Thursday, July 30, 2015

Green Arena for a Green Capital

Focus on the Bristol Arena and related issues, such as transport plans, has become much sharper as the pre-planning application consultation approaches (mid Sept 2015).  We need a Green Arena that fits with the aspirations Bristol has as EU Green Capital 2015 (please sign and share the e-petition on this here). To achieve a Green Arena the principles below should be applied:

There should be a pro-active, fully inclusive approach towards informing and genuinely involving the public, especially in the vicinity of the development, at all stages. This should include the overall development, plans, adapted plans, construction and ongoing feedback after construction and into the operation of the Arena and associated features.

A broad range of development performance measures should be adopted, social, economic and environmental, and these should be regularly assessed, published and subject to public scrutiny. Performance measures such as: the proportion of Arena and associated development users not travelling there by car; the quality of the air in and around the Arena site as indicated by on-site monitoring stations; the proportion of resources used that were obtained from local sources; number of local people employed and the fairness of their pay.

The development should maximise the availability of a diverse mix of facilities and services, integrated well and using local people, local businesses and resources.

The ability to walk and cycle to, from and around the Arena area and key routes to and from it should be the top priority and should be maximised. Use of integrated public transport systems to access the area should also be a high priority. Essential car users such as disable people and the emergency services also need a high priority. There should be minimum provision for cars, except for essential users, as more cars would add to an already congested and polluted city.

Green, open spaces should be integrated into the development in an optimised way and specially designed to benefit biodiversity, human health, efficiency and the reduction of noise, light and air pollution – as well as enhancing the overall quality of the experience of using the Arena area.

The Arena and all associated developments should conform to the highest possible social and environmental standards in all respects, using innovative low carbon and low waste designs and systems, energy saving and local renewable energy generation technologies.

A total, ecosystem style, joined up approach to managing people and resources should be adopted by the Arena and associated developments, based on a sustainability charter drawn up through cooperation with Bristol’s public as co-authors. There should be an annual report facilitating ongoing public input into site sustainability.

The Arena and associated developments should commit to being partners in enabling the provision, purchase and consumption of fresh, healthy, local foods on and around the site.

Further information on the Arena here:




Thursday, July 9, 2015

The business of going green in BS4

Bristol South needs sustainable development and has for years been neglected compared to other parts of Bristol. It was most welcome therefore to see investment projects such as Filwood Green Business Park open for business this May. What the city and country needs is very many more developments like this and even better ones - boosting local economies, creating jobs and going green. Sadly we still have a cuts focussed government, not an investment, rebuilding, sustainable development focussed one as yesterday's Budget clearly shows.

What is sustainable (or green) business though? And why is it so important? Business is about commercial organisations buying and selling. Sustainable (or green) business means the whole commercial organisation and everything it does is socially and ecologically responsible. This has been expanded on and explained in a number of ways (see here).

Descriptions offered are not always complete and objective due to vested interests however, so if you hear a business, or an individual for that matter, talking up their sustainability or green credentials test what they say. Check that they are including and explaining where they stand on these six criteria:  efficiency replacing waste; renewability and not resource squandering; living within environmental limits instead of pollution; socio-economic goals geared to wellbeing for all not more and more money for a few; this generation and those to come, the world over, getting their dues; and local community empowerment.

Truly sustainable (green) businesses should be able to demonstrate that they are: meeting local workforce needs; offering satisfying fairly paid work; using local goods and services; supporting learning and explaining sustainability; reducing inequalities and meeting basic needs; offering car free access for all; preventing poor health; reducing pollution and climate change; using energy, water and materials efficiently; protecting plants and wildlife; working healthily and safely; supporting local distinctiveness; partners in enabling peoples physical, psychological and social development; partners in involving people in decision making.


Filwood Green Business Park measures up well against a range of these criteria. Its design meets the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) Outstanding standard. It was Highly Commended at the BREEAM Awards last year, as the highest scoring industrial building in the South of England. The process used for planning the park was recognised by the Royal Town Planning Institute as an example of Planning Excellence in their 2013 Awards and ideas from local people, such as a green roof, were incorporated. Complete sustainability performance will emerge over time as the business park goes into operation.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Green space protection in Bristol

Green spaces are one of Bristol’s most valued features; one of the most obvious ways you can argue it is, in a relative sense, green. Bristol City Council Council should do all it can to maximise the protection of this finite asset, especially so given the city’s European Green Capital status. It should not permit the proposed development adjacent to Eastville Park Lake (pictured) on land that has multiple protective designations (details here; planning application 15/01870/F) if the designations are to mean something.

