Thursday 13 December 2018

Daddy, what did you do in the climate war ?

100 years old and subtly updated for the war that we're facing now.
Do you remember the 8th of October 2018 ? That was the day when the world's newspapers carried stories about the IPCC's latest report on climate change. We were told that we faced catastrophe if we do not take serious action, starting right now, to tackle climate change within 12 years. We were informed about the most serious issue in the world right now which will affect everyone, or at least everyone's children and grandchildren. Our generation will be held accountable for what we did or did not do.

Do you also remember the 9th of October 2018 ? That's the day when nothing out of the ordinary happened. Everyone carried on as usual, doing what they usually did, continuing to cause the problem that they'd been warned about one day before. It's been much the same every day since. Perhaps our grandchildren aren't important after all ?

It's time to take action
2018: We're on course for the highest CO2 emissions ever in one year, growing by 2.7% in a year when emissions should be dropping. This is caused by ever increasing use of fossil fuels. Support renewables but the most important thing is to reduce fossil fuel use.
Last week we learnt that rather than emissions dropping, as they must, they have actually continued to rise. Why ? Because we're burning more coal, oil and gas than ever and driving more cars than ever. While we like to think of ourselves as "green", we're actually making the problems worse and doing so at an ever increasing rate. Climate change is not being tackled and we have very little time left to reverse the course that we're on.

How quickly can we reduce our CO2 emissions?
Starting in 2019 we need to reduce our emissions by 18% a year in order to achieve zero emissions in 2050. Each year that we take no action we create a larger problem and time is very short. Source.
If we start in 2019 then we need to reduce our emissions by 18% every single year from then onwards. We could have made this easier for ourselves by starting years ago when we already knew there was a problem, but we did not. The generations before us did nothing, my generation has done nothing and those younger than myself also are mostly doing nothing. We have all let our grandchildren down.

Humans are making the world on which they live uninhabitable for their own species because we are lazy and greedy. We think we can consume ever more of everything forever, but we cannot. We have already created climate changing effects which have changed the lives on millions of people and these effects will become more serious unless we reduce our emissions to zero by 2050, which is what we need to do to limit the effects to the 1.5 C change which is thought to be tolerable.

Who is causing most damage ?
US emissions per capita have been more than double those even of other developed nations for decades. This is not responsible. It is not sustainable.
Those of us who live in the developed western countries need to the take the lead because we are the people who have done most to create the problem.

We are responsible and we have done almost nothing to resolve the issue. The slight declines in our very high emissions are in large part due to having exported our most filthy industries to countries in Asia.

We are still the people with the largest emissions. We are also the people with the luxury to be able to do something about it because it's easier for those who consume to excess to cut back on their consumption.

In particular the finger has to pointed in the direction of the USA because that country's citizens have the highest impact on our planet. We should also point our fingers at the top ten percent of the richest people on the planet because if they reduced their emissions to the same level as the average European that action alone would reduce emissions by a third. But we should also note that average citizens of the EU and other developed nations also have impacts which are far from sustainable and China and India have large populatins and are catching up fast.

We all need to change what we do in order to reduce our emissions. We cannot expect to carry on with "life as usual", as we did on October the 9th, because with our current actions we are waging war against our own children and grandchildren.

Put pressure on government but also take individual action
None of what is above should be news to anyone reading this. The path that we're on has been obvious for decades. We are on an unsustainable course, sucked into a trap called growth. Many people have taken individual action, but not enough people have done this.

What can an individual do ? You'll have to fin your own path but I can tell you what Judy and I have done:

I was laughed at for refusing to fly for work in the early 90s. Then, as now, the bicycle was my main form of transport. Though we owned a car for many years, we rarely used that or any kind of motorized transport and since we got rid of it three months ago we've made all our journeys by bicycle and foot.

We have always tried to make our home energy efficient. We started with insulating our home in the UK more than 20 years ago and since we moved to Assen eleven years ago we have taken at least one step each year to improve the energy efficiency of our home. The walls, floor and roof have been insulated. We've installed HR++ double and triple glazing in our home. We have gas fired central heating but this is controlled by timer so it comes only only for a few minutes before we rise in the morning and then in the evening. Because our home is well insulated and our thermostat is set at 17-18 C, we use far less energy than the average for heating our home. This has also had another happy side-effect for us this week: Energy prices are rising in the Netherlands in part because of taxes designed to encourage more economical use. Dutch news sources report that the average increase in energy bills this year will be quite steep, costing the average household hundreds of euros more per year. We received our estimate this week and it shows no increase at all. We'll remain at the same already much lower than average figure per month because we improved the efficiency of our home. It's a good example of where doing something to save energy also saves money.

