On one thing, Daniel Hannan is right: Great Britain is not a small island on any measure

The largest islands on earth. Gotta catch ’em all! Image: Wikimedia Commons.

“Eurocrats, keep telling me that Britain is a ‘small island’” Daniel Hannan tweeted the other day. “In what sense? We’re the fifth biggest economy in the world, the fourth military power and a UN Security Council member. If we’re ‘small’, what are the big islands? Sumatra? Borneo?”

This was a characteristically ill-considered and, frankly, stupid tweet from the Conservative MEP, and not a little annoying, since he’d done so much to bugger up the island in question. For one thing, “Britain” isn’t any of the things he listed: he’s mixing up the United Kingdon of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (which is a nation state, an economy, a military power and so on) with Great Britain (which is an island, of some size or another, and not called, simply, “Britain”). For another, given Hannan’s history of, let us say, existing at something of an angle to actual, real reality, I’m not entirely convinced that Eurocrats keep telling him any such thing.

And then there’s this rather good point from the escaped Labour advisor Tom Hamilton:

On one point, though, Hannan is completely correct: Great Britain, as we must assume that he means, is not a small island. It is, national myth-making aside, one of the biggest islands on the planet.

Here’s a list of the world’s largest islands:

1. Greenland (part of the Danish realm) – 2,130,800km2 Greenland (part of the Danish realm)

2. New Guinea (Indonesia/Papua New Guinea) – 785,753km2

3. Borneo (Indonesia/Malaysia/Brunei) – 748,168km2    

4. Madagascar – 587,041km2  

5. Baffin Island (Canada) – 507,451km2

6. Sumatra (Indonesia) – 443,066km2

7. Honshu (Japan) – 225,800km2

8. Victoria Island (Canada) – 217,291km2

9. Great Britain (UK) – 209,331km2

10. Ellesmere Island (Canada) – 196,236km2

The largest island on the planet is generally considered to be Greenland. (Most observers assume that that mainland Australia, four times Greenland’s size, counts as a continent.) It’s about ten times Great Britain’s size – which, when you put it like that, does indeed makes the latter seem relatively small.

Thing is, though, there are so many islands on the planet that it’s pretty much impossible to come up with a definitive figure. Do we count every isolated rock in the sea? Every man-made island in every lake in every municipal park? Greece claims to have 6,000 islands, but Sweden claims more than 225,000, which suggests to me they’re using rather different definitions. Where do you draw the line?

At any rate: even if we restrict ourselves to islands bigger than Greater London – 1,569km2; a fairly arbitrary measure for “a decent sized-place” – there are 247 of the things. Okay, Great Britain may be smaller than Greenland. But whichever way you cut it, being the ninth biggest island on the entire planet makes it a pretty significant lump of land.

On, and there are only four continental landmasses, so that makes (Great) Britain the 13th biggest landmass on the planet, too.

By population, it ranks even higher. Here are the 10 biggest islands in terms of approximate number of people living on them:

1. Java (Indonesia) – 141m

2. Honshū (Japan) – 104m

3. Great Britain (UK) – 64m

4. Luzon (Philippines) – 61m

5. Sumatra (Indonesia) – 50m

6. Madagascar – 26m

7. Mindanao (Philippines) – 25m

8. Taiwan – 23m

9. Borneo (Indonesia) – 21m

10. Sri Lanka – 21m

Great Britain is the third most populous island on the planet. And this is actually even more impressive than it sounds because, although there are four continental landmasses, one of them, mainland Australia, has a population of 24.5m, somewhere under half Great Britain’s, while Antarctica is home to almost nobody at all.

And so, the five most populated landmasses in the world are as follows:

1. Afro-Eurasia – 6bn

2. North & South America – 1bn

3. Java – 141m

4. Honshū – 104m

5. Great Britain – 64m

Okay, there’s quite a steep descent between the first and fifth place on that ranking. But nonetheless: Great Britain is the fifth most populated landmass on the planet.

Last one and then I’ll stop. I can’t find estimates for GDP of every landmass on the planet – too hard to work out the GDP of that island in the lake in Harrow Lodge Park, I assume – but I went through the most populous ones, and where figures weren’t available worked out very rough estimates based on population size.

Here’s my ranking of the world’s landmasses by the size of their economy. The figures are approximate; the rankings, I feel confident are not:

1. Afro-Eurasia – around $50trn

2. North & South America – around $25trn

3. Honshū – just under $5trn

4. Great Britain – just over $2trn

...at which point it gets difficult. Originally I had Taiwan here (somewhere around $500bn). But readers have pointed out that Taiwan has a smaller GDP than Australia ($1.3trn), and possibly Java, Manhattan and Long Island, too. So I’m going to stop at the top four.

