Sunday, December 18, 2011

Tortoise fight

After viewing a wide range of animals with several members of the party in trepidation at close approach to big potentially dangerous animals, guess which ones we had to give way for until they stopped fighting.

What it’s all about

I don’t think these pictures taken at Amakhala Reserve about 40km outside Grahamstown need further comment. You should get a slide show if you click on any of the pictures.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Australian Greens 2011 celebration

2011 was a good year for the Australian Greens, the oldest green political party in the world. Here is their list of 11 achievements for the year.

Naturally in South Africa some priorities would be different, but Australia in many ways is a similar country to South Africa, with strong coal and nuclear lobbies, water-poor ecologically sensitive sites threatened by mining and a disadvantaged indigenous population. Just as with South Africa, the dominant economic theory is neo-liberalism, and the union-aligned Labor party is increasingly abandoning their base.

The Greens in Australia have moved beyond protest and started to appeal to a wider demographic because they have stuck to their principles, when other parties have increasingly gone the route of opportunistic vote-seeking, and selling their policies to the highest bidder. A stark example of this is how the previous Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd tried to introduce a minerals resource rent tax, a fairer basis for retaining a share of the profits from mining for the public sector than the previous system, a fixed royalty per tonne. The mining industry rebelled, and funded an expensive advertising campaign that destroyed his numbers in the opinion polls. Labor panicked, and ditched him for Julia Gillard, the current prime minister, who pushed the tax proposal through but at a much lower rate, after narrowly failing to lose the subsequent election.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Climate Science Briefing

If you have time to sit through about an hour of watching a video, Ben Santer’s keynote at the American Geophysical Union Fall 2011 meeting, a tribute to Stephen Schneider in which he explains clearly how we arrive at some of the key conclusions of climate science and why some of the “sceptic” arguments are wrong, is well worth the investment. (Go to the video here if it the embedded version doesn’t play on your web browser.)

Steve Schneider, who died in 2010, was a leader not only in climate science but  in communicating with the public. Shortly before he died, he appeared before a panel of climate “sceptics” on Australian television and politely answered all their questions. No doubt he didn’t win over many of them because they were pretty hard core, but any objective viewer had to be impressed.

You can find more about the video clip in the Ben Santer talk here.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Some Pictures

To put the whole COP17 fiasco into perspective I thought a few pictures would talk louder than words. Play this movie, from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) web site, which illustrates temperature changes from 1880 to 2010:
Can you see any difference in recent decades?

One thing that causes a lot of confusion is the differences in various temperature trends, particularly satellite versus ground-based measurements. Using different instruments measuring temperatures at different places may give different short-term measures, but the trend should be the same. A recent paper (by Foster and Rahmstorf) illustrates that much of the difference is in the extent to which short-term variations like El Niño are picked up by these very different forms of measurement. You’ll find more discussion on Tamino’s blog and on RealClimate. These short-term variations do not change the trend, but cause more ripples in shorter time-scales. Once these short-term effects are eliminated, the trends line up very nicely:
What’s more, rather than the alleged slowdown in warming since 1998, the trend remains remorselessly up. So why the alleged slowdown? Let’s look at what they’ve subtracted out of the raw data:
MEI is multivariate el Niño index, AOD is aerosol optical thickness data, representing mainly the cooling influence of volcanoes and TSI is total solar irradiance, representing variations in the sun.
Contrast the adjusted graph with one of the best-known temperature records, that produced by NASA GISS:

Here, the 2010 data point is no longer unequivocally a maximum. But it’s still one of the highest points on the chart despite the fact that the solar cycle is clearly a lot lower in 2010 than in 1998.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Clean Coal Myth

Alex Lenferna reports that “clean coal” is being touted among other crazy options at COP17.

Coal is an inherently dirty fuel, releasing many pollutants besides CO2 when it burns, including heavy metals and radioactive elements. Part of the mythology around “clean coal” is that more modern power stations are better. They are slightly less bad. It is possible to wash the coal to remove some of the pollutants, but that requires a lot of water, and the pollutants don’t vanish. But let’s focus on the CO2. A low efficiency coal power plant has an efficiency of about 30%; the best designs in current use may improve this to up to 40%. In other words, 60-70% of the energy released burning coal in a power station disappears up the chimney. You can achieve higher efficiencies with gas, and there is research into increasing the efficiency of coal power stations to up to 50%, but all of this of course does not eliminate the problem of CO2 emissions.

