Last year was one of the greenest for power in the UK. Nearly one-third of all electricity came from renewable sources, and wind and solar provided more power than coal on 315 days of the year. Rapid growth in both solar and wind (the UK now has more offshore wind power capacity than any other country in the world) has enabled the UK to achieve these impressive statistics, but will the rise in renewables also make UK power more vulnerable to the whims of British weather?
Researchers working on the European Climatic Energy Mixes project have been investigating future risk by assessing how the UK would fare with a repeat of the unusually cold winter of 2009-10. From mid-December 2009 a southward-displaced jet stream allowed cold air to pour in from eastern Europe, bringing widespread snow and plunging temperatures. The mean UK temperature for the entire winter was just 1.5C, the lowest since 1978-79 when it was 1.2C . As a result power demand surged, with electricity consumption between 10 and 20% above average on a number of occasions.
Back in 2010 renewables provided less than 10% of UK electricity. But similar weather now might create a strain. “The low wind conditions in a repeat of winter 2009-10 would lead to a substantial reduction in wind power production over the season, which could lead to increased risks to electricity supply availability when combined with an increased demand due to low temperatures,” writes meteorologist Emma Suckling from the University of Reading. Winters like this might be getting rarer, but we still need a contingency plan when the wind fails to blow.
This year I’m going real. Given the plastic pandemic, my goodwill doesn’t extend to manufacturers of oil-based fake trees shipped across the globe.
From an ecological point of view, all cut trees are imperfect. Three-quarters of the trees put up this Christmas in the UK will be grown here (this at least cuts down on tree miles). But these trees are raised on plantations that are as quick growing as possible. They are not carefully calibrated forests for the benefit of the future.
A standard UK forestry guide I came across cheerfully recommended to growers that they apply glyphosate in summer (this is the weedkiller that controversially just had its licence renewed in the EU) and a spritz of another pesticide in the winter.
There are few agronomic studies of Christmas tree growing. But one from US researchers reports that pesticide residues are not found on harvested trees by Christmas. If that offers cold comfort, seek out a certified organic tree.
Christmas trees are grown from seed held in cones and stored in the crown 30m above ground – these are then collected by cone pickers. The seeds for our plantations largely come from Georgia. Here, campaigns on the human cost of the industry have uncovered exploitation and dangerous working conditions. In 2010 a Danish company started to produce fair trade Christmas trees grown by workers paid a fair wage in decent conditions.
Of course, by Boxing Day it is hard to remember that the disco ball in the corner is a forest product at all, let alone that it needs returning to the earth as mulch via a recycling scheme. But this is your chance to claw back some eco advantage. Better still, if you’ve got a good-quality potted tree, shake the tinsel, replant and nurture for the next 12 months.
The big picture: watching Alaska’s whales
Advanced drone technology in the form of the Parley SnotBot was recently sent on an expedition to study whales in Alaska. Finds included the identification of a whale from a past expedition and a confirmed pregnancy in another, all discovered without the need to leave the boat and disturb the whales. It has been described as the new frontier of non-invasive marine research.
Well dressed: get a head start with a carbon fibre helmet
To wear or not to wear? As the debate over cycling helmets and whether they should be mandatory rumbles on, the idea of designing better helmets seems to have been eclipsed.
But Catherine Bedford has been quietly getting on with designing a small, lightweight carbon fibre helmet. Bedford, with a background as a designer of accessories for luxury brands, has transferred values around premium craftsmanship into her helmet design.
The carbon fibre shell is hand-finished by a family-owned factory in Cornwall which manufactures helmets for the military and marine industry, and the harness webbing is sourced from Derbyshire.
Already featured as ‘an accessory of the future’ at last year’s Cycle Revolution exhibition at the Design Museum, the Dashel helmet has now arrived.
‘Everybody gets paralysed by bad news because they feel helpless,” says Christiana Figueres, the former UN climate chief who delivered the landmark Paris climate change agreement. “It is so in our personal lives, in our national lives and in our planetary life.”
