Valuing The Precious Commodity of Water

FOR a long time we have enjoyed the luxury of a plentiful supply of water. So much so we have taken its availability for granted.

FOR a long time we have enjoyed the luxury of a plentiful supply of water. So much so we have taken its availability for granted.

How many of us are guilty of leaving the tap on while brushing our teeth, over filling the kettle or spending too much time in the shower?

Each person in the UK uses an estimated 150 litres of water a day which is equivalent to 264 pints of milk.

By the time water reaches our tap it has already been cleaned, treated and pumped from reservoirs, rivers and aquifers with much of it being leaked from pipes.

It is only in times of drought such as that experienced in parts of the UK are we forced to rethink how we value and use water.

Water is a crucial element for human existence as clearly demonstrated by the devastating effects of the severe drought in East Africa.

Safe water is necessary to avoid death from dehydration, reduce the risk of water-related disease and provide for domestic use.

It is estimated that each person needs about 20 litres of water each day to drink, cook and wash.

Everyone has a right to sufficient, safe, acceptable and affordable water. Unfortunately, these days fresh clean water is becoming a precious commodity.

A European Environment Agency report on water resources across Europe shows that southern Europe continues to experience the greatest water scarcity problems. However, water stress is growing in parts of northern Europe.

Drought is a feature of the UK’s variable climate, with dry spells possible at any time of the year. According to the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), this year England suffered its driest spring in a century, leaving fields parched and many rivers at a record low.

This is in contrast to Scotland that had one of the wettest springs on record and areas of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, parts of Bedfordshire, Northamptonshire, and western Norfolk which are in drought.

The dry weather affected navigation on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal with restrictions on boat movements. While recent rain and unsettled weather has helped the environment, farmers and water companies and eased canal navigation, this does not mean the drought or risk of drought is over. Damage to crops caused by the dry spring is now likely to be irreversible.

More dry weather will place further pressure on water resources. The Environment Agency believes this could result in drought conditions spreading into central England and further east.

This would impact livestock farmers, affecting the cost and availability of animal feed and bedding for next winter. while at the same time restricting arable farmers from spray irrigating their crops.

Public water supply can cope easily with a few months of dry weather, but prolonged droughts require careful management. The Yorkshire region experienced it worst drought in March 1995. Reservoirs in the upland Pennines hills were at capacity following a very wet period.

However, by the August, reservoirs in some areas were below 20 per cent capacity. This resulted in a severe water problem in the region and required emergency drinking water being tankered in from Kielder reservoir in Northumberland to West Yorkshire to help resolve the situation.

By 2020, the national demand for water in the UK could rise by as much as five per cent due to an increase in population and housing. This would mean finding an extra 800 million litres of water each day.

In particular, hot water used in the home is responsible for approximately 35 million tonnes of greenhouse gases a year due to reheating and water treatment processes.

Our abuse of water is due to the fact that majority of us do not have to pay for the amount we use. We do not provide electric sockets allowing people to use as much electricity as they want then why should we do it with water?

If we are to meet the UK national target to reduce our water use by 20 litres a day by 2020 then we will all have to become more “water wise”. Water metering is considered the fairest way to pay for water.

It also provides an incentive to use less water which is beneficial for the environment. A water meter is estimated to reduce household water consumption by about 10 per cent. However, this could result in the poorest households facing higher bills

We currently face the prospect of further water stress due to the combined effects of climate change, water intensive lifestyles and pressures of land use changes.

If we are to continue and enjoy high standards of water, we need to reduce demand, minimise the amount of water that we are extracting and increase the efficiency of its use.

This requires everyone doing their bit including water companies, farmers and consumers in addressing how we use and value water.

© Gary Haq 2011

Is Speed Reduction a Solution to the Oil Crisis?

The Middle East crisis forces up prices at the pumps, Spain has lowered its national speed limit to achieve a 15 per cent saving in fuel use. This has been seen as an exceptional measure for an exceptional situation. But will it work, and should Britain do the same?

AS the Middle East crisis forces up prices at the pumps, Spain has lowered its national speed limit to achieve a 15 per cent saving in fuel use.

This has been seen as an exceptional measure for an exceptional situation. But will it work, and should other countries do the same?

The Spanish government has reduced the speed limit on main roads from 75mph (120 km/h) to 68mph (110 km/h) in an attempt to reduce fuel use. This has been in response to the unrest in Libya and concern that it will spread elsewhere in the Arab world. Spain is dependent on imported oil, with about 13 per cent coming from Libya.

