Change Alley

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Swifts Locally Extinct

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Photo © Jorge Sanz

Every summer here in the People’s Republic of Suburbia, we’ve grown used to being entertained by the aerobatic antics of flights of swifts who’ve made the long journey from Central and Southern Africa to breed. London’s Swifts reported the first London arrivals on May 2nd, but here in Bromley the skies are empty and silent, so I guess for the first time in over twenty years we’ll be having a swift-free summer.

It’s been well-known for years that the swift is in trouble in its traditional breeding areas. Between 1994 and 2006 breeding numbers in South East England halved. Since Roman times, swifts have nested here in man-made buildings. Originally cave, tree-hole and cliff nesters, they switched their nesting to high man-made structures, under tiles, in the eaves, in lofts, spires and towers.

Swifts nest almost exclusively in pre-1944 buildings. While 10% of homes built before 1919 can house swifts, the figure for inter-war housing is 7%, and for post-1944 housing only 1.4%. This is because modern buildings deny swifts access to breed, as do refurbished or re-roofed older buildings when their eaves are obstructed or sealed.

The London’s Swifts site is full of information on things that can be done to help the swift, such as creating internal nesting spaces or fitting external nest boxes. I’ve had this on my list of things to do for ages, but it kept getting swept under the back burner. Now the swifts are a no-show, and I feel a bit guilty and sad to be honest. Maybe if I’d stuck a few boxes up under the eaves….

Perhaps I shouldn’t beat myself up so much. Perhaps something happened that was completely outside my influence. Perhaps their flight path took them over a pack of gun-happy Mediterranean hunters. Perhaps climate change has led them to fly a bit further north to a cooler spot. Perhaps they had a better offer, and they’re happily holed up in a Croydon office block. All I know for sure is that their swooping, whooping circus act didn’t turn up this year, and our suburban environment is poorer as a result.

Anyone reading this who’s planning refurbishment work on their house this summer, PLEASE visit this page at the London’s Swifts site for advice on how swifts can be helped.


Written by Pete Smith

May 25, 2008 at 11:35 am

Greenest Chelsea Yet

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It’s that time again, and the Chelsea Flower Show, “the ultimate event in the gardening year”, is in full swing. The show, flagship event of the Royal Horticultural Society, is being loudly promoted as the ‘greenest’ ever. Mind you, they seem to say that every year. They’re certainly placing a great deal of emphasis on things like recycling, reuse and waste avoidance, with exhibitors incorporating rainwater collection, solar power and permeable paving in their projects. The RHS itself has laid down strict environmental guidelines:

  • All wood products on sale must be from sustainable sources
  • Patio heaters have been banned
  • Glass and plastic in restaurants and food outlets must be recycled, along with at least half the carpet used at the show
  • The use of peat has been banned

Show organiser Bob Sweet, who has taken to carrying a camera around the displays with him so he can photograph what is being thrown into skips, said there was a much greater focus on environmental concerns this year. For the first time exhibitors have been asked to list where their plants had come from, in order to ensure ethical sourcing.

Traditionally, plants from the exhibits and show gardens have always been sold off at the end, often at knockdown prices, but this idea is being extended this year. Community gardens, city farms, school gardens and allotments associations could get their hands on free plants and materials, thanks to a scheme set up by Good Gifts, the ethical gifts catalogue. The company has recently negotiated with the RHS to run a recycling depot for gardens at the show, and expects items like plants, turf, bricks, stone, paving, breeze blocks, plant pots and timber to be available.

The RHS has responded to the challenge of eliminating the use of plastic bags by replacing them at this year’s Chelsea Flower Show with eco-friendly fully-compostible carriers made with GM-free non-food grade corn starch. 350,000 bags, supplied by small family-owned company Ecosac in Shropshire, will be distributed to visitors throughout the five day event. One does wonder exactly how many of those bags will be composted.

All very commendable, but why has it taken so long to get this far? I know gardeners tend to be traditional types, especially the stuffed shirts and blazers that run the RHS, but really!

