Footprints
Monthly environment column - North Wales newspaper group.
 
 

Flooding and Climate Change

February, 2007

Do you ‘switch off’ when the subject of Climate Change comes up? Recently published ‘Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’ (IPCC) findings were certainly scary. Perhaps you’ve realised a need to learn more about the environment – and to learn fast.

In this column we’ll be ‘walking’ the roads between local and global environmental issues together. On the way there’ll be signposts for further advice and information.

So whoever you are: (a small business person, a parent, a teacher, a City Councillor, a member of a club, church or society) – if you are interested in a truly ‘sustainable development’ and want to make your own contribution to protecting the earth’s precious (and dwindling) resources – ‘Footprints’ is for you.

In the North West we’ve had increased incidents of flooding and high winds – sometimes with tragic results. Is this a knock-on effect of Climate Change, and if it is, what can we do to protect ourselves?

A solid international scientific consensus tells us that man-made changes in the atmosphere mean that we can expect more extremes of weather such as gales, flooding and heatwaves.

Around 5 million people live in flood risk areas in England and Wales. However, as well as the trauma and heartache which freak weather conditions can bring with them there is also a stark economic penalty to pay.

The average cost of making flood damage good is £28,000 (per household or business) compared to an average loss of £900 from a burglary.

Taking a precautionary approach you might consider the following steps:

  • if you don’t know already) find out if you might be affected. The Environment Agency have a flood awareness campaign and an early warning system for homes and businesses. Contact them on: 0845-988-1188
  • Use your influence as a council tax payer, a developer, a business person or an elected representative to halt building projects on natural flood plains.
  • Think twice before you turn your front garden into a parking space. Any additional water caused by run-off from concreted areas usually flows into street drains which can’t always cope in a storm. The water has to go somewhere and even if you are not flooded, it might affect your neighbours downhill.

Factfile:

The Royal Horticultural Society booklet “Are we parking on our gardens? – Do driveways cause flooding?” can be downloaded from their website: www.rhs.org.uk It offers advice on keeping the environmental benefits of your front garden intact as well as design solutions with permeable products that allow rainwater into the ground.

City’s Recycling targets are just not good enough:

Published Thursday 22nd. March, 2007

At a ‘recycling roadshow’ in town last week Chester City Council portfolio holder for the Environment Rob Jordan stressed the urgency of reducing methane emissions from landfill (a particularly potent greenhouse gas).

Could he roll with my column’s critical ‘punches’? ‘Part of the job’ he said .

The fact is: Chester is missing it’s recycling targets. The target for 2006 was 30% This figure was missed by 1%.

The current goal (to recycle 40% of all household rubbish by 2010 and 50% by 2020) is unambitious to say the least.

In 2002/3 neighbouring Vale Royal Council in Cheshire started with a baseline recycling rate of 10%. In just three years they’re now in the top ten of the recycling national league table with a rate of 40%. Other European cities do even better. Flanders in Belgium has a recycling and composting rate of over 70 per cent.

I test out just how user-friendly local services are. Our monthly collection bag for glass is too small for a three person household so I set off with the excess to our nearest bottle bank.

With two heavy loads it’s fifteen minutes away on foot. The DIY store (home to the bottle bank) skip was not planned with pedestrians in mind. There’s no pavement at all and no signposting for the recycling facility.

There’s only one set of holes to put white, green and brown jars and bottles, so they all go in together. I understand why some people don’t bother – or make the trip in their car – not exactly ‘carbon neutral’.

I compare this to Germany where there are proper recycling facilities everywhere – even on railway station platforms.

Back home my partner tells me: ‘You think the glass collection is bad – try missing a green or pink bag one week because you’re on holiday – and you’ll never catch up. You have to beg for one from town hall officials who treat them like gold dust…’

Environment Agency research tells us that ‘nine out of ten people would recycle more if services were available’

It’s up to us what we choose to buy, re-use, and recycle – but it’s national and European government who set targets and waste directives for industry and households. Our councils decide priorities and budgets.

In Chester recycling strategies are failing. Policy and implementation are in need of a thorough and immediate overhaul.

Climate Change and the Nuclear Bomb: Published April, 2007

This month Parliament introduced what they called ‘the world’s first’ legally binding legislation to combat Climate Change.

Praise where praise is due? In the very same week a vote to renew the Trident nuclear weapons system increased Britain’s nuclear weaponry by several ‘Hiroshimas’.

I received post from the House of Commons on both matters.

First an email from Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett ‘explaining’ how the ‘new nukes’ decision meant that Britain is championing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty and that we are still ‘leading the way’ in the global disarmament process.

Excuse me? I’ve spent the past twenty-five years analysing and studying environmental politics and there are few things that annoy me more than being talked down to like this – particularly where the very existence of future generations is at stake.

‘Maggie, ’ (I said, in a barked, imaginary conversation with my computer) – ‘an increasing number of internationally recognised politicians, lawyers (and a vast number of the general public) simply don’t agree.’

‘We think the decision is a ‘material breach’ of Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty which requires governments to pursue negotiations ‘in good faith’ to disarm.What about spending that 25 billion on something more constructive, like solar technologies, instead?

