20 February 2010

Get your thumb out

By Trevor Phillips

I am just back from a week in the South of France. In my rich lifestyle (by global not European standards) I consume more than my fair share of global resources, so I went by train to reduce my 'carbon footprint' somewhat. No doubt I must do more than this, but it's a start.

It was no hardship: nine hours from London to Nice in comfort, with countryside views and the chance to walk about, dine in style and avoid airports. At £125 return, why use a budget airline?

But going further overland can be very expensive. A few years ago I went by train to Greece. I confess I flew back: I was testing my fifty-something years' capacity to cope with a lengthy if 'greener' journey and decided to try it one way, avoiding the risk of double misery. It was actually great fun. London to Patras in 48 hours included the joys of a restaurant car through France at sunset, a sleeper to Bologna and a ferry from Brindisi, with accompanying dolphins. Next time I hope to do the round trip by train and boat. But the outward train journey cost me considerably more than the return flight. If international leisure travel is to continue – albeit perhaps rationed in some way – long distance rail travel must surely be made cheaper than flying.

In my younger days I preferred to hitch-hike to Greece. It took under four days and cost almost nothing as truck drivers often treated me to breakfast and a beer or two, and let me kip in the cab. This has its risks of course, especially for unaccompanied women, but many young couples often travelled together safely.

Hitching is much more difficult now, and few would stop for a dodgy looking geezer like me - I no longer look like a student. Media scare stories have exaggerated potential risks into a public terror of hitch-hikers and generous drivers. Insurance firms have forced companies to prohibit non-company passengers. What a shame this is, as there is no better form of motorway travel than in the cab of an 'artic' and the use of a vacant seat or two could further reduce carbon footprints. Maybe someone will develop a viable lift booking service which records the photos and ID of hitcher and driver by phone-camera. Services like CarShare Norfolk already promote lift share schemes.

Hitching was democratic as well as green, an affordable adventure enhanced by its nagging uncertainty: Please don't drop me on the motorway… or miles from anywhere. And what skills one developed: drying hair under a wash-room hand-dryer and sleeping upright or in a luggage rack.

I once did the overland trip to India: a four day hitch to Istanbul, then onward by trains and buses. I would have missed so much if I had flown. Of course wars have made that particular route a difficulty now, but the chance to travel far, without flying, still exists. But has the decline of hitch-hiking changed the nature of long distance travel? Some young gap-year travellers now take the train to China, but many more fly to Latin America, even though a few days hitching plus a ferry could get them to Morocco or Egypt for a fair slice of adventure.

Even when it went wrong, hitching provided me with my best memories: like being dropped off on a deserted road in Yugoslavia at 5am in a dawn chorus drizzle, singing Gordon Lightfoot's masterpiece to keep my spirits up: "You can't jump a jet plane like you can a freight train, so I'd best be on my way, in the early morning rain." I never tried illicit jumping on planes or trains – probably best avoided - but I will never forget that early morning rain. Oh to have my thumb back.

13 February 2010

Consultation is vital on nuclear issues

By Marguerite Finn

With public consultation fatigue sweeping the country like swine fever, here's another one that may seriously affect our descendants. It's on the strange term "Justification" of new nuclear build – or to give it its full title: The Justification of Practices Involving Ionising Radiation Regulations 2004, where the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), as the Justifying Authority, must decide whether a new class or type of practice resulting in exposure to ionising radiation is justified by its economic, social, or other benefits in relation to the health detriment it may cause.

The Government is obliged to carry out this consultation under the terms of the Aarhus Convention drawn up by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). The Convention, adopted in the Danish city of Aarhus, is a new kind of environmental agreement, which obliges partaking governments to allow access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters.

But the government breached Aarhus by failing to hold the consultation while the decision-making was still in a formative stage, so that public opinion might realistically influence the process. It is not appropriate for the Secretary of State to be also the Justifying Authority. Both he, the Prime Minister and DECC have already expressed their support for new nuclear reactors. Not only is the Department being its own judge and jury here it is also rushing the 'Justification' of new nuclear reactors and their radioactive emissions through an overcrowded and unsynchronised schedule, without giving members of the public a chance to respond by the closing date of . Most of the public are unaware there is a consultation going on at all.

There is still time to contribute to this important decision-making process.

The possible "health detriment" quoted above is the risk of cancer from the radiation that all nuclear power stations emit. A recent German government study found large increases in leukaemia (220 percent) and embryonal cancer (160 percent) among children living near all German nuclear reactors. The study (called KiKK, the German acronym for Kinderkrebs in der Umgebung von KernKraftwerken) is supported by many other worldwide studies into child cancers near nuclear power plants. It is rather worrying that the German scientists cannot explain the results on the basis of the presently accepted model of radiation risk. How can one justify such a dilemma?