National planning policy has the stated aim of protecting the environment and promoting sustainable development. Building over the land pictured would damage the environment and is certainly not a sustainable development.

Many have experienced the disappearance of areas they and their friends and family once roamed around and played in. In an urban area open, green spaces are vital to sustainability and thus our health and the quality of our lives:

·         offering relief from the all too common congestion and other negative effects of development
·         providing ways of connecting with and appreciating the natural world – vital to wellbeing and to encouraging respect for nature
·         giving people a feeling of space
·         providing leisure, tourism, recreational, entertainment, sporting opportunities
·         helping to attact and keep businesses and help them to attract and retain the staff they need.

The above is not an exhaustive list.

Green spaces are vital to sustainability in that they provide key ecological and environmental function benefits:

·         storm water drainage and thus flood protection, as the land soaks up, temporarily stores and then gradually releases rain
·         taking carbon dioxide (and other pollutants) from the air and thus helping to fight climate change and local air pollution
·         provision of wildlife habitat and food supply, aiding biodiversity
·         buffering people from noise pollution
·         providing naturally cooler areas, thus countering the urban heat island effect

This is by no means an exhaustive list.

Land is of course needed if we are to build a sustainable society and so not all types of green space development under all circumstances should be opposed. The council should selectively support and advocate the development of land if it clearly contributes to building the quality of life and sustainability of our neighbourhoods, communities and society by, for example:

·         making use of brownfield sites (research by UWE shows room to build 30,000 houses on Bristol brownfield sites)
·         promoting walking and cycling over motorised travel
·         providing local energy generation,
·         enhancing local food production
·         enabling waste avoidance, reuse, recycling, composting
·         boosting local skills development and small-scale local green manufacturing

This list is also not an exhaustive one.


Please support this e-petition here about prioritising the development of brownfield sites and protecting green spaces.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

All progressive MEPs should oppose TTIP

Molly Scott Cato, Green MEP for the South West of England is doing excellent work opposing the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the proposed trade agreement currently being negotiated between the European Union and the United States. I wrote to Molly (and all the MEPs representing the South West) expressing concerns about the increase in corporate power and the difficulties TTIP would create for governments wanting to regulate markets for economic, social and environmental benefit. I voiced concerns in particular about the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS), a specially created legal mechanism allowing investors to bring cases directly against countries hosting investments, without the intervention of the government(s) of the investor’s country of origin. I received a very prompt and detailed reply from her. [Almost simultaneously had a reply from the Conservatives Ashley Fox MEP, who strongly supports TTIP, shortly followed by Conservative MEP Julie Girling – as yet no reply from Labour MEP Clare Moody or UKIP MEP Julia Reid.*] Here’s the content of the Green reply, which lays out the crucial issues and indicates a very clear position opposing TTIP:
 _______________
Greens agree that the investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism is a threat to democratic decision-making. Corporations should not have the right to challenge democratic decisions taken in the public interest, which serve to safeguard our health, environment, social and labour standards, and much more. Corporations should not benefit from a parallel and private legal system.

As the Parliament has developed its position on TTIP, the Greens have put forward amendments arguing against ISDS in every committee. We have rejected ISDS in the strictest language, as well as arguing that our high standards in labour rights, environment, food safety and animal welfare are not negotiable. Last Wednesday the INTA (trade) committee voted on the TTIP report, which sets out the Parliament's opinion on this trade deal. The trade committee was the final committee to have its say, before all MEPs vote on this report at the plenary session in June.

Unfortunately the Socialists & Democrats group in the Parliament (S&D, where Labour MEPs sit) compromised on their earlier opposition to ISDS. Whilst publically they claim to argue against ISDS, they finally accepted a far weaker 'compromise' amendment, joining forces with the conservative EPP Group, in a move which removed any criticism of ISDS from the report. It even removed any mention of ISDS by name.

