Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Christian Census on Climate Change - update

Back in December I posted some initial information about this project. Following some website updates, Emma Casson, the project's administrator, now writes:

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A Catholic group from the North East has launched the Christian Census on Climate Change. The initiative is intended to allow Christians from all denominations across the country to voice their opinions and produce lasting data for discussion.

From a Christian viewpoint, do people think that climate change is of little importance and untouchable, or is it something that needs to be tackled from both a scientific and moral perspective? We would love to have your views. For churches who would like to take action in the wake of the UN climate talks in Durban, the census is an ideal way to get congregations talking.

We would like as many people as possible from as many churches as possible to complete the census either online, or post it back to us. For efficiency, we would suggest that one person per church/meeting to become the ‘messenger’ and promote the census to the rest of the congregation. They then return completed questionnaires to us.

The deadline for completing the census is the end of March 2012. Results of the census will be released at a special event in York Minster on Saturday 21st April. The morning service will be led by Anglican Archbishop John Sentamu, Catholic Bishop Terence Drainey, Rev. Stephen Burgess (Chair of York and Hull Methodists), and leaders of other denominations. There will also be speakers from leading international environmental and developmental organisations. The afternoon will offer practical workshops on climate change and how congregations and communities can become more environmentally sustainable. Afternoon sessions to be held in De Grey Court, York St John University.

You can complete the census online or download and print s PDF. Tickets for the York Minster event are free and can be booked via our website.

For paper copies of the census or for more information, you can contact Emma Casson, Administrator for the Christian Census on Climate Change tel: 07879372999, email: CConClimateChange@gmail.com

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Woodbrooke has solar PV!

Almost two years ago (March 2010) I posted here about Woodbrooke's then new solar hot water. It's been working away ever since then, directly supplying our kitchen and laundry, which have heavy daytime use of hot water. This saves Woodbrooke money on our gas bill as well as reducing our carbon footprint.

Now we have solar electricity as well.

It was all brought forward and completed against the clock because of the government's sudden announcement about the changes to the feed-in tariff (this is the amount that you get paid for the electricity you generate from solar panels - it was originally set at a sufficiently high level to encourage people to install them).

The rate was always planned to be reduced from April 2012, reflecting the reduced price of panels, but the government tried to bring the lower rate in by mid-December, with little notice, and before the so-called consultation period had even ended. This caused great difficulty for householders, charities, local authorities and businesses who were part-way through getting an installation approved, and even greater problems for the whole renewables industry. Their willingness to invest in new technologies and staff training requires a stable, predictable business environment, which the government had, at a stroke, undermined. It has already cost millions of pounds, and tens of thousands of jobs are at stake.

Solarcentury, Friends of the Earth and HomeSun (representing three different kinds of interests in the matter) challenged the government in court and on 15 December the High Court ruled that the sudden change was unlawful. The feed-in tariff (FiT) rates were held at their previous level while the government appealed the decision. This week, on 25 January, the Appeal Court upheld the decision of the High Court. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has announced that it is seeking leave to appeal again, this time to the Supreme Court. However, the likely delay in such an appeal even getting to a hearing means that the FiTs may now revert to the original plan, decreasing from 1 April onwards, although this is not yet clear. This whole process has been an unintelligent and appalling waste, by the government, of time and public money .

So, here at Woodbrooke, we now know that our haste wasn't needed - but no matter: during all those bright, cold sunny days that we had in the middle of the winter, our panels were producing green electricty sooner than they would otherwise have done. Even with the sun low in the winter sky, our monitoring meter showed the kilowatt-hours clocking up.

Enough of the politics, here's more about our installation.

The side of Woodbrooke that looks towards the lake faces a little west of south.

When we had the solar hot water installed, the brackets to hold the tubes were placed off-square to the roof in order to face due south for maximum solar gain.

When it came to installing the solar PV panels, we had thought that the same thing would be done - brackets would be mounted on the flat roof and angled so that the panels faced due south.

However, this made less efficient use of the space - angling the panels due south reduced the number of them that could be fitted onto the available roof space. By keeping them square with the roof, more panels could be fitted, and this was beneficial overall - the slightly reduced generating capacity caused by the angle being west of south was more than outweighed by the capacity of the additional panels.

The whole array can be seen here. The system has an overall capacity of just over 10kW and will generate something over 8000kWh in a year.

