18 December 2009

Merry Christmas

As usual we will be donating to a charity in lieu of sending out cards. This year our chosen charity is the Amboseli Trust for Elephants (ATE). The three-year drought in East Africa has caused major problems for wildlife with 90 % of the wildebeeste, 70% of zebra and 200 elephants dying and there is also the on-going problem of poaching.  Contributor Mike Cuthbert has been filming elephants in the reserve (including Echo, the matriarch that has been featured in many documentaries) and he alerted us to the problems. More information can be found here: http://www.elephanttrust.org

7 December 2009

Act now, Save lives

Well, the conference of the decade has finally arrived after months of anticipation. Let's hope that the gathered representatives from 192 countries actually roll up their sleeves and get down to some serious talking. The cynic in me wonders just how many of the representatives and their hangers-on are really needed and did they think about the environmental impact of travelling to the conference.
One item from the coverage that caught my eye was the climate activist from the Maldives, Mohamad Shinez, who submerged himself in a tank of water outside the conference centre, in an act to recreate flooding in the Maldives. He held a sign saying 'Act Now, Save Lives'.  This reminded me of two images that we have in the Ecoscene collection taken in the Maldives. The photographer, Paul Thompson, took both photos, standing on the same beach five years apart. Its not difficult to see the effect of rising sea levels in such a short period of time. No wonder the Maldivian people are very worried. 

The Conference will be considering four main issues:
1. The commitment to cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by the developed nations, especially the United States.
2. The commitment of developing nations, such as China and India, to reduce the rate at which they increase their greenhouse gas emissions.
3. Funding by developed nations to provide clean energy technology to developing nations.
4. Monitoring and enforcing of the agreement.
I will be watching with interest.

30 November 2009

China's CO2 Cuts

As governments ready themselves for next week’s Climate Change summit in Copenhagen, China announced that it would cut its CO2 emissions for each unit of GDP by up to 45% by 2020 compared to 2005 levels. That is significant. The Chinese government always takes a long time to come to a position on policy, but once a decision is taken implementation follows swiftly.

Not a moment too soon for China’s gasping and spluttering population who have lived in one of the most polluted parts of the planet since its largely coal-based industrialization took off. All 10 of the world’s 10 most polluted cities are now in China, according to a recent survey published in Forbes Magazine. Air pollution accounts for almost 0.7 million premature deaths in China each year, according to the World Health Organization.

China is the world’s largest consumer of coal. It is third in the world in term of coal reserves, behind the United States and Russia. As coal fired power plants produce cheaper electricity in terms of dollars and cents than the greener alternatives, they are not going away anytime soon.

Construction work on China’s first clean coal plant, employing carbon capture and storage, started this summer. Reportedly, the plant will cost about $1billion. Four CCS plants are being discussed for Britain and an experimental plant, using an oxyfuel boiler, started operation in Germany last year. The International Energy Agency estimates that 100 CCS plants will be needed by 2020, up to 850 plants by 2030 and 3,400 plants by 2050. CCS technology is a priority for China and India who have made it clear they are not going to sacrifice their economic development for a greener planet. The good news is they are willing to collaborate with the rich countries on bringing their CO2 emissions down.

Just where the money will come from for CCS and the other measures needed for the survival of the species will be hotly debated at Copenhagen. Meantime, we can be certain that coal fired power plants, like this one in Datong, China, will be around for a very long time.

24 November 2009

Slow water

This is a term that I had not heard of before but it was mentioned on this morning's Today Programme on Radio 4. The interviewee had not heard of it either. But we all know what its about - the slowing down of water runoff during heavy rain to help reduce flooding. Sadly, no amount of  flood water management would have saved Cockermouth from 2 metre high flood waters, but its something that urban planners need to think about as monsoon rain becomes more common in the UK!

So what can we do to slow down the run-off of water into drains and water courses. Well quite a lot. Starting with green or living roofs that take up a lot of water and release it slowly. Water can then be directed from roofs into temporary storage areas. This way it does not get contaminated with pollutants from the street and can be put to more use. The sedum roof on the left is on the Norfolk Wildlife Visitor Centre at Cley Marshes. Not only do the plants take up CO2, but they absorb water and provide excellent insulation. Any water draining off is collected and stored.

On the ground the pavements can be permeable - that involves using surfaces that allow the water to penetrate rather than run straight off into the drains. A couple of years ago designers at Hampton Court has some great ideas for front gardens that has permeable surfaces to reduce run off. They used gravels, grills, and permeable hogging to create an attractive, yet totally practical urban front garden. 

12 November 2009

Zoo in my garden

Africa, and by extension Schoenmakerskop where I live, is not for sissies. Transporting and installing the fish pond in the garden was easy and a lovely little eco-system developed over a few weeks.

What was really exciting was to monitor the creatures that discovered the pond. One of the first visitors was the Brown Hooded Kingfisher, a terrestrial kingfisher that is supposed to hang around the veld and eat lizards and whatever else it fancies. They wiped out the fish population it two days. The Natal Green Watersnake was welcome too, iridescent green and non-venomous. The Painted Reed Frogs are very small, delicate with dark pink on the under parts (a designer’s masterpiece) and their high pitch whistle which, while deafening, is bearable.

The bad news was the Raucous Toad. My frog guide describes the call as “rasping quacks repeated constantly. About two per second.” I don’t know if you have ever tried sleeping about 5 meters from rasping quacks that are repeated twice a second. Also you can multiply the rasping quacks by the number of toads present. Duck quacks can be comforting in the distance but a machine gun like rasping quack is too much for any relationship to bear and that is why on most evenings this time of the year I spend quality time with my toads. I am armed with a torch, bucket and braai (barbecue to you) tongs. Catching toads is not easy. There are predators that target them (mainly snakes) and if you are not careful all you get to see is ripple in the water where the toad dived.