Written by Pete Smith

May 22, 2008 at 12:23 pm

World Made By Hand

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Harmony Community, Putnam Co., GA, May 28-June 1, 1941

This letter was published today at

I recently finished trenching and running a few hundred feet of irrigation pipe on land that has been in my wife’s family for a few generations. We are the proud recipients of this small farm in the Southeast US. My Mother-In-Law was helping, and getting various tools and such out of the 100 year old barn (still standing and strong). We found an old hoe that was worn so that over half of the tine was missing. She said that her father and grandfather had used this hoe to manually weed and till every bit of the 50 acres! This was a farm that didn’t have indoor plumbing until the early 1970s.

Here I was, exhausted from digging a trench (with a machine of course), and laying pipe (plastic with glue), and had been working “very hard” for a few hours. Slowly realizing, listening to my mother-in-law that her family worked this land without the aid of gas powered equipment until her father died in the late 1980s. For over 125 years this farm had produced an income and raised families. I was tired after working, but now had an understanding that in no way can I count myself in the same league as the men that had worked sun up to sun down by hand, these were true men. I whine when the lawn mower won’t easily start, or when the padded handle on the shovel gets too hard for comfort!

In the interest of preparedness, each of us should examine ourselves to see if we have it in us both physically and mentally to work at providing for our loved ones. After this experience, I am doing more to get myself physically in shape for what may come. No matter, I will be happier, healthier, and more humble than before! God Bless, – RJ in the Southeast US

This letter serves to remind us how much we’ve lost, how much we’ve forgotten, and how much we take for granted in our modern world.

For an imaginative view of life in a possible future world without abundant, cheap energy, I thoroughly recommend James Howard Kunstler’s novel ‘World Made By Hand’.

Written by Pete Smith

May 19, 2008 at 10:14 am

Australia Pumping Empty

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Australia Pumping Empty
Fuel rationing may be just one of a series of shocks facing drivers and commuters in Queensland, Australia. Looming oil shortages will produce the biggest change in society since the industrial revolution, Sustainability Minister Andrew McNamara warned yesterday.

To underscore his concerns, Mr McNamara will appear in a documentary film premiering May 20th in which he says the days when Queenslanders could “travel on a whim” in oil-powered vehicles are numbered. The documentary, ‘Australia Pumping Empty‘, argues southeast Queensland is squandering billions on road, bridge and tunnel projects on which few will be able to afford to travel.

A report by Mr McNamara for the Queensland State Cabinet on the impact of the fuel crisis is expected to include recommendations on rationing, the future of public and private transport and sustainable population issues. It has been ordered on the premise that there is overwhelming evidence world oil production will peak in under a decade. It is expected to recommend risk mitigation measures such as cuts in fuel consumption and encouraging the development and use of alternative fuels, technologies and strategies. It will also outline demographic and regional changes as Queenslanders change travel, work and living habits.

“I think people are going to be in for a shock when they find it’s too expensive to drive their cars to work and then, when they get down to the station, they find the train is full and they can’t get on board,” Mr McNamara said. He will recommend the State Government focuses urgently on ways to cut private-car use. “I cannot overstate this – we need to adopt a wartime mentality. We’re going to face a level of urgency that will require dramatic change.” Private car use is expected to trend towards hybrid vehicles and then to electric. “But will we have enough electricity generating capacity when everyone comes home and plugs their cars in to recharge?”

Mr McNamara said no government would want to introduce fuel rationing but it could not be ruled out. It might become an option as fuel supplies run down and prices rise to avoid a situation where only the rich can afford private transport. “We face the need for a whole new economy, from the way we generate power, to how we deliver water, to how we live”.

It’s good to see that someone, somewhere, is taking all this seriously.

‘Queensland’s vulnerability to rising oil prices’ – taskforce report April 2007

Written by Pete Smith

May 18, 2008 at 8:38 am

Goodbye To Cheap Air travel

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Popeye Express

Shares in British Airways rose sharply this morning after preliminary results for the 12 months to March revealed annual pre-tax profits up by 44.5% to £883 million. These excellent figures are bucking the trend in airlines around the world, and particularly in the US, where the airline sector as a whole posted an $11 billion loss in the first quarter of this year. BA warns that the next year will be “challenging”, in the light of continuing economic slowdown and oil prices showing no sign of a significant retreat below the $125 a barrel mark. The airline expects its fuel costs for the past year to have been more than £2 billion, around a quarter of its cost base, rising to £2.5 billion in the coming year.

