24 June 2006

Real eco-tourism

By Rupert Read

The word 'eco-tourism' probably brings to mind holidays in exotic locations, but holidays with a difference – holidays with a conscience. Tourism which tries not to despoil the local environment, and which focuses on bringing the tourist closer to nature, rather than sticking them in some air-conditioned hotel room in front of a sterile beach. So far, so good. But why need eco-tourism, so-defined, take place far from our own shores? Can't there be home-grown eco-tourism, too?

Earlier this June, I enjoyed a weekend away, camping with some friends, in north Norfolk. Our journey to the sea was fairly low-impact, several of us piled into one vehicle, travelling just 25 miles. We ate good – mostly local – food. We swam, talked, and laughed, and had a fine time of it.
On the Sunday morning, a walk on the beach, in the sun. There, we lucked upon a true ecological treat. We happened upon a posse of seals, swimming, splashing, and coming astoundingly close in to the sand. They gazed at us for minutes on end, as we did at them. It was absolutely magical. I waded into the sea, not caring that my rolled-up trousers were getting soaked, and had a kind of meeting with one of the seals, a younger one, particularly curious and playful. This seal would bark, and snort, and dive – and it let me get to within one metre of touching its nose… An experience I shall never forget.

It brought to mind an event further back in the past, when I visited the turtle coast of Oman. There too, my girlfriend and I had the very good fortune to wade and swim with the huge sea turtles that spend much of the year in those waters. Another great, great experience.

While on that Omani coast, we visited an official eco-tourist resort to see the famous spectacle of these long-lived giants nesting and laying eggs, at night. This experience was not so great. There were far too many of us tourists, and the guides didn't act firmly enough to prevent us from swarming around the laying turtles, disturbing them in a way that actually at times endangered them, and their very fragile young. My girlfriend and I became enraged by how selfish many of the visitors were being, in for instance taking flash photos of the mother turtles, which we had been expressly forbidden to do (because light at night disorientates the hatching baby turtles, and as a result can prevent them from finding their way to the sea). The most appalling moment came when one tourist actually placed their foot on one of the just-hatched baby turtles, to facilitate a photo (again, using a prohibited flash camera) being taken of it!

We left in disgust, and several others left with us. Nature, we felt, was not a spectacle to be gawped at, for money, in ways that actually put in question the survival of the very creatures that we were there to see…

At that 'eco-tourist' resort in Oman, something wrong was allowed to happen, for money. By contrast, our experience when we simply sought out turtles swimming for ourselves, was wonderful.

But in retrospect, even that doesn't seem to me really a satisfactory kind of eco-tourism. Real eco-tourism should involve being kind to the ecosystem – to our planetary life-support-system – as a whole. And we had travelled to Oman by air – the most environmentally destructive form of transportation that there is.

Since then, I have signed up at the Flight Pledge website, joining the new conscientious objectors: those who refuse to fly for pleasure, and keep their flying to an absolute minimum. For true eco-tourism surely involves travelling as short a distance as possible, and by as ecological a means as is feasible. If I were going to the Middle East again for pleasure, I would go by train; for instance, you can travel by train almost all the way to Petra, the astonishing ancient rose-red city that I visited in Jordan, a few years back.

Just as the fad for fast food is being replaced by the desire for good slow food, so slow travel should replace the mania for speed that is so devastating our planetary ecosystem, at present. Here, in East Anglia, there are incalculable natural riches… And so I return to the wonderful wildlife that I had the privilege of being with recently, off our north Norfolk coast. Real eco-tourism is doing things like hanging out with those gorgeous intelligent seals…

This column is dedicated to the memory of Freda Lupton, 1909-2006: East Anglian born and bred; a true lover of the countryside and all its wild creatures; and my beloved grandmother.

17 June 2006

Plutonium lessons from Korea

By Jacqui McCarney

It would be funny it wasn't so tragic. In 2002 the United States accused North Korea of enriching uranium to make nuclear weapons. Sound familiar? The tragedy in this case was that the North Koreans weren't anywhere near being able to enrich uranium sufficiently to make a nuclear weapon, but, as a consequence of the accusation, the North Koreans suddenly were able to make nuclear weapons.

Confused? You should be. To understand the story you have to know how to make a nuclear bomb. Not in every detail, but at least the basics. There are two types of nuclear bomb; one is made from uranium – very highly enriched uranium to be precise – and the other is made from plutonium. The difference between uranium and plutonium, and where they come from, is extremely significant.

Let's start with uranium. The stuff you use for nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors, uranium 235, is less than 1% of the uranium that you find in the ground. To get a concentrated amount of uranium 235 you therefore have to separate the U235 from the rest of the uranium. To do this you have to use a complex machine called a centrifuge cascade. The centrifuge cascade relies on very precise engineering, a constant supply of electricity, bearings that can withstand a huge amount of work without degrading, very specialised materials and an extremely well controlled environment. It takes over a thousand centrifuges, operating constantly for a year, to produce enough very highly enriched uranium for one nuclear bomb. At this point it is worth noting that Iran currently only has a 164 centrifuge pilot project which has only just become operational after several years work. They plan to make a bigger centrifuge cascade, but it won’t be ready any time soon, and there are plenty of technical hurdles to be overcome in the process. Making nuclear weapons from uranium is no easy task.