Dutch electricity is still 85% sourced from fossil fuel. Anything
which plugs into the Dutch grid is powered in this way. Most
countries are quite similar.
We installed solar panels on our roof nearly seven years ago which generate hundreds of kWh more electricity than we use each year. This means that the electricity company pays us for electricity. If we count our overproduction of electricity on summer days against our gas consumption on winter days we are not far off being "climate neutral" but "climate neutral" is unfortunately not nearly the same as being independent of fossil fuels: When the sun goes down our electricity comes from the grid, which in the Netherlands is generated 85% by burning fossil fuel and of course our heating system still burns gas directly. This is why it is still very important for us to reduce our consumption of both electricity and gas in any way we can.

Rather than forever buying new things to replace old things we try to keep everything as long as we can and repair what we have. We are not "fashionable" so buy clothes when we need them and don't throw them away unless they are completely worn out. When my daughter got married this year I wore the same suit as I got married in 26 years earlier (it still fits). Almost everything can be repaired. Between Judy and myself we repair everything from worn clothes and furniture to electronic items such as hifi components and our inverter and of course that includes our bicycles.

We try not to buy anything which isn't necessary. We're not buying presents this Christmas because there is nothing that any of us actually need. In the past it was a bit different when our children were small, but we're all adults now. Of course we do look forward to spending time with our children. That time together is precious but unwanted gifts are not required in order to enjoy time spent together.

We don't take holidays. No-one has an entitlement to two weeks in a sunny place during the summer, nor during winter to escape the cold. No-one has an entitlement to "weekend breaks". These are completely unsustainable habits formed in the last few decades. Such holidays are inexpensive in large part because the cost will be paid by future generations. Instead of living in a place from which we needed to escape each year we moved permanently to a place where we wanted to spend the rest of our lives.

Perhaps the most important decision which we took, to reduce our load on the planet, for our own health and also for the well-being of animals, was becoming vegan 25 years ago. Since then we've sustained ourselves, our children and our (rescued) dog on a vegan diet, which is significantly less carbon intensive than a diet which includes meat or dairy products.

As time goes on it's becoming more difficult for us to find things that we can do in a more sustainable way but we are still trying to reduce our impact. One of the things which we changed quite recently is that we now encourage others also not to make unsustainable journeys, particularly over longer distances such as internationally:

Please do not come on a study tour
One of my early photos of Dutch infrastructure. Still a good
example by many countries' standards, but the Netherlands
uses better surfaces for bikes these days.
Twenty years ago, when I started campaigning for Dutch style cycling infrastructure to be built in the UK, it was difficult to find information about it and pictures which illustrated how it worked.

There were not yet any good online resources to use. I made Video-8 and VHS recordings and also used an early VGA resolution digital still camera to take photos when I visited the Netherlands and returned with them to show people in the UK in an effort to encourage change.

Later, we began to encourage people to make the same journey so that they could see how well everything worked for themselves. This was especially so after our first organized formal study tours in 2006, offering a service which no-one else offered anywhere. We thought that if we encouraged people to make the journey to the Netherlands so that they could see this infrastructure for themselves they could return to their home country and campaign for change there. The hope was that this would have an overall positive benefit despite the environmental cost of the journey. I started this blog two years after the first study tour and at that time it was unique. The idea was to keep people who had been on the tour updated with new developments. The blog quickly found a larger readership outside of study tour participants and the blog ended up advertising the study tours to a wider audience.

From three years ago we started to try to discourage visitors from visiting from longer distances and last year we stopped actively encouraging people from anywhere at all. The last study tour, booked in 2017, took place early this year. After that we stopped encouraging more bookings.

We enjoyed hosting people from far and wide on our study tours and we thank everyone who came on a past tour for doing so. I hope that they found the experience helpful and that it has helped them to campaign successfully in their home countries. However we have now changed our practice and we no longer accept study tour bookings. We have stopped hosting study tours for two reasons:
  1. There is no environmentally responsible way of continuing to do this. Making international journeys is not compatible with preserving our climate.
  2. There is no longer a need to come to the Netherlands to find out about what makes cycling attractive, convenient and safe in the Netherlands.

