Improving the UK rail network, improves the Environment

Higher taxes on the most polluting forms of transport (such as car, air travel, and shipping) should be used to subsidise infrastructure and greener alternatives. It is important that a balance involving the economic cost of a tax increase, versus the damage to the environment is made a priority by policymakers.

That being said, it is clear to see some infrastructure improvements currently in progress on the UK rail network do not go far enough, with some even scrapped altogether (the HS2 Eastern Leg).

What needs to happen
The government needs to invest in UK rail infrastructure (new rolling stock, re-opening of branch lines closed by the Beeching axe of the 1960s) the modernisation/reduction of fares (this has begun and is a positive), and nationalisation of underperforming routes. Such policies if implemented effectively will have the effect of reducing car traffic, and in turn reducing emissions, particularly in more built-up areas. Good progress has and is being made. Some of this is current, some yet to be implemented.

The economic benefits of a joined-up rail infrastructure are extensive. The East West Rail estimates the area’s economic output could lose out by around £93 billion each year without major intervention to address the lack of suitable housing and poor east-west connectivity (East West Railway Company, 2021). What this points to is an increase in government spending is needed on these new infrastructure projects.

The current infrastructure additions
Some infrastructure additions do not go far enough. One of those arguably has to be the East-West Railway, which is currently in construction and is set to be completed in 2030. The line will not be electrified, which means diesel-powered trains will be operating on the line when it opens in 2030. This is illogical as the UK has committed to reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions to net-zero by 2050.

As the Bedford and Kempston MP Mohammad Yasin states “If he (the chancellor) is serious, this week of COP 26 is a good opportunity to commit to the new East-West Rail line being electrified from day one to avoid the need for diesel locomotives and the future costs of retrofitting”.

He has a point, the cost of electrifying admittedly older lines such as the great western mainline has been put at £2.8bn. This is not to mention that electric trains are more reliable and less damaging to track and other infrastructure.

Fitting gantries at a later date means line closures to fit components in tunnels and clearing vegetation to make way for gantries. The case for electrification whilst constructing the railway is sound. Making the investment now will prevent passenger delays and extensive costs later on.

The eastern leg of HS2 (phase 2b) has been scrapped, with HS2 trains now set to run on existing upgraded routes that are already at or near full capacity. To make matters worse they will be operating at nowhere near their designed speed on these lines.

Another setback to the project is the speed on the main HS2 line looks set to be reduced from 248mph to somewhere near 205mph, possibly even further. The frequency of the trains has also been stepped back (Badshah, 2023).

Efficiency
Short-termism and short-sightedness are plaguing large infrastructure projects like this. Governments often only see five years in the future. The reaction to increased home working as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has led many to doubt whether rail capacity will ever increase to pre-pandemic levels.

This is a mistake, the UK population is projected to grow by 2.1 million over the ten years to mid-2030, with England’s population expected to increase more quickly then the other UK nations (Robards, 2022). The ability reliable rail travel has to take cars off the road is well documented (Timperley, 2019).

What is to be done?
Electrification should start as soon as possible across the whole of East-West rail. Other electrification projects should be considered on other lines across the UK network as a priority. Doing this now not only helps the UK meet climate targets but it will keep future costs down, and increases service reliability.

References
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2023/feb/07/hs2-ministers-to-cut-services-and-speeds-to-drive-down-costs-reports-say

East West Rail must be ‘electrified from day one’ says project promoter

https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-59334043

https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationprojections/bulletins/nationalpopulationprojections/2020basedinterim

Where will our food come from?

As politicians talk big on the climate, one issue that all nations seem unable to grapple with, is that of food supply. Where will our food come from?

This question is of huge concern because the quantity of food actually demanded at present, and is only a fraction of what will be demanded (needed) in the future. The UN estimates that the world’s population is expected to increase by 2 billion persons in the next 30 years, from 7.7 billion currently to 9.7 billion in 2050.

At present population growth and climate change are the current and most likely issues to place continual stress on the food system in the long run. As these stresses continue to increase, the cost to the consumer increases.

Other sharp shocks can do significant damage to food systems, such as pandemics (COVID-19) and conflict (the Russian invasion of Ukraine). Both, have the potential to be more common occurrences in the decades to come with the environmental pressures brought on by climate change.

