Debating the Environment // Festival of Debate

Most people would agree that our relationship with the natural environment is in a parlous state, and that action must be taken. But where should the focus be: food, population, carbon emissions, biodiversity? Is action the responsibility of individuals, local communities or the State?   

These and other questions were covered in the ‘Science and Environment’ strand of the Festival of Debate, sponsored by Regather. The talks and panel discussions reflected the complexity of the issues, the many ways in which they overlap, and the importance of action at all levels: individual, local, national and international.

Charles Dowding, a guru of no-dig gardening, talked briefly about the length and complexity of the conventional food chain as well as the damage done to the soil through ploughing and digging, and the application of agro-industrial chemicals. Then he concentrated on the more practical aspects of no-dig vegetable growing – in other words, action at the level of individuals or (mostly) small businesses. Most of the audience said they had allotments, gardens or small businesses where they could put his ideas into practice, and Dowding confirmed that no-dig can be scaled up by commercial growers. He argued with passion that no-dig is not only much better for the environment, encouraging natural processes and keeping carbon locked in the soil. It can result in higher yields and is easier for the grower.

The theme of more sustainable food was continued during the Sheffield Food Festival. A discussion of whether healthy food is also sustainable food was punctuated, like many of these talks, with some    dramatic statistics. Food production causes around 30% of greenhouse gases. Several statistics reinforced the recent focus on meat and dairy production and its environmental impact. A kilo of beef requires ten times as much water to produce as a kilo of wheat; in a burger, the meat accounts for 2.8 kilos of carbon emissions, all other ingredients, even cheese, only 540 grams. And as for your humble cup of tea: the tea itself has travelled thousands of miles and you’ve boiled the water (which uses amazing amounts of energy), yet half the carbon emissions come from that splash of milk.

Much of the UK impact is in distant countries; we’ve all probably heard about deforestation in Amazonia in order to grow soya beans to feed livestock in the UK, or palm oil plantations replacing rainforest in southeast Asia. Meanwhile the world as a whole is becoming increasingly urbanised and affluent, people eat more meat and the impact of food production increases. Then, in turn, climate change impacts on food production: the Mekong Delta, a huge area of sustainable food production, is at risk of disappearing as sea levels rise; in the UK, some of the best arable land is most vulnerable to climate change; locally, Sheffield has had to change its flood defence policies.

As you wander in the hills, seeing livestock graze in open fields, you may wonder why meat is so bad. One aspect is its inefficiency – sheep farming in the UK would not be economically viable without subsidies, which benefit communities and landscapes rather than the food system. From an emissions point of view, however, the problem arises because of the way cows and sheep digest grass. This produces large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas (GHG) 25 times more potent than carbon, and their dung produces nitrous oxide, an even more potent GHG.

This all leads to the conclusion that healthy eating is indeed more sustainable. Individuals can avoid overeating, and in particular, eat less meat, becoming vegetarian, or vegan. But environmental issues, in my experience, are rarely simple. First of all, is it that individuals can do these things, or is it permissible to say something stronger: that they should, or even that they must, for the sake of the ecosystem? And even if we choose to be prescriptive, the advantages of a veg-based diet depend partly on where your food is grown, not only because of food miles (bananas transported by boat, for example, have a relatively low carbon footprint) but also because of differing climates. Tomatoes grown in Spain may be better than those grown locally because in the UK they might need a heated greenhouse. On the other hand, asparagus grown in Peru, who needs it?!

A vegetable-based diet is – according to some authorities – one of the four most effective things an individual can do to reduce their environmental impact, along with not having a car, not flying, and having a small family. Of these, having a small family is the one which makes the most difference by a very long way; reducing family size by one child is 65 times more effective than any other action an individual can take. This was considered by a panel discussion which asked ‘Should People in the UK Have Fewer Children to Save the World?’, see Opus blog post here. This is not clear cut: as people in less developed countries emulate the lifestyle of advanced economies, they have fewer children but they also consume more. So the answer to this (and other questions) lies partly in consuming less.

This being a Sheffield festival, several of the talks covered Sheffield specifically, and there are many groups working at the local level across the city to help tackle food and other environmental issues. Perhaps the fact that Sheffield’s first elected Lord Mayor is of the Green Party is an indication of how much people in Sheffield care about these issues.  

The discussion ‘How Could Emergency Climate Action Benefit Sheffield?’ took place on an exceptionally hot day, a timely, if alarming, reminder of why we need to address this right now. Or if you prefer measurable indicators: the previous week, Birmingham flooded with one metre of rain in just 3 hours, resulting in one death; around Karachi, Pakistan, record temperatures of more than 50C have caused illness and more death. The talk looked at the action that Sheffield is taking, and things other cities are doing which could be replicated in Sheffield.    

Kate Lock of Leeds Climate Commission talked about bringing business leaders and others together to bring about lasting change in Leeds. Other speakers mentioned community-owned solar and wind-powered energy generation: Sheffield Renewables, for example, has four solar voltaic systems installed on buildings and plans to expand. Hywel Lloyd talked about the desirable and essential actions needed to reduce the impact of cities, where most people live. These include improving public transport – definitely a problem for Sheffield according to the conversations after the talk; cycling – Lloyd suggested a cycle bridge from the station to the university; carbon free freight; retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency; intensifying housing within city centres; increasing green spaces; finding ways to cool the city – the fountain and steel-and-water wall outside Sheffield Station are an example of this.

As I listened to the debates, questions still loomed. Some of the solutions at individual level are clearly very small. Will it really make a difference if I buy a shirt made of hemp grown without pesticides in Europe and made in the UK, rather than one made of cotton grown in Azerbaijan, shipped to China for processing, then to Bangladesh to be turned into a t-shirt, then to the UK?

