BBC.com 2020 Is this the start of an aviation revolution?
By Diane Selkirk11th February 2020Aviation is one of the fastest rising sources of carbon emissions from transport, but can a small Canadian airline show the industry a way of flying that is better for the planet?A
As air journeys go, it was just a short hop into the early morning sky before the de Havilland seaplane splashed back down on the Fraser River in Richmond, British Columbia. Four minutes earlier it had taken off from the same patch of water. But despite its brief duration, the flight may have marked the start of an aviation revolution.
Those keen of hearing at the riverside on that cold December morning might have been able to pick up something different amid the rumble of the propellers and whoosh of water as the six-passenger de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver took off and landed. What was missing was the throaty growl of the aircraft’s nine-cylinder radial engine.
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In its place was an all-electric propulsion engine built by the technology firm magniX that had been installed in the aircraft over the course of several months. The four-minute test flight (the plane was restricted to flying in clear skies, so with fog and rain closing in the team opted for a short trip) was the first time an all-electric commercial passenger aircraft had taken to the skies.
The retrofitted de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver took off from the Fraser River in the early morning light for a four minute test flight (Credit: Diane Selkirk)
“It was the first shot of the electric aviation revolution,” says Roei Ganzarski, chief executive of magniX, which worked with Canadian airline Harbour Air Seaplanes to convert one of the aircraft in their fleet of seaplanes so it could run on battery power rather than fossil fuels.
For Greg McDougall, founder of Harbour Air and pilot during the test flight, it marked the culmination of years of trying to put the environment at the forefront of its operations.
It was the first shot of the electric aviation revolution – Roei Ganzarski
Harbour Air, which has a fleet of some 40 commuter floatplanes serving the coastal regions around Vancouver, Victoria and Seattle, was the first airline in North America to become carbon-neutral through offsets in 2007. A one-acre green roof on their new Victoria airline terminal followed. Then in 2017, 50 solar panels and four beehives housing 10,000 honeybees were added, but for McDougall, a Tesla owner with an interest in disruptive technology, the big goal was to electrify the fleet.
McDougall searched for alternative motor options for a couple of years and had put the plan on the backburner when Ganzarski first approached him in February 2019. “He said, ‘We’ve got a motor we want to get certified and we want to fly it before the end of the year,’” McDougall recalls.
The two companies found their environmental values and teams were a good match and quickly formed a partnership. Eleven months later, the modest Canadian airline got what McDougall refers to as their “e-plane” off the ground, pulling ahead of other electric flight projects, including those by big-name companies Airbus, Boeing and Rolls-Royce.
The test flight was followed years of work by Greg McDougall to make his airline more environmentally friendly (Credit: Diane Selkirk)
The project came together in record time considering how risk-adverse the aviation industry is, says McDougall. “Someone had to take the lead,” he says. “The reason I live in British Columbia is because of the outdoors: protecting it is in our DNA. When it came to getting the benefits from electric flight it made sense for us to step in and pioneer the next step.”
As the threat posed by the climate crisis deepens, there has been renewed interest in developing electric passenger aircraft as a way of reducing emissions
Electric flight has been around since the 1970s, but it’s remained limited to light-weight experimental planes flying short distances and solar-powered aircraft with enormous wingspans yet incapable of carrying passengers. But as the threat posed by the climate crisis deepens, there has been renewed interest in developing electric passenger aircraft as a way of reducing emissions and airline operating costs.
Currently there are about 170 electric aircraft projects underway internationally –up by 50% since April 2018, according to the consulting firm Roland Berger. Many of the projects are futuristic designs aimed at developing urban air taxis, private planes or aircraft for package delivery. But major firms such as Airbus have also announced plans to electrify their own aircraft. It plans to send its E-Fan X hybrid prototype of a commercial passenger jet on its maiden flight by 2021. But only one of the aircraft’s four jet engines will be replaced with a 2MW electric motor, powered by a combination of an onboard battery and generator attached to a turboshaft engine, which still uses fossil fuels, inside the fuselage.
Most electric aircraft to have flown to date have been small light aircraft rather than those designed to carry passengers (Credit: Getty Images)
This makes Harbour Air something of an outlier. As a coastal commuter airline, it operates smaller floatplanes that tend to make short trips up and down the coastline of British Columbia and Washington State, which means its aircraft can regularly recharge their batteries. The company sees itself in a position to retrofit its entire fleet of floatplanes and make air travel in the region as green as possible.
This could bring some advantages. The efficiency of a typical combustion engine for a plane like this is fairly low – a large proportion of the energy from the fuel is lost as waste heat as it turns the propeller that drives the aircraft forward. Electrical motors have fewer moving parts, meaning there’s less maintenance and less maintenance cost.
Electrical motors have fewer moving parts, meaning there’s less maintenance and less maintenance cost
Erika Holtz, Harbour Air’s engineering and quality manager, sees the move to electric as the next major aviation advancement, but warns that one stumbling block has been the perception of safety. “Mechanical systems are much better known and trusted,” she says. In contrast people see electrical systems as a bit unknown – think of your home computer. “Turning it off and on again isn’t an option in aviation,” she adds.
But it’s the possibility of spurring lasting change in aviation that’s made working on the Harbour Air/magniX project so exciting for Holtz. Aviation technology has stagnated over the past decades, she says. “Although there have been incremental improvements in certain technologies, there hasn’t been a major development change in aviation in 50 years.”