The short-run effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have largely been felt on warehouses and supermarket shelves. On the other end, the problems are not quite so obvious and are brewing.

Environmental issues: Soil and food production
That other end is the production of food, with approximately a third of the world’s soil degraded, and this could rise to 90% by 2050 without action.

To feed 10 billion people we will need 56% more food to be produced globally

The causes of soil degradation vary, the main issues globally are desertification, climate change, the loss of biodiversity and population growth. However, pollution, run-off, erosion, and incorrect agriculture usage also contribute.

Population Growth
Along with other interconnected issues that affect food production. Human society is faced with a historically unique period of population growth, due to a dramatic decline in death rates coupled with constant fertility rates in much of the world. Population growth today consists of lower morality but high birth rates.

This has undoubtedly led to a huge increase in food being demanded in a short period of time, as fertile land decreases.

At present, the demand for food has seen agricultural land expand with the logging of forests and clearance of swamps.

This competition for usable land directly causes environmental issues such as insufficient biodiversity and increasing climate change.

On the one hand, Controls on population growth are desperatly needed in order to sustain the planet but the controls will result in a downturn of the current economic system. The current economic system relies on younger people and exponential growth to contribute to pay retirees pensions.

The impact of Conflict: the Russian invasion of Ukraine
Conflict places its own unique stress on food systems. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has placed increased strain on a food system still creaking due to the effects of the COVID pandemic.

Ukraine is known as being the breadbasket of the world (The Economist, 2022). Whilst this conflict has no climate/environmental origins more conflict will arise due to environmental degradation.

Foreign policy argues that conflict will be less the direct kind but that climate change and environmental degradation will play a significant role in fueling tensions—particularly in conditions of resource scarcity—by compounding existing political, socioeconomic, and security risks (Foreign Policy, 2022).

What we know is there are some troubling times ahead in terms of politics, policy, and migration.

Manufactured food and technology
Manufactured food provides some theoretical solutions to many of these problems. Lab grown meat and plant food can be manufactured but we do not know if these solutions would be better for the environment until mass production is well under way.

Mass production is by extremely energy and resource intensive. As a solution to this crisis it is limited in scope.

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) specifies four dimensions of food security. These are food availability, food access, food stability and food use/utilisation.

New, existing, and emerging technologies can address the four dimensions of food security. For example, genetic modification, methods for improving soil fertility, and irrigation technologies can increase food availability (UNCTAD, 2017).

The solutions
Population control – This requires unpopular measures such as the very direct taxation on family sizes or indirect methods of discouraging citizens from having families. Through behavioural instruments for example.

Population control means ending growth, capitalist systems require population growth. Pension systems need a continual supply of younger workers to pay for the pensioners of today. Therefore, population growth requires an upending of capitalism to replace it with another system. A big task!

Technology – Investment in food technology provides some solutions. A lot less land is needed now than in the past to grow the same amount of food, efficiency gains are also far greater. Look at the use of the mechanical plough and in the 21st century drone technology to conduct yield analysis.

Technology offers a lot of potential in terms of increasing yields, shrinking resource usage, and reducing post-harvest losses. It also presents risks, as often the most fertile land identified by scanning technologies is land used as forest or wildlife ecosystems.

Diet changes also have the potential to offer part of a solution to the issue. This has not been discussed above but I bring it into solutions as diet changes are very important to solving this crisis.

Consuming insects instead of meat is one option pre-covid that was pretty much very intensely discussed in food circles and researched on this blog. It provides one option of increasing food supply. However, over consumption is a real risk and most countries already suffer issues with lack of diversity and fewer insects. Consumption of insects will be unsustainable in the long run and place strain on other parts of the food system.

Avoiding meat and dairy reduces global emissions, which has the possibility to in turn increase food supply indirectly. Vegetarian and vegan diets are growing in popularity often due to health benefits. The catch here are that vegetarian/vegan diets need to be balanced to make sure the correct nutrients are being consumed so as to avoid malnutrition.

It is important to state that nearly all of the above options to policymakers to increase food supply are only able to be enacted by richer countries.

One thing we do know is that our supermarket shelves will continue to look sparse. Richer countries need to work through and together with NGOs and international organisations in order to guarantee future food security, without this, the question of where will our food come from, will evolve to become where can we find food.