Then there is the “dream” goal of really clean coal, carbon capture and storage (CCS, also sometimes called “sequestration”): burying the emitted CO2 underground. The problem with this idea is that you need to store vast quantities of CO2 underground indefinitely. Even compressed down to a liquid, the volumes amount to cubic kilometres if you want to make a significant difference to worldwide emissions. 27 billion tonnes of CO2 are emitted by industry annually. That quantity if I did my arithmetic right amounts to 35 cubic km per year (CO2 compressed to a liquid weighs 770kg per m3). If we aim for a rather modest 10% of this total, we will have to find space underground to store 3.5 km3 of CO2 every year. Every year until when? Until we run out of coal, or find a cleaner energy source. It strikes me that the proposed solution is a whole lot less practical than the more obvious alternative: a gradual, measured slowdown in coal usage, while increasingly investing in really clean energy alternatives.

Storing and in general handling CO2 in high volumes is extremely hazardous because it is heavier than air. The hot gases out of a high smokestack are mixed into the atmosphere by turbulence. A slow leak at ground level takes time to dissipate. A natural leak of CO2 from an underground source can be fatal, and the quantities that would have to be stored for a coal power station are big enough to be a serious safety hazard. Naturally proponents of the technology claim it’s totally safe, but they said that of nuclear power too, and after the Japan tsunami, the story became “no one could predict that”.

Another big problem with the CCS  “dream” is that it significantly cuts into the efficiency of coal power generation because of the high energy cost of carbon capture, compression and storage.

Several projects around the world have been abandoned, when it is so clearly in the industry’s interest to show it works.

Why then are billions of dollars worldwide being poured into this failed technology? Delay. If the promise of “clean coal” can be held out as an alternative, investment in alternatives can be stalled. Who gains? Only the fossil fuel industry. And even they consist of individuals who need a planet on which to live. The rest of us stand to lose big time not only because of the threat of climate change but because of the much higher cost of a very rapid transition to clean energy, which will be the only option left to us if we wait too long.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

COP17: A Ripple of Hope?

Things on the whole seem pretty hopeless, with climate change denial the de facto guiding principle of most governments’ policies but we should not lose sight of the fact that other struggles for change have started out the same way. We ended slavery. We ended apartheid. We can win this one too.

The Problem
Here’s another view on what needs to be done (Farhana Yamin, Climate Change Portfolio Manager for The Children's Invenstment Fund Foundation, London).

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol was a good start towards a worldwide legal framework for regulating emissions, but that is all it was meant to be. Instead, it has become something of a high water mark.

Obstructive governments of countries like Canada are selling out their own future, let alone that of the rest of the planet. Let’s keep up the pressure for change.

Politically, selling solutions to climate change is hard for two reasons:
  • the fossil fuel industry has managed to plant the myth that there are only two options: their way or the stone age
  • the effects of climate change are very slow, and hard to separate out from natural variability
In reality, whatever we do, we will eventually run out of fossil fuels. Rather than 200 years of supply (some put coal at up to 300 years, but that has to go down for a variety of reasons, including replacing oil, which runs out much sooner) at current rates of use, we need to compound for increased demand. Taking that into account, we have less than 100 years of fossil fuels left, even less if currently undeveloped nations develop using fossil fuels. Over that period, fossil fuels will not just disappear gracefully, but become increasingly expensive and hard to extract, as the easy sources dry up and worldwide demand increases (you may have noticed this effect already when you refuel your car). The net effect of all this is a succession of economic catastrophes as various industries adapt to the new reality of their energy source becoming unaffordable.

Observing climate change in the real world is a bit like trying to watch your toenails grow. No matter how hard you look, you can see nothing happening, but check back after long enough and something is different. Worse, the effects of the current level of emissions will take years to be felt, because longer-term effects like reduction in Arctic ice will continue to unfold for decades or even centuries, even if emissions do not increase. Ice reduction is important because ice is much more reflective than most other surfaces on our planet so less ice means more incoming solar energy is absorbed.

