The Air that we (all) Breathe

March 9th, 2020

I’ll return to the issue of food & farming next time!

This is going to be quite a rambling blog post – I apologise in advance….

My first contribution is a response to the coronavirus madness all around us – James Dyke, senior lecturer in global systems at Exeter University, wrote a brilliant piece in the Guardian about this. He starts by saying: ‘The science is clear: we are currently facing an epidemic that is now the leading cause of premature deaths.’

He continues by painting the bigger picture, however – in 2019, more than eight million people died as a consequence of air pollution. Globally, toxic air now kills more people than tobacco, which used to be the largest cause of premature death. In the UK this year, between 28,000 and 36,000 people will die because they are exposed to air pollution. These deaths won’t make front pages. There will be no live updates. Cobra will not be convened.

An inadvertent consequence of factory output and car sales in China collapsing because of the virus outbreak is improvements in air quality that are desperately needed. Air pollution kills more than one million people a year in China. The Chinese government has possibly saved just as many lives by reducing exposure to toxic air than any one virus.

Mr Dyke asks, so importantly: ‘Why are these measures not sustained? It shouldn’t matter if someone dies from respiratory failure due to particles of soot or a virus. The loss of life is always tragic. But coronavirus is presented to us as a new threat. A narrative of urgency is easy to produce.’ Look at all the newspaper/tv headlines at the moment – that’s my added comment: they are all examples of how an air of urgency, panic even, can be created by the media.

Why cannot that sense of urgency be created about the climate emergency and air pollution?

To quote James Dyke again: ‘The current crisis shows us that we are willing to accept quite significant changes to our lives in order to help slow down the spread of a dangerous virus. When it comes to reducing air pollution, we know that taking cars off roads, and closing coal-fired power stations would mean people will live better, longer lives. We have the solutions. There are eight million reasons to implement them with urgency.’

The UK ban on new onshore wind farms has been lifted – I’ve written thanks to our MP, but haven’t heard from him for ages….

On the Leap Year Day (Saturday, February 29th, 2020), The Guardian featured ’50 simple ways to make your life greener’, ideas from cooking and cleaning to fashion and finance. It’s simple to find online too. 

The CEO of British Gas/Centrica got back to me – really swiftly, actually, prompted by thoughts of his teenage children I’m sure. He talked about finding a long-term replacement for gas boilers; and, in the more immediate term, signing ‘exclusive deals’ with Ford and VW to install charging points for electric vehicles. Good news, I think…! But of course the main point is that British Gas customers need to ask about the green options and plans – customer-led change is crucial.

A study has found that bad local transport is linked to failing schools – a ‘striking overlap between places in England with slow public transport and places with struggling secondary schools’. Researchers found clusters of bad transport and underachieving schools in places such as Norfolk and north-east England. London has high levels of connectivity in transport – and, despite deep pockets of deprivation, some of the best school results in the country. The rural poor suffer, while the rural rich add to the air pollution and carbon emissions (parents giving lifts to school…).? Public transport definitely needs to be dramatically improved in the isolated areas, for so many reasons, not least environmental.

Canals, mines and the London Underground will become new sources of renewable heating – the government has promised to spend more than £20m on nine schemes across the country to exploit cheap, renewable heat. GreenSCIES is working on a proposal that uses ‘waste heat’ from the Underground transport network in London to warm hundreds of homes in Islington. Exeter is retrofitting council housing, both cutting emissions and reducing energy bills at the same time. And in Luxembourg, public transport has just become free of charge. These pieces of good news are courtesy of ‘Possible’, an inspiring group doing positive, practical climate action – have a look at their clear website.

I’ve been assured by Costa that all its non-dairy milk is supplied by Alpro – the almond is from bee-friendly sources, and soya from sustainable farms – and they will be adding oat milk.

The General Synod has set a 2030 target for net zero carbon emissions for the Church of England, rejecting the initial recommended target of 2045. The proposal came in an amendment by Canon Professor Martin Gainsborough (Bristol). Good old Bristol (where my grandson lives)! Of course targets are one thing, and action is another. But the will is there; and, hopefully, the Church is a respectable institution that ‘ordinary people’ (even if they’re not ‘believers’) might take notice of…..? I noticed, however, the  Bishop of Salisbury’s (lead bishop on the environment!) reluctance/resistance – ‘he feared that pushing parishes around the country to be net zero by 2030 would cause resentment’….

Those in charge have to get over their fear of offending/upsetting us – be brave, and tell it how it is…! The Archdeacon of Knowsley and Sefton told the meeting he’d often heard churches say that they were saving money for a rainy day and countered: “Today is the rainy day”. Go, Archdeacon!

The EU is in the process of implementing a Green Deal, a hugely complicated process (and dismissed as ‘surrender’ by Greta Thunberg), fraught with significant hurdles. I read loads about it, feeling impressed with Ursula von der Leyen’s and Frans Timmermans’ determination, and then realised that actually the crucial, ‘bottom line’ is that whatever political opposition there is to green  changes (and there certainly is a lot!), young people’s opinions are what count. As one UN official said: “You can imagine a conversation with your own children is much more confrontational than a conversation with a shareholder, or a bad headline in a newspaper.” 

So much amazing hope right there – keep marching, striking and shouting, young activists. We believe in you….

PS The television show ‘Race across the World’ is my ‘light relief’ at the moment – adventure is perfectly possible without the use of aeroplanes (well, I guess they got to the start & finish by plane – a ‘once in a lifetime/year’ experience I hope…?!).

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