The situation now is very different to how it was when we started doing this twenty years ago. I now encourage people not to make the journey. Please do not travel to the Netherlands to see us, nor to see anyone else. Please do not go anywhere else either. It's simply not necessary to do this any more.

Flying or taking a ferry merely to cycle far fewer kilometres than motorized vehicles will transport you, even if you're making that journey to find out about cycling infrastructure, is amongst the most unsustainable thing that any of us can do. It's also completely unnecessary because these days you can see everything you need to see on a mobile phone or computer screen at home.

There is more information about cycling infrastructure online now than anyone could possibly read. There are more videos of cycling infrastructure than anyone could possibly watch. This blog includes many good examples of cycling infrastructure. So does my youtube channel. There are also many other blogs and youtube channels which sprung up after this blog, several of which are far more popular than I am. You can make use of all of this information from multiple sources, from people with differing opinions, all of it free of charge, and you can make use of it while consuming less of your time and money and with a considerably smaller carbon footprint than would be the case for making a journey to the Netherlands to see it first hand.

Aviation has grown with a curve which looks exponential. It's
still growing. No technology can make this sustainable. Not
even switching to a much more efficient mode of transport.
We have to make fewer and shorter journeys to fix this.
Note that airliners use just 30% of the fuel per passenger km
that was the case in the 1950s but a 30x growth in flying results
in ten times the emissions. Efficiency hasn't helped us.
Let's not fly to cycle (or use other modes)
The unbelievable rate of growth of aviation is one of the leading reasons why the CO2 emissions caused by human beings continue to grow rather than shrink. On average, every person on the planet now flies 1000 km a year even though a minority of the world's population ever fly at all.

Taking a ferry instead doesn't give a free pass either as that pollutes even more.

While a train may consume a little less it is also unsustainable because they are either powered by diesel or by electricity from the same grid as everything else. i.e. in the Netherlands the trains are 85% powered by fossil fuels. In the UK it's typically around 60% except on the windiest of days. What's more, when a full analysis is made of the cost of infrastructure as well as fuel, the environmental cost of the far more extensive infrastructure required for trains closes the emissions gap with aviation. All motorized modes pollute to a similar extent per passenger km.

One of the most egregious greenwashing attempts this year was
the painting of one of the largest aircraft in the world with a
"save the coral reefs" design. This won't save anything.
There are of course many claims made by those who do marketing for travel companies. For example, the Dutch railway company claims to run trains on "100% green electricity" even though in reality they can't possibly do this. On still nights when there is no solar or significant wind energy those trains still run on the same time-table. Like many organisations which claim to be green they are using an accounting trick to pretend that buying credits for green electricity is the same as consuming green electricity. The train company also doesn't bother mentioning the huge environmental cost of their extensive infrastructure (see graphic below). Similarly, shipping companies get press for similar claims and so do aircraft manufacturers and airline companies. It's all greenwash. The problem is motorized vehicles in general, not one mode in particular.
Different powered modes compared. Peak time buses look relatively efficient, but that's only because off peak buses considered separately. Rail and air travel have comparable total energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions to an average car. Switching from one powered mode to another does little to reduce emissions. Emissions can be reduced only by reducing use of powered modes. source.
Because of their numbers, motor vehicles now create far greater problems across the world than they used to. It's no longer just a problem confined to a few big cities, but something that has spread across countries and continents to endanger the entire planet. The two most significant things that we can do to reduce our footprint on the planet are to sharply reduce both our use of motorized transport and our consumption of meat and dairy products. Given the state we're in, with climate change now discussed alongside nuclear weapons as a threat to us all, is it not time for us all to do both of these things ?

Let cycling be a solution, not merely part of the problem
Cycling should rightly be part of the solution to climate change. Unfortunately, the way in which many people use bicycles makes them anything but a solution. If we fly to cycle, or drive to cycle or take the train to cycle then we reduce cycling to an accessory to those same motor vehicles as are responsible for a good part of climate change. A little bit of cycling at the end of a long journey by motor vehicle does not undo the harm done by the motor vehicle. Let's stop the habit of flying, driving and taking the train to cycle and ride our bicycles from our homes to our destinations.

