Eat food, not too much, mostly plants

Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. – Michael Pollan

I love this line from American author and professor Michael Pollan. It distills so simply some key principles of eating sustainably and healthily; namely:

  • eating (food is awesome, valuable and powerful! Enjoy it)
  • eating only what we need (excess can lead to illness, obesity and food waste which wastes resources and creates greenhouse gas emissions; best to eat a balanced diet, avoid large portion sizes and buy only what you will eat)
  • eating more plants (very good for us)
  • eating less meat (very resource-intensive, high in greenhouse gas emissions, potentially unhealthy in high quantities).

I found it in this article about the move to a less-is-more approach to cooking amongst chefs. Worth the quick read.


Coal’s just getting in the way of a better future

In Australia the debate over climate policy is fractious. As is the case in the US, the conservative side of politics here realised political mileage could be gained from opposing climate action and renewables and backing coal and gas.

63% of Australia’s electricity generation is from coal and in 2015 the country was the second largest exporter of thermal coal. Coal companies have a lot of sway in the halls of Parliament House, particularly with the pro-business conservative Coalition government. Even the previous centre left Labor government discovered the power of mining companies in Australia after they launched fierce and effective media campaigns in opposition to the Labor government’s mining tax and a price on carbon emissions in the past 5 years.

So when it comes to climate action in Australia the market rules. Which is to say that the business interests of incumbent coal companies have equal, if not greater, weight than those of climate science. Government’s of either stripe are reluctant to intervene too much in the market to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Contrast this with China where the cities are scrambling to meet clean air targets for the end of the year imposed by the government with all kinds of direct interventions into energy and manufacturing markets. As the Sydney Morning Herald reports:

Steel production has been halved in major steel cities, coal banned in China’s coal capital, factories closed down for failing pollution inspections, and hundreds of officials sacked for failing to meet environmental targets.

Reduced steel production has had impacts on world markets and businesses inside and outside China have complained. This is where the difference between China and Australia emerges.

Unlike what happens when polluting industries push back against government policy in Australia and the US, they have been given short shrift by China’s Ministry for Environment Protection.

Director of environmental impact assessment for the ministry, Cui Shuhong, is even quoted by the SMH as saying that polluting companies “disrupt the market order”. This is a far cry from Australia where the government may be on the verge of rejecting a clean energy target proposed by an independent review and supported by the opposition, industry, and environmentalists.

To be fair, the interventions in China are short-term (around 5 months in length) and enforced due to public pressure to improve air quality in cities blighted by smog but the actions and the language around them represent a move away from fossil fuels and in support of renewables globally that will only grow.

More than this, they offer a vision of the way that powerful, incumbent industries can be challenged by governments. Not just when these industries threaten public health and the climate but when embracing innovative alternatives, like renewable energy, provides opportunities for economic growth and employment whilst improving environmental and social well being.


Photo at top: erhard.renz, Flickr

Making dollars and sense from ethical investing

This interview with WHEB sustainability investors Managing Director George Latham is a good look at the performance of ethical and sustainable investing.

It’s noteworthy though for two reasons in particular.

Firstly, for Latham’s rather handy description of ethical business as those creating “solutions to sustainability challenges” and the fact of their growth.

We find that the universe of companies that are creating what we call a solution to sustainability challenges is generally growing at a far superior rate to the rest of the world market. There is strong growth in providing good outcomes for society and the environment. Because we need more of those products that help solve the world’s major challenges.

– George Latham, WHEB Managing Director

Secondly, for Latham’s description of how ethical investing has moved from being simply a moral concern in the 90s when he started working in this space, to a legitimate and increasingly common consideration of risk and return for investors.

This reflects nicely, if somewhat superficially, the process of social change: behaviours that address socially or environmentally damaging practices emerge at the fringes before gradually being adopted by more and more people until they become normalised and part of our institutions through for instance law or established business practice.

It can often be hard to see this process (and thus the progress) of adopting socially and environmentally just behaviours because it’s generally slow. These behaviours are either already normalised in our lifetime (eg. women’s and civil rights) or considered fringe concerns (eg. veganism, polyamory).

So while Latham describes the mainstreaming of ethical investment within the investment industry, he’s also describing how sustainable and ethical behaviours come to be seen and adopted as completely normal with time. It’s worth considering what behaviours or concerns that are considered fringe today will be normal in a generation or two’s time…

Fighting climate change creates jobs

I keep bleating about this but there’s huge potential in framing climate action as a jobs creator and this tweet from the US National Resources Defense Council shows how to do it.

The tweet is launching the NRDC’s new analysis of pathway to a low-carbon economy for the United States – an, in their own words, “ambitious” plan to reach an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emission by 2050. Not an easy plan to sell but they’re going about it the right way.

So much climate communications appears to assume that the people they’re wanting to reach are motivated by a desire to do something about climate change. Unfortunately, not everyone is so keen so we need to tailor messages to what people do care about.

That’s why this tweet, and the second line in particular, is bang on:

Fighting climate change creates jobs.

People like jobs. People vote based on jobs. If it’s clear renewables create jobs people will like and hopefully vote based on support for renewables.

The tweet also talks to something else people like: their country. It portrays climate action as patriotic, a frame that has great appeal for people no matter their political persuasion, according to research. (Here’s another good example of patriotic framing of renewables).

