I’ve been thinking recently about environmental reform and trying to square the circle of how we can achieve it. It is hard, which isn’t surprising. If it were easy someone would surely have gotten a grip of it by now.
I’ve taken all the major pieces that I can see (no doubt others will come up with important things I’ve missed) and tried to put them together in one picture to show how they all inter-relate. It’s a messy mesh. [Click the image for a larger version.]
I’ve written before about the need to reform agriculture; [see, inter alia, here and here]; reduce meat consumption; use good land for arable; and have animals graze only on marginal land as they are designed to do. This would make food production more sustainable and provide enough nutrition for everyone ... without massive deforestation. It will also reduce water use. And it would be good for overall health by changing the dietary balance from meat to vegetable calories.
But environmental reform goes much wider than this if we are to return the planet to a sustainable whole.
There is also a need to reduce our dependence on mining and the extraction of minerals, oil etc. These activities provide some very dirty fuels, very dirty processes and destroy large swathes of the environment. And to achieve this we ask the people who work in these industries to do some incredibly dirty, demanding and demeaning jobs which many of us would not do. How can that be moral?
And yet currently we are hungry for more and more and more of these mined and finite resources.
Only recently I realised why the western world is so interested in Afghanistan — for its mineral wealth. As was said some years ago about the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait: would we care if all they grew was carrots and not oil? There are already well developed plans for quarrying and raping large swathes of Afghanistan once the political situation is stabilised — maybe sooner [Scientific American, October 2011].
Clearly we cannot totally abandon mining, quarrying etc. But we need to make major reductions. This implies a significant shift away from our dependence on limited reserves of dirty fossil fuels. And not just because of the CO2 that is poured out by burning them.
In turn this implies two things: a shift in the ways in which we generate power and just as importantly a significant reduction in the amount of power we use. It also implies a shift in the way we power our transport, and the amount of transport we use.
But it seems to me that power generation is itself a large part of the problem. 85% of world power is derived from oil, coal and gas, compared with just 6% for nuclear [Wikipedia, “World Energy Consumption”**].
Sure there are alternatives, but none of them is without problems. For example, growing biofuels uses arable land which should be used for agriculture. So in this scheme that is not a good option. Which leaves essentially wind, water, solar and nuclear. Hmmm…
We know that wind and water cannot provide all the power we need, even at a reduced level of consumption [Wikipedia, “Wind Power”].
And moreover I worry about how sustainable wind, water and solar really are. We build wind generator masts from huge amounts of steel, concrete and other materials which ultimately rely on mining, drilling and energy-hungry refining. Is this actually environmentally sustainable when looked at holistically? Or would it be more sustainable to build wooden wind turbines (they’re called windmills!) from trees grown on marginal non-arable land, and replace them every few years? Trees which will also mop up CO2 and provide habitat as well as wood which is renewable and recyclable.
The suggestion is [Wikipedia, “Environmental Impact of Wind Power”] that the CO2 emissions payback for wind turbines is within a matter of months. But what about the other impacts of producing wind turbines: mining, water consumption, etc.? How do they affect the equation? I don’t know. I rather doubt anyone knows with any certainty. Maybe we need to find out.
Water and solar power must come under the same scrutiny. What are the environmental impacts of the raw materials and power needed to produce the solar panels? Building dams etc. for hydro-electric schemes is unlikely to be much better. And there you have the added cost of flooding large areas (of often good arable land) to make reservoirs.
Which leaves us with nuclear.
Well I have to be honest and say that I view nuclear as probably our least worst option. It is surprisingly clean. Yes, despite disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima. There is WHO research that shows the biggest medical problem form Chernobyl is not the additional cancers caused by radiation exposure; they have been far lower than predicted. No the biggest problem has been the mental health effects of the stress [Jonathan Watts, “Fukushima Disaster: it’s not over yet”, Guardian, 9 September 2011].
And Fukushima seems to be going the same way. There the very old reactors withstood the onslaughts of the earthquake and tsunami amazingly well; better than their design specification. Yes there are problems. And as always the situation appears to have been handled extremely badly, largely because people are frightened of nuclear — because they can’t see it and they're frightened of cancer — and frightened to tell the truth.
Chernobyl was the result of inadequate reactor design and failures of operating practice. Fukushima was the result of a natural disaster and an inadequate process on an old style reactor which was, frankly, built in the wrong place. Clearly there are lessons to learn in terms of design and operational process.
Modern reactor design and build is already vastly improved on that of 40 years ago. Such modern reactors are many times more resilient to failures. At one major incident every 20-25 years nuclear looks a pretty good option. And incremental improvement, aircraft industry style, should see that reduce even further.
Yet, it too isn’t as good as we would like. We still have to mine the uranium ore. We must decommission the life-expired reactors. And we have the immense problem of the nuclear waste. But what is better: nuclear waste we have to bury for thousands of years or an increasing number of environmentally dirty slag heaps etc. occupying surface land which cannot be reused due to chemical contamination? And of course there is a chance that over time science will find a way of reusing the nuclear waste. No, it isn’t an easy equation to solve!
We also have to reduce the amount of water we use. Recent data show that in the US every person uses 7786 litres of water a day in the products they consume and another 575 litres for direct use. Spain, Australia, Italy and Brazil (in that order) aren’t far behind. Surprisingly (to me) the UK fares somewhat better at 3446 and 149 litres respectively. That’s still not good though [The Times, Eureka Magazine Supplement, 5 October 2011].
Vast amounts of water are used growing meat. For example, it takes 15,000 litres of water to grow 1 kilo of beef. A daily diet of fruits, vegetables and grains requires something over 1,500 litres of water, compared with some 3,400 litres for a daily diet rich in animal protein [Wikipedia, “Water Use”]. It is estimated that worldwide 69% of water use is for agriculture, 22% for industrial process and just 8% is used domestically [Wikipedia, “Water Resources”]. So reforms in industry, mining and agriculture would have huge pay-offs for water use.
I’m certainly not suggesting any of this is easy and I’m as guilty as the next person for the amount I consume. As the diagram shows everything is so inextricably intertwined that there is no one place we can start which will have a dramatic and immediate effect although a change in one area will have knock on effects everywhere else. Everything affects everything else so we have to tackle this holistically, from all angles. That needs governments and us, the people, to all start doing the right things so that over time it all comes together.
That needs political will, personal will and commercial will. And an abandonment of vested interests.
And to achieve that probably needs a maverick visionary somewhere like the top of the UN to grip the problem and drive all governments along a better path, and for governments to have the vision to cascade that down to their people. Left to individual countries and individual people we ain’t going nowhere; we'll continue along the path of everyone looking after their own interests. United we can succeed; divided we will surely fail.
** I make no apology for referencing Wikipedia throughout this article, especially as most of the articles quoted are themselves well referenced.