Batteries still cannot compete with aviation fuel for the amount of energy they hold per kilogram, but electric motors are more efficient (Credit: Diane Selkirk)
One area that requires further development is battery capacity. Many experts doubt that large fully electric passenger airliners will be available any time soon – current battery technology simply does not offer as many miles per kilo compared to aviation fuel.
The power density in aviation fuel is high, in the neighbourhood of 12,000 watt hours per kilogram. A lithium ion battery is only in the region of 200 watt hours per kilogram.
Harbour Air’s short-distance flights on small, single and twin engine planes have lower power demands which mean they don’t need heavy batteries. “Most of our routes are within the range of technology that exists today,” McDougall says.
Harbour Air hopes to get paying passengers in its eplanes in under two years
This ability to use existing technology, including the 62-year-old Beaver airframe and the Nasa-certified lithium ion batteries, means the certification process to meet the Federal Aviation Agency and Transport Canada requirements is expected to be easier than it would be with a plane built from the ground up.
Harbour Air hopes to get paying passengers in its eplanes in under two years. “Canada isn’t always known as an innovation centre,” says Holtz. “It’s very regulated and aviation itself is very regulated. But Transport Canada has been trying to help us get through hurdles instead of putting them up.”
Harbour Air has plans to electrify its entire fleet of small passenger seaplanes, putting it ahead of other airlines (Credit: Diane Selkirk)
But Harbour Air’s efforts to electrify their fleet are unlikely to have a major impact on aviation emissions.
“Two to 12 passenger aircraft are only a tiny fraction of global aviation emissions,” says Lynnette Dray, senior research associate at University College London’s Energy Institute. “Even looking at all scheduled flights under 500 miles (which are performed by many sizes of aircraft, most of which are much bigger than two to 12 seats), less than 10% of global scheduled passenger fuel use and CO2 emissions can be substituted.”
There’s a lot of value in getting prototype models to market so that the technology has a chance to become familiar and trusted – Lynette Dray
Where Dray sees the Canadian airline having a bigger impact is with public perception. “There’s a lot of value in getting prototype models to market so that the technology has a chance to become familiar and trusted,” she says.
Blazing a trail for other electrical aircraft projects has been a major goal for Harbour Air and magniX. According to the The International Council on Clean Transportation, aviation contributes an estimated 2.4% of global carbon emissions with 24% of global passenger transport-related CO2 being attributed to flights originating in the US. This should be a strong motivator for change, says Ganzarski.
“I think the idea of electric aviation – getting rid of emissions and lowering operating costs – is something that the worldwide community should embrace,” he says. “The more companies get into it, the better. But we’ll be there right in front, leading the way.”
The emissions from travel it took to report this story were 4kg CO2, travelling by bus, train and car. The digital emissions from this story are an estimated 1.2g to 3.6g CO2 per page view. Find out more about how we calculated this figure here.
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FUTURE PLANET1Should destroying nature be a crime?FUTURE PLANET2The buildings heated by human warmthFUTURE PLANET3How do we deal with medical waste?FUTURE PLANET4The strongest law on climate yetSEE MOREFUTURE PLANET | RENEWABLE ENERGYThe batteries that could make fossil fuels obsoleteShare using EmailShare on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Linkedin(Image credit: InterGen)
The twin smokestacks of the Moss Landing Power Plant tower over Monterey Bay. Visible for miles along this picturesque stretch of the north Californian coast, the 500-foot-tall (150m) pillars crown what was once California’s largest electric power station – a behemoth natural gas-fired generator. Today, as California steadily moves to decarbonise its economy, those stacks are idle and the plant is largely mothballed. Instead, the site is about to begin a new life as the world’s largest battery, storing excess energy when solar panels and wind farms are producing electricity and feeding it back into the grid when they’re not.
These aren’t the only super-sized batteries that will soon be operating at the Moss Landing plant. An additional 182.5 megawatts produced by 256 Tesla megapack batteries are scheduled to begin feeding into California’s electric grid in mid-2021, with plans to eventually add enough capacity at the site to power every home in nearby San Francisco for six hours, according to the Bay Area utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, which will own and operate the system. Elsewhere in California, a 250-megawatt storage project went online this year in San Diego, construction has begun on a 150-megawatt system near San Francisco, a 100-megawatt battery project is nearing completion in Long Beach, and a number of others are in various stages of development around the state.
California is currently the global leader in the effort to balance the intermittency of renewable energy in electric grids with utility-scale batteries, but the rest of the world is rapidly following suit. Recently announced plans range from a 409-megawatt system in South Florida, to a 320-megawatt plant near London in the UK, to a 200-megawatt facility in Lithuania and a 112-megawatt unit in Chile.
Currently the world’s largest battery facility is southern Australia’s Hornsdale Power Reserve (Credit: Alamy)
Driven by steeply falling prices and technological progress that allows batteries to store ever-larger amounts of energy, grid-scale systems are seeing record growth. Many of the gains are spillovers from the auto industry’s race to build smaller, cheaper, and more powerful lithium-ion batteries for electric cars. In the US, state clean-energy mandates, along with tax incentives for storage systems that are paired with solar installations, are also playing an important role.
The mass deployment of storage could overcome one of the biggest obstacles to renewable energy – its cycling between oversupply when the sun shines or the wind blows, and shortage when the Sun sets or the wind drops. By smoothing imbalances between supply and demand, proponents say, batteries can replace fossil fuel “peaker” plants that kick in for a few hours a day when energy demands soar. As such, widespread energy storage could be key to expanding the reach of renewables and speeding the transition to a carbon-free power grid.
“Energy storage is actually the true bridge to a clean-energy future,” says Bernadette Del Chiaro, executive director of the California Solar and Storage Association.
