Category Archives: Health

Green spaces keep hearts healthy and save lives

Planting trees and creating urban parks brings more green spaces and cleaner air, cutting heart deaths and saving lives.

LONDON, 16 November, 2020 − A vast study of the incidence of heart disease, the amount of green spaces and air quality in each county of the United States has shown that the presence of trees, shrubs and grass saves lives.

It has long been known that particulate matter from industry and car exhausts is bad for lungs and hearts. While it is also accepted that the greenery absorbs pollution, it has been hard until now to relate the extent of the two effects.

Using the data collected by NASA from satellites to calculate the greenness of vast areas of the US, the researchers compared it with the national death rates from the Atlas of Heart Disease.

They overlaid this with data from the Environment Protection Agency’s air quality measurements of particulate matter for each county and the Census Bureau’s information on age, race, education and income by county.

Using an internationally recognised system to measure the amount of green vegetation in any location, from a barren area of rock at one extreme (0.00 on the scale) to dense tropical rain forest (0.80) at the other, they found a measurable link between greenness and survival rates.

Policy shift needed

For every 0.10 (12.5%) increase in what’s called the Normalised Difference Vegetation Index, heart disease decreased by 13 deaths per 100,000. For every one microgram increase in particulate matter per cubic metre of air, heart disease increased by roughly 39 deaths per 100,000.

“We found that areas with better air quality have higher greenness, and that having higher greenness measures, in turn, is related to having a lower rate of deaths from heart disease,” said William Aitken, a cardiology fellow with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Florida.

“Given the potential cardiovascular benefits of higher greenness measures, it’s important that dialogue about improved health and quality of life include environmental policies that support increasing greenness,” he said.

The research is significant in the battle against climate change too. Asian countries, particularly India and China, have severe problems with early death and disease as a result of air pollution. They have concentrated their efforts for reducing air pollution by reducing traffic and suppressing coal burning.

It is clear from this research that they could both remove particulates from the air and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by increasing the amount of vegetation in polluted areas.

“Areas with better air quality have higher greenness, and having higher greenness measures is related to having a lower rate of deaths from heart disease”

The US researchers hope their results will encourage clinical trials using built environment interventions (e.g., tree planting to increase the presence of vegetation) to improve cardiovascular health. “We will be performing a longitudinal study in Miami to assess if changes in neighbourhood greenness over time are associated with changes in cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Aitken said.

Commenting on the research Joel Kaufman, a volunteer expert for the American Heart Association and a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Washington, Seattle, said in addition to the actions that individuals could take to ensure healthy lives, such as not smoking, being physically active and controlling cholesterol, environmental factors had turned out to be very important.

Ambient air pollution from burning fossil fuels is one of the major factors. Research over 20 years has shown that living in areas with higher concentrations of air pollutants, and breathing in the pollution, leads to higher rates of cardiovascular disease. Demonstrably, green spaces matter.

Dr Kaufman said that community-led action had mostly been directed at increasing controls over the sources of air pollution affecting the environment. But another effective approach would be to increase the level of greenness, planting trees, shrubs and grass.

In a statement the American Heart Association said long-term exposure to air pollution reduced life expectancy by between several months and a few years, depending on its severity. Cutting pollution improved the health and life expectancy of those living in the area quite quickly. − Climate News Network

Planting trees and creating urban parks brings more green spaces and cleaner air, cutting heart deaths and saving lives.

LONDON, 16 November, 2020 − A vast study of the incidence of heart disease, the amount of green spaces and air quality in each county of the United States has shown that the presence of trees, shrubs and grass saves lives.

It has long been known that particulate matter from industry and car exhausts is bad for lungs and hearts. While it is also accepted that the greenery absorbs pollution, it has been hard until now to relate the extent of the two effects.

Using the data collected by NASA from satellites to calculate the greenness of vast areas of the US, the researchers compared it with the national death rates from the Atlas of Heart Disease.

They overlaid this with data from the Environment Protection Agency’s air quality measurements of particulate matter for each county and the Census Bureau’s information on age, race, education and income by county.

Using an internationally recognised system to measure the amount of green vegetation in any location, from a barren area of rock at one extreme (0.00 on the scale) to dense tropical rain forest (0.80) at the other, they found a measurable link between greenness and survival rates.

Policy shift needed

For every 0.10 (12.5%) increase in what’s called the Normalised Difference Vegetation Index, heart disease decreased by 13 deaths per 100,000. For every one microgram increase in particulate matter per cubic metre of air, heart disease increased by roughly 39 deaths per 100,000.

“We found that areas with better air quality have higher greenness, and that having higher greenness measures, in turn, is related to having a lower rate of deaths from heart disease,” said William Aitken, a cardiology fellow with the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Florida.

“Given the potential cardiovascular benefits of higher greenness measures, it’s important that dialogue about improved health and quality of life include environmental policies that support increasing greenness,” he said.

The research is significant in the battle against climate change too. Asian countries, particularly India and China, have severe problems with early death and disease as a result of air pollution. They have concentrated their efforts for reducing air pollution by reducing traffic and suppressing coal burning.

It is clear from this research that they could both remove particulates from the air and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by increasing the amount of vegetation in polluted areas.

“Areas with better air quality have higher greenness, and having higher greenness measures is related to having a lower rate of deaths from heart disease”

The US researchers hope their results will encourage clinical trials using built environment interventions (e.g., tree planting to increase the presence of vegetation) to improve cardiovascular health. “We will be performing a longitudinal study in Miami to assess if changes in neighbourhood greenness over time are associated with changes in cardiovascular disease,” Dr. Aitken said.

Commenting on the research Joel Kaufman, a volunteer expert for the American Heart Association and a professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of Washington, Seattle, said in addition to the actions that individuals could take to ensure healthy lives, such as not smoking, being physically active and controlling cholesterol, environmental factors had turned out to be very important.

Ambient air pollution from burning fossil fuels is one of the major factors. Research over 20 years has shown that living in areas with higher concentrations of air pollutants, and breathing in the pollution, leads to higher rates of cardiovascular disease. Demonstrably, green spaces matter.

Dr Kaufman said that community-led action had mostly been directed at increasing controls over the sources of air pollution affecting the environment. But another effective approach would be to increase the level of greenness, planting trees, shrubs and grass.

In a statement the American Heart Association said long-term exposure to air pollution reduced life expectancy by between several months and a few years, depending on its severity. Cutting pollution improved the health and life expectancy of those living in the area quite quickly. − Climate News Network

More avoidable pandemics await a heedless world

There will be more avoidable pandemics, more devastating and lethal, as humans intrude further upon the planet’s forests.

LONDON, 11 November, 2020 − Once again, naturalists have warned that the invasion of wilderness can seriously damage human health: avoidable pandemics − Covid-19 is an instance of a disease transferred from wild mammals to humans − threaten to arrive more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the global economy, and kill more people.

That’s because the odds on even more fearful infections remain very high: the world’s wild mammals could between them be hosts to 1.7 million viruses that have yet to be identified and named. If only a third of them them could infect humans, that’s 540,000 new diseases waiting to happen.

The number could be higher: perhaps 850,000 potential infections lie so far undisturbed, waiting to happen.

A new report by a team of 22 global experts warns that Covid-19 is at least the sixth global health pandemic since the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918: all had their origins in microbes carried by animals, and all were awakened and spread by human interaction with the wilderness.

By July 2020, the coronavirus linked to a market in wild animals in Wuhan in China had spread around the planet at a cost of between US$8 trillion and $16tn. The world has already seen the Ebola virus devastating West African communities, the HIV/Aids epidemic, Zika, and many others claiming lives in the last century.

Wilderness no more

The arrival of new zoonotic diseases − infections caught from other creatures − has been counted at roughly two a year since 1918. The number could increase to as many as five a year. And most of them will be linked to increasing human impact upon what had once been largely undisturbed wilderness.

“There is no great mystery about the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic − or of any modern pandemic”, said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance and chair of a workshop of the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES for short) that assembled the research.

“The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment. Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people. This is the path to pandemics.”

All living things are host to viruses and other microbes: in most cases host and parasite adapt to live peaceably with each other. The danger comes when a microbe transfers to a new host that is entirely unprepared for the invader.

“We still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge. We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a greater focus on prevention”

What became known as the human immuno-deficiency virus HIV-1 is believed to have emerged first in West or Central Africa from the remains of chimpanzees hunted and sold for bushmeat. It spread around the planet within a decade, to claim millions of lives as the disease AIDS. Ebola infects both primates and humans: in an outbreak among humans, it has been known to kill 90% of all infected people.

Researchers have consistently linked epidemic and pandemic outbreaks to climate change, to the destruction and degradation of the wilderness, and to the traffic in wild creatures as objects of value or commerce.

And all are consequences ultimately of exponential growth in human numbers in the last century, a growth that puts ever greater pressure on what had once been largely undisturbed tropical forest, grassland and wetland.

Around a quarter of all wild terrestrial vertebrate species are traded globally. International, legal wildlife trade has increased fivefold in revenue in the last 14 years. It is now worth an estimated $107bn.

The illegal traffic in wildlife could be worth anywhere between $7bn and $23bn annually. The US imports around 10 to 20 million wild animals a year. In China in 2016, what is now called wildlife farming employed 14 million people and generated $77bn in revenue.

Negligible cost

Researchers have already argued that intrusion into what should be protected ecosystems that are home to the shrinking pool of wild birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians − a million species could be nearing global extinction − not only threatens the wellbeing of the planet; it also generates an increasing health hazard.