There are two ways that we can monitor what is going on. A small unit, sited on a table in our entrance hall, gives a real-time readout.

And more detailed information can be displayed on the PC screen of the member of our management team who is reponsible for this aspect of Woodbrooke's work.

 And the panels are well hidden from view (important, as we're a listed building). From the ground, you can see hardly anything at all - to take this photo, I was standing on a bench!

For information on smaller domestic scale solar PV installation and operation, see

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Ecocide Trial - what happened?

Back last September, I posted here about the upcoming Ecocide Trial. Since then it's happened, of course, and received some good publicity.

Simon Hamilton, originator of the idea of the Trial, writes below about the outcomes so far. Simon has worked as a Chartered Accountant in industry and in private practice, set up and run secondhand bookshops, crewed hot-air balloons and worked in the voluntary sector heading up fundraising teams for major charities. He set up Three Hands in 1998, devising and managing fundraising and leadership development programmes in the UK, Uganda, India, Malawi, Brazil, Belize, Cuba and Nicaragua. In 2011 he started The Hamilton Group, which brings the issues of the Earth to the forefront of decision-making. He led The Hamilton Group’s organisation of the Ecocide Trial at the UK Supreme Court in September 2011. He has a growing knowledge of India and has taken small groups of people from the UK to visit organic plantations and conservation programmes in the Western Ghats.

All photos: Habie Schwarz  
Click here for more photos.
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On 30 September 2011, two CEOs were put on trial in the Supreme Court of the UK, charged with three counts of the crime of Ecocide. Michael Mansfield QC led the prosecution with Christopher Parker QC defending. The courtroom was packed, the press was in full attendance and the trial was shown live round the world on SKY television. Everything rested on the jury’s verdict. A normal, high-profile trial? Yes, in every way except for three things - there is no legal crime of Ecocide, the CEOs were actors and it was a mock trial.

But could all this change? In April 2010, UK Barrister Polly Higgins who is spear-heading the Ecocide campaign, proposed to the UN that Ecocide, the environmental equivalent of Genocide, becomes the 5th International Crime Against Peace alongside Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, Crimes of Aggression and War Crimes.

The definition of Ecocide is:
the extensive damage, destruction to or loss of ecosystems of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished.
Examples of ecocide that would fall under the proposed new law include de-forestation of the Amazon rainforest, the extraction of oil from the Athabasca Tar Sands in Canada, the huge BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, extraction of natural gas by ‘fracking’, bauxite mining of Niyamgiri mountain in India, and deep sea mining of the Central and Eastern Manus basin in the Bismarck Sea off Papua New Guinea.

The fundamental concept behind Ecocide is that the Earth and the natural world have rights but, under the laws set up by Humans, have little protection and no voice. This may seem by some to be far-fetched and not likely to happen anytime soon but in 2008, Ecuador became the first country to include Rights for Nature in its national constitution. In April 2010, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales Ayma called for the First People’s World Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. Over 35,000 people participated in Cochabamba, Bolivia, resulting in the Universal Declaration of Mother Earth’s Rights.

The Ecocide Trial was devised and set up by The Hamilton Group to highlight the arguments for and against a crime against Ecocide. The Supreme Court had never done anything like this before and it took a little while for them to agree. Their main concern was that the trial should not be seen to be providing a formal legal agreement to Ecocide. Although the legal teams and many volunteers gave their time for no financial reward, funds still had to be raised to pay for the venue, filming the trial and to cover expenses. Raising sponsorship was an interesting experience. Major law firms were thought to be likely to give support as a new law would give them more work. But they were very nervous of being seen to be putting their name to something that clients might be prosecuted under, and although they loved the idea none of them were prepared to be sponsors.

It took just 50 minutes for the jury to return with two unanimous guilty convictions of ecocide against the CEOs of Global Petroleum Company* and Glamis Group*. Both were convicted on charges of ecocide relating to oil extraction at the Athabasca Tar Sands in Canada, while the boss of Global Petroleum was acquitted of charges relating to the Gulf oil spill.