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Biblography and sources of interest

Askew, K. (2017) Population growth ‘a threat to food quality’ [Online]. Available at https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2017/11/10/Population-growth-a-threat-to-food-quality (Accessed 5 September 2022).

Davies, L. (2022) ‘Millions at risk in South Sudan as Ukraine war forces slashing of aid’, The Guardian, 14th June [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/jun/14/millions-at-risk-in-south-sudan-as-ukraine-war-forces-slashing-of-aid-world-food-programme (Accessed 24 June 2022).

Harter, F. (2022) ‘“Marching towards starvation”: UN warns of hell on earth if Ukraine war goes on’, The Guardian, 17th June [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/jun/17/united-nations-wfp-hell-on-earth-ukraine-war-russia (Accessed 24 June 2022).

Holmes, O. (2022) ‘US announces plan to build silos on Ukraine border to export grain’, The Guardian, 15th June [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jun/15/us-build-silos-ukraine-border-export-grain-food-prices (Accessed 24 June 2022).

http://encyclopedia.uia.org/en/problem/unsustainable-population-levels (n.d.) Unsustainable population levels | The Encyclopedia of World Problems [Online]. (Accessed 18 November 2021).

Live, A. P. N. (2018) ‘Desertification, Land Degradation, Drought cost India 2.54% of its GDP in 2014-15: Teri study – APN Live’, APN News [Online]. Available at https://www.apnlive.com/desertification-land-degradation-drought-cost-india-2-54-of-its-gdp-in-2014-15-teri-study/ (Accessed 18 November 2021).

Michael Fakhri and Sofia Monsalve (2017) ‘Ukraine helps feed the world – but its farmers, seeds and future are in danger’, The Guardian [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/jun/13/ukraine-farmers-seed-food-crisis (Accessed 24 June 2022).

Monbiot, G. (n.d.) The banks collapsed in 2008 – and our food system is about to do the same | George Monbiot | The Guardian [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/may/19/banks-collapsed-in-2008-food-system-same-producers-regulators (Accessed 19 May 2022).

Morris, M. (2022) ‘Where will our food come from? | MatthewAshley.co.uk’, [Online]. Available at https://matthewashley.co.uk/?p=5429&preview=true (Accessed 28 August 2022).

Ranganathan, J., Waite, R., Searchinger, T. and Hanson, C. (2018) ‘How to Sustainably Feed 10 Billion People by 2050, in 21 Charts’, [Online]. Available at https://www.wri.org/insights/how-sustainably-feed-10-billion-people-2050-21-charts (Accessed 5 September 2022).

The Economist (n.d.) ‘The coming food catastrophe’, The Economist [Online]. Available at https://www.economist.com/leaders/2022/05/19/the-coming-food-catastrophe (Accessed 22 May 2022).

The Encyclopedia, of World Problems, and & Human Potential (n.d.) ‘The role of science, technology and innovation in ensuring food security by 2030’, p. 55.

Tisdall, S. (2022) ‘Apocalypse now? The alarming effects of the global food crisis’, The Observer, 21st May [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/may/21/apocalypse-now-the-alarming-effects-of-the-global-food-crisis (Accessed 22 May 2022).

New Year, New role

I hope everyone has had a Merry Christmas and a Happy start to the New Year.

In November, I began a role with Citizens Advice Broxbourne as a Researcher and Campaigner. Whilst not directly advising clients or being able to see the impact I am having directly. My work is helping to change and fix problems in the community and will hopefully in the long run make it a better place to live, work and play.

I have been really excited to get going. Research has always been a big interest of mine. More so the international level during my studies, however, over the last few years I have become more interested in the local and national. The local has come ever more important as the issues that people face, particularly those without power (the marginalised) have increased greatly in recent times.

In addition, being able to campaign is something new to me but it is an incredibly powerful tool to force change. I look forward to honing that particular skill and using my skillset to benefit the residents of Broxbourne.

I will update my blog as much as I can with the social policy issues and campaigns that I am undertaking with Citizens Advice. In that role, I am politically neutral. Here of course I will be representing myself.

I understand some viewers may think I have disappeared completely, particularly judging from when I last posted! I apologise. I really have to keep this updated.

Hope everyone is well during these unsettling times. The pandemic has taken its toll on everyone. Keep safe all, look after your mental health. Get out and get lots of fresh air 🙂

Is the free market the barrier to solving social problems or the remedy?