The easiest way to catch them is when they are in the act and the bonus is you can catch them two at a time. If you don’t get them early enough the pond is filled with strings of spawn. I probably hold the world record for the greatest number of Raucous Toads in one evening. There were 9 and it was not easy.

Life is tough for toads. The Kihasi Spray Toad is in critical danger of extinction because of a dam built on the Kihasi River. Seems they live in the spray zone of the falls and the new dam and a fungus disease has reduced their number so drastically that the last 500 or so have been taken into captivity for breeding programmes. The Raucous Toad is not in danger of extinction – every morning I carry my bucket to a nearby swamp and release my captives.

And yes toads are generally unloved. Some of their names like Raucous, Guttural and Snoring Toads suggest that they are too noisy. The descriptions of some of the other species’ calls like “Gaa, gaa, gaa” (Sand Toad), “rasping squawks, one per second” (Karoo Toad), raucous rapidly trilled bray (Flat-Backed Toad), “deep pulsatile snore of 1 second” (Leopard Toad), “very deep muffled booming sound” (Red Toad) and “short nasal rasping” (Pigmy Toad) shows how hard we have it. Perhaps they should have been named after music. The Moonlight Sonata Toad is an unlikely name but there is room for the 1812 Overture Toad and the Led Zepplin Toad makes perfect sense at one o’clock in the morning.

9 November 2009

Nuclear power stations - 10 sites proposed

The UK government has finally approved sites for 10 new nuclear power stations, which are Bradwell, Braystones, Hartlepool, Heysham, Hinkley Point, Kirksanton (shown above), Oldbury, Sellafield, Sizewell and Wylfa.  The proposed sites at Dungeness in Kent, Kingsnorth, Druridge Bay and Owston Ferry were ruled out. Before final planning permission is granted, the power stations have to prove that they are capable of disposing of their radioactive waste safely. Not surprisingly, there has been and will continue to be vocal opposition to the advancement of nuclear power in the UK. WWF, FOE and the Sustainable Development Commission claim that the issue regarding radioactive waste has not been resolved. The Sustainalbe Development Commission suggested that the govenrment would be better investing in small scale, smart power generation. 

The Government has a problem - a huge black hole in electricity generation that will become apparent in about 2015. Even if  construction on these power stations started tomorrow they would not come online for many years, The current generation of nuclear power stations about to be mothballed, but nothing has been planned to replace them,although the Govenrment has had plenty of time to do something about it.  The Government estimates that about 60 GW of new  genenrating capacity will be needed by 2025, with 35 GW coming from renewables. That leaves 25 GW to find from conventional generation capacity. But to meet the objectives in the Low Carbon Transition Plan, the UK will have to reduce emissions from power generation to almost zero by 2050. So the extra 25GW of power can't come from fossil fuels, its going to have to come from nuclear.

Meanwhile, just across the channel are the nuclear power plants of France which generate more than 70 % of the country's electricity.  The French are proud of their nuclear power industry which has created many jobs. There,  nuclear energy is seen as being clean and safe. And of course, the UK benefits too, as French electricity flows through our national grid when demand exceeds supply. The US are taking a fresh look at nuclear power too,  and Barack Obama has stated that nuclear energy will play an important role in electricity generation. More than  25 nuclear power plants have been approved, the first to come online in 2016. China and India are pro nuclear power, and each has plans to build 50 plants. 

So, is nuclear energy good or bad from an environmental point of view. That's tricky. From a carbon emissions point of view it represents a source of clean energy, although there are emissions associated with the extraction of uranium which is a non renewal energy source. On the other hand, it produces radioactive waste which we can't really deal with at the moment, other than bury it in the ground and forget about it for hundreds of years. However the nuclear industry is working hard to developing techniques to recycle the spent uraniun rods, which still contain 85 % of their energy and if this is successful, one of the biggest arguments against nuclear energy will be removed. 

Climate change is upon us and despite all the things we are doing, we are not ready to make the switch to a low carbon lifestyle. So I see nuclear power as a necessary evil. Its a stop gap remedy that may help us to beat climage change but something to be replaced as soon as possible.

31 October 2009

The World Food Crisis

World Food Day, on October 16th, has come and gone. I wonder if anyone remembers this year’s theme: “Achieving food security in times of crisis”. Frankly, I found the theme rather obscure. It was coined by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, FAO, whose founding in 1945 World Food Day commemorates. But to what kind of crisis was FAO referring: financial, family or a natural disaster? Perhaps it was referring to a crisis of confidence in the international mechanism of ensuring humankind’s basic right to food? That would certainly be timely.

Thirty-five years ago, Henry Kissinger, the then U.S. Secretary of State declared at the World Food Conference in 1974, that within 10 years no child would go to bed hungry. There are now over 1 billion people around the world that don’t get enough to eat. More than half of them are children who certainly go to bed hungry.

There is nothing obscure about the looming world food crisis. Food production in developing countries will need to nearly double by 2050, if the planet’s 9.1 billion people are going to get enough to eat. And that at a time when global climate change and extreme weather will have profound effects on food production in the world’s most populous countries. The drought in Ethiopia and floods in the Philippines are just the tip of the iceberg.

To address this daunting challenge, the leaders of the G8 countries announced at their meeting in L’Aquila, Italy, in July this year that $20 billion would be contributed to world food security over a period of 3 years. Last week, FAO’s Committee on World Food Security, the CFS, which serves as a forum within the United Nations system for policies on world food security, including it's production, availability and affordability, announced a series of wide-ranging reforms. In addition to broader participation by those UN agencies tackling food security issues, the CFS will now include other international organizations such the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, civil society and non-governmental organizations and private sector associations. It will also receive advice from a high-level panel of experts on food security and nutrition to ensure a scientific basis for solutions to hunger.

