Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Sustainable Infrastructure 1: Understanding the Problem

This is the first in a series of posts inspired by the book “Sustainable Infrastructure: Principles into Practice”, written by Charles Ainger and Richard Fenner from the Centre for Sustainable Development at the Cambridge University Engineering Department. My fourth year MEng project involved conducting research to develop improved ceramic water filters for use in developing countries working with the Centre for Sustainable Development, so I feel a personal connection with the authors as well as the subject matter.
The question I want to address is this: how do we get the step change in the infrastructure we need to  build and maintain to avoid locking ourselves into high-carbon, environmentally damaging solutions for the next 50 years?

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Advent Reflections 6: A Time to Lament

This post is the sixth in a series of weekly posts during Advent inspired by "Holy Boy", a choral nativity which we performed in Acomb on 21st December.

On Christmas Day, I reflected on the importance of joy as part of the Christian life, especially in the context of celebrating together as a whole community and sharing God's joy together. Jesus is born! Emmanuel - God is with us! Hallelujah!
But there is another side to the Christmas story which I want to reflect upon today, the day we remember the murder of the Holy Innocents. The choir that sang Holy Boy with songs of celebration also sang of a family pushed around by the Romans, forced to travel miles to their familial home town to be registered, and the children sang "Bethlehem is a Long Way", which includes the lyrics:
"Fools we are (to travel so far) but we can't stay. Please don't hinder us, we just obey, it's safer that way! We must go because that's what they say, and because what they say goes!"

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Advent Reflections 5: Learning to Rejoice

This post is the sixth in a series of weekly posts during Advent inspired by "Holy Boy", a Christmas oratorio which we performed in Acomb on 21st December.
Today is a day for deep joy, as our choir and band expressed in joyful song on Sunday in Holy Boy, and in a variety of carols and readings in York Minster on Monday night, and in Christmas services around the world today. So this is a reflection about rejoicing.
As Christians, we are actually commanded to rejoice (more than a dozen times in Paul's letters, for example). CS Lewis wrote that: "Joy is the serious business of heaven".

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Getting Transport Policy Right: The Harrogate Line Blues

Since August, my new job in Harrogate has meant a daily commute on the York – Harrogate – Leeds line, a secondary route in need of some TLC. But before I explain the problems, here are four things I love about my daily train journey:
  1. The fantastic view over Knaresborough and the Nidd gorge from the Nidd Viaduct.
  2. Mist rising gently over the flat fields of the Vale of York between York and Knaresborough (ie before it gets into the hills).

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Advent Reflections 4: The Advent Antiphons

This post is the fourth in a series of weekly posts during Advent inspired by "Holy Boy", a Christmas oratorio which we're performing at Acomb Methodist Church on 21st December at 2.30pm.

The Advent Antiphons are an ancient set of seven Latin prayers recalling the promises of God, to be read or sung each day in the week between 17th December and Christmas Eve. These were immortalised in the carol "O Come, O Come, Immanuel", though we don't usually sing all seven verses! So over the next week I invite you to join me in praying through them as we prepare for Christmas. Thanks to the Northumbria Community for their inspiration in Celtic Daily Prayer!  

17th December
O come, O come, thou wisdom from above, The universe sustaining with thy love.
Thou springest forth from the Almighty's mouth. Subdue us now, and lead us in Thy truth.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Advent Reflections 3: A Song of Mary

This post is the third in a series of weekly posts during Advent inspired by "Holy Boy", a Christmas oratorio which we're performing in Acomb on 21st December.
Having spent a few weeks considering the promise of Emmanuel, the story now moves to a teenage girl in an unknown small town, who has just been told that her life will be turned upside down by being unexpectedly pregnant with the Son of God (and not even married yet! What will the village gossips say, let alone her fiance?)

Sunday, 7 December 2014

A Fossil-Free Nativity

This year I'm singing in two very different productions of the Christmas story. I've written previously about Holy Boy, a choral nativity we're perfoming in York on 21st December. Yesterday I took part in a fossil-free nativity play outside Methodist Central Hall, next to Westminster Abbey, calling for the Methodist and Anglican churches in the UK to follow the lead of the World Council of Churches and divest from fossil fuels. 

