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Tuesday, 24 June 2014

FIFA World Cup 2014: environmental friend or foe?

"One of the key objectives through the 2014 FIFA World Cup is to use the event as a platform to communicate the importance of the environment and ecology"

While FIFA boast of the most environmentally friendly World Cup ever, with solar-powered stadia and carbon offsetting for every match, critics demand to know why more isn't being done to reduce the impact of such a huge event, both to Brazil's native habitats and to the world at large.

Fuleco the endangered armadillo 

Fuelco, the 2014 World Cup
Mascott, a Brazilian 3 banded armadillo.
Source: Acaatinga.rog
Almost 28,000 people have signed a petition calling for FIFA to commit to the conservation of the Brazilian three-banded armadillo (Tolypeutes tricinctus), the inspiration for the 2014 World Cup mascot 'Fuleco'. Conservationists at the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) were initially thrilled that the armadillo, which is classified as "Vulnerable", would be the centre of the most environmentally friendly tournament so far, attracting money for sustainable development in Brazil.

Sadly Fuleco, whose name is a combination of the Portuguese words futebol (football) and ecologia (ecology), has done little to help his brothers in the wild. So far only one of the tournament sponsors, Continental Tyres, has donated money to protect the armadillo. Nothing but empty words have come from FIFA and its $2 billion World Cup profit. 

Striving for sustainability

FIFA have been keen to promote their environmental sustainability strategies in other areas however, which are impressive at first glance. The new and improved stadia are designed to promote air flow and provide shade whilst maximising natural light. Two of the twelve venues are solar-powered, with water conservation and waste reduction features that led to all stadia receiving LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. FIFA also recently pledged to offset 331,000 tonnes of carbon, including 80,000 tonnes from fans who entered a contest to make their travel carbon neutral. 
The Brazilian three-banded armadillo is one of two
species that can roll itself into a tight ball. Source: BBC
Unfortunately FIFA's proposals aren't nearly enough. According to the ABC, the huge scale of travel and accommodation required for the 3.7 million visitors means the actual impact is likely to be around 1.4 million tonnes of carbon. This was further compounded by the failed rejuvenation of Brazil's dilapidated public transport systems, which left many fans relying on private taxis to get them to the games. These problems have left many skeptics asking whether FIFA's proposals were just greenwashing over the bigger issues.

Empty stadia

Among the criticisms is the question of longevity. Once the fans leave, what will become of the facilities left behind? The International Business Times reports that Brazil spent almost $4 billion on its World Cup infrastructure, but many of the stadia are located in cities with lower division football teams. When the World Cup visitors leave, matches played by local teams are likely to draw only a tiny fraction of the number of fans needed to fill the seats. 

The Arena da Amazônia in Manaus. Source: Wikimedia 
One of the best (or worst) examples is Manaus, a city of almost two million people located in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. Its remote location and poor access roads meant that during the building of the new Arena da Amazônia, materials were transported by ship from Portugal. According to the New York Times, the heat and humidity meant workers spent days connecting each steel joint together

And after all that effort, only four World cup games are being played there! 

The stadium seats 41,000 fans (the majority of whom have to reach the city by boat or plane), which is fantastic for the World Cup but when the games are over, how will the local teams (whose recent games have drawn around 1000 spectators) ever hope to generate the approximately $250,000 a month required for its upkeep? Was it all just a waste of time, money and resources?

Wider impacts

The Brazilian government have justified extravagance like the Manaus stadium by stating that the attraction will bring more tourists to the area. Manaus is often the starting point for visitors drawn to the fantastic Amazon rainforest and the government hopes that their eco-tourism will do a lot for the local community, the economy and the national sustainability targets. 

Have FIFA done enough to ensure that the World Cup is eco-friendly? Their carbon offsetting and solar-powered stadia have been somewhat counteracted by the poor public transport, Fuleco's lack of impact for conserving his native Caatinga forest, and the gigantic venues that may lie empty after the final. I think the organisers have done enough to earn some bragging rights, but in a time where sustainability is so important they could and should have done more.
This blog is written by Sarah JoseCabot Institute, Biological Sciences, University of Bristol

Sarah Jose

Public opinion: What is it really worth?

