Krzysztof Strug
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Why not all coal phase-outs are created equal

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Everyone knows we need to burn less coal. The world’s 8,500 active coal plants remain the single largest source of electricity and the single largest contributor to global emissions. Having fuelled the world since the beginnings of the industrial age, coal is responsible for more than 30% of the average global temperature rise above pre-industrial levels, estimates the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that coal use in electricity generation must fall 80% below 2010 levels by 2030, with OECD nations ending coal use entirely by 2030 and the rest of the world doing so by 2040. Yet the IEA’s Coal 2021 report, released in December 2021, showed things moving in the opposite direction. With electricity demand outpacing low-carbon supplies, and soaring natural gas prices on top, coal generation is estimated to have reached an all-time high in 2021.

Nevertheless, from a policy perspective, coal has undergone a major shift. Countries across the OECD have seen their coal use decline significantly in recent years, while the global pipeline of proposed coal power plants has collapsed by 76% since the Paris Agreement. At COP26, some 23 countries made new commitments to phase out coal, including major Asian coal nations such as South Korea, Indonesia and Vietnam. 

However, while making such commitments is one thing, delivering on them is another. “The first key thing for any phase-out commitment is to actually make that commitment a reality, and to do so at a pace that is consistent with keeping global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees,” says Camilla Fenning, a coal analyst at think tank E3G. At the moment, announced phase-outs are not all in line with the temperature target. At least six European countries have a coal phase-out target date after 2030. The Czech Republic is the most recent addition to this list, announcing a 2033 phase-out date on 7 January 2022.

As well as happening at pace, coal phase-outs need a good plan. Solving the Coal Puzzle, a report from pressure group Europe Beyond Coal and think tanks Ember and Sandbag, suggests what constitutes a good phase-out. The authors say a phase-out should be “direct” – avoiding any “bridge” to natural gas or unsustainable biomass – and “clean”, with plans explicitly laying out how wind and solar will replace coal. In addition, plans should be enshrined in law and close the dirtiest plants first. This should be done in a “reliable” manner that keeps the lights on. Finally, they should be “economic” – avoiding pay-offs to utilities (as is happening in Germany) and ideally making use of a high carbon price in an emissions trading scheme – and they should be “just”, with no workers left behind

“A good phase-out features a broad set of complementary policies with the objective of a decarbonised system,” experts from the Regulatory Assistance Project told Energy Monitor in a statement. “A failure to plan comprehensively can lock us into costly and wasteful policies that are not aligned with long-term decarbonisation goals.”

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Comparing national records

Analysis of macro energy data from Energy Monitor‘s parent company GlobalData shows there has been a major divergence in how OECD countries have replaced coal, with different countries faring better in different areas. 

Denmark has seen coal’s share in the electricity mix rapidly fall from 46% in 2000 to just 6% in 2020, and the country has not used natural gas as a significant bridging fuel. Although biomass generation soared from 5% in 2000 to 24% in 2020, according to data from GlobalData, the country has strict rules around what can be used; as of 2021, for example, the only woodchips that can be burnt are those from sustainably managed forests in countries where forests are not in decline. 

Denmark’s coal phase-out target is set for a relatively late 2028 – but with coal’s share of electricity generation plummeting 90 percentage points since the mid 1980s, the country represents a good model of how a direct, reliable and relatively clean transition can take place. 

Another country that is replacing coal directly with renewables is Germany, which has seen the share of coal and gas in electricity generation decline by 23 and four percentage points, respectively, between 2000 and 2020, as wind and solar’s share has increased. However, Germany’s decline in coal use has been much slower than Denmark's. Germany remains the world’s fourth-largest user of coal, with a coal phase-out date of 2038, until the new coalition government announced it would be moved to 2030 in November last year. 

A 2020 study from the German Department of Energy highlights how a generous coal subsidy regime and enduring union power, as well as historic concerns over high electricity prices, import independence and grid stability, have contributed to the slow phase-down. Angela Merkel’s recommitment to a nuclear exit following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster has also meant enduring demand for coal’s baseload power supply.

The UK once found itself in a similar position to Germany, with a large electricity grid that was majority-powered by coal. Like Germany, that coal originated from long-established mining communities that employed hundreds of thousands of unionised miners. However, by not using public funds to subsidise domestic mining in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government presided over a rapid decline of domestic coal production, and soaring imports. 

The UK’s coal transition scores badly when it comes to a just transition, with many mining communities still struggling to establish new industry. However, the transition did mean that, since climate policies were introduced in the 21st century, there has been much less resistance to the roll-out of policies to accelerate coal’s decline, according to the authors of the German Department of Energy study. 

However, unlike Germany, gas has been used as a bridging fuel in the UK in a major way, with generation increasing from 5.8 terawatt hours (TWh) in 1991 to 176.2TWh in 2008. Although it produces around half as much carbon when burnt as coal, gas has received increased critical attention in recent years as the policy focus has moved away from reducing emissions to reaching net zero in just a few decades. 

'Why gas is the new coal’, a November 2021 report from think tank Climate Analytics, found that gas was the largest source of a fossil fuel carbon emissions increase (42%) from 2010–19, and is responsible for 70% of the projected increase in fossil fuel carbon emissions under current policies to 2030. “Gas is not a ‘bridging fuel’, it is still a fossil fuel,” write the authors. “To reach the Paris Agreement’s 1.5˚C warming limit, governments, investors and multilateral finance institutions must treat it the same way they do coal: target gas for a swift phase-out.”

