29 April 2006

Waste not, waste zero

By Jacqui McCarney

David Cameron's well publicised and well spun commitment to the environment is all very well, but at local government level there is the more mundane task of making the sums add up. Take waste - forget about the environment; forget about intense public feeling; forget about sustainability. Think instead about cost, business opportunities, market economics, and local jobs.

Norfolk paid £4.24 million on landfill taxes in 2004/05. From 2010, hefty (EU) landfill fines could cost the county £17.3 million a year. Landfill presents a health hazard with the leaking of highly toxic chemicals, and we are simply running out of space.

Not just a problem for Norfolk, it is a problem faced by the rest of the UK, and the rest of the developed and developing world. We are not alone, and there is a great deal to be learned from the experience of others.

The buzz word circling the globe is Zero Waste - welcomed by local communities, this waste method also makes handsome profits. It has been adopted in North America, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South India, and much closer to home in Bath and North East Somerset, Colchester and Braintree in Essex. Recently trials have begun for a pioneering Resource and Recovery Centre next door in Lowestoft.

Exponents of Zero Waste no longer see waste as a problem, but as valuable resources - often expensive and time consuming to extract from the earth, and in short supply.

Business and community leaders around the world are pointing to our waste and recycling as areas of new business and employment potential that can add great value to local economies. Indeed, profitability is a key factor in New Zealand where Zero Waste is seen as a driver of local economic development rather than a matter of environmental conscience. Kaikoura Innovative Waste Ltd facilitate sustainable employment with markets for cardboard, newsprint, plastic, metal, glass copper, and businesses developing around furniture and clothing renovation, crafts reusing metal and glass. This story is familiar and a survey in the US shows high recycling programmes show savings in 13 out of 14 cases.

Zero Waste projects need not be daunting. Bath and North East Somerset (BANES) say it is relatively easy to reach 50% recovery and recycling rates. The bulk of all waste is organic matter that can be composted domestically or centrally. The resulting compost will find a local market in nurseries, farms, amenity centres.

High achieving areas have 'source separation' - three streams of collection, separating organic, dry recyclables and tricky residuals such as batteries. Robin Murray, a leading zero waste economist, says as soon as this is done "they find suddenly that they are recycling more than 50%". Why do some areas of Norwich not even have recycling collections yet?

Add to this Resource and Recovery Centres that are open to the public and encourage small scale businesses repairing goods to be sold back to the public, and there is very little left to be burned in an incinerator.

Not needing to build an incinerator amounts to a huge savings capital investment and running costs.

Can do authorities are reducing waste beyond the 50 % mark by innovation. BANES plan annual increases in recycling rate between 2 to 5% for the next 5 years, making their intention clear cut with a detailed Action Plan.

Zero Waste builds this innovation on the 5 R’s.; Reduce, Repair, Reuse, Recycle and, if products can not be dealt with by these means, they should be Redesigned.

Before developing Zero Waste many countries had, or been threatened with incinerators or Mechanical Biological Treatment (MBT), as the people of Norfolk are now.

Incineration has lead to widespread protests - forcing the closure of plants and the abandonment of plans for new ones. People are deeply concerned about the possible carcinogenic toxins produced by burning, to which children and older people are especially vulnerable. The record of safety of incinerators such as the one in Nottingham does little to engender confidence. MBT produces a highly toxic sludge which has to be transported and disposed of.

Norwich City Council and South Norfolk have signed up to Zero Waste. So far they have achieved a recycling rate of 15% and 30% respectively, and are now sitting on the fence when it comes to the Conservative County Council plan to build an incinerator. If we manage to escape that, we will have the second choice MBT. It is not surprising that the public are disillusioned with politicians. David Cameron is impotent if his colleagues in local government defy his intentions, when there is neither economic, environmental nor popular reason to do so.

22 April 2006

Happy Earth Day to you!

By Rupert Read

Today, April 22, is Earth Day, across the planet. A day for us all to remember that we are nothing - nothing - without our environment. A day to celebrate this beautiful rock hanging and spinning in space, our one and only home.

There has also been a call issued on the internet, a call which makes sense to me, to have an Earth-wide 'Car Free Day', in association with Earth Day. 'Car Free Day' would be a day when we can put our love for Earth into practice; perhaps by leaving the car at home and taking the bike out instead. Or by walking it, or bussing it. Or, at least, by car-sharing, to reduce the impact of any essential journeys.