We were also disappointed by S&D members' refusal to support our crucial amendments protecting EU-wide environmental standards, which were deemed "out of scope" of this report, and were therefore not even voted on. Disappointingly, they also failed to deliver cast-iron protections for public services, in failing to take a full and coherent "positive list" approach to service liberalisation. We need to ensure that MEPs clearly reject a "service liberalisation by default" approach.

The Green members of the trade committee were shocked by the absence of a clear defence of democratic decision-making in the final report, and, because it did not explicitly oppose ISDS or prioritise the public interest, we voted against it.

Soon we will face the same battle again when the report is voted on in plenary session on the 10th June. This vote expresses the final opinion of the Parliament on the TTIP negotiations. Again, we will table amendments fighting ISDS and upholding high standards for health, environment and society.

You can count on the Green Group to vote against ISDS and to defend public services. But if we are to have a chance for a majority, we need other progressive MEPs - including those in the S&D group - to do the same. So if you wish to take any further action, I would urge you to join us in encouraging other MEPs to support our stronger amendments, rather than joining the right-wing compromise. S&D can and should take a principled and explicit stance – do not give the Commission leeway to undermine democratic decision-making and negotiate away our strong European standards. W.e need all MEPs to vote according to wishes of citizens, not corporations.

We would ask you to please email your MEPs to remind them of your opposition to TTIP. In particular, please email your Labour MEPs*, stressing to them the risks TTIP poses for the NHS; that environmental standards are indeed relevant and should not be compromised; and that ISDS is undemocratic and should be named and shamed as such. You can find out who your MEPs are, and email them directly, using the WriteToThem website: https://www.writetothem.com/

[Done this but no reply received either from Labour or UKIP*]

Greens in the European Parliament will continue to fight against TTIP and its dangers. For more information, please see the TTIP:Beware What Lies Beneath blog.
__________________

These short films summarise the Greens concerns about TTIP:


Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Making city buildings energy efficient

What is energy efficiency and why is it important? What social, behavioural and technical ways of improving it in buildings are available?

Efficiency is one of the pillars of sustainability. It means cutting waste of energy and materials. It’s about being thrifty, getting more output squeezed from every input of energy, material, effort, money, time...It means doing the same or doing more, using less.

Why have energy efficient buildings? It’s always going to be more cost-effective to save energy and be efficient than it is to generate it. Not only does it cut household bills, make public organisations money go further and increase the profitability of businesses by reducing their outgoings - it also cuts pollution rapidly, is a very good job creator, increases comfort, cuts noise levels, and can be done using materials often thrown away.

Climate changing gas emissions have, on average and over decades, fallen in the UK (some of the direct emissions at least) but still have a very long way to go to be on target and in accord with the scientific advice and the UK Climate Change Act 2008 (requiring at least an 80% cut from 1990 levels by 2050). Department of Energy and Climate Change figures clearly show that the rate of decline in emissions is slow.

Buildings use a lot of energy and 37% of UK greenhouse gas emissions comes from them (see the Committee on Climate Change on this). A large chunk of city and town eco and carbon footprint comes from buildings. Energy used in buildings largely derives from fossil fuels, which are finite, non-renewable and climate change causing.

One way to define cities is that they are built environments with large numbers of people living and working in them. A higher population leads to more buildings, which means more energy use. Buildings old and new need attention.

So, what are the factors affecting building energy sustainability? Energy use and efficiency; energy type and source; and individual and group behaviour, including management practices, are the key ones.

Some energy efficiency methods that can be used are: insulation; efficient lighting eg LED; high efficiency glass; more reuse and recycling; water saving devices and systems.

Greener energy sources include: various on-site renewable energy sources eg photovoltaic panels; ground-source heat pumps; designed-in wind turbines; combined heat and power (CHP); combined cooling, heating and power systems (CCHP).

Energy efficiency and sustainability can be improved through behaviour change alone, though the most effective approach is to coherently combine efficiency methods, greener energy sources and behaviour change. Being aware and using energy efficiently; switching off when not in use; developing high efficiency habits, like having sufficient heat and wearing warm clothes; managing energy well and to an agreed policy are important.