I recently attended a session at the House of Commons co-hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group (APPCCG) and the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED). The session tackled the topic of the UK’s “energy efficiency revolution”, and whether the UK is living up to the high standards expected by successive governments.

Energy efficiency is what is known as a demand-side measure in the language of energy policymakers. Making devices that use energy more efficient is one way of reducing demand for energy overall, and thus bringing the UK closer to its carbon reduction goals. Indeed, increasing energy efficiency is often regarded as one of the most cost-effective methods of carbon reduction.

An area of great interest to researchers in this field is human behaviour; how can people be induced to behave in a way that reduces their carbon emissions?

The ‘default’ reaction of governments when attempting to change the behaviour of their citizens is to provide financial incentives to encourage adoption of the desired behaviour. This is based on simple economic theory, and depends on the assumption that the average rational citizen will immediately drop undesirable habits as soon as it becomes financially worthwhile to do so.

An alternative view is that people are not swayed as heavily by financial motives as they are by their fundamental beliefs; if somebody is a firm believer in the cause of tackling climate change, they can be relied upon to adopt energy-saving behaviours sooner or later.

There is a fundamental tension between these two views of how humans behave. Energy policymakers often find themselves caught between these viewpoints, and this can cause delays and poor policy decisions. This is a question that clearly needs to be addressed by researchers.

Let’s take a closer look at this problem by using a simple mathematical model. Imagine that there is a new behaviour, perhaps a form of recycling, that the government is keen for people to adopt. Since it is brand new, almost nobody has heard of it, and even fewer people have actually adopted it.

In order to make this behaviour the norm, the government allocates some of its limited resources to the problem. These resources can either be spent on advertising, to win people over to the behaviour on ideological grounds, or can be spent on direct financial incentives. The government has to choose what proportion of the resources go towards advertising and incentives, based on the objective of full adoption of the behaviour as quickly as possible.

In our model, a certain proportion of the population choose to adopt the new behaviour each day. That proportion is a function of the number of ideological believers (which I will henceforth refer to as ‘public opinion’) and the financial incentive available. Money spent on incentives therefore provides an immediate boost to the adoption of the new behaviour, whereas advertising has an indirect effect. The effect of advertising is to convert a certain number of people each day into ideological believers, making them far more likely to adopt the new behaviour.

So what are the results of this simple model? It’s clear that using financial incentives causes the time needed to reach full adoption to become shorter. Therefore, should the government should always use financial incentives in order to reach its stated objectives as quickly as possible?

Unfortunately it isn't that simple. While it is true that the objective of full adoption is met quicker by using mostly financial incentives, the gap between ‘economic’ and ‘ideological’ adopters is large; it’s possible that many of the people who have adopted the behaviour will return to their old ways as soon as the incentives are taken away. It’s also worth considering the possibility that ideological adopters might also be easier to convince when it comes time to introduce the next energy-saving behaviour, whereas economic adopters would need to be paid off from scratch.

I should say at this point that this model is meant as a means of communicating a concept, and is an oversimplification of the way technology and belief adoption actually works. I've also chosen parameters for the model arbitrarily - choosing a different set of parameters or tweaking the model could result in radically different outcomes.

Nonetheless, the underlying tension remains; should we invest in changing people’s opinions, even if it’s a longer, costlier process? What is public opinion really worth?

It’s my sincere hope that researchers, be it from CIED, Cabot Institute or elsewhere, will be able to answer these questions in the years to come.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Neeraj Oak, the Chief Analyst and Energy Practice Lead at Shift Thought.

Neeraj Oak

Monday, 9 June 2014

Deep impact - the plastic on the seafloor; the carbon in the air

We live in a geological age defined by human activity.  We live during a time when the landscape of the earth has been transformed by men, its surface paved and cut, its vegetation manipulated, transported and ultimately replaced. A time when the chemical composition of the atmosphere, the rivers and the oceans has been changed – in some ways that are unique for the past million years and in other ways that are unprecedented in Earth history. In many ways, this time is defined not only by our impact on nature but by the redefinition of what it means to be human.