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How quickly that future arrives depends in large part on how rapidly costs continue to fall. Already the price tag for utility-scale battery storage in the US has plummeted, dropping nearly 70% between 2015 and 2018, according to the US Energy Information Administration. This sharp price drop has followed advances in lithium-ion battery chemistry to significantly improve performance. Battery capacity has expanded too, with facilities able to store and discharge energy over ever-longer periods of time. Market competition and rising battery production also play a major role; a projection by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory sees mid-range costs for lithium-ion batteries falling an additional 45% between 2018 and 2030.
“We’re almost entirely piggybacking on the growth of lithium-ion battery technology, which is driven mostly by electric vehicles and consumer electronics,” says Ray Hohenstein, market applications director for Fluence, an energy storage technology provider with projects totalling nearly 1 gigawatt (1,000 megawatts) set to come online in California within a year. The money put into research for those applications is driving down costs across the board, says Hohenstein. “It’s just like what we saw with solar panels.”
In California, falling battery prices, coupled with the state’s aggressive push toward a carbon-free electrical grid by 2045, have led to a packed pipeline of storage projects. A 2013 bill set a target of 1.325 gigawatts of storage to be commissioned for the state’s grid by 2020. With 1.5 gigawatts of projects now approved – including more than 500 megawatts installed so far – that goal has already been surpassed, according to the California Public Utilities Commission.
Utility-scale battery storage is the solution to the volatility of renewable power – so power from solar isn’t restricted to daylight hours (Credit: Getty Images)
When the gigantic Moss Landing project becomes fully operational in mid-2021, it will more than double the amount of energy storage in California. Several other states are also now embarking on major energy storage projects. Among them: New York’s 316-megawatt Ravenswood project will be able to power more than 250,000 homes for up to eight hours, replacing two natural gas peaker plants in the New York City borough of Queens. And the 409-megawatt Manatee system planned for South Florida will be charged by an adjacent solar plant. The facility, which utility Florida Power and Light says will be the world’s largest solar-powered battery system, replaces two aging natural-gas-fired units.
As a whole, the US’s utility-scale battery power is set to grow from 1.2 gigawatts in 2020 to nearly 7.5 gigawatts in 2025, according to Wood MacKenzie, a natural resources research and consulting firm. Kelly Speakes-Backman, chief executive of the US Energy Storage Association, says that battery storage additions doubled in 2020, and would likely have tripled had it not been for construction slowdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Europe has been slower to get on board with storage. “In general, Europe is a bit more conservative” when it comes to such developments, says Daniele Gatti, analyst for IDTechEx, a UK-based market research firm specialising in emerging technology. Energy storage development in Europe has been hindered by a restrictive electricity market dominated by government auctions that tend to undervalue storage, she says. Still, some big-battery projects are now taking shape, including the 320-megawatt Gateway system to be built at a new port facility near London.
An artist’s impression of what is set to become the UK’s largest battery storage facility, with 320 megawatt capacity (Credit: InterGen)
Globally, Gatti projects rapid growth in energy storage, reaching 1.2 terawatts (1,200 gigawatts) in the next decade. Key players include Australia, which in 2017 became the first nation to install major battery storage on its grid with the 100-megawatt Hornsdale Power Reserve, and is now planning to add another 300 megawatts near Victoria. The new system will dispatch electricity between states on an as-needed basis, maximising the efficiency of existing transmission infrastructure and reducing the need for building new power lines that would sit idle most of the time. A similar projects are gearing up in Baden-Württemberg, south-west Germany.
And while the US’s Moss Landing is set to be the world’s largest battery, it may be so for long. Saudi Arabia has just announced a bid for that title, with a massive solar-plus-storage system on the country’s west coast. The facility will provide 100% renewable energy around the clock to a resort complex of 50 hotels and 1,300 homes being built along the Red Sea.
With a recent report concluding that most fossil fuel power plants in the US will reach the end of their working life by 2035, experts say that the time for rapid growth in industrial-scale energy storage is at hand. Yiyi Zhou, a renewable power systems specialist at Bloomberg NEF, says that renewables combined with battery storage are already an economically viable alternative to building new gas peaker plants. Pairing electricity generation with storage works especially well with solar energy, which generally follows a predictable daily pattern. And, says Zhou, as more solar energy enters the grid, the cost of operating gas plants actually goes up.
“That’s mainly because [gas plants] are forced to cycle on and off much more now because of solar penetration,” Zhou says. “This adds wear-and-tear, and shortens their lifetime.”
The price of lithium-ion batteries has plummeted in recent years, and is predicted to fall further, making even larger batteries more viable (Credit: Alamy)
Batteries are even beginning to reach a size – around 200 megawatts – that enables renewables to replace small- to medium-sized natural gas generators, says Fluence’s Hohenstein. “Now we’re able to truly build these hybrid resources – solar, storage, wind – and do the job that was traditionally done by fossil fuel power plants,” says Hohenstein, whose company is seeing a surge of interest in large projects.
Adding storage also makes renewable energy more profitable, says Wesley Cole, an energy analyst with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “One of the challenges of renewable energy is the more you put on the grid, the more the value declines,” Cole says. Storage helps deal with that by soaking up excess energy that would have been lost in the middle of the day, when electricity demand is lower, and moving it to a time when it is more valuable.
While energy storage is thriving in high-value markets, such as California, battery prices still need to come down more to reach large-scale global deployment. Yet analysts are optimistic that battery prices will eventually drop low enough for widespread energy storage use.