But it is becoming increasingly clear that it does not need to be all bad news: a series of fast-moving global megatrends, spurred by trillion-dollar investments, indicates that humanity might be able to avert the worst impacts of global warming. From trends already at full steam, including renewable energy, to those just now hitting the big time, such as mass-market electric cars, to those just emerging, such as plant-based alternatives to meat, these trends show that greenhouse gas emissions can be halted.
“If we were seeing linear progress, I would say good, but we’re not going to make it in time,” says Figueres, now the convener of the Mission 2020 initiative, which warns that the world has only three years to get carbon emissions on a downward curve and on the way to beating global warming. “But the fact is we are seeing progress that is growing exponentially, and that is what gives me the most reason for hope.”
No one is saying the battle to avert catastrophic climate change – floods, droughts, famine, mass migrations – has been won. But these megatrends show the battle has not yet been lost, and that the tide is turning in the right direction. “The important thing is to reach a healthy balance where we recognise that we are seriously challenged, because we really have only three years left to reach the tipping point,” says Figueres. “But at the same time, the fact is we are already seeing many, many positive trends.”
Michael Liebreich, the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, agrees. “The good news is we are way better than we thought we could be. We are not going to get through this without damage. But we can avoid the worst. I am optimistic, but there is a long way to go.”
Also cautiously hopeful is climate economist Nicholas Stern at the London School of Economics. “These trends are the start of something that might be enough – the two key words are ‘start’ and ‘might’.” He says the global climate negotiations, continuing this week in Germany and aiming to implement the Paris deal, are crucial: “The acceleration embodied in the Paris agreement is going to be critical.”
1. Methane: getting to the meat
Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is the main greenhouse gas, but methane and nitrous oxide are more potent and, unlike CO2, still rising. The major source is livestock farming, in particular belching cattle and their manure.
The world’s appetite for meat and dairy foods is rising as people’s incomes rise, but the simple arithmetic is that unless this is radically curbed, there is no way to beat global warming. The task looks daunting – people hate being told what to eat. However, just in the last year, a potential solution has burst on to the market: plant-based meat, which has a tiny environmental footprint.
What sounds like an oxymoron – food that looks and tastes just as good as meat or dairy products but is made from plants – has attracted heavy investment. The buzz is particularly loud in the US, where Bill Gates has backed two plant-based burger companies and Eric Schmidt, formerly CEO of Google, believes plant-based foods can make a “meaningful dent” in tackling climate change.
New plant-based products, from chicken to fish to cheese, are coming out every month. “We are in the nascent stage,” says Alison Rabschnuk at the US nonprofit group the Good Food Institute. “But there’s a lot of money moving into this area.”
Plant-based meat and dairy produce is not only environmentally friendly, but also healthier and avoids animal welfare concerns, but these benefits will not make them mass-market, she says: “We don’t believe that is what is going to make people eat plant-based food. We believe the products themselves need to be competitive on taste, price and convenience – the three attributes people use when choosing what to eat.”
Plant-based milks – soya, almond, oat and more – have led the way and are now about 10% of the market and a billion-dollar business in the US. But in the past year, sales of other meat and dairy substitutes have climbed 8%, with some specific lines, such as yoghurt, shooting up 55%. “I think the writing’s on the wall,” says Rabschnuk. Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson agrees. “I believe that in 30 years or so we will no longer need to kill any animals and that all meat will either be [lab] or plant-based, taste the same and also be much healthier for everyone.”
2. Renewable energy: time to shine
The most advanced of the megatrends is the renewable energy revolution. Production costs for solar panels and wind turbines have plunged, by 90% in the past decade for solar, for example, and are continuing to fall. As a result, in many parts of the world they are already the cheapest electricity available and installation is soaring: two-thirds of all new power in 2016 was renewable.
This extraordinary growth has confounded expectations: the respected International Energy Agency’s annual projections have anticipated linear growth for solar power every year for the past decade. In reality, growth has been exponential. China is leading the surge but the impact is being felt around the world: in Germany last week there was so much wind power that customers got free electricity.
In the US, enthusiasm for green energy has not been dented by President Donald Trump committing to repeal key climate legislation: bn has been invested since he signed an executive order in March. “I am no longer concerned about electric power,” says Figueres.