Broadening the forum to include the key stakeholders has to be a good move. But don’t expect unanimity of views to emerge anytime soon. President Barack Obama said at the L’Aquila G8 meeting that we need to grow more food and we need to grow it in Africa. But farmers and the agricultural lobby in food producing countries, including the United States, will want to protect their markets. That said, the days of papering over the underlying causes of world hunger with food aid grown in donor countries are over. That certainly doesn’t mean there’s no place for food aid. Were that so, the little Indonesian girl in the photo, who is a survivor of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, wouldn't be getting her free ration of rice in a relief camp. But she’s actually eating rice grown in the USA instead of rice grown by farmers in her own country. The need for food aid will continue for as long as problems of availability and affordability persist. But the conditions on which it is contributed and the way it is managed require attention.

Next month, at the World Summit on Food Security, governments will have an opportunity to say what they think about the new arrangements to address the food insecurity faced by one-sixth of humankind. For 20 years, governments have let their investment in agriculture and food production in developing countries slide dramatically. It’s crucial that they reverse the trend. Agriculture sustains 70 percent of the world’s poor.

17 October 2009

Blowin' In The Wind

Back in the 60s, whilst holidaying in the Greek islands, I was bowled over by the sight of a cluster of windmills on the Lasithi plateau on Crete. How ingenious, I thought, to use the natural energy of the earth to deliver our basic needs. On subsequent visits to Athens, I was also impressed by the growing array of solar panels on rooftops quietly heating water for the populace.

Forty years on, despite the warnings of James Lovelock, Gwynne Dyer, et al, our emulation of the Greek example has been less than spectacular.

Today, wind power accounts for just 1.5% of global electricity usage according to the World Wind Energy Association. But it’s growing rapidly, particularly in Europe, with tiny Denmark now meeting almost 20% of its needs from wind. In Canada, where this photo was taken, only about 1% of electricity needs are generated from wind.

Despite the challenges that the massive wind turbines present to birds and bats, and the constant and nauseating humming noise they produce, the negative aspects of power generation from this source are relatively minor. But power generated from wind is expensive.

Wind farms can co-exist with agriculture, and concerns about aesthetics can be allayed if enlightened and enforceable planning mechanisms ensure that giant turbines do not become the dominant feature of the landscape, or our seascape. Britain seems to have opted to site as many as possible of its wind turbines off-shore, which can’t endear it to the sailing community. Despoiling our wild places with machines must be a last resort. Much more energy and resources should be devoted to curbing the size of the planet’s population, which is the cause of the problem in the first place.

Wind energy is slated to become more important as our supply of oil runs out. Although the values of ancient Greece have long since been swallowed up in the laissez faire of the free market system, it is only we that stand between the corporatization of the countryside and the rapidly disappearing wilderness.

But we need to get organized. The Copenhagen climate change conference that could determine on our very survival is almost upon us. Right now we look rather like a befuddled Don Quixote lunging around erratically at Sancho Panza’s windmills.

15 October 2009


Every blue moon I get restless and am driven to drive randomly across our country looking for pictures and stories. This year it became the West Coast’s turn and from Schoenmakerskop on the east coast I reached as far as Lambert’s Bay on the west coast before turning back.

For the first time I noticed an increase in petty corruption and strangely it was mainly in the tourist mecca of the Western Cape. The nearer you are to a big city the greater the chances you have of being exploited. Something else were the inflated prices at some restaurants and cafes that cater for the international tourists. Do yourself a favour and shop around and look for reasonably priced menus.

I am a natural born cheapskate and spent most nights in caravan parks ranging from those owned and run by municipalities or the South African National Parks Board, the nights I was not camping I was sponging a bed off some unfortunate family member or friend. The municipal caravan parks have a serious problem with late arrivals at camp-sites. Being a photographer I arrive at times that are bad for photography and that is sometimes at noon when I experience the length of country lunch time or the evening after sundown when I get the security guard. In any case you will not get a receipt if you arrive after office hours and whoever is in charge just pockets what you pay. The strangest story was in Simonstown where the books had already been done by 3 pm and there was obviously no receipt book. Insist on a receipt if you pay anything. Camping sites are closing down and it is not because they are not viable but more because moneys end up in private pockets.

Municipalities have their own characteristics and I do not like what is happening at Hermanus, the whale watching capital of South Africa. I sat on a hard rock for a few hours waiting for a whale to do something interesting and eventually went back to the car. As I got in a parking officer came up and claimed some R20 in fees. I don’t mind paying for safe parking but I want to know about it before someone claims money. They need some visible signage. What added to the aggravation is that again I was not offered a receipt and had to ask for one. Irritating too was stopping to look if there were whales and having to tell the parking person that you were just having a quick look. The parking areas around the cliff have been neatened and tidied and are well paved but I get the impression that the number of parking places seem to have shrunk. The last surviving pont in the South Africa has the same receipt problem as the caravan parks have which is a pity. Ask for a receipt!

Also a worry is that local tourists are few in number and I seemingly met more international tourists than locals. It is always interesting to discuss and explain things to non-South Africans. At Hermanus I witnessed an interesting attempted pick-up involving a Spanish tourist and a local. The local was very smooth, wore too much cheap jewellery and was dressed far too fashionably to be convincing. His end-goal was to lure the tourist to a nightclub but luckily he was there with his wife (she was watching whales) and he avoided being lured away. I worry about what the intention was, probably just some serious sponging but one never knows and it does happen that tourists are lead away and relieved if their possessions. Be careful and don’t take chances with strangers.

In one village I saw a white male shout at a beggar who was rummaging through a rubbish bin. Sad when you can not tolerate a poor person looking in the bin for food but racism still flourishes in some small towns.

Traffic on the main roads was terrible with many large trucks. My car is slow and being overtaken by massive trucks carrying shipping containers was particularly scary and irritating. Have our railways collapsed and don’t we have the means of shipping containers between cities?

