23 February 2008

If you make a mess, you gotta clean it up

By Rupert Read

In these days of wider environmental understanding, even economists virtually all agree that market 'externalities' should be paid for, to 'internalise' the costs. Translated from Economese into English, that means: that a company which pollutes should have to pay the community, to 'compensate' for the pollution. (Sensibly enough, this principle is called: the polluter pays…).

So, for instance: both the nuclear industry and the fossil fuel industry should be forced – wherever, whenever, and however feasible - to pay the full (including the future) costs of the safe disposal of their wastes.

The implications of this simple and obvious statement are colossal. Let's start with nuclear power. So: In the case of the nuclear industry, there is good reason to believe that taking this principle seriously would finish the industry off. For, with uranium supplies fast-depleting, there is now a real question as to whether there is even enough usable nuclear energy left in the world to clean up the mess of the nuclear industry, past, present and future (for back-up for this claim, see http://www.theleaneconomyconnection.net/). The British government is at least pretending that in future the nuclear industry will have to include the cost of dealing with its waste within its business model. If there ever is a Sizewell C, it would therefore have the enormous financial responsibility of dealing with its own nuclear waste. Stuff that is dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. That's a pretty long-term mortgage!

Now let's take fossil fuels. And the funny thing is: in the case of gas, oil and coal there is still not even any such pretence of covering their waste-disposal costs (fashionable blather about 'clean coal' notwithstanding).

It simply strikes one as obvious that the nuclear industry should clean up its waste: why has the obvious parallel with the fossil fuel industries never been seriously explored?

Let's explore it a little further. In the case of the companies that mine fossil-fuels, there should be a very substantial (and retrospective) windfall tax to generate a 'superfund' to cover the vast adaptation and mitigation costs of manmade climate change. Because the key waste – the key pollutant - that is given off by burning fossil fuels is, of course, massive quantities of carbon dioxide.

This windfall tax proposal would not only be just; it would also play the vital role of hugely incentivising the development of renewable energy - a point to which I will return momentarily.

Now, it might be objected that applying this tax retrospectively would not be just, in that fossil fuel companies / suppliers have not always known about the polluting effect of their product. 'Unfortunately', however, ignorance is no defence in the eyes of the law.

Nor of course is it a defence that some fossil-fuel companies have been wilfully funding climate-change-sceptical thinktanks, in order to try to make it appear as though maybe they are not responsible for polluting (with CO2) our ecosystem to the dangerous point now reached… The windfall tax that I am envisaging should be backdated at the very least to the time when a strong scientific consensus was reached on fossil fuels' guiltiness in the case of Carbon Dioxide versus Humankind: say 1990, to give a very conservative estimate which can therefore hardly be disputed.

What renewables desperately need is fair costing of their rivals. Forcing the fossil fuel industries to pay for the vast greenhouse-gas pollution that they have caused might just bring about the green energy revolution that we desperately need, if our civilisation is to survive and flourish. Especially if the tax revenues concerned were put into research and development, subsidies for tidal, wave, solar, etc. Which, it so happens, are renewable energy sources that East Anglia is particularly rich in. So if my idea in this column were put into practice, it could be particularly good news for our part of the country!

It is astonishing really that the simplicity of the idea that motivates this column has never before, as far as my researches have shown, been applied directly to the most pressing case of all. If you make a mess, you should clean up after yourself – every child knows that.

Our greenhouse-gas-full atmosphere is simply the biggest and most dangerous mess that corporations have ever made.

Wouldn't it be sweet, if the windfall profits of the Earth's biggest polluters could be put to work in order to prevent the very climate catastrophe that their extraction and burning of fossil fuels has come close to bringing about?

16 February 2008

A Norwich community helps grow the Tree Against Hunger

By Marguerite Finn

Many readers will have heard of the Tree of Knowledge but how many will have heard of the Tree Against Hunger - also called enset (Ensete ventricosum) - which grows in Ethiopia and is considered by some to hold the answer to food shortages and famine in Africa?

The Norfolk African Community Association (NACA), based in Norwich, is researching this extraordinary plant, which resembles a large banana plant and is often called the 'false banana'. Every part of the enset plant can be used, be it for food rich in carbohydrate and calcium, clothing, cattle-feed, fibre for many uses, or domestic furniture. As a tree, its roots and leaf canopy reduce soil erosion, and it is drought resistant in ways that annual crops are not. Its products may be harvested at any time of year, without the long hunger periods of cereal crops.

But despite its versatility, enset was virtually ignored for many years, while farmers were encouraged (by former Ethiopian Governments and western aid agencies) to concentrate on cereals and 'cash crops' such as coffee. However the famines, which ravaged Ethiopia in the 1980s and 1990s, persuaded the local people that enset's drought-resistant properties and its long-term sustainability could contribute to the eradication of famine. Research is currently in progress to improve the yield and to simplify the processing technique. Crucially, it has been discovered that enset and coffee actually benefit from growing together as companion plants, therefore famine prevention can go hand-in-hand with developing a modest cash economy, while stabilising local food production.

