A different view of climate change


What do you think of the infographic below? It was created by LearnStuff.com

Its raison d’etre:” Many of us hear the term climate change, but don’t really know how climate change is changing the environment and what it means to inhabitants of earth. This infographic will show how bad climate change has become and what it means for all of us.”

<a href=’http://www.LearnStuff.com‘ title=”>LearnStuff.com</a>


Where does our recycling actually go?

Jenny Love, UCL Energy Institute

Let’s face it, we don’t know, do we? In my office, I shove most of my recycling in here (see below), occasionally wondering why it’s necessary to clean food containers, but on the whole glad someone else takes care of my waste:


The story about to be told is a mixed one. Although recycling capacity has dramatically improved over the last decade, I’ll try to demonstrate how the UK’s drive for quantity at the expense of quality has ended up with much of our waste going across the world for reprocessing. I’ll argue that one way to keep it in the UK is for us to put some effort into finding out what we can recycle and taking the advice of that sign in my office –  clean our items.

  1. The sorting process

From your recycling bin, the waste makes its way to a Materials Recovery Facility
(MRF) to be sorted. I live in Wandsworth, London. Our council has a nice and reasonably honest document on recycling: http://www.wrwa.gov.uk/includes/documents/cm_docs/2009/w/what_happens_to_recycling_final.pdf

There I learned that the council has a contract with a private company (like all councils, I guess) to take our waste to the local MRF in Kent.

There are some clever automated techniques used to sort materials. Some rely on size (e.g. broken glass falls through holes as everything else is bounced along a converyor belt), others on weight (a jet of air blows paper off the conveyor belt), some on shape and weight (horizontal shaking sends light flat materials to the top of a pile whilst small denser ones like cans and bottles go to the bottom), magnetism picks up steel, and clever use of electric currents detects non-magnetic metals including aluminium. Many materials then need further separation, including plastics, but it’s not yet done in the UK (see section 3). The final quality control is done by people.

If you’d like to visualise it, here’s a nice video of the sorting process used in south-west England:


However, there are two main factors which muck up this sorting process.  Firstly, incorrect items being put in the recycling. These have to be picked out, sometimes by hand, and put into landfill. If they’re not spotted, they compromise the quality of the reprocessed material.

The other factor is contaminant on a material – e.g. grease on paper, cheese on pizza boxes. This also compromises the quality of the reprocessed material. I had always assumed that materials like cardboard would be washed as part of the recycling process, but it turns out that we’re supposed to do that before we put it in the recycling. It also turns out that the cost of dealing with these contaminants is driving up the cost of reprocessing (the next step after the MRF) so much that we often can’t afford to do the reprocessing in the UK (more on this later). Resource Association chief executive Ray Georgeson said: “The drive for quantity has come in part at the expense of quality, and what might be seen as the delivery of cost savings at the collection end of recycling appears simply to be shifting costs into the manufacturing end of recycling.” That is, allowing us to shove everything in the ‘all waste except food’ bin with very minimal instruction is costing us down the line at the stage when sorted waste is to be made into new products. (http://www.edie.net/news/5/MRF-contamination-levels-now-resulting-in-crippling-costs/23754/ ).

2. What is reprocessed in the UK?

Here’s a nice visual where you can click on a material and see if it’s reprocessed in the UK or not: http://www.envirosort.co.uk/where_does_it_all_go.htm

We can recycle steel (in Wales), aluminium (Midlands),glass and paper (Cheshire), some types of plastic (various destinations), and paper (all the newsprint made in the UK is from recycled paper).

Something I want to know is: what about mixed-material packaging, like envelopes and
sandwich wrappers? I love buying a Sainsbury’s Meal Deal due to the (entirely false) feeling of beating the system when I only spend £3 as opposed to the sum of the constituent sandwich, crisps and drink. But the sandwich wrapper is lined with plastic and has a film on the front. Surely the label ‘Bag – paper: widely recycled” is untrue?


3. What is not reprocessed in the UK, and why?

Cartons are a relatively newly recyclable item. Therefore they have to go to a plant in Sweden, where the aluminium and plastic linings can be separated from the cardboard, the former being used for energy, the latter recycled.

The material with the most media attention is plastic. It is actually more profitable to send plastic to China for reprocessing than doing it in the UK. This is because China will pay a lot more for our waste than we can pay in the UK! Ways in which their costs are cut down include: plastic being sent on otherwise-empty ships which have come from China to the UK carrying all the stuff we bought from there, migrant workers being paid very low wages, and not always a lot of concern for the quality or contamination level of the plastic we sell to China.

The Guardian states that, “No detailed studies have been done of the environmental costs of shipping vast quantities of waste from Britain to China” http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2004/sep/20/environment.china

It claims that we only have plastic recycling now because China actually wants our rubbish. Plastic collection wouldn’t go ahead in the UK at all without this Chinese link. I don’t know exactly how true that is but it does seem that some UK reprocessing plants have gone out of business in recent years.