Because observing the change is hard and requires looking at swings in long-term averages (and worse still, effects far into the future), it’s hard to translate scientific knowledge about climate into the political cycle, where time-scales are much shorter, typically of the order of 6 months to a year. Even without concerns about climate, depletion of fossil fuels is an important issue for everyone. The developed world will have to make a transition as big as that from horses to cars, while the developed world has no opportunity to join the old type of industrialised economy because the wealthy nations have already consumed beyond the planet’s means.

Why it’s not Hopeless
We as individuals can contribute to consciousness by reducing our energy and environmental footprint, but, in the end, we need to force systemic change. The thing that pulls these two concepts together nicely for me  – doing the best we can in our own space and the need for global systemic change – is Robert Kennedy’s speech in Cape Town in 1966. I quote his words because I can do no better (I might rephrase in gender-neutral terms but that was the language of the era):
Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
This ripple of hope speech is well worth listening to today, more than 40 years on. It applies not only to the traditional concerns of civil liberties and human rights campaigners, but also to the future of humanity – and that is what climate change is about. Here is another clip of RFK speaking. We need more of this today.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Harvesting Domestic Worm Farms Made Easier

article contributed by Ken Reid

One of the activities in working with worms in the domestic set-up which tends to put off all (except real enthusiast) is harvesting the worm castings (poop.) This is because of the time it takes and the fact that the “worm farmer” has to get his/her hands into the vermicompost—and the really passionate wormer doesn’t want to lose any of his worms in the process! The result often is that the wormer gives up on his worm farm and it falls into disuse. This is a great pity because these domestic worm farms do have a very important role to play as every family who has one working is contributing in a positive way to slow down the impacts of climate change and soil degradation.

We should also look at the reasons for harvesting. The most obvious and commonly used reason for the domestic wormer is to remove the worms from the vermicompost, so that it can be used for conditioning or improving soil. But there is another one and that is when it is necessary for the worm population in a wormery to be reduced, in which case the target for harvesting becomes the worms. Usually in the latter case the worms are taken from one wormery to be placed in another, given to friends or used for a weekend’s fishing! (I personally prefer fly fishing to fishing with my friends!)

To illustrate just how important these small contributions are, I often fall back on the following example. Research has shown that the average family of 3 generates between 500 and 1 000g of worm-friendly kitchen waste every day. Taking it at the lesser of the two, this means 3.5kg per week or 14kg per month. Now it does not take a mathematical genius to work out how much this amounts to every year, or how much a community of 20 000 such families or 1 million (similar to some of our bigger South African cities) would be generating. Then consider how much of this would be going on to landfills were it not for people who see the advantages of using worm farms which convert this waste into very beneficial vermicompost.

Being aware of this tendency to avoid harvesting, I have been actively looking for ways to make it cleaner, easier and more fun. The best methods that I have been able to come up with so far are confined to rectangular or square wormery units only, i.e. the ones that one comes across most often at hardware stores and garden centres. The biggest problem with the round, multi-level bin systems lies in the fact that each tray must lie firmly on top of the tray below it. So if you have a round bin, I am open to your suggestions as to how to make your task easier.

The solution I have found for the rectangular bins (whether they are single or multi-layered) came in part from Charl Pienaar’s excellent little book Goodbugs, Little Workers and in part from my constant search for making the job easier and less time-consuming for myself.

What you need
I have found these items really make my life a lot easier when harvesting:
  1. To buy a rectangular plastic fruit tray (obtainable from most plastics warehouses or catering suppliers) which will fit easily into the worm bin; or
  2. To use a rectangular (or square) seedling tray (I have found the big ones work great in my 70lt bins, in spite of the fact that these only have holes at the bottom. Whichever of these two containers you use, the steps are the same. )
  3. A pair of kitchen gloves as I truly believe that it is easier to handle the worms with gloves than with bare hands—and also a lot cleaner should you be called to the phone or anywhere else while you are in the middle of harvesting;
  4. A few large flat plastic basins, one to contain water for rinsing and another for carrying the basket to be harvested from the bin to the work surface, which should be in good light, but not full sunlight. This helps to reduce loss of worms “in transit.”

Start the process at least one week before you actually harvest. This is to give the worms time to “migrate” into the basket.

