Edinburgh Trams – A Sustainable Transport Solution?

The new trams proposed for Edinburgh were supposed to reduce congestion in the city and provide a greener transport system in the city, but how green will they be, assuming that they do start running sometime?

A useful measure of a scheme’s environmental credentials are its embodied energy or embodied carbon: that is the amount of carbon emissions required in its construction.  This normally consists of the carbon cost of producing the materials, for example cement production for concrete is highly energy intensive, as is steel production.  This embodied energy can then be offset against carbon emissions saved to give a payback period – the period over which the scheme operates before becoming carbon neutral and after which there is a net carbon saving.  For example, the carbon cost of constructing a wind farm can be repaid in around six months of operation.

In the case of Edinburgh’s trams, the embodied carbon would include not only the carbon from the materials and construction processes, but also the increase in carbon emissions arising from greater congestion in the city during the prolonged construction period.  And the longer it takes to complete the higher this total will become.  Once the tram is operational, this embodied carbon would be offset against reductions in emissions resulting from less congestion and more people using the trams rather than cars (again assuming they do and it is not only bus commuters who move to the tram, with a lower reduction in emissions).

It is difficult to enumerate all of these factors but my guess is that we would be looking at decades rather than years before the tram becomes carbon neutral, if ever.

With this in mind, and the fact that construction is currently stalled and is facing a funding shortfall, is there any point in continuing with the project?

Tavish Scott, the Transport Minister at the time of the Trams Bill going through parliament has ruled out further funding from the Scottish Government, the SNP have never fully supported the scheme, the conservatives won’t pay more and Labour (including Iain Gray, Transport Minister at the scheme’s inception) are keeping quiet.

It is not rational to pay out lots more money for something that isn’t fit for purpose, even though we have already spent vast sums, however the politicians won’t see it that way.

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Scottish Parliament 2011 – Sustainability in Planning

Sustainability must be at the heart of Land Use and Planning policies of the next Scottish Government, elected in three weeks time.  We continue to see the urban sprawl creep into the countryside, eating up good quality agricultural lands and encouraging car use, and erosion of the remaining green spaces in our towns and cities affecting biodiversity, air quality and wellbeing, yet none of the main political parties have mentioned sustainability in this context.

Further development on the greenbelt around our towns and cities should not be permitted until existing brown-field and derelict urban sites have been regenerated.  Systems and incentives are required to ensure that vacant sites are developed, or if not, that the local authority can step in and take the necessary action to develop them, for example to create more social housing.

An example of the current planning system failing to work includes a number of sites in Glasgow’s International Financial Services District which have lain derelict for years, with planning permission in place but no signs of development progressing.  On one site, a new luxury hotel is proposed, for which the developers managed to use compulsory purchase powers to force out local businesses, leaving a whole block empty and dilapidated, with resulting detrimental impacts on the surrounding area.  Several other sites are being used as car parks.  The existing system makes it too easy for developers to get planning permission but does not take action on developers who blight an area and do not follow through with the development. Existing local businesses have been harmed for no overall benefit.

In Aberdeen, it is the city’s green spaces that are under threat by developers – Union Terrace gardens will be built over against the wishes of the majority of locals.  This development will deprive the city centre of a much loved green space.  The benefits of such places in cities are often undervalued as they do not generate revenue directly.  There is a reason that the cities voted as the best cities to live in have ample green space.

My final example of where the planning system already benefits large international developers is Donald Trump’s golf development in Aberdeenshire, the highly publicised David and Goliath case where Donald Trump tried to use compulsory purchase powers under the planning system to force out locals because he didn’t like the look of their back yard. Once planning permission was granted for the development a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) was promptly bull dozed, but he is promising inward investment so we can turn a blind eye.

The types of development encouraged by existing planning policies are often not appropriate for the area, focussed as they are on encouraging large developments with inward investment rather than stimulating diverse mixed use community led developments and they take no consideration of their sustainability.

Proposals by the four largest parties (Scottish National Party, Scottish Labour Party, Scottish Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Conservatives) all focus on making the planning process quicker (not necessarily a bad thing) and most focus on making it easier for big business to get planning permission, coded in various terms such as “We will make economic development a material consideration” or “making the planning system more efficient and seeking to develop export opportunities”.  The latter indicating that if a foreign business wants to invest in Scotland, say to build a new Chunghwa Picture Tubes factory, that the planning system would ignore local concerns. Incidentally, Iain Gray was Enterprise Minister at the time of the Chunghwa fiasco.

