Category: Climate change

Connect | autumn winter 2017

09C2D023-946A-4E99-AC41-2533D34408C6The autumn winter 2017 issue of Connect – the magazine I work on as a freelance writer and editor for Greenpeace UK – was published in December.

Our cover feature – ‘The people versus oil’ – was about how Greenpeace is challenging the oil industry on all fronts, from the Amazon to the Arctic, and from boardrooms to court rooms.

The issue also featured an interview with Sir David Attenborough, an article about how offshore wind is powering ahead, and an update on a growing campaign to stop the flow of plastic pollution into our oceans.

Connect | summer 2017

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The summer 2017 issue of Connect – the magazine I work on as a freelance writer and editor for Greenpeace UK – was published in July.

Our cover feature – ‘Sailing for sea life’ – was about Beluga II’s expedition to some of Scotland’s most beautiful waters to collect first-hand evidence of how plastic pollution is threatening marine wildlife.

We want to show the world how amazing the UK’s sea life and coastal areas are, but also how vulnerable.

Blackout: living without electricity

IMG_1540This feature was first published by Wellcome Collection.

22:45, Saturday 5 December, 2015. Power cut. Blackout.

Storm Desmond was wreaking havoc across southern Scotland, northern England, Wales and Northern Ireland that weekend, and the national news was dominated by stories of terrible floods. But in Lancaster it was loss of power that was proving most challenging for local people.

Elizabeth Shove, a professor at the University of Lancaster, was out of town at the time. Observing from a distance, she decided to pack her car full of camping equipment and head into the city on Monday. Generators were being brought in, and power was promised to have been restored, but she took the gear, just in case.

As she drove into Lancaster that Monday evening she noticed the traffic lights weren’t working. Almost 48 hours after the city first plunged into darkness, the power was off again.

Elizabeth directs the Demand Centre, and her research is all about energy in everyday life. There’s nothing quite like a blackout for illustrating just how reliant on electricity we have become. “We just don’t know, and would never know, really, how far that dependence has gone,” says Elizabeth, “until the blackout, which is illuminating.”

And actually a power cut is much more than a blackout. Sure, the lights go out, but a lot of other things stop working too, as Elizabeth explains:

Phones didn’t work. Electronic door-locking systems defaulted to open, letting anyone in. Fire alarms that had only limited battery backup failed after a while. Lots of building energy management systems didn’t work. Cash machines didn’t function, nor did credit card payment systems, or traffic lights, or petrol pumps.

In a way it didn’t matter that people could no longer charge their computers or phones, because the power cut also meant, for many, there was no Internet or mobile phone signal. Keeping in touch was tough, and listening to the news impossible if you didn’t own a battery-powered analogue radio. Many people simply didn’t know what was going on. Lancaster is near Heysham Nuclear Power Station, and vague rumours about a problem with the power plant led some to fear the worst.

It was in fact a flood at an electricity substation that saw the city’s power cut that Saturday night in December. Generators were brought in on the Monday, but they were quickly overloaded. Things didn’t get back to normal until Friday, when the city was fully reconnected to the mains. As the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport says in the Royal Academy of Engineering’s ‘Living without Electricity’ report, “life for more than 100,000 people in Lancaster reverted to a pre-electronics era”.

The power cut affected households, businesses, banks, hospitals, schools, and transport, even other utilities like gas, water and sewage. Did you know your gas central heating needs electricity to work, or that some modern taps and toilets require a power supply to run or flush?

“A blackout reveals to us how dependent we are on the electrical system,” says historian David Nye. “The history of blackouts is also the history of the consumption of electricity, and the history of our dependence and how it grows.”

Nobody knew how long the Lancaster power cut was going to last. For Elizabeth it revealed the temporality of energy use. If the power supply isn’t always on, you find out which power dependent things are flexible, and which ones are not. On a domestic level, it might be working out what you can delay doing – the laundry, say – and what you can’t – mealtimes, for example. “Suddenly things that haven’t been visible before come into view,” says Elizabeth. “There were lots of surprises.”

One surprise happened at the Lancaster Royal Infirmary. Like most district general hospitals it had standby diesel generators, which meant it was one of the only places in the city with light, functioning plug sockets and hot food. As such it was a beacon in the dark, and quickly overwhelmed by power-hungry people.

According to the ‘Living without Electricity’ report:

The hospital was seen by many as a community centre. People with nowhere else to go wandered in off the street. The canteen served a record number of meals. A group of students arrived with a six-way extension lead and their mobile phone/tablet battery chargers which they connected to the first free 13A socket they could find. As a community centre, it was serving a valuable function – increasingly important as other facilities were closed – but well removed from its core business.