The Guardian's Environment Editor, John Vidal, reported that the children's cancer hospital in Minsk, Belarus and at the Vilne Hospital in the east of Ukraine, are both reporting highly unusual rates of cancers, mutations and blood diseases linked to the Chernobyl accident twenty-four years ago – although they were hundreds of miles from the stricken plant.

The KiKK Report is significant because it is a large and well-conducted survey; because it is scientifically rigorous; because its evidence is particularly strong and because the German Government, which commissioned it, has confirmed its findings. Last November our Department of Health requested the UK Government's Committee on the Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) to examine the German study and report back. The COMARE report will not be finished until after the Justification Consultation deadline of 22 February, yet the government refuses to extend the deadline. This is an unreasonable position for the British Government to take. It is vital to get to grips with the KiKK evidence to assess how great are the disadvantages of nuclear power. Once the 'Justification' decision has been taken it will be almost impossible to re-examine the major issues of policy.

Is it already a 'done deal'? No - not if we write and demand an independent inquiry, allowing the consultation to be open, transparent and democratic. Please comment to: Owen Jenkins, The Justification Assessment Centre, DECC, 3 Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2AW; Telephone: 0300 068 5869; e-mail: justification@decc.gsi.gov.uk - before 22 February!

6 February 2010

Peak oil on troubled waters

By Charlotte Du Cann

Don't cry for the Amazon, You buy Texaco. The year was 1991 in Quito, Ecuador. I found the graffiti whilst travelling through South America, writing a book about giving up consumerism and connecting with the earth. Unknown to me in the Amazon rainforest a thousand oil pits were leaking into the rivers and creating an ecological disaster zone thirty times greater than the ExxonMobil spill in Alaska.

All energy is borrowed. Someday you have to give it back, the indigenous girl tells the marine. Avatar the highest grossing Hollywood film in history has a fantabulous forest as its main protagonist. The trees and all the denizens on the planet Pandora are under threat by the American army, working for a mining company after its underground resources. Beautifully and imaginatively made, full of earth-based sentiment, it's a film that has stuck a deep chord in a disturbed world. The spirits of the forest look like seeds from the sacred Mayan ceiba tree. The native Na'vi resemble Maasai and Mohican warriors. The Outsider becomes one of The People. There's a happy ending.

The reality on earth is more difficult to look at. Joe Berlinger's documentary of the Ecuadorian oil disaster, Crude, follows the lawyers and the 30,000 Ecuadorians who have taken Chevron (who bought Texaco in 2001) to court to demand compensation. The forest dwellers are not the fierce blue-faced Na'vi flying on dragons, they are shy, sad-faced people whose lives have been polluted by the black oil that seeps into their soil and drinking water, whose babies are born covered in sores and who die early from cancer. The case has, like that of Exxon Valdez, been dragging on for over a decade. Chevron deny any responsibility.

In Avatar the spirit of the Pandoran rainforest runs through everyone, the trees' roots form a communications network that connects all of life on the planet. It's an idea that feels right, that sounds right, but whether we emerge from the cinema connected to our own planet is another matter. Do we realise as we go about our seemingly ordinary lives that everything we do is conncted to the Canadian forests now being torn down for tar sands or to ConocoPhillips' plans to plunder virgin Peruvian rainforest, or to the real-life American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan?

And if we did realise this what would we do? As well as enabling communities to powerdown in response to climate change, the Transition movement considers 'peak oil' (the point at which the demand for oil exceeds its global production). Ultimately peak oil means less oil. One possible reaction to this is an endless battle between nations for fossil fuels, another is the reconstruction of our civilisation, a massive shift in lifestyle and the ways we treat the earth and each other.

To kick-start the latter, Transition brings attention to something almost impossible to see - a world entirely held up by the finite resource of oil, from our use of plastic and synthetics to the fuel that drives our vehicles and underpins our industrialised agriculture. Hard to see because we are distracted and disengaged at every turn by our illusion-based culture.

The truth is we'd rather believe that environmentally-sound creatures made in Hollywood will save the day. When real indigenous people from a rather less entertaining forest bring their case to bear we look away. But if we were truly connected to life we would not substitute animation for reality. We would not avert our gaze or prefer to live in wonderlands and never-never lands. Our task, as the Kogi, the Maya, the Hopi and all the real native elders who have come out of the wild places since the 1990s tell us, is to grow up and look at what is staring at us in the face. We're living in the same world and we're going to have to work very hard for that happy ending.

Outside my window that looks toward the North Sea there are orange lights glaring on the horizon. They belong to oil tankers, waiting in the bay for the oil prices to rise. Once you could look out and see forever. I don’t like to see them there. No one does. But the reality is they are there.