3. King coal: dead or dying
The flipside of the renewables boom is the death spiral of coal, the filthiest of fossil fuels. Production now appears to have peaked in 2013. The speed of its demise has stunned analysts. In 2013, the IEA expected coal-burning to grow by 40% by 2040 – today it anticipates just 1%.
“Last year, I said if Asia builds what it says it is going to build, we can kiss goodbye to 2C” – the internationally agreed limit for dangerous climate change – says Liebreich. “Now we are showing coal [plans] coming down.” But he warns there is more to do.
Solar and wind are cheaper than new coal, he says, but a second tipping point is needed. That will occur when renewables are cheaper to build than running existing coal plants, meaning that the latter shut down. If renewable costs continue to fall as expected, this would happen between 2030 and 2040. At that point, says Liebrich, “Why keep digging coal out of the ground when you could just put up solar?”
4. Electric cars: in the fast lane
Slashing oil use – a third of all global energy – is a huge challenge but a surging market for battery-powered cars is starting to bite, driven in significant part by fast-growing concerns about urban air pollution.
China, again, is leading the way. It is selling as many electric cars every month as Europe and the US combined, with many from home-grown companies such as BYD. US-based Tesla is rolling out its more affordable Model 3 and in recent months virtually all major carmakers have committed to an electric future, with Volvo and Jaguar Land Rover announcing that they will end production of pure fossil-fuelled cars within three years.
“We have a domino effect now,” says Figueres. These cars are “now being made for the mass market and that is really what is going to make the transformation”.
“I don’t think it is going to slow down,” says Viktor Irle, an analyst at EV-volumes.com. Drivers can see the direction of travel, he says, with a stream of choked cities and countries from Paris to India announcing future bans on fossil-fuelled cars.
It is true that global sales of electric cars have now achieved liftoff, quadrupling in the past three years, but they still make up only 1.25% of all new car sales. However, if current growth rates continue, as Irle expects, 80% of new cars will be electric by 2030.
Batteries are key to electric cars and, by storing energy for when the sun goes down or the wind stops blowing, they are also vital when it comes to enabling renewable energy to reach its full potential. Here too, a megatrend is crushing prices for lithium-ion batteries, which are down 75% over the past six years. The International Renewable Energy Agency expects further falls of 50-66% by 2030 and a massive increase in battery storage, linked to increasingly smart and efficient digital power grids. In the UK alone, government advisers say a smart grid could save bill-payers £8bn a year by 2030, as well as slashing carbon emissions.
Fears that lithium-ion, the technology that dominates today, cannot be scaled up sufficiently are overblown, argues Liebreich, as the metal is not rare. “I think lithium-ion is a banker in that you can be sure it will get cheaper and you can be sure there is enough.” He is also frustrated by frequent claims that a grid based on renewables and storage cannot be cheap and reliable: “That stupidity and absolute certainty is in inverse proportion to any knowledge of how you run an electrical system.”
It is true, however, that batteries will not be the solution for energy storage over weeks or months. For that, long-distance electricity interconnectors are being built and the storage of the energy as gas is also being explored.
6. Efficiency: negawatts over megawatts
Just as important as the greening of energy is reducing demand by boosting energy efficiency. It’s a no-brainer in climate policy, but it can be very tricky to make happen, as it requires action from millions of people.
Nonetheless, good progress is being made in places such as the EU, where efficiency in homes, transport and industry has improved by about 20% since 2000. Improving the efficiency of gadgets and appliances through better standards is surprisingly important: a new UN Environment Programme report shows it makes the biggest impact of any single action bar rolling out wind and solar power.
But again, continued progress is vital. “We need to drive energy efficiency very, very hard, even for European countries,” says Prof Kevin Anderson at the University of Manchester. “We could power down European energy use by about 40% in something like 10-15 years, just by making the most efficient appliances available the new minimum.”
In countries with cool winters, better insulation is also needed, particularly as a fossil fuel – natural gas – currently provides a lot of heating. “What is a crime is every time a building is renovated but not renovated to really high standards,” says Liebreich, who thinks labelling such homes as “zero-energy-bill” homes, not “zero-carbon” homes, would help overcome opposition.