The impressively huge cycle parking facilities at Dutch railway stations are not a sign of a truly sustainable transport system. Railway station cycle parks and full trains are evidence that thousands of people make regular journeys in an unsustainable manner (Dutch trains, like everything else connected to the grid, run almost entirely on fossil fuels) and those bicycles that you see at the stations have been reduced to being enablers of journeys by motor vehicle. If the owners of those bikes could make their entire journey by bicycle then they wouldn't park their bikes at railway stations. Large railway station cycle parking facilities look impressive but they are evidence of an addiction to motorized transport.

Good planning would reduce the majority of journeys to cycling distance. If we're not planning in such a manner which does this then we will fail to reduce the use of motorized transport. Note that even in the Netherlands, 90% of the distance which the population covers every year is in a motorized vehicle. That's about as good as it gets anywhere in the developed world right now but making only 10% of our journeys by distance by human power simply isn't enough for us to meet our climate goals.

Wake up, bloggers and campaigners. What is a cyclist?
There are many popular blogs and youtube channels written by people who fly far more kilometres each year than they cycle. Why is this seen as aspirational ?

  • Those who fly more than they cycle should be recognized as aviation enthusiasts, not cyclists.
  • People who drive more than they cycle as drivers, not cyclists.
  • People who take the train more as train enthusiasts, not cyclists.

This blog has from the beginning been about cycling. If we are to claim that we cycle then let us adapt our lifestyles so that we can make entire journeys by bicycle rather than making small parts of our journeys by bicycle. It is only by thinking about how to remodel societies to encourage journeys of cycling distance that we will truly wean ourselves away from motorized transport and therefore away from the modes of transport with which every kilometre that we travel brings us slightly closed to making conditions on our planet incompatible with the human race continuing to exist.

What did you do in the climate war ?
We face the possibility of making our planet into a place where our grandchildren can no longer live. How will we be judged by future generations? Personal action is not the only action worth taking but it is certainly a contribution. Our society is made up of individuals. If we, en-masse, call for change then change might occur. If we wait for someone else, somewhere else to change things while we continue with the same behaviour then we are dooming future generations. How do you want to be judged ?

Notes Far too much emphasis is being placed currently on the idea that electrification will solve our problems and that the electricity will come from renewable resources. The numbers don't add up for this. One example: there is not enough space in the Netherlands to erect a sufficient number of wind turbines to provide enough electricity even to cover our existing use, let alone the greatly increased amount of electricity that we would need should electric cars become mainstream. This is the case even without taking into account the lack of storage mechanisms required which make it impractical anyway. Every electric car sold adds to consumption and makes it more difficult for the Netherlands to shut down its fossil fueled power stations.

The EU's current target for 2030 is an eight percent increase in CO2 emissions due to transport relative to 1990. This is not an example of heading in the right direction. Only a reduction in use of motorized transport can lead to a reduction in emissions.


Unknown said...

"Do you also remember the 9th of October 2018 ? That's the day when nothing out of the ordinary happened. Everyone carried on as usual, doing what they usually did, continuing to cause the problem that they'd been warned about one day before. It's been much the same every day since. Perhaps our grandchildren aren't important after all?"

There is such a thing as wrong cynicism. For any given madness of society, there is only a limited amount of causes---in this case, that most people instinctively match the prediction (and recommended policies) to the "literary genre" of apocalyptic/dystopian sci-fi, and dismiss it as absurd (rather than matching it to normal reports on e.g. unemployment).

About electricity: while it's nowhere near a panacea, there are several quite reasonable proposals that I have not seen you mention. In particular, while nuclear energy[1] and solar+wind have uncontrolled supply, this can be *mostly* solved with making demand flexible. While this may or may not be rolled out to residential consumers (because that could be too much of a hassle, and people would willingly pay a higher but constant price), many industrial consumers already have similar contracts with the utilities companies. To make a simplified example: we could build aluminium refining plants, and run them only when there was excess electricity production. If it helps, think in terms not of "filling" the electricity supply to meet demand (as it happens currently), but of "filling" demand to meet supply.

[1]: Look at the electricity generation of France; it's much greener than that of the Netherlands.
While nuclear plants are heat engines, currently existing types cannot be regulated as much as fossil fuel fired plants.