Each Earth Day or Car Free Day is an opportunity for thinking carefully about the serious impact that private transport has on our lives, and on our world. Cars are wonderful devices that have given many of us fine freedom of movement. Cars are absolute magic for getting quickly from a to b; but not necessarily for getting from a to be. Our society's reliance on the private motor vehicle tends to speed up everything, so that one no longer finds it easy to appreciate simply being. Here, a great example is being set by the Slow Food and Slow Cities movements, in countries like Italy. The ideal of Slow Cities' is a great one to think about, on Earth Day; imagine simply how pleasant it would be to be in a place where slowness, and pleasantness, and not sheer speed, was the dominant ethos!

Fast cars make our streets unsafe for unsupervised children. Kids used to be able to play in the street; that freedom has mostly gone. It used to be a joy to walk in cities, even in London. Now even in smaller cities, like Norwich, there is no space undisturbed by traffic noise and pollution.

Cars, meanwhile, are sold to us on the premise that they will deliver freedom to us. Freedom can allegedly be bought for the price of a 4x4, or of a sporty coupe. Take a look at any car ad: How often does it show the advertised vehicle stuck in traffic? How often does it show the car in a repair shop? Or in an accident, with blood on the bonnet… No; the image is always of speeding along an empty highway, or miraculously deserted city street, or through a desert…

In fact, the images of freedom conjured up in adverts to persuade people to buy flashy new cars are almost entirely misleading. In a country with too many cars, one inevitably spends half one’s time fuming - literally - in congestion!

A first step forward, in reducing vehicular pollution, is to move to low-emissions vehicles (the best of which, by the way, do not run on industrial-scale biofuels – see 'The new climate cynicism'. The EU has target emissions levels, agreed by heads of states and governments, to reach an average CO2 emission figure of 120gms/km for all new passenger cars by 2010. Yet it was reported just this week that 2005 saw only a 1% decrease to an average of 160 gms CO2 per km. This is a failure in responsibility by car manufacturers, and a break of the promise that their industry group, the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA), made back in 1998 when they promised the European Commission to reach average emissions of 140 gms CO2 per km for new cars by 2008.

You can help change this, by demanding companies to make true low-emissions-vehicles. If you are buying a new car, choose one which emits less than 120 gms CO2 per km, i.e. Band A and B for vehicle licencing.

Meanwhile, with the onset of catastrophic climate change, and with oil starting to run out, there is inevitably going to be less driving, in the future. Car Free Day, in a generation's time, may well see entire cities looking like Norwich's wonderful pedestrianised zones, such as London Street and Gentleman's Walk.

And that's the way we may yet save our beautiful blue-green planet. By switching gradually to 'feet first' transport methods - walking and cycling - and to other low impact means of getting about. By working from home and communicating with people the smart way, by phone and computer, and soon by video phoning and ultra-cheap internet-videoconferencing.

That will be a really happy day for the Earth, for our children and for billions of non-human creatures... When we humans turn decisively toward ways of moving, and ways of being, that can last.

15 April 2006

Give small solutions a chance

By Andrew Boswell

The economist E F Schumacher inspired a generation with his book Small is Beautiful, now a well known catch-phrase. Even then, in 1973, the world seemed to have gone crazy with growth for growth's sake, and he posited that we could be more prosperous, and more importantly, truly happy, if we forsake the big and started to develop the small.

After 30 years of missed opportunities, his vision seems all the more real and pertinent as we face multiple problems today, many of them environmental, which threaten our very future and quality of life. Intrinsic scale and structure are key issues in the debates, taking place nationally about our energy future, and locally about how we deal with Norfolk's waste.

In both cases, government has got locked into 'big solutions' forcing polarised debates: nuclear – 'yes' or 'no', big incinerator - 'yes' or 'no'. Those in power are locked into the 'big' mindset, and their reviews and consultations inevitably ask the wrong questions.

The government's Energy consultation closed on Thursday. It missed the key question – how do we scale our energy supply and structure our economy for maximum decarbonisation and future energy security.

A recent report from Greenpeace did ask the right questions, and gave the answers using an evidence based approach. It used a sophisticated computer model (WADE) to evaluate two scenarios for 2023 – continuing with a centralised power generation system based around new nuclear build and increasing gas imports, and restructuring our energy system on a decentralised model.

In decentralising energy production, new electricity generation comes from a variety of smaller scale sources. Housing estates, hospital, schools and public buildings, and our own homes are heated and powered by small scale gas and biomass generators. While gas is necessary for the mid-term future, home wind mills, and solar electricity and water panels - and large scale wind, tidal, wave and biomass – would drastically reduce our need for it.

Large scale generation is wasteful as big power stations loose huge amounts of energy – up to 70% in cooling towers or cooling water. Further electricity is lost in the transmission and distribution system.

Greenpeace showed that the decentralised approach was cleaner - 17% less CO2 emissions; more secure - 14% less gas needed importing even after cutting any new nuclear build. This is because small to medium scale decentralised power generates much more energy from less raw fuel. It is also cheaper, a benefit which can be passed on to the consumer.