Is there anything to stop our waste going across the world? Not really. Perusing the DEFRA regulation yielded that although we’re not allowed to accept or export waste for disposal, we are allowed to accept or export waste for reprocessing. In fact, it is encouraged; the following is from DEFRA’s UK Plan for Shipment of Waste (2012):

“The Government has two main policy objectives relevant to shipments of waste for recovery:

–  to encourage international trade in waste for recovery where this is of environmental benefit in driving up levels of recovery at national, EU and global levels;

– to prevent damage to human health or the environment occurring as a result of this international trade.”


But my question is this: how do we know the ‘environmental benefit’ of this process if it is true that there are no good studies of the environmental damage from the transportation?

India rubbish picking

Here is some interesting further reading on the social, environmental and chemical factors involved in plastic recycling:


4. What can we as consumers do to help?

A point made over and over again, not just be me but  by experts such as Andrew Potter of MBA Polymers at the Oxford Climate Forum, is that a very important factor in recycling costs is what the consumer puts in the recycling bin, and in what state it is. So, not to labour the point, but

  1. Make sure you put correct items in the recycling.
  2. Clean the contamination off items.

Or, you could stick a sign up in your office like I’ve done here:

Energy Institute recycling bin modified

I don’t know, it might work in my office since in theory I can guilt trip us as we all work in energy. What more sensible things could you do in your office?

In general, I would like to see:

a)      More feedback to consumers in general on how to recycle, so that costs can be reduced by us recycling correctly. Seems like a no-brainer but it doesn’t happen.

b)       Consumers knowing what leaves the coutry, goes to China, etc. When asked, Sainsbury’s reported sending all its recycling there, Asda doesn’t know where its goes, and Tesco refused to comment (see previous Guardian article). I would like to see a study on the environmental impacts of this.

d)      All of us getting involved in some petitions to end irresponsible dumping of waste in Asia: http://www.ban.org/

5. How do I find out what I can recycle?/Is it different in every area of the UK?

Different local councils have contracts with different private waste management companies which in turn have contracts with sorting and reprocessing plants. This is why if you move to a new city you might not be able to recycle some of the things you used to.

There’s a nice postcode finder here for what you can recycle where:


Below is a very interesting and at times counter-intuitive article on why some materials can and can’t be recycled: it talks about wrapping paper, mushroom punnets, biscuit tins and foil. I didn’t know most of it:


Finally, if you learned something from this article, why not paraphrase it yourself and spread the word?

Lessons on energy efficiency at Wickes

Paula Morgenstern, UCL Energy Institute

Coming back after Christmas, I discovered mould in my room. Big, ugly spots all around my window and in the outer corners of the room… Yuck! What a setback after a most relaxing break. But what – apart from voluminous lamenting – to do about it?

I settled on an excursion to Wickes, my trusted DIY store, to equip myself for the fight. I turned out not to be the only person declaring war on mould these days: one lonely can of anti-mould paint was awaiting me on the shelf, while Wickes on the whole seemed surprisingly busy. Meanwhile, mould didn’t seem to be the only problem people were facing in light of the current chilly temperatures: Wickes generous offer on convector heaters (Portable – Instant heat – Silent running – Only £16.99) was crossed out red, they had been sold out for days told me the friendly shop assistant. Fan heaters for even longer…

What does this wintery excursion to Wickes tell us about the energy efficiency of our houses? Nothing to encouraging I am afraid.

Landlords often blame tenants for mould growth on behalf of insufficient heating and poor ventilation, but in reality the fabric of a dwelling has an even bigger part to play. Mould needs two things to grow: an organic substance as nutrient (wall paint is often enough) and humidity.  In buildings, humidity can – from defect pipes to leaky roofs – have a myriad of causes. One is particularly important because it is present even in well-functioning buildings: condensation. During sleeping for example, people give off roughly one litre of water vapour a night. As long as the air is warm, this is no big problem but when it cools down its capability to hold the water vapour diminishes.  This typically happens at outer walls and close to windows. Because the air has a lower temperature there, the water vapour within condensates on the walls/windows. The resulting humidity is enough for mould to grow.

Yet, what does this say about energy efficiency? Well – mould is a serious problem in poorly insulated buildings because a lot of heat is lost through walls and windows. Consequently, the air at these surfaces will be colder than in the room and the event chain ‘vapour condensation – wall humidity – mould growth’ becomes effective. At the same time, poor insulation often means a choice between high heating costs and cold houses as warmth is not retained well inside the building. That is if this even is a choice because sometimes the installed heating systems are not even powerful enough to heat a property to comfortable temperatures. People in poorly insulated houses might have to fight both MOULD (by buying fungicidal wash and anti-mould paint?) and COLD (by buying surplus heaters?).