See the great work being done in Bristol on energy efficiency, renewable energy and energy sustainability here and here.

Improving an organisation’s behaviour with respect to energy efficiency and sustainability requires accounting for external and internal forces.  External forces such as: technology; markets; social change; political factors; legal factors. Internal forces like: personnel changes; poor organisation; workforce composition; workforce motivations; need to avoid inflexibility and/or inertia.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Reflection on the election

The media became very excited very early on at the prospect of a general election and the parties began their campaigns many months before anything official. I doubt that the public relished the spin and very vague promises we get, especially from conventional political parties. The media often focussed on the [limited accuracy] polls and the [wrongly predicted]hung parliament much more than they did on political principles and policies and so didn’t serve the public well. Most political parties focussed a lot on what they thought the polls were showing too, instead of just getting on with real debate, so they did not serve the public well either.


 All elections are important, not least in 2015, with the prospect of yet more austerity, a changing relationship between the nations making up the UK and an uncertain relationship between the UK and EU all having huge implications. There are questions that need to be addressed about current electoral law and electoral processes. Is fair and broad debate facilitated? Does media coverage and access serve the public need and interest? Is the electoral system the most democratic? Have we got the law on party funding right?


The process of an election is important as well as the outcome and it should be treated as such. Yet the media persistently talk of elections as merely a kind of horse race – frequently talking about the betting odds. This does not help us have full, fair and proper debate.


The elections I’ve contested have become more dull and uninspiring over the decades, with the exception of certain candidates and areas of the country. It’s no wonder that a wide and representative range of people aren’t encouraged to get involved. Debates, present and future agendas and learning processes are very important – not everyone fights every general election seat to win this time around, some may not fight to win at all. Isn’t it about time we thought over longer timespans and in a broader, more inspiring way about elections?

The
narrowness of the debate in conventional politics is part of the problem. There is a large measure of agreement between the usual Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems. They are all consumer capitalists and all have plans to cut vital services!! Debate between them centred on tax and spending differences of only a small percentage of national wealth. All the conventional parties make claims to be radical, all claim to be committed to sustainable development – but none of them said much about this key idea and none of them have taken action to make any fundamental changes in the direction of a sustainable society. Yet issues of reconciling our economy and society with the environment, raised by Greens for decades now, are very much more serious and urgent.


Agreement between the conventional parties could be taken to mean that things are pretty much ok or are in hand – but just look around you!! There are many fundamental problems, for future generations and in other parts of the globe in particular. Thus Greens like me contest elections, win or lose, to: offer voters a radical option; demonstrate that to genuinely solve problems the interconnections and interrelationships between economic, social, political and environmental factors must be addressed; raise the really big issues like the gap between rich and poor here and globally, caring for the elderly, climate change and our energy-hungry lifestyles, global justice, democracy and the EU, how we can live our lives now so that future generations can also lead decent lives with real choices.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

If I were a Councillor...

I'm the Green Party candidate for Knowle ward in the May 2015 local elections. I was born, brought up and still live in Knowle and have campaigned as a Green locally for over thirty years [several yrs of it are recorded on this blog]. I've been a candidate many times in local and general elections, including in Knowle and Bristol South. 
I work as an Open University Tutor, teaching environmental decision making, environmental management and environmental science, having previously been a science teacher and industrial technologist.
I originated and coordinated Sustainable Knowle, the neighbourhood Transition group (http://sustainableknowle.blogspot.co.uk/), work closely with Bristol’s successful group of Green Councillors and have served on council committees [See About page for more].
I want Knowle and Bristol to be healthier, fairer, more lively and enjoyable places to live. This means fighting those things that are reducing your quality of life and cutting the options available for the future of your children, grandchildren and theirs, especially: inequality; unfairness; loss of community safety, security, power and influence; waste; resource squandering; pollution. I want decent living today that leaves a decent future for the generations to come and will work particularly hard for these dozen priorities.
  1. the retention and improvement of locally available housing, facilities, services and jobs and the availability and use of local resources
  2. far better, cheaper, more extensive public transport; much better cycling and pedestrian provision  
  3. inclusive, informed, genuine public participation in community life
  4. open, involving, accountable, ethical attitudes and policies
  5. broad-based measures of progress - social, economic and environmental
  6. the protection, enhancement and if possible increase in open, green, natural spaces; biodiversity enhancing developments
  7. adopting and achieving high land, air, water and environmental quality standards; safe, secure and stable neighbourhoods
  8. education for sustainable living in schools, colleges, universities and wider public life
  9. innovative low carbon and low waste systems and designs; local energy saving and the micro-generation of energy
  10. much better waste avoidance, reuse and recycling
  11. more local, fresh, healthy food availability; more home and allotment grown food
  12. organisations and people acting with social and environmental responsibility
I write regularly on a wide range of issues including: on the Bristol 24/7 online news site (http://www.bristol247.com/channel/news-comment/comment/glenn-vowles); on the Sustainable Cities Collective website (http://sustainablecitiescollective.com/posts/published/user/347976); here on my Sustainable Cities, Sustainable World blog; on Twitter (https://twitter.com/vowlesthegreen), on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/GlennRVowles and elsewhere.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

