It's time to work out which green belt land we should build on

A house under construction. More of this, please. Image: Getty Images.

Let's get one thing straight: Britain is going to build on its green belts.

Over the next 15 years, government projections suggest, London and the surrounding counties need to build around 1.8 million extra houses. Brownfield sites could hold perhaps 600,000 of them. And that, incidentally, is if we include flood plains, contaminated land, bits of back garden, the lot.

So – let's just accept that the green belt is up for grabs and ask: which bits of it?

Barney Stringer, a director of regeneration specialist Quod, has decided to help us answer that question. He’s painstakingly mapped every site in London's Metropolitan Green belt that lies within a 10 minute walk of an existing station. He then excluded all areas designated as areas of outstanding natural beauty, ancient woodland, nature reserves, and so on.

What was left, he wrote on his blog this morning, was "nearly 20,000 hectares of accessible green belt in and around London". Around 2,850 of them are within Greater London. Here’s a map.

Now, Stringer himself is at pains to stress that not all of these sites should be developed: the land he’s identified includes a number of valuable local parks, not to mention Epsom Downs race course.

But it also includes golf courses, farmland, and ugly blank spaces that don't really serve any purpose at all. Look at the areas surrounding the Central Line loop, to the north east of London: there is no reason not to build there, except for the fact that we never have. "People struggling to afford adequate housing," Stringer writes, "might quite reasonably feel a sense of moral outrage at the sight of tubes and trains busy serving fields and golf courses".

Surrey, incidentally, has more land covered by golf courses than it does by housing.

Building next to stations will only get you so far, of course. Let's assume, to pluck a figure out of the air, that just a third of the land identified above is suitable for housing. At average outer London population densities of 3,900 people per square kilometre, it could provide homes for another 260,000 people.

That's a lot – but it's nowhere near enough. What’s more, just because an area has a tube station, that doesn't mean it has enough road capacity or schools. If we're really going to fix this mess, we also need to build on brownfield land, and employ 'intensification' strategies (that is, packing more people into our existing urban areas).

But, as Stringer asks in his blog:

"Should accessible land (expensively served by subsidised public transport) be so carefully protected from providing people with much-needed homes? This isn’t a question that can be solved in the abstract... The truth is some land should be protected, some shouldn’t, and we ought to ask ourselves: are the boundaries we’ve drawn (often many decades ago), still exactly correct in every case?"

It’s difficult to see how the answer to that question can be anything but ‘no’. Not all green belt land looks like the North Downs.

 
 
 
 

The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.