Michael Mansfield QC said after the verdict,
Companies cannot be given a licence to spill and kill provided they clear it up. The most pressing issue for any government in the world today, is the attack on our planet.
He is among those supporting the proposal for the UN to make Ecocide an international crime. Supporters include: the former Environment Minster, the Rt. Hon. Michael Meacher MP, who attended the day long Trial; Dame Jane Goodall; Sir Jonathon Porritt former Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission; Maude Barlow, author and Chair of the Council of Canadians, the World Future Council; representatives of numerous other international non-governmental organisations; and individual activists.

After the trial, Simon Hamilton, Chairman of The Hamilton Group, said
Ecocide should be on the Agenda at the Earth Summit in Rio in June 2012. The mock Trial proved that the crime of Ecocide is valid. The ethical and moral case for the banning of ecocides must now be at the forefront of decision-makers in Government and business throughout the World. We proved at the Supreme Court, that there is international interest in the passage of such a law and the Hamilton Group will continue to ensure that the implications are as widely debated and understood as possible.
Huw Spanner, Foreman of the Jury, said:
We reached unanimous verdicts on the two tar sands cases very quickly. It seemed to us beyond doubt that the two CEOs had willfully caused to be created large areas of water that were extremely hostile to life, and would probably remain so long after their companies had left the area. With regard to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we all agreed that the CEO of Global Petroleum was very guilty of something very serious - but was it ecocide? We had only half an hour to consider this question and, on the evidence presented to us, nine of us were sufficiently unsure to acquit him.

We found the whole experience fascinating. Although the 'trial' was very condensed, and the time we had to deliberate very short, we tried to approach our task like a proper jury.
Vandana Shiva, the renowned Indian physicist, environmentalist and member of the World Future Council, said:
The Ecocide trial is a very important step in waking us up to the violence which is the foundation of the current economy. We need another model that is non-violent, a model that makes peace with the earth. Ecocide must stop. The ideal of limitless growth is leading to limitless violations of the rights of the Earth and of the rights of nature. This is ecocide. We need to stop the destruction of the very basis of life on Earth and of human survival.
For Polly Higgins, the Trial was a huge boost, not only for the Eradicating Ecocide campaign but also as a test for her new law:
My hope and aspiration for 2012 is a commitment by Heads of State to make Earth Law at the Earth Summit. This is our number one priority: to have our leaders commit to Earth Law -- Ecocide and Earth Rights. We shall be seeking business leaders who are willing to take responsibility and support Earth Law, faith leaders to stand up for the Earth, and the people. We believe that the Earth has rights too. Our journey will be epic, and most importantly it will be a challenge -- but I believe we can do it together as one. This can be our legacy for future generations. Together we can eradicate Ecocide. I visualise a world where all nations have come together to decide what they can do to help the Earth and to help those most adversely affected by Ecocide; all nations working together to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war and to work towards peace. I visualise all nations reaching out to make sure those who need help in every way, be it financially or otherwise, and planning how best to ensure the health and well-being of all peoples. This was the vision that inspired the United Nations in the last century and is embodied in UN Charter, a document that was written by “we the people.” In this century, this year ‘we the people’ can stand again and call on our leaders to speak on behalf of people and planet. We can start now to create the future we want. We can do it in small ways and big, each step is equally valued, be it changing our own lives at home or work, writing a letter to a leader you believe in asking him or her to support our campaign, spreading the idea far and wide through your networks, donating or meeting with others you think could help. Each time someone does this, a new connection is made, which in turn can pass on the baton and carry the message further forward.
On 31st March, the two CEOs will be sentenced. The Hamilton Group, in collaboration with The Institute for Democracy and Conflict Resolution at the University of Essex is organising the process. The plan, if the Judge agrees, is to sentence them to a programme of Restorative Justice. How they respond when brought face to face with the inhabitants, human and natural, which have been extensively damaged by their actions will be interesting to see.

* 'Global Petroleum Company' and 'The Glamis Group' are names invented for the purposes of the trial.
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To see press coverage of the trial:












Monday, 9 January 2012

Last week, gardens - this week, houses!

One of the surprises among my Christmas presents was a book I hadn't heard about, even though it was published 15 months ago: Local Sustainable Homes: how to make them happen in your community by Chris Bird. It comes from the Transition movement and is published by Transition Books. It's also available as a Kindle ebook.

The author lives in Totnes, home of Transition. He's been a freelance journalist for many years, writing about sustainable building, and he helps run the Building & Housing Group for Transition Town Totnes.