How to do it
You fill the tray/basket with kitchen peelings (preferably those which have been “ripening” for a few days). Open out a space in the vermicompost in one end of the bin which will allow this basket to fit in neatly) and fit the basket/tray into this space.

Once you have done this, cover the tray with a thick layer of damp paper or cardboard, but leave the rest of the castings exposed to the light. Instead of replacing the bin lid, cover the bin with either clear glass, clear Perspex sheeting or heavy-duty clear plastic sheeting, which must be well secured so that no unwanted predators get in.

After a few days you can remove the basket, which will be full of worms which have migrated into the new food source and away from the light. Put the basket gently into a large basin for carrying to the work area.

Tip the contents out onto a flat working surface and catch worms in large numbers!

You will find that it is very easy to collect the worms in this way and place them where you want them to go, which might be into another bin.

Repeat this process a few times until you find that your basket no longer attracts large numbers of worms. By this time, the vermicompost that you want for your garden can be removed from the bin and prepared for use in the garden. All the unprocessed material goes back into the system for the worms to carry on their good work.

I have found this method speeds up the harvesting process considerably, as I can now harvest 1kg of worms in about the same time that it used to take to harvest about 250g. This means that I am able to do the job about 4 times faster than with the old “dump and sort” method.

Climate Justice

Interesting article here by Alex Lenferna on climate justice.

Something that occurred to me is that developed economies have a lot of infrastructure that will have to be replaced. Why not, instead of making that the top priority, invest in clean energies in poorer countries? Developed countries as their first priority should focus on energy efficiency, planning away urban sprawl and taking away cost advantages of dirty energy for new projects. Those changes should in principle buy emissions cuts of around 20% with relatively low cost.

In the meantime, developing clean energy sources that today have not been tested at scale can happen in countries that do not currently have much energy infrastructure. This way, as developed economies retire dirty technologies, there will be an increasing amount of practical experience with renewables.

In Africa, especially outside South Africa, much of the continent has no power grid. Implementing small-scale local energy sources in that context is already reasonably cost-effective; work on making that better, particularly energy storage and you have a solution the rest of the world can use. My example of how Africa can jump ahead is with cell phones, which also have the advantage that their infrastructure can be rolled out incrementally as demand rises. Compare the rapid rise of cell phone use in countries like Nigeria, with the sluggish growth in access to landlines across the continent.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

COP17 Day 1

At the end of day 1, the biggest news item out of COP17 that I noted was the US refusing to accept binding emissions targets without the rest of the world signing up.

For more, see Alex Lenferna's report, COP 17′s Youthful Hope in a Climate of Stale Politics.

The problem is, the US and other historically high emitters are responsible for a large fraction of the extra CO2 that's in the atmosphere now, and will be there for centuries. About 50% of emissions are absorbed quickly by the environment, mainly the oceans, but also an increase in absorption by the land, and enhanced plant growth. The rest is drawn down by much slower processes, and climate change caused by an increase in CO2 could be with us for as much as 1,000 years. That means the US is already responsible for a large fraction of the problem. What's more, the US can act unilaterally by both taking strong moves domestically to cut emissions, and by imposing a carbon tax on imports.
Fraction of initial increase in greenhouse gases over time

This picture (from the supplement to a paper published in 2009 on irreversible climate change) illustrates how a large fraction of CO2 added to the atmosphere will still be there in 800 years, even given the uncertainty in the rate at which the environment can absorb emissions (given by the grey area in the graph). This uncertainty reflects our inability to predict the climate that far out into the future with great precision. Nonetheless the fact that we are carrying out an experiment with consequences that will be felt for 1,000 years suggests we should be taking efforts to turn things around seriously.

Back to the effects that a unilateral US action could have; better still if Europe was dragged in.

The US and Europe have off-shored a lot of their pollution, especially to China. The US remains the world's biggest consumer nation, with nearly a third of worldwide consumption, and many of its imports are from countries that would have to adjust their policies if the US imposed a high carbon tax on imports. The US, therefore, is in a strong position to change the world emissions economy by acting unilaterally. As an example of how this kind of leverage works, I was told by someone in the US that Canada in the 1980s introduced a law requiring that new cars have an extended warranty against rust. Canada is a relatively small market and manufacturers could not justify building cars on a separate production line just for Canada, so all cars destined for North American buyers benefited. I can't find any definitive reference for this story, but that kind of leverage can work.

