For Peat’s Sake: Bogs, Bord na Móna and the Climate

My skull hibernated
in the wet nest of my hair.

Which they robbed.
I was barbered
and stripped
by a turfcutter’s spade

who veiled me again
and packed coomb softly
between the stone jambs
at my head and my feet.

-Seamus Heaney

Abbeyleix bog in Co. Laois is a rare example of a bog that has not been utterly destroyed by industrial peat extraction. Many of the peatlands I saw from my window on the bus down here were not so lucky. The barren and lifeless landscape of bogs that have been stripped bare is a common sight in the Irish midlands, and it is becoming more common every day. Abbeyleix very nearly met the same fate back in 2000. If it were not for the dedication and quick thinking of the community, the thousands of species in the bog would be homeless and hundreds of thousands of tonnes more carbon would be in the atmosphere instead of in the ground where it belongs. 

Bogs and Irish culture have been intimately linked for centuries, cropping up in everything from our traditional songs to the work of our most beloved poets. They have provided us with energy, clean water, jobs and a home for our wildlife. Globally, degraded peatlands account for a quarter of all carbon emissions from the land-use sector despite covering only 3% of the land. They also contain 30% of the world’s soil carbon; that’s twice as much carbon as is stored in all the world’s forests. It is estimated that more than 80% of Irish peatlands have been damaged in some way.

Peat forms because the water-logged and acidic conditions of a bog significantly slow the decomposition of bog mosses, also called sphagnum, causing a build-up of organic matter. Emissions from peatlands don’t just come from the burning of the peat; they also come from drainage. When the level of water in a bog (known as the water table) is reduced, this exposes more of the peat to the air. In this dry, oxygen-rich environment, the peat decomposes, releasing all that carbon back into the atmosphere.

Despite owning only 7% of Irish peatlands, the organisation primarily responsible for the industrial extraction of Irish peat is Bord na Móna, a semi-state company which was set up by the government in 1934 under the name ‘the Turf Development Board’. Since the inception of Bord na Móna proper in 1946, the company has been responsible for the development of 80,000 hectares of Irish bogs. Back in 2016, Bord na Móna rebranded themselves with the slogan ‘Naturally Driven’ and tried to position themselves as environmental stewards. The journalist John Gibbons called this campaign “profoundly, irredeemably dishonest” and “an exercise in cynicism”. He also quoted An Taisce as saying “We suggest they drop their new ‘Naturally Driven’ slogan and replace it with the phrase ‘Profit Driven’. Then Bord na Móna would at least be able to sell its business plan with a straight face”.

Abbeyleix bog had been owned by the De Vesci family since the early 1700s. In 1987, Tom De Vesci, who had previously attempted to have the bog designated as a heritage site, was coerced by Bord na Móna into selling the bog. “I was approached many times by Bord na Móna to sell it after my father died in 1983 and I always refused” Tom said in an interview. “But eventually I was informed that Bord na Móna would be taking ownership via a compulsory purchase order at a somewhat lower level of compensation than I would get if I sold it ‘voluntarily’ a few weeks earlier”. In 1989, Bord na Móna cut 66km of drains into the bog in preparation for future peat harvesting.

On Thursday, 20th of July 2000, Chris Uys, a member of the Heritage Company and now development officer for the Community Wetlands Forum, met with Jimmy Dooley of Bord na Móna to discuss plans for a walkway through the bog and to inform Jimmy of concerns regarding its development. The following day, locals noticed unfamiliar pieces of machinery on the bog, which had been delivered to the site by Bord na Móna overnight. Chris Uys raised the alarm in the community that development of the bog was about to begin. That Sunday, local resident Gary O’Keeffe parked a crane in the entrance to the bog under the guise that it had broken down during a bird-watching session in order to keep the rest of the machines out of the bog. By Monday morning, at least 50 people had gathered at the entrance to protest the development, with numbers swelling to around 100 by lunchtime.

After much pressure from the community, Bord na Móna finally agreed to carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in April of 2001. They found that the Abbeyleix site was of “little or no conservation value”, an assessment which both the Abbeyleix community and the Irish Peatlands Conservation Council (IPCC) considered “incomplete and inaccurate”. An ecologist by the name of Doug McMillan was invited to carry out an independent assessment of the bog. Having only surveyed 20% of the land, Doug had already found over 500 species, and could reasonably conclude that the bog was home to thousands of species, including a butterfly which was protected by the EU. If Bord na Móna really had carried out an EIA, they had either done a poor job or they had lied about the results.

In 2002, An Bord Pleanála found that Abbeyleix bog was not exempted from the requirement for planning permission. This was the first time in Irish history that a peat development went through the planning permission process. Bord na Móna, in true form, took high court action against both the Laois County Council and An Bord Pleanála. In 2008, an ecologist by the name of Jim Ryan carried out another survey, finding that only 1% of the raised bog was still intact and forming peat. I am stunned when Chris tells me that, like in Abbeyleix, only 1% of active raised bog in the country remains. In other words, we have degraded 99% of carbon-rich raised bog nationwide through drainage and peat extraction. In April of 2009, more than 20 years after they were cut, work began to block the drains in Abbeyleix. In April of 2012, the Abbeyleix community signed a lease agreement which meant that the bog would be in their control for the next 50 years, provided that it was primarily used for habitat restoration. David had beaten Goliath.

I met with Chris Uys in the lobby of the picturesque ‘Abbeyleix Manor Hotel’ on the outskirts of the bog. He has brought with him a textbook on peatlands and a folder packed to the brim with documents. When I ask him why peatlands are so important for biodiversity, he tells me that “the interesting thing about the biodiversity in peatlands is that the combination of plants and… the way they interact has a wider role to play than just purely the biodiversity that is there because it helps to retain water content, it has to do with carbon sequestration, and it supports other ecosystems”. He tells me that bogs are very important for breeding birds and that they link different ecosystems together like a natural corridor.