The destruction of forests around the world for ranching and farming, as well as for timber, causes about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions. This is the biggest megatrend not yet pointing in the right direction: annual tree losses have roughly doubled since 2000.
This is particularly worrying as stopping deforestation and planting new trees is, in theory at least, among the cheapest and fastest ways of cutting carbon emissions. But it is not getting the support it needs, says Michael Wolosin at Forest Climate Analytics. “Climate policy is massively underfunding forests – they receive only about 2% of global climate finance.” Furthermore, the .3bn committed to forests by rich nations and multilateral institutions since 2010 is tiny compared with the funding for the sectors that drive deforestation. “Brazil and Indonesia’s governments alone invested 6bn in the same timeframe, in just the four key driver commodities: palm oil, soy, beef and timber,” says Franziska Haupt at Climate Focus.
In the past two decades, tree-planting in China, India and South Korea has removed more than 12bn tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere – three times the entire European Union’s annual emissions, Wolosin says. This action was driven by fears about flooding and food supply, meaning that global warming needs to be seen as equally urgent in this sector. Regrowing forests can also play a crucial role in sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, which is likely to be necessary after 2050, unless very sharp cuts are made now.
The race against time
Will these megatrends move fast enough to avoid the worst of climate change? Opinions vary and Anderson is among the most hawkish. He says it remains possible for now, but is pessimistic that the action will be taken. “We’re pointing in the right direction but not moving [there]. We have to not just pursue renewables and electric vehicles and so forth, we have to actively close down the incumbent fossil fuel industry.”
Stern is cautiously optimistic, saying that what has changed in recent years is the realisation that green economic growth is the only long-term option: “There is no long-run high-carbon growth story because it creates an environment so hostile that it turns development backwards.
“There are some tremendous developments so I am very confident now we can do this, but the change, attractive as it is, has to be radical,” he says. “Will we have the political and economic understanding and commitment to get there? I hope so.”
So where is progress happening? We asked readers to send us examples and here we explore three ways businesses are trying to curb plastics use. Do you have other examples? Add them to the comments below or tweet them to us @GuardianSustBiz and we’ll share the best examples on our Twitter feed over the coming week.
1. Minimising packaging
If you’ve been at the receiving end of an online purchase that has come swamped in plastic in an oversized box you’ll know how frustrating it can be. The answer seems simple – pack the product in something smaller and minimise the need for so-called void fillers such as polystyrene chips inside. Yet companies are often constrained by the limited range of box sizes available.
Meet Slimbox, a machine which helps companies create customised packaging boxes in-house to reduce cardboard and filler waste. At €25,000 (£23,100) per machine, Slimbox CEO Filip Roose says he’s aware how important return on investment is to his customers.
“We’ve calculated that if a company sends at least 30 packages a day then it should get a return on investment after approximately two years,” says Roose. “The more they send, the shorter this timeframe.”
As well as reducing costs over time, Roose highlights the environmental benefits: “Yes you reduce packaging use, but you also reduce carbon emissions by being able to transport more packages at once.”
A number of shops now offer people the ability to bring in their own Tupperware, bottles and jars to refill with items like pulses, nuts, grains and washing-up liquid.
Splosh has taken this concept online, enabling customers to buy concentrated laundry and cleaning product refills, which arrive by post in plastic pouches that can then be posted back to the company free of charge for re-use.
“The problem of plastic waste cannot be solved while we still buy from supermarkets, because single-use plastics are essential to their business model,” says Angus Grahame, founder of Splosh.”
Splosh’s refillable concentrates, says Grahame, enable customers to cut plastic waste for most laundry, home cleaning and personal care products by around 95%. “We believe the move to the circular economy is about massive new business model opportunity rather than tweaking decades old systems as the likes of Unilever are trying to do,” he adds. “The value destruction to existing brands when it happens, and it will happen quickly, will be awesome.”
3. Banning plastics altogether
London’s Borough Market has pledged to phase out sales of all single-use plastic bottles over the next six months, offering free drinking water from newly installed fountains instead.
