Thursday, January 26, 2017

Keeping Heads Above Water

Published as a podcast on Friday 27th January. The Sustainable Futures Report is available at iTunes, Stitcher and

Gosh! Is it Friday again already?

Seems like it. So here I am, Anthony Day, with your latest Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 27 January 2017.

This week I'm talking about floods. About flood prevention, specifically the Foss Barrier in York. There’s something in the air in London and other large British cities. There's something in the air in France and there's certainly something in the air in Colombia. President Trump has reversed President Obama's ban on the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines but have we come to the end of the pipeline for carbon capture and storage? President Trump is tweeting regularly as ever, but he’s told some parts of the US government to button it. Who, and why?

Circular Economy

First, news from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the charity dedicated to the promotion of the circular economy. You’ll remember that the idea of the circular economy is to reduce, re-use, remanufacture - and recycle only as a last resort. This is to replace the tradition linear model: take-make-discard. In an ideal circular economy nothing is wasted and sent to landfill; everything that cannot be re-used or remanufactured becomes raw material for the next generation of products. Every product is designed with disassembly, repair and remanufacture in mind.

The Foundation's latest report Achieving Growth Within, which was launched at the World Economic Forum  in Davos, finds that scaling the circular economy in Europe offers investment opportunities totalling €320 billion in the food, mobility and built environment sectors. The study was produced by SYSTEMIQ  ( in collaboration with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and sponsored by SUN. No, not The Sun newspaper. SUN stands for Stiftungsfonds für Umweltökonomie und Nachhaltigkeit GmbH (Foundation for Environmental Economics and Sustainability), which was established in September 2014 by the Deutsche Post Foundation.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation goes on to say:

“As Europe seeks to dynamise its economy, Achieving Growth Within identifies priority investments that could provide a major source of regenerative growth and unlock economic, social and environmental benefits, as well as mitigating the risks associated with investing in conventional assets in an era of rapid change. Businesses and governments could benefit from promising investment outlets, and harness the competitive advantage brought about by a circular economy transition.”

Dame Ellen MacArthur commented: 

“Building on the analysis of our 2015 report Growth Within, which demonstrated the additional €0.9 trillion benefit for Europe by 2030 from shifting to circular economy practices, this latest report outlines the first steps needed by businesses and governments to realise these benefits. As our current linear growth model becomes increasingly challenged, this research shows how Europe can begin to exploit new opportunities for innovation, growth and resilience, gradually decoupled from resource constraints.”

You can read the full report - and much else - at 

This is an example of sustainable good news for good business. For far too long environmentalists have dwelt on climate change and other catastrophes. Yes of course they are very serious, but no-one wants to listen to bad news. Here’s a message which shows that sustainable business is profitable business, and profitable both for the economy and for the planet.

Something in the Air...

There’s something in the air in London. It’s carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and particulates – microscopic particles of soot. The pollution was so bad this week that two London boroughs issued black alerts and several others went to code red. This means that children were kept indoors and everyone was advised to avoid exercising outside. Although we have known for some time that air quality in London is poor, black alerts are what we expect in Beijing or Delhi, not close to home. It is partly due to the cold weather and fog that has concentrated the pollution, and bad air quality has also been experienced in Paris and other French cities. The French solution is to announce a permanent ban on vehicles over a certain age from city centres between 8AM and 8PM. While exceptional conditions persist they are also restricting the days on which individual motorists can enter the city: odd numbered registrations one day, even numbered the next. Colombia

There’s something in the air in Colombia, though probably less CO2 and nitrous oxide than in London or Paris, at least outside the cities. In many parts of Colombia the air is thick with coal dust; with particles that lodge permanently in the lungs and cause irreversible damage, particularly to children. Coal production is massive in Colombia, with exports rising to a record 88m tonnes in 2016. Massive is the word for the mines as well. Opencast mines can be 2km wide, 400m deep and 20km long. Nothing stands in their way. Rivers are diverted, whole communities are uprooted and resettled;  the regular explosions used to release the coal raise the dust which damages health. Of course, Colombia is a difficult state to govern, with battles between its drug cartels and the 50-year  guerrilla war with the FARC rebels which is only now coming to an end. Maybe this is why the government takes little notice of the social and environmental consequences of the mining. Maybe this is why the Colombian authorities allow, for example, sulphur oxides of 250 micrograms per cubic metre, many times the 20 micrograms maximum recommended by the World Health Organisation. Maybe this is why public officials deny eye-witness reports of pollution and fail to investigate the murders of those who protest that their water supplies are polluted, their children are sick and their fisheries have been destroyed.

From our point of view here in the West it’s very easy to ask what we can do about it. It’s very difficult to suggest any action that we can take that will make a difference. It’s important to be aware, though, that much of the coal exported from Colombia comes to Europe and is burnt in UK power stations. When you next turn on the light, think of the people who have lost their lands, their health, even their lives as part of the process which allows you to turn that light on. The best thing we can do is to eliminate coal from our power stations. The government has said it will close all the coal-burners by 2025 but that’s not definite and it’s still open for consultation. You can add your views at 
Look for Coal generation in Great Britain: The pathway to a low-carbon future. You have until 8th February to make your views known, and you have as much right as anyone else to express your views.

Thanks to Johana Rocha Gómez of Tierra Digna for the background information and to Scarlett Hall of the Coal Action Network for her riveting first-person presentation of the situation in Colombia.

And so to home...

