All the news today about the environment seems to be designed to induce guilt, and guilt often leads to feelings of helplessness. With COP28 looming, most of us feel like bystanders, especially as, once again, it seems that so many of the large corporations continue their profiteering and despoliation. Shell has just announced that it is cutting hundreds of contractors from its workforce amid a major efficiency drive by the oil giant’s new CEO as he targets bigger shareholder returns. Note: not to increase productivity, not to increase safety, not to help consumers but to feed hedge funds.
But there is good news. Both with companies and communities, environmental preservation efforts are happening outside of headline promises.
Interface aiming for carbon negative
Interface is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of carpet tiles with annual revenues of over $1bn and employing more than 4,000 people worldwide. Its green founder, the late Ray Anderson, set the company a goal called ‘Mission Zero’ in 2001, which aimed to ensure it had zero negative impact on the planet by 2020. The brand claimed to have achieved this in 2019, a year ahead of target, and has subsequently set itself a new target to become carbon negative by 2040.
Many Shell employees must be cringing. The CEO, Wael Sawan, busy laying off contractors to increase the shareholder value, will be unmoved.
Yorkshire’s own Citu
Then there is the sustainable developer Citu, also in Yorkshire (i.e., Leeds). Their mission: tackling climate change, by creating living space which radically reduces residents’ carbon footprint. Their project in Kelham Central, Sheffield has been a success.
Again, what a contrast with Shell’s mission.
Environmentally conscious farming
Farmers are also now beginning to recognise the destructive impact of fertilisers and insecticides, and understand the importance of the topsoil, a living regenerative force. Even in the USA, where farmers are subsidised by the government to use these chemicals, the word is getting out that they could farm naturally and make more money by not using the chemicals and not taking the subsidies.
In Australia, regenerative farming is now being accepted, not least because of the crop yields and the increase in potable water. But, for ex-farmers like me, it is the overall environmental effect that is most persuasive.
Here is a photo from Danthonia farm in New South Wales, Australia, after practising natural sequence farming:
This is because the farmer came across another Aussie farmer named Peter Andrews, who had given 40 years of his life to understanding how to regenerate the landscape, naturally. And his pastures showed it.
Introducing Eddie Andrew
Now, in Sheffield, we have our own farmer Andrews, Eddie Andrew, who farms just outside the city and practices two of the key attributes of any successful farm or business, namely, meeting customer expectations profitably – and cooperation.
Customers: One clear expectation is that the milk must be from grazing, not ‘factory’, cattle. So, as much milk as possible comes from grass, with some 2/3rds of the farm comprising grazed pasture or silage.
Cooperation: The marketing strategy includes the family’s well known Our Cow Molly brand and the farm works with two neighbouring dairy farms to reduce its environmental footprint and input costs. Milk and ice cream are sold and marketed under the family’s Our Cow Molly brand. The next step is shared machinery. This is what could be called an ‘eco-zone’.
But Andrew has an even stronger cooperative strategy. He partners with a key customer – Sheffield University – to help reduce the plastics carbon footprint by resorting to old-fashioned churns.
As Andrew said: “I saw Peter Anstess, head of retail at the University, and with an old milk churn and a Tetley’s hand pull demonstrated a very agricultural first version of our idea for reusable milk churns.” (It is not for nothing that Andrew was first trained as an engineer)
This has now developed into a fully functional circular system and is saving plastic waste every day by over 80,000 bottles a year, reducing the carbon footprint of the milk delivery by over 65%.
Here is a great case study of the power of supply chain partnering when it is matched by interdisciplinary, collaborative working by the university. Heeley Farm with its Heeley Energy House is the standout example of a Sheffield energy and community initiative. But there are also other examples of local Yorkshire green initiatives. Three community energy examples were presented – Sheffield Renewables in Sheffield, Can’t Wait to Insulate in Rotherham and then there is Energise Barnsley, which former South Yorkshire mayor, Dan Jarvis described as “a fantastic example of a community energy initiative between the council and a community benefit society”.