“We see storage being a large player across effectively every future we look at,” says Cole. “And not just one or two gigawatts… but tens to hundreds of gigawatts.”
This article was originally published by Yale e360, and is republished with permission – read the original story here. This is also why this story does not have an estimate for its carbon emissions, as Future Planet stories usually do.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “The Essential List”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife, and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.Continue readingFUTURE PLANET | INDIAThe world’s fastest-growing source of foodShare using EmailShare on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Linkedin(Image credit: Alamy)
By Meenakshi J15th December 2020The green fronds that grow along much of India’s shoreline have large potential as a sustainable food source, while helping to fight climate change.E
Emerald-green waters and bobbing catamarans welcome one on the way to Pamban Island, also known as Rameshwaram, a sacred pilgrimage site in the state of Tamil Nadu. But just below the sea’s surface, there is a change taking place which could transform the region’s ecosystem, economy and even its cuisine – these coastal villages are the home of India’s seaweed boom.
Although seaweed has been used in Indian folk medicine for thousands of years, it has never played as large a part in Indian culture as it has in other Asian countries. However, picking seaweed for traditional remedies is an age-old practice along coastal settlements such as Pamban Island and the Gulf of Mannar, a richly biodiverse area.
Here, locals have historically collected natural wild seaweeds indigenous to the region. It is to these villages that India is turning to as a model for seaweed cultivation, which globally has become the fastest-growing sector of food production, increasing by 8% every year.
The tropical waters of southern India form an ideal environment for seaweed to thrive (Credit: Alamy)
Researchers in India have long been proposing seaweed cultivation as a form of sustainable agriculture. Much of India’s coast is ideal for seaweed cultivation with suitable tropical weather, shallow waters and a rich supply of nutrients. The regions of Gujarat and Tamil Nadu harbour the highest seaweed biodiversity in the country, with around 282 species being reported along Tamil Nadu’s 1,000km (621 miles) coastline alone. In total, as many as 841 species of seaweed thrive along the Indian coast, though only a few are cultivated.
The benefits could be significant. India’s economy is an agrarian one, with 60% of its land used for agriculture. But close to 47% of the country’s cultivable land is being lost to soil degradation. Water erosion is responsible for more than a third of this loss – but, through seaweed, water could also be part of the solution.
“[Seaweed has] an innate ability to combat malnutrition being a perfect source of iodine, vitamins, and proteins,” says Dinabandhu Sahoo, a botanist at Delhi University who has argued for the need for a “blue revolution” in Indian agriculture. That revolution could be getting closer, with India’s government announcing this summer some $87m (£65m) in subsidies for seaweed farming initiatives over the next five years.
Seaweed’s nutritional value is far from its only appeal as a crop. Seaweed gains its energy through photosynthesis, in a similar way to plants (though seaweeds are actually macroalgae). Seaweed absorbs carbon dioxide, converting the carbon to sugars for energy, and releases oxygen into the water.
Previously, it was believed that much of the carbon stored in seaweed would eventually be released again when the algae decomposed in the ocean. But the discovery of large quantities of dead seaweed deep in ocean-floor sediments has shown that when seaweed dies, much of it is swept out to the ocean, eventually sinking to the seafloor where its carbon is locked-up in sediments. As a result, seaweed cultivation has been identified as a carbon sink that could help mitigate climate change, according to research by seaweed ecologist Dorte Krause-Jensen and colleagues at Aarhus University, Denmark. And apart from storing carbon, seaweed forms one base of the marine food web, along with phytoplankton, and provides food and a habitat for a number of marine animals.
Seaweed harvesting has become an important source of income to coastal communities, in particular for women (Credit: Alamy)
But for all its attraction, the uptake of seaweed cultivation in India got off to a slow start. Some of the first efforts were in 1987, when the species Kappaphycus alvarezii, native to the Philippines, was acquired by the Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSMCRI), a laboratory part of India’s Council of Scientific and Industrial Research.
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The intention was to meet the increasing demand for seaweed used in the industrial manufacture of agar – a jelly with many uses, including in food, cosmetics and in laboratories for growing microorganisms. After a decade of lab and field trials at Port Okha in Gujarat, the seaweed was introduced at Mandapam, Tamil Nadu, in 1997 with just 5g of seed material, says Eswaran K, a scientist at the CSMCRI’s Marine Algal Research Station, who has spent the past 27 years in Mandapam studying seaweed.
This 5g of seed material propagated over the years and has resulted in the successful seaweed cultivation farms along a 100km (62-mile) coastline near Palk Bay.
Seaweed has been identified as an important carbon sink, so large-scale cultivation could help absorb the impacts of climate change (Credit: Alamy)
But large-scale seaweed harvesting only began in earnest around the year 2000, when CSMCRI licensed the technology to PepsiCo, who were interested in using seaweed not as a food crop but to produce carrageenan, a compound used in food, cosmetics and industry. “This heralded commercial seaweed cultivation in India,” says Eswaran.
PepsiCo sold its seaweed fields in 2008, which were then eventually bought by AquAgri, one of the first Indian firms to venture into commercial seaweed cultivation. The firm now has 18 seaweed cultivation sites in Tamil Nadu, providing jobs to 650 fisherfolk, predominantly women.
Muthulakshmi Namburajan has been harvesting and cultivating seaweed for a total of 38 years. While she used to spend more time in deeper water collecting seaweed, she now avoids the rougher waves as the work is physically demanding. “I prefer being close to the shores spending my time catering to the rafts,” she says. From these bamboo rafts, where seaweed grows along ropes anchored by stones, Namburajan harvests, dries and cleans up to 50kg (110lb) of seaweed a day.