Motorized vehicles: the problem with them is that they are simply faster than human-powered modes. This means that even if ~95% of the population would live in proper, dense cities within bike range of downtown, motor vehicles allow people to move further away and create sprawl. In particular, if ~95% lives within ~15 km of the centre, then urban land will be very expensive, because there's only so much (��/2*15² ~ 700 km²) that needs to be shared by a given number of people. On the other hand, sub-/exurban land is cheap, because there's far more of it (quadratically more, to be exact). Within ~30 km of the centre, there's ~2100 km² of land that's not within ~15 km, three times as much as within 15 km. (the article itself is in English)

David Hembrow said...

Balazs: Thanks for your contribution.

I very much agree with you about flexible demand. There are very many places where this could happen, even in domestic situations. For example, I suggested many years ago that refrigerators could automatically adjust their temperature to 1 or 2 C lower when the mains frequency rises above some threshold above the usual 50 Hz (in the EU we are guaranteed exactly 4320000 cycles per day to ensure that mains synchronized clocks keep accurate time, but the frequency drops below 50 Hz during the day when the grid is under strain and rises above 50 Hz at night when there is relatively little load). This would result in refrigerators storing excess electricity as coldness and consuming less power when the electricity is less available.

As for the lower carbon intensity of French electricity, that's a fact, but there are some interesting things to note. For example, about 10% still comes from gas (depending on when you look) and while the proportion of the total electricity which is generated from fossil fuels has dropped since the 1980s, that's because nuclear has grown, not because fossil has shrunk. Also, the French seem to have lost confidence in the idea of building new nuclear power stations. Quite how they will manage this if their electricity consumption doubles again (which it easily could due to mass take-up of electric cars) remains to be seen.

We have 12 years. Nuclear won't save us. It takes a long time to commission new nuclear power plants. I used to live in Somerset in the UK and protested against the version of Hinkley C which was proposed in the 1980s. That was finally dropped as uneconomical in the 90s and then a decision was made to build a new design in 2008 which has suffered lots of delays such that seems no-one is expecting it to reach operation before 2025.

The Netherlands is closer to average for the world than France and the problem we face is a worldwide problem, not a French problem. Trying to drop emissions to zero in 12 years by electrifying simply isn't plausible because the power stations which will be built to try to achieve this aim won't be clean. We have to travel less, not travel electrically.

I like the analysis on your blog but you are selling human powered modes short. 15 km/h is a slow speed for a cyclist. I used to very consistently average better than 30 km/h over a 30 km commute. This requires infrastructure which makes cycling efficient and doesn't create a stop-start experience and also bicycles which are designed for efficiency (we even sell one of these as a kit)

Unknown said...

Wait, that's not my blog! I don't claim Simon Vallée's work as my own.

I tried not to sell cycling short, having read some of your blog, some of BicycleDutch and others. I forget quite where I read it, but it's stuck with me that average speeds in the Netherlands are lower than in Anglophone countries—because widespread utility cycling (so that commutes don't involve motor vehicles) is necessarily "comfortable", in a very wide sense (including subjective safety). Thus 20 km/h * 45 minutes for a 15 km commute is a bit optimistic, if anything, regarding the majority's willingness to exert themselves, as far as I know. (If you and your spouse are willing to cover longer distances, so much the better for you—you can buy cheaper land on the edge of the city. This is the same principle as with motor vehicles.)

Unfortunately, I don't really know of any proposal that could solve the task in 12 years, and definitely this problem is too fast. There are a lot of plans, many of which strike people as absurd (e.g. throwing iron dust into the Southern Ocean), yet in combination they might be sufficient—but probably not soon enough.

I'm particularly pessimistic about transportation, because it is so closely tied to the built urban form, both density and land use). Most cities in the developed world would need to be almost completely rebuilt. Even ignoring that this is politically impossible, and that many countries would commit critical technical errors, quite simply the task would cost several years' entire economic output (GDP). Under these constraints—and that cars will exist "in the background", proposals need to compete on the merits (cost, usefulness) to be accepted by most people, who are not ascetic monks—I currently think that probably the solution will heavily rely on both electric rail and cycling.

Edas said...

David, why don't you use Air Conditioner or similar technology for heating? It seems more carbon neutral than burning gas.

David Hembrow said...

Balazs: Sorry to both of you about confusing you with the author of the blog.