As Europe looks to phase out the remainder of its coal capacity over the next decade, there remain fears gas will linger in the electricity mix. EU plans to label investment in new natural gas or nuclear as “sustainable” have recently prompted a furious backlash – Mahi Sideridou, managing director of Europe Beyond Coal, told Energy Monitor the label is “nuts”. 

“Phasing out coal is a narrow view,” suggest experts from the Regulatory Assistance Project. “Meeting long-term goals requires a focus on decarbonising power systems, as well as transport and industry. [...] The focus on just one fuel or only the power sector is too narrow.” 

Optimism for future phase-outs

The new EU taxonomy does not necessarily scupper plans for effective coal phase-outs. “The new label is obviously a shame, and a really bad international symbol, but the restrictions on the definition are so tight that I cannot imagine many gas plans would meet the criteria,” says E3G’s Lisa Fischer. She points to how many investors who would use the taxonomy – including Barclays, Allianz, BNP Paribas and Santander – have signalled a lack of support for the inclusion of gas.

The new German coalition government also announced at the start of January that it would join the US, UK and Canada in targeting 100% low carbon electricity by the mid-2030s, most likely scuppering any plans for new gas power plants, which typically have a a lifespan of three or four decades.

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Whatever the EU may say, there is a sense within the industry that gas is moving towards the same fossil fuel doghouse as coal. “I think everyone, even in Asia, now understands coal needs to be replaced with clean electricity,” says Ember’s global programme lead Dave Jones. “All reference to coal at COP26 was in that context. If fossil gas was a bridge fuel once, it certainly isn't now.”[Keep up with Energy Monitor: Subscribe to our weekly newsletter]Whatever the EU may say, there is a sense within the industry that gas is moving towards the same fossil fuel doghouse as coal. “I think everyone, even in Asia, now understands coal needs to be replaced with clean electricity,” says Ember’s global programme lead Dave Jones. “All reference to coal at COP26 was in that context. If fossil gas was a bridge fuel once, it certainly isn't now.”

Fischer points out that gas power is not cost-competitive with renewables in many markets, and is subject to price instability that is unattractive to investors, as exemplified by the soaring price of gas this winter. An October 2021 report from think tank Carbon Tracker also found that more than a fifth of European gas-fired power plants and a third of US gas units are loss-making. “Most new build gas capacity planned will be unable to recover initial investment and should be cancelled,” the report concluded. 

While coal phase-outs so far have largely been the result of rich countries pursuing domestic energy policies, there are now programmes to ensure effective coal phase-outs elsewhere. These include the Coal Asset Transition Accelerator, which was launched at COP26 to leverage finance to accelerate the coal transition globally. It will link governments and utilities in transitioning countries with renewable energy developers, financial institutions and donors.

The Powering Past Coal Alliance (PPCA) was launched in 2017 to “secure commitments from governments and the private sector to phase out existing unabated coal power”. The alliance now has 165 members that include governments, businesses and other organisations. It “stands ready to support developing countries in their transitions, by connecting them with appropriate technical and financial support to maintain security of energy supply, address affordability and pricing concerns, and promote a just transition and tackle broader development challenges,” says the PPCA’s Anna Drazkiewicz. 

With all major economies set to phase down coal over the next few decades as they work towards their net-zero pledges, countries have seen that the benefits of baseload fossil power are eclipsed by the climate and financial risk of coal assets. “Developing countries will be left in an extremely bad position in the coming years if coal power is not phased out, with stranded assets they cannot afford and other markets unwilling to purchase products manufactured using carbon-intensive electricity,” says E3G’s Fenning. 

However, ensuring phase-outs happen in a timely and equitable manner remains a complicated challenge, which all stakeholders must work hard on together to reach the best outcome for people and planet.

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‘We need to break the junk food cycle’: how to fix Britain’s failing food system | Food

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When I was younger, and at war with my own body, I was a sucker for diets. I tried The Rotation Diet (Lose Up to a Pound a Day and Never Gain it Back), The Beverly Hills Diet (a 35-day programme, but I never made it past the first three days) and numerous punitive low-fat regimes involving raw carrots and dry crispbread. None of them lasted long, but each time I broke a diet, I would soon be looking around for another, equally unrealistic, weight-loss plan. No matter how similar the new diet was to the last, it gave me a sense that I was doing something productive about what I saw as the problem of my body.

Personal weight-loss diets have a lot in common with obesity policies in England and beyond. For a start, the sheer quantity of these policies is astonishing. Earlier this year, two researchers based at the University of Cambridge – Dolly Theis and Martin White – published a paper showing that from 1992 to 2020, there were no fewer than 689 separate obesity policies put forward in England. Like failed diets, almost none of these initiatives have been realised in any meaningful way. Instead, their main effect has been to remind people with obesity that the government views the mere existence of their bodies as a “crisis”.

While England is not alone in failing to reduce the prevalence of obesity – the World Health Organization reports that it has more than tripled worldwide since 1975 – “obesity policy” in England has been strikingly ineffective. (I say England because since devolution, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own separate health policies.) Between 1993 and 2015, obesity among England’s adult population rose from 14.9% to 26.9%. Twice as many adults in the UK are living with obesity as in Italy, Sweden or Switzerland. At the same time, levels of hunger in the UK are some of the highest in Europe. Nearly one in five 15-year-olds live in a household where the adults are “food insecure”, which is a fancy way of saying that they can’t reliably afford enough food.

