about global political views so will continue to strip their tropical hardwood forests for their own gain whatever the developed world tries to tell them and it is estimated that two-thirds of timber revenues in Burma are from illegal trade and most of that simply crosses the border into China’s Yunnan Province and then elsewhere into China; or
  2. In Madagascar where there is currently no effective Government since the President was ousted in a political coup in March 2009 – so now the national parks are being logged at a rapid pace with 750 tonnes of rosewood “legally exported” this year to China while bushmeat hunters are exporting 100s (if not 1000s) of endangered lemurs to sell onto exotic meat restaurants (Catherine Brahic, “It’s open season on Madagacar’s biodiversity”, New Scientist p 12, 17 October 2009).

My current conclusion

What the work of Ostrom, and others, says to me about how to manage our global environment is that: (a) solutions by Governments or States are doomed to failure, as they will be destroyed inter alia by corruption and lack of local buy-in into their imposed schemes (however good and sensible and well meaning on paper); and (b) big global schemes will never work because they will never be specific enough to local factors and will be incapable of flexibility or have any in-built local intelligence, so will fail to marry up with the social, ecological and political requirements actually needed on the ground. 

In the end, global climate change will only ever be addressed by a concerted effort by people – that’s individuals, households and local communities – to work on their own towards a better planet, taking into account their own local, special circumstances.  It will mean forsaking the help of the State, and often working towards a distant, barely visible target, without any apparent success and even some possible failures. 

It really needs a wholesale lifestyle change, a change in our individual philosophies and how we interact with the world.  We need to look at the world holistically and sustainably – respect nature, don’t waste anything, work for a greater good and live together respecting people’s opinions and differences.

It, also, tells me that many of the modern political superstructures that have been built across nations, and even perhaps current social-political systems within countries, need to be re-appraised and new ways of organising societies need to evolve if humanity is successfully to sort out global environmental issues like climate change, overpopulation etc…but that’s for another day.