There is much confusion about the speed of Dutch cyclists and several reasons why Dutch cyclists are perceived as being "slow" even though they're not:

1. In the anglophone countries only a small percentage of people cycle and they tend to be those who are fit "cyclists" while in NL more or less the entire population cycles including the people who would be slower wherever they lived.
2. Dutch people cycle more than those anywhere else so they tend to have a higher level of fitness and on average they are faster.
3. There is a perception that the type of bicycle which people mostly see is "slow", when that's not really true at all.
4. There is a perception that cycle-paths must lead to slow cycling when that is also definitely not the case. In many cases riding on Dutch cycle-paths leads to faster journeys than riding on roads in other countries.

I've quite often explained this, including here.

I am also pessimistic about our chances to really change things and for much the same reason as you. The habit of motorized mobility is very difficult to break when we have allowed cities to be built which almost enforce the use of motorized vehicles. Also while things such as veganism are on the rise, they are not rising anything like quickly enough to bring huge changes in our impact on the planet.

Any "solution" which is not good enough will just lead to us making conditions on the planet unsuitable for humans a few years later, which is not much use, frankly. If we can't 100% solve this problem, humans will cease to exist.

Edas: I've looked into buying a heat pump for heating, but it's completely nonviable because we've already insulated our house too well. That may sound a bit odd but it's because our use of gas is so small already.

We actually have quite an old boiler and we could reduce our gas bill slightly by replacing it even with a different gas burner but would not be cost efficient. Instead we have been improving our home by insulating it to make sure that the existing boiler rarely needs to switch on.

At the moment we pay €50 a month for gas (in reality about €24 for gas and €26 in tax). In total our gas usage costs us about €600 per year. Gas is used not only for heating but also cooking and hot water. Ten years of gas could therefore be expected to cost us about €6000, but actually we hope to improve on this by continuing to make improvements to our home and appliances. We're having more triple glazing installed on Monday which should reduce our consumption for heating and at some point we'd like to change the water heater and cooker top as well. But replacing those items with electrically powered versions really just means that we would move the gas consumption to a power station.

We've been quoted >€20000 for a heat pump to be installed and told that they have a ten year expected lifetime. i.e. paying for the heat pump would cost €2000 per year, we'd have to add the price of the electricity to run it, and we'd still burn gas for hot water and cooking.

It simply doesn't make sense to do this. Buying a heat pump would eat up our funds and leave us with fewer possibilities for making our home more efficient in other, more effective, ways.

marmotte27 said...

Not wanting to crtitcize you, we can all obviously learn a lot from you and I admire the determination with which you act. But whayt about the banner underneath you post that says "Parts and accesories for all bikes shipped by us from Assen to the world" How do you solve that conundrum?

Kevin Love said...

This is rather disappointing, as I had hoped to go onto David's study tour one day. And have been saving up for that purpose.

In my opinion, the air transport for going on this tour can justify itself by inspiring and educating activists and politicians to push for proper Dutch style cycling infrastructure when they get home. As the proverb goes, "seeing is believing."

Indeed, a key moment in my own life of becoming a cycling activist was being in the Netherlands when I was in the Canadian Army.

So the emissions used in air transport of activists and politicians can be viewed as an investment in preventing far larger emissions when they implement cycling infrastructure upon arriving home.

I presume that a similar logic is used to justify the air shipment of bicycle parts from David's "Dutch Bike Bits" shop. The emissions used to fly them by air are an investment in preventing far larger emissions by their use to facilitate cycling when they arrive.

As a long-time customer of David's shop, I can attest not only to his high quality and excellent service, but that I use the same logic to justify my purchases.

David Hembrow said...

Gentsracer, Kevin: You're both absolutely right that there's a conflict.

What do we do ? Well we work from our home, we make almost all of our journeys by bike including those for the company, our employees are all vegan (i.e. Judy and I), we generate more electricity than we use.

Ideally I'd like to think that my products could all be transported from the factory to me by bicycle (only some of them are) and that we could transport everything from us to our customers by bicycle (we do this for all local orders) but we have far less control when items have to be sent over a longer distance. We do at least begin by taking every parcel to the post office by bike, but that's the first couple km dealt with and we have far less control about what happens after that.

The company which does most of our European deliveries claims to have a commitment to reducing its emissions with a goal of being carbon neutral by 2025. To be honest I find their website a bit weak on this. Probably better than nothing, par for the course for a claim from a commercial organisation which wishes to look environmentally aware.