Covid has brought to the surface some hard truths about the British food system, and what a poor job it does of feeding the population as a whole. As the first lockdown hit in March 2020, plenty of better-off British households were able to carry on eating much as before, while millions more were plunged into food poverty. According to data from the Food Foundation, during the first two weeks of lockdown in the spring of 2020, the proportion of households facing food insecurity doubled to more than 15%. Black and Asian people have been twice as likely to suffer hunger during the pandemic as their white counterparts. As Marcus Rashford said in a letter to parliament about food poverty in June 2020, “This is a system failure”. But it is a system failure that existed for decades before the pandemic at long last pushed it on to the national agenda.

British politicians, as a rule, have shown little interest in tackling the problem of poor-quality food and its relationship to health. These policy failures go back to the 19th century. Our early Industrial Revolution meant that a larger percentage of the population lost its connection with agriculture at an earlier stage than in any other country. When it comes to food policy, there has long been an attitude of “leave it to the market” (the shining exception being the two world wars, when the constraints of rationing forced governments to join the dots on food and health). Campaigners against the grossly adulterated food supply in Victorian times sometimes complained that the selling of food in London operated on “buyer beware” principles, which meant that grocers were free to sell poisonous pickles and fake coffee to an unsuspecting public without fear of retribution. Not much has changed, except that instead of poisonous pickles, we are sold a surfeit of ultra-processed food.

Recent English obesity policies have spoken endlessly of “action” to help people eat healthier diets, but what they deliver, often as not, is another raft of patronising diet information leaflets, such as the bright yellow Change4Life diet pamphlets handed out in schools and GP surgeries. (One uninspiring gem: “If you’re shopping for packaged snacks for your children, try sticking to 100 calorie snacks.”)

For three decades, Theis and White found, successive governments have repeatedly proposed “similar or identical policies” and then not done anything to see them through. What counts as an obesity policy could be anything from a plan of action to a statement of intent. Whichever party has been in charge, the most popular policies have been ones placing high demands on individuals to make personal changes (such as the 5 a day campaign) rather than meaningful reforms such as restricting the sale of unhealthy foods, or subsidising fruits and vegetables to make them more affordable. Most of the ideas for structural interventions – for example, that the food industry should reformulate its unhealthiest products – were voluntary. Unsurprisingly, compliance was not high. One of the few exceptions has been the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (AKA Sugar Tax) of 2018, which resulted in a 30g a week drop in household sugar consumption, but I suspect that this will turn out to be a pyrrhic victory given evidence that consuming aspartame, the artificial sweetener used in many diet drinks, also causes weight gain as well as possibly altering the gut microbiome.

The almost 700 obesity policies fell under the banner of 14 separate obesity strategies. It is poignant to read the titles of these largely failed and forgotten strategies, which share an air of wishful purpose. Under John Major in 1992, there was Health of the Nation. Next, under Tony Blair in 1999, came Saving Lives. Also under Labour came Choosing Health (2004), Choosing a Better Diet (2005) and Choosing Activity (2004, 2005 and 2005) and Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives (2008). The Coalition government produced Healthy Lives, Healthy People and A call to action on obesity in England (2011). Most recently, under the Conservatives there have been three instalments of Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action and then, in 2020, Tackling Obesity.

Notice how the words “choosing” and “action” keep reappearing in these strategies. Given that poorer UK households would have to spend nearly 40% of their income to buy food for a healthy diet, according to recent data from the Food Foundation, to frame healthy eating as simply a matter of “choosing” is dishonest. It’s not choice if you can’t afford it.

Decades of research show that obesity is determined to a large extent by environmental factors such as socioeconomic inequality, the rise of ultra-processed food and the way that cities are built to facilitate car use. But policymakers of England have stayed wedded to the idea that weight is all about personal responsibility: just eat less and move more.

The failures of obesity policy in England and the UK are part of a larger problem with food policy in general. As well as being a source of joy and nourishment, food is Britain’s biggest employer, accounting for 4.1m jobs (most of them low-paid). At the same time, poor diet is the country’s biggest cause of preventable disease and the food supply is also one of its biggest drivers of climate breakdown (10% of our greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture).

And yet for decades, a food policy to address any of this has seemed to be missing in action. Fewer than a quarter of the policies analysed by Theis and White (24%) included any plan for monitoring their progress. Nearly a third (29%) of the policies did not include any timeframe, any evidence or any position on who or what is responsible for driving the rise in obesity. It isn’t just that food policies in England have long been ill-suited to improving our diets. It is that very few people, inside or outside government, seems to have the slightest idea what these policies actually are.

Earlier this year, the need for a radical rethink of food policy in the UK was set out in Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy: The Plan, an independent review commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Dimbleby, one of the founders of the Leon chain of cafes, wrote the report after consultations with more than 300 organisations, as well as town hall meetings with members of the public. It took three years to produce.

Unlike all the earlier failed obesity policies, Dimbleby’s plan recognised that how a person eats is not just a question of personal choice, and that healthy food is a basic need for all of us, no matter how much we weigh. It called for a range of ambitious strategies themed around reducing diet inequalities, improving food education, making better use of land and, crucially, setting as a clear goal that the food system of the future must “make us well instead of sick”. It suggested that school inspections should pay as much attention to cookery and nutrition lessons as they do to English and maths, and that meat consumption should be cut by 30% over 10 years, with more investment going to growing vegetables and fruits.

