All posts by Joseph Hricovec

Playing politics with national health?

Thanks to this government’s intransigence about tackling air pollution, the battle to improve the quality of the air we breathe has played out not in the political arena, but in the courts. Time after time, the government has found itself on the wrong side of the law: first for its failure to meet legally binding European targets on harmful nitrogen dioxide emissions; then, for failing to produce an adequate plan to address these. Its latest delaying tactic has been to claim it could not meet this week’s court-imposed deadline for publishing a new draft plan, because of the “purdah” convention ruling out new government announcements in the run-up to an election.

And so it has fallen to judges yet again to take the government to task over its failure to act. Today’s ruling took apart the government’s case: its own purdah guidance sets out exemptions where public health is at risk. As the judge pointed out, why would it be better to have parties debating what ought to be on a draft air pollution plan when it could be debating what is actually in it?

The government’s real motivations are political, not procedural. Having delayed taking meaningful action for seven years, it is clearly nervous about proposing any measures that hit drivers of diesel cars during an election campaign. It’s political cowardice is astounding – and pointless. Public attitudes have shifted in recent years, and London’s Labour mayor, Sadiq Khan, has made tackling air pollution one of his top priorities. The government is unlikely to face opposition to tougher action from any of its mainstream political opponents and is enjoying double-digit poll leads.

Yet it continues to shirk its responsibilities to the nation’s public health. Today’s air pollution may be less visible than the smogs that settled over our cities in the 1950s, but it is a deadly killer, responsible for upwards of 40,000 premature deaths per year. London breached its annual air pollution limit just five days into 2017, and legal limits were easily surpassed in the vast majority of local authorities. The effects are particularly pernicious for children whose lungs are still developing.

The human cost makes the government’s latest attempts to delay a disgrace. The two-month extension it was seeking for its final plan could have meant thousands of avoidable premature deaths, all in service of not wanting to jeopardise a marginal number of votes in an election that it is on course to win handsomely. It’s a sick calculus.

The good news is that air pollution is easier to tackle than other environmental and public health challenges. Unlike climate change, it is relatively localized: city-scale actions to address pollution levels can have a marked effect on their air quality. Much (though by no means all) of the problem comes down to emissions from diesel vehicles and, to a greater extent than in other areas of public health, consumers are highly responsive to financial incentives. The irony is that we know this because many have switched from petrol to diesel as a result of sweeteners introduced back when diesel was thought to be more environmentally friendly due to its lower carbon emissions.

But heavy lobbying from the car industry in Westminster and Brussels has staved off firm action. European emissions tests for diesel cars have been far easier to manipulate than in the US; as a result, 97% of modern diesel cars exceed the official limit for NOx pollution. Behind the scenes, the British government has tried to block tougher testing. It’s a familiar story: the government similarly watered down plans to tackle childhood obesity in the face of special pleading from the food and drink industry.

The high court ruling puts the ball back in the government’s court. It should choose to accept it, rather than appeal. But either way, it has been exposed as a government willing to privilege marginal political advantage and the lobbying efforts of big business over the health of the nation.


Around five years ago, environmental sustainability was at the forefront of leading housebuilders’ minds.  Their thinking was about how to have the least ecological impact in terms of energy, carbon, water use and waste output.  Today, social sustainability is the topic the pioneering developers are most engaged with.

Sam Budhdeo, one of the leadership team at Lumiere Developments, which is creating The Beacon, a sustainable development in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire, says: “The focus needs to shift to the social impact of housing, not the environmental effect alone, which can be perceived as tomorrow’s problem.  Developers need to think about issues such as air quality – seven million people a year are killed by emissions globally.  People’s health and wellbeing are an immediate and critical issue”.

The Beacon is playing its part.  Ambi Singh, Budhdeo’s business partner, explains that delivering socially and environmentally sustainable outcomes starts with the generation and conservation of electricity and heat.  “Our predictive energy modelling fives us the confidence to tell residents they will have free energy for life – no energy bills, ever.” The technologies employed (see below) will result in an expected reduction in heating costs by 70 per cent to 80 per cent, compared to most existing properties.