Parcels which are sent to countries outside the EU are more of a challenge. These all go by airplane. We used to offer a surface mail option but it was only slightly less expensive, there was no tracking and it took anything up to three months for people to get their parcels. Though we explained to customers that this was was a consequence of choosing that option, the result of this was a 90% complaint rate and several customers got refunds through Paypal for "non delivered" parcels which then turned up unwanted a month later. Therefore we stopped offering that option because it simply didn't work for us.

We try to ensure that the things we sell are practical and have a long useful life ahead of them. I think that's the most important thing. Bicycles can definitely be part of the solution to the climate problem if they're used in place of motor vehicle journeys.

I hope that no-one buys anything from us that they don't really need and, even though it could cost us a sale, that customers consider whether they can find a local product before buying something from 1000s of km away. There's always an environmental cost to every action, though, and there's no guarantee that a locally bought product will have a lower impact than a product bought from us. If a local shop has stock of a Dutch product then it will have made the same journey if bought locally as if it was bought directly from us. If that shop is more energy intensive than us then its conceivable that the impact could actually be higher if bought locally.

It's basically impossible to work these things out. But I think it highly unlikely that anything buying parts to keep a good quality bicycle working for many kilometres and many years will ever be thought of as a major cause of climate change, wherever the parts come from.

Kevin, I'm sorry about the end of the study tours. I know that this has disappointed quite a few people. You've always made interesting observations in your comments and I've been looking forward to meeting you. If you do come to the Netherlands I'd still like to meet you. However, I now urge you not to make that journey. We are stealing the future of our young. I think it's time for all of us to take account of the impact we're making on this planet and sadly I think that means that flying to cycle has to stop.

marmotte27 said...

Thank you for your answer. Sorry about the study tours as well, but I guess you're right, we do know enough about Infrastructure in the Netherlands by now, and if politicians wanted to listen, they could (I've transmitted the recent Dutch-Cycling-Vision brochure to our mayor....)
At the same time, if we really reacted immediately, as we should, there'd be far less need for cycling infrastructure anyway, as there'd be far less motorized traffic.

Paul Martin said...

Hi David. Excellent post.

It’s been a while since I’ve been here but I’m pleased you’re still blogging. You’re absolutely right. While I enjoyed being on our Australian Dutch Cycle Tour in 2011 and learned a great deal, my lobbying locally from knowledge gained has made little difference here. It’s business as usual... My (and my wife’s) personal journey’s probably didn’t change either.

We’ve tried our best do limit our impact on the planet but it’s very difficult for some aspects of our lives (and the way our cities have been built). We installed solar panels and a battery 3 years ago. We’ve not used grid power since then and we’re very careful on how we use power. Our small townhouse makes the most of passive solar principles so heating/cooling requires no electricity 99% of the time.

Excess solar is sold to the grid and the remainder charges our electric car (which only does 4 trips per week). We’d like to do without the car entirely but it’s not possible with one of my workplaces. I ride to my other workplace on bicycle and make all other trips by bicycle.
We are also vegan, having been vegetarians for a decade.
We also chose to not have children.
We’ve stopped silly sporting activities and just run in the forest every few days for fun.

Some people ridicule us for not having children, but the reason we haven’t is because we care about the future of existing children and their children. We’re making their futures just a little bit better. Frustratingly the criticism usually comes from people who have 3 or 4 of them... and boy are they little consumers. It makes me slightly depressed when I see the way they’re raised these days. We’re approaching a brick wall and they have their foot on the accelerator.

I hope you and Judy are well. Thanks for the memories. You’re good humans.


Pauan said...

Hello David,

I've enjoyed many of your articles and I have a lot of respect for you and what you've accomplished. I really appreciate a fact-and-result based approach to things.

This article seems good in general, however you mentioned that the train companies are not using renewable energy, instead it is an "accounting trick".

The official NS website seems quite clear that their trains run 100% on green energy which is produced in wind farms:

You claim that this is impossible because of less windy days, but that can be solved by ensuring a surplus of windmills, and using batteries to store the excess energy. With sufficient excess and battery storage, it seems possible to me.

Do you have any sort of proof or evidence that NS is lying and that they are not using 100% wind power for their trains?

Or that it is impossible for them to store enough energy to account for windless days?

(Of course this does not invalidate your point that the train infrastructure itself is bad for the environment.)

David Hembrow said...


The NS has no batteries at all. There is no attempt to store energy from windy days to use on no less windy days. None at all.