In conclusion, sustainability must be at the heart of the planning system taking precedence over purely economic factors.  We should not be permitting developments purely to create jobs if they will lead to job losses elsewhere, they will be damaging to the environment, will encourage greater car use, divide communities or reduce quality of life.

Economy, Environment and Society must all be considered equally.

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The world has a disease… and it is spreading

This strange affliction has many causes but the main symptoms are an urge to publicly display emotions of dissatisfaction, malcontentedness, anger and frustration.

People in the following countries are affected by it:

Algeria – http://yhoo.it/dGIeGg

Australia – http://bbc.in/fBtTSw

Bahrain – http://bbc.in/hsGmNg

Belgium – http://bbc.in/fI7xWL

Britain – http://bbc.in/i3Ipbp

Egypt – http://bbc.in/icJ57H

Germany – http://yhoo.it/ekRByA

Isle of Man – http://bbc.in/dJG8Ek

Iran – http://bbc.in/hH32Iw

Japan – http://bbc.in/gNCtKw

Jordan – http://bbc.in/hjLU4m

Kosovo – http://bbc.in/glYQzd

Libya – http://bbc.in/fe2rXj

Morocco – http://bit.ly/ibBSfI

Nepal – http://bbc.in/fYOjeG

Oman – http://bbc.in/h0lhkj

Pakistan – http://bbc.in/eegwPD

Palestine – http://bbc.in/evQc4z

Saudi Arabia – http://bbc.in/i2oKZF

Swaziland – http://bbc.in/gW46YI

Syria – http://bbc.in/e0hCCL

Tunisia – http://bbc.in/fpIKNZ

USA – http://bbc.in/hXmo9f

Yemen – http://bbc.in/hLcGmG

Almost all of these protests have been within the past month, covering diverse gripes ranging from demands for fundamental human rights to burial provision, to taxi fares.

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A People’s Sustainability Commission?

With the winding up of the Sustainable Development Commission, who will advise and critique Government on sustainable development?  One proposal mooted at last week’s Big Sustainability Summit was a people’s sustainability commission.  That got me wondering what its role could be and who it would involve.

The Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), in its current guise, is the Government’s independent adviser on sustainable development, reporting to the Prime Minister, the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. Through advocacy, advice and appraisal, it aims to put sustainable development at the heart of Government policy.

Its role is to:

  • providing informed, evidence-based advice to government on finding solutions to problems which help it to meet its commitment to sustainable development;
  • developing the attitudes, skills and knowledge in government to make the best decisions for today and the future;
  • holding government to account on progress towards sustainability.

This role is restricted to UK Government departments and agencies and excludes scrutiny of the wider public sector. Their work is divided into ten policy areas: climate change, consumption, economics, education, energy, engagement, health, housing, regional & local government and transport. It does not cover environmental pollution, which is the responsibility of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution – also being wound up.

Currently, commissioners decide on which projects will be undertaken in each policy area and the SDC draws upon a panel of around 600 individually selected experts to formulate opinions and recommendations on various issues.

I see the formation of a people’s sustainability commission as an opportunity to redefine this role, expanding it to encompass the wider public sector and public sector supply chain.  Government is BIG. Around six million of us, which is one in five workers, work for the government at some level, whether for local government, the NHS or any one of a myriad of departments, agencies and quangos. That does not include the private sector suppliers, subcontractors, consultants and service providers that work for Government.  Making this portion of the economy more sustainable, using energy and resources more efficiently and reducing waste and harmful effects of development and activities will make a significant difference to the UK as a whole and will help change attitudes and drive change in the private sector.