From a certain distance and perspective, the transformation of our planet can be considered beautiful. At night, the Earth viewed from space is a testament to the ubiquitous presence of the human species: cities across the planet glow with fierce intensity but so do villages in Africa and towns in the Midwest; the spotlights of Argentine fishing boats, drawing anchovies to the surface, illuminate the SW Atlantic Ocean; and the flames of flared gas from fracked oil fields cause otherwise vacant tracts of North Dakota to burn as bright as metropolises.

Environmental debates are a fascinating, sometimes frustrating collision of disparate ideas, derived from different experiences, ideologies and perspectives.  And we learn even from those with whom we disagree.  However, one perspective perpetually bemuses and perplexes me: the idea that it is impossible that man could so transform this vast planet. Of course, we can pollute an estuary, cause the Cuyahoga River to catch fire, turn Victorian London black or foul the air of our contemporary cities.  We can turn the Great Plains into cornfields or into dust bowls, the rainforest into palm oil plantations, swamplands into cities and lowlands into nations.  But these are local.  Can we really be changing our oceans, our atmosphere, our Earth that much?

Such doubts underly the statements of, for example, UKIP Energy Spokesman Roger Helmer:
‘The theory of man-made climate change is unproven and implausible’.  
It is a statement characterised by a breathless dismissal of scientific evidence but also an astonishingly naive view of man’s capacity to impact our planet.

There are places on Earth where the direct evidence of human intervention is small. There are places where the dominance of nature is vast and exhilarating and awe-inspiring.  And across the planet, few places are entirely immune from reminders – whether they be earthquakes or volcanoes, tsunamis or hurricanes – that nature is vast and powerful.

But the Earth of the 21st century is a planet shaped by humans.


A powerful example of humanity’s impact on our planet is our Plastic Ocean.  We generate nearly 300 billion tons of plastic per year, much of it escaping recycling and much of that escaping the landfill and entering our oceans. One of the most striking manifestations of this is the vast trash vortex in the Northern Pacific Gyre. The size of the vortex depends on assumptions of concentration and is somewhat dependent on methodology, but estimates range from 700 thousand square kilometres to more than 15 million square kilometres.  The latter estimate represents nearly 10% of the entire Pacific Ocean.   Much of the plastic in the trash vortex – and throughout our oceans – occurs as fine particles invisible to the eye.  But they are there and they are apparently ubiquitous, with concentrations in the trash vortex reaching 5.1 kg per square km*.  That’s equivalent to about 200 1L bottles.  Dissolved.  Invisible to the eye.  But present and dictating the chemistry of the ocean.


More recently, colleagues at Plymouth, Southampton and elsewhere illustrated the widespread occurrence of rubbish, mainly plastic, on the ocean floor.  Their findings did not surprise deep sea biologists nor geologists; we have been observing our litter in these supposedly pristine settings since some of the first trips to the abyss.

My first submersible dive was on the Nautile, a French vessel that was part of a joint Dutch-French expedition to mud volcanoes and associated methane seeps in the Mediterranean Sea.  An unfortunate combination of working practice, choppy autumn seas and sulfidic sediments had made me seasick for most of the research expedition, such that my chance to dive to the seafloor was particularly therapeutic. The calm of the deep sea, as soon as we dipped below the wave base, was a moment of profound physical and emotional peace.  As we sank into the depths, the light faded and all that remained was the very rare fish and marine snow – the gently sinking detritus of life produced in the light-bathed surface ocean.

As you descend, you enter a realm few humans had seen.... For a given dive, for a given locale, it is likely that no human has preceded you.

Mud volcanoes form for a variety of reasons, but in the Mediterranean region they are associated with the tectonic interactions of the European and African continents.  This leads to the pressurised extrusion of slurry from several km below the bottom of the sea, along mud diapirs and onto the seafloor. They are commonly associated with methane seeps; in fact a focus of our expedition was to examine the microbes and wider deep sea communities that thrive when this methane is exposed to oxidants at the seafloor – a topic for another essay. In parts of the Mediterranean Sea, they are associated with salty brines, partially derived from the great salt deposits that formed in a partly evaporated ocean about five and a half million years ago.