In the last 90 days, jet fuel prices have jumped 38%. As oil has hit record high after record high, fuel costs have exceeded labour costs for many airlines, accounting for as much as 40% of operating expenses. Airlines can’t set their ticket prices high enough to keep their businesses in the air. According to Delta CEO Richard Anderson, ticket prices would have to rise 15-20% just to cover increased fuel costs. Of 769 million passengers on US flights last year, many are thought to be on non-essential trips which will be cut back as times get harder.

The budget carriers’ business models have always relied on the thinnest of margins, and fuel price rises have so far caused eight airlines to go under, with more tipped to follow. One of them, ATA Airlines, left US soldiers stranded in Iraq, unable to get home to Vermont as the company went bankrupt.

The larger carriers have responded to mounting fuel costs by eating into their cash reserves to keep prices artificially low. At its current spend of $3.3 million a day, American Airlines could have spent its $5 billion cash reserves, the largest in the industry, in four years. There’s only limited scope for cutting costs by tricks such as economising on maintenance, taking safety risks like flying with inadequate fuel reserves, and skimping on customer service. Carriers are hoping that mergers will ensure their survival, at least for a while. Northwest Airlines and Delta have a proposed merger under review, with United Airlines thought to be in talks with both Continental Airlines and US Airways.

Cheap air travel is almost certainly doomed. Depending on how you feel about flying, that may or may not be the downside. The upside is that rail travel is bound to gain market share in the years ahead. Rail is the cheapest and most fuel-efficient form of transport, using a third less fuel than air for personal travel, and as little as 3% of the energy for freight. Rail companies have recently been attracting substantial investments from some of the wealthiest US investors:

These are all freight companies, the North American passenger business having withered in the face of cheap, aggressively-marketed air travel, but there is good reason to expect that passenger services will follow growth in freight traffic. In their book ‘Transport Revolutions: Moving People & Freight Without Oil’, Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl predict that in 2025, no more than 25 airports will be operating. Electric powered transportation and rail will be the standard transport options. In a post-peak oil world, rail is probably the longest safe bet one could possibly make.

Written by Pete Smith

May 16, 2008 at 12:31 pm

‘Threatened’ Status For Polar Bear

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Polar bear adult and two cubs
Photo: U.S. Fish and Wild Life Service

The polar bear, whose summertime Arctic hunting grounds have been greatly reduced by global warming , will be placed under the protection of the Endangered Species Act. The Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council filed suit in 2005 to force a listing of the bear. The Center, based in Arizona, has been quite open about its hopes to use this as a legal weapon to attack anthropogenic causes of climate change, such as proposed coal-fired power plants or other new sources CO2 emissions.

On April 28, a judge ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a final listing decision by May 15. Just a day before the newly imposed deadline, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced that the polar bear would be listed as ‘threatened’. This move offers the bear some new protections, such as prohibiting the import of hides or other trophies from bears killed by US hunters in Canada. However, the Interior Department added some seldom-used stipulations that would allow oil and gas exploration and development to proceed in polar bear territories, as long as companies abide by existing restrictions under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

The Bush administration continues to maintain it is under no obligation to address or try to mitigate the causes of melting sea ice that is threatening the bear. Mr. Kempthorne said, “When the Endangered Species Act was adopted in 1973, I don’t think terms like ‘climate change’ were part of our vernacular.” Barton H. Thompson Jr, director of the Woods Institute of the Environment at Stanford University, said the decision reflected the administration’s view that “there is no way, if your factory emits a greenhouse gas, that we can say there is a causal connection between that emission and an iceberg melting somewhere and a polar bear falling into the ocean.”

It should all have been so straightforward. There are about 25,000 polar bears, all dependent on a fragile and rapidly-changing environment. What’s the problem with giving them a little protection? Well, for a start, there’s a worrying lack of consensus on whether the polar bear is ‘endangered’ at all. Over all, scientists agree that rising temperatures will reduce Arctic ice and stress polar bears, which prefer seals they hunt on the floes. However, few foresee the species vanishing entirely for a century or more.