Despite what we hear in the news media the free market (less government intervention) does not practically exist. However, that does not deter commentators discussing the negatives and positives of the so-called free market that democratic countries seemingly operate in.

Whilst economically protectionist policies (more government intervention) can have detrimental effects in the markets (countries) they are implemented in, they also can serve to work to the advantage of a trading economy.

Matthew’s sliding market economy scale 🙂

In reality, economies of all major trading blocks and nations are best described as being on a sliding scale, with more open economies (less barriers) the UK be considered one, to more planned economies (increased barriers) North Korea at the extreme end.

It is important to keep in mind that despite what is perpetuated on the news and by commentators, the “free market” does not actually exist in reality, and is more theoretical. In practice, all markets in the world are mixed economics.

It is also important to remember that the economy is connected and not independent of other aspects of the world, like the environment, health and future well-being. Economics degrees at some universities are rigid and dictate that economies are separable. However, the work that groups such as rethinking economics is doing to change economic curriculums is outstanding.

The Social Problem and the 2019 General Election
In the 2019 UK General Election this falsehood continued to be perpetuated. The Labour party pushed the narrative that the free market is detrimental to the UK by pushing for more government intervention, through renationalisation and much tighter regulation of the way business operates (Elliot, cited in The Guardian, 2019).

The Labour party focused on its big selling points in its manifesto; free broadband, free adult learning, free dental care, the biggest council house building in a decade, abolishing tuition fees and the establishment of maintenance grants (Elliot, cited in The Guardian, 2019). None of which are bad socially, although how effective a policy of free broadband is questionable (how would the market correct itself in the case of a market failure?). For example, if the sole free broadband provider begun to experience severe technical issues, then where does that leave its customers?

Freer markets as a solution to societal issues
So, why do those who advocate for free markets, or shall we say “freer” markets think of them as solution to all manner of society’s problems?

Solving the societal issues with less intervention
Let us go back to a definition of what a “free market” is, Britannica defines one as:
An unregulated system of economic exchange, in which taxes, quality controls, quotas, tariffs, and other forms of centralized economic interventions by government either do not exist or are minimal (Orlitzky, 2018).

Many economists hold that no one can be made better off without making other individuals worse off, (like the absence of externalities or informational asymmetries, among others) (Orlitzy, 2018).

According to this theory, the indivisible-hand mechanism of self-regulating behaviour, society benefits by having self-interested actors make free economic decisions that benefit them (Orlitzy, 2018).

Many arguments are put forward for using increasingly freer markers with less regulation for solving social issues. From homelessness to climate change, or the quality and safety of council homes.

Indeed, the desire for freer markets can go full circle and begin to adopt protectionist elements. Some advocates for less government intervention in markets, are in favour of the UK leaving the European Union. Such an exit no matter what the end deal is, does lead to a scenario where additional trading barriers are put up with the UK’s largest and closest trading partner.

The advantages of freer markets: Innovation
There are many advantages of freer markets, however, I have decided to focus on one area for clarity and to keep this article concise.

Freer markets are advantageous in that they can provide freedom to innovate more easily. This is probably the strongest argument for less government intervention in markets in the 21st century. A lot of social problems are the result of the lack of innovation.

Depicting the effect of a negative externality and market failure

Without innovation we would not have had steam engine technology or information technology, which has opened markets, created new business models and connected those disadvantaged and excluded from society.

The disadvantages of freer markets: Market Failure

The disadvantages of freer markets are numerous, from profit being the motive for success, market failure, and equality not always equating to equal opportunity. I have selected the one disadvantage that I believe to be most pressing. A free market requires consumption to survive, and it requires this a at unsustainable level, in a finite world.

As the COVID-19 pandemic is proving if people stop spending instead of spending on goods and services a freer market will struggle to stay alive.

Freer markets require spending and production, which consumes vast amounts of natural resources. Freer markets can contribute to increases in pollution, however, they can through emission trading schemes also be used to cut emissions, with intervention! (Such as the European Union’s ETS scheme).

You can see that issues are not black and white and a combination of intervention and freer markets’, work together to achieve targets rather than orthodoxy.

Shifting the sliding scale: Freer markets in the age of Brexit and COVID 19
The challenge the UK faces at present with Brexit and COVID 19 poses significant challenges.

