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Climate Change and the Plastic Crisis

The plastic crisis has been all over the news lately and so it should be.  Most of the time the issue is presented from the perspective of plastic in the ocean.  We have all seen the pictures of animals killed by getting trapped in plastic and we all know that the micro-plastic particles can get into our food chain by being consumed by fish.

The World Economic Forum and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in their 2016 study “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics” found that the equivalent of one dustbin lorry of plastic is dumped into the oceans every minute.  The study goes onto say that without significant action there may be more plastic in the oceans, by weight, than fish by 2050.

The plastic crisis is far from limited to the oceans, it also has an impact on climate change.  Plastic is made from petroleum, which comes from oil, a fossil fuel.  According to 1 Bag at a Time about 8-10% of total oil supply goes into making plastic bags.  This is carbon being released in to the atmosphere to make plastic bags.

We know that plastic causes greenhouse gas emissions in its production but another recent study has also shown that plastic releases greenhouse gases during degradation.  When exposed to ambient solar radiation the most commonly used plastics release methane and ethylene.  These climate-relevant trace gases are expected to increase as more plastic is produced and accumulates in the environment, according to Sarah-Jeanne Royer in her study “Production of Methane and Ethylene from Plastic in the Environment”.

Plastic has become the material of choice in our ultra-high convenience driven economy.  It has, in differing situations, been considered convenient, light, cheap, disposable and safe but it is not sustainable.

When I first started running Sage Wholefoods in 1997 we bagged are own wholefood products.  This was time-consuming, we ran into problems with infestations in the loose foods and we had to make sure our scales were always measuring correctly.  We quickly decided to buy in only pre-packed wholefoods as this solved all those problems.

Today we have to think again.  I am longing for our suppliers to develop sustainably-produced and fully degradable packaging from plant fibres because the benefits of plastic (convenient, light, cheap, disposable and safe) are still important.  But in the absence of that I will be making some changes.

In 2010 I introduced household cleaning refills.  Customers bring back their household cleaning bottles and refill them from our containers.  The containers themselves are returned to our supplier to be reused.  Earlier this year, I decided that we could no longer supply plastic carrier bags at a cost or free.  The carrier bags we had been using were degradable but not quickly enough for my liking and I was concerned about micro-particles from them getting into the environment.

But we have to go further.  I am looking at self-serve systems for our wholefood products.  Customers will be able to bring their own containers to refill.  I am looking to replace products currently packaged in plastic with others packaged in cardboard or glass.  There is a long way to go, but I am determined that Indigo Wholefoods will have the lightest conceivable impact on the environment.

 

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Climate Change and Organic Farming

Its easy to look at the affects of transport and consumption of energy from fossil fuels as the leading causes of human-made climate change.  Climate change demands action from all stake-holders whether they are individuals, businesses or governments.  Reducing our fossil fuel based energy consumption is one action we can take.  There are others and a successful reversal of the effects of climate change will require wide-ranging mitigating activities.

The beneficial link between climate change and organic farming may not be clear like the use of fossil fuels but IFOAM’s EU advocacy climate change report from 2016 makes some important points.

Of the report entitled “Organic Farming, Climate Change Mitigation and Beyond”  lead author Adrian Muller of FiBL Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, IFOAMS’s research partner,  said “Our research shows that a progressive conversion to 50% of EU land under organic farming by 2030 would offer a mitigation potential of 23% of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions through increased soil carbon sequestration and reduced application of mineral fertilisers.

“It would moreover reduce energy use for the production of synthetic fertilisers, equivalent to a further reduction of 9% of agricultural emissions, and would provide many other environmental and animal welfare benefits, as well as successful adaptation strategies to cope with the impacts of climate change.”

For clarification the Soil Association in its blog “The Government Must Prioritise Climate Friendly Farming” says “Organic farms generally emit fewer greenhouse gases, use less energy and store greater amounts of carbon in soil per hectare than non-organic farms.

“In addition, organic agriculture also delivers a range of other essential benefits – providing healthy, fertile soils, better resilience against extreme weather and resistance to pests, better animal welfare, more wildlife on farms, and greater sovereignty and security for farmers.”

If we are to achieve IFOAM/FiBL’s ambitious targets consumers must demonstrate that there is growing demand for organic produce and a decline in demand for non-organic produce.  Persuading farmers to forego their subsidies for conventional farming will only happen as a result of this and a restructuring of farming subsidies to encourage organic climate friendly farming.

Indigo Wholefoods has been committed to providing a wide range of foods from organic farming including our fruit and veg range since I opened the shop.  Our fruit and veg is loose and unlike the organic fruit and veg in supermarkets it is not packed in single use plastics.

If you’re not yet convinced to go organic then consider these facts from the Soil Association:

Fewer Pesticides – Almost 300 pesticides can be routinely used in non-organic farming and are often present in non-organic food.

No Artificial Colours and Preservatives – Hydrogenated fats and controversial artificial food colours are banned under organic standards.

Better for Wildlife – Organic farms are havens for wildlife and provide homes for bees, birds and butterflies – there is up to 50% more wildlife on organic farms!