The good news is that off the national roads the secondary tarred and gravel roads are great. Cutting between Bredasdorp and Riversdale on gravel was wonderful and the snakes (Cape Cobra, Puff Adder and 2 large Molesnakes) were amazing. The Blue Cranes seem to be increasing and it is always great to know that conservation efforts are bearing fruit. It is irritating that camping at De Hoop, a reserve run by the Western Cape Nature Conservation, is so expensive and I just passed by; privatization does not mean cheaper and I am told it also does not mean improved facilities either. My other favourite bit of gravel was between Laaiplek and Lamberts Bay and even though it is a private road (you pay a R25 toll) the birdlife was great with hundreds of flamingos visible through a culvert under the Sishen Saladana railroad was amazing. The West Coast, apart from some ugly new housing developments, seems unchanged.

The seashells on a string sellers of Lamberts Bay are a pain and next year I will bring one from home just to be left in peace. In South Africa it has become a bad habit with many locals to try and sell cheap trinkets and use persistence as their method. Country food is great and the best fish and chips was at Lamberts Bay, the best surfing wave at “Famous Last Words” and the most dramatic wave in Lamberts Bay itself. I like to think that I invented the concept of Post Colonial Seascapes there too.

The best news however is that we still have much undiscovered and unexplored wildlife. To hear the beating of 10000s of cormorant wings in the morning mist was worth all the hassle and stress of the journey and being attacked by a furious shrew was priceless.

Of course I had to buy additional photo storage and now sit with a few thousand images that need sorting and naming and filing and I don’t have time to write anything because the roof still leaks, Frieda’s (my beloved combi) tyres need replacing and the firm that does my tax has screwed up and the lawn needs mowing and the dogs need a walk and the phone is not ringing (work is short)(my recession is bigger than yours) and and and…………..

11 October 2009

World Rainforest Week 12 - 18 October

To celebrate World Rainforest Week I have posted just a few of  images that show the  amazing beauty of  the rainforests. But photographs do not convey the awesome nature of the rainforest - the size and complexity of the vegetation, and the overloading of one's senses from the  cacophony of insects, frogs and birds, the smell of decay, the lack of light  and the humidity that saps your body of energy.

The pressure on the forests continues - oil palm and rubber plantations,  clearance for cattle ranching, oil exploration, mining, quarrying, for timber etc etc. The list goes on and on.  Now the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) are highlighting yet another threat - this time to the temperate rainforests of British Columbia. The exploitation of the tar sand deposits in Alberta continues and a pipeline is proposed to take millions of barrels of oil  to Kitimat on the Pacific coast, from where it will be shipped around the world. I have visited this part of Canada and it is beautiful. I took the ferry along the Inside Pasage where we passed  forested islands separated by narrow channels. The region is rich in wildlife, both in the sea and on the land.

So whats the problem with the pipeline? The tankers travelling to and from Kitimat will have to pass along treacherous shipping routes where accidents are common. A navigation accident with an oil tanker could lead to millions of tonnes of oil pollution the pristine waters. Its not hard to imagine what would happen, one has just to think of Exxon Valdez. To find out more about this threat, read the excellent article on the RAN blog (http://understory.ran.org/2009/10/05/tar-sands-threaten-canadas-rainforests/)

8 October 2009

Eco pic of the week

This image of disposable plates and cutlery collected at the Camden Green Fair caught my attention. The photographer is Pat Tuson.  All of  this waste will end up in landfill where the plastic will remain for many decades. The food waste on the plates will decompose and release methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Shame the food producers at the fair didn't think about this issue and choose to use biodegradable plates.

29 September 2009

Beijing Traffic Improves

For those heading to Beijing, China, to witness the official celebration of the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic on October 1st, an unrivaled spectacle awaits them. The parade and show in Tiananmen Square will be truly awesome. And if the brown cloud that has shrouded much of eastern China for the last quarter century gives way to blue skies, over Tiananmen Square, at least, that will be the icing on the cake for China’s President Hu Jintao.

According to the United Nations Environment Program, automobile exhaust, coal-fired power plants, controlled agricultural burns that often get out of control, and coal and wood cooking stoves are largely responsible for the atmospheric brown clouds that now hang over more than a dozen of the world’s megacities, including Beijing. Ironically, the UN also says that were these brown clouds to be eliminated overnight, a rapid global temperature rise of as much as 2 degrees C could be triggered. The brown clouds are apparently masking the effects of climate change.

While those pressing for mandatory carbon emission cuts by China were doubtless disappointed by President’s Hu Jintao’s speech at the climate change summit at the UN last week. Others were encouraged by the voluntary measures that China announced. It would seem that President Hu Jintao and the leaders of the other emerging G20 powers are fully aware that self-interest and global-interests are not mutually exclusive.

Twenty-five years ago when I lived in Beijing, there were only a few thousand cars in the city. Most of those belonged to foreign embassies and diplomats. Today, there are an estimated 3.8 million cars in the city with the numbers increasing by 10,000 each week. But the gridlock that characterized Beijing traffic since the 90s, has given way to a much reduced and more orderly flow. Traffic regulations are now being enforced. Since July 2008, as in other megacities of the world, the number of cars allowed on the roads are being regulated by license plate numbers. Some get around the rules by owning two cars or two sets of license plates. But there is an appreciable reduction in the number of cars on the streets. Last month, in Beijing, I was actually getting to my meetings too early!

If China can cut its carbon emissions as it has the number of cars on Beijing’s streets, its population will breathe easier.

25 September 2009

Eco pic of the week

I love this image of aluminium cans labelled as renewable energy, one of Niels Poulsen collection at Ecoscene. Aluminium of course can be recycled many times over. Each time aluminium is recycled, there are environmental gains - energy is saved as it takes much less energy to melt down an existing can, than it takes to quarry and smelt the raw material. Bauxite, the aluminium-containing ore has to be quarried from the ground at great cost. Often this rock occurs in areas of tropical forest, such as in Jamaica, and this leads to more deforestation. Bauxite has to be transported around the world to the smelters where lots of electricity is needed to extract the metal. In Canada, much of that energy comes from HEP but that is not true everywhere.
So next time you drink a can of coke or the like, make sure the empty can, be it aluminium or steel, goes in the recycle bin and not in the dustbin. Such an easy thing to do with great environmental benefit. As they say, very little counts.