The reduction in the speed limit is part of a wider package of measures to reduce energy use. As people spend more money on foreign fuel, they have less to spend on buying products made in Spain which could slow the recovery of the Spanish economy.

However, critics see lowering the speed limit as a desperate measure and are sceptical it will achieve the savings the Spanish government claims.

US President Richard Nixon took similar action in 1973 in response to the oil crisis then. He introduced a speed limit of 55mph (90 km/h) in 1974 in a bid to reduce fuel consumption by 2.2 per cent.

The measure only achieved a fuel saving of about 0.5 per cent but had the additional benefit of reducing road deaths. In contrast, France tested the strict enforcement of speed limits on main motorways in 2004 and achieved a 19 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.

In the UK, petrol now costs on average about £6 a gallon. However, rather than reducing the speed limit, the Conservative-led coalition has actually talked about increasing it. Recently, the UK Transport Secretary Philip Hammond was reported to have suggested increasing motorway speeds to 80mph in an attempt to shorten journey times and help the economy.

This is despite the UK Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport Safety claiming that raising the speed limit to 80mph would increase motorway casualties by between five and 10 per cent.

Lowering the speed limit will be a challenge, as many petrolheads will perceive it as an infringement of their human rights and another attack in the “war on the motorist”. According to a 2008 UK Department for Transport study on speed, drivers can be divided into three groups: speed limit compliant, moderate or excessive speeders. Excessive speeders tend to be young, male, risky drivers who are often involved in accidents.

The UK study also found that a substantial number of drivers report that they regularly break speed limits of 30, 60 and 70 mph.

At speeds of 50mph and above, drivers tend to over-estimate the time gained by going faster and the time lost by going slower. In order to encourage people to drive at lower speeds, this “speed-time fallacy” will need to be addressed.

Reducing speed is seen as a quick hit as it relatively easy to implement. It requires little legislative and capital investment and can achieve rapid savings in fuel consumption as well as cutting carbon dioxide emissions.

A lower speed limit will, of course, increase travel time, which will further depend on road conditions, weather, traffic congestion and roadworks. Despite this, limiting the speed at which we drive offers a number of social and environmental benefits.

The exact fuel and carbon dioxide savings of reducing the speed limit are influenced by vehicle weight, engine and fuel type, driving style and traffic flow conditions. Increasingly, optional extras such as air conditioning have increased the average fuel use of a car.

According to the UK Energy Research Centre, introducing and enforcing a 60mph speed limit could reduce carbon dioxide emission on average by about two million tonnes each year.

In addition, becoming a “smarter driver” and being conscious of how to drive efficiently has the additional benefits of reducing annual fuel bills, wear and tear on the vehicle and can result in safer and less stressful journeys.

By 2030, global oil production is expected to decline as demand increases. The exact timing of the tipping point when oil availability begins to decline, and the ensuing rate of that decline is debateable.

However, there is increasing recognition that the “peak oil” phenomenon is real. National and local governments have all already begun designing policies to cope with the lack of cheap oil – with Sweden committing to be oil free by 2020.

Reducing the speed limit will be the least of our problems as we will be forced to make more fundamental changes to our energy intensive lifestyles in order to adapt to a world of increasing energy insecurity.

© Gary Haq 2011

Whatever the Weather …

WITH snowfall, sub-zero temperatures, ice, fog and treacherous conditions on the roads bringing the UK and other European countries to a halt, its hard to believe that global warming is really happening.

Yet 2010 has seen global temperature rise to near record levels. According to the UK Met Office, provisional global temperature figures have put 2010 on track to become the first or second warmest on record. This is despite a declining El Niño, a climatic phenomenon that is characterised by unusually warm temperatures, being replaced La Niña that has had a strong cooling effect. Climate sceptics are quick to point to the recent big freeze as evidence to suggest that climate change is a load of baloney.

However, many people fail to make the distinction between climate – the average weather patterns over years – and weather, which is a series of short-term events that can change dramatically from one day to the next. The big freeze is a mere blip in the overall long-term trend that has seen global temperatures rise. So what has been the cause of the recent cold weather?

A study by the University of Reading (UK) has linked the unusual cold winters in northern Europe to periods of low sunspot activity and atmospheric conditions that “block” warm westerly winds. Changes in the fast moving winds in the upper atmosphere, known as jet streams, can have a major influence on weather. Jet streams normally bring mild, wet and westerly winds that cause the winter weather we have come to expect.

However, when the jet stream is blocked it forms an “s” shape over the northeastern Atlantic, causing the wind to fold back on itself. This pushes the jet stream further northwards allowing cold, dry easterly winds to flow over Europe which results in a sharp fall in temperature. The phenomenon of “blocking” only affects a limited geographical area and its impact is dependent on a number of conditions being met before it occurs. Allowing for climate change, European winters have been 0.5 degrees Celsius colder than average during years of low solar activity.