When our own Ms. Russell’s circular letter on Climate Change dropped through my letterbox, I’m afraid it was equally patronising:

  • two sparse pages on the legislation and a list of ‘Things to do’:
  • ‘don’t leave your television on standby’
  • ‘don’t use your car on short journeys – go for a walk instead’ – she advised.

Leaving aside the fact that we own neither a car, nor a television – and our carbon footprint is way below average – I doubt that such a missive would be a decisive lifestyle change factor for anyone.

Action on Climate Change has been blocked for years. Air traffic has now been left out of the equation and Carbon Trading as a concept has always had its critics.

Individual lifestyle changes are important, but as we all know, they must be backed up by systemic improvements, joined-up policies, appropriate investments (for example in public transport) and leadership with integrity.

Our government is trying to fend off one global environmental disaster (Global Warming) only to initiate another. A new arms race to end all arms races.

And journalism matters. It’s part of a democratic debate and a critical discussion of the facts. So please, elected representatives – you cut out the ‘spin’ – and I’ll get on with the job.

Grow Your Greens Organically – May 2007

Have you bought those awful salad bags from the supermarket yet this year? You know, the pricey ones (shipped from Kenya) that turn limp and soggy before you reach the end of the packet…

Don’t do it! With just a little effort you can grow your greens organically, even in the tiniest of spaces.

A window box or deep wooden tray will do for starters. You need good organic peat free compost and a container with drainage holes. Sow up a box once a fortnight to harvest a continuous supply of luscious baby leafy salad greens for salads or stir fry.

Once you’ve go the bug (and hopefully your greens haven’t) I promise you – you won’t be able to stop. It all becomes a challenge – so scale up according to your budget and the space you have available.

Even the tiniest sunny patio or courtyard will house tomatoes, potatoes and herbs like basil so your basic Italian salad only lacks a dressing. A reasonably priced mini-greenhouse or small plug-in propagator can extend your seasonal supplies.

Size does matter though – as a larger plot can feed a medium sized household with fruit and veg – with a bit of practice for a s little as a few pence a day and the taste is amazing. Don’t forget that it’s also an investment as a well-designed organic kitchen garden and outside living area can increase the value of your house.

Alternatively, put you name down for an allotment. Waiting lists are still small here compared to other cities. You could try sharing with friends – great for student households too.

It is hard work at first, but it does get easier and you can wise up on time and money saving tips (like square foot gardening). I took over my allotment in June last year and with a one year old baby there were plenty of times when I didn’t think we were going to make it. But here we are in Spring and we’re looking forward to our own organically grown apples, peaches, black currants, raspberries, gooseberries, rhubarb, leeks, onions, chard, perpetual spinach, carrots and strawbs. And flowers too!

So get down and dirty and grow organic. It really is worth it. think of the food miles you’re saving. With green spaces disappearing fast – be kind to yours and you’re an eco-warrior in your own kitchen.

  • Garden Organic is Europe’s largest organic gardening charity. At http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk Tel: 024-7630-3517 or telephone 024-7630-3517. Individual membership costs about £30 a year. Includes free gardening advice by phone and on the web. 10 per cent off all goods in the ‘Organic Gardening Catalogue’ and free entry to their award winning demonstration gardens (great days out) so it’s really good value. They also have heaps of educational schemes for schools and adults.
  • The Soil Association is a charity which sets international organic standards. Promotes andcampaigns around the world on organic food and farming. http://www.soilassociation.org.uk or telephone 0117-31450000

St. Paul’s Closure will only add to School Run Chaos – June 2007

The proposed closure of Boughton St. Paul’s school, in the centre of Chester, is not just a local issue. It’s part of a campaign for social and environmental justice. Here’s why:

Carbon emissions from transport make up approximately one third of the U.K’s current total (the other two thirds arise from industrial processes and the domestic sphere).

It’s estimated the ‘school run’ accounts for 15% of all peak time journeys by car (www.energysavingsecrets.co.uk). To tackle global warming effectively, we need to minimise the impact of these emissions – and that means reducing ‘school run’ journeys and making it easier for people to walk, car-share and take the train.

Boughton St. Paul’s Primrary and Nursery School is not only conveniently located for many parents, children and childminders – it’s the only school left in Chester City centre. It’s directly on a ‘Sustrans’ cycle path (route 70) and the Chester canal towpath – now a glorious and important green corridor enhanced and beautified by European funding.

Even before national ‘Walk to School’ week this year – over fifty per cent of the children at St. Paul’s walked to school and all school trips (to the swimming baths, the cathedral, the museum, the park, the canalside) are undertaken on foot.

Contrary to County Council statements, numbers of children at the school are increasing. No least due to the new houses and flats next door. The sustainable (and carbon neutral) scenario would be: drop the kids off at nursery there on the way to work – the railway station is but ten minutes away and due for a multi-million pound revamp. Isn’t this the perfect recipe for cutting CO2 emissions and car use in Chester?

The city council’s own policy document the ‘Canal Development Brief’ published in 2001 states: ‘the school should be enhanced as a focus for the community, the city council and the county council will hold discussions with the school to explore joint use and enhancement of the facilities and grounds’.