Similarly, some bars and restaurants have started to ban straws in an effort to reduce the volume of plastics that end up in the oceans. The city of Seattle is taking this a step further next month with its Strawless September campaign to get local businesses to switch to paper alternatives where necessary, and ditch straws altogether where possible.
Despite Marks & Spencer’s “apple tubes” and plastic-wrapped plastic cutlery, the company has been exploring innovative alternatives to plastic packaging. By tattooing avocados rather than using produce stickers, for example, it intends to save 10 tonnes of plastic labels and backing paper and five tonnes of adhesive every year.
Cosmetics company Lush takes a very clear position when it comes to packaging: the ideal is none at all (approximately half of Lush products can be purchased without any packaging, according to the company website). By creating a solid shampoo bar, Lush claims it saves nearly 6m plastic bottles globally every year. What’s more, since the bars are more concentrated than liquid shampoo, less is needed per wash, resulting in lower carbon emissions from transportation.
Have you got any other examples? Add them to the comments below or tweet them to us @GuardianSustBiz.
The idea has the backing of global drinks company Coca-Cola and comes amid warnings that the worldwide plastics binge poses as serious a threat as climate change.
Sue Hayman, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, urged the government to take swift action. “A deposit return scheme would have widespread public support and would go a long way to ensuring that we recycle as much of our waste as possible,” she said.
Kate Parminter, environment spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, said momentum was growing behind calls for a deposit return scheme. “Earlier this year, Coca-Cola said to the Scottish parliament they would back a well-designed deposit return scheme,” she said. “Now that industry are backing this scheme, it is high time the UK government began to throw their weight behind it.”
According to an unpublished parliamentary report, more than 4m plastic bottles a week could be prevented from littering streets and marine environments in Britain if authorities adopted the kind of deposit return schemes that operate in countries like Germany and Australia.
The Conservative party’s manifesto did not mention such a scheme in the run-up to last month’s general election, but a spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the idea was being considered as part of a wider litter strategy launched in April.
“We have made great progress in boosting recycling rates for plastic bottles, with their collection for recycling rising from less than 13,000 tonnes in 2000 to over 330,000 tonnes in 2015,” the spokesman said. “We are considering further the practical ways in which we can deal with the worst kinds of litter, including plastic bottles.”
However, Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion and co-leader of the Green party, said ministers must do more.
“The government is under growing pressure to take action on the plastic bottle crisis,” she said. “With such a slender majority in the House of Commons, and with the public swinging behind the campaign against plastic waste, there is a real chance that ministers will consider introducing a bottle deposit scheme.
“For a government desperate to salvage its reputation, taking such a simple step forward isn’t just the right thing to do – it serves their self-interest too.”
In Scotland, support is growing for a deposit return scheme. Last week, the Scottish National party launched a detailed study into how such a scheme for bottles and cans would work.
Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish environment secretary, said: “Clearly there are a number of issues for the Scottish government to consider when it comes to deposit return schemes, which can only be addressed by carrying out work to understand the design of a potential system.”
Recycling rates for plastic bottles in Britain stand at 59%, compared with more than 90% in countries that operate deposit return schemes, such as Germany, Norway and Sweden.
Coca-Cola in Britain and Europe has made a U-turn on deposit schemes and now supports their adoption in the UK, after pressure from environment and anti-waste campaigners. “We believe a new approach is needed,” the company said in a report to the environmental audit committee before its inquiry into plastic bottles was dropped after the dissolution of parliament.
“From our experiences in other countries, we believe a well-designed, industry-run drinks container deposit return scheme could help increase recycling and reduce littering,” Coca-Cola added.
Between 5m and 13m tonnes of plastic end up in the world’s oceans each year, to be ingested by sea birds, fish and other organisms, and by 2050 the oceans will contain more plastic by weight than fish, according to research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
Campaigners say plastic is polluting every natural system and an increasing number of organisms on the planet, with some of it already finding its way into the human food chain.
The UK could be a green business powerhouse in the next three decades, but only if given proper support by government, a group representing more than 30 low-carbon companies has said.