Not a great situation – neither for the afflicted residents nor for the environment because electric surplus heating is much more resource intensive than primary heating systems. To face the lack of insulation in British homes and to reduce carbon emissions at the same time, the government fully trusts in its Green Deal, a policy permitting loans for efficiency improvements repayable through the achieved energy savings (see here for official information). But a number of concerns have been voiced including whether the Green Deal will reach the people most in need of home improvements and whether upfront assessment fees might put them off. It has also repeatedly been pointed out that the public awareness of the scheme remains low.


My visit to Wickes seems to hint in a similar direction. It suggests both continued inefficiencies in the housing stock and the need for the improved communication of the government’s energy strategy seeking long term efficiency improvement. Meanwhile, nothing in Wickes points out cash incentives now available for home insulation or even the existence of the Green Deal itself. Clearly, without more consumer engagement efforts on behalf of the government electrical heaters will continue to yield Wickes a handsome profit during the next cold spell.

Time to find out about heat pumps…

Jenny Love, UCL Energy Institute

I’ve been spending the last 3 months working on domestic heat pumps –  major players in the debate about future heating for the UK –  but whilst trying to converse with my family about this over Christmas, it became clear that they had no idea what I was talking about.  So I’ve decided it’s about time to make heat pumps known. This article is based around some of the questions you might ask if you’ve never heard of a heat pump and don’t have an unhealthy obsession with thermodynamics. It’s always good to be able to impress your friends or potential mate by pointing out a heat pump when you see one:

air source heat pump

(source of photo: http://gogreenheatsolutions.co.za/category/project-type/domestic-heat-pumps)

1)      What the heck is a heat pump?

Normally in Britain you heat your house by switching on your boiler, which burns gas, heats water, and sends it to your radiators. The source of heat is the chemical energy in natural gas. Now, gas may or may not be around to stay – if it is it will only get more expensive – so there is talk about whether electricity will replace gas for heating homes. Electricity is normally made in a power station from heat, a process which loses a lot of energy, so putting the effort in to make electricity only to transport it along a wire and turn it back into heat for your house is quite wasteful. But a better thing you can do with electricity is move heat which already exists – I don’t just mean from one physical location (like the ground) to another (your house) – I also mean from one temperature (cool ground temperature) to another (warm living room temperature).

A heat pump uses electricity to move heat from a cool place to a warm one. When I first heard about this I thought it must be some kind of miracle, but then someone pointed out that that’s how a fridge works (electricity is used to move cold heat from inside the fridge to the warmer exterior, keeping your fridge cool).

Why would you do this – well, if you do the physics, you can work out that putting in a bit of electricity can move a lot of heat (about one unit of electricity can put 3 units of heat in your house), meaning that the energy use from heating your house with a heat pump should be much lower than that from using a normal boiler.

Now, you may not have heard of one of these devices, but David Mackay, the chief scientific advisor at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, recently gave a lecture (at this event: http://www.lolo.ac.uk/newsandevents/page/id/53) in which he foresaw 20 million of them installed in homes by 2050 (almost one in every property). So maybe it’s time to find out more about them…

2)     In what ways is using a heat pump different from how I normally heat my home?

Heat pumps  work best when the temperature difference between the heat’s original location (e.g. the ground) and its end location (e.g. the living room) is low. This normally translates to the temperature of the thing in the room which is going to give you heat (called the ‘emitter’ – e.g. a radiator) not being as high as we’re used to. Here are a few consequences of this that you might find strange:

a)      Heat pumps work best with underfloor heating instead of radiators.

If the temperature of the emitter is low (e.g. 30 degrees C), you need a high area of emitter to give out enough heat. For example, the area of the floor of the room. It would be silly to have a radiator this big so underfloor heating is often used.

b)      They work best if you have them on all the time.

If the temperature of the heat delivered to the space is low, you can’t get enough heat out if you just have the system on for a bit in the morning and a bit in the evening. Having the heat pump on all the time is something that we’re not used to but is necessary for the right amount of heat, delivered at a low temperature.

c)       They are very easy to operate sub-optimally

Take a normal condensing boiler. Its efficiency (see below for a definition) is probably around 83% whether it is on for a long time, a short time, whatever the temperature settings on it, however it is installed in a property. Boilers are relatively robust against variation in operating conditions. Heat pumps, however, are a very different kettle of fish. If any part of it (e.g. the hole in the ground, the compressor, etc..) is too small, it can’t provide enough heat and a backup electric (i.e. wasteful) heater comes on. If it is too large, firstly it might suck too much heat out of the ground and freeze it; secondly it might switch off and on quite a lot – if it does this more  than once every six minutes (https://www.decc.gov.uk/assets/decc/11/meeting-energy-demand/microgeneration/7389-effects-cycling-heat-pump-performance.pdf) then this is detrimental to its performance. There are lots of things to set correctly: pump speeds, temperatures in the system such as water flowing around to the emitters, the way it ramps down when the weather outside it warmer (called ‘weather compensation’) and plenty more. The thing is, you probably won’t know whether it is working optimally or not. I would like to see a heat pump which monitors itself as a whole system and tells you that kind of thing.