The latest study lists a range of policy options to reduce the risk of assault by new plagues. These rest upon greater awareness of, and respect for, the natural capital of the wilderness. Conservation of this kind costs money, but at least 100 times less than the toll of successive pandemics likely without a change in human attitudes.

“We have increasing ability to prevent pandemics, but the way we are tackling them right now largely ignores that ability,” Dr Daszak said. “Our approach has effectively stagnated − we still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge, through vaccines and therapeutics.

“We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a greater focus on prevention in addition to reaction.” − Climate News Network

There will be more avoidable pandemics, more devastating and lethal, as humans intrude further upon the planet’s forests.

LONDON, 11 November, 2020 − Once again, naturalists have warned that the invasion of wilderness can seriously damage human health: avoidable pandemics − Covid-19 is an instance of a disease transferred from wild mammals to humans − threaten to arrive more often, spread more rapidly, do more damage to the global economy, and kill more people.

That’s because the odds on even more fearful infections remain very high: the world’s wild mammals could between them be hosts to 1.7 million viruses that have yet to be identified and named. If only a third of them them could infect humans, that’s 540,000 new diseases waiting to happen.

The number could be higher: perhaps 850,000 potential infections lie so far undisturbed, waiting to happen.

A new report by a team of 22 global experts warns that Covid-19 is at least the sixth global health pandemic since the Great Influenza Epidemic of 1918: all had their origins in microbes carried by animals, and all were awakened and spread by human interaction with the wilderness.

By July 2020, the coronavirus linked to a market in wild animals in Wuhan in China had spread around the planet at a cost of between US$8 trillion and $16tn. The world has already seen the Ebola virus devastating West African communities, the HIV/Aids epidemic, Zika, and many others claiming lives in the last century.

Wilderness no more

The arrival of new zoonotic diseases − infections caught from other creatures − has been counted at roughly two a year since 1918. The number could increase to as many as five a year. And most of them will be linked to increasing human impact upon what had once been largely undisturbed wilderness.

“There is no great mystery about the cause of the Covid-19 pandemic − or of any modern pandemic”, said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance and chair of a workshop of the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES for short) that assembled the research.

“The same human activities that drive climate change and biodiversity loss also drive pandemic risk through their impacts on our environment. Changes in the way we use land; the expansion and intensification of agriculture; and unsustainable trade, production and consumption disrupt nature and increase contact between wildlife, livestock, pathogens and people. This is the path to pandemics.”

All living things are host to viruses and other microbes: in most cases host and parasite adapt to live peaceably with each other. The danger comes when a microbe transfers to a new host that is entirely unprepared for the invader.

“We still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge. We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a greater focus on prevention”

What became known as the human immuno-deficiency virus HIV-1 is believed to have emerged first in West or Central Africa from the remains of chimpanzees hunted and sold for bushmeat. It spread around the planet within a decade, to claim millions of lives as the disease AIDS. Ebola infects both primates and humans: in an outbreak among humans, it has been known to kill 90% of all infected people.

Researchers have consistently linked epidemic and pandemic outbreaks to climate change, to the destruction and degradation of the wilderness, and to the traffic in wild creatures as objects of value or commerce.

And all are consequences ultimately of exponential growth in human numbers in the last century, a growth that puts ever greater pressure on what had once been largely undisturbed tropical forest, grassland and wetland.

Around a quarter of all wild terrestrial vertebrate species are traded globally. International, legal wildlife trade has increased fivefold in revenue in the last 14 years. It is now worth an estimated $107bn.

The illegal traffic in wildlife could be worth anywhere between $7bn and $23bn annually. The US imports around 10 to 20 million wild animals a year. In China in 2016, what is now called wildlife farming employed 14 million people and generated $77bn in revenue.

Negligible cost

Researchers have already argued that intrusion into what should be protected ecosystems that are home to the shrinking pool of wild birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians − a million species could be nearing global extinction − not only threatens the wellbeing of the planet; it also generates an increasing health hazard.

The latest study lists a range of policy options to reduce the risk of assault by new plagues. These rest upon greater awareness of, and respect for, the natural capital of the wilderness. Conservation of this kind costs money, but at least 100 times less than the toll of successive pandemics likely without a change in human attitudes.

“We have increasing ability to prevent pandemics, but the way we are tackling them right now largely ignores that ability,” Dr Daszak said. “Our approach has effectively stagnated − we still rely on attempts to contain and control diseases after they emerge, through vaccines and therapeutics.

“We can escape the era of pandemics, but this requires a greater focus on prevention in addition to reaction.” − Climate News Network

Carbon speeds crop growth but often for little gain

More carbon dioxide speeds up crop growth with some key food harvests, but extra heat can hit the yield.

LONDON, 10 November, 2020 − Thirty years of experiments in testing crop growth, and notably the effects of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) on some human staples like rice, wheat and soya, have found that − given perfect growing conditions − they would increase yields by 18%.

But sadly, in “real world” conditions, any gains from carbon fertilisation are lost − because of the stress caused to crops by the 2°C temperature rise that the gas causes in the atmosphere. Even worse, the fact that crops grow faster does not mean that their nutritional value is greater – many showed lower mineral nutrients and protein content.

The work, 30 years of “free air carbon dioxide enrichment” (FACE), carried out by 14 long-term research facilities in five continents, is a blow to the hope that in a world with more atmospheric CO2 more people could be fed with less land under cultivation. Earlier results had held out the hope that this “fertiliser effect” would feed more people.

While commercial growers of plants like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers have used increased CO2 to boost production in controlled conditions in greenhouses, it does not work so well in open fields where temperature and moisture content are affected by climate change.

“When you have other stresses, you don’t always get a benefit of elevated CO2. The last 15 years have taught us to account more for the complex interactions from other factors”

Some crops do get a boost from more carbon in the atmosphere because it makes photosynthesis more efficient, but this is only if nutrients and water are available at optimum levels. This group includes soybean, cassava and rice, all vital in feeding some of the hungriest people in the world.

The author of the study, Stephen Long from the University of Illinois,  said that while it seemed reasonable to assume “a bounty as CO2 rises” this was not the case, because “CO2 is the primary cause of change in the global climate system. The anticipated 2°C rise in temperature, caused primarily by this increase in CO2, could halve yields of some of our major crops, wiping out any gain from CO2.”

His co-author Lisa Ainsworth, a research plant physiologist with the US Department of Agriculture, said: “It’s quite shocking to go back and look at just how much CO2 concentrations have increased over the lifetime of these experiments.

“We are reaching the concentrations of some of the first CO2 treatments 30 years back. The idea that we can check the results of some of the first FACE experiments in the current atmosphere is disconcerting.

Need for nitrogen

“Lots of people have presumed that rising CO2 is largely a good thing for crops, assuming more CO2 will make the world’s forests greener and increase crop yields,” Ainsworth said.

“The more recent studies challenge that assumption a bit. We’re finding that when you have other stresses, you don’t always get a benefit of elevated CO2. The last 15 years have taught us to account more for the complex interactions from other factors like drought, temperature, nutrients and pests.”

The poor quality of some of the grain, with less mineral and protein content, is also a blow to add to the crop growth doubts. The potential increased yield is also much smaller under conditions where there is low nitrogen fertiliser, typical of the world’s poorest countries.

However, the researchers are not all gloomy. Genetic variations in crops show that some strains can still benefit despite increased temperatures. If new crop cultivars are developed, then the future could be brighter, but work needs to start now, the scientists say. − Climate News Network

More carbon dioxide speeds up crop growth with some key food harvests, but extra heat can hit the yield.

LONDON, 10 November, 2020 − Thirty years of experiments in testing crop growth, and notably the effects of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) on some human staples like rice, wheat and soya, have found that − given perfect growing conditions − they would increase yields by 18%.

But sadly, in “real world” conditions, any gains from carbon fertilisation are lost − because of the stress caused to crops by the 2°C temperature rise that the gas causes in the atmosphere. Even worse, the fact that crops grow faster does not mean that their nutritional value is greater – many showed lower mineral nutrients and protein content.

The work, 30 years of “free air carbon dioxide enrichment” (FACE), carried out by 14 long-term research facilities in five continents, is a blow to the hope that in a world with more atmospheric CO2 more people could be fed with less land under cultivation. Earlier results had held out the hope that this “fertiliser effect” would feed more people.

While commercial growers of plants like tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers have used increased CO2 to boost production in controlled conditions in greenhouses, it does not work so well in open fields where temperature and moisture content are affected by climate change.

“When you have other stresses, you don’t always get a benefit of elevated CO2. The last 15 years have taught us to account more for the complex interactions from other factors”

Some crops do get a boost from more carbon in the atmosphere because it makes photosynthesis more efficient, but this is only if nutrients and water are available at optimum levels. This group includes soybean, cassava and rice, all vital in feeding some of the hungriest people in the world.

The author of the study, Stephen Long from the University of Illinois,  said that while it seemed reasonable to assume “a bounty as CO2 rises” this was not the case, because “CO2 is the primary cause of change in the global climate system. The anticipated 2°C rise in temperature, caused primarily by this increase in CO2, could halve yields of some of our major crops, wiping out any gain from CO2.”

His co-author Lisa Ainsworth, a research plant physiologist with the US Department of Agriculture, said: “It’s quite shocking to go back and look at just how much CO2 concentrations have increased over the lifetime of these experiments.