Better for the Planet – No system of farming does more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and protect natural resources.

It’s Nutritionally Different – Research published in the British Journal of Nutrition found significant differences between organic and non-organic farming.

I am committed to providing a wide-range of products at Indigo Wholefoods that are tasty, healthy and sustainable, organic food will always be a significant part of that range.

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Climate Change and Adopting a Plant-Based Diet

Climate change is the most important issue of our times.  The actions that we take personally, in our communities and by our governments will determine whether human life can be sustained on this planet.  The opportunity to sort it out is not something that future generations will have the luxury of having.  Its our responsibility to do it now.

Research clearly shows the link between greenhouse gas emissions and livestock agriculture.  The livestock supply chain generates some 7.1Gt CO2 equivalent emissions, contributing to about 14.5% of global human-made emissions according to Food Climate Research Network in their 2017 report “Grazed and Confused?”

When we think of greenhouse gases we immediately think of carbon dioxide.  Carbon is released into the atmosphere when we dig or drill into the ground to access fossil fuels in the form of coal, oil and natural gas.  Further carbon is released into the atmosphere when the coal, oil and gas are burnt to create energy.  Electricity and petrol in cars.

But among the other greenhouse gases is methane.  Ruminants, grazing animals that regurgitate their food from one stomach to another, produce a huge amount of methane gas as part of their digestive process.  Ruminants produce about 80% of total livestock-related greenhouse gas emissions and cattle alone produce 65%.

And its not just the methane they produce.  Livestock farming is a very inefficient use of land.  Meat and dairy provides just 18% of total consumed calories and 37% of protein, and it uses 83% of all agricultural land.  That is land that could be used for growing crops.  In addition loss of wild areas to agricultural land is the leading cause of mass extinction of wildlife.  But nor can we accept intensive farming as this is bad for animal welfare and increases the amount of land used to grow feed for the animals.

Joseph Poore of Oxford University who led research entitled “Reducing Foods Environmental Impacts Through Producers and Consumers” says “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.  It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.

“Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems.  Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this.  Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.

“The reason I started this project was to understand if there were sustainable animal producers out there.  But I have stopped consuming animal products over the last four years of this project.  These impacts are not necessary to sustain our current way of life.  The question is how much can we reduce them and the answer is alot.”

The study finds that a persons individual carbon footprint can be reduced by up to 73% by adopting a plant-based diet.

Indigo Wholefoods has been a vegetarian food shop since its inception in 2008.  In 2017 I removed all non-vegetarian supplements from our shelves.  But I am determined to go further.  While the greatest environmental impact is from meat production, there is no doubt that dairy farming contributes as well.  Over the next few weeks I will be fazing out our few dairy products (cow and goat) and identifying which other products contain dairy ingredients or trace amounts of dairy and replacing them with tasty, sustainable plant-based alternatives.

I am committed to doing everything I can personally and at Indigo Wholefoods to sustain human life on this planet for future generations.  I will not profit from activities that have a detrimental effect on our environment.

Further Reading:

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/may/31/avoiding-meat-and-dairy-is-single-biggest-way-to-reduce-your-impact-on-earth

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My Thoughts on Climate Change

I have spent most of 2018 following the Brexit negotiations.  It looks like being an unmitigated disaster for the UK and the government seem determined to follow through with it no matter what the cost.  It is a crisis entirely of the governments own making.  It is consuming the attention of government and important policy areas are being ignored.

One area of concern is climate change.  I have noticed that there seems to be a correlation between those who are Brexiteers and those who are climate change deniers.  Maybe we should simply call them elite disaster capitalists.

Climate change has been nagging at me this year.  We are not doing enough.  This may be our last chance to get a grip of this crisis, if we have not already passed the point of no return.  Climate change is a global issue that needs global solutions, yet our politicians are determined to fight for ideological isolationism because of a perceived exceptionalism.  Not since the appeasement policy towards Hitler’s Germany has a British government taken a position that is so dangerous and ill-thought through.

In my opinion 2018 has produced weather events in the UK that can categorically be described as being as a result of climate change.  If that is correct these events will only get worse unless we take sustained action to reverse this phenomenon.  This action must occur at governmental policy, at business and at personal levels if we are to be successful.

In February and March we were subject to a series of severe winter weather events originating in the east.  They were dubbed “The Beast from the East”.  Its not unusual to occasionally experience a weather system from the east, but this was sustained.  In June, July and August we experienced one of the longest/ hottest heatwaves we have ever had, but it wasn’t just here.  It was everywhere.  Apart from Iceland and for good reason.

Most of our weather comes from the west as a result of the jet stream, a fast flowing high altitude wind that originates in the tropics and in something of a ‘S’ shape, as it flows around the air masses, delivers weather to the UK and western Europe.  This weather tends to be warm and wet.  Warm because it originates in the tropics and wet because its picking up water from the Atlantic ocean.

The jet stream is strongly linked to the gulf stream a tidal current that follows the same trajectory in the Atlantic ocean.  Together the gulf stream and the jet stream are responsible for our temperate climate.  Without it our weather would be much colder.

