Environmentally ugly, bad and good of 2020

A few years ago, at a social function with a fish and chip dinner, I remarked to a friend of my eldest offspring about the evils of using our plastic knives and forks.

Plastic – so useful and adaptable for many things – was humanity’s scourge, I started. It never breaks down fully, I ventured, becoming microplastics. Much of it ended up in our waterways and ultimately in our seas, I added. (The statistic that the plastic in our seas could outweigh the fish by 2050 if we continue to use it at the same rate is still a well floated one. Source: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation.)

I told my captivated, shocked, listener that plastics – microplastics – end up in the very bottom of our seabed, nibbled on by plankton. If not the larger fish before that. So it could well be in our food chain already. (And last week a published study found microplastics in placentas – we’ll come to that).

Microplastics in us?

It was quite possible, I added, that the very fish we were eating had particles of plastic in their gut and, as a consequence, we might well be ingesting – but not digesting – those tiny parts of plastic. They might be in our wider food network, too.

We might never notice these microplastics. Studies had not yet shown if there might be adverse affects, or whether they might be harmless.

Fish and chips
Do our fish in simple dishes contain plastic particles?

What happens to those bits of plastic ingested by small animals, I pondered to my listener? Some of them might come out of us again. Some of them might swill around our bodies for goodness knows how long.

The chances were, I added, that this was just the tip of the iceberg. I warned my open-mouthed listener not to get me started on melting icebergs, now that I was in full flow!

At the time, I was working for an environmental charity. One of the blogs I wrote there was about the plastic found in certain types of fish in the River Thames, London’s iconic waterway. Roughly 70% of two breeds of fish, tested by a pair of eminent academic scientists, had been found to have plastic particles in their gut. That statistic became one we banked and referenced regularly for publicity and campaigns.

Teaching the future

Any internet search of “birds with plastic in their stomachs” or similar will throw up dozens of horrible images. Sea birds are not the only wildlife to have been attracted to and fooled by plastic that looks edible. The stomachs of these small birds fill up. They believe they are full. So they stop eating and, you’ve guessed it, that kills them because they starve to death. Is this a forerunner of human destiny?

Rubbish in nature Redhill
Rubbish found in nature in Redhill. Rubbish is found widely in nature, from paths and countryside to waterways

These are shocking, stark tales which ought to be taught in all secondary schools, not just via the environmental aspects of primary education. The campaign group Teach the Future, one to which I subscribe for news, is prolific at sending emails. These are not just about awareness. They feature heartfelt blogs from young people about their future and the progress they are making towards changing a bleak outlook spouted by many environmentalist for a different one. These emails – and blogs – often celebrate successes and the progress the campaign group has made in its efforts to talk to Government. They are passionately trying to impress with urgency the idea on Government that the curriculum needs an overhaul.

They urge that the climate emergency needs to be front and centre at all levels of education and in all subjects; they want buildings upgraded with carbon neutral devices, too, to impress upon young minds how the future needs to look outside school. To impress the urgency on pupils who will grow up to be architects, engineers, planners, care workers, artists, linguists, traders – every and each profession. The subjects need to concentrate on the possible environmental disaster that is our future – one which is already in headlong full flow.

The truly ugly

A few days after that conversation with my offspring’s friend, my listener admitted to my offspring that she could barely look at fish. She has since worked in a fish and chip shop.

Now, the diet of climate change stories and campaigns seems much louder. And four years after that dinner time conversation, this past week came a story that needs to shock us to the core: the aforementioned one that microplastics have been found in the placentas of unborn babies. For the first time.

According to the Guardian’s story, the scientists who carried out the study found microplastics in the placentas of four healthy women. They had “normal pregnancies and births”. The plastic was found on both sides of the placenta, mother and child.

The full details can be digested on the Guardian story at your leisure.

Then let us reflect for a moment.

This is the truly ugly side of the current state of our climate emergency. Environmentalists talk about future generations. Generally speaking, they talk of today’s existing young people. But this being a problem in placentas of unborn babies? They do not yet have a birth date and all the official identity and rights that come with it. They have no way of speaking up, officially (unborn babies have plenty of ways to make their hosts sick or ill if they need to). They have no way of rejecting what they are imbibing.