Back in Norfolk, we need an urgent solution to our waste. Amazingly, Councillor Woodbridge, leader of Broadland Council, recently called for the incinerator(s) to be placed in Norfolk's worst performing recycling districts – a sort of punishment. Surely there is a better way, and could it be found too in a small to medium scale, decentralised solution?

Image: an impression of how the new incinerator at Longwater Industrial Estate in Costessey could look if it is built.

Certainly building a big incinerator in Costessey would not only punish the people of Norwich, many of whom do their best to recycle, but it would also punish nearby Broadland and South Norfolk residents because of concerns about the effect of emissions on human health and the environment.

On 17th March, the UK's first full-scale municipal biowaste digester was opened at Ludlow, Shropshire using Anaerobic Digestion (AD) to process food waste, garden waste and cardboard collected each week from 19,000 households. Interestingly, the capital costs of this small-scale facility are significantly lower, per tonne of waste processed, than for the proposed Costessey incinerator.

A real Norfolk revolution would be heralded by ditching the big incinerator(s), and establishing instead a county-wide network of small to medium AD facilities. These would be closer to the source of the waste, and most could be built by extending sites on the already well established network of waste collection stations. They would also create jobs throughout the County.

The capital and running savings made, in this decentralised model, should then be invested in Zero Waste reclamation parks for non-digestible waste (about 30%) such as the one being developed in Lowestoft. Such approaches have significantly increased recycling levels to 70% in a decade in cities like Bath and Canberra. Councils in Norfolk could achieve this with a 'joined up' approach and commitment.

Councillor Woodbridge is right that we must invest in better recycling facilities and Norwich does serially fail each budget round to allocate enough funds for recycling. Many residents want to recycle better, but are hampered in doing so by lack of proper support by the City Council.

We can start building a positive future for Norfolk and the UK now by lobbying government for decentralised, small-medium scale strategies for our energy production, and waste management.

8 April 2006

The energy war

By Jacqui McCarney

Shocking… to read government policy papers on energy and housing issues and find them full of good ideas and sound policies. Yes, the 2003 Energy Review, the Energy Act 2004, the Sustainable Construction Strategy, the UK Fuel Poverty Strategy, the Decent Homes initiative, and others, are all full of sound thinking and good intentions.

What is less shocking is to find out that government isn't actually implementing the policies: investment has been low, regulations have been weak and institutional barriers have been left in place. The plans for renovating homes to increase energy efficiency, affordability and halt the decline of the housing stock, remains an immense task and enough isn’t being done.

Our housing is in an appalling state. So is our energy system. We waste vast amounts of energy in our homes and from our power stations. We have one of the oldest and least energy efficient housing stocks in Europe and our Power stations waste two thirds of their energy through heat loss and transportation. A major study by Oxford's Environmental Change Institute concluded that, despite fine policy intentions, implementation has been "inadequate to the scale and urgency of the task". The costs may be high, but the benefits in terms of cutting waste and fuel bills would be immense. A large investment in building and renewable technologies will also generate many jobs, skills and training opportunities.

The government strategy of improving homes and increasing the uptake of renewable energy and micro-generation was the right one. Policy paper after policy paper points toward renovation of buildings to improve insulation and energy conservation to solve many problems: fuel poverty, energy insecurity, low-grade housing, CO2 emissions and others. Decentralising energy systems with local combined heat and power systems (CHP) and microgeneration (photo-voltaics and wind power) are an integral part of the strategy, and proved where its done.

Woking Borough Council in Surrey reduced CO2emissions from their own buildings by an astonishing 77%, reduced energy consumption by 40% and has it's own decentralised grid running from a combined heat and power generation system backed up by renewables.

Decentralised systems of power supply are cleaner, cut wastage and reduce dependency on imported fuel, solving many of the energy problems identified by government. Yet studies show that the government has failed to support its own strategy to make the technology affordable and increase its uptake. Even basic changes to regulation that could make a significant difference have not been made.

We are now being told that we face an energy crisis and that we need another energy review to find our way out. This is strange for anyone who has been aware of the energy crisis for many years. We have seen all the studies and reviews consistently come up with the same policy solutions of increasing energy efficiency and supporting renewals. So why isn't the strategy being implemented and why are we looking for new policy solutions?

A recently leaked document from this summer's St Petersburg G8 summit preparations reveals that the energy crisis is going to be high on the agenda. At the top of the list of ideas for dealing with the energy crisis is "promoting adequate and reliable long-term oil and gas supply to global markets". This is because gas and oil supplies come from volatile and unpredictable regions of the world. Increasing supply of oil and gas, by building more pipelines apparently, will therefore help our security, in the short run at least.