The winter of 2009 was England’s eighteenth coldest in 350 years even though the global temperatures were the fifth highest. It still unclear why changes in solar activity affects weather patterns, which indicates that we still have a lot to learn about the complex interactions and feedback loops that characterise the climate system. Throughout history we have feared and revered the weather and have tried to make sense of this natural phenomenon that has such a powerful influence on our way of life.

The weather has not only played a role in shaping our physical environment such as our landscape and coastline, it has fashioned our cultural identity. It influences how we feel, how we spend our leisure time, how we socialise, how we work and what we wear. We have become notorious throughout the world for our obsession with the weather. British weather is so variable and unpredictable throughout the year; it is not surprising that we talk so much about it.

Unlike climate change that remains a controversial issue, the weather is a safe topic of conversation which we happily discuss with total strangers and use to avoid sensitive or personal matters.

There was a time when we use to look to the skies and believed that the weather was determined by some higher being, a time when we tried to predict the weather by observing changes in the natural environment. Today we look down to the latest application on our mobile phone to get weather forecasts based on observations using instruments analysed with the aid of computers. Yet despite advances in science and technology that has allowed us to control nature, we still remain vulnerable to extreme weather events.

In early December 2010 190 nations met in Cancun, Mexico to discuss the international response to the challenge of climate change. The meeting was successful in producing an agreement which outlines a near global consensus to take urgent action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Acknowledging the rich world’s historical responsibility for climate change, the Cancun Agreement establishes mechanisms for transferring funds from rich countries to poor counties to spend on climate protection.

However, it does not provide legally binding emission targets and only urges rich nations to do more. While the Agreement has saved the negotiation process it has yet to save the climate. Nevertheless campaigners believe the foundation has now been set to provide a more comprehensive agreement at the next round of climate talks.

If we are to avoid any disruption of the climate system on which we are so naturally dependent, we need to take action sooner rather than later. The lessons from the last few weeks should have taught us that the weather is King and has the ability to bring the whole country to its knees in a matter of hours – we ignore its power at our peril.

© Gary Haq 2010

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Can The Tories Lead a Green Revolution?

WHEN David Cameron became leader of the UK Conservative Party, he vowed that the Tories would lead a new green revolution in Britain. In the 2006 local elections he urged voters to “Vote Blue, Go Green”.

As Britain approaches a General Election, the environment policy of all political parties will come under scrutiny. What will the Tories need to do in order to achieve their promise of a green revolution in Britain?

Climate change poses the greatest environmental threat to the country. Action will therefore be required to address our contribution to the problem as well as ensuring we are able to cope with the impact of extreme weather events and a rise in temperature.

It has been claimed that most Tory MPs are sceptical about the party’s focus on climate change policy and at least six shadow cabinet ministers are sceptical about the economic consequences of a low-carbon policy.

Not only will David Cameron need to convince his colleagues that climate change poses a real threat to our way of life, he will need to reduce our dependency on coal and increase in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

About 27 per cent of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions are the result of domestic energy use. Mr Cameron should follow the example of Kirklees Council’s award-winning Warm Zone scheme.

This home insulation scheme targeted at 170,000 homes has resulted in the average household saving £200 on fuel bills each year while reducing their carbon dioxide emissions by over one tonne. He should roll-out similar schemes across the region and provide cavity wall and loft insulation, energy efficient glazing, draught proofing, improved boilers and low energy light bulbs free to every home.

All new buildings should meet stringent energy performance standards. And we should move away from using energy and resource intensive materials such as steel and concrete to straw bale and timber. To see an example of sustainable construction in practice, Mr Cameron should take a look at York’s Eco-Depot – a timber framed building with straw bale cladding all sourced in regionally in Yorkshire.

There is great potential in the country to use renewable sources of energy. As the saying goes “Where there’s muck there’s brass” – Britain’s sewage could be used to produce biogas. Wind power could be harnessed by constructing Danish style offshore wind farms along the region’s coastline while water turbines in major rivers and streams could be used to provide hydropower.

These measures, together with the introduction of community-based low carbon technologies such as solar water heating, solar electricity, ground heat pumps, micro-wind turbines and combined heat and power, could allow regional “smart grids” to be developed and reduce the region’s dependency on energy from the National Grid.

Britain has already experienced its share of flooding due to torrential rain. This has resulted in serious disruption to roads, schools, offices and caravan parks and has caused great distress and millions of pounds in flood damage.