The surge in seaweed cultivation has had a positive socio-economic impact on the coastal communities in India, particularly among women seaweed farmers, helping them increase their economic independence.
One seaweed raft can yield up to 200kg seaweed in around 45 days (Credit: Alamy)
In total, there are 1,200 families involved in seaweed cultivation along the coasts of Tamil Nadu, Eswaran says. Each provided with 45 bamboo rafts to cultivate and harvest, one per day. Each raft typically yields 200kg (440lb), of which 50kg (110lb) is used to start cultivating the next raft.
And seaweed cultivation is set to grow further in India, with CSMCRI working with the Ministry of Fisheries to begin seaweed cultivation of both native and exotic species of seaweed along a 100km (62-mile) stretch of shoreline. The seaweed is not only destined to be a food source, but also a source of biofuels, bio-fertilisers and other products. While the CSMCRI’s seaweed biofuel is still being perfected to make it economically and environmentally viable, its liquid bio-fertiliser has been shown to boost crop yields and has been rolled out to market.
Yet seaweed cultivation may come with its own ecological downsides. Unchecked wild growth of seaweed has been shown to damage coral reefs in the Caribbean, while some coral-dwelling fish appear to prefer corals unfettered by seaweed.
In India’s Gulf of Mannar, concerns have been raised that the coral reefs around the island of Kurusadai were suffering from a seaweed invasion that had drifted in from nearby cultivations, though a study by the CSMCRI suggested that only a small area of 77 sq m (828 sq ft) had been affected. Eswaran notes that use of suction pumps to pick up any stray fronds of seaweed can help minimise the risk of cultivated seaweed establishing amid coral reefs.
With the Indian government announcing plans to ramp up seaweed cultivation, it could provide a stable source of income to coastal villages (Credit: Alamy)
According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization’s latest report on the seaweed trade, the fast-growing global seaweed market is already more than $6bn (£4.5bn) a year. India’s present seaweed value is estimated to be around $500m (£370m), despite a bumpy ride in recent years. “In 2013, close to 1,500 metric tonnes of seaweed was harvested,” says Abhiram Seth, founder of AquAgri. “But then, El Nino and global warming contributed to increasing the temperature of oceans. That’s resulted in lower yield in the years to come.”
There is also a dearth of quality seed material after mass mortality in 2013-14 due to high sea temperatures, adds Eswaran. This damaged the reproduction capability and vigour of Kappaphycus alvarezii species. “To overcome this, we are working towards developing a heat-resistant strain and establishing a functional seed bank,” says Eswaran, though this research is still in its early stages.
For a food historically much neglected in Indian cuisine, seaweed is set to have a remarkable influence on the nation’s coasts. And as this algae can help lock up carbon and save agricultural land, perhaps it deserves a more prominent place on the nation’s plates.
The emissions from travel it took to report this story were 0kg CO2. The digital emissions from this story are an estimated 1.2g to 3.6g CO2 per page view. Find out more about how we calculated this figure here.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “The Essential List”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife, and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.Share using EmailShare on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedinSHARE
FUTURE PLANET1Why batteries are the new power plantsFUTURE PLANET2Can dairy adapt to climate change?FUTURE PLANET3The end of a fuel worse than coalFUTURE PLANET4The nation learning to embrace floodingSEE MOREFUTURE PLANET | CLIMATE CHANGECan dairy adapt to climate change?Share using EmailShare on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Linkedin(Image credit: John Quintero/BBC)
By Emily Kasriel8th December 2020Amid polarised debate, Emily Kasriel asks how dairy farmers see the role of their industry in climate change – and finds a mixture of doubt, denial and commitment to change.
“Nothing beats the feeling when you see a cow take its first breath, after battling to get it to breathe. I milk each cow twice a day every single day of the year, so they know I want the best for them,” says Hannah Edwards, standing proudly in the midst of the herd of Holstein cows she’s tended for the last 11 years. They are grazing on her favourite hillside, high up on the farm with a commanding view of peaks and valleys. “I love coming up here. On a clear day, you can see for miles. That’s Wales, Lake Bala is over there, and there you can see Snowdonia.”
With a growing public awareness of the importance of consuming less dairy to meet tough climate change targets, I’ve come to meet Hannah to try and understand how family dairy farmers see climate change. After climbing into her tall green wellies, I drive with her and her Labrador, Marley, to the farm where she works, spread across the border between Wales and Shropshire in the west of England. I want to test whether a communication approach called deep listening could help understand better the attitudes of dairy farmers to the environment and climate change.
Media representations of the climate change narrative have become increasingly polarised, with each side of the discussion represented by partisan outlets as a caricature. But behind these stereotypes are the nuanced stories of how people’s life experiences contribute to their worldview. By having these conversations, perhaps there is common ground that will get us closer to sustainable change.
Where better to start than dairy: in 2015, the industry’s emissions equivalent to more than 1,700 million tonnes of CO2 made up 3.4% of the world’s total of almost 50,000 million tonnes that year. That makes dairy’s contribution close to that from aviation and shipping combined (which are 1.9% and 1.7% respectively).