A walk through Abbeyleix bog feels like a walk through the history of this country. There is a calm here that soothes your aching bones like a hot bath. This is what is known rather robotically as a ‘cultural service’; one of many ‘ecosystem services’ provided by bogs like Abbeyleix. These somewhat stomach-churning terms are used by some environmentalists as an attempt to reframe the ecological crisis we have caused in the parlance of capitalism and thus convince business and industry to act. Gazing out over the endless beauty of this ancient landscape, I can’t help but think that it is downright insane to try and put a price on something that existed for so very long before our self-centred species ever dreamed up the concept of money.

Back in 1997, peat fires forced both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to close their airports for several days. The peat in question was burning over 1,000km away in Indonesia. Scientists have estimated that the CO2 released during this one fire was equivalent to 13-40% of the mean annual global emissions from fossil fuels. The carbon is not the only issue; the vast quantities of smoke released by the fire had serious effects on health, with studies showing decreased lung function in children who were present during the event. According to a study in Archives of Environmental Health, 527 people died in 2 months as a result of the smoke, with 58,000 cases of bronchitis and 1 and a half million cases of acute respiratory infection reported.  Fires like this have happened periodically over the last few decades, with one 2010 event in Russia leading to carbon monoxide levels in the capital that were 6 times the maximum acceptable level.

To the Irish, this all may seem like a distant threat, but were the Wicklow bogs to catch fire, the prevailing wind would carry all that lethal smoke right into the heart of Dublin. John Reilly, the head of the renewable energy branch of Bord na Mona, told me in an interview that “the biggest risk of wildfires is not posed by active peat production areas on drained peatlands, but rather the risk is high on virgin peatlands which are generally covered in vegetation such as gorse and heather”. He said that the major concern when it comes to fires was actually stockpiles of cut peat.

DCU-based peatlands expert John Connolly tells a slightly different story. “In one way he is right that the risk of fire (i.e. fire starting) on a drained industrial peatland may be less if all vegetation is removed. However, a lightning strike could start a fire and in that case drained peatlands are much more vulnerable than virgin (i.e. wet) peatlands”. Dr Connolly sent me a link to a 2016 study in ‘Nature’ which states that “the high burn severity of drained tropical/temperate peatland fires suggests that large-scale peatland drainage and mining in northern peatlands over the last century has also likely made managed northern peatlands more vulnerable to wildfire than natural (undrained) peatlands”. While there is an element of truth in what John Reilly told me, then, it seems that it was not the whole truth.

In 2006, an area of dried and cut peat the same size as Abbeyleix bog caught fire in the Irish midlands, leading to the evacuation of several Longford residents. While it was the stockpiles that caught fire rather than a bog itself, the incident shows how damaging peat fires can be. Smoke from the fire travelled 10 miles north. One Rooskey resident who had suffered from respiratory problems in the past was quoted in the Irish Times as saying “at the moment I am closing my windows and hope that will be enough”. A 2002 study of the Indonesian haze disaster, however, suggests that staying indoors only gets you so far in a situation like this.

They found that indoor concentrations of particulate matter were about half of what they were outside. That was a form of particulate matter known as PM10 because the individual particles are 10 micrometers or smaller in diameter. They could not find any difference, however, in the concentrations of fine particulate matter, or PM2.5, which are particles 2.5 micrometers or less. The researchers said that “perhaps the size of particulates was so small as to travel and intrude into any space; the concentration of pollutants was extremely high, and the indoor environments of buildings in Indonesia were rarely exempt from these pollutants”.

When asked about Mr Reilly’s claim that the presence of vegetation increases the risk of wildfires, Chris Uys replies that “from that point of view yes, that is so. But if you are talking degraded peatlands, degraded means that you have dried. For me, there is a higher risk… when the peat below the surface is dry and there is an ignition of anything above, it starts to smoulder underground as well”. Chris tells me that Abbeyleix has suffered from this very problem; “we had a fire at one stage, and you could just see smoke. On nearer investigation it was actually starting to simmer underground. It just keeps going”. While vegetation fires on the surface are manageable, the dried peat below can keep burning for a very long time and release a lot of carbon before it is extinguished.

Thankfully, Bord na Móna have been trying to get out of the peat business for over a decade, with over half of their revenue coming from non-peat-related activities in 2019. John Reilly, who has been doing excellent work building renewable energy infrastructure with the company, tells me that “Bord na Móna developed the first commercial wind farm in Ireland back in 1992, on a joint venture basis with the ESB, so we have some considerable experience in the sector”. They also announced last year that they were closing 17 of their active bogs, with the remaining 45 bogs to be closed within 7 years. However, some have said that this amounts to greenwashing, since the planned closures are of bogs that have been exhausted and are no longer profitable. As UCD peatlands expert Dr Florence Renou-Wilson put it in an interview with the Guardian, ““It’s a bit of a smokescreen. It’s all revenue-driven… they’re are all done and dusted”.

Bord na Móna is not the only company extracting Irish peat, though it is the largest. A company called Harte Peat has come under fire recently for carrying out large-scale peat extraction without a license in the Derrycrave bog in Westmeath. Photos released last year by ‘Friends of the Irish Environment’ showed that Harte had been cutting the peat right down to the mineral layer below, leaving almost no possibility of recovery. Peat that had formed at a rate of about 1 millimetre a year until it was several meters thick was stripped down to the bone in the geological blink of an eye, depriving animals of their homes and future humans of their right to security. This tragedy has played out countless times across the country over generations, leaving us with little more than a silhouette of the beautiful and important landscapes which once dominated the Irish midlands.

The degradation of Ireland’s peatlands doesn’t just threaten our health, it also threatens our wallets. New regulations require that we start reporting the emissions from our peatlands to the EU from 2021. Ireland is already facing hundreds of millions of euro in fines for failing to meet our emissions targets and this will bring us further off target. Chris tells me that “We were fined 150 million for this already… and we’re gonna be fined again until these people stop… Bord na Móna don’t get fined. It’s the government that gets fined. They merrily go on. They can go on for another 30 years if the government allow them. But we get that fine”.