In short, the US was a major cause of the problem we now face and can't fall back on the logic of we can't move until anyone else moves. And as a major consumer nation, they can provide a strong incentive for others to clean up their act.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Buy Local

Buying local is a key adaptation to a world of more expensive energy, and it is something we can start to do now, not wait for COP17 to fail.

I am on the whole I sceptical of “individual effort” as the key call from politicians for addressing climate change: it becomes an excuse not to address the major systemic changes we need, like replanning cities to reduce urban sprawl, making public transport a viable option for those who own cars, and replacing coal-based power generation by clean energy. Nonetheless individual effort has a role: those who care enough can set an example, and when enough people care, political action follows. I lived in Australia for 9 years, and when enough ordinary people were fed up with politics as usual, the political side of the Green movement grew to the extent that today, the Greens hold the balance of power in the federal parliament as well as in the Tasmanian state government. As a result, we are seeing real action there, like feed-in tariffs for clean energy and a carbon tax.

In any case, the reality is that as energy becomes more expensive, buying local makes increasing sense, and this will happen as fossil fuels deplete, no matter what governments do about climate change. Add to that the community-building effect of more local employment, and meeting people when you go out to a local market, and buying local has a lot to recommend it. This sort of change is something we can all work for, and have fun doing so. In a small town, we can set an example on a small scale for others to follow. And building consciousness of the environmental cause is not all about protests, petitions and politics. We need to have fun, and demonstrate that the alternative lifestyle we promote is something everyone can live with.

Bread as it should be
The bread line
Grahamstown has several markets, including a regular one on Saturday mornings, starting at 9am outside the old gaol on Somerset Street. This market is a small informal affair as befits a small town, but you can buy some really good stuff there, including farm-fresh vegetables, a variety of local cheeses plus some from elsewhere in the country, artisanal bread and fresh fish.

queuing for fish
The modern concept of a shopping mall is highly car-centric. Everyone who needs to shop piles into a car, or some sort of luxury urban tractor, to go shopping in a place where it’s safe to walk around, because there are no cars inside. Then the shoppers all sit in traffic for half an hour, and head back to suburbia, where it’s marginally safer for the kids to play than the city centre, because there are fewer cars. Contrast this with the older style of city, with good pedestrian spaces, street-level shops and people living and working close to markets. The older style of city tends to be healthier, because people exercise more just going about their daily business. It also promotes a greater diversity of trade, because a small shop with a street front selling a narrow range of specialities can trade to people walking or cycling, who don’t have the hassle of finding parking before they can go into the shop.
Not the Monty Python cheese shop

Adapting to climate change and peak oil isn’t all bad, if it forces the end of car-centric shopping. We could all be fitter, healthier, enjoy shopping more, and live in a happier community with less unemployment.

Jam with a smile
How can we advance that cause in Grahamstown?

For a start, patronise the existing market, and small shops, rather than do all your shopping at a chain supermarket. Walk or cycle to the shops: unless you are picking up something heavy, this is easy for most residents (though suburban sprawl has hit the outlying areas). Also it would be a useful project to promote urban gardening, especially among the poorer people of our town. If they had access to a market, it would add to their income, adding to the general happiness and well-being of our town.

Friday, November 25, 2011


This blog is about advancing the green agenda in Grahamstown and the Makana council area. It is a public forum, and comments policy is generally open. Comments to older articles will be moderated to discourage spam, but no comments will be deleted unless they are either clearly illegal or spam.

Some of the issues we will look at include global problems and local responses. Some examples:
  • equity – we talk about the environment as if it’s something out there but a lot of environmental concerns deeply impact the poorer parts of society
  • climate change – the science, policy options, and what we can do here
  • peak oil – the inevitable rise in costs associated with the oil economy, and what we can do to mitigate these costs locally
  • policy agenda – how we can influence local and global policy on matters of sustainability
If you want to contribute, use the contact form (click Contact us here, or at the top of the page). I welcome contributions. If you want to contribute regularly, let me know.