16 September 2009

Footprint Friends

Had a very interesting day today, attending a 'Women into Leadership' Conference at St Swithin's School in Winchester. I was invited to participate as a group leader in the workshops. The keynote speaker was Karen Ford, founder of Footprint Friends (www.footprintfriends.com). Karen set up this environmental social network site fo 10-18 year olds in August 2007 to promote the voice of young people in the climate change conversation, to raise environmental awareness, and to inform about climate change. Its a great site for young people, with visitors from around the world. Karen and her team visit schools and encourage young people to participate by painting their feet - their footprint.

One of their campaigns is a Million feet for Copenhagen.Footprint Friends is inviting all young people to either paint their feet and/or write a poem within the theme of ‘my dream for the future’, and have it included in a ‘book of dreams’, which will presented to the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December. In this way each ‘foot’ will be symbolically present for the conference.

Have a look at the Footprint Friends website and get your footprint uploaded!

15 September 2009

Eco pic of the week

We love this image that sums up a lot that is wrong with the world - a simple footprint superimposed with a montage of images showing environmental pollution. This image was taken by Chris Kitcher.

9 September 2009

Dilemma of flying

With the Climate Change Conference at Copenhagen just three months away, we will be focussing some of our blogs on this very important issue.

Today, we are focussing on air travel. Headlines on the BBC today warned that emissions would have to be cut by 90 per cent by 2050 to compensate for the increasing emissions of airplanes. Why? Because this means of travel is becoming increasingly cheaper and accessible to more people, especially in the less developed countries of the world, and secondly, carbon kicked out of engines at altitude is far more damaging than that at ground level. Hopefully this means that plans for the proposed new runway at Heathrow will be kicked into touch. I also heard a very sensible suggestion that we should do away with domestic short haul flights. I have never understood the desire to travel for 40 mins by plane, with all the hassle and cost of airport parking, security checks and delays, when you can jump on the much improved rail network and travel in reasonable comfort to one's destination. Doing away with the really short, unecessary flights, say between London and Birmingham, or even London to Paris would go some way to reducing emissions.

I was reading the newsletter of one of our contributing photographers, Peter Cairns, regarding air travel and the dilemma facing the environmental and wildlife photographer. I quote, "Photographers have an annoying habit of justifying their extravagant global travel by claiming that their endeavours will somehow save the planet. To be fair, a small minority are helping to do exactly that, but in the main we go where we want to, when we want to ... just like everyone else. If photographers are really going to initiate behavioural change, they (and I include myself) might care to take a look in the mirror now and then." [see http://www.northshots.com/imagemonth.asp]

I know I think long and hard before travelling. I'm off to New York next month for Picturehouse NY, and the only way to get there is by plane. For me, I justified it as it was the first and only flight I will make this year. However, I have carried out a carbon audit with the World Land Trust and will be offsetting our carbon emissions.

On a brighter note, the incoming Japanese prime minister has announced that he wants to cut Japan's emissions by 25% by 2020 - thats a good start and puts the pressure on the rest of the world. Now I'd like to see some measurable targets - for example, to see the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere come down to 350 ppm, or to replace x number of coal-fired power stations with nuclear power plants etc.

To see a selection of images on climate change from Ecoscene, click on this URL: http://www.ecoscene2.captureweb.co.uk/lbshow.php?lightboxid=8581505383044

31 August 2009

No more tungsten bulbs

At last the end of the tungsten bulb is close - from Sept 1st, shops will not be able to order new stocks of 100w incandescent and all types of frosted light bulbs. The rest are being phased out over the next two years. OK, so there are problems with some of the cheap low E bulbs as they are not as bright, but the latest ones have a brighter, whiter light and can be dimmed. Also once there is momentum and money coming in, the manufacturers of these bulbs with be able to put more R and D into even better ones, such as the LED light bulbs.

So why make the switch? Firstly it saves you money as each bulb uses a quarter of the electricity and lasts up to 20 times longer, so replace a 150w traditional bulb with one of the latest low energy bulbs and you could save as much as £20 / year as well as reducing your carbon dioxide output by half a ton. The switch saves resources too. Think of all the glass and metal that goes into making 20 tungsten bulbs compared with one low energy bulb.

Find out more about the pros and cons of the different low energy light bulbs here: http://www.ableduk.com/alternatives.html

27 August 2009

Artificial trees and algal tubes

These are just two of the geoengineering ideas that the Inst. of Mechanical Engineers (IMECHE) have suggested in their report on geo-engineering. Geo-engineering is the manipulation of our built environment to counter the effects of global warming, such as taking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere artificially, and reflecting sun back into space. The highly efficient artificial trees would filter carbon dioxide and store it in underground in disused mines. They look a bit like large solar panels and are already in prototype. The report suggests that hundreds of thousands of them could be positioned along motorways and around wind farms.
Another idea is the use of bioreactors. Bioreactors contain green algae and they photosynthesise, taking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it to starch and sugar. The algae could be harvested and put to a number of uses, not least as a source of carbohydrate and protein. This idea is not new and there are a number of companies, especially in California that are pioneering bio-reactors, biofences and the like. However the engineers envisage tubes of algal being attached to the outside of buildings where they could take up carbon dioxide generated by traffic.
These and many other ideas will not solve the problem of global warming but they will reduce the rate at which the carbon dioxide levels are rising, giving us a bit more time to tackle the real issues.