“We are reaching the concentrations of some of the first CO2 treatments 30 years back. The idea that we can check the results of some of the first FACE experiments in the current atmosphere is disconcerting.

Need for nitrogen

“Lots of people have presumed that rising CO2 is largely a good thing for crops, assuming more CO2 will make the world’s forests greener and increase crop yields,” Ainsworth said.

“The more recent studies challenge that assumption a bit. We’re finding that when you have other stresses, you don’t always get a benefit of elevated CO2. The last 15 years have taught us to account more for the complex interactions from other factors like drought, temperature, nutrients and pests.”

The poor quality of some of the grain, with less mineral and protein content, is also a blow to add to the crop growth doubts. The potential increased yield is also much smaller under conditions where there is low nitrogen fertiliser, typical of the world’s poorest countries.

However, the researchers are not all gloomy. Genetic variations in crops show that some strains can still benefit despite increased temperatures. If new crop cultivars are developed, then the future could be brighter, but work needs to start now, the scientists say. − Climate News Network

Covid-19’s spread: Into the second lockdown

Parts of the UK are in a second lockdown aimed at stopping Covid-19’s spread. The first one left some useful lessons.

LONDON, 5 November, 2020 − Many countries have tried to arrest Covid-19’s spread by imposing a temporary lockdown on daily life, usually at grave cost to economies and to people across society, and many of them, including parts of the United Kingdom, faced with the pandemic’s second wave, have opted for a second lockdown.

So we’ve been here before. As we tread reluctantly into this renewed attempt to tame the virus, there is some hope that we can use the lessons the first effort taught us.

Just over a month ago the Climate News Network published a highly abridged summary singling out a few of the specific life-saving lessons identified by the UK-based Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA) in its three published briefings on what we can learn so far from our response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The RTA argues that humankind must undertake “widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles … to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5°C” (the more stringent limit set by the Paris Agreement on climate change).

This update includes three short RTA films, embedded below, which show the reactions and experiences of people who told the Alliance what lessons they had learnt − people not only from the UK itself but from a range of countries, among them France, Sweden, Hong Kong and the US. The Alliance hopes the films “find the balance between hope and realism”.

To see them (each film is from six to nine minutes long), click on the title of the report to which it refers. The text following each film has been added by the Network and is intended to provide a thumbnail sketch.

Looking after each other better

The rules by which we have lived have changed, and we know that our behaviour can change radically overnight, not just incrementally − which the urgency of the climate and extinction crisis means we cannot afford anyway. Governments can find immense sums of money quickly. We need to value the people on whom society depends better than we have − carers, workers in food production and distribution, for example. Covid has traumatised us, but it is also helping us to think in new ways.

More space for people and nature

We do not need to travel so much: working from home is easy for many of us, and so is growing food closer to home. But we need to recognise that while space is essential for our health, it is out of reach for many people on this fast-urbanising planet, and for growing stretches of the natural world. In the UK, and elsewhere, there is a national divide in access to green open space, and to much more of what is essential for a healthy life.

Living with less stuff

We can live well by buying less and making more for ourselves; this way we can even cut our debts. Thinking afresh will help us to survive Covid − and that includes realising that many of us are time-rich. One UK respondent says: “To find that extra six hours down the back of the sofa has been wonderful.” So there are grounds to hope that we may be better prepared for the second lockdown. − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

Parts of the UK are in a second lockdown aimed at stopping Covid-19’s spread. The first one left some useful lessons.

LONDON, 5 November, 2020 − Many countries have tried to arrest Covid-19’s spread by imposing a temporary lockdown on daily life, usually at grave cost to economies and to people across society, and many of them, including parts of the United Kingdom, faced with the pandemic’s second wave, have opted for a second lockdown.

So we’ve been here before. As we tread reluctantly into this renewed attempt to tame the virus, there is some hope that we can use the lessons the first effort taught us.

Just over a month ago the Climate News Network published a highly abridged summary singling out a few of the specific life-saving lessons identified by the UK-based Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA) in its three published briefings on what we can learn so far from our response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The RTA argues that humankind must undertake “widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles … to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5°C” (the more stringent limit set by the Paris Agreement on climate change).

This update includes three short RTA films, embedded below, which show the reactions and experiences of people who told the Alliance what lessons they had learnt − people not only from the UK itself but from a range of countries, among them France, Sweden, Hong Kong and the US. The Alliance hopes the films “find the balance between hope and realism”.

To see them (each film is from six to nine minutes long), click on the title of the report to which it refers. The text following each film has been added by the Network and is intended to provide a thumbnail sketch.

Looking after each other better

The rules by which we have lived have changed, and we know that our behaviour can change radically overnight, not just incrementally − which the urgency of the climate and extinction crisis means we cannot afford anyway. Governments can find immense sums of money quickly. We need to value the people on whom society depends better than we have − carers, workers in food production and distribution, for example. Covid has traumatised us, but it is also helping us to think in new ways.

More space for people and nature

We do not need to travel so much: working from home is easy for many of us, and so is growing food closer to home. But we need to recognise that while space is essential for our health, it is out of reach for many people on this fast-urbanising planet, and for growing stretches of the natural world. In the UK, and elsewhere, there is a national divide in access to green open space, and to much more of what is essential for a healthy life.

Living with less stuff

We can live well by buying less and making more for ourselves; this way we can even cut our debts. Thinking afresh will help us to survive Covid − and that includes realising that many of us are time-rich. One UK respondent says: “To find that extra six hours down the back of the sofa has been wonderful.” So there are grounds to hope that we may be better prepared for the second lockdown. − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

Western US and Southeast Asia face rising dust risk

It obscures the skies and darkens the snows. Wind-borne dust risk is increasingly ominous in a warming world.

LONDON, 26 October, 2020 − Half a planet apart, one low-lying and the other on the roof of the world, two huge regions confront an increasing dust risk − a menace to jobs, to food and to lives.

The Great Plains of North America are getting dustier every year because more soil is now being exposed to erosion. And high in the Himalayas on the continent of Asia, the peaks too are becoming dustier, in ways that threaten to increase the melting of high-altitude snows.

Both findings are in essence bad news. In the western US, higher levels of wind erosion as a consequence of changing farm practices combined with ever-greater probabilities of drought mean ever-higher probabilities of a return of the Dust Bowl that devastated the US Midwest 90 years ago.

And 700 million people in Southeast Asia, China and India depend on the slow melting of the Himalayan glaciers to irrigate their crops in the hot dry season: earlier melting threatens not just livelihoods but lives.

Taken for farming

In the 1930s, the Great Plains region was hit by drought that extended from Canada to Mexico. By then, vast tracts of prairie had been converted from wild grassland to ploughed field.

“The result was massive dust storms we associate with the Dust Bowl. These dust storms removed nutrients from the soil, making it difficult for crops to grow and more likely for wind erosion to occur,” said Andrew Lambert of the University of Utah.

He and colleagues from Colorado report in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that they measured atmospheric dust levels by studying evidence from both space and from the ground, and collected data from 1988 to 2018.

They found that atmospheric dust over the Great Plains was increasing at 5% a year. That would mean a doubling in just two decades.

“The massive dust storms we associate with the Dust Bowl removed nutrients from the soil, making it difficult for crops to grow and more likely for wind erosion to occur”

They also found that levels of dust matched the planting and harvest months of soybean in the north, and corn in the southern states. How the land was farmed could be connected directly to the haze in the air.

Dust plays a powerful role in planetary management: researchers established years ago that the rich biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest was nourished and supplemented almost annually by deposits of fertile dust blown across the Atlantic from the African Sahara. And dust falling into the ocean on the journey also helped nourish marine life far below the surface of the Atlantic.

Now it seems that wind-blown dust from two continents also settles on the biggest and highest tracts of the Himalayas, to darken the snow, change its reflectivity and absorb the sun’s warmth.

Scientists from the US Pacific Northwest National Laboratory report in Nature Climate Change that they used detailed satellite imagery of the Himalayas to measure aerosols, elevation and snow surfaces to identify dust and other pollutants.

Constant release

They found that, at up to 4500 metres altitude, black carbon or soot played an important role in influencing the melt timetable of the high snows. Above that altitude, dust was the most important factor: dust from the Thar desert in India, from Saudi Arabia and even from the African Sahara.

Although this was part of a natural cycle, humankind may be accelerating the traffic and adding to the dust risk: ever-higher planetary temperatures have begun to affect atmospheric circulation. And as humans turn natural ecosystems into farmland, they release even more dust.

“The snow in the western Himalayas is receding rapidly. We need to understand why this is happening and we need to understand the implications,” said Chandan Sarangi, then at Pacific Northwest but now at the Madras Institute of Technology in Chennai, and one of the authors.

“We’ve shown that dust can be a big contributor to the accelerated snowmelt. Hundreds of millions of people in the region rely on snow for their drinking water − we need to consider factors like dust seriously to understand what’s happening.” − Climate News Network

It obscures the skies and darkens the snows. Wind-borne dust risk is increasingly ominous in a warming world.

LONDON, 26 October, 2020 − Half a planet apart, one low-lying and the other on the roof of the world, two huge regions confront an increasing dust risk − a menace to jobs, to food and to lives.

The Great Plains of North America are getting dustier every year because more soil is now being exposed to erosion. And high in the Himalayas on the continent of Asia, the peaks too are becoming dustier, in ways that threaten to increase the melting of high-altitude snows.