3)      Do heat pumps actually work, and how would I know?

Efficiency, or performance, of a heating technology is generally defined by heat it provides / energy you put in. This is the source of the 83% mentioned in section 2 (from this report:         https://www.decc.gov.uk/assets/decc/what%20we%20do/supporting%20consumers/sustainable%20energy%20research%20analysis/1_20090710101754_e_@@_20090622cbl026condensingboilermonitoringfinalreportjune2009.pdf). Now, to measure this, there are two kinds of test. Firstly, lab tests: those done by the manufacturer which say, “oh look, you put one unit of electricity in and move five units of heat to your house, that’s lovely”; secondly, those which are done in real houses with real occupants. The latter are known as ‘field trials’ and have been carried out in the UK – you can read about them here: http://www.heatpumps.org.uk/PdfFiles/TheEnergySavingTrust-GettingWarmerAFieldTrialOfHeatPumps.pdf

or if you are quite used to scientific reports then here: http://www.decc.gov.uk/assets/decc/11/meeting-energy-demand/microgeneration/5045-heat-pump-field-trials.pdf

The moral of the story is that, of course, heat pumps do not work in-situ as well as in the manufacturer’s lab (like anything really), but that they can work well:

–          It has been shown that the whole system is extremely important. To work well, everything about them has to be done correctly: the sizing of the pipes which are buried underground to pick up heat (the ‘ground loop’), the sizing of the actual heat pump box, the insulation of the pipework going into the house, the various temperatures in the system…

–          There is a way of measuring this overall success as opposed to that from lab conditions – it is called the seasonal performance factor. It’s quite simple really – you measure the heat delivered by your heat pump to your rooms/the hot water, and divide it by the electricity the heat pump uses. You’re looking for an answer of at least 3, really, for it to be worth it. The SPF is what the aforementioned field trials were trying to measure. That’s what you should ask the manufacturer about.

4)      When is a good time to buy a heat pump?

In my field, we have a saying: ‘Fabric first’. What we are talking about is this: when you take a building and want to make it energy efficient, the most cost-effective thing to do first is to reduce its heat loss, by insulating the building fabric, sealing up gaps, getting rid of cold bridges, etc. Then only when you have done that should you consider changing the heating system, which will cost you a bit more for the same amount of carbon savings (after that, it’s time to think about fixing solar panels onto your roof). The reason some people do it the other way round is that solar panels are more sexy than boilers, which are more sexy than insulation. (Guess what my PhD is about: insulation.)

scale of sexiness

(image sources: http://www.swenergy.co.uk/solar-thermalhttp://www.heating-solutions.biz/,  my PhD fieldwork)

But in our field we always advise making our house more airtight and better insulated before considering getting a heat pump. There’s a good reason for this: as I mentioned earlier, heat pumps work best when they’re on all the time. If you have a leaky building, then you’re constantly going to be putting heat in, which is constantly being lost to the outside. Bit of a waste.

But if your house is quite well-sealed, then NOW is a good time to buy a heat pump. If you’re quick, there’s currently a discount from the government’s Renewable Heat Premium Payment scheme:


And then later on the Renewable Heat Incentive’s domestic scheme will be launched: http://www.decc.gov.uk/en/content/cms/meeting_energy/renewable_ener/incentive/incentive.aspx

However, it is not yet the best time to install a heat pump in terms of CO2 emissions. If you are on normal grid electricity, and your heat pump performs well, it will cause less emissions than a condensing boiler; if it doesn’t then it may well not. This is because grid electricity is still pretty high in carbon. If you choose a renewable tariff, you can avoid this, but otherwise you may have to wait until renewable generation is a higher proportion of the UK’s energy mix.

5)      Is it possible to be a bit too excited by heat pumps?

It is, yes. The best example I’ve found of this is the following three minutes of video captured excitedly by a phone camera of a heat pump in defrost mode:

I’ll leave you with that…

How GREEN is your Christmas tree this year?

intro picture

Paula Morgenstern and Jenny Love, UCL Energy Institute

Sometimes, doing a PhD gets to you – and in such situations a good argument can work wonders. At last week’s lowest point, Paula and Jenny practised stress-release by arguing whether real or artificial Christmas trees are better for the environment. While Jenny thought there was no way that natural trees could be more sustainable, Paula was convinced of their superior qualities.

Jenny:   “With an artificial Christmas tree, you don’t have to buy a new one each year.”

Paula:   “True, but a real Christmas tree captures carbon during growth.”

Jenny:   “Fair enough, but artificial trees are mass-produced and therefore efficient.”

Paula:   “Yes, but what happens at the end of their lives? A real tree in a house with a fireplace can give warmth and cosiness until weeks after Christmas.”