18 August 2009

Spear fishing is for boneheads

I enjoy reading the thought-provoking blogs of one of our contributors, Christine Osborne. One of her recent blogs is about the spear fishing of tropical fish off the coast of Australia and how this has lead to the disappearance of some of the large attractive fish such as the giant parrot fish. This definitely has to stop.

10 August 2009

Can Britain be self sufficient in food?

Food security is back in the news and that's a good thing. I have long been concerned that the Government has done nothing to address the issue of food supply. Over the last 30 years, valuable farmland have been lost to development, leaving us with less space to grow our own food. Farmers have seen their incomes slashed and to make matters worse they are swamped with paperwork. On top of that there are the global issues of climate change, energy and water supplies, and the rapidly rising human population. More food is going to be needed and producing it is not going to be easy.

As a country we produce less food in the UK that we did in the 1980s, especially fruit, vegetables and beef. Its all very well saying we can import food, but crop failures caused by drought, or flood can easily change that. Countries will soon stop their exports if there is a shortage of food for their own people, as seen by the shortage in rice last year. Variabilities in oil price can push the price of cereals and fertilisers sky high and this is reflected in the rising costs in the shops.

So can the UK be self sufficient in food by 2030? At the moment about half the food we eat is home-grown. Of the rest, about two-thirds comes from the EU, the rest is sourced elsewhere. Reversing the trend is going to be a tall order and I think its going to mean changes in our attitude to food. For starters, we are so wastful of food - and thats the whole food chain - not just the consumer. As much of 40 per cent of the crops in the fields does not get to the shops because of damage, spoilage in storage, or failure to meet quality standards. Then there is wastage at the processors, distributors and in the shops. Finally the consumer comes along and throws away as much as one-third of the food they buy. That's a massive 6.7 million tonnes worth more than £10 billion.

One way forward is to improve the consumer's connection with their food and this is where the wonderful trend to 'grow your own' is going to help . I'm lucky as I have a small organic farm and we are self sufficient in eggs and meat, and for most of our vegetables. I know that I use all the veg I grow, even the mis-shaped carrots and nibbled cabbages, and all of the vegetable waste goes into the wormeries or the pig pens. Raising your own animals changes your attitudes too. Having cared for them for many months, you don't like the killing, but you are determined to make sure their meat is put to good use, otherwise you feel you have let them down. Consequently we have learnt new skills to process their meat into bacon, ham, pate etc, while the vegetable gluts are frozen, dried, or processed into chutney and the like. Then you discover that food excites you again and you want to experiment with new recipes, and grow more! It is addictive. So hopefully the great stories that I read about people growing veg on every available space, about community supported agriculture, pig-sharing and villages becoming self sufficient in eggs etc., mean that we will reduce our dependency on imported foods.

6 August 2009

Supporting honey bees

The news about honey bees is not great with as many as one in three colonies failing last year in the UK, and widespread colony collapses in the US. Now that more people growing their own veg and keeping chickens, there is greater interest in bee keeping. The National Bee Keeping Association reports a marked increase in new members and enquiries. Hopefully this will lead to more bee keepers and more honey bees.

So what can you do to help bees?
1. Become a bee keeper
2. Plant bee friendly plants such as foxgloves, hollyhocks, mint, sunflower, alliums
3. If you don't want ot keep bees, but have a bee-friendly garden or rooftop, offer space to a local bee keeper, in exchange for some honey!
4. If you see a swarm contact a local bee keeper
5. Support bee charities.
6. Sign the Soil Association petition to ban pesticides known to harm honey bees

What is Ecoscene doing? For every honey bee image sold during the month of August we will donate £10 to Bees Abroad. This charity works with communities in developing countries, helping them to establish bee hives. www.beesabroad.org.uk. The sale of honey from one hive raises enough money to put one child through their primary education while a donation of £15 buys the materials to make one hive.

Did you know there are more than 300 different species of bee in the UK including honey bees, bumble bees and solitary bees?

Ecoscene has photofeatures available on the honey bee plus a supper collection of images on bee keeping, bees in flight and life cycle of the honey bee. www.ecoscene2.captureweb.co.uk/lbshow.php?lightboxid=387429465654

3 August 2009

Pneumonic plague outbreak in China

An outbreak of pneumonic plague has been reported in China, where the authorities have quarantined the town of Ziketan in Qinghai province, NW China. This is a predominately rural area where similar outbreaks have been reported in recent years. Two men died from the disease over the weekend.
The disease, a highly contagious form of plague, can be treated with antibiotics, but only if given early. It is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which is spread by rats and other rodents via the fleas which live on them. Unlike bubonic plague, this plague can be spread by human-to-human contact.

Ecoscene has a selection of images showing rats that could be used to illustrate this news item.

31 July 2009

Billions of butterflies

This year the UK has been invaded by an army of painted lady butterflies. The painted lady is a summer migrant, flying from Europe and North Africa. The conditions in North Africa this year were superb and the adults, strong fliers, have dispersed through Europe. Scientists estimate that one billion painted ladies will be on the wing in the UK in August, some having flown over from Europe and others emerging from pupae from the first arrivals back in June.
Its a bumper year for the Painted Lady and other common species such as the Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Red Admiral and Meadow Browns but sadly, others are not doing so well - fritillaries for example. Its not due to competition with other butterfly species, but habitat loss.
On the butterfly conservation website (http://www.butterfly-conservation.org) you can log your sightings of this butterfly as well as those of the humming-bird hawkmoth. This moth is a day flying species that is often seen sipping nectar from flowers using its extra ong proboscis. It gets its name from the way it hovers in front of the flower, just like a hummingbird.

30 July 2009

Photographing a dead whale

A large and very dead 12 meter long weighing about 40 tons Humpback Whale washed up just down the road from where I live. Of course I had to go photograph it; both out of curiosity and a need to educate people with images of nature.