When asked to what extent Ireland will be able to cope with these changes to EU law, Dr Connolly tells me that “the government and the EPA have made some investments in funding research and research infrastructure over the past few years. These investments will allow scientists to provide some of the detail that is required in the legislation, however much more investment is needed in research, infrastructure and rewetting/restoration as peatlands in Ireland are severely degraded and emissions are unknown in many areas”. But does this mean more fines for the Irish government? “It depends. If peatland emissions can be reduced to zero by the start of the 2026 reporting period, then no. However, current emissions are estimated to be about 11 million tonnes of CO2 … The reduction of these emissions to zero over the next six years will be very challenging.”

I ask Chris if Abbeyleix bog became a net source of emissions following the drainage and, if so, if it is back to being a net sink. “Possibly we are not a net sink yet… the higher the water level the less carbon emissions,” he tells me. “Then it gets to a point where it changes and it starts to give out methane emissions. There is a sweet spot where you have the least emissions. The other problem with degraded peatlands is that if you don’t have vegetation formation, (sphagnum), then it does not negate the methane”. The blocking of the drains has not been in vain, however. Whereas only 1% of the active raised bog remained in 2009, Chris reckons that as much as 10-15% has recovered in the intervening decade.

It takes time for peatlands to regenerate; all the more reason to block as many drains as we can as soon as we can. The light is beginning to fade from the grey clouds overhead as I slip and slide across the wet wooden walkways. The first few drops of rain begin to fall once more on the mounds and ditches of Abbeyleix. This beautiful landscape serves as both a cautionary tale and a beacon of hope. It showcases the terrible consequences of degrading our bogs, but is also a reminder that with elbow-grease, dedication and time we can undo some of the wrongs we have inflicted on the natural world.

Win Win Win Win: The Magic Science of Plasma Waste Converters

First Published in the UCD College Tribune

Humans have an incredibly extensive waste problem. Right now, most of that waste is sent to landfills where it takes up space for thousands of years, leaching harmful chemicals and gases into the soil and atmosphere. Alternatively, we send our waste to incinerators which burn it for energy, but which release harmful greenhouse gases (GHGs) and toxic by-products in the process. A large proportion of our plastic waste ends up in the ocean, where it strangles and poisons fish, seabirds and marine mammals. What if I told you that there was a way to get rid of almost any type of waste in one machine, that the machine would release no harmful chemicals or GHGs, and that the process would produce useful by-products and excess energy that could be sold back to the grid? Such a machine exists right now; the plasma waste converter (PWC).

While incinerators are able to extract about 15% of the potential energy from rubbish, PWCs can extract an incredible 80% through a process called ‘gasification’. Plasma is ionised gas, meaning that it contains roughly equal numbers of positively charged ions and negatively charged electrons. It is often called the fourth state of matter since its characteristics are so different to those of liquids, solids and gases.

One way you can make plasma is by creating an arc of electricity between two rods, then passing a gas like argon through it. This set-up is known as a plasma torch and can heat gases to a higher temperature than the surface of the sun. Plasma torches were invented by NASA in the 60s to test how much heat the hulls of their spaceships could withstand. The crucial difference between using a plasma torch and using an incinerator is that in PWCs, combustion doesn’t take place. That means no smoke, no GHGs and no ash. The plasma breaks down the bonds between atoms, separating them into very simple forms. Despite the extremely high temperatures, it would be wrong to say that the waste is being ‘burned’; rather it is being decomposed at an accelerated rate.

One of the products of gasification is, you guessed it, gas. This energy-rich gas, known as syngas, is largely made up of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. Syngas mainly comes from the gasification of organic matter. As the gas expands, it spins a turbine, generating electricity. The high temperature of the gas can also be used to evaporate water, generating steam to turn another turbine. The syngas itself can then be burned for fuel or scrubbed with water and released safely. Remember, all of this energy production and revenue is coming from rubbish. We are talking about the plastics that are decimating marine life. Metals, fabrics, wood, even toxic or hazardous waste from industrial run-off or medical facilities. This is stuff that we desperately need to get rid of and by getting rid of it like this, we can also take some of the stress off an already strained energy production sector.

The solid by-product of gasification is called ‘slag’. Slag is produced mainly from inorganic materials like metals. It can be used in construction to bulk up concrete and tarmac, making it a very useful commodity. The molten slag also pools at the bottom of the chamber and helps to maintain the temperature, reducing the energy consumption of the PWC. The real magic happens when you pass compressed air through molten slag to create a material known as ‘rock wool’. Rock wool is currently made by drilling into rock, melting it down and spinning it in a centrifuge. Made in this way, rock wool is sold at one US dollar per pound. When it’s made of rubbish instead, it can be sold at just ten cent per pound.

Rock wool can be used in a number of ways. As an insulation material, it is twice as efficient as fibreglass and could significantly decrease heating and air conditioning bills, further reducing the carbon footprint of gasification. Surprisingly, you can also hydroponically grow plants from seed in rock wool. Perhaps its most amazing use is that it can clean up oil spills. Rock wool is lighter than water and extremely absorbent. This means that if you spread it out over the surface of an oil spill, it will float and absorb all the oil. The rock wool can then be collected with relative ease. Slag and rock wool are two more saleable products that can increase the economic viability of plasma waste conversion.

PWCs are currently being built all around the world. Some plants are already so efficient that they need to take rubbish out of landfills to use as feedstock. There is even a mobile plasma torch on the back of a truck in the US which can be jammed straight into landfills, which act as makeshift gasification chambers. The need to reduce GHG emissions and simultaneously fix our massive waste problem has generated huge interest in PWCs in recent years. Landfills have only one way to make money; they charge you a ‘tipping fee’ for getting rid of your waste. Since PWCs can generate revenue from both energy production and by-products, they can make their tipping fees much more competitive.

So why haven’t these things solved the problems of pollution and climate change already? The answer is largely that PWCs are still a relatively new technology. The cost of building and operating one is still much higher than that of some of its competitors including landfills and incinerators. There has not yet been standardisation of the design and thus the huge and complex machinery must be custom-built every time. The energy needed to power PWCs is also very high, especially compared to incineration, which requires only a match. It must be said, however, that although it takes a lot of energy to run a PWC, you will very quickly make all that energy back and more. PWCs are extremely efficient long-term; unfortunately, short-term profits dictate much of what happens in society.