Almost everyone I have spoken to in food policy and nutrition circles has showered Dimbleby’s report with praise, relieved that someone close to government was finally recognising the scale of the problem and proposing real solutions. Some public health experts, such as Rob Percival at the Soil Association, have been disappointed that the report still talks about foods high in sugar, fat and salt as the problem, rather than addressing the harm done by ultra-processed products as a whole. But Percival has still praised the report as “important and progressive” in making the connections between farming and health.

No sooner had the National Food Strategy (NFS) plan appeared, however, than the government backed away from taking action. The first of the strategy’s recommendations was a “reformulation” tax of £3 a kilogramme on sugar and £6 on salt for use in food processing, catering and restaurants and food processing. But on 15 July, Boris Johnson announced that he would not support the plan’s call for higher taxes on foods high in salt and sugar. “I’m not attracted to the idea of extra taxes on hard working people,” said Johnson, before repeating his belief that weight loss could best be achieved through exercise. His language could have come from any one of the 14 failed obesity strategies.

This was a characteristic piece of political theatre from Johnson, who knows he will win points with some voters by positioning himself as a brave warrior against the nanny state. More significant than the fact that the prime minister ridiculed the first recommendation in the NFS plan is the fact that he remained silent on the other 13 proposals. Did this silence imply approval or disapproval (or simply that Johnson couldn’t be bothered to read the whole thing)? The real test will be the government white paper, which is due to be published in January 2022, setting out plans for legislation based on Dimbleby’s report. Will the libertarians in the Tory party ever lose their conviction that it is not government’s place to meddle in how people eat? If they don’t, it is unclear how Dimbleby’s radical policy suggestions can be put into action.

The ambitions of the NFS report raise a question: can this new holistic vision of food policy actually be delivered? The final recommendation is the introduction of a Good Food bill, which would commit the government to five-year action plans, and to coming up with a “healthy and sustainable reference diet”: an agreed vision of what healthy eating actually means, to create a consistent approach to food across the whole system, from schools to farms. So far, so good. The problem is that the report handed responsibility for monitoring progress to the Food Standards Agency, a non-ministerial department whose remit is mainly food safety and things such as use-by dates.

“Delivery ain’t gonna come from the FSA, no way!”’ said Tim Lang, emeritus professor of food policy at City, University of London, when I spoke to him on the phone recently. Lang, who is most famous for coining the term “food miles”, has long been recognised as one of the leading experts on food policy in Britain. The week after the NFS plan was published, he wrote an opinion piece in the Spectator praising much of the content of the report but suggesting that the FSA was unfit to deliver it. The FSA is, he wrote, a “long-weakened body … a kind of genial facilitator” whose role is purely advisory. Since it is not a government ministry, Lang argued, the FSA lacked the power to get anything meaningful done.

“Nothing happens unless you get laws and regulations that get translated into daily cultural values,” Lang told me. Since the war, he argues that the closest that the UK has come to having a systematic food policy was in 2008, under Gordon Brown, when the Food Matters review of food policy was set up (under which the Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives strategy fell). “They integrated environment and nutrition and hospitality all in one document,” Lang said. But when the coalition government came to power in 2010, the review was “shut down by the Tories overnight”. Now, he wonders whether the government really wants a unified food policy, or whether they would prefer “no policy at all”, to keep their friends in industry happy.

For years, Lang has decried what he calls the lack of “food democracy”. In the UK, 94.4% of food is supplied by one of the nine leading retailers. Along with his colleagues Erik Millstone and Terry Marsden, earlier this year Lang wrote a paper setting out nine “tests” for food policy in the UK. “How will people be fed and to what standards, from where, produced how, and with which consequences?” the paper asked.

Lang feels that Whitehall brushes these questions aside because there is a “naive optimism” that other countries will always come along to feed us. After Brexit, this post-imperial complacency looks dangerously misplaced. As recently as October there were tonnes of broccoli and cauliflower rotting in the fields without workers to pick them, tens of thousands of pigs faced being culled because of a post-Brexit shortage of butchers and empty shelves in the supermarkets because of the shortfall of lorry drivers.

In the midst of this chaos, who will actually step in to protect the food supply? Successive governments have been largely happy to leave it to the market – which in practice means leaving it to the supermarkets and the ultra-processed food industry. Dimbleby says that one of the core aims of his report is to break what he calls “the junk food cycle”, in which retailers oversupply us with low-nutrient sugary foods and we in turn demand more of them. At the same time, the report was informed by conversations with many of the biggest food companies including Coca-Cola, Greggs, Tesco and Asda (as well as smaller organic companies such as Yeo Valley).

To regulate industry, Dimbleby proposes forcing all food companies with more than 250 employees to publish an annual report. As well as admitting how much food they waste, they would be forced to declare how many healthy foods such as vegetables they sell each year – for some companies, the answer would presumably be “none” – as well as how many unhealthy sugary foods. The hope is that this process of public accounting would enable government to track whether businesses are moving in the right direction. The problem is that it’s currently unclear who would oversee this, or what the sanctions would be for companies that continue to sell us the same old junk.

It is hardly surprising that English food policy to date has seemed muddled, given that responsibility for it is spread across no fewer than 16 separate government departments. As well as the obvious candidates such as the Department of Health, the Department of Education and Defra, there are more surprising departments such as the Department of Justice (prison food) and Digital Culture, Media and Sport (food sponsorship and advertising).