One type of food made from enset is called Kocho and is rich in carbohydrate and calcium. Kocho can be baked as bread and another product called Boula is usually used as porridge. Boula is also believed to help mend broken bones and a bad back. Kocho and Boula can be stored for many years if well wrapped in enset’s leaves and kept air-tight. Experience has shown that the quality of this food improves the longer it is stored – like laying down a vintage wine! In 1997, the Ethiopian government belatedly recognised enset's importance and declared it a 'national crop' worthy of significant research and development funding.

So, how did the Norfolk African Community Association (NACA) become involved?

The tree against hungerImage: the 'Tree Against Hunger'

In 2002, Connections for Development (CfD) was formed to create a structured relationship between the Department for International Development (DfID) and black minority ethnic (BME) communities in the UK. It is a membership-based organisation, committed to ensuring that BME communities are supported in shaping and delivering policy and projects affecting their countries of origin. Norfolk's NACA is a member of CfD and has chosen enset as one of their projects.

Africa faces, over the next decade, an ever-increasing need to achieve sustainability in agricultural production and the importance of the NACA's involvement with a project which reduces food shortages while helping the achievement of the UN Millennium Goals, cannot be overemphasised.

In Ethiopia, enset has been grown for such a long time that its cultivation and use is deeply interwoven into the rural culture. Gender and age issues are intricately involved in the growing, harvesting and processing of different parts of the plant, and even in the selection of which varieties of the plant to grow: men prefer to select varieties that mature later but give a larger yield, while women go for those that mature earlier and taste better.

As it grows from a planted sucker into a sizeable tree over a 6-9 year period, enset needs transplanting several times to economise in land use. Unfortunately at these times the plant is susceptible to a wilting disease, and Dr Eshetu Wondimagegne from NACA is interested in seeking remedies for this. The bacterium responsible has been identified and the ways it is transmitted from crop to crop are known. What is now required is to establish a control measure to eradicate the source of the disease. The challenge is to turn technical knowledge gained in the laboratory into practical measures, which can be carried out on the land by rural communities. If this is achieved it will mean food self-sufficiency for over forty million people in Ethiopia and the 'Tree Against Hunger' will have fulfilled its promise.

In searching for practical remedies to enset wilt, Dr Eshetu Wondimagegne and his colleagues in NACA are working on a research project of fundamental importance to future generations in a continent that has had more than its fair share of upheavals and exploitation.

I am very grateful to Dr Eshetu Wondimagegne for his input to this column. To find out more about NACA's projects, e-mail: ashwondi@hotmail.com.

9 February 2008

What happened to the revolutionaries?

By Juliette Harkin

Obituaries have been reflecting on the life of the Palestinian revolutionary George Habash, who died in exile in Amman last weekend. David Hirst, writing in the Guardian, described how he had become "the conscience of the Palestine revolution".

His achievements over a 60 year period were celebrated in the Arab media and in Palestine three days of mourning were observed. Habash wanted a just solution for the Palestinians and felt, rightly or wrongly, that an armed struggle was the only "means to regain our usurped rights".

Palestinian academic and Oxford University Fellow, Karma Nabulsi writing for the Guardian, described him as someone who had "engaged in a non-stop struggle for Arab unity, human progress, women’s liberation and equality".

In 1948, Habash witnessed the forced expulsion of the inhabitants of his hometown as thousands fled in terror during the Arab-Israeli war. He believed that only Arab Unity would serve the Palestinian cause and he established the Arab Nationalist Movement. When it seemed that only armed struggle would deliver justice for the Palestinians he founded the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in 1967.

Yet, to many of us in the 'West' he was a man of terror responsible for the infamous plane hijackings of the 1970's. Karma Nabulsi explains that Habash expelled the man responsible for the international plane hijacks from the PFLP.

How can there be two such oppositional views? George Habash was not a terrorist. He was struggling to make the voice of the Palestinians heard. Just as Palestinians struggle today to ensure that the world does not forget the occupation.

The advent of mass media played its role. Television brings us immediate and emotive images of distraught hostages or bomb victims. There were no images to bear witness to the ethnic cleansing of historic Palestine. Now, it seems, we have been conditioned to think of the Palestinian or Arab in a negative light.

There is a reluctance to consider that there is actually, still, an immense injustice that has been and is being committed on a scale of the Apartheid disgrace in South Africa and Britain’s darkest days as a colonial ruler.

The history of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples is of course inextricably linked. They have even used the same radical means, or terror, to achieve political ends.

Respected Israeli historian Professor Noah Lucas documents details of the Zionist forces operating in Palestine. In 1946 the King David hotel in Jerusalem was bombed in an attempt to drive out the British military. Nearly 100 were killed. The Irgun were ostracised as an anomaly, acting out of step with the commanders of the Jewish forces, but they surely succeeded, with other Jewish forces, in helping to drive out the British army and then the Palestinians. Irgun leader, Menahem Begin, who was responsible for the bombing, and many others, went on to become a prime minister in Israel.