Conversely, increasing the availability of oil and gas could be seen as about the most stupid course of action possible. The choices are becoming quite stark. Cut our energy use substantially, as soon as possible, and move away from dependency on uncertain foreign supplies, or, carry on, increase the supply, put off the necessary changes that we need to make, and wait for the giant energy crisis of the future.

The policy war between the G8 solution and the sustainable solution is underway right now in the form of the DTI public consultation on the 'energy challenge' - this will outline future government policy. There are just a few days to make a submission - add your voice to those of the many campaign groups putting the case for sustainable energy solutions. Also, press MPs to fight for properly funded energy conservation measures and decentralised supply systems. If we don’t we may find that our energy policy is determined, not by us or even by our government, but by the US, Russia, Japan, France, Italy, Canada, Germany and Tony Blair.

I am indebted to Liam Carroll for help with this column.

1 April 2006

All aboard the Afghan bus

By Marguerite Finn

Up to very recently, Afghan women were among the most disadvantaged on the planet. As one cruel joke put it: In Afghanistan, women never grow old. Why? Because Afghan women's life expectancy is only 42.5 years, one of the lowest in the world.

Deep-rooted cultural traditions have helped fashion a society where only 14% of women are literate, compared with 50% of men. Statistics show that those women who do work, are paid only half as much as their male counterparts. Up to 80% of marriages are arranged without the consent of the bride, and maternal mortality rates in some parts of Afghanistan are the highest ever recorded. According to UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), 600 children under the age of five die every day from preventable diseases. Fifty women die every day from obstetric complications, out of a total population of 28 million people. Only 40 per cent of girls attend primary school.

And that is not all. Picture, if you will, a queue of Afghan women waiting for a bus. Here comes the bus – but it doesn’t stop. Buses speed straight past, if there are only women waiting at the bus stop; at other times, men barge past the women to board the bus. This is a regular occurrence in the life of an Afghan woman.

Massouda Jalal, Minister of Women's Affairs in AfghanistanThere are some encouraging signs that the outlook for women is improving. A 'Ministry of Women's Affairs' was established in 2001, creating a national programme for women and tying it into the government's national strategy. Sima Samar, the first woman to head up the Ministry, now chairs the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. Her successor, Habiba Sorabi, was appointed by President Hamid Karzai as Governor of the Bamian province – the first woman in Afghanistan to be elevated to such a post. The Ministry of Women's Affairs is now run by Massouda Jalal (pictured left), a former UN worker and qualified paediatrician. She takes a long-term approach to improving women's lives. Over the next 10 years, if her policies are implemented, all girls under the age of five will be vaccinated against a range of diseases; sixty to seventy per cent of girls will attend school; Maternal mortality will fall by fifteen per cent and the number of female teachers will increase by fifty per cent.

The Ministry for Women also encourages women to run for parliament and provincial councils and to form women’s councils and associations throughout the country. Nevertheless, critics say that the pace of change is too slow and that the Afghan government does not take the Ministry seriously. The All-Afghan Women's Union pointed out that last year the Ministry's budget was approximately $4 million – out of the government's overall spending plan of $632 million. With this level of governmental support, they fear the Ministry will not achieve any real progress within the next 40 years! Massouda Jalal is not so easily discouraged. "If we work together to make the situation better, it will take two or three decades," she said. "If we don't, it will take two or three centuries."

Set against a background of continuing political chaos, the modest achievements of the women's ministry are quite remarkable. One way it has managed to speed things up is by working with outside agencies such as UNIFEM. This month, the benefits of such co-operation resulted in a better deal for women travelling on Afghanistan's public buses. By the end of this year, at least 30% of seats on all public buses in Afghanistan will be reserved for women, under the UN-backed programme. It all happened when the Minister for Women, the Deputy Minister of Transport and the Programme Director of UNIFEM, all got together and signed a Memorandum of Understanding, promoting a positive attitude among public transport staff and male passengers towards women passengers. Implementation of the Memorandum will be monitored by the independent Afghan Women's Network. A hot-line will be set up to take complaints and disciplinary action will be taken against staff who fail to observe the new directive.

The UN says that this iniative is in line with the benchmarks spelt out in the Afghanistan Compact – a UN-backed blueprint for international engagement in the development of Afghanistan over the next five years - and with the Afghan Government’s commitments to promote gender equality.

In February 2006, UNIFEM launched a pilot project in Afghanistan which aims to record cases of violence against women in a comprehensive database, which will be used to analyse trends, identify gaps in nation-wide response mechanisms and to determine strategies to tackle the issue.

For further information, see http://www.unifem.org/ or phone UNIFEM-UK: 0207-201-9987.