So, on one level, Daniel Hannan was right. Great Britain is the world’s 9th largest island and 13th largest landmass; it ranks 5th when we count landmasses by population, and 4th when we count them by GDP. It is not a small place.

Nonetheless, I’m calling bullshit on his tweet for two reasons. Firstly, my suspicion is that the idea that Britain is a small, unimportant island comes from Britain itself. It’s oddly self-flattering: by emphasising our smallness, we magnify our achievements. “We’re the fifth most populated landmass on the planet, of course we’re a significant player in global affairs,” is not a message calculated to stir the heart.

The other reason I think his entire message is nonsense is that, however you measure Britain’s size – its landmass, its population, its GDP – it is a lot smaller than the combined might of the remaining 27 members of the European Union. Britain is a relatively big island. That doesn’t mean it can’t get crushed.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites


How collecting food waste could slow climate change – and save us money

Cleaning up. Image: Getty.

Food waste is a global problem, and one that’s driving climate change. Here in the UK, the country’s biodegradable waste goes to a landfill, where it breaks down to produce methane, a gas that is roughly 30 times as bad as carbon dioxide.

And yet there’s a simple solution. With the exception of garden waste, which often contains lignin from woody matter, all biodegradable materials, including much of our food waste, could instead be processed in anaerobic digesters. This decomposition in an atmosphere devoid of oxygen produces biogas, which can then be used to generate heat and electricity.

This is more or less the same process that takes place in landfill sites, except that the biogas can’t escape from an anaerobic digester as it can from landfill – meaning the breakdown of the organic matter takes place in an environment that is enclosed and controlled.

The result is biogas consisting of 60 per cent methane and 40 per cent carbon dioxide, which can be burnt in order to generate heat or used as a fuel for vehicles. It could also be used to generate electricity after the biogas has been scrubbed, which can then either power the anaerobic digester or be exported to the national grid. The process also produces digestate, a solid and liquid residue that can be returned to farmland as a soil conditioner. The amount of biogas and the quality of digestate varies according to what feedstock is used in the digester.

This process is already widely used both across Europe – particularly in Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Austria – and elsewhere globally, particularly in India and Thailand. What's more, this move towards separate food waste collection is already happening in countries outside the UK, and its momentum is increasing according to the World Biogas Association. Already, major cities, including New York, Paris, Oslo, Copenhagen, Auckland, San Francisco, Mexico City and many others are regularly collecting food waste from their citizens. The decisions to do so are usually taken at city level, but enabling legislation from national governments assist in this.

At present the UK is lagging behind. Only 109 local authorities in England, about 33 per cent of the total number, collect food waste as of May 2018, according to the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association (ADBA). Yet making a separate food waste collection mandatory across the UK and running the food waste through anaerobic digesters, could supply enough biogas to generate 36 per cent of UK electricity, according to a 2007 Friends of the Earth report. This percentage could be increased again if food waste from restaurants, cafeteria and retailers was also collected. 

ADBA’s research also suggests that universal separate household food waste collections would trigger the construction of around 80 new anaerobic digester plants for food waste processing. This would add an extra 187 megawatts equivalent (MWe) of capacity, powering 285,000 extra homes – representing all the homes in a city the size of Glasgow. Data from WRAP suggests that further food waste collection from businesses would add around a further 10 per cent, depending on the quality of the feedstock collected and what exemptions were applied (for example, it might only apply to businesses collecting more than 50 kilograms per week or the lower threshold of 5kg).

A 38 per cent improvement in food waste collection from flats in Ealing alone could generate £26,000 of annual savings for the London borough, £28,000 in revenue for a local anaerobic digester (based on electricity sales to the national grid) and reductions in carbon dioxide emissions of around 270 tonnes, found Londoners Lab, a collaborative project consisting of Greater London Authority, University College London, Ferrovial Services Centre of Excellence for Cities and Future Cities Catapult.

ADBA has been campaigning on this issue for a while, but the good news is that the government finally signalled its intention to introduce separate food waste collections in its forthcoming Resources & Waste Strategy, which will ensure that all homes and suitable businesses in England will have access to food waste collections by 2023. The next step, following the government announcement, is a consultation, but it is widely acknowledged that additional funding would be needed by local authorities to achieve this, as the business case isn’t currently strong enough.