It was not fun. The whale was leaking a whitish fluid, probably blubber (eau de baleen), into the rock pools around the carcass. This was giving the rocks a greasy sheen and transformed them into a skating rink. The pictures were easy to take as I just wanted to show how big the whale is and you can’t really ruin the impact and contrast of a 40 ton meatball compared to the average sized human. Got the pictures and sat on a rock and looked at the people. Interesting how people are interested in whales but remain unaffected by nature. Some people just spend a few seconds and others up to 30 minutes just staring at the animal.

According to the local museum the whale died of natural causes but I doubt it. Could be that the newspaper messed up the information. The whole head section of the whale is bashed in, something that indicates that a ship probably rammed into it. In Africa there is a lot of poverty and it was worrying to see that large chunks of blubber have been cut out of the animal. Hopefully there wont be too many upset stomachs and sickness caused by the rotten meat. Another aspect is traditional medicine and I wonder if the local sangomas have not used some of the whale for some or other medicine. In any case it is sad that the carcass can not be used for anything constructive and it will be left there to rot. Yes the local municipality will not remove it and I understand this as there are no people living in the immediate vicinity. It would also be a terrible job to remove the carcass. Local dive operators would be interested in towing out the carcass and anchoring it at sea in order to attract the Great White Sharks and other species that are common in the area. Unfortunately the whale washed up during spring tides and it is high on the rocks. The marine topography in the area is too shallow and rough to attach ropes to a boat and tow it out. You would probably just sink your boat.

It was interesting to see a group of Abalone poachers diving in the area. With that entire whale flavouring the sea there are sure to be many sharks in the area.

When I got home my dogs (Wheatie, Wiccombe and Widget) were delirious with joy to see and smell me, attracted by the “eau de baleen” smell that clung to me, my clothes and shoes. My partner was very unimpressed! The whale fluids stink and I had to immediately wash myself and all my clothes. So if you ever have to photograph a dead whale you need to stay upwind, avoid the juices and do be careful of slipping on the rocks. Also ensure that you are not wearing fluffy boots and your best clothes.

29 July 2009

Organic food is no better for you

As the owner of an organic farm (www.empirefarm.co.uk), I was very disappointed to read the findings of the Food Standards Agency's Organic Review. The research was carried out by a team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who examined all the evidence on nutrition and health benefits from the past 50 years. The Soil Association in their response to the report could not understand why the research team decided to ignore virtually all of the existing comparative studies between organic and non organic foods. The reason given being that the studies did not met their criteria? In those studies where they did find differences, the research team felt that they were not important. For example, the researchers found that there was 50% more beta-carotene, 38% more flavonoids, and 11 % more zinc in organic food but decided it was not significant. They admitted that there were higher levels of the benficial polyunstaurated fatty acids in meat and dairy but again it was not considered beneficial to health. Bizarrely the study also ignored the results of a major multi-million pound study by 31 European research institutes that was published in April. This European Union research programme concluded that:
    • Levels of a range of nutritionally desirable compounds such as antioxidants, vitamins, glycosinolates were shown to be higher in organic crops
    • Levels of nutritionally undesirable compounds such as mycotoxins, glycoalkaloids, Cadmium and Nickel were shown to be lower in organic crops'.
    • The levels of fatty acids, such as CLA and omega 3 were between 10 - 60% higher in organic milk and dairy products, and levels of Vitamin C were up to 90% higher in leafy vegetables and fruits.

Another area ignored by the FSA study was the long term effects of pesticides on our health. A study pubished in 2006 concluded that the long tem exposure to pesticides can disrupt the immune systme, cause sexual disordered, and damage the nervous system and DNA.

So I'm not really clear why the FSA should fund such a poorly researched report unless of cause they are out to discredit organic food. I, for one, know that I do not want to eat food that has been sprayed with pesticides and fertilisers, often several times in a growing season.

20 July 2009

Bamboo taxi

An amazing vehicle can be seen driving around the streets of the Philippines. Believe it or not its a taxi made from bamboo. With its woven bamboo panels and seats, there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.
The commonest and cheapest way of getting around in the Philippines is by habal-habal, a motorcycle taxi that is far from safe. It's modified to carry as many as 5 passengers, often under a make-shift canopy. Inherently unstable, it's likely to topple over if the driver comes to a sudden halt. It's also polluting. So, Rustico Balderia, mayor of the small town of Tabontabon in the Philippines has come up with a much green and safer alternative - the bamboo taxi, or Toti Eco as it is known locally. He knew he had to design a vehicle that could compete with the habal-habal, so his bamboo taxi is cheap, incredibly fuel-efficient, environmental friendly and safe. It's also made by a group of school leavers in the town.
So how do you construct a taxi from bamboo? Bamboo is surprising strong, in fact its tensile strength is greater than that of steel, so when woven, the bamboo sheets can replace steel panels. Obviously the chasis is still steel, but there are plans to replace that too in future models.
Bamboo is a common building material in the Philippines and other Asian countries, where it is used to the construction of buildings, flooring, scaffolding, piping and much more. Being a fast-growing plant, bamboo is both a ustainable and carbon neutral material.
To make the taxis even greener, the engine runs on coco-biodiesel and is incredibly fuel efficient, being able to travel for up to 8 hours on a gallon of fuel. The engine's quite powerful too, and is able to cope with the steep roads in the region.
So far there are two models, the Eco 1 which seats 20 people and the Eco 2, a smaller taxi for 8. With its win-win design, there are sure to be similar models appearing all around the world.

the Greening of the Billabong Pro in Jeffrey's Bay

Every year I attend the Association of Surfing Professionals Billabong Pro which is held in the small town of Jeffrey's Bay in South Africa. They were very proud to announce the greening of the contest with carbon footprint reduction, waste recycling, use of solar heating etc. It made me decide to produce an illustrated article on the greening of the competition and the concept made me feel good until I saw the recycling bins being emptied into the town's garbage removal truck.