Friday, 5 December 2014

Advent Reflections 2: Making All Things New

This post is the second in a series of weekly posts during Advent inspired by "Holy Boy", a Christmas oratorio which we're performing in Acomb on 21st December.

Last week we concluded that we have a God who is passionately committed to redeeming his creation and our great Advent hope is this: that we will be part of his plan to make all things new.
Some Christians have unfortunately misunderstood this promise of a “new heaven and a new earth” to mean that this one doesn’t matter very much and we can pollute it or use up all the resources with impunity. Like a trawler fishing boat dragging a net along the bottom of the ocean to catch not just the mature fish but also the babies and the smaller fry that they feed on, it doesn’t matter if we take everything and leave nothing to replenish what we have taken. It doesn’t matter if our lifestyles need three planets to support us and we are slowly killing off one ecosystem after another without recognising that the natural world has limits. 

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Advent Reflections 1: What are we here for?

This post is the first in a series of weekly posts during Advent inspired by "Holy Boy", a Christmas oratorio which we're performing in Acomb on 21st December.

Reading the newspaper this week, a short opinion piece by Tim Lott caught my eye. The writer was trying to answer his 8-year-old daughter's question "What's the point?"

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Renewable Heat for Community Buildings

Acomb - the story so far
What do you do when your boiler is very old and you know that the next time the gas man comes to fix it, it might not recover? Most people would replace it with a more efficient new gas boiler, but the issue is: given that fuel prices are on a steady upward curve with the expectation that this will only get worse over the next 20-30 years, why lock yourself in to an old technology and high bills?
For Acomb Methodist Church, the answer is obvious: power the new boiler with renewable heat. Work is still in the early stages of getting prices, but I thought it would help to summarise the story so far.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Wildlife on Holiday - Los Angeles

To what extent do geology, wildlife and climate help create culture and a sense of place? Over the last few weeks I've had the chance to explore this question in four cities with very different climates: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver.
In LA, the climate is hot and dry, with the city built within a bowl of mountains between the ocean on one side and desert on the other. Some places like Arizona and Texas embrace the desert as part of who they are, creating gardens of succulents like the Tequila cactus (which I'm told produces a sweet drinkable sap) and hardy arbuto trees with amazing bark which eventually strips off entirely and locust trees. These plants are in evidence on the hillsides next to the freeways, but hardly visible in the city at all. Instead, Los Angeles seems to be a city of dreams: green grass, palm trees and eucalyptus sustained only by sprinkler systems.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Making a difference in Manchester

A group of London engineers recently made a video of "Engineering Happiness" featuring engineers dancing to the song "Happy" at locations around the capital where civil engineers have changed lives, from the Thames Barrier and sewage works to the Olympic Park and the new Crossrail tunnels.
Here's my own story of engineering pride: I saw a tram today at Manchester Airport.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Books, books everywhere...

While in Welsh borders this summer, Hay-on-Wye seemed like the ideal day trip for a girl whose dream as a child was to have a library on the scale of the one in Beauty and the Beast (who wouldn't love a man, or even a beast, who loved books that much?) So in a town full of new and secondhand books, how easy is it to find a book worth reading?

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Blog Action Day 2014: Fuel Poverty Costs Lives and the Planet

Today I am joining thousands of bloggers across the world in Blog Action Day by blogging on a single subject: inequality.

This is an issue which affects all of us, with well-publicised research by the University of York’s Kate Pickett demonstrating that people living more unequal societies are less healthy, more anxious and more likely to be affected by crime, right across the income scale.

Research published in the Guardian showed that around 80% of Britons now think the income gap is too large, and the message has been taken up by world leaders. According to Barack Obama, income inequality is the "defining challenge of our times", while Pope Francis states that "inequality is the roots of social ills".