In 2020, Kelly Parsons, a food policy researcher at the University of Hertfordshire, produced a report identifying which government departments are responsible for which aspects of food policy in England. The meticulous research process confirmed Parsons’s hunch that “there is no single place to go to find out about food-related policy, either for those inside or outside government”. Parsons told me that after she published her map of the different groups and departments a number of people in Whitehall told her how useful it was, because they had been just as much in the dark about food policy as the rest of us.

Given the poor state of the average British diet – the Food Foundation found in 2021 that almost a third of British children aged between five and 10 eat fewer than one portion of vegetables a day – it would be easy to assume that Britain must have a poor nutrition policy. But the problem is actually deeper and more nebulous than this. Britain doesn’t actually have a single nutrition policy at all, just a series of different policies on food, often contradictory ones, emerging from different departments at different times. Not only do these departments fail to coordinate their actions on food, but they may have directly opposing agendas. Current agricultural policy in the UK subsidises sugar and red meat, even though dietary advice from the Department of Health recommends eating less of them.

Earlier this year, Parsons set out to identify some of the key disconnects in food policy in England, based on interviews with senior officials in key departments in Westminster. One of the biggest contradictions was that different departments have different “client groups” to please. Health officials may wish to restrict junk food being marketed to children, but their counterparts in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport are more interested in protecting the profits of the advertising industry. “When you have [an agriculture] minister who says, ‘I’m going to be judged on whether I keep the farmers happy’, and a minister of health who has a completely different set of interests, it’s difficult to see how they would work together,” said one of Parsons’s interviewees.

The client who tends to get forgotten in all this is the ordinary person simply trying to feed themselves and their family as well as they can on a stretched budget. Another of the disconnects Parsons identified was between nutrition, obesity and income. Through the Department of Health, the government hands out advice on what to eat (through the much-criticised Eatwell guide), but there is no attempt to cross-reference this with policy on welfare and on food access – “specifically, people’s ability to afford the food being recommended for healthy weight”.

This clash of departments partly explains why so many obesity policies focus on physical activity as the solution, rather than reforming the food supply. As Tim Spector outlined in his recent book Spoon-Fed, evidence suggests that exercise – while beneficial, especially for mental health – does not reliably cause weight loss. But obesity policies that propose more sport, rather than changes to diet, have always been popular in government because they pose no threat to the junk food industry.

We shouldn’t be talking about obesity policy (let alone an “obesity crisis”) at all, but about food quality laws or junk food control. After all, the government does not produce tobacco strategies with titles such as “childhood smokers: a plan for action” or “tackling smokers’ lungs”. Chris van Tulleken, an infectious diseases doctor at University College London hospital, told me that, as with tobacco, the focus should be “on regulating the marketing, not blaming the consumer”. He argues that ultra-processed foods should come with a warning label and that these products should not be marketed to children. But there is still a reluctance within the UK government even to identify ultra-processed food as a problem. As Gyorgy Scrinis, an Australian professor of food policy, has shown, the big food companies have successfully lobbied governments around the world to ensure that official nutrition advice stays focused on individual nutrients in packaged foods rather than on ultra-processed food in general.

What would it take for England to have a food policy fit for the task? One obvious solution would be to create a designated minister of food to coordinate food policy, as there was during the war and up until 1955, when the Ministry of Food became subsumed by Agriculture and Fisheries.

Another solution would be to say that food is so relevant to every aspect of life that there should be food in every policy. This is the approach favoured by the NFS report, which ruled out the idea of a single food minister, noting that food is not unique in being split across multiple departments. Since the second world war, Dimbleby argued, the purpose of the food system in England has been to maximise the production of cheap food, regardless of quality. This urgently needs to change, but to pivot to a new system that produces nourishing, sustainable food would require radical adjustments all the way through the food chain. There is a need, as Dimbleby notes, for every cog in the wheel of the food system to be designed to “make us well instead of sick”, to be “resilient” and to help “halt climate change”.

But where will this shared sense of purpose come from? Having interviewed 23 of the most senior civil servants and politicians in Westminster, Kelly Parsons told me that she realised that at the highest levels of government in England, food was endlessly pushed down the agenda. It simply wasn’t seen as important.

The absence of adequate food policy in England reflects a wider culture in which most of the population has been disconnected from food production for a very long time. There is a maddeningly persistent view in the UK that caring about healthy food is snobbish or “middle-class”. (Witness the rage that greeted Jamie Oliver when he dared to try to improve the quality of school meals in 2005.)

England is far from the only country where responsibility for food policy is spread across multiple departments. In South Africa, for example, food policy is splintered across 15 different departments. But one of the big differences is that South Africa also has a Department of Cooperative Governance, whose role is to coordinate food polices across all the departments at a local and national level. In 2019, South Africa was ranked as the most effective government in the world for its commitment to tackling hunger and undernutrition by the Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index. Under South African policy, ensuring adequate food for the population is seen as such an urgent priority that nutrition has its own separate budget line.

Compare and contrast this with the UK, where hunger is still not generally recognised as an issue. In England, there is not a single department assigned lead responsibility for hunger, despite the fact that, in 2018, the Food and Agriculture Organisation found that there were more than 2.2 million people in the UK in a state of food insecurity. (The 2021 figures are undoubtedly higher). Last winter, for the first time in 70 years, Unicef stepped in to feed hungry children in the UK. Yet Parsons reported that the government continues to see hunger as an “overseas issue”.

