On a recent road trip to Scotland, Kent Barker and Susan McFie were on the lookout for a changing environmental landscape and to see if the UK government’s carbon neutral plans could outpace Extinction Rebellion’s worst fears?

You don’t have to move far from the sea air of Hastings to encounter dire pollution levels. Heading north through London, particulate levels along the main roads consistently breach legal limits. Local residents of Greenwich are campaigning against moves to force more traffic onto them by closing ‘rat runs’ which they say will worsen the problem and simply move pollution from middle class streets to less affluent ones. 

Too Clean For Fish?

Further north we camp by a pub on the river Trent near Newark. The water here looks both serene and clean.  Since pre-industrial times the river has been noted for its impressive diversity including around 30 species of fish. Researchers in the 1980s reported around 40 species. Then in 2009 thousands of fish were killed in the Trent by illegal discharge of sewage and cyanide. Expensive clean up operations were implemented but fish stocks remain critically low. Anglers complain that the lack of fish is due to the river being too clean. However, in 2020 there were reports of raw sewage being allowed to flow into the Trent and other waterways for thousands of hours each year harming fish and other wildlife. There were 200,000 such incidents in 2019. It seems that cleanliness may not be the real problem here. Meanwhile, a small herd of free-range cattle wander down to the river for their evening drink creating a pastoral scene reminiscent of a Constable painting. 

The River Trent at Newark
CREDIT: S McFie

Leaking Pandora’s Box

Back in the 1970s the Ferrybridge coal fired power station seemed
a dystopian nightmare. Eight humungous cooling towers belched clouds of steam while tall chimneys spewed soot and Co2 into the atmosphere. Passing by now we’re amazed to find all but three towers demolished and most of the plant closed. The remaining towers are burning mixed fuels including biomass. Current emissions are hard to ascertain. An experimental carbon capture plant was constructed but never used, though expanding this process is government policy. No-one seems to know if the technology will actually work or if the gasses will eventually leak from their underground storage in some sort of catastrophic Pandora paradox.

We cross the Pennines via the now infamously myopic Barnard Castle and stunningly beautiful Swaledale. Here nature is rampant and there’s scant evidence of environmental damage.  But hill farmers anxiously await details of replacement EU subsidies. What more can they do to improve their environment in order to get the new grants?  Onwards, and driving round the Lakes makes you ever conscious of the damage vehicles and people are doing to the environment. At Derwent Water a Red Arrows flight screams overhead. Can we continue to justify this waste of fuel and Co2 on such displays?

A Dangerous Legacy

Moving on to Cumbria and its unfortunate associations with Sellafield and the 1957 nuclear disaster. A uranium fire at the site burned for three days resulting in radioactive contamination of both people and environment. The incident is still rated as one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents. Sellafield remains Europe’s largest nuclear complex. The reactor has been closed but the fuel reprocessing plant is still very much up and running.  Trouble is, no-one has yet found a long-term solution for the daily increasing radioactive waste from the current reactors, let alone those the government plans as part of its net zero programme.  Best option – possibly only option – is to bury it.  Perhaps along with the captured carbon? And there would be a great deal more of that if Cumbria County Council’s plans for a massive new coal mine to produce coking coal for steel production were to go ahead. Just what sort of legacy are we leaving for future generations?

As in other areas of outstanding beauty around the UK, northern Scotland and the Isles are struggling to cope with the sudden influx of staycation tourism

Scotland’s First UNESCO Biosphere

Over the border and up through the vast and unpopulated Galloway forest where campers – even in a van – make a tasty meal for midges.  Scotland can lay claim to some of the darkest skies in Europe and the Galloway Forest is one of the darkest parts of Scotland. We would have been able to view over 7,000 stars and planets visible to the naked eye were it not for the clouds of midges. In fact at this time of year, in good weather, the sky doesn’t get really dark until after midnight and begins to get light around 4am. Here trees contentedly suck in carbon whilst a forest of wind turbines provides clean energy. A sign announces we’re in ‘Scotland’s first UNESCO Biosphere’. “Galloway and Southern Ayrshire has been recognised internationally as a world class environment for people and nature.” According to UNESCO, a biosphere is a place of co-operation and collaboration” showing that “a sustainable way of living is not only possible but already happening”. And to be fair there were signs of growing ‘eco-awareness’ in many places we visited, including campsites and restaurants.

Arriving at the little port at Wemyss Bay we were greatly disappointed that ferry passengers were not allowed to leave their vehicles. Absurdly, you see nothing of the beautiful, 30-minute journey over the sea to Bute, a 14-mile long island at the mouth of the Clyde. Thousands of Glaswegians used to pour into Rothesay on summer trips. Without them the town has faded rather, but still retains a quiet charm not entirely unlike Hastings in miniature.  It doesn’t take long to explore the island with its stunning verdant views and crystal clear seas. If climate change poses an existential threat, there’s little sign of it here.  Perhaps the most damage is being done by the increase in tourism. As in other areas of outstanding beauty around the UK, northern Scotland and the Isles are struggling to cope with the sudden influx of staycation tourism.

Is nuclear power the solution?
CREDIT: K Barker

 Net Zero Disconnect

A news report announces a major disconnect between the Government’s net zero aspirations and the reality of what’s actually happening. It certainly seems like it as you travel the length of the land. Are we really going to abandon our internal combustion vehicles for electric ones within a decade?  Anyway, where will the clean electricity come from to charge them? Plans for massive cables under the North Sea to Norway to balance out sustainable supply and demand seem frankly fanciful. People are still installing new gas and oil central heating boilers on Bute as everywhere else. Heat pumps are out of most people’s price range and, anyway, require very large amounts of clean electricity to run them. It looks like a long road ahead to sustainability.


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