In praise of things public

Things that are public are available to everyone. If they are truly public that is. This makes it a positive, valuable, powerful, democratic idea. Take for instance: public health, education and social services; Bristol’s excellent public parks and open spaces; public meetings; and public rights of way.  

Some things we call public are not determined by what the public want though. Take public transport for example. Private companies own and determine rail and bus services, subject to regulation, with limited public involvement. The result is they are not run for people as a whole and are not done by and for the people. The same can be said for what we call public utilities like gas, electricity and water. Ownership and running of such things should be fully open, accountable and public.

The public interest (or common good) should be determined by broad, inclusive, direct and indirect public involvement not a minority of powerful, wealthy private interests.  Private interests can afford to by-pass public services, using private vehicles, private schools, private health care.

Things truly public are open, accountable to and shared by the people. Greater Bristol’s public transport system should be run by a strategic transport authority operating in the public interest. We forget the very large increase in public health that resulted from public provision of clean, safe drinking water and sewage removal and treatment. These services provided some protection from disease and sources of harm. We should apply the same strategic thinking to transport. Traffic congestion is a definite source of harm, with 29,000 deaths per year caused by air pollution, including hundreds in Bristol. Only smoking causes more premature deaths.


Public enquiries into developments like new roads or power stations need to be genuine, real exercises in public participation. Elected representatives such as Councillors, MPs, Mayors, Police and Crime Commissioners should be subject to public opinion between elections (recall), with a by-election triggered if enough people in an area sign a petition. It’s the public that should decide what - and who - the public really wants. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Creating jobs through resource conservation: the circular economy

Half a million jobs would be created by transforming our economy from a take, make and throwaway one to a genuinely green one which optimises efficiency, renewability and working with environmental respect. This is the conclusion of a recent report by the Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP)  and the GreenAllianceBristol’s green ambitions are thus good economically and socially as well as environmentally – but radical change is best. The more ambitious the plans the more jobs are created.

The report found that whilst significant further recycling and remanufacturing would generate more jobs it’s even better to make substantial progress with these and add in major development of the re-use and bio-refining sectors as well as shifting from product manufacturing to product-service systems. Politicians and other decision makers would need to be much more active and ambitious and set the frameworks needed for this, including setting higher standards for product and resource recovery. They need to fight for instance at EU level for mass job creation through resource conservation.  

The key green idea is to create a circular economy based on making, reusing and remaking: fewer resources are taken from the environment; management is sensitive and centres on renewable resources; production is efficient, clean and for long life; product and system use is efficient, with high emphasis on repairing and maintaining; products and resources are re-used (or recycled or used as an energy source if re-use is not possible).

All these green ideas and more were key topics explored and discussed between 3-5 March at Resource 2015  the yearly congress and exhibition bringing  together 11,000 attendees: individuals, organisations and businesses large and small.

The circular economy concept and the Resource event itself should be more widely reported, especially in aspiring green cities like Bristol. Independent environmental consultancy ResourceFutures  is one of the sponsors and participants. Bristol University's  BruceHood , Professor of Developmental Psychology in Society, was a speaker this year, covering issues like: what makes us want to own things; what we think of second-hand items and sharing.   

