Before I turn off David Dimbleby (and his tie) and go to bed, and momentarily lie in peace before the reality of our next government unravels, I thought I would post this video of an event I attended to prior to our last general election, back in March 2015. The British Ecological Society gathered a pomp of politicians in one room to debate on the topic of People, Politics and the Planet.
It was an interested few hours, obviously. Planet did feature, but further down the list to where I, and my fellow ecologist friends in the audience would have liked. Since then though, people have become a much more significant part of UK politics. And if we don’t respect people, how can we expect them to respect the environment? At least until our own back yards collapse that is (if we’re lucky enough to have a back yard). But that’s another blog/dinner party discussion.
I was fortunate enough to be involved in the debate: at 50 mins in Part 2, the great Jonathan Dimbleby (what brothers, eh!) invited me to ask the following question:
“If you were all 20 again, and knew that you would be in politics for 40 years without the pressure of being elected out, what bold decision would you make that would actually make a sustainable contribution to the future of the planet?”
I wasn’t hugely inspired by the responses. But I enjoyed being thought of as a millenial!
Part 1 can be viewed here. Overall, it was a very interesting discussion that gave us plenty of fodder to last a couple of post-event pints. Unfortunately I don’t think there was time to organise a similar debate before today’s election. Or possibly any political interest? But the issues are still there, and even more so. Can we continue to push for ‘growth’? What are the alternatives? When will environment feature more centrally in manifesto chat (except, of course, amongst the great Greens)? Will it just be the United(?) States that pulls out of the Paris Agreement?
Last week, an article that I showcased on my blog a few months ago was published (re-vamped) in The Conversation. Since it went live, I’ve had some very interesting comments and conversations about where and how we get our electricity. What is the best source of power for a country? What factors are considered in making that choice? Which takes precedence over energy-efficiency, cost-effectiveness and environmental impact? Is the latter even considered? I am beginning to understand the complexity of issues involved in making choices between fossil fuels, renewables, national and international energy supplies, access and development. But I have much still to learn. It’s perhaps the biggest challenge of our time. Whatever the answer though, power from peat is surely not a solution.
Rwanda adds to energy mix with first peat-fired power plant in Africa
Another larger peat plant, costing $350M is under development in Gisagara to the east. The plan is for Gishoma to start feeding 15MW of electricity into the national grid imminently, and Gisagara 80MW by 2019.
The Rwandan government is hoping to achieve its goal of connecting 70% of the country’s 11.7 million people to the national grid by 2018. This is a near three-fold increase on the number connected at present. The peat-to-power plant at Gishoma will contribute to this goal, and further increase the installed capacity of the nation. This will reduce Rwanda’s reliance on expensive imports of diesel oil for power generation.
At the moment, only 25% of households have access to the 190MW of power generated in country. But over the next two years the capacity is projected to reach 563MW in line with national development goals. This increase will be made possible in part through the harnessing of power from peat.
Peat provides an effective energy source when dried, comprising a minimum of 30% organic matter. It develops under anaerobic conditions, where waterlogging significantly slows or prevents the decomposition of dead vegetation. As the vegetation grows in the surface layers, it absorbs atmospheric carbon through the process of photosynthesis. When it dies, this carbon is stored in the accumulating substrate which is peat.
Peatlands are found across the world. But they are concentrated within certain regions where high humidity or low temperatures reduce the rate of decomposition. These include the coastal lowlands of southeast Asia or northern Russia’s permafrost zones. Despite covering just 3% of the world’s ice-free land surface, peatlands store up to 30% of its total soil carbon stock. This makes them the most efficient carbon storage facility we have.
But arguably, not a renewable one. Though each peatland varies, one centimetre depth of peat may take an average of 10 years to accumulate, and less than 10 minutes to burn.
It’s estimated that there will be sufficient peat deposits to power Rwanda for 30 years, or some proportion of the country at least. The enhanced power that will come from the Gishoma and Gisagara peat-to-power plants is seen as an important part of the country’s development provision.
The plans are enabled through financial support from the African Finance Corporation, the Development Bank of Rwanda and Finnfund, the Finnish Development Finance Company, among other lenders. Finland has expertise in peat extraction and its use in the energy industry, with an average of 5% of its national supply coming from peat. This was encouraged by subsidies until recently.
untouched natural rainforest that is filled with exciting biodiversity.
The park’s website boasts of the presence of hundreds of species of trees and orchids within the park, such as the swamp-dwelling Eulophia horsfellii. It’s also host to numerous plants species of medicinal value, like the East African satinwood, Zanthoxylum gilletii, and to one of the last stable populations of chimpanzees in East Africa. But there is no mention of peat. It’s evidently not a key feature for the average tourist.
There are vast areas of peatlands across the Tropics that we are only now starting to map and understand their full extent and carbon content. For example, it was only a few months ago that the first map of the world’s largest tropical peat complex was published. Around 145,500 square kms of peat swamp forest was found in the central Congo Basin.
There may well be vast resources of peat in Rwanda that local residents have known about for years, or that the Finns have sniffed out recently, of which science has yet to be told or be concerned about. But whatever the scenario defining the nation’s peaty asset and wherever it is exactly, it is unlikely to be there for much longer if peat-to-power generation continues to be Rwanda’s cost competitive energy solution.
Given that it takes thousands of years to accumulate just hundreds of centimetres of peat, is peat-power really the solution to the nation’s energy needs? Can the Elon Musk’s out there create an energy-storage solution quickly enough that renewables make a serious contribution?
For now though, Rwanda is set to power through its peat.
At the end of September, the documentary Sunset over the Selungo was released. It beautifully portrays the culture of a community belonging to the Penan tribe, living in a very remote part of the remaining rainforest of Sarawak.
Sarawak, one of the Malaysian States in Northern Borneo, Southeast Asia. (Thanks Mongabay for the image….and for all of my tropical forest news!)
Though I’ve spent some time in Sarawak over the last 6 years, and so learnt a bit about the State’s many different tribal groups and their unique cultures, I was mesmerized when I watched this film last night. You get a privileged insight into just how skillfully these people live off the riches of the rainforest.
Then in the last few minutes of the documentary, the bomb drops/chainsaw starts. After cleverly drawing you in to the sustainable romance of the Penan’s forest existence, the Producer/Director extraordinaire (Ross Harrison) hits you with the hard-line campaign behind his piece: deforestation. Illegal and legal loggers are trying to move into the area, and have been for some time, despite its remoteness and importance to local and global communities.
Unfortunately, this is no new story for forest-based communities. A friend of mine, Dr Fran Lambrick, had the premier of her documentary, I am Chut Wutty, last month also. She tells the story of the incredibly brave Cambodian campaigner, Chut Wutty, who tried to prevent the logging and destruction of the forests in his country that many communities rely on for sustainable rubber tapping and a range of other forest products and services. He was killed. Probably under the direction of his own Government.
Before Chut Wutty died, he made a great noise about the injustice and destruction he saw, and generated action and support that continues in his absence. The Penan people in Ross’ film have created a voice for themselves too, and are working to create the Penan Peace Park. If you manage to watch the film and feel inspired to help their campaign, you can donate to it here.