Dairy farming is Hannah Edwards’ profession and vocation – and the welfare of the herd is always her primary concern (Credit: John Quintero/BBC)
Not long after I arrive at the farm, Hannah, armed with a thick super-sized blue apron and a razor-sharp focus, announces it is time to enter the parlour, where she milks the 140 cows, in a true state of flow. Wrapped in blue gloves, her hands dance in swift parallel moves as they reach diagonally up and then across as she wipes each teat with a disinfecting cloth before attaching it on to the milk sucking equipment. Amid the flurry of muscle action I can feel Hannah’s calm aura of awareness, watching the millilitres on the glass vials track the bubbly white liquid while she reads each cows’ emotional state to pick up on any illness or mood requiring more close attention. “They can’t talk to you, just have to look out for different emotions,” she says. “Their eyes become bulgy when they are scared. It’s really teamwork, cows and farmers working together to produce milk.”
Between 2005 and 2015, the dairy cattle industry’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 18% as demand for milk grows
The following morning, Hannah and I sit in blistering sunshine on a picnic bench in her family garden alongside her mother Ruth and brother David. “The cows don’t like the heat,” Hannah says. “They won’t sit down as the ground is too hot. Their feet get tender; they get abscesses that cause them to go lame.”
Together, the family reflects on the changing weather and climate patterns they have witnessed. “I remember we used to get frost when we were kids, but we don’t get it anymore,” says David. “We don’t get those nice crisp mornings.” Ruth recalls that when she first came to the farm, the cherry blossom tree would bloom in May. “Now it’s April,” she says. “The climate does seem to be different over the years. We don’t seem to get proper seasons anymore.”
Hannah’s opinions about climate change prove complex over the course of our conversations. “Obviously climate change is happening,” she says. “Greenhouse gases are helped by humans, isn’t it. Part of it is a natural process, like when the Ice Age ended. But it is speeded up, there’s no doubt about that.” And what about the role of farmers? “Farmers have an extra responsibility to take care both of the environment and of emissions,” she says.
But at other moments, Hannah quickly moves the subject away from dairy farming’s contribution. “There are more people, so you need more animals to feed everyone. The bottom line is that we are overpopulated,” she says. “It’s not just this country – there are more people all over the world.”
Greenhouse gas emissions from the dairy industry are rising as demand for milk grows globally (Credit: John Quintero/BBC)
Overall, a quarter of global emissions come from food. The United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) calculated that between 2005 and 2015, the dairy cattle industry’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 18% as demand for milk grows.
These gases – mainly methane, nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide – are produced at different stages of dairy farming. Methane, the most potent of these greenhouse gases, is first produced as the cow digests its food. Then, as the manure is managed on the farm, methane as well as nitrous oxides are also emitted.
These gases all contribute to global warming. “Carbon dioxide has relatively weak warming effects, but its effects are permanent, lasting hundreds of thousands of years,” says Tara Garnett, who researches greenhouse gas emissions from food at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford. “A tonne of methane has a far stronger warming effect, but its effect disperses rapidly – in about a decade.”
I sense a conflict between the family’s shared worldview – a deep love and connection with the environment – and to the possibility that dairy farming could be harming the planet
But for Hannah, there is a level of distrust in such facts. “With regard to scientific information, you hope that it’s true,” she says. “But there’s a little bit of me that is quite sceptical. Are they just scaremongering, and forcing us to do things that they want to do?”
As I listen to Hannah and her family, I try to be completely present, using deep listening. I focus on their words, but also try to sense the meaning behind them to better understand their world view. The theory behind deep listening, first explored by psychologist Carl Rogers in the 1950s, is that you convey the attitude that “I respect your thoughts, and even if I don’t agree with them I know that they are valid for you”. When a speaker feels they are being deeply heard they are more likely to convey a richer, more authentic narrative.
I sense a conflict between the family’s shared worldview – a deep love and connection with the environment and the animals they tend – and to the possibility that dairy farming could be harming the planet. “I think [climate change] is a lot to do with cars and aeroplanes,” says Hannah’s brother David. “I don’t think it’s anything to do with farming as we look after the wildlife and the environment… We are not out to damage things.” The experience and family history of being dairy farmers is critical to the family’s identity, so an idea that appears to threaten that heart-felt identity is hard to embrace.
Hannah’s love for the cows, and desire to do everything she can for animal welfare, is the prism through which she sees the world, including climate change
I come to understand that Hannah’s love for the cows, and desire to do everything she can for animal welfare, is the prism through which she sees the world, including climate change. Whenever we talk about a potential measure to reduce carbon footprint or methane emissions, her immediate thoughts are whether the cows will benefit.
Philip Davies argues that farmers often feel “voiceless and weighted down” (Credit: John Quintero)
After we reach the main farmhouse, her Labrador Marley leads us to Hannah’s boss, Philip Davies, who denies that climate change is happening.
“Climate change is the biggest load of tosh. It’s lies beyond lies,” he says, leaning his arm on the corner of his concrete cowshed, scanning his pregnant cows lying down on the straw inside. “When I was at school not far from here, some of the boys ordered Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. When the books arrived, the headmaster, who used to deliver the post to us boys every morning, would throw them into your porridge. I feel the same about climate change.”
Philip is a tall man who stands erect with piercing blue eyes; he has been a dairy farmer for more than five decades. “I was born a dairy farmer milking a cow when I was six or seven. I remember that first cow, Sylvia, in that farm just down the road, and my father and grandfather before him,” he says. Each precious cow in his herd has a number, but also a name. Mabel, Beryl, Megan, Antoinette, Estelle: names that have echoed through the family herd since the 1950s. Last year, Philip and his three brothers invited 150 neighbours, friends and those they do business with to a marquee to share a meal of meat pies, and bread and butter pudding, listening to stories of their grandparents to celebrate the century their family has been milking cows.