If England has fragmented food policies, it is partly because this is a country that does not recognise how much food matters. In modern western societies with an apparently abundant food supply, treating food as trivial is a common mindset, as historian Paul Freedman shows in his short new polemic Why Food Matters. Effective food policies have a better chance of taking root in countries with long-established cultures of cooking, where it is normal for families to gather around a table every day. One example is Brazil, where school canteens are obliged to source 30% of their ingredients from local family farms. In 2014, Brazil totally rewrote the script on nutrition policy when the department of health issued new food-based nutrition guidelines urging Brazilians to avoid ultra-processed food and to eat more freshly produced food. At the time, these guidelines were unlike any other nutrition policy in the world, although similar policies have since been adopted by other countries including Ecuador, Peru and Canada.

When I asked Geoffrey Cannon, a British researcher who helped design the Brazilian nutrition guidelines, why Brazilian food policy is so much more ambitious than that in England, he pointed to the prevailing food culture. “In the Catholic tradition, Brazil is still largely family-based and therefore family meals are normal.” Even when people move away from home to the cities, they can still buy cheap home-style food at “per quilo” restaurants selling unpretentious food priced by weight. Cannon felt that people in Brazil still had a sense that homemade food was something normal and delicious – much more so than in the UK with its highly processed diet and long working hours.

But it’s also worth remembering that food cultures are not static, and just sometimes food policy can succeed in changing cultural attitudes for the better. In the 1970s, the region of North Karelia in Finland had some of the worst rates of fatal heart disease in the world. A visionary young public health official called Pekka Puska implemented a whole range of measures to address cardiovascular health, all at once. Puska worked with women’s groups to encourage people to cook new versions of traditional dishes, with more vegetables and less meat. He supported dairy farmers in diverting some of their land from butter to berries. He persuaded local sausage producers to take out some of the fat and replace it with mushrooms. And he recruited an army of local people to act as advocates for the new diet to their friends and neighbours. Puska also instigated smoke-free workplaces. By 2012, cardiovascular mortality among men in the region had dropped by 80%. Policy experts still debate which of Puska’s various measures made the greatest difference, but in a sense it doesn’t matter. This was food policy as doing, not talking, and it worked.

A good food policy is one that actually makes it beyond the announcement and gets carried out, with adjustments along the way for anything that doesn’t work. The example Dolly Theis likes to give is of the city of Amsterdam, which from 2012 to 2015 brought down rates of child obesity thanks to a series of measures that included increased support for parents, a ban on junk food marketing at sporting events, and a rule that the only drink in schools should be water. “Can you imagine that here?” Theis asks.

The hope held out by Dimbleby’s NFS report is that if enough measures can be put in place at once, as in Amsterdam, something fundamental will shift and we will collectively reach a point where we no longer tolerate a system so stacked against healthy eating. Our forgiving attitude to an ultra-processed food supply today might be a bit like attitudes to tobacco 50 years ago, when smoking on trains was normal.

There are signs that the pandemic has finally jolted us into new ways of thinking about food. Marcus Rashford’s passionate advocacy has made far more people recognise how unacceptable it is to live in a country where mothers like his struggle to buy “a good evening meal” on minimum-wage jobs. Our great-grandchildren may laugh when we tell them that English schools routinely used to sell sugary drinks for profit, that hospital food courts provided burgers and chips to people who had just undergone heart surgery, and that farmers were paid to produce the very foods that caused the most damage to health and the environment. “That was what it was like,” we will say, “living in a country where the politicians didn’t know that food mattered.”

This article was amended on 7 December 2021 because an earlier version linked to a study cited as “new evidence” that aspartame may cause weight gain. The link was to another study whereas the intended referenced was to a 2016 study. The correct link has been inserted.

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33 days ago
Warsaw, Poland
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Why are people still starving?

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The supply chain, too, is a futuristic marvel. You can walk into a store in most countries and buy fresh goods from all over the world. These supply chains even proved somewhat resistant to the chaos caused by the pandemic: while covid-19 lockdowns did lead to food shortages in some places, most of the empty shelves were the ones meant to hold toilet paper and cleaning products. Food supplies were more resilient than many expected.

But the mass industrialization of food and our ability to buy it has created an avalanche of unintended consequences. Cheap, bad calories have led to an obesity crisis that disproportionately affects the poor and disadvantaged. Intensive animal farming has increased greenhouse-­gas emissions, since meat has a much larger carbon footprint than beans or grains.

The environment has taken a beating, too. Booms in fertilizer and pesticide use have polluted land and waterways, and the easy availability of water has led some dry parts of the world to use up their resources.

They haven’t industrialized, so they don’t grow much food, which means they can’t make much money, so they can’t invest in equipment, which means they can’t grow much food. The cycle continues.

In Perilous Bounty, the journalist Tom Philpott explores California’s agricultural future. The massive water projects drawing supplies into the Central Valley, for example, have helped it become one of the world’s most productive farming regions over the past 90 years, providing around a quarter of America’s food. But those natural aquifers are now under acute pressure, overused and running dry in the face of drought and climate change. Philpott, a reporter for Mother Jones, points to the nearby Imperial Valley in Southern California as an example of this folly. This “bone-dry chunk of the Sonoran desert” is responsible for producing more than half of America’s winter vegetables, and yet “in terms of native aquatic resources, the Imperial Valley makes the Central Valley look like Waterworld.” The valley is home to California’s largest lake, the 15-mile-long Salton Sea—famously so loaded with pollutants and salt that nearly everything in it has been killed off.