Another way to make a nuclear weapon is with plutonium. All you need, to make plutonium, is some old fuel rods from your local nuclear reactor, a few chemicals and some large stainless steel tanks. Every used fuel rod contains a few grams of plutonium but you need at least 20 odd kilograms of the stuff to make a nuclear weapon. That's quite a few fuel rods, but, if you happen to have your very own nuclear reactor, you will also have access to several thousand fuel rods. Anyone with a nuclear power station therefore, can make plutonium without too much difficulty. Anyone with a few kilograms of plutonium, could make a nuclear weapon.

Let's return to North Korea. It's important to know that North Korea has built and operates its own nuclear reactor and therefore has access to plutonium. Until recently the plutonium in the used fuel rods was carefully monitored by international inspectors. Then the United States accused the Koreans of enriching uranium. The basis of the accusation was the fact that the Koreans had tried to buy the materials to make a centrifuge cascade (remember what that is?). They might have tried, but there is no evidence, according to the US establishment journal Foreign Affairs, that they actually succeeded in buying the parts, let alone in putting them together and successfully operating the highly complex machine; according to Johnathan Pollack, chairman of the Strategic Research Department at the US Naval War College "North Korea confronted daunting obstacles had it decided to build an enriched uranium weapon, or even to acquire the production capabilities that might ultimately permit such an option".

For the Bush administration though it was enough to call an end to the Agreed Framework which allowed inspectors to monitor the Korean nuclear programme in return for economic benefits from the United States. So the Bush administration was able to call a halt to providing economic aid to North Korea. The downside for the international community was that it also meant that the nuclear inspectors had to leave the country too. Suddenly no one was monitoring the North Korean nuclear reactor and those piles of used fuel rods containing that oh so deadly plutonium.

Two years later the North Koreans announced they had made a nuclear weapon. No one doubted that they would have been able to extract the plutonium from the used fuel rods now that no one was looking. The Bush administration's accusation that North Korea was enriching uranium for nuclear weapons was a gross exaggeration that has seriously back fired. For Bush and his advisers the devil is clearly in the axis of evil, for the rest of us the lesson is clear; the devil is in the detail.

My thanks to Liam Carroll for his help and research with this column.

10 June 2006

Play up! Play up! And Play the Game!

By Marguerite Finn

'The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
'Play up! Play up! And play the game!'

(Sir Henry Newbolt 1862-1938)

Sir Henry Newbolt died before the onset of the second world war, which changed most things forever, yet his words are oddly relevant today – when the great game is being played across the world – that of threat and persuasion between former and present global powers.

Last Friday, about 50 Norwich citizens gathered to debate the replacement of Britain's not-so-independent Trident nuclear submarine system – our very own weapon of mass destruction – when it goes out of service in the 2020s.

Campaigners for the CND on Hay Hill, Norwich Photo: Campaigners for the CND on Hay Hill, Norwich

On September 13th 2005, defence secretary John Reid promised "an open debate in the country, parliamentary party and parliament" on whether Trident should be replaced with a new and more powerful system. It was in this spirit that Norwich CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) held its meeting, although the government and the Ministry of Defence have so far declined to provide any of the information necessary for a full and balanced debate.

CND believes it must help set the terms of the debate. To this end, Bruce Kent and the Chair of National CND, Kate Hudson, came to Norwich to engage the public on this crucial issue. It's not an easy task. The public – who Kofi Annan terms 'civil society' – is reluctant even to think about issues such as Trident Replacement or nuclear weapons, let alone debate them – hence the low turnout at the meeting. Why?

Well, people may feel that they have not got enough information or time to give proper consideration to these questions; they may be in denial about the whole thing, or they may simply not want 'politics' to disrupt their relatively comfortable lives. But 'politics' is part of all our daily lives and we should be glad of any opportunity to influence major political decisions taken in our name. There is no shame in asking the question; do we really need to spend upwards of £25bn on a system that will be out of date almost as soon as it is built?

The world is moving on from cold-war thinking. In national editorials the argument is split less along ideological lines than around practical arguments about the utility and relevance of nuclear weapons for addressing 21st century security challenges. At the Norwich meeting, Bruce Kent gave a wonderful analogy: - we had arrived "at a cusp" in world affairs when nuclear weapon states should re-evaluate their adherence to "the castle view of History" with each defending its own fortress with ever more powerful weapons of mass destruction, while the 'castle' itself was degenerating into a run-down boarding house with a leaking roof, a mass of dry rot and a rusty fire-escape!

The US 'Star Wars' programme renders deterrence useless. Submarines will no longer be invisible and a surprise first strike will be impossible. Therefore spending £25bn to replace Trident would be like replacing the cavalry! The US and British governments are 'legally delinquent' in threatening Iran for wanting nuclear energy, which is their right under the terms of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, when nuclear disarmament is our duty under the very same treaty!