The book covers lots of practical and technical matters, as well as being full of real-life inspiring examples and case-studies. It covers everything from building a roundhouse in the woods to refurbishing council flats in Sheffield, developing an eco-cluster in rural Dorset and overcoming the psychological barriers to change. It includes town profiles showing what has been achieved in Totnes, Stroud, Brighton and Sheffield.

The table of contents shows the scope of the book. Following an introduction from Rob Hopkins (founder of the Transition movement), chapters cover: What is sustainable housing?;  Making the case for change;  Sustainable housing in Totnes;  Refurbishment and retrofit;  Building together;  Sustainable housing in Brighton;  New build;  Social housing;  Sustainable housing in Stroud;  New tricks with old bricks;  Land, planning and finance;  Sustainable housing in Sheffield;  Materials and skills;  International and green - lessons from aropund the world;  A look into the future - Stroud, Brighton, Sheffield and Totnes in 2030.  There follows an extensive Resources listing.

As with all Transition publications, it's a fine mixture of the down-to-earth practical and forward-looking inspiration. This book would be useful to individual householders, looking for ideas and practical suggestions to make their own houses greener, and also to Transition or other local groups with larger ambitions for transforming housing in a street, a village or maybe even a whole town.

I've previously published some articles about greening homes on this blog. I posted about insulating roof spaces, windows and walls; and about my own experience of installing solar hot water and solar electricity. There's also a post about the experience of a Quaker meeting in Birmingham of greening its meeting house; and one about an urban new build eco house.

If you're fortunate enough to be part of a Transition community that has the ear of its local authority planning department, here are three other books that might be useful resources, either for your own group or to draw to the attention of a sympathetic/interestd local planning officer. They're all US-focussed, but have wider applicability.

Sustainability in America's Cities: Creating the Green Metropolis, edited by Matthew Slavin, published last year by Island Press. The editor is is founder and principal of Sustaingrup, developing clean energy technologies and sustainable buildings.

The book covers: the rise of the urban sustainability movement in the USA;  strategic climate action planning (case study of Portland, Oregon);  greening industrial districts (case study from Milwaukee);  the role of universities in green-tech;  case study of green building in Washington DC;  the greening of mobility;  clean energy;  sustainable management of storm water;  urban forest restoration (New York City case study);  greening the food supply in New York;  trends and prospects.

This is a technical/policy book - not recommended for the individual home-improver, but very useful if you're dealing with urban planning authorities and you want to give them inspiration and hard facts to help them raise their game.

Also from Island Press, and published last year, is Introduction to Restoration Ecology by Evelyn Howell, John Harrington and Stephen Glass. The first two authors are, respectively, professors of plant ecology and landscape architecture; the third is a restoration ecologist. The book is essentially a student textbook on the theory and practice of restoration ecology - you can read the very detailed table of contents on pp.3-7 of this PDF file. This book goes way beyond greening homes but it would be extremely helpful (for instance) for a group looking to bring a contaminated brownfield site back into use for eco-building.

And lastly (Island Press again), Intelligent Tinkering: Bridging the Gap between Science and Practice by Robert Cabin. The author is an associate professor of ecology and environmental science at Brevard College and has worked as a restoration ecologist. He uses the restoration of tropical dry forestland in Hawaii as an in-depth case study to investigate the scientific, practical, and philosophical issues associated with performing ecological restoration in the messy 'real world'. An approach he advocates is 'intelligent tinkering', following the work of renowned ecologist Aldo Leopold. In this model, practitioners employ the same kind of careful but informal trial-and-error strategy followed by such groups as indigenous peoples and hobbyist mechanics.

Again, this isn't a book for greening an individual home, but is an invaluable reference book for larger, more ambitious projects.

NB: the links above are, in each case, to the publisher's website, but all the books mentioned are available from your local bookseller or preferred online retailer.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Growing your own in small spaces - a crop of new books!

My New Year's Day ritual is to sit down with my seed catalogues and plan the coming year's veg growing. I mostly use The Organic Gardening Catalogue, supplemented by some of the more mainstream commercial companies for specific items. I'm also a member of Garden Organic's Heritage Seed Library, so I get to choose a few varieties to grow each year that are no longer (or never were) commercially available. This is always a delight.