The low-carbon economy in the UK employs at least 432,000 people, with a turnover of more than £77bn in 2015. This is larger than industries such as car-making and steelmaking, which are frequently given the spotlight when politicians discuss industry and jobs.
Growth in green business is also expected to outstrip other sectors of the economy, as international opportunities open up for low-carbon goods and services. Investments by major developing countries alone are projected to be tn by the end of the next decade, with green business’s supporters arguing that the UK is well placed to take a share of the burgeoning market.
In a letter to the Guardian, a group representing more than 30 of the UK’s green and low-carbon companies forecast that the low-carbon economy would rocket from 2% of the UK’s GDP today to 13% in the next three decades, boosting both manufacturing and services, but only with government support. The business leaders urged politicians across the spectrum to respond, as the policies of the next government will play a major role in determining how the sector develops and whether job opportunities are realised. They wrote: “Stable policies to grow the UK’s low-carbon market will be essential to turn this potential into reality and ensure our economy remains competitive on the global stage.” Green businesses have been disappointed by the apparent lack of interest in the sector during the general election campaign, and by the absence of strong public commitments in the manifestos. The signatories to the letter concluded: “We call on the new government to put in place ambitious and long-term policies to tackle climate change and improve the state of the environment at the heart of its industrial strategy and vision for the UK.” The letter was coordinated by the Aldersgate Group and also signed by 11 companies including Kingfisher, Aviva Investors, Anglian Water, Siemens, and Scottish and Southern Energy. Nick Molho, executive director of the Aldersgate Group, said the decision by US president Donald Trump to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change would not make a major dent in the prospects for growth. He noted that the shift to a more efficient and lower carbon economy is well under way across the globe, with the cost of clean technologies, such as renewable energy and electric vehicles, falling rapidly, and investment growing strongly. “Following the commitments made by six world leaders at the recent G7 summit, and the news of greater cooperation between China and the EU on climate change, major global players like the UK must continue to build competitive, low-carbon economies and honour their commitments under the Paris agreement.” Environmental businesses in the UK have been hit in recent years by swings in government policy that have led to job losses and uncertainty among potential investors. These swings include the scrapping of subsidies and harder planning requirements for onshore wind farms; the slashing of support for solar panels and restrictions on solar farms; the abandonment of the “green deal”, which was intended to boost home insulation; the removal of the promised £1bn funding for carbon capture and storage facilities; and the scrapping of the target to make new homes zero-carbon. Last week, Labour accused the Conservative government of failing to come up with plans on how to achieve the statutory targets on reducing carbon dioxide emissions, set out under the Climate Change Act. Green groups fear that a new Conservative government under Theresa May could scrap the Climate Change Act, leaving the UK without firm targets on cutting greenhouse gases. However, the government has pointed to increased investment for electric vehicles, support for new nuclear power stations, and a boost to offshore wind as evidence of its commitment to low-carbon infrastructure.
Since May 2010, the UK has installed more than 11GW of wind power, generating enough electricity for more than 7.8m homes.
If you’re dreading the start of the working week tomorrow can I just check it’s not the lighting? A 1990s study showed plentiful natural light to be a top determinant of job satisfaction.
If you can’t get near a window at least press for LEDs (they have a life of up to 60,000 hours in comparison to 6,000 hours for a fluorescent tube). They also improve your mood, productivity and energy efficiency.
But for real practical change in the workplace, you need to influence facilities and purchasing staff. This is where the power lies. In Europe, better purchasing has led to 72% of our paper now being recycled.
Get your office in order and you’ll be up for multiple certifications, such as ISO14001, but if you want to aim high I suggest looking to festivals for inspiration of what we can achieve in our own workplace. Shambala, the UK festival held in August, has managed to reduce its carbon footprint by 81%, partly down to its plastic-free initiative; no bottled water sold onsite as part of its “bring your own bottle” campaign.
There’s so much innovation in the green festivals movement and offices can learn from them.
If greening your office – or festival – isn’t enough and you want to get deeper into saving the planet, The Ethical Careers Guide: How to Find Work You Love by Paul Allen is an excellent resource, full of real-world experience. By coincidence the book’s publisher New Internationalist will also be launching a community share offer at the same time.