One worry is that by making waste a profitable commodity, we encourage people and companies to keep polluting with impunity. The best way to solve pollution is not to pollute more and then clean it up better. It is to reduce the amount of pollution we are producing, whether that is by reducing our individual consumption, or by researching innovative ways to package our goods without making a mess. There is, on the other hand, already a lot of waste out there, languishing in landfills and contributing to the decimation of marine ecosystems. The best thing to do with all that waste is to get rid of it with the fewest possible emissions and the most possible benefits. PWCs may be just the technology for the job.

The price of fossil fuels is slowly being raised by various economic policies to reflect the cost to life on earth and we need to find as many alternative sources of energy as we can. With countless landfills already full and the world still producing around 2 billion tonnes of waste per year, rubbish will not be scarce for a very long time. This really is a win win win win win. One machine can get rid of harmful waste, cut GHG emissions, produce fuel, energy and construction materials and clean up oil spills all while making a profit. An investment in plasma waste converters is not only economically sound, it is also an investment in the future of our planet.

Carbon Neutral Lent

Hello and welcome to Carbon Neutral Lent! This year, CNL is joining forces with Preserve Ireland and Small Change to bring you a series of podcasts, blog posts, resources and events that will help you to measure your carbon footprint this lent and find out which areas you can improve on. Every fortnight, we’ll be tackling a different topic in the events, podcast and blog posts. The four topics will be transport, electricity, heating and food.

Below is a free downloadable tool created by CNL founder Darragh Wynne which will help you keep track of your carbon in a way that is detailed enough to be accurate, but still simple enough to be doable. Thank you to Ellen Hegarty for the Irish version of the tracker!

“For people who want to take climate action but don’t know where to start, this is a great way to dip your toe in. Climate change is such a huge problem that it makes it difficult to stay motivated to make small changes, especially when you don’t even know how much of a difference it’s making. With our spreadsheet, you answer a few questions about electricity, heating, transport and food at the end of each week. It calculates your carbon footprint. You can make a change for the next week and see how much it brings your footprint down” – Darragh Wynne

FAQs

Does this carbon tracker give me my entire carbon footprint?

No. Most things we spend money on have a carbon footprint such as clothes, electronics. So do more abstract things like a Netflix subscription, a mortgage and the taxes we pay. By choosing electricity, heating, transport and food, we selected 4 areas where people can realistically reduce their footprint over the course of 7 weeks.

How accurate is it?

Accuracy varies across categories. For example, if you keep track of the amount of petrol you bought for your car, it can give you a very accurate reading of those emissions. For food, it’s based off the average footprint for different types of diets so the person’s actual footprint may differ from the measured one.

If it’s not 100% accurate, what’s the point?

Pedometers are not 100% accurate in measuring steps or calories burned but they are still useful to give people an understanding of general exercise trends and something to work towards. The carbon tracker will still be able to show you broad trends of your emissions and show you where you can
make reductions.

Do I have to go vegan, cycle everywhere and sit in the cold and dark at home to do this?

No. You don’t have to change anything about your lifestyle if you don’t want to. You can just use it to learn about your current emissions if you wish.

How is it Carbon Neutral?

At the end of Lent, when you see what your total emissions are, you have the option to contribute to an offsetting project.

How long does it take to use the tracker?

You answer a few questions before Lent starts and then answer around 10 questions at the end of each week.

Do I have to do all of it all the time?

No. You can just do one section if you wish and put as much or as little effort in as you want.

Who has access to my information?

Nobody. Once you download the tracker, only you will see the information.

Do I have to be religious to take part?

No. The project materials and events have no religious connotations other than using the concept of Lent itself.

Do I have to do complicated calculations?

No, you just have to check your electricity meter, gas meter, estimate how far you’ve travelled on public transport etc., put that into the spreadsheet and it calculates your footprint.

Can I use the spreadsheet for a full family?

Unfortunately, the current design takes account of just 1 person’s footprint.

If you have any further questions, please contact us on Facebook or Twitter.

Carbon Neutral Lent: Individual and Systemic Action

How do we solve climate change? Do we eat less meat? Turn off the lights? Fly less? ‘No!’, I hear you say, ‘we need systemic action!’ To a large extent this is true, but as with all things related to climate change, it is not quite so simple. In this piece, I will be playing devil’s advocate and putting forward some of the arguments for why individual action is also important. Please do not take this to mean that I am a puppet of the corporations.

Depending on who you ask, climate change is a policy problem, an engineering problem, a communications problem, an ethical problem; the list goes on. At its heart, however, it is a physical problem. Carbon is carbon. Climate change does not care about fairness. It will react to the quantity of greenhouse gases which are cumulatively released into the atmosphere, regardless of whether those emissions come from Exxon Mobil or from your meat, lights and planes.

The Guardian recently reported that just 20 companies are responsible for a third of all emissions since 1965. Those numbers can easily make one feel that individual action is a fool’s errand. Surely we can just shut down these companies and we’ll be fine? Again, it is somewhat more complicated than that. What does it mean for a company to be ‘responsible’ for emissions? Those who read past the headline of that Guardian article will have seen that while 10% of those emissions came from the extraction and transport of the fossil fuels, 90% of the emissions came from us, the consumer, burning the fuel for energy. The fossil fuel industry facilitates the burning of fossil fuels but we are the ones to pull the trigger.

Would these companies have produced those emissions if there was no one there to buy their oil and coal? Even now, would they be raking in the cash if we didn’t need their fuel for our cars or their energy for our homes? If there’s a market for it, then someone’s selling. If there’s no market for it, it stays in the ground where it belongs. That’s capitalism. Supply and demand. Don’t worry, I don’t like it either.

Of course, petrochemical companies like Shell do bear a disproportionate share of the blame, not least because they have between them spent vast sums of money trying to obscure the facts about climate change by funding right-wing think tanks, factually inaccurate media campaigns and the ‘research’ of a select few ethically suspect scientists. Think of the solar panels they could have built with that money.