Floods on the Foss

Last week I was invited by CIWEM, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management  to a presentation on the Foss barrier. The River Foss joins the larger RiverOuse close to the centre of York and it was the failure of the barrier on Boxing Day 2015 that led to extensive flooding in the city. You might remember the Chinook helicopters on the news, flying in spare parts. The River Foss empties into the Ouse, but when the level of the Ouse rises it can back up the Foss and flood the city. That was the case until the Foss Barrier was built 30 years ago. In times of flood it is lowered to cut the Foss off from the Ouse. Of course the Foss is still flowing towards the sea and building up behind the barrier, so eight pumps manage the levels by shifting the water around the barrier and into the Ouse. The problem in 2015 was that the pumps had a maximum rating of 30 tonnes/second but the Foss was flowing at 40 tonnes/second. Inevitably the water rose behind the barrier until it threatened the control room and the electrics. If it had come higher it might have stopped the pumps. If the pumps had stopped with the barrier closed the water would have rapidly risen even higher and flooded extensive parts of the city. The decision was taken to open the barrier while there was still power. This led to serious flooding but the independent report published this week concluded that this was less serious than it would have been if the barrier had remained closed.

Urgent action has been taken to prevent such floods happening again: installing an emergency control room some 3m higher than the original one and replacing the eight pumps with units capable of shifting up to 50 tonnes of water per second. The whole barrier site is a massive concrete construction with channels and tunnels leading to the pumping chamber. The key question was whether this existing structure would be able to cope with the increased flows. Kevin Nielsen of ch2m [] explained to us at the CIWEM event how his company had created computer models of the flows - the Approach Conditions Evaluation Criteria - to calculate the swirl and velocity of each part of the water as it entered the pumps. The pumps are simply large propellors in tubes. If the water does not meet the blades at the precise angle it can cause cavitation, vibration and pump failure. The computer models indicated that the upgrade to the pumping station would be successful, but experience has shown that while models can successfully weed out unviable designs they cannot account for all the variables. The next stage was to build a physical model and try it out. This was done by Hydrotec Consultants Ltd, not to be confused with other organisations in the industry with similar names. The one you want is at We were invited into their lab to see their 1/12 scale working models of the inflow and the pumping station. Fascinating. 

After little more than 12 months since the flood the full-size Foss Barrier is now up and running and in fact was back in operation only two days after the flood. It has a temporary high-level control room while work continues to build a permanent one. It now has the high capacity pumps and has been operational - and used four times during the year - throughout the upgrade process. It’s quite impressive to see this civil engineering project completed so quickly.

Of course York was by no means the only part of the UK to be flooded. Parts of Carlisle were flooded three times over the period, wiping out the biggest biscuit factory in Europe, thankfully now back in production. Let’s hope the money and the expertise will be made available to protect all these areas.  Maybe money will be found to expand the Environment Agency. (Don’t hold your breath) Work needs to be done as well to control the flows before they get to the flood zones, as I’ve mentioned in previous episodes. We need upstream floodplains and meandering rivers to slow the flows to manageable levels.

Meanwhile, across the pond…

News from the Trump administration is that President Obama’s opposition to the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines has been overturned by President Trump. The Keystone XL pipeline will run from Canada right across the USA bringing oil from the tar sands to refineries in Texas. I’m not sure on exactly what grounds Obama opposed the pipeline, but it could arguably be seen as a white elephant as we move away from fossil fuels. Anything which stimulates the expansion of the fossil fuel industry will lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions. But then, President Trump is a known climate change sceptic and his administration, including the director of the EPA, is packed with climate change deniers. Relaxing the restrictions means that the pipelines can be built, but not necessarily that they will be built. Expect continued protests, and continued police action to control the protestors.

CCS - a pipe dream?

Another pipeline in the news won’t be built. I spotted a tiny advertisement at the bottom of the page of my local newspaper. It was a notice from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announcing that the application to build a 75km pipeline from a planned carbon capture and storage facility at Drax power station to the East Coast had been refused. As you’re aware, carbon capture and storage (CCS) is the answer to clean coal. The idea is to extract the carbon dioxide from power station flue gases and pump it away to be stored for ever in caverns under the North Sea. Unfortunately nobody has yet made it work on a commercial scale, but if it did work it would be of great interest to Drax, the largest coal-burning power station in the UK. Of course Drax now burns a high proportion of biomass in the form of wood-chips, but nobody pretends that wood chips don't emit CO2 when they burn - some say they emit more CO2 and polluting materials than coal. The theory is that trees growing in the US, where most of the wood chips come from, will absorb the CO2. Not everyone agrees.

George Osborne saw a clear need for CCS to clean up coal and announced a £1bn fund for its successful development . Then he withdrew it. The cancellation of this fund was cited as the main reason for refusing permission for the pipeline. You can read the full paper at 

Fighting in the Dark

Finally, Time Magazine reports this week that the Trump administration has instituted a media blackout at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and barred staff from awarding any new contracts or grants.

Emails sent to EPA staff since President Donald Trump's inauguration detailed the specific prohibitions banning press releases, blog updates or posts to the agency’s social media accounts. The Trump administration has also ordered a "temporary suspension" of all new business activities at the department, including issuing task orders or work assignments to EPA contractors. The orders are expected to have a significant and immediate impact on EPA activities nationwide. The EPA did not respond to phone calls and emails requesting comment. 

A new phrase from 2016 was “post truth”. New this month was “alternative facts.” Some people call them falsehoods. It is extremely worrying that the Trump administration should shut down communications from the EPA in this way. Are they afraid of the truth? Maybe so, given that recent political debate on both sides of the Atlantic has relied on lies, half-truth and rumour. I know it’s a cliché to say that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. I believe that’s more true today than ever.

Anyway, have a cheerful week and be vigilant. 
This is Anthony Day and that was the Sustainable Futures Report. More next week. 

Do you have a sustainability story to tell? Or a point of view to put over? I'm always looking for interviewees for the Sustainable Futures Report. Coming up, I will be talking to someone about fracking. What grabs your attention? Get in touch at and let me know. 

That's all for this week, But I'll be back again in just seven days.

Bye for now!