Floodland

To the right is a graphic that appeared in the Guardian last weekend, to illustrate a story about flood risk and global warming:

The larger map is pretty familiar: it sets out the flood risk that would arise from a two-metre rise in sea levels (at the upper end of projections for this century).

The smaller map, which seems to have inundated most of eastern England, is less familiar. Reading the small print, it becomes clear that this is a map of a truly cataclysmic scenario. The complete melting of the polar ice caps would release a staggering 33 million square kilometres of water into the sea, and this could result in a sea level rise in the order of 84 metres. So it\’s farewell to Norfolk.

But the qualifications pile up. This outcome is \”very unlikely – and probably only possible many thousands of years into the future.\” So, like global pandemics, asteroid collisions and exploding supernova stars, this type of sea level rise is not really something we can do a great deal about now.

You have to ask why The Guardian chose to print this map. Following the failure of the talks in Copenhagen, it is very tempting – even for those of us who broadly accept the scientific consensus – to stick our heads in the ever-warming sands, declare that the problem is too monstrous to tackle, and enjoy the sunshine.

A debate in the Observer today quotes a former chair of the IPCC as saying, \”Unless we announce distasters no one will listen.\” But conjuring cataclysms like this doesn\’t help; in fact, it plays into the hand of those who argue that the threat is exaggerated, or a trojan horse for a green re-engineering of society.

Big bad cities

The pun may have been weak, but the message behind WWF\’s headline (\”Cities need to green up their act\”) seemed pretty clear: cities are the problem.

WWF (formerly, and perhaps formally, known as The World Wildlife Fund) has come up with a catchy and polemically useful way of describing our ecological footprint – the amount of the earth\’s natural resources needed to sustain our current lifestyles and consumption patterns. We – in the UK – are living a \’three-planet lifestyle\’. That is, if the whole world were to live as we do, we would need three (or 3.1, to be precise) worlds to support us. That we are still alive is only thanks to people like the Indians, who make up for our profligacy by living a \’0.4-planet lifestyle\’.

The WWF report compares the performance of 60 British cities, and creates a ranking. Newport and Plymouth perform best, and Winchester comes off worst. So, these urban dens of eco-iniquity are dragging the rest of us down. Or are they? When you look at the figures again, it looks as if British cities are actually doing rather well: more than two thirds of them are performing better than the UK average. The press release seems to have forgotten to mention this.

This does not, of course, contradict WWF\’s main message, that we ought to consume and live more frugally and responsibly. Sure. But why are cities always the villains in this piece? In some ways (for example, sourcing food locally) it may be harder to live a one-planet lifestyle in a city. But Tesco\’s pandemic spread across the UK suggests that not everybody in rural areas shops locally, and in other arenas (public transport and higher density living) cities should have a natural advantage.

Asking how the green potential of cities could be better unlocked would be a constructive approach to this debate. But the green movement seems unable to move on from its utopian, pastoralist roots, regarding everything since the invention of the spinning jenny with deep suspicion. Green and pleasant land good; dark satanic mills bad.

Our cities may be part of the problem. But with a growing population, they will have to be the core of any solution.

Paddling while England sinks

The Government’s consultation on boosting housing supply could hardly have started at a worse time. With residents of west country towns looking down at filthy waters from their first floor windows, this was not the best moment to publish policy documents that emphasise the need to create more homes, even if these are to be on flood plains.

To be fair, the Green Paper on housing does acknowledge the likelihood of increased flooding in the future, and the need to ensure adequate flood defences and to avoid “inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding”. But these cautious statements sit uneasily with the desperate need for new housing reflected in the document. Can we have it both ways, or are we paddling while England sinks?

Seeing your home flood must be vile for the victims. Viler still must be the knowledge that, as the brown water inexorably rises, your next months will be spent squabbling with insurers, throwing out ruined carpets and furniture, chipping off sodden and contaminated plaster, just to make your home habitable again. Maybe the Environment Agency can be blamed for delayed warnings and late arrival of flood defence barriers, but these would only have bought time as rivers swelled to 36 feet above their normal level.

What is to be done? We could continue to build flood defences higher and higher, until the rivers that give many of our towns and cities their beauty are hidden from view by huge levees. Or we could turn the problem around, creating open space that can act as flood storage, and building homes that can quickly recover from flooding. The Dutch, whose country is one big flood plain, have already started to build amphibious houses on hollow concrete bases, which can rise four metres when rivers flood.

But we don’t need to go that far. Government and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) have both published guidance on flood resilience, for new build and existing houses respectively. Gypsum-based plaster can be replaced with more water-resistant materials, ground floor rooms can be used as service space, electrical sockets can be put halfway up walls and non-return valves can be fitted to drains.

Flood resilience measures might not be pretty – plastic kitchen units and concrete floors, anyone? – and leaving the ground floor to services and car parking conflicts with everything that urban designers learn about ‘animated street fronts’. But the ABI calculates that spending an extra £34,000 on making repairs to a three-bedroom house more resilient could save £37,000 on repair costs next time that the waters rise (let alone several times that in anguish).

One in ten UK homes is already at risk from flooding, and we can only expect that proportion – and the frequency and severity of floods – to increase. Instead of demanding ever higher, more intrusive and more expensive defences, like some latter-day Cnuts, we could accept flooding as a fact of life, which careful planning and design can turn from a cataclysm to an inconvenience.

Green grow the balance sheets oh!

The morning after the world of pop and rock jetted to Wembley to tell us about climate change, a browse through the Sunday paper…

Nearly 12 pages of the 40-page main section of The Observer are given over to advertising. Top categories are:

  • electricity, IT services and electrical goods (30 per cent of the advertising space)
  • cars (25 per cent)
  • financial services (14 per cent)
  • holidays and flights (8 per cent)

Perhaps more revealing than these figures is the fact that 40 per cent of space is given over to advertisements that make environmental claims. A few are summarised below, without any lawyer-baiting discussion about the claims made:

  • A satellite TV system switches itself off at night, transforming its dozing customers into \’eco-warriors\’;
  • A credit card gives 50 per cent of its profits to climate change projects (thereby helping a cute wide-eyed baby);
  • A bank is carbon-neutral, as illustrated by equally cute polar bears;
  • A small car-manufacturer questions \’why spend 2 litres of petrol to get one litre of milk?\’;
  • An IT firm points out that its inkjet cartridges are recycled through their \’Planet Partners\’ programme.

Keep shopping. Save the world.