Tackling climate change means bold action and securing broad public support. This means communicating based on what people care about, not what we think they should care about. Which doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be told hard truths; education is crucial. Just that if we think about what people like and value, we can sell renewables and necessary ambitious climate action, like the NRDC’s plan, more effectively.

China to be latest to adopt ETS

China is set to launch an emissions trading scheme by the end of the year, a significant step for the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. ETS work by putting a cap on emissions and using the market to find the most cost-effective means of reducing them through the trading of permits to pollute amongst companies. The Chinese scheme will initially cover power generators before expanding to steel making and aluminium and 6 other key industrial sectors by 2020.

China will be joining a host of regions, countries and territories with existing ETS including the European Union, Switzerland, South Korea, California, New Zealand and Quebec. These schemes cover about 13% of the world’s total carbon emissions and in 2016 represented US$50 billion of value (combined with carbon taxes).

ICAP ETS report 2016 map

Emissions trading schemes worldwide (ICAP Status Report 2017)

The launch would also be a boost to hopes of creating an international carbon trading market which the World Bank estimates would potentially reduce the cost of countries’ pledged emission reduction efforts by as much as 30% by 2030 and 50% by 2050 while providing an important source of income for developing countries.

China’s ETS is a very promising sign for global efforts to reduce carbon emissions and encouraging for other countries considering introducing an ETS to meet their emissions reduction targets under the Paris Agreement.

Predatory delay

Futurist Alex Steffen had this great tweet thread (below) on Twitter recently on the nature of climate politics in the USA.

Climate denial and delay in the US is, according to Steffen, professionally manufactured by fossil fuel companies and lobbyists in order to delay climate action as long as possible and maximise their profits.

The reality of climate change is not a debate in the scientific community and people are quite united in their support for climate action and renewable energy. Democracy, if it functioned properly, would focus its efforts on solving climate change asap. Instead, fossil fuel companies, knowing their time is limited, are trying to extend that time as long as possible by jamming our civic gears with doubt and denial – what Steffen calls ‘predatory delay’.

In order to counter this Steffen suggests that the Democrats need to directly take on this minority of fossil fuel powers by making them the enemy of progress and the enemy of the will of the people. A compelling narrative and argument, even if this last directive would be hard to pull off, given the embeddedness of fossil fuels in the character and economy of countries like the US and Australia.

Give his thread a read below…


Image at top: DonkeyHotey, Flickr

What’s bad for the planet is bad for us

Phrases like “protect Earth” or “save the planet” have been calling cards of environmental action for decades. With increasing awareness of the impacts of pollution and the growth of the hole in the ozone layer we were (and still are) encouraged to think of not just ourselves but the environment. Plants and animals would go extinct, forests disappear and rivers clog with plastic so we needed to change.

Despite progress over the past few decades we still face considerable environmental problems with climate change looming largest of these. Perhaps it’s time to accept that people don’t actually care that much about the planet.

Well, this isn’t entirely true. Majorities in all 22 countries surveyed in IPSOS’ Global Trends report agreed that we are heading for environmental disaster unless we change our habits. Not that individual behaviour change alone will solve these issues. Addressing environmental problems is going to require technological, political, business and legal shifts. But all of these are linked by how we see the our impact as humans on the environment. Appealing to us to think of the planet does not seem to be enough.

Perhaps its time we started making it clear that thinking of the planet means thinking of ourselves and our well being too. Take plastic. By 2050 it is estimated that there could be more of this ubiquitous material in our oceans, by weight, than fish. This alone should be impetus for us to demand rapid change in innovating and finding alternatives to plastic.

But it’s unlikely. Headlines like this come and go weekly. Consider though that this plastic is already entering our food chain and thus our bodies. Microplastics are present in salt from around the world and people who eat seafood ingest up to 11,000 pieces of microplastic every year potentially presenting long-term health risks!

Or fossil fuels. Burning coal, oil and gas to create electricity and fuel our vehicles and industry is responsible for 60% of global carbon emissions which are driving climate change. Yet air pollution, in the form of microscopic particles, emitted by these same fuels is also responsible for around 6.5 million premature deaths a year according to the International Energy Agency.

And climate change. It can be easy to think of it as something that will simply affect the natural world, raising sea levels, causing hotter summers and melting polar bears’ homes. But it will impact us hard. Climate change is predicted to lead to increased health impacts, more forced migration, threats to food security and even conflict over newly scarce resources like water. Those who will experience the worst of this are likely to be the disadvantaged and residents of developing countries.

It’s clear that pollution which damages the environment damages us. After all, as much as we might forget it, particularly living in cities, we exist in and thanks to the environment. Degrading it hurts us.

This is a potentially powerful message, one we should be telling ourselves, each other, our governments and businesses: caring for the planet means caring for ourselves. Indeed, research into the effectiveness of communicating climate change as a public health, rather than environmental, issue indicates potential for increasing concern if these messages are repeated and reinforced by respected authorities. Perhaps by framing environmental issues broadly around how they will impact people we can spur ourselves to meet the challenges of reducing our environmental impacts and creating sustainable societies.


Photo at top: Adam Jones, Flickr