Intelligent heat recovery system utilise waste heat from the building to help power a 2MW turbine that generates electricity.  The impact of being able to recover sufficient heat from the building to help generate electricity on site is that it will make the building almost completely energy independent. The innovative features include a number of industry firsts, such as the highest density solar farm in the world, which will generate approximately 850kW of solar power on half an acre of land, the UK’s tallest residential indoor arboretum and Britain’s largest underground automated car park.  The result will be a multi-dwelling EPC A-rated energy-neutral building. Critically, the developers are seeking independent verification of their high-sustainability performance claims.  The Beacon will be assessed under the Home Quality Mark (HQM), a voluntary mark of excellence bestowed on new-build homes to give people the reassurance that their properties are well designed, well built and cost effective to run.  The development will showcase the levels that can be achieved with careful planning and consideration.

Gwyn Roberts, Lead for BRE New Homes and Communities and HQM says; “The Beacon is among the first developments intending to certify against HQM, proving its sustainability credentials and giving consumers information on the running costs, health and wellbeing aspects and the building’s environmental footprint.  By showcasing existing and new technology. The Beacon demonstrates that developers can go beyond the minimum requirements of sustainability set out by the government.”

The Beacon’s developers are astute enough to know sustainability is only one facet of a new home.  Consumers demand style, comfort and luxury, too.  Singh’s argument is that sustainability and luxury need not be mutually exclusive.  A case in point is the electric car scheme offered at The Beacon – the cars available include the high-performance yet low-emission Tesla Model 3 BMW i3. Other plans include a state-of-the-art gym, a club lounge with café and bar, a cinema, a communal roof garden and an observatory.  Located seven minutes’ walk from the railway station and just 24 minutes by train from London Euston.  The Beacon is bordered by over 400 acres of protected Boxmoor Trust Green Belt land at the heart of Hemel Hempstead’s regeneration district.

The 17-storey tower comprises 272 studio, one, two and three-bedroom balconied apartments and luxury penthouses and off-plan launch prices at The Beacon start from £217,950.  Reservations are open.

Singh says 40 per cent have been reserved by a Private Rental Sector (PRS) company and buyers have been local and London based, with no overseas buyers.  The tower will be completed by 2018, following ground breaking later this year.Budhdeo and Singh acknowledge that their vision is cutting-edge, but both have a pragmatic, scientific background and say this is no utopian ‘white elephant’.  “Every technology we will incorporate is proven,” says Budhdeo, “We’re simply challenging the status quo of current housebuilders.  Our aim is to revolutionise the industry and raise standards.”

“We’re asking the public to think again about the homes they want to live in and the lifestyle they choose.  It is possible to have a socially responsible house and lifestyle that is good for you and your family’s health and wellbeing.  That’s what we’re creating here at The Beacon.  What we advise is, ‘make the right choices in how you live your life for your own sake and for that of your children and grandchildren.’”.

UK’s plan to clean up its air is still inadequate, critics say

The UK government has finally published its plans to cut air pollution, after it lost a court case last week and was ordered to do so.

The plans suggest measures ranging from a “targeted” scrappage scheme to take the most-polluting vehicles off the road and retrofitting local bus and lorry fleets, to removing road humps to improve traffic flow, and encouraging more electric cars.

Air pollution is linked to an estimated 40,000 early deaths a year and 37 out of 43 areas across the UK are exceeding legal European Union limits for key pollutant nitrogen dioxide, much of which comes from diesel engines.

Documents published by the government show the most effective way to cut illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide is to introduce charges on the dirtiest vehicles in pollution hot-spots in towns and cities.

While local authorities can introduce charging zones, as London is planning to do, the government is warning town halls they should only bring in charges as a last resort.

Ministers were ordered to draw up the new clean air plans following a court challenge by environmental lawyers ClientEarth, with the High Court ruling that existing government proposals to meet EU-mandated pollution limits were not sufficient.

The Environment Department (Defra) lost a last-minute High Court bid to delay revealing the draft plans to reduce illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide until after the general election.

But campaigners and opposition politicians have warned the new plans are woefully inadequate. They accused the government of failing to commit to a diesel scrappage scheme and of shifting responsibility onto local authorities to clean up the problem – while not providing them with funding. With the political parties now campaigning for the general election, the Tories said they were opposed to Labour’s approach of “hitting motorists in the pocket” by imposing charging zones and increasing parking charges. “Improving air quality is a key priority as we support businesses in building a stronger and cleaner economy,” said environment secretary Andrea Leadsom. “Our plan today sets out how we will do just that – including presenting options for targeted diesel scrappage schemes.” The documents suggest a scheme paying motorists to trade in their old cars and vans could see 9,000 of the most-polluting diesel vehicles and 6,000 old petrol vehicles scrapped and replaced by electric models.

