Monday, July 07, 2008

Biofuels: It seemed like a good idea at the time

I’m sad about biofuels. It just sounded like such a great idea didn’t it? We don’t need to dig oil out of the ground, let’s grow it instead! Plants could be a renewable source of energy, hooray! (I also got excited at university about the prospect of freakish plastic-producing GM crops – fields growing yoghurt pot ingredients instead of big horrible polluting factories.)

But the flaws with biofuels are becoming too big to ignore.

Let’s grow fuel instead of food. Oops, now there’s no food. Or not enough to stop spiralling food prices. And the glaring problem that biofuels are a pretty rubbish alternative to oil – considering that producing biofuels is very thirsty in terms of energy, particularly in terms of manufacturing fertilisers and pesticides to keep up crop yields. The rising prices for both food and biofuels are a great incentive for developing countries to cut down more rainforest. Ah, weren’t we trying to stop all that? (Good summary by Jeffrey A McNeely is chief scientist of IUCN, World Conservation Union here.)

It’s just a horrible big circle that brings you back to the problem of our excessive energy use in the first place.

In a brilliant fudge, the UK today said it would slow down introducing biofuels, while still actually introducing them, after a cautious review by renewable energy big-wig Professor Ed Gallagher.

The Global Forest Coalition picked up on Gallagher’s support for second-generation biofuels, which it says will still have an effect on food supplies and encourage deforestation. UK’s Biofuel Watch maintains “agrofuels” are not sustainable.

The biofuels debate just goes to show there aren’t quick-fix solutions to climate change. And that we can’t combat consumerism with green consumerism. Green cars are better than dirty, gas-guzzlers. Even better is living so you don’t have to drive miles to work, to the shops and so on. But now I’m sounding like a terrible hippy.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Greening Sainsbury's

Sainsbury’s "take an old bag shopping" campaign has already been criticised for being sexist and oldist. Now it seems it is just a sop to green sentiment.

Going to the supermarket this evening I noticed I’d been awarded an extra point on Sainsbury’s Nectar loyalty award scheme because I reused a plastic bag. But does Sainsbury’s honestly think this is an incentive?

A quick look at what Nectar points will earn you suggests not. One Nectar point will buy you 1/1400th of Coldplay’s new CD. If you want to save up for two bottles of white wine you would need to reuse a plastic bag every day for 10 years. To earn a Sainsbury’s restaurant voucher, you would have to reuse between 13,000 and 21,000 plastic bags.

Real incentives could play a role in changing behaviour. Fresh & Wild, which was recently bought by Wholefoods, refunds customers 5 pence for every reused bag. Not a fortune, but perhaps enough to make people think twice. Experience in Ireland shows that small fines can also work.

But with it's paltry "benefits" for reusing plastic bags Sainsbury's is hoping it can be seen as promoting green lifestyles without making any real commitment to doing so.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Tropical Disease Warning for a Hotter, Wetter Europe

Think climate change - think extreme weather like floods, droughts and hurricanes. But now Europeans are talking up another threat that could be equally dramatic – the coming of tropical diseases, aided by changing climates and globalization. More.

This came up when I visited the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in Stockholm. With an LED display showing how close Europe was to potential life-threatening disease outbreaks and a world map on the wall with flags marking current disease hotspots, it was the closest I'll ever come to real-life War Games.

A couple of friends of mine have pointed out that animal diseases are also spreading as the climate changes. Bluetongue used to be found only in the Mediterranean during the summer months, but came to the UK for the first time last year. Bluetongue's an insect-borne viral disease of mainly of sheep and less frequently of cattle. (Thanks Ben and Sam.)

Thursday, June 12, 2008

It'll never work, Sean

There was a reggae song on the radio a little while ago: “You're way too beautiful girl, That's why it'll never work,” it starts.

With a couple of splashes of vocoda and a baseline borrowed from Stand by Me, Sean Kingston’s Beautiful Girls sounds quite jolly, until the next line – “You'll have me suicidal, suicidal, When you say it's over.”