This isn’t going to get better anytime soon: what is happening in California is happening elsewhere. Cribb shows in Food or War exactly how the trend lines are pointing the wrong way. Today, he says, food production is already competing for water with urban and industrial uses. More people are moving to urban areas, accelerating the trend. If this continues, he says, the proportion of the world’s fresh water supply available for growing food will drop from 70% to 40%. “This in turn would reduce world food production by as much as one-third by the 2050s—when there will be over 9 billion mouths to feed—instead of increasing it by 60% to meet their demand.”

These are all bleak predictions of future hunger, but they don’t really explain starvation today. For that, we can look at a different unexpected aspect of the 20th-century farming revolution: the fact that it didn’t happen everywhere.

Just as healthy calories are hard to come by for those who are poor, the industrialization of farming is unevenly distributed. First Western farmers were catapulted into hyper-productivity, then the nations touched by the Green Revolution. But progress stopped there. Today, a hectare of farmland in sub-Saharan Africa produces just 1.2 metric tons of grain each year; in the US and Europe the equivalent land yields up to eight metric tons. This is not because farmers in poorer regions lack the natural resources, necessarily (West Africa has long been a producer of cotton), but because they are locked into a cycle of subsistence. They haven’t industrialized, so they don’t grow much food, which means they can’t make much money, so they can’t invest in equipment, which means they can’t grow much food. The cycle continues.

This problem is exacerbated in places where the population is growing faster than the amount of food (nine of the world’s 10 fastest-growing countries are in sub-Saharan Africa). And it can be increased by sudden poverty, economic collapse, or conflict, as in Oxfam’s hot spots. While these are the places where the World Food Program steps in to alleviate immediate pain, it also doesn’t solve the problem. But then, their economic plight is not an accident.

A disaster for farmers worldwide

In September 2003, a South Korean farmer named Lee Kyung Hae attended protests against the World Trade Organization, which was meeting in Mexico. Lee was a former union leader whose own experimental farm had been foreclosed in the late 1990s. In an essay in the collection Bite Back (2020), Raj Patel and Maywa Montenegro de Wit recount what happened next. 

As demonstrators clashed with police, they explain, Lee climbed the barricades with a sign reading “WTO! Kills. FARMERS” hanging around his neck. On top of the fence, “he flipped open a rusty Swiss Army knife, stabbed himself in the heart, and died minutes later.”

Lee was protesting the effects of free trade, which has been a disaster for many farmers worldwide. The reason farmers in less industrialized nations can’t make much money isn’t just that they have low crop yields. It’s also that their markets are flooded with cheaper competition from overseas. 

Take sugar. After the Second World War, Europe’s sugar-beet growers were subsidized by their national governments to help ravaged countries get back on their feet. That worked, but once industrialization kicked in and production levels reached the stratosphere, they had an excess. The answer was to export that food, but the subsidies had the effect of artificially lowering prices: British sugar farmers could sell their goods in global markets and undercut the competition. This was good news for Europeans, but terrible news for sugar producers like Zambia. Farmers were locked into subsistence, or decided to turn away from the foods that they were naturally able to produce in favor of other products.

Powerful nations continue to subsidize their farmers and distort global markets even as the WTO has forced weaker countries to drop protections. In 2020, the US spent $37 billion on such subsidies, a number that has ballooned under the last two years of the Trump administration. Europe, meanwhile, spends $65 billion each year.

Patel and Montenegro point out that much of the populist political chaos of recent years has been a result of the trade turmoil—industrial jobs lost to outsourcing, and rural protests in the US and Europe by people angry at the prospect of rebalancing a deck that has been stacked in their favor for decades.

We have built systems that don’t just widen the gap between rich and poor but make the distance unassailable.

Donald Trump, they write, “was never honest about ditching free trade,” but “the social power he stirred up in the Heartland was real. Invoking the abominations of outsourced jobs, rural depression, and lost wages, he tapped in to neoliberal dysfunction and hitched the outrage to authoritarian rule.”

All this leaves us with a bleak picture of what’s next. We have built systems that don’t just widen the gap between rich and poor but make the distance unassailable. Climate change, competition for resources, and urbanization will produce more conflict. And economic inequality, both at home and abroad, means the numbers of hungry people are more likely to rise than fall. 

A golden age, but not for everyone

So are there any answers? Can starvation ever be ended? Can we head off the approaching food and water wars?

The countless books about the food system over the past few years make it clear: solutions are easy to lay out and extraordinarily complicated to enact. 

First steps might include helping farmers in poor countries out of the trap they are in by enabling them to grow more food and sell it at competitive prices. Such a strategy would mean not only providing the tools to modernize—such as better equipment, seed, or stock—but also reducing the tariffs and subsidies that make their hard work so unsustainable (the WTO has attempted to make progress on this front). The World Food Program, for all its plaudits, needs to be part of that kind of answer—not just an org chart plugging hungry mouths with emergency rations, but a force that helps rebalance this off-kilter system. 

And food itself needs to be more environmentally sound, employing fewer tricks that increase yields at the expense of the wider ecology. No more farming oases set up in bone-dry deserts; no more Salton Seas.This is difficult, but climate change may force us to do some of it regardless. 