In the circular  economy waste does not exist as resources recirculate. Diversity is designed and built into systems, processes and manufacturing - making communities and society more resilient. Energy is managed well, used efficiently and comes from renewable sources that don’t significantly pollute and won’t run out. The whole idea is based on systems thinking, seeing situations in total ie as a whole, accounting for interactions, interrelationships and interdependencies between parts.  The significance is that society would dynamically stable, secure and able to persist over time, leaving a decent world for future generations.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Managing our environment: 10 key concepts


Here are ten key environmental management concepts and what they mean from my perspective. I've chosen: Environment; Sustainability; Sustainable Development; Management; Environmental Management; Stakeholder; Complexity; Decision; System; Perspective.

  • Those affecting and those affected by a change.  = Stakeholders
  • The quality of a system that has many components, all interconnected with each other = Complexity
  • Development that meets the needs of the present without reducing the ability of future generations to meet theirs. = Sustainable development***
  • A way of experiencing the world; a point of view, one of many, all to be considered = Perspective
  • Set of things existing in relation to each other, defined by someone…natural and non-natural, observer dependent; not just our surroundings or the biophysical world but also humans and their social, economic and other systems. We are a part of it, are dependent on it...there are multidimensional interrelationships and feedbacks...human-centred definitions are flawed. We are always linked in and are not in control. = Environment
  • Control, organise and arrange for use of aspects an environment…with natural components, technologies, people…by an individual, organisation or community. = Management
  • The capacity to live without undermining the systems that support life = Sustainability***
  • The managing of human-environment relationships, involving controlling, organising and creating new circumstances for new policies and practices to occur. = Environmental Management
  • A whole, made up of interconnected parts organised to perform a function(s)…(perspective dependent). = System
  • Conscious choice to take or not to take; a particular action or set of actions. = Decision

***Variety in the definitions of sustainability: examples

Acting in recognition of the fact that social and economic systems have to work within and are dependent upon our environment (systems).

Transition from a consumer to a conserver society (transformative).

Reconciliation of production and reproduction (feminist, via journalist/writer Bea Campbell).

Achieving a set of economic (and social) goals not centred primarily on economic growth, with growth meeting conditions and being selective (economic).

Coherently and consistently combining: efficiency; renewability; living within environmental limits; strong local communities; fairness, local and global; health, wellbeing and quality of life; fairness, now and on into the future (my own, more operational definition).

The capacity to live without undermining the systems that support life (ecological).

Development that meets the needs of the present without reducing the ability of future generations to meet theirs (Brundtland, UN Committee, sustainable development).

Friday, January 2, 2015

Sustainability assessment in four steps

What is a sustainable state or sustainable use? Here is how I'd go about assessing these in four steps:

  1. Is the current system state (country, city, business, neighbourhood, process or product...) well established through monitoring key factors such as: efficiency; renewability; living within biophysical limits; socio-economic goals geared to wellbeing, fairness and equality; empowerment of local communities? And is the data valid and reliable?
  2. Is any variation from a sustainable state efficiently and effectively detected, using indicator alert zones as appropriate?
  3. Once unacceptable variation is found, are systems for assessing root causes and enacting corrective action in place?
  4. Are there records that previous variations have been picked up and effectively corrected? Go to 1. 

The process overall should be subject to a well accepted process of inspection, verification and certification, preferably independent, on a regular, appropriately frequent basis. All organisations involved should run themselves sustainably. 

Easily said, far from easily done!!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

All growth is good???

Economic growth has been the most important socio-economic performance measure for over 70 yrs. All political colours except the Greens have increasing growth as their aim and leaders at the recent G20 summit made pledges centred on it. Yet this statistic takes no account whatsoever of the costs of achieving growth and counts anything that causes a flow of money as a positive whether its good for society or not. What's not included in growth figures reveals this measure as a very poor indication indeed of general prosperity and progress. 