Another major consideration is the massive gap in per capita emissions between the developed and developing world. There is a huge number of people in the developing world who emit next to nothing. The average emissions for the group of 47 countries categorised by the UN as ‘Least Developed Countries’ (LDCs) is 0.3 tonnes per person per year. The average for the rich 35 ‘Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’ (OECD) countries is 9.6 tonnes. That’s one hell of a difference.

The difference becomes even more stark when you look at individual nations. Per capita, the average annual carbon emissions in the US are about 20 metric tonnes. Burundi, on the other hand, are listed by the ‘World Bank’ as emitting 0.0 tonnes per person per year. In my view, there is no possible argument to be made that could justify that level of inequality.  

The fossil fuel industry is particularly culpable, yes, but so are normal people in the developed world. Our vast over-consumption precludes the possibility of an equitable redistribution of resources to the global south. We have gained a massive advantage over the developing world through colonialism and the burning of fossil fuels. We must now right those wrongs by fighting to restore some semblance of global equality. Perhaps that means sacrificing some of the things that we only have as a result of exploitation.

If we don’t reduce our individual footprints in the developed world, the very act of pulling people out of poverty in the developing world will lead to incredibly dangerous levels of emissions. The question is whether we should ask the rich kids to stop eating beef or ask the poor kids to stop eating at all. I know which seems fairer and more ethical to me.

Don’t get me wrong, individual action is not enough by itself. Not by a long shot. We do need systemic change. Among other things, we need governments to build renewable energy infrastructure and provide funding to retrofit houses. We need them to expand and green public transport, impose quotas on cattle herds, set targets for reforestation and protect marine habitats. Unfortunately, this all takes time that we don’t have. Especially at the pace we are going at. Again, climate change is a physical problem. While we argue over the wording of a document, carbon is accumulating in the atmosphere faster each year. Climate waits for no man.

While we fight for systemic change, we must also reduce our individual consumption in the developed world if we are to give people in the developing world time to improve their socioeconomic conditions. If you have quit the meat or stopped flying, that is a good thing. Your efforts have not been for nothing. You have reduced the global average per capita emissions, giving the developing world more time to reduce poverty before it has to start worrying about the resulting emissions.

In philosophy, a distinction is often drawn between necessity and sufficiency. While bread is necessary for a sandwich, for example, it is not sufficient. You also need a filling. I would argue that while both individual and systemic action are necessary in the fight against climate change, neither are sufficient in their own right. Systemic change takes time that we don’t have, and individual change does not give us the emissions reductions that we need. Together, they might have a shot.

In the developed world, we must fight the powers that be and force widespread systemic change. That is the most important thing we can do. In the meantime, however, we must also reduce our own footprints. That is the only way I can see for us to achieve a truly just transition. We cannot be expected to live carbon-free lives in a carbon-rich system. We can, however, be expected to try. Why? Because the alternative is so much worse.

Short Change: Artificial Visionaries

First published in UCD College Tribune

Researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland are investigating the possibility of partially restoring sight to the blind by using a device known as an optic nerve implant (ONI). The vision created by these ‘bionic eyes’ is known as artificial vision. The device works by bypassing the eyeball and sending electrical signals directly to the optic nerve, the pathway through which visual information reaches the brain. 

For cases in which this pathway is itself damaged, a device can be implanted directly into the visual cortex. One such implant, known as ‘Orion’, was recently used with great success to restore partial vision to 6 people who had been completely blind for a number of years. However, this surgery is quite risky. ONIs allow people with damaged eyes to recover sight without the need for invasive brain surgery. Macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa are examples of ocular afflictions that can be treated in this way.

The researchers at EPFL have shown that ONIs can produce specific and unique responses in the brain. This means that the artificial vision produced by the implant can theoretically inform the user about things like the location and movement of objects. When you close your eyes and put pressure on your eyelids, the flash of light that you see is known as a ‘phosphene’. In other words, phosphenes are the sensation of seeing light without any light actually entering the eye. This is roughly what artificial vision looks like, so people must undergo training in order to interpret what they are seeing. 

The WHO estimate that around 2.2 billion people worldwide suffer from some sort of vision impairment or blindness. That’s about 1 in every 3 and a half people on earth. It is easy to see how this technology could have a truly positive impact on the lives of countless real people. EPFL’s Diego Ghezzi has recently said that “from a purely technological perspective, we could do clinical trials tomorrow”. 

Kant Stop, Won’t Stop: Climate Action and the Categorical Imperative

Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher who is now famous for his concept of the ‘categorical imperative’. Similar to the ‘golden rule’ found in many religions (do unto others as you would have them do unto you), the categorical imperative works as a kind of handbook for determining whether an action is moral or immoral. The idea is that you should consider an action moral only if you could sensibly wish that all people in that situation would act in the same way. In other words, before you make a moral decision, you should ask yourself whether it would make sense for everyone to make the same decision.

This is known as the ‘test of universalisation’. If you can wish that a ‘maxim’ (a rule of conduct) be universalised, then that maxim is moral. If the universalisation of the maxim results in a logical inconsistency, however, that maxim should not be followed. This sounds like a complex idea, but once you start to analyse a few examples it becomes very clear. In this piece, I’ll be looking at some lifestyle decisions which are relevant to climate change through the lens of this rule to find out what Kant might have thought about climate action.

Consider the open-and-shut case of the maxim ‘I should kill people who irritate me in order to better society’. So what happens when this maxim is universalised? If everyone who was irritated resorted immediately to murder, society would break down. If irritation were a just cause for murder, I would’ve already killed several people today and I’m sure several people would’ve killed me. This is a society that is in no one’s best interests. More than that, it is the disintegration of society itself. The universalisation of the maxim ‘I should kill people who irritate me in order to better society’, then, is self-defeating, since it results in the breaking-down of the very thing it originally sought to improve; society.