Both findings are in essence bad news. In the western US, higher levels of wind erosion as a consequence of changing farm practices combined with ever-greater probabilities of drought mean ever-higher probabilities of a return of the Dust Bowl that devastated the US Midwest 90 years ago.

And 700 million people in Southeast Asia, China and India depend on the slow melting of the Himalayan glaciers to irrigate their crops in the hot dry season: earlier melting threatens not just livelihoods but lives.

Taken for farming

In the 1930s, the Great Plains region was hit by drought that extended from Canada to Mexico. By then, vast tracts of prairie had been converted from wild grassland to ploughed field.

“The result was massive dust storms we associate with the Dust Bowl. These dust storms removed nutrients from the soil, making it difficult for crops to grow and more likely for wind erosion to occur,” said Andrew Lambert of the University of Utah.

He and colleagues from Colorado report in the journal Geophysical Research Letters that they measured atmospheric dust levels by studying evidence from both space and from the ground, and collected data from 1988 to 2018.

They found that atmospheric dust over the Great Plains was increasing at 5% a year. That would mean a doubling in just two decades.

“The massive dust storms we associate with the Dust Bowl removed nutrients from the soil, making it difficult for crops to grow and more likely for wind erosion to occur”

They also found that levels of dust matched the planting and harvest months of soybean in the north, and corn in the southern states. How the land was farmed could be connected directly to the haze in the air.

Dust plays a powerful role in planetary management: researchers established years ago that the rich biodiversity of the Amazon rainforest was nourished and supplemented almost annually by deposits of fertile dust blown across the Atlantic from the African Sahara. And dust falling into the ocean on the journey also helped nourish marine life far below the surface of the Atlantic.

Now it seems that wind-blown dust from two continents also settles on the biggest and highest tracts of the Himalayas, to darken the snow, change its reflectivity and absorb the sun’s warmth.

Scientists from the US Pacific Northwest National Laboratory report in Nature Climate Change that they used detailed satellite imagery of the Himalayas to measure aerosols, elevation and snow surfaces to identify dust and other pollutants.

Constant release

They found that, at up to 4500 metres altitude, black carbon or soot played an important role in influencing the melt timetable of the high snows. Above that altitude, dust was the most important factor: dust from the Thar desert in India, from Saudi Arabia and even from the African Sahara.

Although this was part of a natural cycle, humankind may be accelerating the traffic and adding to the dust risk: ever-higher planetary temperatures have begun to affect atmospheric circulation. And as humans turn natural ecosystems into farmland, they release even more dust.

“The snow in the western Himalayas is receding rapidly. We need to understand why this is happening and we need to understand the implications,” said Chandan Sarangi, then at Pacific Northwest but now at the Madras Institute of Technology in Chennai, and one of the authors.

“We’ve shown that dust can be a big contributor to the accelerated snowmelt. Hundreds of millions of people in the region rely on snow for their drinking water − we need to consider factors like dust seriously to understand what’s happening.” − Climate News Network

Poor air inflicts billions of premature deaths in Asia

Air pollution by tiny particles is among the world’s worst health risks. In South Asia, poor air is as bad as it gets.

NEW DELHI, 22 October, 2020 − Poor air costs lives, but finding out just how many of them will come as a shock to many residents of South Asia’s big cities.

In India’s capital, New Delhi, just going outside and breathing the air can shorten your life by more than nine years, according to a new report into the region’s air quality that measures the effects of pollution on life expectancy.

For millions of people across across north-west India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, it will be bad news − despite the Covid crisis − because of the current surge in air pollution in the region.

But none of the people of four countries, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, will be happy with the prediction that their lives will be shortened unless their governments take air pollution seriously.

New Delhi is the worst single example in the four, but few of their citizens − a quarter of the world’s population − will escape.

Bangladesh worst hit

Averaged across the whole population, the people of Bangladesh suffer most from air pollution in any country, with their average life span cut short by 6.2 years.

An air quality index (AQI) provides daily air quality assessments, but not the actual health risk. An air quality life index (AQLI) goes further: it converts particulate air pollution into perhaps the most important air pollution metric that exists: its impact on life expectancy.

The report is the work of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), which has recently updated its AQLI, based on research by its director Michael Greenstone that quantified the causal relationship between human exposure to air pollution and reduced life expectancy.

While the report makes grim reading for nations south of the Himalayas, it does offer some hope, saying that the people of China can see marked improvements since their government began clamping down on polluting industries in 2013.

The report uses two measures to calculate lower expectations of life expectancy: the more stringent World Heath Organisation guidelines (WHO) and the limits imposed by the governments concerned.

“The threat of coronavirus is grave and deserves every bit of the attention it is receiving [but] embracing the seriousness of air pollution with a similar vigour would allow billions of people around the world to lead longer and healthier lives”

It says air pollution shortens Indian average life expectancy by 5.2 years, relative to what it would be if the WHO guidelines were met, but by 2.3 years relative to the rate if pollution were reduced to meet the country’s own national standard.

Some areas of India fare much worse than the average, with air pollution shortening lives by 9.4 years in Delhi and 8.6 years in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the report’s India fact sheet 2020 says.

Similarly, the Pakistan sheet says the average Pakistani’s life expectancy has been shortened by 2.7 years, while air pollution cuts lives by more than 4 years in the most polluted areas.

Naming Bangladesh as the world’s most polluted country, EPIC’s report says air pollution shortens the average citizen’s life expectancy by 6.2 years, compared to what it would be if the WHO guidelines were met.

Again, some areas suffer far more, with lives cut by about 7 years in the most polluted district. In every one of the country’s 64 districts, particulate pollution levels are at least four times the WHO guidelines.

Possible underestimate

Surprisingly Nepal, which unlike its southern neighbours is not normally associated with air pollution, also had serious problems with its crowded and polluted cities. As a result, life expectancy there is cut by 4.7 years across the whole population.

“Though the threat of coronavirus is grave and deserves every bit of the attention it is receiving − perhaps more in some places − embracing the seriousness of air pollution with a similar vigour would allow billions of people around the world to lead longer and healthier lives,” says Professor Greenstone.

The science of air pollution, and the impact of poor air on the human body, is evolving rapidly, and some Asian scientists have expressed reservations about the accuracy of some of the calculations. However, none of them disputes the fact that millions are dying early because of the pollution.

The report concentrates on the effect of the smaller particulates that are known to do the most damage to lungs, and to enter the bloodstream, and it may in fact be underestimating the overall effects of poor air quality. − Climate News Network

* * * * * *

Nivedita Khandekar is an independent journalist based in New Delhi, covering development and the environment: nivedita_him@rediffmail.com and on twitter at @nivedita_Him

Air pollution by tiny particles is among the world’s worst health risks. In South Asia, poor air is as bad as it gets.

NEW DELHI, 22 October, 2020 − Poor air costs lives, but finding out just how many of them will come as a shock to many residents of South Asia’s big cities.

In India’s capital, New Delhi, just going outside and breathing the air can shorten your life by more than nine years, according to a new report into the region’s air quality that measures the effects of pollution on life expectancy.

For millions of people across across north-west India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, it will be bad news − despite the Covid crisis − because of the current surge in air pollution in the region.

But none of the people of four countries, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal, will be happy with the prediction that their lives will be shortened unless their governments take air pollution seriously.

New Delhi is the worst single example in the four, but few of their citizens − a quarter of the world’s population − will escape.

Bangladesh worst hit

Averaged across the whole population, the people of Bangladesh suffer most from air pollution in any country, with their average life span cut short by 6.2 years.

An air quality index (AQI) provides daily air quality assessments, but not the actual health risk. An air quality life index (AQLI) goes further: it converts particulate air pollution into perhaps the most important air pollution metric that exists: its impact on life expectancy.

The report is the work of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC), which has recently updated its AQLI, based on research by its director Michael Greenstone that quantified the causal relationship between human exposure to air pollution and reduced life expectancy.

While the report makes grim reading for nations south of the Himalayas, it does offer some hope, saying that the people of China can see marked improvements since their government began clamping down on polluting industries in 2013.

The report uses two measures to calculate lower expectations of life expectancy: the more stringent World Heath Organisation guidelines (WHO) and the limits imposed by the governments concerned.

“The threat of coronavirus is grave and deserves every bit of the attention it is receiving [but] embracing the seriousness of air pollution with a similar vigour would allow billions of people around the world to lead longer and healthier lives”

It says air pollution shortens Indian average life expectancy by 5.2 years, relative to what it would be if the WHO guidelines were met, but by 2.3 years relative to the rate if pollution were reduced to meet the country’s own national standard.

Some areas of India fare much worse than the average, with air pollution shortening lives by 9.4 years in Delhi and 8.6 years in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the report’s India fact sheet 2020 says.

Similarly, the Pakistan sheet says the average Pakistani’s life expectancy has been shortened by 2.7 years, while air pollution cuts lives by more than 4 years in the most polluted areas.

Naming Bangladesh as the world’s most polluted country, EPIC’s report says air pollution shortens the average citizen’s life expectancy by 6.2 years, compared to what it would be if the WHO guidelines were met.

Again, some areas suffer far more, with lives cut by about 7 years in the most polluted district. In every one of the country’s 64 districts, particulate pollution levels are at least four times the WHO guidelines.

Possible underestimate

Surprisingly Nepal, which unlike its southern neighbours is not normally associated with air pollution, also had serious problems with its crowded and polluted cities. As a result, life expectancy there is cut by 4.7 years across the whole population.