Mr Cameron should invest in flood and coastal defences to ensure all flood prone towns and villages are adequately protected. In addition, there should be a major tree-planting programme throughout the country to increase the uptake of rainfall and prevent future flooding.

The creation of new woodlands will also have the added benefit of providing fuel wood and wildlife habitats.

We also need to see a revolution in the way we grow our food. Greater incentives should be available to adopt sustainable agricultural practices such as permaculture – an ecologically harmonious efficient and productive approach that stresses the value of diverse crops.

Support should also be given to promote small-scale local food production, which not only increases food security, but also reduces food miles.

Mr Cameron should visit Todmorden’s Incredible Edible initiative to see how public attitudes to local food production have been revolutionised. The whole community – including businesses, schools and farmers – have been “growing their own”. Public flowerbeds have been transformed into community herb gardens and vegetable patches. The initiative has increased the amount of local food grown and eaten in the town.

Our urban environment desperately needs to be made safer, cleaner and more people friendly. Mr Cameron should promote car free cities, walking and cycling and convert car parks to green spaces.

In order to maintain local distinctiveness, he should limit the number of supermarkets and chain stores allowed to open on our high streets and promote local businesses instead. Reducing pollution, improving the character and feel of our local environment will result in happier and healthier residents.

A green revolution cannot take place without its foot troops. Mr Cameron should provide funding for a nation-wide “Green Home Front” to encourage residents, businesses, public bodies, community organisations and schools to work together to make their communities greener. Only by harnessing people power can we revolutionise the way we live and ensure a transition to a new greener age.

If Mr Cameron succeeds in becoming Prime Minister, he will need to deliver on his promise to put environmental policies at the heart of government. In doing so he should remember the words of his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, who said: “No generation has a freehold on this earth. All we have is a life tenancy – with a full repairing lease.”

© Gary Haq 2010
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The True Carbon Cost of Our Consumption

S world Leaders prepare to meet in Copenhagen this December to negotiate a new Climate Deal, it is time to acknowledge the true cost of our consumption.

shoppingAS world Leaders prepare to meet in Copenhagen this December to negotiate a new Climate Deal, it is time to acknowledge the true carbon cost of our consumption.

UK Government policy has maintained that we are only responsible for the carbon dioxide emissions in our national boundaries. However, this week the government’s new energy scientist, Professor David MacKay, has acknowledged that the reductions in UK carbon dioxide emissions since the 1990s are an illusion.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, the UK must reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to 12.5 per below 1990 levels by 2012. According to official government figures, since the 1990s UK emissions have fallen by about 15 per cent.

However, a study by the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York published in July 2009 calculated the true carbon dioxide emissions associated with UK consumption. Using an approach based on consumption rather than production the study found that UK emissions actually increased by 18 per cent (115 million tonnes) between 1992 and 2004.

Since the 1980s we have transferred our manufacturing base abroad and replaced it with an expanded service sector. We now consume a large amount of goods produced in China and India. We have therefore exported our pollution and the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the many goods and services we consume on a daily basis.

power-stationMany of us are shocked by the news that China is building two new coal power stations a week. Yet the polluting coal is being burned to provide energy for Chinese industries that manufacture goods such as electrical equipment and toys for the British market. We are therefore all partly responsible for the carbon cost of the goods we import and consume.

In the current negotiations for a new climate deal developing countries are demanding that developed countries acknowledge their contribution to global carbon emissions. With China calling for countires which consume their products to take the responsibility for the carbon emissions generated in the manufacture of the goods.

copIf a bigger, bolder, wider-ranging and more sophisticated treaty is to replace the Kyoto agreement to stop climate change, we need to own up to the fact that we are polluting much more than official statistics suggest.

When we have acknowledged the full impact of our high consuming lifestyles only then will we be able to do our fair share in cutting our carbon emissions and stoping runaway climate change.

© Gary Haq 2009

Our Climate, Our Choice

THE UK Low Carbon Transition Plan outlines a route map to a low carbon future. The Plan is the most systematic response to climate change and sets the standard in the run up to crucial climate talks in Copenhagen in December. Public support is crucial if the plan is to arrive at its ultimate destination.

blyth-offshore-wind-turbineTHE UK Low Carbon Transition Plan outlines a route map to a low carbon future. The Plan is the most systematic response to climate change and sets the standard in the run up to crucial climate talks in Copenhagen in December. Public support is crucial if the plan is to arrive at its ultimate destination.