Another example is that of lying. Kant thought that if everyone lied all the time, then truth itself would become meaningless. This generated what he thought of as a logical inconsistency. Usually people lie to gain some sort of advantage over the person they are lying to. If everyone lied all the time, that advantage would disappear and the reason you were lying in the first place would become null and void. A common criticism of Kant is that his rule is too strict and emotionless. People take the categorical imperative to mean that no one can lie at any time for any reason, since lying fails the test of universalisation. I think that this is a misinterpretation of Kant’s views. Consider this example:

Your friend knocks on your door, terrified. They tell you that a murderer is after them and ask for somewhere to hide. You agree. Sure enough, moments later a man wielding an axe shows up at the door and asks if you know where your friend is. People say that according to Kant, it is immoral to lie to the murderer because the categorical imperative forbids it and you must therefore tell the murderer where your friend is. I disagree with this interpretation. For me, the categorical imperative can be more specific than ‘should I lie’ or ‘should I kill’.

Consider the maxim ‘I should lie if it saves my friend’s life from a murderer’. I don’t think Kant would have any problem saying that a sensible person could wish that maxim to be a universal law. If everyone lied all the time, a logical inconsistency would be generated since truth would become meaningless. If everyone lied only to divert murderers from their victims, however, the only result would be a better world. Even if this interpretation misrepresents Kant’s actual views, I see no reason why this simple revision should not silence many of his critics.

Ok, now that we have a basic understanding of Kant’s idea, let’s try to apply it to climate action. Consider the maxim ‘I should drive to work every day’. Let’s universalise that. If everyone drove to work every day, the resulting emissions would have catastrophic consequences for the planet. Climate change would soon reach a tipping point and set off feedback loops that we would be powerless to halt. This would cause the economy to collapse, likely leading to the loss of your job.

As in the case of lying, the universalisation of this maxim defeats the purpose of what the maxim was trying to achieve in the first place. It is not helpful to get to work quickly and hassle-free if your job no longer exists. What’s more, if everyone drove every day then we would soon run out of petrol and then nobody would be able to drive to work at all. Those sound like logical inconsistencies to me.

What about ‘I should eat meat every day’? This falls into the same problem. If everyone ate meat every day, the resources and land required to supply all this meat would most likely exceed the resources and land available on planet earth. Already, one third of all ice-free land is used to raise livestock and we are nowhere near everyone eating meat every day. More than that, the methane emissions from the livestock would greatly accelerate climate change, leading to desertification of land and rising sea-levels, further reducing the land available to raise livestock. The ultimate effect of everyone eating meat every day is that it would quickly become impossible to eat meat every day, thus defeating the original purpose of the maxim.

I think you probably get the point but I’ll do another one anyway. What about the maxim ‘I should leave my lights on when I’m not in the room’? The net result of universalising this maxim is that the resources required to generate the electricity to keep that light on would quickly run out. In addition, the increase in the severity and frequency of natural disasters that would occur would greatly increase the chance that your home would be destroyed by a hurricane or flood, thus rendering your lightbulbs kaput. The effect of everyone leaving their lights on is that pretty soon no one will be able to turn their lights on at all.

You may be thinking at this point that universalising any maxim at all will lead to logical inconsistencies. Not true. If you go back and try to universalise the opposite maxim to the examples above, you will find that none result in such an inconsistency. I can wish that no one drives to work every day, since this would only result in cleaner air, less global warming and ultimately a better world.

Universalising the maxim ‘I should not drive to work every day’ is logically consistent, since the maxim can still be followed in the world brought about by the universalisation. In other words, in a world in which no one drives to work every day, it still makes perfect sense to say ‘I should not drive to work every day’. This does not mean that there can’t be exceptions made for people with disabilities or no other means of transport. As in the case of the murderer at the door, we can simply alter the maxim to be more specific. For example; ‘I should not drive to work every day if a viable alternative is available to me’.

What about the maxim ‘I should not eat meat every day’? If no one ate meat, the planet would be far better for it. We would increase the food available to us, since crop agriculture is far more efficient than animal agriculture when it comes to land and resource use. If you give 100 grams of protein to a cow, the meat that you get back will contain only 10 grams of protein, since the cow will use up the rest by walking, breathing and maintaining its body temperature. In a world in which no one eats meat, it still makes perfect sense to say ‘I should not eat meat’. There is no logical inconsistency there, since the universalisation of the maxim does not cause it to fall apart.

I won’t bother re-analysing the last example, since I’m sure you have the gist by now. I will, however, take this time to head-off an objection that I’m sure people will have. You may argue that it is not the actions of normal people which are causing global warming, but rather the actions of a select few who are producing emissions on an industrial scale. It is true that 70% of all emissions since the industrial revolution have been produced by just 100 companies, but this line of reasoning only gets you so far. Who do you think corporations are producing the emissions for?

Corporations only stand to profit from polluting the earth because we continue to pay them for it. To go back to Kant for a second, if everyone made a conscious effort to reduce their energy usage, then the companies who generate that electricity from fossil fuels would have no reason to continue ramping up their operation. It’s really very simple; supply and demand. So long as the demand for things like electricity and beef remains high, it is still profitable to burn as much fuel and raise as many cattle as you possibly can.

If the demand were to drop by, say, 50%, then the only way to keep the operation profitable is to reduce the supply by 50% too. This is because it is expensive to produce electricity and beef, and there is no financial incentive to make that initial investment if no one is willing to pay for the finished product. So while corporations carry the responsibility for producing the emissions, every individual in the western world has facilitated these crimes against humanity by providing a financial motivation for their continuation. It is for this reason that we cannot simply dismiss the impact of individual actions.

Anyway, my point here is that according to one of the greatest moral philosophers who ever lived, every action which contributes to or accelerates climate change should be considered immoral. To be clear, I am not saying that everyone who drives to work every day, eats meat or leaves their lights on is a terrible person. Necessity, cultural norms and misinformation have created a world in which climate-damaging actions are seen as morally-neutral standard practice. What I am saying is that given some reflection, those people should come to the conclusion that taking the bus, eating plants and turning the lights off would be better moral choices. No one is inherently good or bad. Our moral value is determined not by who we are, but rather by the thousands of tiny choices we make day to day.

People have a tendency to become defensive when it comes to their morality. They are not willing to accept that what they have been doing their whole lives was immoral, since the implication would be that they themselves are an immoral person. Consider the person who does and says blatantly racist things, but recoils in anger and disgust when they are accused of racism. The truth is that there is something wrong with the way we have been living our lives in recent decades, as evidenced by the fact that if we continue on our current path, life will become a daily struggle for survival before you can say ‘drive-thru cheeseburger’. What is needed now is for us to put our pride aside and accept that we fucked up, rather than retreating into a tortoise-shell of denial. Why? Because by the time we finally come out of our shells, it may be too late to change course.