To base the argument on a more scientific basis, we chose to borrow from an approach called ‘Life Cycle Analysis’ (mentioned on this blog before: https://energyandlife.wordpress.com/2012/03/26/i-feel-like-chicken-tonight/ ). LCA’s central idea is the consideration of all stages in the existence of a product – from its production to its disposal – and work out how much impact each stage has on whatever you care about – eg. climate change, pollution, resources depletion. We, being energy researchers, will focus on impact on climate change.

Now,  because we’re supposed to be doing our PhDs, we didn’t do the calculations ourselves, but have summarised the brilliant and highly detailed piece of work by the Canadian consultancy Ellipsos ( http://www.ellipsos.ca/site_files/File/Christmas%20Tree%20LCA%20-%20ellipsos.pdf ) to form our arguments.

There are four main stages to consider here:

made in china1)     Production: How do you manufacture a Christmas tree? Mostly by making plastic (PVC), by heating oil-based products in various ways and creating nasty chemical by-products you have to dispose of in a safe way.That’s the needles covered. Then you have to make or reuse some steel, for the branches and the stand. This requires raw materials and a lot of electricity. Then you put it in a cardboard box, ironically created from chopping down a tree.

map of world2)    Distribution:   Most manufactured goods we buy in the UK are shipped here from China. To give you a rough idea of the impact of this, we calculated that each Christmas tree shipped over causes CO2 emissions of about 12kg, which  is the same as you driving an average car 70km.

3)     Taking it home:  The real advantages of the fake tree is that once it’s home, it doesn’t use any resources, and  can be kept for a number of years. The latter is an important factor: the study says that you have to keep your fake tree for 20 years for it to cause smaller global warming impact than a real one.

landfill4)     Disposal: Artificial Christmas trees generally aren’t recyclable.They therefore get taken away by the binman and put into landfill. The steel, however, can be removed and recycled.

The study estimates that the most significant bit of the artificial tree’s impact is its manufacturing, followed by its shipping, followed by its journey from the shop to the customer’s house.

NATURAL CHRISTMAS TREE                                                                                     The life cycle of a natural Christmas tree can be divided into 6 steps:
LCA Real Xmas tree

1)      Early growth in a tree nursery: This takes about 4 years and is by now something many UK nurseries have recognised as profitable business opportunity. Both the climate impacts and the environmental impacts of this life phase of the Christmas tree are negligible – meanwhile, the growing trees might give pleasure to nursery passers-by.

2)      Continued growth in a field: As soon as the Christmas trees are big enough, they are transferred from the nursery into the field. There, they continue growing for another 11 years until they reach a sellable height of approximately 7 feet. During this time, every tree captures a significant amount of carbon (A field of trees captures 2 tonnes CO2/hectare/yr.).

3)      Tree sale and transport to someone’s home: In this phase, much of the carbon credits from tree growth are consumed again. If someone, for example, travels 5km by car to his nearest tree seller, the 10km of the return journey amount to nearly half of the carbon previously captured in the tree. Further travel could reverse the effect altogether.

4)      Production of the tree stand and its transport: Most people use steel stands for their Christmas trees which are predominately produced in China. The amount of material needed and the transport of the completed stand have the strongest environmental impact during this phase.

5)      Christmas holidays: During the holidays and as opposed to an artificial Christmas tree, a natural tree needs some care. You may talk to it if you wish, but firstly it needs some water. The environmental impacts of watering and hovering fallen needles however are negligible.

6)      After the Christmas holidays: Christmas trees are normally either recycled or burned in fireplaces. The overall environmental impacts of recycling price it as the more favourable of the two options, but if the heat from burning the Christmas tree replaces oil or natural gas otherwise used to keep your house warm, climate change impacts are lower here.

SO, HOW GREEN IS YOUR CHRSTMAS TREE THIS YEAR?                           Comparing the LCA results for both trees shows that natural Christmas trees are better for our climate than plastic ones. So if it is climate change you care about, then a real tree is definitely the way to go…

But what about other impacts except climate change? One aim of life cycle analysis is to tell us not only about climate change but also about the use of natural resources and other impacts on the quality of our eco-system.

Here, natural Christmas trees still beat artificial ones in terms of material consumption, but land use and fertilizers mean that negative impacts on the ecosystem are bigger for real than for artificial trees.

Motivation and hope in a time of gloom: Part 2

                         Jenny Love, UCL Energy Institute

(image source: bbc.co.uk)

Quite often I get asked, “Why should I bother trying to stop climate change when hardly anyone else is?”, and “Where is the hope for the planet?”, two different and highly important questions.