Alternatively, it could be targeted at vehicles from a specific sector, particular areas or individuals.


“The Government is standing idly by while Britain chokes,” said Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green Party. “This feeble plan won’t go anywhere near far enough in tackling this public health emergency.” Greenpeace UK’s Doug Parr said: “A plan to help drivers swap polluting diesel for electric cars would be a good idea but the government’s proposal lacks scale and detail.”

“What’s worse,” he said, “the Government is not just passing the buck to local authorities, it’s also tying one hand behind their backs by making it hard to phase out polluting cars and giving no new funds for delivery.”

Sunlight Striking Earth’s Surface in Just One Hour Delivers Enough Energy to Power the World Economy for an Entire Year

In April 1954, top scientists gathered in Washington, D.C., to hear something new: voice and music broadcast by a solar-powered radio transmitter. Scientists at Bell Labs in New Jersey were demonstrating their invention, the first practical solar cell, which was made of silicon. This breakthrough paved the way for the solar revolution taking place today on rooftops and in massive ground-mounted solar farms around the world.

Solar cells, also called solar photovoltaics or PV, powered U.S. satellites during the 1960s space race with the Soviet Union. But PV technology was still too expensive to be used for much else until the Arab oil embargo of 1973. Amid rising fears about energy security, governments and private firms poured billions of dollars into solar research and development, reaping big gains in efficiency and cost reductions. This led to widespread use of PV in the 1980s for powering telephone relay stations, highway call boxes, and similar applications.

Japanese and U.S. companies became early leaders in PV manufacturing for uses both large and small. For example, Japanese firms such as Sharp and Kyocera pioneered the use of solar cells in pocket calculators. A credit-card-sized solar-powered calculator from 1983 still helps us do quick calculations.

In the mid-1980s, Germany joined the United States and Japan in the race for PV production dominance, but by the early years of the new millennium, Japanese and U.S. companies accounted for roughly 70 percent of the world’s PV output.

Forward-thinking energy policies in Germany were the catalyst that spurred solar power’s astounding growth over the last decade or so. By guaranteeing renewable power producers access to the grid as well as a long-term premium price for their electricity, the German government’s policy made going solar economically attractive. A reinvigorated German PV manufacturing industry climbed back into the number two spot behind Japan. As world production increased to meet demand, the price of solar panels dropped, helping to drive demand higher.

With demand for PV cells growing quickly, China — factory to the world — got into the game. Beginning around 2006, a boom in the Chinese PV industry massively expanded global production and drove prices down even further. Today China is a solar manufacturing giant, producing close to two thirds of the world’s PV—more than the United States, Japan, and Germany combined.

The decline in PV panel prices over the decades is astonishing. In 1972, they cost over $74 per watt. The average price as of mid-2014 was less than 70¢ per watt—99 percent cheaper. (For reference, the typical U.S. rooftop system today has between 2 and 10 kilowatts of generating capacity. One kilowatt equals 1,000 watts.)

Around the world, solar installations are growing by leaps and bounds on residential and commercial rooftops and in solar farms, also called solar power plants or parks, that can cover thousands of acres. Between 2008 and 2013, as solar panel prices dropped by roughly two thirds, the PV installed worldwide skyrocketed from 16,000 to 139,000 megawatts. That is enough to power every home in Germany, a country with 83 million people. In its January 2014 solar outlook report, Deutsche Bank projected that 46,000 megawatts would be added to global PV capacity in 2014 and that new installations would jump to a record 56,000 megawatts in 2015.

The International Energy Agency in Paris, which is typically conservative in its renewable energy forecasts, has been revising its solar projections upward. As recently as 2011 it forecast 112,000 megawatts of solar generating capacity by 2015 — a figure the world left far behind in 2013. The organization now projects that by 2018 the total will be 326,000 megawatts of generating capacity, but the world will likely come close to this in 2016.

As solar power installations spread, it is worth remembering a point often made in the energy literature to convey the sheer scale of the solar resource: The sunlight striking the earth’s surface in just one hour delivers enough energy to power the world economy for one year.