“Though the threat of coronavirus is grave and deserves every bit of the attention it is receiving − perhaps more in some places − embracing the seriousness of air pollution with a similar vigour would allow billions of people around the world to lead longer and healthier lives,” says Professor Greenstone.

The science of air pollution, and the impact of poor air on the human body, is evolving rapidly, and some Asian scientists have expressed reservations about the accuracy of some of the calculations. However, none of them disputes the fact that millions are dying early because of the pollution.

The report concentrates on the effect of the smaller particulates that are known to do the most damage to lungs, and to enter the bloodstream, and it may in fact be underestimating the overall effects of poor air quality. − Climate News Network

* * * * * *

Nivedita Khandekar is an independent journalist based in New Delhi, covering development and the environment: nivedita_him@rediffmail.com and on twitter at @nivedita_Him

Lessons of Covid-19: Taking stock for next time

The lessons of Covid-19 are stark: tragedy, horror and loss for millions. They are eloquent on the climate crisis ahead.

LONDON, 29 September, 2020 − The lessons of Covid-19 are still sinking in. The pandemic isn’t over yet: far from it. No-one knows even whether it’s here to stay.

It erupted at a time when chronic inequality and the climate emergency both demand action. But there are already specific life-saving lessons we can learn, says the UK-based Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA).

This highly abridged summary by the Climate News Network singles out a few highlights from the Alliance’s three published briefings on Covid’s lessons, with possible policy responses to help the benefits to last beyond the crisis.

Looking after each other better

This briefing shows some of the ways people around the world are looking after others in the pandemic, often with meagre resources and how they might do in the future .

Governments have – to varying degrees – paid the wages of millions of working people and provided help in kind. Togo introduced a mobile telephone-based cash transfer scheme for workers earning around 30% of the minimum wage. Others have tackled street homelessness and temporarily suspended evictions for those unable to pay rent.

Across Europe health workers have been heartened by regular sessions of public applause, thanks and support during the peak of the crisis. Delivery drivers and front-line care workers are finding their social status far above that of hedge-fund managers.

Working hours and practices have been radically adapted. Communities have acted together where necessary: Belarussians bypassed their president by implementing a people’s quarantine. Britons supported health workers by making protective masks and scrubs, providing hot meals and tutoring children. In Germany refugees joined in mask-making.

Spanish workers volunteered to clean care homes before elderly residents returned. In the US the World Central Kitchen has supplied up to six million meals to nurses, the sick and the homeless.

For the future, there is evidence from many countries of growing support for the idea of a Universal Basic Income and for encouraging (and enabling) more people to volunteer to help others, perhaps by paying them.

More space for people and nature

Responses to Covid show we can quickly make more urban space for people and nature. This briefing looks at how we do that, an increasingly important question as people learn more about the global plunge in plant and animal numbers, and about how habitat loss drives the spread of viruses between animals and humans, with ecological decline creating prime conditions for pandemics as human activities push climate breakdown and usurp the last wild spaces on Earth.

Covid-19 has driven a growing realisation that a simpler life can offer unexpected gains. A lot of travel proved unnecessary. Guaranteeing cleaner air and more room for nature demands big but possible changes, including greener public transport and streets designed for people, not just cars.

Older and simpler solutions are helping, like cycling in the UK, for example, Germany and (with new technology) further afield. A flexi-time approach has seen staggered starting times for schools and offices introduced in parts of Israel and the Netherlands. It’s often possible to avoid travelling by making contact online − when you can get the hardware installed. Frustrated villagers in Wales couldn’t, so they installed their own broadband instead.

There’s abundant evidence of the sheer good that green surroundings can do to people, ailing or not. They can improve air quality and even offset the heat island effect. And strengthening our relationship with nature can provide other severely practical benefits  − as the Cubans discovered several decades ago.

The Rapid Transition Alliance offers several suggestions for trying to ensure that we go on cherishing nature long after Covid-19 has been tamed:

Living with less stuff

This briefing examines how we’re adapting to live less wastefully and more thoughtfully. We’re learning to eat better, to waste less when we buy, and to enjoy making more with what we have already. (There have been and still are many people struggling financially and using foodbanks to keep themselves going. This briefing focuses specifically on those not in this situation.)

One implicit theme is that what we want and what we need may often differ. So mending, sewing and doing-it-yourself are regaining popularity, and some people are working their way out of debt: UK households were able to pay back more than £7 billion (US$8.9 bn) of consumer credit in the first month of lockdown.

Food matters − a lot. Many people are thinking more about their environmental footprint: more than a quarter of consumers in the US, UK, France, Germany and Canada say they now pay more attention to what they consume and what impact it has on the world.

In some of these countries, shops and brands have been running a campaign encouraging people to “only buy what you need” and “shop responsibly”. Organisers called it “an urgent entreaty to consumers to behave responsibly and think about others”.

Education matters too, however hard it may be to keep schools open. The World Bank has worked with numerous countries to form an accessible database of learning innovations across different nations that can be shared and used by online educators. The Times of India has looked at the opportunities to teach young people life skills and reading for fun – not just formal education.

And in a crisis, laughter can help. Russia is setting the world an example.

Locking in Covid’s lessons is essential, for this generation and for the future. The pandemic has often slowed consumption, making people more cautious and more aware of their purchasing power. But what now?

Buying only what we need, mending things when they break and re-purposing them when we no longer want them are life changes for the long term. The RTA has suggestions for how we could turn from being passive consumers to active producers. These are some of them:

The RTA’s briefings are a reminder of the daily torrent of practical goodwill that binds and sustains societies worldwide. The pandemic has intensified that determination to help people in need and to make vital systemic changes. The climate emergency is going to demand far more.

The Alliance thinks humankind can rise to the occasion: “There is now an opportunity to consider what we want from the future − the real price of things shown on labels, less choice but more quality, better lives for those who make and sell stuff to us, and an assumption that waste is unnecessary and will no longer be tolerated. These policy shifts might help to keep this element going as the world returns to health.” − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

The lessons of Covid-19 are stark: tragedy, horror and loss for millions. They are eloquent on the climate crisis ahead.

LONDON, 29 September, 2020 − The lessons of Covid-19 are still sinking in. The pandemic isn’t over yet: far from it. No-one knows even whether it’s here to stay.

It erupted at a time when chronic inequality and the climate emergency both demand action. But there are already specific life-saving lessons we can learn, says the UK-based Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA).

This highly abridged summary by the Climate News Network singles out a few highlights from the Alliance’s three published briefings on Covid’s lessons, with possible policy responses to help the benefits to last beyond the crisis.

Looking after each other better

This briefing shows some of the ways people around the world are looking after others in the pandemic, often with meagre resources and how they might do in the future .

Governments have – to varying degrees – paid the wages of millions of working people and provided help in kind. Togo introduced a mobile telephone-based cash transfer scheme for workers earning around 30% of the minimum wage. Others have tackled street homelessness and temporarily suspended evictions for those unable to pay rent.

Across Europe health workers have been heartened by regular sessions of public applause, thanks and support during the peak of the crisis. Delivery drivers and front-line care workers are finding their social status far above that of hedge-fund managers.

Working hours and practices have been radically adapted. Communities have acted together where necessary: Belarussians bypassed their president by implementing a people’s quarantine. Britons supported health workers by making protective masks and scrubs, providing hot meals and tutoring children. In Germany refugees joined in mask-making.

Spanish workers volunteered to clean care homes before elderly residents returned. In the US the World Central Kitchen has supplied up to six million meals to nurses, the sick and the homeless.

For the future, there is evidence from many countries of growing support for the idea of a Universal Basic Income and for encouraging (and enabling) more people to volunteer to help others, perhaps by paying them.

More space for people and nature

Responses to Covid show we can quickly make more urban space for people and nature. This briefing looks at how we do that, an increasingly important question as people learn more about the global plunge in plant and animal numbers, and about how habitat loss drives the spread of viruses between animals and humans, with ecological decline creating prime conditions for pandemics as human activities push climate breakdown and usurp the last wild spaces on Earth.

Covid-19 has driven a growing realisation that a simpler life can offer unexpected gains. A lot of travel proved unnecessary. Guaranteeing cleaner air and more room for nature demands big but possible changes, including greener public transport and streets designed for people, not just cars.

Older and simpler solutions are helping, like cycling in the UK, for example, Germany and (with new technology) further afield. A flexi-time approach has seen staggered starting times for schools and offices introduced in parts of Israel and the Netherlands. It’s often possible to avoid travelling by making contact online − when you can get the hardware installed. Frustrated villagers in Wales couldn’t, so they installed their own broadband instead.

There’s abundant evidence of the sheer good that green surroundings can do to people, ailing or not. They can improve air quality and even offset the heat island effect. And strengthening our relationship with nature can provide other severely practical benefits  − as the Cubans discovered several decades ago.

The Rapid Transition Alliance offers several suggestions for trying to ensure that we go on cherishing nature long after Covid-19 has been tamed:

Living with less stuff

This briefing examines how we’re adapting to live less wastefully and more thoughtfully. We’re learning to eat better, to waste less when we buy, and to enjoy making more with what we have already. (There have been and still are many people struggling financially and using foodbanks to keep themselves going. This briefing focuses specifically on those not in this situation.)

One implicit theme is that what we want and what we need may often differ. So mending, sewing and doing-it-yourself are regaining popularity, and some people are working their way out of debt: UK households were able to pay back more than £7 billion (US$8.9 bn) of consumer credit in the first month of lockdown.