Kate Hudson spoke of growing public opposition to nuclear weapons. She quoted the latest report from the UN Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, chaired by Hans Blix, which calls for the removal of US nuclear weapons from Europe, saying that the 'war on terror' must be abandoned to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear weapons can be outlawed, as biological and chemical weapons already have been, and their use made unthinkable.

Kate urged everyone to get their MPs to sign EDM 1197 which calls for a full public debate on Trident's replacement, and she ended her upbeat message by reminding us that the power of public protest should never be underestimated.

Several members of the audience commented that the real evil of Trident lay not in the submarines themselves but in human minds and hearts and unless that changed there would be no solution to nuclear proliferation. UK nuclear weapons are not just to deter any invaders but to protect our 'economic interests', wherever they may be – a hang-over from the worst of Empire. There was a strong feeling that there is now a unique opportunity for Britain to achieve greater stature by disarming unilaterally and becoming a force for peace in the world, thus playing the Game as we ought - honourably.

To join in the debate visit http://www.cnduk.org/.

3 June 2006

Crops are good for power, not fuel

By Andrew Boswell

The world's farmers are rapidly moving from their traditional products - food, feedstock and fibre - to producing vehicle fuel. Simple logic says that making fuels from crops can save lethal greenhouse gas (ghgs) emissions – the CO2 released in burning the fuels is absorbed from the atmosphere by next year’s growing crops (the carbon cycle). But is this really right?

Well, increasingly environmentalists are concerned by the huge changes being made to agriculture and the biosphere across the globe, and no one really knows if biofuels make net savings or losses of energy and carbon emissions when their whole production lifecycle is evaluated.

This is hotly debated, and even 'pro camp' research doesn't look good - a 2002 US Department of Agriculture report found that for every gallon of ethanol, the equivalent 0.92 gallons of fossil fuels was needed for its production. This year a much hyped paper in Science magazine found production was only "net energy positive" when co-products such as cattle feed were included. Some scientists contest even these modest fossil fuel savings asserting that, in a more complete analysis, no biofuel has a positive energy balance.

The CO2 emissions balance is no better – a recent paper finds them 50% greater from corn-ethanol than gasoline – this becomes 100% higher when the methane emissions from beef cattle fed with the co-product are accounted for.

Why? Energy inputs for mega-scale production include petroleum-based herbicides, pesticides, and fertilisers, and fossil-fuelled tractors and trucks plough the fields, harvest the crop, and ship the crop to the fuel refineries. In the case of the US ethanol industry, the fossil-fuelled trucks ship the fuel halfway across the country from the population sparse corn belt to population and car dense states like California and Texas. Biorefineries are themselves fired by fossil-fuels - largely natural gas, but sometimes coal! - in enormous quantities to ferment, and then purify ethanol from the watery fermentation product.

Can we trust this industry, based on disputed science, as it rapidly grows, driven by very powerful vested interests? In the US, it is the legislators and farmers from the US Corn Belt states, the large corn brokers and traders, the car manufacturers (who see a huge market in 'green' cars), and the oil companies (owning and running the refineries) who will benefit. Do they care about the eco-system, when they throw caution to the wind at the whiff of profit?

Rapid growth must concern us - current global production is over 12 billion gallons, nearly tripled since 2000. It is set to triple again by 2012 with Brazil and the US leading. There is now a global agro-chemical-biotech-oil industry based around refineries producing millions of gallons of fuel product per annum, and commodity markets trading billions of tonnes of corn, soya, sugar, wheat and oil palm per annum. Worldwide vast new areas of GM soya, sugar, maize, sorghum, sunflower and rape seeds are planted as bio-refineries spring up.

This is already forcing food and fuel producers to compete for the same crops. After a 20% rise on Corn prices (April / May 2006), the Financial Times reported US farmers are diverting more of their harvests towards producing fuel rather than food or feedstock for animals. Lester Brown, the director of the Earth Policy Institute is quoted "Service stations are now competing directly with supermarkets for food commodities".

Such food-fuel competition could be devastating in an unregulated market – countries in the global South may devote ever-expanding areas of cash crops for vehicle fuels displacing local food production and decimating the livelihoods of small farmers and local people. Soon food prices and supply could become subsidiary to the global energy market - wealthy western car drivers literally pitted against hungry consumers in developing countries.

Environmental damage is rife as enormous areas of forests are displaced for crops, releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gasses with untold loss to wildlife and entire species. We can also expect vast monoculture and constant cropping to deplete soil and destroy biodiversity, whilst production and manufacture requiring huge amounts of water will deplete water supplies.

All this leads to the sad conclusion that large scale biofuels production is an extremely energy intensive, C02-emitting and polluting process causing rapid damage through its growth.

Can we make better use of the carbon cycle? Yes, if we develop biomass for heating and power instead of vehicle fuels. This is efficient in energy and CO2 savings in local small and medium scale energy plants. It has been shown that such biomass power on a decentralised grid could ensure our energy security within 20 years without any new nuclear build.