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Wildlife (and weeds) on track - October

My first site visit of October took me to a rural stretch of railway near Corby which included a stunning brick viaduct across a wide valley – the bridge has been repaired so often with so many different colours of brick that it’s hard to tell which are the original bricks!
On the wildlife front, we saw a stoat running along near the track, a hedgehog, a pheasant and several different butterflies.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Wildlife on Track - September

I have blogged previously about my efforts to spot wildlife and "get my eye in" so I thought a good challenge would be to record what I've seen on my various site visits this month, mostly to railways. I wonder what I'll see next month? 

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Cooking up a storm

It’s a very wet Sunday afternoon here watching the rain as the remains of Hurricane Bertha pass by (having watched “My Fair Lady”, I thought that in Hertfordshire, Herefordshire and Hampshire hurricanes hardly ever happen? Why did I move to Yorkshire then?) So my mind has turned to cooking: we have a brand new pestle and mortar and we’re not afraid to use them! So here’s my three step guide to making two of my favourite things: pesto and hummous.
Step 1: Grow some basil
I’m working on this one. I have lots of little pots lined up and seeds to sow, but today isn’t exactly ideal sowing weather so I have cheated a little: basil leaves from “The Nursery” on Knapton Lane a few streets away where an amazing couple produce vast quantities of organic fruit, veg and eggs from a rambling garden big enough to get lost in (I know this because they opened up the garden under the National Gardens Scheme last year!) One thing I love about being near the countryside is that people are much more willing to sell their produce on an honesty basis: there’s a signboard outside that says what’s available and you put the money through the letterbox.

Monday, 30 June 2014

If there is no home for nature..

If there is no home for nature
There will be no evening starling chatter,
Nor swifts left to soar.
There will be no hedgehogs nestled in your garden,
No woodlands to explore.
Spring will pass without a bluebell,
And June without a bee.
Butterflies will flounder without a flower,
And the birds without a tree.
If there’s no home for nature,
The wonders on our doorstep will diappear.
There will be no place to play,
No meadows. No moorlands. No wilderness. No adventure.
If there’s no home for nature,
There will be no nature.
This poem was printed in the Guardian last week, and struck me to the core, the last couplet ringing in my ears long after I had read it.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

A new economics?

This week I bought an excellent book by economist Ha-Joon Chang  called "Bad Samaritans: Rich Nations, Poor Policies and The Threat to the Developing World". I'm looking forward to reading it, as his other book "23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism" is one of my favourites. On the other hand, I'm feeling somewhat jaded by the effusive comments on the back cover about these new and compelling ideas. I don't want to knock the ideas themselves, but I would contest the concept that they are new.
In fact, for the past 15 years I have campaigned about global injustice based on the evidence through which Christian Aid, WDM and many others have prominently and repeatedly demonstrated that the free market policies and privatisation forced onto poor countries by richer ones damage the countries forced to adopt them.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Of Rationality, Engineering and Faith

On Sunday I joined the audience for “The Big Questions”, a BBC2 debate filmed in York to be broadcast Sun 4th May at 10am. I listened to a range of speakers (including author Alastair McGrath, who was sitting in front of me) on the question, “Is it rational to believe in God?”

This got me thinking that in matters of both faith and engineering, reason can only take you so far, because there are limits to what we can know. Every day I try to apply scientific principles to model how a structure or slope will work, based on the evidence I have been able to obtain. But can we ever truly predict the loads that will be applied to a structure or the worst credible weather event that might occur? And performance will be significantly affected by how people actually use or maintain the structure over its 120 year design life, which might be completely different to what we expect (could the Victorians have predicted the rise of the motor car?)

Monday, 21 April 2014

Learning to see

Having celebrated the joyful hope of new life at Easter with a great feast at my brother's house (thanks Mick!) I have a new challenge for the next seven weeks up to Pentecost: I want to learn to recognise more wildlife.