Carbon pollution is suffocating ocean life and speeding up the next mass extinction

Depletion of dissolved oxygen in our oceans, which can cause dead zones, is occurring much faster than expected, a new study finds.

And by combining oxygen loss with ever-worsening ocean warming and acidification, humans are re-creating the conditions that led to the worst-ever extinction, which killed over 90 percent of marine life 252 million years ago.

Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology reviewed ocean data going back to 1958 and “found that oxygen levels started dropping in the 1980s as ocean temperatures began to climb.”

Scientists have long predicted that as carbon pollution warms the globe, the amount of oxygen in our oceans would drop, since warmer water can’t hold as much dissolved gas as colder water. And, Georgia Tech researchers point out, falling oxygen levels have recently led to more frequent low-oxygen events that “killed or displaced populations of fish, crabs and many other organisms.”

But what is especially worrisome about this new research is how quickly it is happening. “The trend of oxygen falling is about two to three times faster than what we predicted from the decrease of solubility associated with the ocean warming,” said lead researcher Prof. Taka Ito. “This is most likely due to the changes in ocean circulation and mixing associated with the heating of the near-surface waters and melting of polar ice.”

Global warming drives ocean stratification — the separation of the ocean into relatively distinct layers.

A 2011 study, “Rapid expansion of oceanic anoxia immediately before the end-Permian mass extinction,” found that rapid and widespread anoxia (absence of oxygen) preceded “the largest mass extinction in Earth history, with the demise of an estimated 90 percent of all marine species.”

As National Geographic reported in 2015, we’re already starting to see the impacts of anoxia. “The waters of the Pacific Northwest, starting in 2002, intermittently have gotten so low in oxygen that at times they’ve smothered sea cucumbers, sea stars, anemones, and Dungeness crabs,” the magazine reported.

Finally, a 2015 study found there is no techno-fix to prevent a catastrophic collapse of ocean life for centuries if not millennia if we continue current CO2 emissions trends through 2050.

If we don’t start slashing carbon pollution, then, as co-author John Schellnhuber put it, “we will not be able to preserve ocean life as we know it.”

2030: Investment certainty needed to unlock the potential in buildings

The Europe Regional Network is a 4,500 member strong organization, representing the interests of the sustainable buildings sector through national Green Building Councils all over Europe. We are part of a global network of over 100 Green Building Councils, and 27,000 company members.

We are writing to you as representatives of Energy & Environment Councils, ahead of your 3-4 March 2014 meetings, to underline the importance of an ambitious 2030 Climate and Energy Framework to the businesses our organization represents. We fully support the position endorsed by the European Parliament, and would strongly encourage Council members to look at how this level of ambition can be met.

A coherent set of three legally binding targets for 2030 is needed, for energy efficiency, greenhouse gas reductions and Member State renewable quotas. Legally binding targets focus minds and provide much-needed certainty to businesses and investors. Non-binding targets do not. This lesson has been learned through progress against existing legally binding greenhouse gas and renewables targets (on track) versus progress against the non-binding energy efficiency target (not on track).

Above all, energy efficiency must be at the heart of Europe’s energy strategy, to enable Europe to meet its climate and renewables objectives more rapidly. Such commitments are needed in order to increase our energy security, deliver real benefits to citizens concerned with the rising cost of energy, improve health and productivity in our buildings, and to boost jobs and sustainable business models in the construction sector. An energy efficiency target coupled with a clear sub-target aimed at realizing the building sector’s potential is a must to drive the much-needed transformation of this sector, which represents the most cost-effective climate action potential.

2030 targets must be part of a clear narrative about the EU’s long-term 2050 goals, to enable Europe’s leading companies to formulate transformational and proactive long-term strategy, rather than expending energy on reactive, short-term policy. We recognize that political commitment must be matched by the commitment of the business sector, to invest in the new business models that will help deliver real economic and energy security to Europe’s the Member States. We recognize that all stakeholders must be held to account in order to deliver the potential of a sustainable energy market, not simply governments. And, we are ready to lead our wide membership in collaborative action, to help unlock the significant potential in the buildings sector.

But the needed investment requires political certainty first, and that is what the institutions of the EU must deliver to those businesses that are poised to deliver meaningful change across our energy system.

Paul King (Chairman Europe Regional Network, Vice Chair WorldGBC, CEO UK-GBC)