In the world of green careers, things are moving fast. By 2018 Riverford Farm, the originator of veg boxes in the UK, aims to be employee owned. Start off changing the lighting, and you could end up with a stake in the future.
The big picture: the consequences of climate change
If you’re looking for the ultimate take-down of Trump’s flirtation with climate-change denial, Jared P Scott’s new documentary The Age of Consequences should just about do it. This is an investigation into the impact of climate change on increased resource scarcity, migration and conflict. It is frightening, but it also shows some unlikely climate-change allies – namely the US military (theageofconsequences.com).
Well dressed: Vivienne Westwood goes to China
Chinese curator Adrian Cheng is credited with kicking off an art revolution in his native country. When he talked about climate activism with the veteran British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood some time ago, he became fixated on telling that story to Chinese designers and consumers through the medium of fashion. The resulting exhibition, Get a Life! (named after Westwood’s book on her brand of climate activism), has been three years in the making, but is now attracting record audiences to the K11 Art Museum in the Chinese capital, Shanghai. Alongside, China’s top fashion colleges are competing in an eco design competition, based on Westwood’s environmental vision. The work of the two winners will be stocked in K11’s concept store, Kuriosity.
When he was working on an academic project with Nasa, Mehrdad Mahdjoubi, a Swedish industrial designer, realised there could be parallels between sustainability in space and on Earth. The extremes of space required that the vital resource of water be used in the most efficient way possible. Water should also be used like this in the home, he thought.
Inspired by those experiences with the space agency, Mahdjoubi created a shower system that reuses the same water in a circular loop, while two filters take out impurities as it circulates.
This Shower of the Future , from his company, Orbital Systems, can operate on five litres of water. The water constantly circulates for 10 minutes or so – the time of an average shower – in turn saving also on energy.
“The reason that we make it work sustainably in space is because we have to do it,” the Swedish industrial designer said. “What if we try the same things on Earth … [if] the house was like a space capsule, how would we go about it? The most sustainable lifestyle is the one that we have in the most extreme environments and that may be in space or in a submarine where you actually have no choice but to really care for the resources that you have.”
Mahdjoubi said that while savings have been made in how water is used in toilets and washing machines, the same was not true of the shower. “Without changing the technology, we seem to just heat up water and put it down the drain,” he said. In Sweden, where the company is based, the average shower emits 15 litres of water a minute. During a 10-minute shower this amounts to 150 litres, he said.
The Orbital Systems shower starts with five litres of water and adds more if some is splashed out or is taken out of the system by the filters.
Water is first pumped through two filters, one which takes out larger particles such as sand, skin and dust and then a finer filter to extract bacteria, viruses and blood.
From there the water travels through a heater that moderates the temperature, which is set by a wheel control the user can change from hot to cold. The water then exits the shower nozzle as normal.
But when the water trickles through the drain it goes through a sensor which analyses it. If it is contaminated, the sensor recognises this and replaces the water.
The company says water flows at a rate of 20 litres a minute, compared to conventional showers, which typically range between seven and 12 litres a minute.
The shower takes in water from the mains until it senses that there is enough to go in a constant loop, said Mahdjoubi. “Even though the water is clean we would always flush it out before the next user. Comparing [it] to a hot tub where you sit in your own dirt for however many minutes, this is way more hygienic. When you stand in front of one of these showers you completely forget that the water is being recycled. It is the most unremarkable thing.”
The shower unit can be fitted as either an integrated system in the floor or as a standalone cabin with glass walls. The first units were delivered in December with most of the sales to commerical customers such as gyms, residential homes, swimming pools and the Swedish military. Nursing homes and hospitals have also bought them, said Mahdjoubi, because of the filter system.
“Not because they really want to save a lot of water but because you can guarantee that the water is clean and free from Legionnaires’ disease because it is always being filtered.”
How much money is saved depends on the cost of water and energy and how often the shower is used, he said. The company claims that a UK home can save £1,100 a year assuming there are four showers taken a day lasting nine minutes each.