Battery storage seems like a great idea to lots of people but it is actually completely impractical on a large scale. The resources to make enough batteries to store a significant amount of energy simply don't exist and the size of such storage if it were built always surprises people (NS definitely are not hiding such a facility out of sight ;-). Please read this blog post by a physicist who has worked these things out comprehensively. People usually start talking about pumped storage when the impossibility of battery storage is explained so please also read the same author's post about the impracticality of pumped storage (" to get the amount of energy stored in a single AA battery, we would have to lift 100 kg (220 lb) 10 m (33 ft) to match it. To match the energy contained in a gallon of gasoline, we would have to lift 13 tons of water (3500 gallons) one kilometer high (3,280 feet)").

The claim by NS is just an accounting trick. They have signed up to a green tariff and through that buy green energy certificates. That's all. Anyone who changes their electricity supplier and asked for a green tariff has done as much as NS. They don't even do what I do myself (I generate more electricity than I use in my home and business combined), but I don't make a ludicrous claim that this means I'm "100%" running on green electricity because as soon as the sun goes down my home and business run on the same grid as everything else in NL. Just like the trains do when the wind stops.

Pauan said...

Thanks David, that's exactly the information I was looking for!

Even at the much more modest needs of NS, based upon that math it does indeed seem prohibitive to store so much energy.

It's certainly better for NS to purchase green energy rather than not, but you are right that it seems shady for them to claim that 100% of their energy is green when they have not solved the storage problem. Perhaps up to 50% of it is green.

E said...

Mr. Hembrow, while I agree that we all need to do more, I must point out that your chart should show that US per capita emissions are lower than they've been since 1951, and dropping still in all likelihood (2018 had a harsh winter which resulted in increased gas consumption).
I would also like to let you know that America is expected to have gotten three quarters of the way to its Paris goal by 2020 in spite of Trump. Things are all chaging. Additionally, the used market for high impact goods like clothing, electronics and cars is booming in the US for both financial and ethical reasons. We will see what the future holds.

David Hembrow said...

E: I won't disagree with any of what you've said, except to point out that it's not nearly enough. If you look at the graph beneath the subtitle "Who is causing most damage" you'll see that US per capita emissions are shown to have been falling over the last ten years. The graph ends in 2017 because that's what was available when I wrote the article. All of these things sound good, but there are several problems with them, and unfortunately not really enough to be optimistic about:

US per capita emissions in 1951 were many times the average for people in other parts of the world, and that remains the case today, with US per capita emissions still being twice as high as those for Europeans and around 8 times as high as those for Indians. US citizens are still amongst the highest polluters of the world. What's more, the US population has more than doubled since 1951, a sharper rise than developed nations elsewhere such as in Europe because the US birth rate having remained higher, so now there are more than twice as many people in the US creating emissions which are vastly higher than those of other nations and the total emissions have not remained the same but more than doubled.

What's more, even if the US was back to the 1951 total level of emissions, it wasn't sustainable then either. Now perhaps we didn't know for certain that these emissions were harmful in 1951, but we certainly do know now. So there's no escaping the fact that at this time in history, when we know what harm we're doing, US total emissions are twice as high as back in 1951 when perhaps we didn't know better. That's hardly responsible.

For one of the highest polluting nations to achieve only 3/4 of a target which itself is not really sufficient isn't really that impressive. It should be easier for the US to achieve its target than other nations because you have so much excess and waste in the first place. If the average US citizen lived as the average European does, they'd see a step up in their standard of living, not a step down. US per capita emissions are vastly higher for no good reason.

Now the US is far from the only nation which will miss this target so its not fair to single that country out on that basis alone, but all of us are missing the big picture here: Paris was just an easy to agree to and convenient first step. That's why it was possible to get lots of nations to sign. However our real aim has to be to get emissions to zero, sooner rather than later.

Unfortunately no country seems to be genuinely on a path to get to zero emissions. Rather, they're all following the same dull steps of trying to continue with business as usual with the minimum change to people's behaviour. i.e. keep driving, keep flying, keep eating meat, do a bit of recycling while the government fiddles around the edges with things such as the types of cars that people drive and tries to cook the books to make it look OK.

So I hope you're right that things are changing and I certainly also hope that you can fix the politics in your country if for no other reason than that these important things can then start to get some air time again. Small steps can lead to big steps, but we really don't have much time and the last few decades haven't shown that we're particularly interested in fixing this problem.