You can grow tasty, nutritious salad, fruit and veg in the tiniest of spaces. It's deeply satisfying, and the miracle of seeds germinating each spring remains a profound delight year after year. If you've never grown anything to eat, try Garden Organic's One Pot Pledge . . . and you may find yourself hooked for life!

The 'bible' for growing your own in small spaces remains, in my view, the wonderful Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew (plus an updated edition available on Kindle and lots of clips on YouTube).
'square foot' raised beds,
plus cordon fruit trees
along fence
This is the method I use in my own small garden. I knew nothing about growing veg, and had assumed I couldn't possibly attempt anything in my tiny plot. Then I happened upon a magazine article about Square Foot Gardening, maybe 10 or 15 years ago now, and thought: I could do that. And I haven't looked back since.

But sometimes you need a bit more inspiration, and some new ideas, alongside the basic 'how to' book, and there's a crop of new and forthcoming books to help with that.

When I was thinking about fruit trees three years ago, I wish I'd had to hand Fruit Trees in Small Spaces by Colby Eierman. It's USA-based, so some of the information needs to be adapted for the UK, but with sections on: 'Home orchard primer', 'Fruit tree guide', 'Practicalities' and 'Fruit in the kitchen', it's a valuable addition to the small plotholder's library.

Also useful then would have been Vertical Vegetables and Fruit: creative gardening techniques for growing up in small spaces by Rhonda Massingham Hart. Part 1 is on 'The whys whats and how-tos of making food grow up', Part 2 is 'Vertical annual vines' (includes beans, peas, tomatoes, squash), and Part 3 is on perennial fruits. As this book is also American, notes on varieties and suppliers won't work in the UK, but a web search will easily find substitutes. On a personal note, I can add that I grow my courgettes each year from a trailing/climbing variety that I train up over a trellis, making very good use of a small area of ground.

Also recently out is The Edible Balcony by Alex Mitchell (a step on from 'one pot'!). He covers city balconies, roof-top gardens and terraces, covering issues of sun, wind, water, shelter, weight of pots, compost, plant food, pests and diseases, design, layout and planning. There are practical tips on specific crops suitable for balcony growing, a section on growing things you can't find in the shops, and a section on reused/recycled containers. There are photos to inspire you to make best use of your space, and projects ranging from the very simple to the more ambitious. There's even a section on keeping bees on your balcony, plus recipes and kitchen ideas. And if you're seriously ambitious, there's a chapter applying the permaculture forest garden principles to a balcony or roof terrace! This is a UK published book, so the suppliers etc are relevant to this country.

For more on container growing, there's Fern Richardon's new book, Small Space Container Gardens: transform your balcony, porch or patio with fruits, flowers foliage and herbs. Published in the UK, the chapters in this book cover: choosing containers; water, weather and climate; attracting wildlife; growing food; ornamentals; pests and diseases; basic gardening techniques and knowledge. Appendices help you with understanding plant hardiness, and also suggest suppliers and further resources. It's a good beginner's book.

Another American book is Ivette Soler's The Edible Front Yard: the mow-less, grow-more plan for a beautiful bountiful garden. It covers design, practicalities, organic gardening techniques, kitchen ideas, and how to keep the whole thing looking good (this is designed to be your front garden after all - but no reason why you couldn't use the ideas anywhere).

 After all this inspiration, you might want some more basic gardening nous if you're embarking on this for the first time. Try The Year Round Vegetable Gardener: how to grow your own food 365 days a year no matter where you live by Niki Jabbour. When I started with vegetables, the summer season was quite easy to get a grip on . . . growing food over the autumn and winter took me a while to get my head around. This is a very practical book that will help you with crops, timing, succession planting, use of of covers and protection to stretch the growing season, and so on. The 'further resources ' are US based, but the general advice and information can apply anywhere. 

And lastly . . . the trouble-shooting book: What's Wrong with my Vegetable Garden? by David Deardorff and Kathryn Wadsworth - this is a compendium of organic solutions for pests, diseases and crop failures. It's arranged first by crop name, and offers tried and tested advice for the organic grower . . . it's a US book, so remember you'll find 'courgettes' listed as 'zucchini' ! Then there's a section arranged by common problems and how to tackle them. Suppliers listed are US based, but there are plenty similar in the UK.

 So there you go - happy gardening!

NB: the links to the books are, in each case, to the publisher's website; however, all the books are available in the UK via your usual bookshop or online seller.