It’s perhaps tempting to gloss over what happened in Lancaster with talk of a community rallying round, of a ‘Blitz spirit’. Elizabeth cautions against this, warning it’s a way of disguising more serious problems. “Valuing community spirit is not the same as being better prepared for disruption,” she says. “The power cut showed that our depth of resilience is really very shallow. People didn’t have cash, students didn’t have food. The hospital was exploited for its power, they weren’t expecting it, or prepared for it.”

So what else did Elizabeth learn during that week without power?

The difference between mains power, and generated power; that the light being on isn’t as important as the Internet being on; that people with wood burning stoves and landlines were in an infinitely better position than those without. We learned that we’re completely in the grip of the grid, but also that power cuts aren’t uniform, that the geography and extent of the situation shifts all the time. And that a mobile phone can work as a radio, even without a signal!

What did it teach us about future energy use, not least in the context of climate change and the global movement towards renewable power? “If the future really involves a lot more renewable power, then the power supply will be more intermittent,” according to Elizabeth. She continues:

It doesn’t necessarily mean full blackouts, but it probably will – and actually hopefully will – involve a much more calibrated ebb and flow of demand. So, not everything is available to be on absolutely all the time. Closer connection with the seasons is really very likely to happen. The practices that depend on electricity will have to be rethought in terms of their timing.

Perhaps it’s also worth casting our eyes back to blackouts of the past. David Nye explains that, “The very beginning of the use of this term was in the 1930s, when people were intentionally blacking out cities or airports or military bases as a military tactic – the intentional control of light and the reduction in the use of electricity.”

There are self-imposed blackouts, of a sort, today too. This year saw the 10th Earth Hour where people across the world chose to turn the lights out for an hour, to “shine a light on the need for climate action”. David calls this a “greenout” rather than a blackout. “The choices we face now with electricity are fundamental,” he says. “Will we continue on the high energy binge of the 20th century? Are we going to treat the electrical grid’s technological power and momentum as something that’s inevitable? Or will we consume, maybe, a little less?”

This article was inspired by, and quotes from, ‘Electricity – where now?’, an audio installation produced by Simon Hollis for Electricity: The spark of life.

The image featured at the top of this article is taken from a public information poster now stored in The National Archives. It was designed by Tom Gentleman some time between 1939 and 1946.

Connect | spring 2017

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The spring issue 2017 of Connect – the magazine I work on as a freelance writer and editor for Greenpeace UK – was published in March.

Right now, up to 12 million tonnes of plastic are entering our oceans every year, and the UN has called the situation a ‘toxic time bomb’. To protect our seas, we’ve got to be bold. Our cover story is about the launch of a major new campaign to stop plastic ending up in our oceans.

The cover shot is by Mandy Barker, who uses ocean trash to create stunning, but spiky, artworks.

Connect | winter 2016

img_1185The autumn / winter 2016 issue of Connect – the magazine I edit for Greenpeace UK – has just been published. Our cover star this issue is a titi monkey, photographed by Valdemir Cunha in the Amazon.

img_1186Our cover story is about the fight to protect the Tapajós River Basin in the Brazilian Amazon. Over 40 dams are planned in this extraordinary place, projects that will have catastrophic consequences for the wildlife and communities that call it their home. A global campaign has already seen one of the biggest dams cancelled. This article is about why we have to ensure the others are scrapped as well, and how Brazil could create huge amounts of clean, renewable power if it focused on increasing wind and solar instead of hydro.

img_1187This is one of my favourite spreads this issue. It features the work of street artist Dr. Love, which we’ve used to illustrate an article that argues we have to be bold if we’re going to solve Britain’s toxic air pollution problem. Right now, air pollution is causing around 40,000 early deaths in the UK each year. Positive action will save lives, as well as reducing CO2 emissions.

Connect | summer 2016

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The summer issue of Connect – the magazine I edit for Greenpeace UK – was published this month. The cover story this issue brings fantastic news from the Norwegian Arctic, where the world’s biggest fishing companies have voluntarily agreed not to exploit a huge part of the Arctic Ocean, from Svalbard all the way up to the North Pole. Our cover star is a beluga whale, or white whale, photographed under the sea ice © WaterFrame / Alamy.