This is the second of two articles which are my attempt at answering them, by exploring the world from the point of view of the Christian faith. Part 1, which you may find helpful to read first, treated the subject of motivation; this one will look at hope.  As you’ve probably gathered, the articles are based on certain ascientific premises such as the existence of God, and as such I am not expecting everyone to agree with the underlying assumptions and hence the rest of the articles but I hope you find them interesting. As always if you have any questions or comments then either post them at the end or email me on jennifer.love.09@ucl.ac.uk.

a) Where we’re at: the groaning earth

To describe the world’s current state, I’m going to refer to the following passage from the Bible:

“The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (Romans 8 verses 19-22)

‘The creation’ here means the physical universe, but especially the bit we are most familiar with: the earth and everything in it. It is described amongst other things as being in bondage to decay, and groaning.

The environmentalist and the physicist in me both observe ‘decay’: it seems that we are depleting natural resources and making irreversible changes to the biosphere (e.g. making certain species extinct, and potentially turning off the North Atlantic Drift which keeps Britain’s climate warm, believe it or not).  Added to that is ‘decay’ in the physical sense of increasing entropy leading to an ultimate future of everything at the universe being at the same temperature and therefore nothing happening.

As for the earth ‘groaning’, it is easy to imagine this given the stresses we are putting on the planet’s systems. It could also be argued that the earth is groaning to be looked after properly – groaning for humans to take seriously their mandate (see Part 1) of maintaining it in good condition and not using it as our plaything.

But the  phrase ‘as in the pains of childbirth’ suggests that decay is not the end, and that something new is going to emerge. So what is coming next?

The childbirth metaphor above represents a transformation from a ‘broken’ to a ‘working’ state of affairs…

b) Transformation from broken to working

The following two diagrams are an expression of the way I see things…

Consider humans, God and everything else. For these purposes, it is useful to set humans apart from the rest of physical things even though we are part of the ecosystem. This is because people are different in some ways – including being the only species to hold responsibility for looking after everything else.


This is what a ‘broken’ state of affairs looks like:

Sustainability is to do with one of these relationships: that between humans and the planet. This relationship being broken is one of three, and the breakages stem from the same reason: essentially  humans’ desire to rule their own lives and take the place of God. What does this have to do with the environment?  Wanting to be the centre of everything leads us to living our lives as if we are, which means we get what we want when we want it. This doesn’t satisfy us though, and we keep wanting more, yet the world has finite resources and our systems are set up to release climate-harming gases as a by-product of making stuff or going places. We consume, and the rest of the planet suffers.

I’m not saying that people who believe in God are any better. Perhaps they’re worse, as they (I) believe that God should rule their (my) lives but would rather rule their (my) own, thank you very much. Recent examples of my negative impact on the environment due to putting myself first are: I can’t be bothered to find a shop where jeans made using fair labour and sustainable material are sold; I like imported food and exotic fruit and am in no way prepared to cut down on the vast quantities of chocolate I eat. I like the fact that my rubbish goes away out of my sight and I don’t have to think about what happens to it – I’d rather not know. On top of this, the media is playing on my insecurity –  telling me I have to buy X to be like Y, where X and Y change every year as defined by fashion.

Let’s turn to an alternative picture: how things could be.


This is what things ‘working’ looks like:

I truly believe that sustainability is an integral part of everything working.  In this picture, humans are so secure in their identity (I believe as children of God) that they don’t have to excessively consume resources to feel better or fulfilled. They also don’t consider themselves as better or more deserving of natural resources than everything else on the planet.

What would the working version of things be like? Here are some snippets from a picture of this given in Isaiah 65:

“They will build houses and dwell in them;  they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit” – local living off the land.

“No longer will they build houses and others live in them, or plant and others eat.” – no exploitation!

“The sound of weeping and crying will be heard in it no more” – partly as a result of no exploitation.

“My chosen ones will long enjoy the works of their hands”

It’s an image of harmony between God, people and the rest of creation. Humans do domesticate the land, but they ‘long enjoy the works of their hands’ – that is, they domesticate it in a way that does not produce just short term gain at the expense of future generations.

A second picture of the working state of affairs is in a different part of the Bible, and it’s the principle of Jubilee. Every fifty years, land was given back to its original clan and given a year off. This was partly to make sure that people couldn’t accumulate wealth over a long period, and such that the gap between rich and poor didn’t grow too large. Another reason was to ensure that the land could recover and thus be more fruitful in the long term. I’m not an expert on Jubilee but I don know that  the relationships between people, land and God were more important back then: Jubilee was about rest, restored relationship with the land, and restored relationship with God. That is, where people’s identity had started to depend on things outside of God, it was important to come back to him.

Transformation between the two

In terms of the process of getting from the broken state of affairs to the working one, I won’t go into the details, partly because I don’t understand them.  However,  there is a kind of mini-metaphor in the story of Noah. Maybe you’re familiar with this story from childhood – Noah being told by God that there was so much evil in the world, it was time for a purge. But some things were not going to be destroyed – each species was to be retained into the post-flood era.