As an engineer, it's obvious that I notice different things than other people in the landscape because I know what I'm looking for and I'm interested in what things are for. So on train rides, I notice radio masts, retaining walls and rock netting and as a cyclist I know every set of traffic lights on my routes around York. I know which ones are old fashioned and based on a fixed sequence and timing, which are camera controlled (eg PUFFIN crossings which allow elderly and disabled people more time to cross) and which rely on pressure pads in the road to detect traffic wanting to turn (which don't work when you're not as heavy as a car!)

But while I enjoy seeing flowers in gardens and have learned to tell the difference between a courgette and a bean plant by growing them myself, I often don't know the names of the trees, plants, butterflies and birds I see every day when out and about - and I think that's a shame.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Can we engineer an environmentally responsible HS2?

On the HS2 front, I think we should take the position of a "critical friend" - my previous post argues that there is a genuine need to be addressed and therefore I believe we should support the principle of building new rail capacity (it's not a vanity project as some have characterised it), but the detail of where and how we build it needs a lot of careful thought. Route selection for London to Birmingham is slowly getting there, but the preferred route for the sections further north is still under discussion and we can have an influence here (the route will eventually go to Manchester and Leeds and then on to Scotland). 

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Should an environmentalist support HS2?

I have promised previously to write about HS2 and this week presented an opportunity as I debated the issue with friends from Christian Ecology Link. The discussion was sparked off by a recent Guardian article which concluded that “areas of irreplaceable natural value along the planned HS2 route, including 48 ancient woodlands that are home to rare bats and butterflies would be damaged by just phase one of the route (London to Birmingham)”. So is it possible to justify such destruction and still call myself an environmentalist?

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Winter Woes for a (not very) resilient railway

This week, I had an interesting discussion with the asset management engineer at Network Rail who is responsible for all the earthworks between London and the Scottish border on the east side of the Pennines. On his wall, he had a set of Met Office maps which compare the rainfall in a particular month with the 30-year average: the South East and South West are completely covered in deep blue, indicating greater than 200% and 300% of the normal average rainfall for three months in a row (Dec 2013 to Feb 2014). Fortunately for my colleague, the East Coast Mainline has mainly kept out of the danger zone, so we've escaped the worst of the problems.

2014: Review of the first quarter!

We're nearly at the end of the first quarter of 2014 and I think that makes it time for a review of the year so far. I've been a bit quiet on the blogging front lately but I'm hoping to make up for that in April – I have loads of ideas and looking forward to some time over Easter to put them onto paper (virtually, at least). I set myself the aim this year that every month I will try to make a difference to climate change in four areas: personal and work-related carbon emissions, campaigning and prayer.

Monday, 3 February 2014

What a Wonderful World!

What motivates people to act on climate change, Fairtrade or other global issues?

  • Is it fear that if we do nothing, it looks likely to be an absolute catastrophe for our country, especially low-lying areas vulnerable to flooding?
  • Is it guilt that in the UK, as the first industrialised country, we have been responsible since the 1750s for such a large proportion of the carbon dioxide emissions now causing so much harm to our neighbours, and that we continue to live as it if doesn't matter?
  • Is it anger that we have known the scale of the problem for over 30 years, and every single international conference has been an abject failure to do anything about it? Or that millions of people will be made climate refugees, like most of the population of Bangladesh or the residents of Vanuatu and the Maldives who may see their homes disappear under the waves within 20 years?

I suggest a different approach.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

A Knotty Question: Green or Greenwashed?

I set myself the challenge this month of reading my company's annual sustainability report. There's some great stuff in here which we can be justly proud of. We are one of the world's biggest environmental and engineering consultants, with some impressive stories from low carbon buildings to new wastewater treatment plants that can remove much higher proportions of pollutants such as nitrates from sewage and capture methane from solid sludge as a source of energy for the plant. We have also worked with councils to change user behaviour when it comes to waste and divert 95% of waste away from landfill. We have committed to WRAP's commitment to halve the volume of construction waste arising from our projects which goes to landfill.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Climate Politics: Where Are We Now?