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We also have a beautiful photo-led feature about a new campaign to protect the Tapajós River Basin in the Brazilian Amazon. It’s an extraordinarily biodiverse place, home to creatures like ocelots, jaguars and pink dolphins. It acts like a huge pair of lungs that help regulate our planet’s climate. The Munduruku community that call Tapajós home have a deep connection with the river and forest, and depend on them for food and transport, as well as cultural and spiritual sustenance. Shockingly, this region could soon be sacrificed to a mega-dam of monstrous proportions. The fight to save Tapajós is on.

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I’m especially pleased with how this double-page spread is looking. It is an eye-opening start to an article about plastic pollution in our oceans, and features the magnificent artwork of Mandy Barker. Her SOUP series features images created using plastic trash found on beaches around the world. Right now, up to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic are entering our oceans each year, some of it so tiny it’s barely visible. Some marine life is mistaking microplastic for food, filling up on it and starving as a result – just one reason why tackling ocean plastic pollution is so important. Image © Mandy Barker.

Greenpeace | London Can’t Wait for Solar

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‘London is failing on solar, risking its decentralised energy and climate targets. The new Mayor can change the capital’s poor performance record, and ensure the future is bright for solar in the city.’

Really proud to have worked as a copy editor on this report from Greenpeace UK and Energy for London, published in February, which looks at solar energy in my home city. It outlines how the new Mayor of London can start a solar revolution in 2016.

Connect | winter 2015

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As well as copywriting and editing this issue of Connect, I also project managed its production, collaborating with the campaigners, graphic designer and picture editor. Very pleased with how it’s turned out! The hawksbill turtle on the cover was photographed by Paul Hilton.

Guardian | what lies beneath

Gardens: soil
This feature was written for the Guardian

The Worldometers website is compulsive viewing. If you watch this “real time world statistics” site ticking, you will see the world’s soil disappearing before your eyes. The statistic for land lost to soil erosion ticks over slower than some (the one measuring world population, say, or the number of cigarettes smoked), but it’s growing a few hectares a minute.

And it’s not only in impoverished regions of the world; the UK’s soil is in peril too. Erosion, compaction, pollution, development and loss of organic matter are damaging something that’s as vital to life as water and air. It can take up to 500 years to form 1cm of soil, and Defra says soil degradation costs England and Wales between £0.9bn and £1.4bn every year.

Soils vary wildly, from chalk to clay, acid to alkaline; there are more than 1,800 different types in the UK alone. After the deluge this winter, many rivers ran brown as soil washed out to sea. Exposed, damaged soil is vulnerable to being washed away by high rainfall, while reduced organic matter and compaction caused by over-cultivation or over-grazing make it less absorbent. Where water once soaked in, it now runs off, exacerbating flooding and causing further erosion.

Patrick Holden, a British farmer who once ran the Soil Association and now heads up the Sustainable Food Trust, warns that the floods have seen a “catastrophic leaching of goodness from the soil”. He says soil is at the fulcrum of the debate about sustainability: “It is the irreplaceable resource on which the future of civilisation depends. We should be seriously worried. Soils are haemorrhaging across the world.”

Why should we care? Because, as Professor Jane Rickson from the National Soil Resources Institute says, “Soil is amazing, providing us with food, fuel and fodder, storing water and carbon, and supporting habitats and infrastructure. It’s like an engine made up of physical, chemical and biological components. It is their interaction that makes it work.”

Soil may seem simple, benign stuff, but it teems with life. A teaspoon of rich garden soil contains up to a billion bacteria, within a complex and shifting mixture of grains, pores, channels and chambers. The microbes store, transform and release nutrients that plants need: nitrogen for growing leaves, phosphorus for roots and potassium for flowers and fruit.

Soil is also connected to climate. Healthy soil stores and slowly releases water in periods of drought or flood. It’s also a carbon sink – there’s more carbon stored in the soil than in vegetation or the atmosphere. When soil is blown away by wind and rain, it releases carbon into the atmosphere.

The threats soil faces may be great, but there is still hope. Holden says gardeners need to act as “soil stewards” alongside farmers, and encourages us to see soil as a sort of stomach, digesting the food that plants need. That stomach, packed with friendly bacteria, should be fed well and treated with care.

Save our Soils
• Keep off saturated ground – it needs time to drain and dry
• Start mulching – it’s the simplest and easiest way to protect and improve soil
• Compost all you can, so you can feed soil with rich organic matter
• Say no to polluting chemical fertilisers and pesticides
• Keep growing – plants prevent erosion and help soil sequester carbon
• Download a soil and earthworm survey