As I hear more from Philip about his experience of farming, a pattern begins to emerge of periodic catastrophes that have shaped his history. “I remember foot-and-mouth disease in the late 1960s,” he recalls. “I was at school, it was the start of October, and I went to play sports. I could see fires all the way from Manchester with the cows burning.” Philip then tells me about the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) outbreak – better known as “mad cow disease” – when he lost 30 cows overall. He vividly remembers the day the vet condemned three of his cows in one day, putting them down in his yard. “It was a tragedy,” he says. After BSE, there has come a drive to reduce tuberculosis levels in cattle. “It changed from something we lived with to a massive issue,” he says, his voice filled with frustration and sadness.
Farmers are the most optimistic people I know, but scratch under the surface, we are carrying disappointment and anger – Philip Davies
Philip feels that cattle farmers have a raw deal. “It’s toughest on the youngsters like Hannah.” Philip is keenly aware of how hard Hannah works, not only with the cows but also in masterminding all the paperwork. He says he would love her to have a more secure future in dairy farming, in which the price of milk would reflect the extraordinary hours and hard toil she pours into the job.
The deep listening technique can be an insightful way to learn more about someone’s views, even if you disagree with them (Credit: John Quintero/BBC)
On the second day of my trip to the farm, I awake early to walk in the surrounding fields, to try and make sense of Philip’s outlook – one that rejects humanity’s huge contribution to the warming of the planet as well as the significant emissions caused by dairy farming. The dry yellow corn is thigh high, and the morning mist hangs heavy, prescient of another intensely hot day. The wide landscape gives me a sense of perspective, and an insight into Philip’s “deep story”. I sense the pride he feels about the intensity of his lifetime of labour alongside a disappointment about the lack of respect that such toil is given and a fear when he looks to the future.
Philip is uncertain whether he can sell his cows and retire in the coming years without his farm being clean of tuberculosis. He feels powerless that he’s forced to send cows who test positive for tuberculosis to be slaughtered, when he has no faith in the validity of the test, though research shows that the rate of false positives for a skin test is around one in 5,000. While on the surface tuberculosis tests have nothing to do with the evidence for climate change, I sense a wider distrust of scientific authority connecting the two.
“We feel voiceless and weighted down,” Philip says. “Farmers are the most optimistic people I know, but scratch under the surface, we are carrying disappointment and anger. We’ve been silenced by everyone pointing the fingers at us. ‘You naughty people, you are ruining the planet.'”
Two days after this conversation, Philip calls me, wanting to tell me about the very first time he felt wrongly accused as a dairy farmer. He remembers sitting round the table with his family listening to the radio in the 1970s and hearing a story about how drinking milk was causing cancer, a story later dismissed as untrue. He conveys the depth of traumatic experiences he has endured and the multiple occasions on which he feels dairy farming, his own calling, had been unjustly targeted. In his eyes, climate change is yet another example of the “faceless men in dark corridors” looking for a scapegoat and seizing on the usual suspect – farmers.
Now that Philip has had time to reflect, I want to know how he found our conversation.”It was refreshingly honest,” he replies. “I just felt that you were actually listening. You hadn’t got an agenda and came with a clean piece of paper. That was very noticeable.”
Increasingly extreme weather has been noticeable in the Shropshire countryside and has been making the jobs of dairy farmers harder (John Quintero/BBC)
On the final evening of my visit, Philip, Hannah and I eat together in the garden of the local 17th-Century pub, a focus for the community. Philip has brought reams of the farm’s paperwork, proudly pointing to a figure of 7,520 litres, the average quantity of milk produced per cow over the year. It’s a high number but less than what cows on intensive farms are producing, according to the University of Oxford’s Garnett. “We don’t push the cows – forcing them to produce more milk,” says Hannah. “We don’t think it’s good for them.”
Hannah feels that the small-scale dairy herds in her family and among those closest to her aren’t really the big greenhouse gas contributors. “When people complain about dairy farmers, they are probably thinking about the way people farm in the US, much more intensively with little regard for the land.”
How does the science stack up on small scale versus intensive dairy farming when it comes to climate change? I turn to Taro Takahashi, a sustainable livestock systems researcher at the Cabot Institute for the Environment, University of Bristol.
“While less intensive farming is generally better for animal welfare and in many cases also beneficial to local ecosystems, its carbon footprint is almost always greater per litre of milk compared to more intensive farming,” says Takahashi. “This is because much of the methane and nitrous oxide emissions attributable to a cow would happen regardless of how much milk they produce. If the cow produces more milk, the emissions per litre declines.” At the same time, Taro points me to a recent study which suggests the intensive approach is only more beneficial if it is linked to more wilderness being spared the plough.
Despite Philip’s denying climate change, the dedication to the welfare of the cows that he shares with Hannah does in fact align with one evidence-based recommendation for lowering greenhouse gas emissions from the dairy industry. Improving animal health monitoring and preventing illness is one of the 15 top measures identified by the management consultancy McKinsey to reduce farming emissions. With fewer calves dying young and less sickness, less methane and other emissions are released per litre of milk.
Hannah, Philip and Ben may have differing views on climate change, but they have a sense of duty to the environment in common (Credit: John Quintero/BBC)
Lorraine Whitmarsh, director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations at the University of Bath, studies the challenges of communicating the reality of climate change. It gets tougher when climate change messages are threatening to our values, lifestyles or political ideology. She tells me we are motivated to agree only with the parts of the climate change narrative that align with our livelihoods or core beliefs, denying our responsibilities if the implications of accepting them would be challenging for us. This is a psychological behaviour termed “motivated reasoning”, and it keeps us on the lookout for facts or opinions that reinforce our values and beliefs. I recall Hannah, who is strongly rooted in her community, telling me proudly about the positive impact on the environment of buying more locally produced food.