Of the 25,000 bears in the Arctic, 15,000 live in Canadian territory. A scientific study issued last month reported that four out of thirteen bear populations would probably decline by over 30% over the next 36 years, while the others would remain stable or increase. M. Reed Hopper of the Pacific Legal Foundation, a property-rights group based in Sacramento, called the decision to list the polar bear “unprecedented” and said his group would sue the Interior Department over the decision.

“Never before has a thriving species been listed [under the Endangered Species Act] nor should it be. The Endangered Species Act was not intended, nor does it allow, the listing of a thriving species. PLF is prepared to challenge this arbitrary listing of the polar bear. The polar bear is already among the most protected species in the world. According to the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, listing the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act would provide ‘very little added protection.’

“This listing could have the effect of imposing severe restrictions on land use, job creation, and normal economic activity, not merely in Alaska but also – if global warming factors are cited in lawsuits based on the listing – throughout the lower 48 states.”

Meanwhile in Canada, management of bear populations is the responsibility of the various provinces and territories. The territorial government of Nunavut has campaigned against new US protection for the bear, concerned that lucrative local bear hunts run for US visitors will stop when trophy skins can no longer be taken home. John Baird, Canadian environment minister, said that the government would adopt an independent scientific panel’s recommendation to declare polar bears a species “of special concern,” a lower designation than endangered.

So there we are. One of the world’s most photogenic creatures has been granted ‘protection’ after a three-year legal battle, but little seems to have changed. We still want to dig up and pollute its hunting grounds, and we still want to kill it and hang its skin over the fireplace.

Rumours that the office of Vice President Dick Cheney had tried to block the listing of the bear are greatly exaggerated and, of course, completely unfounded.

Green Light For London Desalination

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Boris Johnson paddling a coracleLondon’s new Mayor, Boris Johnson, has dropped a legal challenge to Thames Water’s proposed £200 million desalination plant in Beckton, East London. The High Court challenge was initiated by his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, on the grounds that the project was inefficient and bad for the environment.

Mr Livingstone said cleaner, cheaper and less wasteful alternatives should be found to avoid the “energy-guzzling and carbon-intensive” way the plant was run. According to Times Online, Boris Johnson withdrew the case after Thames Water “promised to introduce a series of environmentally-friendly measures”.

The plant will use reverse osmosis to remove salt from river water. Osmosis occurs between two solutions of different concentrations or strengths. A very fine membrane separating the solutions allows liquid (but not the dissolved solids) to pass from the weak solution to the strong solution.

Over time, the concentration of the two liquids will balance out but pressurising the stronger solution can stop the flow. If the pressure on the stronger solution is increased further the osmotic process is reversed and the liquid passes from the stronger solution making it more concentrated. This reverse osmosis process can be used to remove water from a saline solution (i.e. brackish water) thus providing a desalination technology.

The first reverse osmosis water treatment plant was built in California and started working in 1965. The nice thing about this technology is that it’s highly scalable, suitable for large projects like Beckton, producing enough water for 400,000 homes, right down to small-scale devices like Red Button Design’s ROSS (‘Innovate or Die‘)

According to Thames Water’s FAQ page, the process will be timed to extract water during the three hours leading up to low tide, minimising the salt content to less than one-third that of seawater. This means that the plant will use approximately half the energy required to treat pure sea water, and around 15% of that used by the most energy-intensive thermal desalination plants.

The plant “will use around 6.3MW a year over a 25-year lifespan”. Hmmm, not sure what that means, someone doesn’t know the difference between a megawatt and a megawatt-hour it seems. More work needed, must try harder. Thames Water have “given a legally binding commitment that 100% of the plant’s energy needs will be met from renewable energy”. Options being considered are wind power, and used cooking fat and oil. Initially, however, the plant will be powered by biodiesel, which raises the old questions, where will the biodiesel come from, and what environmental damage will be caused in producing it? I bet it’ll have some palm oil in it.

Interesting how the word ‘sustainable’ doesn’t show up in Thames Water’s information on the plant, it’s all about ‘renewable’ energy, which is more difficult for the green lobby to take exception to. They’re learning.

Written by Pete Smith

May 13, 2008 at 10:12 am