Addressing climate change requires international as well as local solutions, which means co-operation and negotiation on a grand scale. The scientific community has been doing this very well: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed in 1988, and has been called the largest international scientific undertaking in human history, with thousands of experts involved from around the world in the task of examining peer-reviewed technical literature and publishing the results to advise policymakers. Over the years, the language in the reports has grown stronger and stronger as the scientific consensus has grown more and more confident, to the point that the 4th report published in 2007 could state baldly that:
“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising sea levels”.
However, the policymakers' response to the ever-growing body of evidence that the climate is warming and that human activity is responsible has been essentially: “La la la, I'm not listening”

Monday, 20 January 2014

Bike + Train = ?

As mentioned in my carbon footprint results, I cycle or take the train everywhere (with the occasional walk or bus). So this post is about what happens when you try to mix the two, ie take your bike on the train? There isn't a simple answer to this (hence the question mark) because we have a variety of different train companies which have different approaches to fulfilling the law that requires that all trains must be able to carry at least 2 bikes.
So my experiences have been pretty variable and here's a guide to the different attitudes I have experienced:

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Towards a Sustainable Railway - Part 2

A few weeks ago, I met an environmental consultant who told me about a small architectural practice which he had helped to implement an environmental management system accredited under ISO14001 – but this ONLY related to their office environment, not their project work. I'm not sure which of us was more surprised by this conversation: me, that any company could be stupid enough to think that recycling the office's waste paper is 'doing enough' while failing to address energy efficiency and waste in the buildings they design, or him, when I told him that no public sector client would ever employ a consultant engineering firm in today's marketplace who doesn't have an effective EMS for their projects.
But sometimes I wonder if we have allowed this to put sustainability in a box.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Carbon calculator: The results!

I have used the method set out in the book 'Carbon Detox' by George Marshall (highly recommended!) to calculate my personal carbon emissions in six main areas: energy for the home, transport (land/international), food, goods and services. Note that this is (necessarily) an estimate, but the purpose is to provide an indication of where my biggest carbon emissions are and opportunities to reduce them.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

January Challenges

This post is a summary of my challenges for January, because it helps to be specific.
Personal: I will calculate my carbon footprint and publish the results. This will act as a steer for future months' challenges by highlighting the areas where I can achieve the most significant reductions.
Political: I will write a letter to my MP as part of Age UK's 'Spread the Warmth' campaign calling for measures to improve insulation for people on low incomes. This is really important, because Age UK's estimates indicate about 24,000 elderly people will die this winter unnecessarily because they cannot afford to heat their homes. Given that research indicates that the UK has the leakiest homes in Europe (letting more than 3 times more heat out of the average house wall than houses in Sweden, for example), we need to act.

Engineering: As I noted previously, this requires some research. So this month my challenge is to read my company's sustainability report and two  recently published reports about low carbon infrastructure: "Construction 2025" and "Decarbonising Infrastructure".
Prayer: This is a commitment to pray daily for an effective response to tackle climate change. This problem is much bigger than me, and I want to work with the creator of everything so prayer is absolutely key. To that end, I have signed up to Christian Ecology Link's prayer community and I'll be using their daily prayer guide to help me pray.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Towards a Sustainable Railway – Part 1

My first stage in working out where I can usefully contribute to making the railways more sustainable is to consider where our environmental impacts are coming from. Today I'll consider the impacts from normal operation of the railway, for example powering trains, buildings and encouraging passengers and freight to use more sustainable forms of transport.

Good news - British railways are getting better!

Here is a good news story that you don't hear very often: Britain is currently undergoing the biggest investment in railway infrastructure since the  Victorian era, with plans now approved for £37bn of investment over the next 5 years (note that this figure includes normal operations and maintenance as well as enhancement work).
And no, I'm not talking about HS2, being the only railway project most people have heard of! In fact, I'm talking about what's happening to improve our existing railways: Network Rail has a big vision for how we could make the railways work better and the long term funding to make it happen. And a recent report by the European Commission which compared progress in all EU countries since 1990 concluded that we have the most improved railway network in Europe.