It should also involve many more people over a broad spectrum of society and cover a much wider range of topics.  Individuals using public sector services, and those on the frontline delivering them, can often see waste and inefficient practices much more clearly than senior management or sector experts and they should be encouraged to volunteer their ideas.  The challenge with such an all-encompassing approach is to highlight the best ideas and filter out those which wouldn’t work or are the result of vested interests.  It is relatively easy for someone with a bit of technical knowledge and determination to disseminate their particular agenda through the internet and social media while it is even easier for someone else’s amazing idea being lost to practical obscurity.  Loose, informal networks of local, departmental or sectorial groupings could facilitate such a filtering mechanism with a monthly or quarterly digest being circulate more widely to promote the best of the best and to generate a best practice knowledge base.

Of course, care must be exercised to avoid social exclusion and the digital divide spilling over into a sustainability divide, with many people without access to the internet already facing fuel poverty and multiple deprivations, all of which must be addressed if our society is to become more sustainable.

One of the main challenges that I foresee is funding.  Individuals will volunteer time and ideas for their communities and their interests, and experts may give some time, but without funding for full time co-ordinators there will be difficulty in fulfilling many of the activities of the SDC, such as undertaking projects to investigate particular issues and measuring the performance of Government.  Without this high level output it will be a toothless tiger. Which is what, after all, is wanted by the greenest government ever.

I look forward to watching how this idea develops and hope to contribute to the debate.

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Rhine River Turbines

Near the German town of St. Goar on the river Rhine, KSB Aktiengesellschaft, has put two river turbines into operation. These convert the energy of the river water into electric power and feed that into the power supply system. To do this, there is no need for any water to be impounded or diverted.

Obviously they do not generate as much electricity as a traditional hydro power scheme with a head of water driving a Frances turbine but the environmental impact is much reduced.  KSB haven’t indicated the power output from their turbines but I wouldn’t expect them to be any more than a couple of hundred watts, possibly enough to power a small house or two, or perhaps some more if they are passivhauser.

As an isolated installation, they do not affect fish nor do they affect navigation on the river although the aggregate effect of several installations has not been fully assessed.  Depending on the layout of turbines, flows across the river or along the river may be affected especially during storm flows where the effect of the turbines could lead to flooding or scour of the river bed and an accumulation of poorly sited turbines could have an effect on the riparian ecosystem.  Such large numbers of turbines would be required to have a significant impact on reducing our dependence on fossil fuels.  KSB note that “In Germany alone, one could potentially generate hydropower in the range of 6.8 TWh per year – without cross-structures, i.e. without major changes to the natural landscape.” (compare with Germany’s total electricity consumption of half a million TWh per year) which would require around 4000 200W turbines.

Installation of a river turbine made by KSB in an arm of the river Rhine at St. Goar.

I don’t like to be dismissive of what is clearly a renewable energy source with limited environmental impact which can generate a constant base load of electricity, but unless our total electricity consumption drops dramatically, it will remain little more than a token gesture.  However, there may be an opportunity to develop this concept in developing countries, particularly in remote areas, where grid connections are unavailable and demand can be limited.

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Scottish Borders

Lost in the Wilderness

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Future of Fish

What are the key requirements of a Fishing Policy or fishery management strategy?

The strategy for managing any fishery must be SUSTAINABLE, meeting the our needs while leaving opportunity for future generations to meet their own needs.  But how can this be achieved?

No more fish should be removed from the sea than the sea can regenerate over the same period; this is the only way we can avoid depletion of stocks.  And the only practical method to control this is to limit the quantity of fish CAUGHT, not the quantity landed. This relates directly to the issue of discards.  The level of this limit, or quota , must be set using  a TRANSPARENT method based on sound SCIENTIFIC PRINCIPLES.  Those tasked with setting quota require a good understanding of the marine ecology, have access to the recent data of fish stocks so that rational judgements can be made on the levels of different fish species which can be taken from specific parts of the sea and, most importantly, be able to make objective decisions without political pressure – a bit like a Monetary Policy Committee but for fish.  The policy must also be readily enforceable with sufficient penalties that discourage quota busting without creating layers of bureaucracy.

It is important that the risks which fishermen take in doing their job – fishing has never been safer than now but it is still one of the most hazardous of occupations.  In conjunction with quotas, prices therefore need to be supported: according to economic theory this should happen through market forces.  A restriction on supply should increase the price of a given quantity of product.  In reality it is not as simple as this, as fish is competing with other types of foodstuffs, such as cheap factory farmed poultry. A combination of the value of perfectly good fish which are currently discarded and greater consumer awareness of other fish species may help to boost the revenue of fishermen.  The rewards much be sufficient that breeching quotas are not a necessity of breaking even.