There are, the study suggested, two ways these microplastics have reached the placentas: Through the mother eating, or breathing plastic particles in the air (available in various quantities depending on where we live). And the World Health Organisation says microplastics have been found in drinking water.

The bad

I’ve started with the ugly. The bad? That flooding still exists in the United Kingdom and is ruining people’s already hard Christmas and New Year. As if that is not bad enough, these types of stories have been shoved down the news agenda while Covid-19 and Brexit still dominate.

Take the flooding on Christmas Eve, in Oxfordshire. Then more in Bedford. Ripples in the news, or so it seemed to me, behind the clamour to know whether the UK had secured a trade deal with the EU. Gloucestershire was also affected earlier in the week.

Floods only are highlighted in the news when they become a problem. News outlets report on the sticking plaster not the solutions to the gushing liquid in the first place. Flooding is an equally constant threat. In November there was a warning that climate change will bring more intense storms and more flooding. About 5.2 million homes in England are potentially under threat of suffering flooding, but there is a lack of awareness, say officials and insurers (reported the Thomson Reuters Foundation).

So the bad news is that – while it was one of five election promises to tackle by the current Government – awareness about the issues still has a long way to go. And so does the public purse to finance the solutions. There have been noises from our Prime Minister Boris Johnson about “building back better, greener, faster”, but with the emphasis on building. Which will bring more flooding, potentially. More pressure on our environment and infrastructure.

In that summer address from our PM, he at least showed willing. But called, largely, on industry to lead, for example on a project he nicknamed “Jet Zero”. Aero engineers, he suggested, should show that Britain has the best inventors and come up with the solution to that most carbon polluting of industries – flying.

The good

But at that stage there was no mention, for example, of the £9.2bn manifesto pledge to insulate homes in Britain, which are Europe’s most inefficient housing stock. In November, however, there was a 10-point plan that included insulating such buildings – including schools – better. This Green Industrial Revolution included paying to install more public electric vehicle charging points. The whole thing doesn’t go far enough for many, but it’s a start. The politicians appear to be listening.

It’s a good thing. THE ‘good’ thing, environmentally, of 2020? There is no doubt that the Government has to show leadership. Yet with each pronouncement they make – like the 10-point plan – comes a rider from their own advisers, the Climate Change Committee, that the latest suggestions and policies do not go far enough.

The Government has announced it will wind down investment in overseas fossil fuel projects abroad in 2021, in the run up to hosting Cop26, the international climate summit. But our Government is behind the curve, in many aspects, compared to commerce and industry in showing their hand. Most businesses now have “esg” – environmental and social governance – in their business plans. They know customers – investors – are demanding it.

onshore wind
Wind power provided 40% of the UK’s energy – a record – for two days running just before Christmas

But what struck me in the last week as the best news of 2020 was this. On the Friday – and in fact Saturday – before Christmas, 40% of Great Britain’s energy mix came via wind power. It was a record that surpassed the previous best set in January. Yes, that’s from wind turbines around the UK. This was before Storm Bella, too. Who could have imagined that an island nation, teased internationally for its chill factor, could use its most natural of resources so well? (Less than a fifth of our energy came on those days from coal and gas.)

Isn’t that just the most wonderful news on which to end 2020?

A sense of hope

It gives us hope for a carbon free future, in which the climate emergency can and will be taken seriously, as it has started to be this year.

Perhaps overall, 2020 has made us think more about the environment. We’ve been on more walks andseen nature up close. More gardens have been used for growing. We have spent time with nature, when we have just rushed around before. Fewer flights have polluted our air, certainly around the Gatwick area. Have we seen fewer cars on the roads as more people work from home? We’ve cycled more. Surrey has claimed money from Government for improved pedestrian and cycle ways. Cities saw a drop in poor air quality. At least in the first lockdown. This is all momentum we must keep up if we are to give future generations – born or unborn – the healthy future they deserve.