Begin was from Poland. George Habash, was from the Arab town of Lydda in what is now Israel, but he did not live to lead his people in their native homeland, despite his own life-long commitment to armed resistance and his dissent against a foreign occupation.

As the new Israeli state attempted to deny the existence of the Palestinian people, the PFLP wanted to ensure that the cause of the Palestinian people did not fall off the international agenda.

In an interview in 1998 for the Journal of Palestinian Studies Habash was asked what he thought of terrorism and the plane hijacks that were carried out by elements within the PFLP branches, a generation earlier. He responded with a question: "Why am I here (in exile) instead of in Lydda? Because I was expelled through terrorism".

Revolutionaries fight in unequal wars, when the weight of an occupation or colonial power crushes the basic rights of native inhabitants and leaves them without a voice, suppresses their history and takes their land. We don't seem to have revolutionaries any more and we do not differentiate between the freedom fighters and those bent on killing for the sake of it.

George Habash was opposed to the Oslo peace accords because he knew, and he was right, that they would not result in a just peace for the Palestinians. The PFLP, along with other Palestinian parties, rejected Oslo. The decades of the so-called peace process that followed have brought nothing but injustice for the inhabitants of what was historic Palestine and is now home to an apartheid state.

2 February 2008

We have power to challenge supply

By Liam Carroll

Electricity distribution networks are natural monopolies, according to the electricity regulator Ofgem. Hence the regional electricity distribution network for the whole of the eastern region is operated by one company. Woking Borough Council (WBC) challenged this conventional arrangement by setting up a competing private wire network and successfully demonstrated the economic and environmental benefits of a radically new approach to providing electricity and heating.

There is now a big debate going on as to whether the model can or should be replicated by other local authorities or private investors. The government remains cautious and has been studying the issues, through working groups and consultations, for several years now. They have promised to publish another report on the subject later this year.

Meanwhile, the engineer behind the Woking model, Allan Jones, who received an MBE for his efforts, has been employed by the Mayor of London to apply his radical approach to energy in our capital city. Once again Allan Jones is demonstrating that thinking outside the box can achieve radical gains in slashing energy bills and cutting CO2 emissions.

Before going into the detail of the model, it is worth going over some of the figures; in fifteen years Woking Borough Council saved 4.9million pounds from their own fuel bills, delivered low cost heating and electricity to domestic and commercial customers, and cut their CO2 emissions by a staggering 82%.

So what are the radical measures and can they be replicated in somewhere like Norwich? Well, as mentioned at the beginning, one of the key actions taken by WBC was to set up a private electric distribution wire and generate their own electricity. This enabled them to avoid all the costs that come with sending electricity round the conventional transmission and distribution system. Transmission and distribution costs make up over half of a conventional electricity bill.

This substantial saving meant that WBC could invest in large photo-voltaic arrays, which they set up on a number of local authority buildings, and recover their investment money in a relatively short space of time. Secondly, because they had their own private wire they were able to take advantage of other forms of local electricity generation, particularly from heating projects that generate electricity as a by-product (combined heat and power or CHP). By converting to these low-carbon generating technologies and fuel efficient heat and power systems the council made radical gains in slashing their CO2 emissions.

Further savings on fuel costs were made through comprehensively addressing the poor insulation of the housing stock and promoting the uptake of CHP and renewables across both the local authority and private estates.

One of the vehicles used for delivering these projects was the development of an energy services company under a joint public-private partnership. The non-profit company, now conventionally referred to as an ESCO (energy services company), was able to enter partnerships, manage finance and offer services that were beyond the legal parameters of local authority activity.

Whether a local authority in this region could replicate such a model remains an open question. There is though more than one way to approach the issue for anyone who might be interested. There is nothing to stop private investors developing schemes that essentially mimic the principles outlined above. City centre rooftops are ideal for the installation of large photovoltaic arrays, and the savings made from the use of private wires suggests that becoming a low-carbon energy provider could be both profitable and ethically satisfying. Another option might be to approach the existing network operator who might decide that such a scheme is worth accommodating within the existing wires.

Another option would be for a coalition of public and private individuals to get together and explore the potential of driving such a project through. This is being done in the Midlands where a group called Decentralise Birmingham has already undertaken a feasibility study that essentially confirmed the viability of the project.

For further interest there are a number of agencies now with growing expertise on the subject, from the government to Greenpeace, who are all willing to share their knowledge and expertise on the subject. First and foremost however is the London Climate Change Agency (LCCA) whose chief executive officer is, of course, Allan Jones MBE. The LCCA is creating a centre of climate change and energy engineering excellence to offer advice and support to both the private and public sectors. Secondly there is Woking Borough Council who are ready to pass on the benefits of their experience as a registered Beacon Case Study for Sustainable Energy.