Short Change: The Vampire in your Living Room

TVs, Printers, microwaves, chargers, DVD players, desktop computers and many other devices all drain energy when turned off or not in use. This drain is known as ‘vampire’ or ‘standby’ power and is responsible for a huge amount of energy loss each year. Since that energy is largely generated by burning fossil fuels, vampire power accelerates the rate of global warming as well as raising your electricity bill.

According to UC Berkeley, Americans lose 200-400 terawatt hours per year to vampire power; that’s enough electricity to power all of Italy! That is quite something, given that the US population is only about 5 times larger than that of Italy. Some investigations into vampire power have found that many appliances actually use more energy during the time when they are idle than they do when they are in use. One survey of office buildings in Thailand found that 90% of the electricity used by printers, copiers and fax machines was vampire power. In other words, it would cost 10 times less money and emissions to run these devices if they were simply unplugged when not in use. Another study found that 80% of electricity used by video recorders in Australia was used in standby mode.

So how can you identify an energy vampire? Unfortunately it is not as simple as throwing holy water at your devices. There are, however, some good rules of thumb. Anything that can be turned on with a remote control is likely an energy vampire, since the sensor which picks up the signal must remain on 24/7. Another likely culprit is any device, like microwaves or radios, which constantly displays the time on a screen. There are, however, many other devices which consume power when not in use but show no external signs of doing so.

This issue negatively affects both the bank accounts of the average consumer and the global effort to combat climate change. Compared to dismantling the fossil fuel industry or convincing everyone to stop eating meat, this is a relatively easy fix. One way to slay vampire power is on the side of the consumer. If you buy a couple of extension cords with on/off switches, you can easily cut power to things like TVs and printers when they are not in use. Try keeping your remote control beside the extension cord so that you can flip the switch when you go to pick it up. There is, however, only so much we can do.

The more promising solution to vampire power is technical and is the responsibility of electronics manufacturers. For example, energy-saving devices can be built which automatically cut power when not in use for a certain amount of time. Another example would be phone or laptop chargers which cut the power when the device is fully charged or unplugged. It is estimated that changes to the power circuits of devices could reduce vampire power by as much as 90%, so manufacturers have the power to largely fix this issue all by themselves. One problem with this is that consumers are more likely to buy, for example, a TV which can be turned on remotely, so manufacturers have an incentive to keep producing goods which drain power when not in use.

Cutting vampire power would allow us to supply many more people with electricity without a corresponding increase in CO2 emissions. Improvements in efficiency such as this will be necessary to fight climate change, but must occur in tandem with a number of other tactics, including a conscious effort to reduce energy consumption across the board. It is the responsibility of manufacturers and consumers alike (but mainly manufacturers) to be careful about how much power is being used, and to identify and eliminate any power drain which is not absolutely necessary.

A Salt and Battery: How to Store Sunlight

It has become common knowledge that humanity needs to change the sources of our energy at an unprecedented rate if we are to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Renewable energy systems are the most promising means available to reduce our impact on the earth without giving up the comforts of readily available electricity. However, an issue with some renewables like wind and solar is that the energy is only available sometimes. There is no solar power without sunlight and no wind power without wind. In this article I’ll be looking at a type of solar power plant which avoids this problem in a most ingenious way.

One way to solve the storage problem might be to connect all our renewable energy infrastructure to a massive international grid. What this would achieve is that excess solar power from a hot day in San Francisco could be used to power Beijing in the middle of the night, or excess wind power from blustery Ireland could be used to power gustless Brazil. This is a very good idea in theory but it has its drawbacks. Consider the sheer quantities of copper and rubber required to connect every solar and wind farm in the world to every home or business which requires their energy. And what about the time it would take for such an ambitious project to reach completion? Climate change is already here and will soon become entirely irreversible without swift and decisive action.  

So how else can we store and distribute renewable energy? The answer seems very simple; build a battery. If you need solar power at night, why not store the electricity generated during the day rather than transporting it to the other side of the world? This, however, is far easier said than done. The current generation of lead-acid (car) and lithium-ion (phone) batteries are remarkable works of engineering. They are not, however, up to the task of storing the amount of energy we need them to store without seriously depleting natural resources like rare-earth metals. We are badly in need of a breakthrough. Lead-acid batteries have been working on the same basic principle since their invention by Gaston Plante in 1859 and are still one of the most widely used rechargeable batteries on the market. In this article, I’ll be looking at a new way of storing solar power that may revolutionise the energy grid of the future.

‘Concentrating solar power’ (CSP) plants have been providing more and more people with electricity ever since they were first built on an industrial scale back in the 1980s. The difference between these solar plants and standard photovoltaic (PV) plants is the way in which the electricity is generated. In PV panels, solar energy is converted directly into electricity. In CSP, the heat energy from the sun is used to make steam which spins a turbine and this is what generates the electricity. This is roughly the same process used to generate power from coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear fission, incineration, plasma gasification and thermal wave power so the proof of concept is definitely there. The major advantage of CSP over PV is storage. If your plant is generating electricity directly from the sun, you need somewhere to store the electricity when it is not needed; a battery. If you are generating electricity from heat, on the other hand, you can store the sun’s energy in something called a heat transfer fluid (HTF). This is any fluid, like mineral oil, which retains heat well over time.

The most basic and widely used form of CSP is known as a ‘parabolic trough power plant’ (PTPP). The first documented use of this technology was Auguste Mouchout’s ‘solar steam engine’ in 1866. In PTPPs, mirrors focus sunlight onto tubes which contain a HTF. The mirrors are curved like those you might see in a house of fun and are arranged in troughs with the tubes of HTF running down the centre. Picture a hot dog but with mirrors rather than bread and tubes rather than a highly questionable meat-like substance. The hot HTF is transported through the tubes to a series of heat exchangers where it evaporates water to spin a steam turbine. If electricity is not needed at that moment, the hot HTF can instead be transported to a storage chamber from which it can be removed when the need arises for electricity. Once the heat has been converted into electricity, the HTF returns to the troughs to begin the process again. 97% of the CSP plants currently producing energy are PTPPs.