The gulf stream and the jet stream are caused by the meeting of warm tropical waters and cold arctic waters.  The greater the temperature differential the stronger and faster the streams flow.  The lesser the temperature differential the weaker and slower the streams flow.  Furthermore, the relative strengths of the two bodies of water determine how far north or south the streams flow.

Stay with me, I am getting to the point.

In February this year is was reported that the Arctic temperatures were averaging 15°C warmer than the seasonal norms.  There were 60 hours during the same month when the temperature was above 0°C.  Previously it had risen above 0°C in February on just two occasions and then only briefly.

Arctic sea ice covered 5.4m sq miles, about 62,000 sq miles smaller than 2017’s record low.  All in all, Arctic sea ice has reduced from 100% coverage 30 years ago to just 25% this year.  If the reductions continue to increase as seems likely given the temperature information the Arctic could be ice free in around 4 to 6 years.

These factors cause the temperature of the northern Atlantic ocean to rise reducing the temperature differentiation between the warm tropical waters and the colder arctic waters.  This has the effect of reducing the strength of the gulf stream and the jet stream.

In the east, cold air masses over the landlocked Siberian plains.  As it builds it pushes into Europe.  In winter the cold air is halted by the warmer air brought in by the jet stream over central Europe.  The warmer wetter air from the Atlantic meets the Siberian air mass and the water vapour cools down, becomes heavy and falls as snow.

In February and March this year the jet stream was not strong enough to push the Siberian air mass back and only resisted its strength over the UK.  The snow usually reserved for central Europe fell over the UK.

In the summer we were still under the influence of the considerably warmer Arctic temperatures.  As the tropical waters warmed up the North Atlantic ocean this spring the cold Arctic waters offered little resistance having been warmer than usual throughout the winter.  The jet stream was pushed north causing Iceland to suffer torrential rains throughout its summer.  Meanwhile, south of the jet stream, there was nothing to stop the hot air from Africa and southern Europe encroaching on the UK.

I am sure a geographer or meteorologist could fine tune the points above, but that is how I understand it.

What is not in doubt is that the Arctic is warming up and so is the Antarctic.  There is less ice in the Arctic and the Antarctic than there was 30 years ago.  There is no evidence that this phenomenon is reversing.  As the ice caps melt the temperature of the planet will increase. This is happening and will continue to happen.

The science is inconclusive to what extent this is a man-made phenomenon and to what extent it is a natural phenomenon.  This is an irrelevant consideration as if it is partly or even mostly a natural phenomenon it only serves to make the decisions we make about our relationship with the environment and our impact upon it more important.

Greenhouse gases (ghg’s) which are carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and tropospheric ozone along with lots of less significant gases absorb and emit radiant energy within the thermal infrared range.  Meaning they cause the energy of the sun to heat the atmosphere.  Without them there could be no life on this planet.  As the amount of ghg’s in the atmosphere increases the average temperature of the planet increases.

Human activities release ghg’s into the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation, soil erosion and agriculture both livestock and arable.  Population growth also need to be considered.

I get irritated by the casual environmentalist who may shout “save the planet”.  The planet is big enough and beautiful enough to look after itself.  The real question is “do we want there to be human life on this planet in 100 years time?”  It doesn’t make quite as good a car sticker though.

Lets make it more personal:

What would we do now for our children or our grand-children to ensure there is a planet that can sustain life for their natural lifetime?

If that is not enough to prompt massive change lets see if this is:

What would we do now for ourselves to ensure there is a planet that can sustain life for the rest of our natural lifetime?

As things stand we are probably heading for extinction in our lifetime.  So says Roger Hallam, an old friend of mine from my Organic Roundabout days.  Roger is now a PhD researcher on effective radical campaign design at King’s College in London and he has been an organic farmer for 20 years.

 

Roger tells us that the historic average global temperature is 12°C.  We are already 1.2°C above this historic average.  When the northern ice cap disappears in the next 4 – 6 years as we have already discussed temperatures will increase by 0.5°C because the ocean doesn’t reflect heat back to space the way that the ice cap does.

When the full effect on the average global temperature of the carbon already released is realised over the next 10-20 years there will be a further increase of 0.5° C.

That is an average global temperature increase of 2.2°C already locked in and it takes no account of future carbon burning, or the release of methane stored in the permafrost.

When the average global temperature reaches 23°C there will be no difference between the temperature at the poles and the equator.  The effect of this is no wind and no ocean currents.  When there are no ocean currents the oceans become stagnant.  They stop producing oxygen and start producing hydrogen sulphide instead.  Hydrogen Sulphide is poisonous, all living creatures will be dead when hydrogen sulphide reaches 200ppm in the atmosphere.

The only question remaining is at what temperature will hydrogen sulphide start to be released from the oceans and how soon will we reach that point.

So I ask the question, “what would we do now for ourselves and for our children and our grand-children to ensure there is a planet that can sustain life for the rest of our natural lifetimes?

Further Reading:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/27/britain-betrayed-heathrow-humanity-survival

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/26/we-have-a-duty-to-act-hundreds-ready-to-go-to-jail-over-climate-crisis