Suicidal? Are you sure? Kingston doesn’t sound suicidal, he sounds bored and a bit whiny.

The use of the word suicidal annoys me in so many ways. I hate the casual way he just throws it in, like it’s a choice between that and nipping round the shops for a pint of milk. It’s so bloody unsubtle. If he really were suicidal he wouldn’t be saying so, neither would he be listening to Ben E King. It annoys me that it makes me come over all PC – but I think it really cheapens the word.

It also gets to me because it’s been done so much better – even Celine Dion sounds moving: “I can’t live, if living is without you.”

But for “you’re so wonderful I’d rather die than be on my own” sentiment, the bittersweet Smiths do it best: “If a double-decker bus, crashes into us. To die by your side, well the pleasure, the privilege is mine."

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

42 days - to my MP

Dear Martin Linton MP,

Today is the day of the crucial vote on extending the limit that terrorist suspects can be held without charge to 42 days.

I am making last-minute appeal to you not to vote with the Government, because I think this move would mark a further deterioration of the civil liberties of everyone in this country.

I fully understand the need to protect the UK from terrorism, but holding people without charge is against their fundamental human rights. If a British citizen was locked up in another country with no charge being made we would expect the UK Government to intervene, and yet this is what the Government is proposing for Britain.

According to Liberty, the UK already has the longest period of pre-charge detention in the western world, and there is no evidence that a further extension will make us any safer.

I would also ask you to bear in mind Liberty’s concern that the Home Secretary will be able extend pre-charge detention in individual cases beyond 28 days without any evidence of a genuine emergency situation; that parliamentary oversight will be weak, as MPs are not allowed to vote when powers are activated; and that judicial oversight will be inadequate as courts will not be able to review the decision to extend pre-charge detention.

I agree with Liberty that an extension of the period that suspects can be held without charge from the current period of 28 days will not necessarily make us safer. Indeed, it risks one section of society – namely the Muslim population who are thought to pose the greatest terrorist threat – feeling unduly victimised.

Furthermore, the Government’s concessions, such as the proposal of compensation for suspects, should not distract from the true intent of the bill. The extension of detention without charge to 42 days is too important for Labour MPs to vote with the Government to state their confidence in the Prime Minister.

Liberty believes there are realistic alternatives to extending pre-charge detention, such as removing the ban on the use of intercept (phone-tap) evidence, allowing post-charge questioning in terror cases and hiring more interpreters to speed up pre-charge questioning and other procedures.

If the police have a good reason to suspect someone of terrorism, let them charge that person. If the police cannot make a good case that someone is a terrorist during a reasonable time limit, then they should let the suspect go. There is no reason why the person cannot be kept under surveillance, but we simply cannot lock people up for long periods of time without saying why.

I sincerely hope you take on board my views as a constituent and that you choose to vote against the extension of pre-charge detention to 42 days.

Yours sincerely,

Ailis Kane

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Book recycling

I recently had a great success recycling some of my old books by posting a list of them on Facebook and asking my friends to take their pick.

ReadItSwapIt is a website that helps readers give away books to willing homes and earn a couple of titles for their own collections. Not so great in terms of reducing the number of books on your shelves, but a great way to reduce the consumption of books in general. I’m pleased to be able to post the Facebook rejects on there and hope to pick up a couple of books for my upcoming hols.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Excellent ideas for cycle geeks

What a great idea - a planter you can stick in your front garden and lock your bike to. My front hall is so grubby from bike grime and difficult to negotiate because of the bike. And it combines my two of my favourite things - plants and bikes.

Meanwhile in Stockholm I came across this lovely basket. Annoyingly it's loads more expensive on UK websites than those in the US, don't understand that given that we're closer to Sweden. In the end I decided that my very lovely but functional-looking bike might look a bit silly with this attached. That said, I love useful things that are pretty too.

Also, what about green chain oil? My bone-dry, rusting chain earnt me a telling off from the bike shop last time I took it in, so I have a particular need. According to its inventors it doesn't contain any oil-derived hydrocarbons, but its exact formula is a closely guarded secret...