Parabolic mirror with tubes of HTF

PTPPs, however, are not the only type of CSP available. Back in 2011, a company called Solar Reserve received a loan of $737 million for a project called ‘Crescent Dunes’; a massive solar plant in the Nevada desert which can provide electricity to 75,000 homes, night and day. Crescent Dunes is what is known as a ‘power tower’ CSP plant. Power towers operate on the same basic principle as PTPPs, but rather than each mirror focusing sunlight onto a different section of tubing, all the sunlight is concentrated on one central tower. Focusing all the sunlight on one place means that the plant operates at much higher temperatures, greatly increasing efficiency. This design also does not require expensive curved mirrors like PTPPs. The plant instead uses ‘heliostats’, flat mirrors which track the sun and change their position to maximise the amount of sunlight hitting the tower.

The real genius of the project is what is contained within the tower. Inside the tower is a mixture of potassium nitrate and sodium nitrate; also known as salt! More specifically, saltpeter. Sodium nitrate is currently used to preserve certain foods and is the reason bacon goes green if left uneaten for too long. In power towers, the salt is heated by the sunlight reflected off the mirrors until it is molten and packed to the brim with energy. The salt is cheap and extremely good at retaining heat, acting as a kind of thermal battery. This means that power towers can continue to provide energy long after the sun has stopped shining. What’s more, salt can be used at much higher temperatures than any of its competitors. One issue with using molten salt is that it can freeze in the pipes. For this reason, new types of solar salt are being developed which have much lower melting points.

One apparent issue with this design is the effect on birds. If you have thousands of mirrors concentrating the blazing sunlight of the desert into one spot, any bird that is unfortunate enough to fly through the firing line could be killed by direct heat. There have even been reports of birds bursting into flames mid-air then crashing down to earth like meteorites. We have decimated insect populations around the world, depriving many birds of their food source, and scientists estimate that between 100 million and 1 billion birds die each year by flying into buildings in the US alone. Given these facts, it could be argued that bird deaths are an unacceptable side-effect of power towers However, recent studies of bird deaths in a number of power towers have shown that initial estimates may have been wildly exaggerated.

Back in 2014, a conservationist by the name of Shawn Smallwood very roughly estimated that Ivanpah, the world’s largest CSP plant, could be killing 28,380 birds per year. That number or anything close to it would indeed be unacceptable. However, at the same time that Smallwood made his estimate, a large-scale study was being carried out at the Ivanpah plant to see just how many birds were actually dying. After 8,935 person hours and 281 dog-hours of searching, the team found just 695 dead birds and 35 dead bats. Adjusting for the bodies that weren’t found or were carried off by scavengers, the team estimated that around 3,500 birds had died in the plant’s grounds over the course of the year. They estimated that only around 1,500 of those deaths were caused by birds flying into the tower or being burned by the mirrors. That’s nearly twenty times fewer deaths than the number predicted by Smallwood which tarnished the plant’s name in the media. The other 2,000 deaths were listed as ‘unknown causes’ which could have nothing to do with the power plant at all. To put these numbers in context, it is estimated that in the US alone, domestic cats kill 1.3 to 4 billion birds per year.

Another consideration is that the negative effects suffered by birds if climate change goes unchecked greatly outweigh the effects they will suffer from concentrated solar, particularly given the recent assessments which show that the damage to bird populations from CSP is far less severe than was previously thought. There is certainly merit to this argument. We need to develop and roll out effective energy alternatives very soon or else birds, mammals, fish and insects alike will all suffer the worst effects of climate change.

It seems that CSP plants are getting better and better at mitigating the risk to bird populations. Each year the number of deaths goes down as adjustments are made to what is still a very new technology. It may seem cold and calculated to talk of flaming birds like mere teething pains, but we need to make these kinds of hard decisions if we are to ensure that we leave a habitable planet to future generations of people and birds alike.  

In PTPPs, the sunlight is concentrated on a massive number of different points which are at ground level, meaning that the threat to birds is greatly reduced. However, there are a number of drawbacks. First and perhaps most important is that power towers are far more efficient at converting heat into electricity. This is partly due to the higher operating temperatures but is also affected by the surface area on which heat-loss can occur. If you concentrate all the sunlight onto one point, there is a much smaller area in which heat can radiate out into the atmosphere. Another major factor is how much of resources like oil, metal, water or salt are required for the process. In power towers, you only need enough HTF at any given moment to fill the relatively small space at the top of the tower. If you are constantly heating several kilometres of pipes, on the other hand, you will lose a lot more heat to radiation and use a lot more resources in the process.

Like many sustainable technologies, there are a number of advantages and disadvantages to CSP. When it comes to large-scale energy production, CSP seems to have PV beat, but If you are just looking to power your own house, PV rooftop solar panels are far easier to install and provide you with a personal energy supply. In the US, you can also make money from producing excess energy for the grid, with the UK set to follow suit in January of 2020 after much controversy and tomfoolery on the part of the government. Right now, good PV panels convert roughly 20% of sunlight into electricity but researchers think that number could theoretically be brought as high as 80% with a few breakthroughs. When it comes to deciding which type of CSP is best, I will leave that up to you.

Power towers are far more efficient and require far fewer resources to generate the same amount of energy. Despite initial exaggerations, however, power towers do pose a threat to birds, particularly if new plants keep being built. What’s more, they do not have a proven track record as long as their rival. What is certain is that if we do not transition to cleaner forms of energy ASAP, the consequences will be far more severe than most people think.

We will see an acceleration of biodiversity loss and an increase in the frequency and severity of natural disasters like hurricanes and floods. Large areas of land will become inarable, greatly reducing our food supply, and hundreds of millions of people will be exposed to extended periods of drought. Depending on which predictions are correct, the emissions reductions brought about by technologies like CSP could easily end up saving more lives than were lost to the holocaust. If that is not worth investing in, then I truly don’t know what is.