Food matters − a lot. Many people are thinking more about their environmental footprint: more than a quarter of consumers in the US, UK, France, Germany and Canada say they now pay more attention to what they consume and what impact it has on the world.

In some of these countries, shops and brands have been running a campaign encouraging people to “only buy what you need” and “shop responsibly”. Organisers called it “an urgent entreaty to consumers to behave responsibly and think about others”.

Education matters too, however hard it may be to keep schools open. The World Bank has worked with numerous countries to form an accessible database of learning innovations across different nations that can be shared and used by online educators. The Times of India has looked at the opportunities to teach young people life skills and reading for fun – not just formal education.

And in a crisis, laughter can help. Russia is setting the world an example.

Locking in Covid’s lessons is essential, for this generation and for the future. The pandemic has often slowed consumption, making people more cautious and more aware of their purchasing power. But what now?

Buying only what we need, mending things when they break and re-purposing them when we no longer want them are life changes for the long term. The RTA has suggestions for how we could turn from being passive consumers to active producers. These are some of them:

The RTA’s briefings are a reminder of the daily torrent of practical goodwill that binds and sustains societies worldwide. The pandemic has intensified that determination to help people in need and to make vital systemic changes. The climate emergency is going to demand far more.

The Alliance thinks humankind can rise to the occasion: “There is now an opportunity to consider what we want from the future − the real price of things shown on labels, less choice but more quality, better lives for those who make and sell stuff to us, and an assumption that waste is unnecessary and will no longer be tolerated. These policy shifts might help to keep this element going as the world returns to health.” − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

Lethal price of climate inertia far exceeds action

Climate change will impose a lethal price if we do not all pay the far smaller cost of confronting it.

LONDON, 10 September, 2020 – In the hotter world of climate change, it won’t just be the glaciers that melt: national and regional economies, big business, government and even the multinationals will all pay a lethal price.

If the planet becomes 4°C warmer by 2100, then many regions could see a 10% fall in economic output. They’d be the lucky ones. In the tropics, the economic losses could be double that.

There are of course ways to limit losses and save lives. US researchers believe that if a quarter of all motorists in the US switched to electric vehicles, the nation could save $17bn a year in the costs of climate change and air pollution. If three fourths of drivers switched to cars fuelled by renewable electricity, savings could tip $70bn.

Both studies are specimens of the kind of economic reasoning – always arguable and often intensely-argued – that necessarily must make “what-if” calculations about the notional costs to society of carbon dioxide emissions and the notional value of human lives blighted by heat-related illnesses and air pollution a lifetime from now.

But both are just the latest in a long line of calculations that demonstrate, repeatedly, that the costs to the next generation of doing nothing about climate change far outweigh the costs now of shifting from fossil fuels to clean sources of energy.

“Rising temperatures make us less productive, which is relevant in particular for outdoor work in the construction industry or agriculture”

The latest exploration of the price of doing nothing is published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management.

German scientists report that they looked, in detail, at the possible consequences of a 4°C warning, not on national economies but on 1500 states, provinces, departments and other political subdivisions within 77 nations around the globe.

Their finding – that more intense global heating could cost all of them 10% of their output and those in the warmer regions more than 20% – is, they say, conservative.

That is because their calculations do not take into account the potential catastrophic damage from extreme weather events and sea level rise – both of which could be substantial.

“Climate damages hit our businesses and our jobs, not just polar bears and coral reefs,” said Leonie Wenz, of the Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Tangible value

“Rising temperatures make us less productive, which is relevant in particular for outdoor work in the construction industry or agriculture. They affect our harvests and they mean extra stress, and thus costs for our infrastructure.”

But, according to a study in the journal GeoHealth, even the purchase of a new car could soften the impact: providing the car is electric and the power for its batteries is delivered by wind or solar energy.

If electric vehicles replaced 25% of all cars on US roads, the country could save $17bn a year in the notional costs of climate change and health damage – asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and premature death – from choking exhausts. Triple that, and the savings would reach $70bn.

“The social cost of carbon and value of statistical life are much studied and much debated metrics,” said Daniel Horton, of Northwestern University in Illinois, one of the authors.

“But they are used regularly to make policy decisions. It helps to put a tangible value on the consequences of emitting largely intangible gases into the public sphere that is our shared atmosphere.” – Climate News Network

Climate change will impose a lethal price if we do not all pay the far smaller cost of confronting it.

LONDON, 10 September, 2020 – In the hotter world of climate change, it won’t just be the glaciers that melt: national and regional economies, big business, government and even the multinationals will all pay a lethal price.

If the planet becomes 4°C warmer by 2100, then many regions could see a 10% fall in economic output. They’d be the lucky ones. In the tropics, the economic losses could be double that.

There are of course ways to limit losses and save lives. US researchers believe that if a quarter of all motorists in the US switched to electric vehicles, the nation could save $17bn a year in the costs of climate change and air pollution. If three fourths of drivers switched to cars fuelled by renewable electricity, savings could tip $70bn.

Both studies are specimens of the kind of economic reasoning – always arguable and often intensely-argued – that necessarily must make “what-if” calculations about the notional costs to society of carbon dioxide emissions and the notional value of human lives blighted by heat-related illnesses and air pollution a lifetime from now.

But both are just the latest in a long line of calculations that demonstrate, repeatedly, that the costs to the next generation of doing nothing about climate change far outweigh the costs now of shifting from fossil fuels to clean sources of energy.

“Rising temperatures make us less productive, which is relevant in particular for outdoor work in the construction industry or agriculture”

The latest exploration of the price of doing nothing is published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management.

German scientists report that they looked, in detail, at the possible consequences of a 4°C warning, not on national economies but on 1500 states, provinces, departments and other political subdivisions within 77 nations around the globe.

Their finding – that more intense global heating could cost all of them 10% of their output and those in the warmer regions more than 20% – is, they say, conservative.

That is because their calculations do not take into account the potential catastrophic damage from extreme weather events and sea level rise – both of which could be substantial.

“Climate damages hit our businesses and our jobs, not just polar bears and coral reefs,” said Leonie Wenz, of the Postdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Tangible value

“Rising temperatures make us less productive, which is relevant in particular for outdoor work in the construction industry or agriculture. They affect our harvests and they mean extra stress, and thus costs for our infrastructure.”

But, according to a study in the journal GeoHealth, even the purchase of a new car could soften the impact: providing the car is electric and the power for its batteries is delivered by wind or solar energy.

If electric vehicles replaced 25% of all cars on US roads, the country could save $17bn a year in the notional costs of climate change and health damage – asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis and premature death – from choking exhausts. Triple that, and the savings would reach $70bn.

“The social cost of carbon and value of statistical life are much studied and much debated metrics,” said Daniel Horton, of Northwestern University in Illinois, one of the authors.

“But they are used regularly to make policy decisions. It helps to put a tangible value on the consequences of emitting largely intangible gases into the public sphere that is our shared atmosphere.” – Climate News Network

Cool your home, save money, chill the atmosphere

Feeling too hot? Then turn the thermostat down and cool your home − a good start to cooling the planet.

LONDON, 8 September, 2020 − Rescuing battered economies in the wake of the coronavirus onslaught often demands building anew, but it doesn’t have to mean altogether different ways of life, transformed industries and modern buildings: just cool your home for a start, because new ways to heat our houses could save money, improve health − and help the planet by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Housing, at least in temperate northern countries, could provide much better living conditions while doing much less environmental damage. A new approach in the Netherlands, known in Dutch as Energiesprong, is one answer.

It can cut the fossil fuel used for heating (or cooling) a house, offering occupants affordable, comfortable lives and helping to solve an urgent problem. And it can do it all in days, a fraction of the time energy retrofits usually need.

The Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA) is a UK-based group which argues that humankind must undertake “widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles … to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5°C” (the more stringent limit set by the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change). It thinks the built environment looks set for a long-overdue makeover.

Energiesprong involves some basic rethinking, about how much comfort we need. In 1970 the Danish scientist Povl Ole Fanger published his research on how warm people like to feel. His work still influences the designed-in temperature of modern buildings and their energy use.

“A reduction from 20°C to 18°C across the British housing stock would save the equivalent of 33 TWh of electricity − about two thirds of Portugal’s domestic consumption”

So, despite all of us having different metabolisms and body shapes and sizes, we usually work seated in a space heated or cooled to 21-22℃. Engineers and architects also factor in assumptions about what the supposedly typical occupant will be wearing: a man’s business suit  (trousers, a jacket and a long-sleeved shirt).

Fanger’s equation therefore locks in assumptions that apply only to a male, suited minority, ignoring more than half of humanity: women, people who don’t wear suits, those with different metabolisms. It also locks in a level of the carbon emissions which stoke the climate emergency.

A 2012 study commissioned by the UK government looked at potential energy savings from small behaviour changes. It concluded that lowering central heating temperatures worked best.

A reduction from 20°C to 18°C across the British housing stock would save the equivalent of 33 TWh of electricity − about two thirds of Portugal’s domestic electricity consumption in 2019 of 48 TWh.

Day-to-day energy use currently accounts for about 28% of global emissions annually. A massive increase in the rate of existing building energy efficiency is needed to meet the emissions reduction targets set by the Paris Agreement. But building renovations currently affect only 0.5-1% of the existing UK building stock each year.

Slow progress

Governments are variously funding schemes to insulate inefficient old buildings and to remove polluting systems such as gas boilers in favour of renewables. All these efforts are chasing the target of “net zero” carbon emissions and beyond to “negative” emissions, resulting in an overall reduction.