Of course I got irritated and spoke to the media people and of course I didn't find the right person and decide to overdose on Billabong's coffee and photograph the surfing. The surfing was great but I couldn't let the apparently false claims of an environmentally correct event carry on. I contacted people and to my amazement got a feasable answer - the town's municipality were told their services were not required but arrived early one morning and started mixing the sorted waste in front of one confused photographer (me). Apparently they were chased away and the recycling was done in the correct way.

There is very limited recycling in South Africa and it is great that Billabong went green to reduce the impact of the event on the environment. I just wonder how the surf industry is going change the toxic materials that are used to manufacture surfboards - I did see a new board with a bamboo deck last week - so maybe things are changing for the better....

17 July 2009

Plastic bag use halved - well almost

In May 450 million single-use plastic carrier bags were given out to shoppers . That sounds a lot but its almost half the number given out in May 2006. Last year the Government set retailers belong to the British Retail Consortium the target of a 50% cut in the number of bags, and they have almost delivered on this - missing the target by just 2%. WRAP (http://www.wrap.org.uk) estimates that in 2009, about 5.6 billion bags will be given out in the UK, down from 10.7 billion in 2006. However, there is still a way to go so other measures such as taxing bags (as planned in Wales) and encouraging shoppers to reuse their bags. Participating retailers in the agreement are: Asda, Co-operative Group, Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s Supermarkets Ltd, Somerfield, Tesco and Waitrose. Morrisons is not a member.

Cutting down on plastic bags has many benefits:

  1. Plastic bags are made from oil, so reducing their use reduces the use of oil and electricity in their manufacture and transport
  2. Plastic bags take hundreds if not thousands of years to decompose, so reductions mean fwer bags end up in landfill or littering our countryside
  3. Plastic bags can harm wildlife, for example, they get trapped by the plastic, or they may eat it (sperm whales and turtles mistake floating plastic bags as jellyfish), so fewer bags helps wildlife
  4. Plastic bags look unsightly when blowing around in the countryside, fewer bags mean less litter.

Below is a short piece of footage from Splashdown of a plastic bag floating in the ocean, posing a potential hazard to animals such as sperm whales and turtle, who may mistake them as jellyfish.

15 July 2009

Buzz buzz - save the honey bee

Honey bees have a vital role in pollinating many of the country's crops but they are disappearing rapidly. Over the last two years there has been a massive decline in honey numbers and as many as one in three hives failed, but the Government seems to have little interest in this problem, despite the fact that the value of bees has been estimated at £200 million a year. This problem was highlighted recently by members of the all-party House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, who said that money for research into bee health should be ring-fenced rather than put in a general pot for research into pollinating insects. They want DEFRA to take more action, such as asking bee-keepers to register so that inspections can be made, which would give a much better picture of the health of the nation's honey bees.

Edward Leigh, chairman of the committee said "Honeybees are dying and colonies are being lost at an alarming rate. This is very worrying, and not just because the pollination of crops by honeybees is worth an estimated £200m each year to the British economy. So it is difficult to understand why Defra has taken so little interest in the problem up to now. Additional money for research into honeybee health has been announced, but the focus will include all pollinating insects," He went on to add, "We need to know what proportion of the funding is to be ring-fenced specifically for research into the causes of the decline in honeybee numbers."

One possible cause of the rapid rise in hive death (often called colony collapse disorder or CCD) is the use of a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids. These were first used in the mid 1990s, a period that coincided with the first observations of mass bee deaths. These chemicals block specific nerve pathways in the central nervous system of the insect. In bees, they interfere with communication, foraging, orientation and flight. Other countries, including France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia, have banned them but they are still legal in the UK.

The Soil Association is so concerned about these chemicals that it has started a petition calling on Hilary Benn, Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs to ban neonicitinoid pesticides with immediate effect. Sign the petition today: www.soilassociation.org/bees.aspx

There is a lightbox of images at this url : http://www.ecoscene2.captureweb.co.uk/lbshow.php?lightboxid=387429465654

Ecoscene can privide photo features on the honey bee and other related stories.

Low carbon transition plan

The morning news is full of low carbon stories in advance of the UK Govenment publishing their Low Carbon Transition Plan to meet the ambitious 34% carbon reduction targets by 2020 . The aim is to reduce the country's dependency on fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas which produce a lot of carbon dioxide, and to switch to renewables such as wind, solar, water and biomass. This switch is not going to be easy in a country that is so hooked on oil and coal. Renewables are not such a convenient source of energy, being much smaller in scale and by necessity being located in places that are generally away from the end consumer. Although the efficiency is getting better, the cost per unit of energy from these sources is much higher than the conventional energy sources, so the cost of electricity may rise . Other measures will probably include financial incentives to improve insulation, smart meters in every home, cycling and electric vehicle initiatives.

Several of the BBC news items featured the village of Ashton Hayes, a village near Birmingham with the ambitious plan to become Britain's first carbon neutral community. I have been following since the project was set up in 2006 and will watch the news items from the village today with interest. For more on the scheme visit their webpage http://www.goingcarbonneutral.co.uk/. If more communities follow their lead, the transition to a low carbon economy may be much easier. And mention of the word 'transition' leads me to the Transition Towns movement. The movement want to encourage communities to move towards a more sustainable future by reducing their carbon footprints and becoming more self-reliant on food, energy, health care, jobs and economics. The leading light in the UK is the town of Totnes in Devon. There websiteis an interesting read: http://totnes.transitionnetwork.org

Another energy source is nuclear - always contentious but probably a necessary evil. Although our own nuclear energy stations are being wound down, we are still dependent on nuclear energy to meet the demands. Many people are unaware that we buy in electricity from France, a country that generates about 90 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power stations.

As usual Ecoscene has a fabulous selection on images to illustrate any story on low carbon initiatives and a light box of images can be found here : http://www.ecoscene2.captureweb.co.uk/lbshow.php?lightboxid=173521027109

Watch out for updates on this story once the white paper is published.