During the talk ‘From Biodiversity to Bioabundance’ Hugh Warwick suggested that, in response to fast declining numbers of hedgehogs (the species of focus and a favourite of the British public), individuals should make holes in their fences to allow hedgehogs to move between gardens. Like the t-shirt example, this may be important but clearly one (much more expensive) t-shirt or a few holes in fences are not going to save either the planet or the hedgehogs – or, in fact, the humans. It feels as if individuals acting alone can achieve little.

There are of course technical fixes: perhaps controversially, Dr James Thackery argued that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have an important role if we are to feed the world while populations rise and the amount of arable land decreases. They can even reduce the need for chemicals. His work concentrates on larger seeds of staple corps such as wheat; larger seeds mean more food and better resilience to environmental pressures. Dr Thackery deftly countered the many objections to GMOs by saying that this depends on the crop – most don’t cross-pollinate with other crops, and they are not harmful to people if subject to the same safety testing as other crops, for example – and also that many of the problems apply to global agri-business and its methods, rather than the type of crops grown.

Professor Lenny Koh talked about the research being done at Sheffield University Management School to improve the impact of supply chains. Subjects covered go far beyond individual or local levels to look at logistics and supply chains using innovative technologies and with a focus on low carbon and sustainability. Other speakers mentioned the importance of technological fixes in the energy and transport sectors, such as electric vehicles; electricity generation from renewable sources; storage of energy from renewables, which is still not fully developed; and more efficient transmission systems.

However, it could be argued that technical fixes only respond to the question originally posed. Fuel taxes were fixed to encourage the use of diesel vehicles in order to reduce carbon emissions. They do use less fuel, but they also produce particulates, which have a disastrous effect on air quality. From another perspective, the debate ‘Should We Put a Price on Carbon?’ looked at carbon pricing and carbon taxes (not exactly the same thing), in effect a tax on the production of GHGs. The European Emissions Trading System, which aims to reduce emissions from large users of energy such as power stations and factories, is the largest in the world and far too technical for this writer to understand. But it’s clear that it depends on theoretical calculations which in practice may not have reduced emissions. Back at the individual level, you could impose individual carbon budgets, encouraging yourself to reduce your own emissions. On the other hand, it was argued that a carbon tax is a form of procrastination. It can drive innovation, but not fast enough, it does not focus enough on how industry functions, and in itself it could be regressive, affecting poorer people or nations unfairly.   

Solutions were suggested to the weakness of technical fixes. For example, carbon pricing can be adjusted so that it only applies to richer countries or individuals. This depends on concerted government action, and as the Festival developed it became ever clearer that changes to policy are essential to lessen our environmental impact. Supply chains are long, so change would need to happen globally. GMOs may not be dangerous in themselves but unless there are policies to curb the role of agri-business and encourage smaller, innovative companies, they will do damage; requiring individuals or even countries to avoid GMOs is too simplistic. Population growth decreases with affluence but also with policies promoting girls’ education and easy access to safe contraception. Planning laws could require much greater consideration of biodiversity. It’s very hard for Sheffield to improve its public transport system or other services to make the city greener while central government cuts funding for local authorities.

Many speakers talked about the importance of conversations and collaboration at all levels. It was suggested that individuals sign petitions and write to their MPs with positive suggestions for action, not just criticism of what is wrong. The media has its part to play: weather forecasts could include more information about climate change and use opportunities to educate the public – as in Blue Planet 2 on plastics. Financial reports could talk about climate risk. Investors can talk about ethics to bankers, academics can talk to community groups and industry, community energy projects could lead to technical training, cities can educate their citizens, as in the Manchester Carbon Literacy Project. Collaboration includes looking at other places – cities, organisations, countries – to find and discuss good practice.

However, collaboration is not always easy: Carl Lee, in the population debate, stated that he had spent a lifetime trying unsuccessfully to persuade government and businesses to engage with green issues. This writer felt that there is a huge amount of impressive research going on, but was left wondering how this can all be put into practice, and how research institutions can collaborate better with other organisations.

Perhaps we need more radical solutions, tackling inequity and overconsumption. Contrary to the actual or implicit messages from some of the speakers, Professor Koh stated that it is ‘not any option’ to stop producing; the questions are around how to balance investment and sustainability for clean growth. However, speakers such as Natalie Bennett argued explicitly that environmental issues cannot be separated from the social issues of inequality and the pressure to consume. At the level of economics, speakers argued for more equitable distribution of wealth and accounting which includes externalities such as environmental and social impacts. Hugh Warwick went further talking, talking about love and passion for the natural environment to give impetus to discussions about change. A few speakers were explicit about voting for parties which promote greener alternatives.

One thing all speakers agreed on is that change is needed immediately – it may be happening, but not fast enough given the urgency of the problems.

As I listened to these debates, I was struck by two things. The first was the complexity of the issues and the variety of perspectives on them. The other was that the debates were, to a greater or lesser extent, preaching to the converted. Some of what we heard has been known for many years to those who take an interest in these matters: at least two speakers mentioned Rachel Carson, who back in 1962 wrote, ‘The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself’.

In the end, the most powerful question of all seemed to be one from a member of the audience who had tried to influence the organisational behaviour of one of the universities in Sheffield. He asked: ‘So what story do we tell?’. In other words, how do we convince those who are not already converted in order to bring about behaviour change right now? How do we take hold of their imaginations so that they feel strongly enough to act? It seemed to me that we still do not have compelling enough answers to those questions.

Words: Joanna Collins



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