And here we go again – cooperation works!
We are the victims of some of the worst government neglect since the 1920s. This and the decade of deliberate underfunding of the local councils has led to great inequality and diminishment in the quality of living. The price of energy has probably been the biggest shock to household budgets. So, it really is time to take our fortune into our own hands, so this is where our thinking must start to get really radical.
The first step is to stop feeling guilty and helpless about the damage being done to nature. We need to begin again and start understanding and having the deepest respect for the gifts she has for us. Yorkshire is rich in nature. Sheffield alone has 60% green space and 250 parks, woodlands and gardens, plus 4.5 million trees. Can the residents identify many of the trees or flowers? A hundred years ago the answer would be yes. Today it is no – but I can see a photo on my smartphone.
We live as foreigners in nature. We must get back to‘knowing it’, as Rachel Carson urged us to do 60 years ago, and develop a sense of wonder at, not just its topography, but also its gifts of water, sun and wind, all of which have supplied the energy the world needed for millions of years.
Community and natural energy
Central government is not delivering. Even at the local government level too many councils have become corporatised, using models of so-called efficient businesses to run their towns and cities, disastrously. Sheffield today is a far cry from the city of 1926 when the first Labour Council resurrected a broken citizenry – with almost no funds.
We need to get back to our resilient strong, self-sufficient, neighbourly communities again, says Chris Cook, Senior Fellow at the UCL Institute for Security & Resilience Studies (ISRS) and alumnus of Sheffield University. This begins with communities using local natural energy – the energy of the place – to provide the power needed, a natural grid. We hope this will be a model for Labour’s well thought-out Local Energy Plan, led by the Co-operative Party’s Dr Alan Whitehead.
Here is how it is done.
The economics of natural grids in Denmark
Denmark’s transformation of a centralised fossil fuelled national grid towards a distributed natural grid, drawing on their natural power and other energy resources, owed everything to the 1973 ‘Oil Shock’, ie 400% increase in $ oil prices and Denmark’s need for economic and resource resilience.
If resilient local infrastructure is networked in local energy generation then the result will be regional and national resilience. In other words, resilience, security and independence are bottom up – not top down.
Denmark was the first country to adopt this principle. In 1973 the oil price increase from $3 to $12 per barrel exposed Denmark’s 90% reliance on fossil fuels. Denmark focused on least resource cost, as opposed to least financial cost per BTU (British thermal unit) used. This is a vital difference. The diagrams below show the huge increase in local energy generation as against the centralised power generating centres from 1990 to 2014.
This meant changing from a few national power generating centres to a host of local natural grids using the local capacity and empowered communities.
The government mandated that, for any given use of heat, transport, power, light and other energy services, the purchase of oil and gas as a commodity would be minimised. This principle was applied across all possible energy services and led to the development of renewable energy systems and companies. It also led to heat infrastructure throughout Denmark, notably combining heat and power; district heating, heat storage and finally a massive investment in energy efficiency in buildings, and in zero waste generally.
The outcome has been that since 1973 while Denmark’s GDP has doubled, their use of energy has declined and their use of carbon fuels (and CO2 production), in particular, has declined significantly.
A Northern Conversation Conference
Cook and colleagues of the Institute will be leading A Northern Conversation: Energy Independence for Community Empowerment at Sheffield University Halifax Hall on 19 November, where participants will experience the very latest innovative applications.
They will explore local initiatives as well as the unique work of the University of the South Pacific & Island Power. This is a UK energy initiative master-minded by Cook and his colleague Marcus Saul, who works in the South Pacific. The leader of the Island Power initiative is group Nobel Prize winner and senior fellow at the ISRS, Professor Elisabeth Holland, who will be the guest speaker.
Eco zones will benefit Yorkshire
By re-energising communities and restoring natural resilience, Eco zones address the degraded, socio-economic and natural ‘ecologies’ of our places – whether they are islands, towns, cities or semi-rural hinterlands. With Eco zones, Yorkshire will be on its way to real independence.