Economic growth is most commonly defined as the rate at which GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is increasing. GDP is the total value of the output of goods and services of a country, calculated either by adding up the value of all goods and services produced, or the expenditure on goods and services at the time of sale, or producers incomes from the sale of goods and services (see Office for National Statistics guide). GDP captures and communicates trends through quantification and serves as the main way of getting feedback on what is happening in the economy and society. It is central to economic policy and decision making. It serves to frame public policy and market behaviour. In short its a pointer and so its vital that it points in the right direction - but it doesn't. The graph (top left) of world GDP growth (green line) compared with the Genuine Progress Indicator (purple line) shows that things are progressing throughout the time period according to GDP but since the mid to late 1970s genuine progress has been static. Here are the details.   

GDP takes no account at all of the depletion of resources. When the economy grows, resources which are in finite supply like land are consumed and renewable resources are often used at a rate faster than they are naturally replenished. As a result irreplaceable parts of the capital stock are used up and are unavailable to help meet needs and give people reasonable economic opportunities on into the future. Its a fundamental matter of fairness that we should not run down, waste or squander resources but our main economic indicator tells us nothing about these costs - in fact it in effect assumes that this running down is a good thing because it causes a money flow, growing the economy. Related to this is the fact that GDP takes no account of resource reuse through second-hand transactions, such as selling a used car, or intermediate transactions such as materials that may be sold and resold several times.

GDP does not reflect the distribution of growth. It therefore does not reflect inequality. Who is benefitting from the proceeds of growth and how much is a key issue of fairness. If politicians, civil servants, the media and so on thought of reducing inequality as one part of economic progress then perhaps policies and priorities would be different. Countries that are less unequal suffer far fewer health and social problems (see here).


GDP figures don't show any difference between production that is clean and green and that which is polluting. The environmental costs of growth are thus not accounted for. Yet environmental quality is a very important public health and wellbeing issue. Its an ecological issue too because polluting industries undermine ecosystem capabilities to provide essentials such as clean water, fertile soil, relatively stable climatic conditions, and biodiversity. Related to this is the fact the GDP takes no account of changes in quality through technological improvements or the sustaining of output whilst creating more leisure time.

GDP does not measure any unpaid family, community or social activities. If you tend your garden, clean your house, walk your dog, cook food for your family, grow allotment vegetables or paint your house these are productive positives, many of which underpin the productive capacity of the economy in the GDP sense. Yet they would be included if you paid someone to do them for you. Transactions through barter, if you exchanged your allotment spuds for your neighbour electrican skills for instance, are not counted. Non-profit services like the police and army are valued according to salaries paid and equipment used, yet their value in a market place would be very different. Service is undervalued in GDP.

Adjustments are sometimes made to what is included in GDP. For instance the UK's statisticians this year began including estimates of the value of sex-work and illegal drug dealing (see here). However, they did not of course subtract these negatives from the value of GDP, they added them - because unlike what we usually think of as accounts the accounting process to produce GDP only adds! The £10 billion that was added for sex-work and illegal drug dealing  is approximately the value of Bristol's GDP - and later there was a political row when on the basis of the recalculated figures the EU asked the UK to increase its contribution to the budget (see here). No wonder that my dissertation on this topic in 1998/9 was subtitled 'Is it wiser to subtract as well as add when doing national accounts?' Give me alternatives to GDP, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) anyday.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Breath of fresh air?

Air is polluted when substances, energy or effects with the potential to harm are released into what you breathe. Air pollutants cause you harm such as loss of health, comfort, stability and amenity - and may poison you due to their toxicity. They can harm species growth and damage food chains/webs in ecosystems. In the UK 29,000 a year people die prematurely because of air pollution, according to Government statistics, including hundreds of people in Bristol.

Examples of common air pollutants include: carbon dioxide; carbon monoxide; nitrogen oxide; nitrogen dioxide; ground level ozone; a range of hydrocarbons; sulphur dioxide; and particulate matter (see image above) from the microscopic through to easily visible dust.  

These air pollutants originate from sources, follow certain routes, pathways, and spend extended periods in locations, sinks.  Consider: carbon dioxide from Bristol homes, shops, factories and traffic building up in the atmosphere and causing climate change; radioactive substances in nuclear waste flasks from Hinkley Nuclear Power Station accumulating in Bridgewater soils; sooty particulate matter (PM10s) from vehicle exhausts penetrating deep into all our lungs. We now know more about which pollutants are where and why but still dont gather enough data and make it freely, frequently and easily available.