And all of these factors together create an undersea landscape of indescribable beauty.
On these mud volcanoes are small patches, about 20 cm wide, where methane escapes to the seafloor.  There, methane bubbles from the mud or is capped by thick black, rubbery mats of microorganisms.  Ringing these mats are fields of molluscs, bouquets of tube worms, great concrete slabs of calcium carbonate or white rims of sulphide and the bacteria thriving on it. Streaming from these seeps, down the contours of the mud cones, are ribbons of ultra-dense, hypersaline water.  The rivulets merge into streams and then into great deep sea rivers. Like a photonegative of low-density oil slicking upon the water’s surface, these are white, high-density brines flowing along the seafloor.  Across the Mediterranean Sea, they pool into beautiful ponds and in a few very special cases, form great brine lakes.

And two kilometres below the seafloor, where humans have yet to venture our rubbish has already established colonies. Plastic bottles float at the surface of these lakes; aluminium cans lie in the mud amongst the microbial mats; between those thick slabs of calcium carbonate sprout colonies of tube worms and the occasional plastic bag.

Image from Nautile Dive to the Mediterranean seafloor.  Shown are carbonate crusts that form where methane has escaped to the seafloor as well as tube worms thriving on the chemical energy available in such settings.  Plastic debris has been circled in the upper right corner.
We have produced as much plastic in the past decade as we have in the entirety of the preceding human history.  But the human impact is not new.  On our very first dive, we observed a magnificent amphora, presumably of ancient Greek or Roman origin and nearly a metre across, half buried in the mud.


Today the human footprint is ubiquitous. Nearly 40% of the world’s land is used for agriculture – and over 70% of the land in the UK.  Another 3% of the land is urbanised.  A quarter of arable land has already been degraded.

There are outstanding contradictions and non-intuitive patterns that emerge from a deeper understanding of this modified planet.  Pollinators are more diverse in England’s cities than they are in our rural countryside.  One of the most haunting nature preserves on our planet is the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea – fraught with landmines but free from humans, wildlife now dominates. And of course, although global warming will cause vast challenges over the coming centuries, that is largely due to one human impact (greenhouse gas emissions) intersecting with another (our cities in vulnerable, low-lying areas and our borders and poverty preventing migration from harm).   And on longer timescales, we have likely spared our descendants of 10,000 years from now the hassle of dealing with another Ice Age.

Glyptodon, source Wikipedia
But there can be no doubt or misunderstanding –  we have markedly changed the chemical composition of our atmosphere.  Carbon dioxide levels are higher than they have been for the past 800,000 years, perhaps the last 3 million years.  It is likely that the last time the Earth’s atmosphere contained this much carbon dioxide, glyptodons, armadillo-like creatures the size of cars, roamed the American West, and hominids were only beginning the first nervous evolutionary steps towards what would eventually become man. Methane concentrations are three times higher than they were before the agricultural and industrial revolutions.  Also higher are the concentrations of nitrous oxides.  And certain chlorofluorcarbons did not even exist on this planet until we made them.

The manner in which we have changed our planet has – at least until now – allowed us to thrive, created prosperity and transformed lives in ways that would have astonished those from only a few generations in the past.  It is too soon to say whether our collective impact has been or will be, on the whole, either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for either the planet or those of us who live upon it. It will perhaps never be possible to define such a complex range of impacts in simple black and white terms.  But there is no doubt that our impact has been vast, ubiquitous and pervasive.  And it is dangerous to underestimate even momentarily our tremendous capacity to change our planet at even greater rates and in even more profound ways in the future.

*Moore, C.J; Moore, S.L; Leecaster, M.K; Weisberg, S.B (2001). "A Comparison of Plastic and Plankton in the North Pacific Central Gyre". Marine Pollution Bulletin 42 (12): 1297–300. doi:10.1016/S0025-326X(01)00114-X. PMID 11827116.

This blog is by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute.

Prof Rich Pancost