For most older houses especially, this can prove costly, disruptive and time-consuming; without government assistance or incentives, few people are willing or able to undertake the challenge. Even in countries claiming to be climate leaders, like the UK, progress has been slow.

Energiesprong offers integrated refurbishment, regulatory change and financing. Its retrofits leave net zero energy buildings, generating all the energy they need for heating, hot water and electrical appliances by using new technologies such as prefabricated facades, insulated rooftops with solar panels, smart heating, and ventilation and cooling installations. A complete home makeover can be finished in less than 10 days, and some have been done in as little as a single day.

It’s an approach that could become much more widespread, and experts say it needs to be. It has to be set against the predicted doubling in global building space by 2060, when two thirds of the expected global population of 10 billion people will live in cities.

That will need the equivalent of an entire New York City to be added to the global built environment every month for the next 40 years. The energy used simply to construct buildings before they are used constitutes an additional 11% of global emissions today.

Killer homes

The budget for an Energiesprong renovation or new build is reckoned as future energy cost savings plus the cost of planned maintenance and repairs over the next 30 years. To meet the goals of the Paris Agreement,  the built environment’s energy intensity − how much energy a building uses − will have to improve by 30% by 2030.

Globally, the energy intensity of the building sector is improving by about 1.5% annually, but this is more than offset by the number of new buildings. Global floor area is growing by about 2.3% annually, and carbon emissions related to buildings are expected to double by 2050 on present trends.

Making houses less energy-hungry also improves social justice. Most of the UK’s housing – and particularly rental properties and those in poorer areas – are leaky and cold, and often damp. Many people simply can’t afford to heat them, which can put a decision to cool your home in a different perspective.

A 2018 briefing paper by researchers from two UK groups, E3G and National Energy Action, said the UK had the sixth highest long-term rate of excess winter mortality out of 30 European countries, with 9,700 deaths attributable that winter to the avoidable circumstances of living in a cold home. Another estimate puts the 2018 figure at 17,000.

As well as the Netherlands, there are Energiesprong initiatives in the UK, France, Germany and Italy. In the US, groups inspired by Energiesprong are working on local solutions in New York state and California. − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

Feeling too hot? Then turn the thermostat down and cool your home − a good start to cooling the planet.

LONDON, 8 September, 2020 − Rescuing battered economies in the wake of the coronavirus onslaught often demands building anew, but it doesn’t have to mean altogether different ways of life, transformed industries and modern buildings: just cool your home for a start, because new ways to heat our houses could save money, improve health − and help the planet by cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Housing, at least in temperate northern countries, could provide much better living conditions while doing much less environmental damage. A new approach in the Netherlands, known in Dutch as Energiesprong, is one answer.

It can cut the fossil fuel used for heating (or cooling) a house, offering occupants affordable, comfortable lives and helping to solve an urgent problem. And it can do it all in days, a fraction of the time energy retrofits usually need.

The Rapid Transition Alliance (RTA) is a UK-based group which argues that humankind must undertake “widespread behaviour change to sustainable lifestyles … to live within planetary ecological boundaries and to limit global warming to below 1.5°C” (the more stringent limit set by the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change). It thinks the built environment looks set for a long-overdue makeover.

Energiesprong involves some basic rethinking, about how much comfort we need. In 1970 the Danish scientist Povl Ole Fanger published his research on how warm people like to feel. His work still influences the designed-in temperature of modern buildings and their energy use.

“A reduction from 20°C to 18°C across the British housing stock would save the equivalent of 33 TWh of electricity − about two thirds of Portugal’s domestic consumption”

So, despite all of us having different metabolisms and body shapes and sizes, we usually work seated in a space heated or cooled to 21-22℃. Engineers and architects also factor in assumptions about what the supposedly typical occupant will be wearing: a man’s business suit  (trousers, a jacket and a long-sleeved shirt).

Fanger’s equation therefore locks in assumptions that apply only to a male, suited minority, ignoring more than half of humanity: women, people who don’t wear suits, those with different metabolisms. It also locks in a level of the carbon emissions which stoke the climate emergency.

A 2012 study commissioned by the UK government looked at potential energy savings from small behaviour changes. It concluded that lowering central heating temperatures worked best.

A reduction from 20°C to 18°C across the British housing stock would save the equivalent of 33 TWh of electricity − about two thirds of Portugal’s domestic electricity consumption in 2019 of 48 TWh.

Day-to-day energy use currently accounts for about 28% of global emissions annually. A massive increase in the rate of existing building energy efficiency is needed to meet the emissions reduction targets set by the Paris Agreement. But building renovations currently affect only 0.5-1% of the existing UK building stock each year.

Slow progress

Governments are variously funding schemes to insulate inefficient old buildings and to remove polluting systems such as gas boilers in favour of renewables. All these efforts are chasing the target of “net zero” carbon emissions and beyond to “negative” emissions, resulting in an overall reduction.

For most older houses especially, this can prove costly, disruptive and time-consuming; without government assistance or incentives, few people are willing or able to undertake the challenge. Even in countries claiming to be climate leaders, like the UK, progress has been slow.

Energiesprong offers integrated refurbishment, regulatory change and financing. Its retrofits leave net zero energy buildings, generating all the energy they need for heating, hot water and electrical appliances by using new technologies such as prefabricated facades, insulated rooftops with solar panels, smart heating, and ventilation and cooling installations. A complete home makeover can be finished in less than 10 days, and some have been done in as little as a single day.

It’s an approach that could become much more widespread, and experts say it needs to be. It has to be set against the predicted doubling in global building space by 2060, when two thirds of the expected global population of 10 billion people will live in cities.

That will need the equivalent of an entire New York City to be added to the global built environment every month for the next 40 years. The energy used simply to construct buildings before they are used constitutes an additional 11% of global emissions today.

Killer homes

The budget for an Energiesprong renovation or new build is reckoned as future energy cost savings plus the cost of planned maintenance and repairs over the next 30 years. To meet the goals of the Paris Agreement,  the built environment’s energy intensity − how much energy a building uses − will have to improve by 30% by 2030.

Globally, the energy intensity of the building sector is improving by about 1.5% annually, but this is more than offset by the number of new buildings. Global floor area is growing by about 2.3% annually, and carbon emissions related to buildings are expected to double by 2050 on present trends.

Making houses less energy-hungry also improves social justice. Most of the UK’s housing – and particularly rental properties and those in poorer areas – are leaky and cold, and often damp. Many people simply can’t afford to heat them, which can put a decision to cool your home in a different perspective.

A 2018 briefing paper by researchers from two UK groups, E3G and National Energy Action, said the UK had the sixth highest long-term rate of excess winter mortality out of 30 European countries, with 9,700 deaths attributable that winter to the avoidable circumstances of living in a cold home. Another estimate puts the 2018 figure at 17,000.

As well as the Netherlands, there are Energiesprong initiatives in the UK, France, Germany and Italy. In the US, groups inspired by Energiesprong are working on local solutions in New York state and California. − Climate News Network

* * * * * * *

The Rapid Transition Alliance is coordinated by the New Weather Institute, the STEPS Centre at the Institute of  Development Studies, and the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. The Climate News Network is partnering with and supported by the Rapid Transition Alliance, and will be reporting regularly on its work. If you would like to see more stories of evidence-based hope for rapid transition, please sign up here.

Do you know a story of rapid transition? If so, we’d like to hear from you. Please send us a brief outline on info@climatenewsnetwork.net. Thank you.

UK’s plutonium stockpile is an embarrassing risk

Plutonium used to be called the world’s most valuable substance. It’s now recognised as a highly dangerous liability.

LONDON, 3 September, 2020 – After 70 years of producing plutonium in reprocessing works the United Kingdom, now with 140 tonnes of it, the largest stockpile in the world, finds it has no use for the metal – and needs to spend £4.5 billion (US$6bn) just to keep it safe.

Having already spent at least that much since the 1950s employing thousands of workers at the Sellafield plant in north-west England to refine the plutonium, the British government has now been told this was a useless endeavour, producing fissile material which, as a security risk, is a burden for future generations.

To cope with the problem the government has now authorised the building of new plants to refine, repackage and store the plutonium for another 140 years, in the hope that some time in the future someone will find a use for it.

Plutonium was once described as the most valuable substance in the world – because with seven kilograms a nation could make a devastating nuclear bomb and become a superpower.

Non-stop production

The UK began making plutonium in the 1950s so that it could keep up with the US and Russia in obtaining such a bomb, and since then it has not stopped, although it has earmarked its current stockpile for peaceful purposes.

The plan, once there was enough military plutonium to use for bombs, was to make plutonium-based fuels for electricity production, but the technology has proved too expensive to be viable.

So the plutonium is now a liability, costing more than £300 million a ton to make safe and store. It will be permanently guarded by a special armed police force for the next 140 years to prevent terrorists getting access to it – the additional cost of this 24-hour surveillance being kept secret because it is “a matter of national security.”

Some of the plutonium has been stored for so long that it already needs what is called “emergency repackaging” to keep it safe. Some of it decays into a more radioactive substance, americium-241, which remains a danger for another 300 years.

Sudden revelation

To avoid immediate danger to workers this plutonium will have to be re-packaged again to meet the standard required for it to enter a new store, so far unbuilt.

Rachel Western, a Friends of the Earth researcher, who obtained a Ph.D studying decision-making in nuclear waste management, said: “It is shocking that after half a century of production of plutonium at Sellafield they have discovered how dangerous it is, so that we are suddenly faced with emergency action.”