All of this means recognizing that the golden age of farming wasn’t a golden age for everybody, and that our future may look different from what we have become used to. If so, that future might be better for those who go hungry today, and maybe for the planet as a whole. It may be hard to reckon with, but our spectacular global food system isn’t what will stop people from starving—it’s exactly why they starve in the first place. 

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47 days ago
Warsaw, Poland
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The Secretive Prisons That Keep Migrants Out of Europe

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Use precise geolocation data. Actively scan device characteristics for identification. Store and/or access information on a device. Personalised ads and content, ad and content measurement, audience insights and product development.

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48 days ago
Warsaw, Poland
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Green ammonia electrolysis breakthrough could finally kill Haber-Bosch

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Scientists at Australia's Monash University claim to have made a critical breakthrough in green ammonia production that could displace the extremely dirty Haber-Bosch process, with the potential to eliminate nearly two percent of global greenhouse emissions.

Ammonia is one of the most heavily-produced industrial chemicals in the world, and absolutely vital to modern society. Currently, the majority of ammonia is used as an agricultural fertilizer, but it's also used in plastics, fibers, explosives, pharmaceuticals and other areas.

The global ammonia industry pumps out upwards of 230 million tonnes of ammonia annually, and demand may be set to rise as the race to net zero emissions progresses; ammonia stores so much energy that it's being proposed as a high-density green fuel for hard-to-decarbonize sectors like shipping and aviation.

Virtually all the ammonia produced today is made using the Haber-Bosch cycle. Natural methane gas is used to produce hydrogen (releasing six tons of carbon dioxide for every 1.1 tons of hydrogen), then this hydrogen is reacted with atmospheric nitrogen to produce ammonia, typically burning more natural gas to provide the necessary heat and pressure for the reaction.

Not only does this result in an estimated 1.8 percent of global CO2 emissions, it's also responsible for nitrate pollution of ground water and puts vast amounts of dangerous nitrous oxide emissions into the atmosphere. Not to mention, it consumes between three to five percent of global natural gas production totals, and the gas extraction process itself spews methane emissions directly into the air, where it acts as an extremely potent greenhouse gas.

Long story short, Haber-Bosch has to be put to bed if we're to get to net zero emissions. And researchers at Monash University say they've more or less stumbled upon a way to remove natural gas from the equation altogether, while still producing ammonia "at room temperature, at high, practical rates and efficiency."

While working on a separate project attempting to make bleach out of salt water through electrolysis, Dr. Bryan Suryanto was working with Professor Doug MacFarlane, an expert on phosphonium salts, and decided to run some side experiments to see if these ionic liquids could be used to produce ammonia in an electrolytic process. To everyone's surprise, they could.

“To be honest, the eureka moment was not really ‘Eureka!’, it was more like, ‘Are you sure? I think you need to do that again,’” Professor MacFarlane says. “It takes a long time to really believe it. I don’t know that we’ve yet really had a proper celebration. The launch of our spin-out company will possibly be the time that we genuinely celebrate all of this.”

The process, says collaborator Dr. Alexandr Simonov, is "very similar to what happens in a water electrolyzer to produce hydrogen – the difference being that we use electrolytes that are familiar in the lithium battery world. When current is applied across an electrolytic cell containing such electrolytes and also dissolved nitrogen gas, a compound called lithium nitride (Li₃N) is found at the cathode surface. The electrolyte should also contain a carrier of the hydrogen ions, or protons ... [in our paper] we have shown that phosphonium salts can act as such proton carriers to produce ammonia in a highly efficient manner."

When the hydrogen ions arrive at the cathode, they displace the lithium atoms in each lithium nitride molecule, creating NH₃ – or ammonia. This is released from the cathode surface and captured. "The phosphonium cycles between the two electrodes," says Simonov, "delivering its protons at the cathode, and being replenished with a fresh proton at the anode, creating a continuous process that we can run for as much as four days."

The process is as clean as the electricity used to power it, and produces around 53 nanomoles of ammonia per second, at Faradaic efficiencies around 69 percent. The highest reported previous efficiencies for ammonia electrolysis sat around 60 percent, according to Hollevoat et al. in 2020, with the exception of one other lithium cycling approach that managed around 88 percent, but required high temperatures around 450 °C (842 °F).

The team says it's massively scalable, capable of operating either at industrial scale, or in extremely small on-site operations. "They can be as small as a thick iPad," says MacFarlane, "and that could make a small amount of ammonia continuously to run a commercial greenhouse or hydroponics setup, for example."

This kind of distributed production model, as we explored looking at FuelPositive's modular, container-sized ammonia production units, would have additional benefits in that it would eliminate the distribution and transport that contribute significantly to the financial and emissions costs of the current ammonia model. The advantage of this new process is that it's a single step, not requiring a hydrogen electrolysis process earlier in the chain. Presumably this will make it more energy-efficient, yielding more ammonia per unit of renewable energy.

The team has patented the technology and spun off a business, Jupiter Ionics, to commercialize it, drawing in a seed round of US$1.8 million to get things started.

We'd be interested to know what the cost is going to look like, as well as what goes into these specific phosphonium salts, how long the salt solutions will last under constant production conditions, what the process for replacing them and disposing of them will be, and whether there are any negative environmental issues to be considered in their production.

Still, Haber-Bosch needs to die, and if this Jupiter Ionics technology can help put a fork in it, the world will be better off.

The research is published in the journal Science. Check out a short video below.

New Research from the Monash Ammonia Project

Sources: Monash University, Jupiter Ionics

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52 days ago
Warsaw, Poland
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