This was all good, apart from it didn’t last long – pretty much straight afterwards, people started causing harm again. And anyone who hasn’t lived the most sheltered of lives knows that evil is still with us today, in a big way. The story of Noah was not the end of evil, but it points to the final purging of evil and lasting of good. Within that definition of good is biodiversity – every species is valued and kept into the next age.

c) Meanwhile

At the end of the day, we’re still here in the ‘broken’ state of affairs, but the point I’m about to make is that it’s important not to sit around moaning and waiting for something better. Why? Time to go back to Jesus…

When Jesus’ disciples were standing on a hill, after his resurrection, confused and wondering what the heck to do about what they’d just seen, some messengers came up to them and asked them why they were just standing around! They had an important task: to be in the world, living the same kind of life as Jesus did, but since his resurrection symbolised the transformation from a decaying to an eternal body, it was also a symbol of the eternal age to come. It’s also up to Christians to symbolise and live according to the age to come. What does that mean? Well, if the transformed earth is a sustainable phenomenon not in bondage to decay,  and our lives should foreshadow that, then we should live in a sustainable way in the following ways and more:

–          Consume as few as possible resources which will not replenish themselves at the rate that we use them – sustainable consumption.

–          Consider where we find our identity: in ‘things’ or in God, since ‘things’ do not give sustainable fulfilment. (I like the following book on this: http://www.thegoodbook.co.uk/the-freedom-of-self-forgetfulness)

The Bible says: ‘for the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable’. We’re still very imperfect. Live out of the good news that already happened (see Part 1), and as a foreshadowing of the restored and sustainable world to come.


These two articles have taken a very wiggly tour through the Bible to demonstrate:

–          It’s easy to lose motivation for caring for the environment and the rest of humanity if our motivation depends on future results.

–          If our motivation depends on something already done – I argue Jesus’ example of life and sacrifice – then we may have more of a chance of keeping it.

–          Things aren’t as they should be (obviously), and humanity is to blame (again, obviously), but unsustainability is a consequence of humans putting themselves in the place of God.

–          Christians believe that the earth will be restored to a more sustainable state, and in the meantime they are to live as if belonging already to that era to bring good news of hope to others.

I hope that you have found the two articles interesting and have understood the worldview presented. I’m still figuring out my opinion on these things so if you want to chat about them let me know!

Motivation and hope in a time of gloom: Part 1


Quite often I get asked, “Where is the hope for the planet?” and “Why should I bother trying to stop climate change when hardly anyone else is?”, two different and highly important questions. When I decided many years ago to devote my career to climate change issues, I knew I’d have to face them myself, and it’s likely that you have faced them too.

So this article and the next one consist of my attempt at answering them, by exploring the world from the point of view of the Christian faith. The first is about motivation; the second is about hope.They are more personal than the articles I’ve written so far on the blog, and won’t treat the question from the point of view of all religions because some of the principles discussed are unique to Christianity. They are meant for everyone to read, not specifically Christians, although one of my greatest desires is for the latter to care more for the environment. If you have any questions or comments then either post them at the end or email me on jennifer.love.09@ucl.ac.uk.

Part 1: Why should I bother fighting climate change, when it looks like things are getting worse and I’m only one person?

Let’s not deny it, CO2 emissions are still increasing; indeed very rapidly since the end of the last global financial crisis [http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v2/n1/full/nclimate1332.html ]

I’m not sure how much damage we’ll have done before the world wakes up and does something about climate change, but it looks like we’re going to carry on warming the planet for a while.

At this point, some people pull out the, “I’m only one person, I can’t make a difference” argument, as an excuse not to do anything (sometimes they then go on to talk about “China and India”, but let’s not go there for now…). It is true that even if we as concerned citizens do a lot, we are outnumbered by people who do nothing or create yet more demand for fossil fuels. The logical conclusion to this is that if our motivation depends on things getting better, we will lose hope. If we can somehow separate our motivation from the end result, we will carry on regardless of the size of our impact.

To borrow someone else’s terminology [1], this can be concisely put in terms on ‘extrinsic motivation’ and ‘intrinsic motivation’, the former depending on results, the latter not.

My interpretation of intrinsic motivation is this: We try to limit our negative impact on the environment, not because we have confidence that it will work, but because it is the right thing to do.

This needs explaining…

Why is looking after the environment the right thing to do?

This might sound like a silly question – however, ‘looking after the environment’ in the context of our current sociotechnical system where flying and driving are totally normal, our food comes from far away and we like air conditioning in our offices when it’s hot,  potentially requires considerable personal sacrifice and sticking your neck out. So there had better be some good solid answers to why we should bother.  Here are some of mine:

a) We have a responsibility to look after a planet which isn’t ours.

The ancient Jewish story of the first ‘people’ on earth records God handing over the planet to mankind, with the following instructions:

“God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”  [2]

What does this mean? The Hebrew word for “rule over” is used in other texts to describe the benevolent rule of good kings over their subjects (so means “have responsibility over”); “subdue”  is related to working the soil and is a command to interact with nature and aid its fruitfulness.[3]

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it”. [4]

“Till” is the verb for “work”/ “serve”/ “worship (God)”. “Keep” means protect. So the verse can be interpreted: care for and protect the land in a way that gives life to it [3].