Many coastal communities still rely on their fishing fleets.  In towns such as Peterhead the harbour, fish market and fish processing industries are a vital part of the local economy, supporting other related industries and the wider economy.  In some cases, such as Mallaig, the decline in fishing has been replaced in part with tourism but that can be a fickle fate.

In short, the policy must be sustainable over the triple bottom line: the environment, the economy and society.

Sounds simple but in practice there are no easy solutions. the North Sea is fished by a multitude of vessels from ports around Europe, fish move, some areas may do better than others.  There are no easy answers but an increased awareness of and discussion of the issues may prompt some better solutions.

In the meantime join the #fishfight or send a letter to Commissioner Damanaki.

AND FINALLY, if twitter can topple governments, surely it can stop us throwing out some perfectly good fish.  Please tweet this and get the message out there to the UK, Denmark, Norway, Germany, The Netherlands, France, Sweden, The Faroe Islands, Iceland and Belgium – all the countries which fish the North Sea.  This issue is bigger than national politics and point scoring.

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Whitelee Wind Farm

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The Lone Wolf Approach to Conservation

Sweden, Conservation

Sweden has been in the vanguard of countries seeking to preserve the natural environment. It was the first European country to establish a national park (Sarek National Park was established in 1909), thereby preserving part of Europe’s last wilderness. The first Nature Conservancy Act was adopted in 1909, and in 1969 a modern environmental protection act was passed. Since then tens of thousands of square miles have been set aside as national parks and nature reserves.


But things are changing.  Last year, the state authorised hunting of 27 wolves to limit the nationwide population to an estimated 200 individuals.  This year a further 20 can be hunted this year.  Previously, wolves had been almost eradicated in Sweden, with a single pack remaining in the 1980s (twenty years after many thought them extinct in the area). A lone Russian wolf was introduced to diversify the narrow gene pool brought about by inbreeding within a single family unit, an action which combined with conservation and protection measures has lead to a significant increase in wolf numbers.  By 2004 there were around fifty animals spread over six packs and a dozen pairs, with another twenty straddling the border with Norway.

The problem now is that the wolves are reportedly attacking farmer’s livestock and competing with hunters for deer.  In many ways this is similar to the situation in Scotland with birds of prey preying on grouse, or in the case of Golden Eagles, the odd lamb.  The difference is that in Sweden, despite the country’s reputation for progressive environmental policy or, perhaps, because of it, the government has taken the decision to limit wolf numbers.  The decision raises several questions such as whether 200 is the correct limit – does it limit genetic diversity too much, particularly given the limited gene pool? And how are the wolves selected for killing? Is it random or are the older animals selected? Or can some packs be trans-located to other, less populated, parts of the country?

The action of the Swedish government does beg the question: Could the Scottish Government make such a brave decision regarding management of raptor numbers? If not, could a different government in Holyrood?

Probably not.  Raptors, or Birds of Prey, aren’t burdened with the reputation of wolves. An eagle may have eaten Prometheus’s liver every day, but it was his well deserved punishment, and the story isn’t as prevalent and ingrained from such an early age as that of the wolf who huffed and puffed and blew the house down or of the one who ate Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother.  There isn’t a cultural hook on which to hang the blame.

Related Post: Conservation of the Natural Balance

SMALL PRINT: For the record, I don’t condone illegal killing of wildlife, nor am I suggesting legalising a wholesale slaughter of Golden Eagles, hen harriers and other birds of prey. Nothing more radical than trying to strike a balance between human activity and the environment.
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Fish Fight

Shocking, perverse, just downright wrong…

Sign up to the letter:

To Commissioner Damanaki, Members of the European Parliament and all member state governments,

I have seen images of dead and dying fish discarded in European waters.

I understand that the current Common Fisheries Policy leads to discarding on a vast scale; for example, half of all fish caught in the North Sea are being discarded because of the current quota system imposed by the CFP.

I want this senseless waste of food to end. I want you to use your influence to stop this unacceptable and shameful practice.

I am supporting the Fish Fight campaign to help bring about this vital change in our seas.


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