One of the extraordinary aspects of this history is that successive governments, both Conservative and Labour, have been warned repeatedly by scientists, engineers and environment groups that the plutonium is a liability, not an asset. Despite that, in the 1990s (having already built up a vast stock of plutonium) ministers authorised the new reprocessing works to begin operations.

After a life of 20 years this reprocessing plant, known as Thorp (the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant), shut down in 2018, and another that has been working since the 1950s is due to close in 2021 – in the meantime still turning out more plutonium that has no end use.

“Continued, indefinite, long-term storage leaves a burden of security risks and proliferation sensitivities for future generations”

This reporter, who worked for The Guardian newspaper, was assigned to follow Britain’s plutonium story from the 1980s. After a long planning inquiry into the Thorp plant, which was to cost £1.8 billion, a debate broke out on whether the UK needed any more plutonium

The original plan for Thorp was to make money for the UK by reprocessing spent nuclear fuels at Sellafield from around the world to recover plutonium and uranium to re-use in reactors. Everyone outside the industry said that this would be uneconomic, and so it proved. But the government went ahead anyway.

The idea was to make a new fuel called MOX, mixed oxides of plutonium and uranium, to burn in reactors that would provide energy but effectively render the plutonium useless for making weapons.

In order to justify opening the second reprocessing works the government authorised the building of an additional MOX plant, but it never worked properly and was abandoned as a catastrophic financial failure. Despite this, Sellafield continued to separate plutonium.

Looking for alternative

Papers passed to the Climate News Network show what an expensive legacy this plutonium production line has proved to be.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the government body charged with dealing with the UK’s nuclear wastes, said in its 2019 document Progress on Plutonium: “Continued, indefinite, long-term storage leaves a burden of security risks and proliferation sensitivities for future generations to manage.”

It outlined a series of possibilities for using the plutonium, including the already failed alternative of making MOX fuel. In that and future documents these alternatives were discussed and found to be too expensive, unproven or simply impractical, because there were no reactors available to burn the plutonium.

As a result, repacking the dangerously unstable plutonium and then storing it for future generations to deal with is the chosen option until an alternative can be found. The most likely, according to the NDA document, seems to be mixing it with concrete or ceramics and burying it in a deep depository.

Cost increase

Costs are not discussed in that document. However, following a request by the UK’s Public Accounts Committee, an all-party body of members of parliament, the costs of dealing with the plutonium were disclosed by the NDA.

The evidence says in part: “The costs of the programme to manage the indefinite storage of UK-held plutonium are expected to increase between £0.5-£1 billion from the current estimate of £3.5 billion.”

These costs include the current “contingency repack capability” which is code for emergency treatment for old plutonium stores; the building of a new state of the art retreatment plant; and the construction of a giant new store to take all the plutonium. This it is hoped will be ready by 2027, with extensions to be added in 2033 and 2040.

Other documents, also seen by the Climate News Network, explain that one of the problems that Sellafield faces is that plutonium breaks down.

Completely unusable

Radioactive substances decay into what are called daughter products, also highly dangerous, that have different properties and in this case dilute the purity of the plutonium. This is why nuclear warheads constantly have to be remade with pure plutonium.

At Sellafield some of this refined plutonium has been left in store for so long that it is regarded as unusable in any form and will have to be disposed of. Other plutonium could be purified for use, if a use could be found.

The documents made clear that the plutonium in these old stores was too dangerous to leave until the new facilities could be built. The NDA’s 2020 annual report said: ”In the last 12 months Sellafield has started to recover some of the most degraded plutonium storage packages, therefore beginning to mitigate one of the more significant challenges associated with storing these materials.”

Sellafield has more than 1,000 empty buildings and nearly 10,000 employees looking after the nuclear waste created since the 1950s. – Climate News Network

Plutonium used to be called the world’s most valuable substance. It’s now recognised as a highly dangerous liability.

LONDON, 3 September, 2020 – After 70 years of producing plutonium in reprocessing works the United Kingdom, now with 140 tonnes of it, the largest stockpile in the world, finds it has no use for the metal – and needs to spend £4.5 billion (US$6bn) just to keep it safe.

Having already spent at least that much since the 1950s employing thousands of workers at the Sellafield plant in north-west England to refine the plutonium, the British government has now been told this was a useless endeavour, producing fissile material which, as a security risk, is a burden for future generations.

To cope with the problem the government has now authorised the building of new plants to refine, repackage and store the plutonium for another 140 years, in the hope that some time in the future someone will find a use for it.

Plutonium was once described as the most valuable substance in the world – because with seven kilograms a nation could make a devastating nuclear bomb and become a superpower.

Non-stop production

The UK began making plutonium in the 1950s so that it could keep up with the US and Russia in obtaining such a bomb, and since then it has not stopped, although it has earmarked its current stockpile for peaceful purposes.

The plan, once there was enough military plutonium to use for bombs, was to make plutonium-based fuels for electricity production, but the technology has proved too expensive to be viable.

So the plutonium is now a liability, costing more than £300 million a ton to make safe and store. It will be permanently guarded by a special armed police force for the next 140 years to prevent terrorists getting access to it – the additional cost of this 24-hour surveillance being kept secret because it is “a matter of national security.”

Some of the plutonium has been stored for so long that it already needs what is called “emergency repackaging” to keep it safe. Some of it decays into a more radioactive substance, americium-241, which remains a danger for another 300 years.

Sudden revelation

To avoid immediate danger to workers this plutonium will have to be re-packaged again to meet the standard required for it to enter a new store, so far unbuilt.

Rachel Western, a Friends of the Earth researcher, who obtained a Ph.D studying decision-making in nuclear waste management, said: “It is shocking that after half a century of production of plutonium at Sellafield they have discovered how dangerous it is, so that we are suddenly faced with emergency action.”

One of the extraordinary aspects of this history is that successive governments, both Conservative and Labour, have been warned repeatedly by scientists, engineers and environment groups that the plutonium is a liability, not an asset. Despite that, in the 1990s (having already built up a vast stock of plutonium) ministers authorised the new reprocessing works to begin operations.

After a life of 20 years this reprocessing plant, known as Thorp (the Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant), shut down in 2018, and another that has been working since the 1950s is due to close in 2021 – in the meantime still turning out more plutonium that has no end use.

“Continued, indefinite, long-term storage leaves a burden of security risks and proliferation sensitivities for future generations”

This reporter, who worked for The Guardian newspaper, was assigned to follow Britain’s plutonium story from the 1980s. After a long planning inquiry into the Thorp plant, which was to cost £1.8 billion, a debate broke out on whether the UK needed any more plutonium

The original plan for Thorp was to make money for the UK by reprocessing spent nuclear fuels at Sellafield from around the world to recover plutonium and uranium to re-use in reactors. Everyone outside the industry said that this would be uneconomic, and so it proved. But the government went ahead anyway.

The idea was to make a new fuel called MOX, mixed oxides of plutonium and uranium, to burn in reactors that would provide energy but effectively render the plutonium useless for making weapons.

In order to justify opening the second reprocessing works the government authorised the building of an additional MOX plant, but it never worked properly and was abandoned as a catastrophic financial failure. Despite this, Sellafield continued to separate plutonium.

Looking for alternative

Papers passed to the Climate News Network show what an expensive legacy this plutonium production line has proved to be.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the government body charged with dealing with the UK’s nuclear wastes, said in its 2019 document Progress on Plutonium: “Continued, indefinite, long-term storage leaves a burden of security risks and proliferation sensitivities for future generations to manage.”

It outlined a series of possibilities for using the plutonium, including the already failed alternative of making MOX fuel. In that and future documents these alternatives were discussed and found to be too expensive, unproven or simply impractical, because there were no reactors available to burn the plutonium.

As a result, repacking the dangerously unstable plutonium and then storing it for future generations to deal with is the chosen option until an alternative can be found. The most likely, according to the NDA document, seems to be mixing it with concrete or ceramics and burying it in a deep depository.

Cost increase

Costs are not discussed in that document. However, following a request by the UK’s Public Accounts Committee, an all-party body of members of parliament, the costs of dealing with the plutonium were disclosed by the NDA.

The evidence says in part: “The costs of the programme to manage the indefinite storage of UK-held plutonium are expected to increase between £0.5-£1 billion from the current estimate of £3.5 billion.”

These costs include the current “contingency repack capability” which is code for emergency treatment for old plutonium stores; the building of a new state of the art retreatment plant; and the construction of a giant new store to take all the plutonium. This it is hoped will be ready by 2027, with extensions to be added in 2033 and 2040.

Other documents, also seen by the Climate News Network, explain that one of the problems that Sellafield faces is that plutonium breaks down.

Completely unusable

Radioactive substances decay into what are called daughter products, also highly dangerous, that have different properties and in this case dilute the purity of the plutonium. This is why nuclear warheads constantly have to be remade with pure plutonium.

At Sellafield some of this refined plutonium has been left in store for so long that it is regarded as unusable in any form and will have to be disposed of. Other plutonium could be purified for use, if a use could be found.

The documents made clear that the plutonium in these old stores was too dangerous to leave until the new facilities could be built. The NDA’s 2020 annual report said: ”In the last 12 months Sellafield has started to recover some of the most degraded plutonium storage packages, therefore beginning to mitigate one of the more significant challenges associated with storing these materials.”

Sellafield has more than 1,000 empty buildings and nearly 10,000 employees looking after the nuclear waste created since the 1950s. – Climate News Network