Rain and winds will move pollutants around and affect concentrations – and substances sometimes settle out of the air onto buildings, into soil, onto food. The mobility of a substance causing harm, or having the potential to do so, affects where it will be, when and how long it might be present. Strong sunlight can cause new pollutants to form from the cocktail pollutant mixture. 

Every day too many vehicles are trying to use local roads: each weekday, half a million vehicles cross into and out of Bristol’s city centre. Bristol’s resulting traffic congestion generates serious, health damaging air pollution: in Old Market the annual mean concentration of nitrogen dioxide recorded was 63µgm3, compared to the EU limit of 40µgm3; and in St Pauls ground level ozone concentrations were 124µgm3 compared with the EU limit of  80µgm3. Traffic emissions contribute significantly to an ecological footprint 2.9 times Bristol's land area.

With respect to the pathways pollutants take we need to consider: problems of sourcing (point sources; diffuse sources); distance from source; change in pollutants during their journey; interactions between pollutants; modes of travel; modes of action and effect; and changes in environmental conditions. We need to ask questions such as: what is the pollutant like; how much is present; how long will it stay present; where will it go; where can it go; how harmful can it be? 

Pollutant persistence is an important factor as substance stability determines the time it takes to break down and so reduce in harm. Pesticides you may use in the garden to kill weeds or in the home to control bugs and certain industrial wastes tend to be persistent and so hang around to cause ongoing problems. Heavy metals may be ingested and once in our bodies they bind to enzymes producing toxic effects. 

Time to breakdown and mechanism of pollutant breakdown are important. Pollutants will naturally degrade but may change or break down in ways that cause harm in itself.

Toxic pollutants are those that interfere with physiological or neurological processes causing loss of health or even death. Toxins may influence enzyme function, reacting with them, stopping normal action. Pollutants may combine with cell constituents, as carbon monoxide does with haemoglobin thus affecting oxygen transport in the body. Secondary actions such as an asthma attack or heart beat irregularity may be caused.

With respect to toxicity, factors to consider are: pollutant concentration; length of exposure; frequency of exposure; age of person; activity (level of exertion); health of the exposed person, population, system; whether inhaled, ingested, or absorbed through the skin. Children are particularly vulnerable as they get a bigger dose per unit of body mass and are still developing key organs such as lungs. Those already suffering ill-health eg from asthma, bronchitis, heart problems or obesity and so on are at particular risk. Air pollution can cause coughing, chest pains and lung irritation in everyone.

Some air pollutants are carcinogens. These cause uncontrolled cell division (cancer). Examples include some pesticides, asbestos, some hydrocarbons such as are present on particulate pollution (see image at start). There is no carcinogenic air pollution level at which there is no effect. This is because cancer development results from an accumulation of irreversible cell damage. This contrasts with toxic substances, where damaging doses can be clearly established. Some carcinogens are also mutagens (chemicals or radiation that alters chromosomes) or teratogens (substances that can cause birth defects). The problem is the time lag between contact and effects.

The combined effect or two or more air pollutants is often greater than the sum of the separate effects (synergism). Smoke with sulphur dioxide and particulate matter with hydrocarbons (see image at start), are examples where the pairing causes much more harm than each individual substance. Carcinogenic hydrocarbons on microscopic particulates are delivered to the exact place they can do most harm, deep in human lungs.

Bristol allowed the building of the M32, which penetrates right into the city, between 1965 and 1975, adding to air pollution. Conventional transport planning is still very much in evidence here, with planning permission granted for the South Bristol Link (Road) and before that Cabot Circus shopping centre with its large, centrally located car park. Little wonder that air pollution problems are still very much with us. We need to tackle many different aspects: need/demand for all transport to begin with; shifting from high impact means of transport to lower impact; reducing the impact severity of high impact means of travel; harmonising planning policies and practices with sustainable transport so that one doesn't contradict the other; establishing a truly strategic, integrated Greater Bristol approach; bringing back the public service ethos of public transport; making the price of methods of travel fairly reflect their actual total costs....All this - and more - needs good democratic leadership, time, and serious money.