In case this terminology isn’t clear, or like me you prefer things to be explicit:

“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” [5]

And yet, because of selfishness and greed, we prefer to consume instead of protect, often to the detriment of others:

“Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pastures? Must you also trample the rest with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink pure water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?” [6]

These verses do not justify humanity’s greedy consumption of resources since these resources are not theirs to begin with, and our excessive consumption of them  involves “trampling” over others who are just trying to get their share. So how do we turn from this detrimental way of life and go back to what was intended for us?

b)      Jesus gave us several incredible and challenging examples of giving up things to benefit others.

My first example is a story he told, my second is what he did.

The parable of the Good Samaritan, which you can read here if you like [http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+10&version=NIV], starts with someone asking for clarification of God’s command to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ by posing the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ To answer, Jesus tells a story of a Samaritan – looked down upon by the Jews at the time – helping someone he didn’t know and who would have been his natural enemy. I think this is very relevant for climate change in that we are helping people we don’t know – perhaps they haven’t even been born yet – so we’re not doing it to get recognition from those we respect or anything. So often we try to do good deeds just for those we love – this goes way beyond that.

But the most direct example of giving something up to benefit others was Jesus’ death on the cross. Christians believe that this death had a purpose: forgiveness. Not that people deserved it, but it had to happen if people were going to be able to have a relationship with a good and holy God. Forgiveness was brought about through the punishment for our wrong being taken by Jesus when he died. That act of love on behalf of people Jesus never met during his time on earth is an incredible example to us of the love we should have for those we don’t know – and how wrong it is to prioritise our own lives at their expense.

It’s very important not to absolve personal responsibility from causing climate change and say, “I can’t help consuming, that’s just the way the system is”. Jesus got a lot of stick for bucking the trend and loving others over social and religious norms, e.g. going to eat with the ‘bad’ people in society, or breaking a religious rule in order to be able to heal someone. Since he gave us such a radical example of a counter-cultural life prioritising love for others, let’s do the same!

c)      “Life to the full”

Christians are sometimes criticised for looking forward to going to heaven/the next life so much that they don’t care much about the problems of the earth and this life. To our shame, sometimes this is the case. It is totally contrary to how Jesus lived and I would say that his life gives me inspiration to do quite the opposite: that the thought that this isn’t my only time alive means I don’t feel the need to get the most out of it for myself (e.g. touring round on aeroplanes). I can therefore give this life towards looking after others. Please don’t think that I actually manage to achieve this, but this is my aim. Jesus said, “I have come to give you life to the full”. I absolutely don’t think that he meant this to mean just satisfying ourselves, but  being alive for a purpose: to love and be loved by the combination of God, people and the rest of the planet.

What is the role of right and wrong in this anyway?

This might seem a rather abstract/philosophical question to raise at this point. But it’s crucially important for fighting climate change as you’ll hopefully see…

A few years ago I was very involved in an environmental society. The people were truly wonderful. They would give and give and give out of themselves…and not really get anything in return apart from the feeling of doing good. Sometimes they would tell me that it’s very hard to keep giving when you don’t really get anything in return. I agree.

Christians’ motivation to do good is fuelled by what they have already received: love and grace shown to them by God by Jesus’ forgiveness of them. And it is out of this prior-received love that we can joyfully give it away. It’s the opposite of doing good to try and earn some kind of reward or to appease an angry god or to try to increase your chances of making it into some kind of heaven. We would never make it – we acknowledge that. And out of gratitude that humanity’s rescue came from God himself, we are free to love others with no ulterior motive. God’s love is what drives me to devote my life to try to make other people’s lives better via mitigation of climate change.

Conclusion to part 1

So far, we’ve discussed why we should bother when it often seems like we’re not getting anywhere with saving the planet. It has been argued that our motivation will fade if we depend on results and not motivation from somewhere deeper within ourselves. The Christian faith points to the concept of doing the right thing after receiving a source of love that does not depend on our actions and is still there, in fact, despite our often badly-intentioned actions. This receiving of love should then lead to gratitude and freedom to give our lives to helping others. I am sorry if you haven’t had this experience of Christians and I really hope you get to.

Part 2 will attempt to answer the other question, ‘Where is the hope for the earth?’, but until then, I hope you found Part 1 interesting and that it made sense to you.


1. See the first comment on: http://ruthvalerio.net/2012/05/27/the-problem-communicating-hope-1/

2. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+8:17&version=NIV

3. “Cherishing the earth”, Hodson & Hodson, 2008.

4. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+2:15&version=NIV

5. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=psalm%2024:1&version=NIV

6. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ezekiel%2034:18-19&version=NIV