The UK’s withdrawal from the European Union is bringing with it a huge number of unintended/unseen consequences.
The proponents of the UK leaving the European Union argued that a free trade deal negotiated with the European Union would more advantageous than membership itself.

However, the pursuit for freer trade has led to an increase of trade friction (through being a third country) with Department for International Trade officials to advising British business to form EU-based companies to circumvent border issues.

This is an example of an unintended consequence of leaving the European Union, it could be argued however, this was forecast. What this shows is the pursuit for freer markets can in fact have the opposite effect.

COVID 19 poses a significant economic and social threat globally. There is no doubt that economic competition in the pursuit of self-interest between various large pharmaceutical companies aided the rapid development of vaccines. However, those private sector achievements were only matched by public sector intervention.

In Conclusion
This article is not comprehensive but does bring key points to the fore.

Both interventionism and non-interventionism in markets have drawbacks. What this article shows is that the trade-offs have undesirable outcomes, which is too damaging for a country to go one way over the other.

For this reason, countries deploy a mixture of the two. The COVID 19 pandemic is one such example with many large economies intervening in markets to bail out businesses and support citizens.

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My four years using Ubuntu

This post has been a long time coming. I have always intended to write a post on how fantastic Ubuntu was, why I like using it, and why I believe it is miles better than any version of Windows. Especially, Windows 10 if you value privacy and usability highly.

Ubuntu is a free open-source operating system a flavour of Linux, which means anyone can see, test and edit the code. Whereas Windows and MacOS are closed source and propriety.

Since my early college days when I first heard of the new(ish) Ubuntu project and seeing how it functioned, I was intrigued.

Back then installing Ubuntu 6 was tricky work, but I had ordered the free CDs and distributed them around college. Including one to a very interested technician in the IT department, I did have a play around with it on an old system but I found the learning curve a bit steep back then. The operating system was also more complex than the current versions today.

Ubuntu 16.04 LTS – Which was released in 2016

Then came 2016

I had started a masters and could not get work completed on my old iPad. I made an investment in a laptop built by PCSpecialist, the Lafite 2. You can choose to have an operating pre-installed, but I knew I had to have Ubuntu.

From that point forwards, I have had no other operating system but Ubuntu on my laptop since purchasing it at the end of 2016.

The experience has been one of learning and simple amazement. Installing Ubuntu 16.04 was much simpler. The install process was much more of a breeze than I experienced back in 2006.

The lock-upsand blue screens of death of Windows no longer occurred. The overall stability and reliability of the operating system was astonishing.

Usability had vastly improved from the previous version of Ubuntu I had used. The unity desktop environment and particularly the heads-up display, saved me time whether it was file searching or looking for that app I installed. There was a learning curve, especially with regards to the Linux terminal but it was not too steep. I was able to download and install iPlayer videos and use software such as Zotero referencing very easily.

Since then, I have upgraded to Ubuntu 18.10, 19.04, 19.10 and most recently as of April version 20.04.

One of the big things about using Ubuntu over other Linux distros for me is the community. Including the extensive support and information available on the internet.

Anytime I broke something, wanted to customise something, or wanted to install an app, a simple search online revealed all and the Ubuntu community helped no end.

Then came 20.04

An Ubuntu version like no other!

That is not to say 16.04 was not great (the first distribution I used) it’s just 20.04 polished over an exceptionally smooth product 😊

First, there was the boot up time (major improvement) over 16.04. It is something I noticed right away. Small performance improvements which mean apps load even faster.

Second, the new icons, fewer clicks between important functions, night light.

Third, snaps. I am still on the fence about this but I think this will improve in time and aid how apps are installed. I rarely download apps from the Ubuntu store, I prefer to go to the source anyway.

I may have missed something. I will add it in if I remember. Overall, everything in Ubuntu just works. Word processing, web browsing and emailing. I only go back to my Windows desktop for gaming.

I still do miss the unity heads up display, though, I understand it was rarely used.

As Ubuntu 20.10 is due to be released next week, I can only see yet more improvements.

I will not be installing 20.10 as it is not a long-term release (LTS). Ubuntu releases long term stable versions every three years, with new features in point releases that are supported for 9 months.

Here’s to more Ubuntuing! 🤓