So what’s the real problem?

Boughton St. Paul’s is sited on land coveted by commercial property developers. Sell the school off for short term gain andthose responsible need to be clear about the destructive but educational message they are sending to all children and the rest of the world – how little they really care about a truly sustainable development.

Children, teachers, governors and supporters of the school share kinship with others worldwide who make a stand to protect their community and their environment. They go to meetings with government officials and listen to the same excuses, party-political half-truths and bogus arguments that can be heard on an international level too: ‘We don’t really need binding targets for reducing carbon emissions do we?’

City chiefs continue to approve the re-location of public amenties out of town – the cinema, the sports centre – leaving many with few alternatives to a car journey.

Boughton St. Paul’s is ideally placed to expand and capitalise on it’s ‘carbon free’ curriculum. They’re not only on a national cycle route – they’re on the front line of a universal movement to protect our children and their environment against unrestrained, naked greed and disregard for human scale development.

Breast Cancer and Sustainable Development’ – this opinion piece was first published in ‘Green Futures’ magazine in December 1996.
Tricky business, futures. In the last issue of this magazine, experts advised us on such abstract notions as ‘New Protectionism’, ‘Sustainable Development’, and ‘the City profiting for the planet’,. People in the real world , however may want more of the basics: work, money, switching off with a car or a holiday. Perhaps a bit less of the doom and gloom and more of an escape to greener pastures? facing up to person-sized solutions.

Consider human health and the process of industrialisation. Cancer, second only to heart disease as a cause of death in most industrial nations, is a disease which has transformed the meaning of the word ‘future’ for millions of people. Research has pointed to several suspected causes of this ‘multi-factorial’ disease including hereditary factors, reproductive history, hormone replacement therapy, radiation, alcohol, chemicals and pollution. Yet contrary to popular assumption, individual risk factors may include high socio-economic status. The connection between cancer and industrialisation can no longer be denied.Cancer is something ‘we’ in the northern hemisphere tend to avoid talking about. Keeping cancer at arm’s length often seems the only way we deal with it. Only when someone we know has cancer do we even think about it. Despite mystique surrounding expertise and medical science, a global movement is scaling down a difficult problem, moving beyond traditional appeals to reduce individual risks and taking the politics of prevention into it’s own hands.

The combined impact of these actions is also making waves at the UN. UNIFEM has suggested that women’s environmental health be put forward as key diagnostic indicator of the health of local environments, and as a starting point for ensuring the appropriateness of all science and technology interventions that require the use and management of the natural environment. It recognises new research showing that women’s bodies are particularly susceptible to permeation by pollutants and toxins.So person-sized solutions? Yes, please. No amount of unchecked industrialisation based on a paradigm of continued economic growth can substitute for healthy bodies .Even the city needs human capital.

‘Green Futures’ comment: ‘There is a duality in our approach to cancer. On the one hand, it’s causation remains hedged about with remote scientific technicalities. On the other, we all know someone who has fallen victim. Reconciling this duality is the solution.’

Yet as anyone who has reached the end of the month with no funds in their bank account will tell you, by masking the gravity of problems we also hinder our ability to solve them. Facing up to the size and scope of limits to development in our society might just be the key to making abstract problems person-sized and

Breast cancer, for example, is most prevalent in the industrialised nations of Northern Europe, USA, Australia and New Zealand – 30,000 women and 100 men are diagnosed with breast cancer in the UK each year. Early diagnosis increases the chances of cure, but it still kills more women between the ages of 35 and 54 than anything else.

Confronted with morality and an apparent lack of consensus in medicine and research, we may prefer to leave the matter to ‘professionals’. As Sharon Batt, journalist and breast cancer survivor puts it: ‘How could I possibly have an opinion when experts disagreed?’

It doesn’t’ have to be this way. As well as supporting improved standards of care for breast cancer, organisations such as the ‘Women’s Environmental Network’ are campaigning for more research into the connection between environmental contaminants and cancer. ‘The environmental links have been swept under the carpet for too long’ says WEN’s Helen Lynn.

In the US, the Breast Cancer Fund of San Francisco has collected $70,000 to fund study investigating why women in the San Francisco Bay area have the highest incidence of breast cancer in the world. The non-profit making research organisation, founded by women with breast cancer is also donating $5,000 to a breast cancer summit for the area’s top scientists and clinicians.

Some may see attempts to publicise the dangers of persistent toxic chemicals as ‘environmentalist’ scaremongering. In contrast, ‘City gents’ may have a wealth of vested interests and stand to gain or lose from whether or not a given chemical is judged to be a public health hazard. The research establishment has interests in particular kinds of approaches rather than others. But we all have friends or family and, simply put, we all know ‘someone who knows someone’. In the end, ironically perhaps cancer is a great ‘leveller’.

And yet still, a large section of humanity continues to perceive itself as being ‘separate from’ and ‘outside’ the environment in implicit defiance of the Precautionary Principle, which states that governments should take action to reduce the potentially damaging effects of persistent toxic substances ‘even where there is not scientific evidence to provide a causal link’.

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