And, working alongside motivated reasoning, there is another psychological behaviour that acts to help us ignore or dismiss information that threatens our values and beliefs: “confirmation bias”. So, for example, Philip ignores the evidence for significant global warming from human activity, but is finely tuned to stories revealing mistakes by climate scientists.
How can we encourage a more constructive discussion with people who either deny anthropogenic climate change or their own contributions to it? Whitmarsh points to the importance of understanding someone’s values and identity. Her research in the UK demonstrates the effectiveness of narratives emphasising saving energy and reducing waste to reach people less concerned and more sceptical about climate change. Meanwhile, research led by Carla Jeffries of the University of Queensland, Australia, suggests that framing climate change action as showing consideration for others, or improving economic or technological development, can have more impact with climate deniers than focusing on avoiding climate risk. Whitmarsh also tells me we are also more likely to trust climate change messaging if it comes from someone within our own community.
For Ben Davies, adapting the dairy industry to reduce its emissions is a top priority (Credit: John Quintero/BBC)
Back on the farm, Hannah receives a call from Philip, who wants to introduce me to his youngest brother, Peter, who owns 220 cows, the other half of the original family herd. Given that Philip is convinced the Earth is not heating up and he’s keen that I meet his brother, I anticipate that I’ll hear a similar perspective. But that’s not quite the case.
There’s a definite change in the climate – and it’s making our job a lot harder – Peter Davies
Hannah and I sit at a table in Peter’s lovingly tended garden at the edge of his fields, alongside his son Ben, 29, who works full-time with him on the farm.
“There’s a definite change in the climate – and it’s making our job a lot harder,” says Peter. His son Ben agrees that the weather is getting hotter and more extreme. “Being in the country, outdoors all day, you notice things more,” says Ben. “You see the change in weather patterns and with the rivers – you can see flooding and damage and what’s it doing.”
Father and son lead us round the back of the garden to the huge steel and concrete shed they have built to house the cows in separate cubicles, alongside a steel fibreglass tower that stores manure. The cows spend all winter in the shed on rubber mats, and the manure flows down with gravity into a channel. The manure then gets pumped into the tower, where it is ready to be injected into the soil as fertiliser in spring and late summer. Using this stored manure means there is less need for synthetic fertilisers, reducing costs as well as the carbon footprint of fertilising the fields. Injecting manure in this way also reduces emissions of ammonia, which can damage ecosystems and break down into nitrous oxides (a greenhouse gas).
Before moving to this system, the cows were kept on hay and mucked out every three weeks. “This new cubicle system, it’s a lot less work, with far less waste,” says Ben.
I think there is a strong need for more action, we are going too slowly – Ben Davies
I have a sense from Peter and Ben that rather than feeling like victims of the changing climate, their understanding of the bigger picture has given them a sense of agency, a desire to adapt and a willingness to take risks to do so. Peter, spurred on by Ben, has recently made these significant investments, amounting to some £400,000 ($530,000), to make their farm more efficient and reduce its climate and environmental impact. “Ben is the driving force,” Peter says. “It’s people between 25-35 years old, in their prime. You need to let them get on with it when they are at their most persuasive.”
I’m curious about how Ben came to have these insights into climate change and learn about the adaptations needed to reduce the farm’s methane and carbon footprint. “I learned on the internet. I’m self-taught, and then I taught it to others in the pub,” Ben replies.
More than just reducing his own footprint, Ben is in favour of larger policy changes, such as farms needing to meet environmental targets before they are allowed to expand. “I think there is a strong need for more action, we are going too slowly,” he says. Peter agrees: “We’ve got to change.”
Ben Davies and his father Peter have invested substantial sums in emissions-reducing technologies on their farm (Credit: John Quintero/BBC)
Among this small group of Shropshire farmers, the views on dairy and climate cover much of the spectrum of debate. So how do they make sense of each others’ differing views on climate?
“My uncle Philip is one of the old generation,” Ben says. “He will be retiring soon. I don’t think you can win over people. It’s more about our generation making an impact.”
Given his knowledge and commitment to reducing climate change, how does Ben respond to critics who argue that we may have to stop eating meat and dairy entirely to make a significant dent in emissions? He pauses. “I think it’s a small minority, who are trying to ruin our future and a business that our family has tried to develop over 100 years. Come to my farm and have a look,” he says. “I can show you what we are doing to reduce our emissions footprint, and all the infrastructure we are investing so heavily in.”
When it’s time to leave, I ask Hannah if hearing from Peter and Ben has changed her perspective. She harbours dreams of renting her own dairy farm with a small herd and setting up an ice cream business. If she is able to realise her ambitions, would she take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
“I suppose you would have to see the figures, but if we could catch the rainwater to wash the milking parlours and got wind turbines and solar panels to supply electricity, it wouldn’t affect us farmers,” she says. “If there was a way to do our bit and our country did start making steps to improve our emissions, maybe other countries would follow.” But her doubts seem to catch up with her quickly. “But maybe Philip is right? We don’t know who is right and wrong – we don’t know the facts.”
Where Hannah remains unsure about dairy farming’s climate impact, there is another certainty that she will always come back to: her guiding principle.
“Cows are the most important thing. That’s the way I look at it. As long as the cows are happy, we are happy.”
The BBC’s Emily Kasriel is also a practitioner in residence at the London School of Economics’ Marshall Institute, focusing on deep listening.
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