Offsetting this is the price of the shower. The cheaper of the two residential units, where the shower is integrated into the floor of the bathroom, costs £3,300 while the standalone cabin costs £4,100.
As sales increase, Mahdjoubi said, the price would fall to less than £2,000 in three years. “I would say that we are steadily going down in price but we have to start where the market can afford it, that is why we have this premium and commercial focus we have right now,” he said.
A family would need to spend an average of about £110 every year replacing the purification capsules.
So far hundreds of the showers had been sold, said Mahdjoubi, and there had been particular interest from Denmark (location of one of the highest water prices in the EU) and from California, where there had been persistent droughts over recent years.
In the late 20th century, those who stood against globalisation were charged with swimming against an unstoppable tide, caricatured as “Stop the world, I wanna get off!” But in the 21st century, history is running with the anti-globalisers. World trade talks have gone nowhere, immigration controls have shot up the agenda, and two post-national EU projects – the euro and Schengen – are under strain. Figures as diverse as Donald Trump, Nicola Sturgeon and Marine Le Pen – who failed to convert a remarkable first-round victory in French regional elections into any outright wins – are all peddling one form of nationalism or another. Rumours of the death of the nation state, then, have proved exaggerated: globalisation is spinning into reverse.
Looking back on the future as it appeared in the 1990s – as a technocratic, transnational order – a democratic push-back was surely inevitable, in some senses even desirable. But when problems from the overuse of antibiotics to terrorism refuse to respect national borders, the retreat from the dream of global governance has some frightening consequences, especially in connection with climate change, the archetypal global problem. Saving the planet in a fracturing world is a daunting challenge indeed.
The Paris COP 21 talks surpassed expectations in rising to it, demonstrating just how much can be achieved by determined diplomacy, even while working within the unbending red lines of jealously sovereign states. A formal treaty was precluded because it would hand a veto to the intransigent legislators of Capitol Hill, while also offending the sensibilities of Delhi and Beijing. Fortunately, it proved possible to work within the fudged alternative framework of a “legally binding instrument”. Everyone offered up voluntary emission targets, and agreed, too, to a five-yearly review of these. While the targets on the table are not yet adequate to avoid the disaster of more than 2C of warming, the surprise inclusion of an aspiration to cap temperature rises at 1.5C signals a shared understanding that the targets will have to be tightened at each successive review. The destructive standoff between developing and developed countries that doomed Copenhagen six years ago has been transcended: the big developing economies, which now produce the bulk of emissions, are no longer pretending that they can delay doing anything until the rich world is perfectly green; at the same time the rich world is effectively accepting that it will have to help shoulder the “loss and damage” costs inflicted by the long legacy of western pollution.
This is, on the face of it, a rare and heartening case of disparate peoples being led to a common conclusion by evidence and reason, but serendipity played its part too. It happens, for example, that in 2015 there is a progressive US president who never has another election to win. It happens, too, that China is the midst of replacing filthy old power stations, which is already curbing its emissions growth, making it less painful than before for Beijing to engage. Indeed, the latest global CO2 data registers a striking levelling off, raising the tantalising possibility that technological progress could be entering a phase where the cast-iron link between emissions and growth begins to rust. If that pattern were borne out in future years, future climate negotiations could get smoother on every front. Then there is the great oil price crash, which facilitates a more fruitful discussion on fossil fuels, by making it much more imaginable to keep it in the ground.
One anxiety is whether this fortuitous alignment of political and economic stars will remain, as nations move from making promises, towards real action. Paris cannot guarantees success, but it does encourage hope – and particularly if Ms Le Pen’s chauvinist form of nationalism can be seen off. The Front National dabbled in greenwash last year, but its insistence on an ecology defined by “patriotism and the national interest”, and its instinctive suspicion of a multilateral UN approach is precisely the attitude which could thwart the translation of impressive COP 21 words into deeds.
Paris has given the world new hope in the possibilities of pragmatic diplomacy, at a time when France’s own politics illustrate the difficulties of assuming solidarity extends beyond national borders. If the answer to climate change is going to have to be found in continuous haggling between 200 nations, then success is also going to depend on winning the argument against narrow nationalism in every corner of the world.