The recently published UK climate change predictions show how Britain will be affected by climate change over the next century. The projections are broken down into 600 local areas, each just 25km across. The predictions suggest that by 2080s average temperatures will probably rise across the UK by 3-5C by the 2080s unless emissions are reduced significantly. South-east England will warm more than northern Scotland. Rainfall could reduce by 50% in summer and increase 30% in winter. Summer droughts and winter flooding will become more frequent. Untitled-1_575692a

The Government’s comprehensive low carbon transition plan sets out how the UK will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 34% by 2020 compared to 1990 levels. A 21% reduction has already been delivered – this equivalent to cutting emissions entirely from four cities the size of London. The transformation to a cleaner, greener and more prosperous place Britain will mean by 2020 there will be:


• More than 1.2 million people will be in green jobs

• 7 million homes will have benefited from whole house makeovers, and more than 1.5 million households will be supported to produce their own clean energy

• 40% of electricity will be from low carbon sources, from renewables, nuclear and clean coal

• The amount of gas that we import will be cut by half

• The average new car will emit 40% less carbon than now.

The transition plan will cut emissions from homes by 29% on 2008 levels by:

• Investing £3.2bn to help households become more energy efficient.

• Rolling out smart meters in every home by the end of 2020.

• Piloting “pay as you save” ways to help people make their whole house greener – the savings made on energy bills will be used to repay the up-front costs.

• Introducing clean energy cash-back schemes so that people and businesses will be paid if they use low-carbon sources to generate heat or electricity.

• Opening a competition for 15 towns, cities and villages to be at the forefront of pioneering green innovation.

The plan together with all existing and new climate change policies means that by 2020 household energy bill will increase by an average, of 8% – or £92 – to today’s household bills. The public are already sceptical of further increases in bills especially in the current economic recession. The challenge of climate change requires convincing the public to make sacrifices and changes to their way of life for the sake of future generations.

imagesMany opinion formers are already using their positions to influence public opinion. HRH Prince Charles delivering this year’s Richard Dimbleby Lecture, said there are now only “96 months left” to save the planet. Fashion designer Vivienne Westwood recently appeared on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross on the BBC encouraging people to create their own clothing and wear them until they fall off their bodies, rather than mindless conspicuous consumption which has left everyone looking alike.images-1 She talked about need for everyone to take action to tackle climate change.

Public attitudes to climate changes are already starting to change. This year’s British social attitudes survey showed that the public are ready to accept a steep rise in air fares to reduce the environmental damage caused by flying. However, there is still a considerable portion of the population who need to be convinced that the changes we make to our lifestyles now will be worthwhile in in the long term. Our future climate will be dependent on the choices we are willing to make today.

© Gary Haq 2009

Extreme Weather in Two Lands

Big Snow in LondonAS the UK struggles with the worst snow for six years across large parts of England, down under the Australians are having to deal with the worst heatwave in decades, with temperatures in excess of 43C (109F) in the south-eastern part of the country. Health officials in South Australia are blaming the high temperatures for an increase in the number of sudden deaths among the elderly. While in the north near Queensland authorities are monitoring a low pressure system that could develop into the state’s second cyclone within a week. More than 60 per cent of Queensland is covered by floodwaters and more devastation is expected. Already there are almost 3,000 properties in the north of Townsville surrounded by floodwaters caused by ex-tropical cyclone Ellie.

Australian heatwaveThe snowfall in England resulted in schools being closed, public transport closures and airport delays. The heatwave in Victoria is the worst since 1908. Wildfires in the west of the state made worse by dry conditions and sweeping winds destroyed 2,000 hectares (4,900 acres) of forest and grassland, forcing residents to flee their homes, emergency workers. The high temperatures resulted in a massive increase the use of air conditioners which have claimed to have caused a breakdown in Melbourne’s electricity grid – leaving half a million homes without power. The economic cost of the heatwave in Melbourne is estimated to be 100,000 Australian dollars.

In the UK the big snow is estimated to have cost the country £1bn in lost productivity due to approximately 20 per cent of the country’s workforce is believed to have taken Monday off due to the extreme weather. Many businesses in London and the south-east were forced to operate on a limited basis with transport services in chaos after up to eight inches of snow. Nearly half of businesses in London were operating at only 50 per cent capacity.

These recent extreme weather events clearly demonstrate our vulnerability to the impacts of a sudden change in climate. The social, economic and environmental impact of such extreme weather should be a warning to us all about what we can expect in the future as the planet warms up and the climate changes. We need to act now to prevent the possibility of run away climate change. We need to make the necessary investment to ensure the infrastructure, social and emergency services can adequately cope with extremes change in the weather.

© Gary Haq 2009