Climate change | Blogs

  • Learning about climate change from trees

    Amanda Ross
    April 25th, 2014

    I love trees and we are all well aware of how important they are for the health of our planet.  So yesterday, I was fascinated to meet a dendrochronologist for the first time.  Dr Aster Gebrekirstos is a scientist at Erlanger University and the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi and is a specialist at interpreting climate fluctuations of the past through tree rings.

    WP_20140423_009Dr Gebrekirstos was one of two inspiring winners of the AfriCAN climate research award, which promotes the role of women in climate change research in Africa.

    Her research involves measuring the spaces between the rings of trees (cut down after they are dead) which indicate the amount of growth each year.  These show narrower rings relating to periods of drought.  Analysis of oxygen isotopes in trees shows their different reaction to carbon when under stress.

     It is vital that we are able to make informed decisions in our efforts at adaptation and mitigation of climate change.  Currently there is little data available relating to historic climate fluctuations in Africa, but the efforts of Dr Gebrekirstos will play a key role in supplying this valuable information.

    baobab treeThis research will enable tree species that are most resilient to climate change to be identified and to ensure that the right trees are planted in the right place.  This is just one of the many aspects of Climate Smart Agriculture addressed by this week’s AfriCAN climate/FANRPAN conference in Pretoria.

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  • Poverty, carbon and Sudan

    Margaret Gardner
    April 24th, 2014

    If you were to rank countries in terms of their carbon emissions, where do you think Britain and Sudan would come?

    The answer is we would come 10th and Sudan (including both Sudan and South Sudan) would come 91st. In the UK we produce  8.5 tonnes of carbon per person, Sudan just 0.3. I was therefore shocked when I read some of the comments readers left about a Guardian article on our work in Sudan, written by our own Mary Gallagher. The article talked about women, our LPG (Liquid Petroleum Gas) clean cooking project in Darfur and how we are using carbon financing to help scale it up.

    Some readers questioned whether the work is environmentally friendly – others, much more worrying to me, whether in a carbon constrained world these women should be allowed to use up precious carbon – or should be forced through lack of other options to continue to use wood as fuel.

    I visited this project in 2009 when the work on LPG was just starting.  I am tempted to write THIS IS DARFUR and ask you to imagine what it was like. In reality there was very little water and for poor people little food. The conflict meant that every time a woman left her village she faced the threat of attack. Due to deforestation there were few trees and women had to walk huge distances to collect firewood.

    One woman I spoke with talked about the pain in her neck of carrying heavy burdens  and then placed her hands over her heart and talked about the pain she felt there too (literally not figuratively). Beyond the drudgery, the possibility of assault and rape there were also issues with burning precious wood. Basically the smoke from the cooking fires can kill you –4 million people a year die as a result of indoor air pollution. You die from cancer, from chronic pulmonary disease, etc.  Young children (carried on their mums back or kept inside for safety) are particularly vulnerable.

    I care hugely about climate change but if I was to suggest who should make sacrifices to protect our planet. I wouldn’t start with these women.

    As the project progressed, word of its impact spread from woman to woman. The stoves also started to appeal to women who were just unable to collect fire wood and so were burning charcoal. Practical Action realised that there were opportunities for different forms of financing. As I said before, working for Practical Action, I wouldn’t say that these women have no right to use up some carbon – when we in richer nations use so much. But carbon financing offered a great opportunity to reach out to more women and to help them and their families. Because of positive benefits for the environment – cooking with charcoal uses twice as much carbon as cooking with LPG and the move away from wood fuel allows for the possibility of the forests starting to recover and because of the strength and determination of the women the project is flourishing.

    Reading the comments on The Guardian website, I remembered the women I met, I was also very aware that I drive a car and have a gas cooker. I wondered about the carbon usage of those people who had commented negatively – how many times the carbon usage of a woman in Darfur?

    But above all as I wrote in my comment on The Guardian website – in a very sad week in the news  I wanted above all to encourage people to rejoice – we have so little good news in our world – this truly is a positive story.

    If you would like to know more , hear one persons story, get a sense of how we are scaling up this work or even donate http://practicalaction.org/nafisa

    Sudan

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  • Adaptation: Science, pessimism and planning

    David Flint
    April 22nd, 2014

    I went to a Castle Debate on climate change earlier this month. It wasn’t – fortunately – a debate but a briefing. It was realistic, and therefore depressing.

    The consensus, based on the latest IPCC report and work by PWC, was that though it’s still POSSIBLE to keep the temperature rise below two degrees it’s likely to be four degrees. That’s not really ‘four degrees’. We’re on track for four degrees by 2100 with substantial increases thereafter. And, given the uncertainties, a likelihood of four degrees means means the possibility of five, maybe more, even by 2100.The first speaker, Dr Celine Herweijer of PWC, presented these facts and the IPCC view on impacts – falling food production, dying coral reefs, loss of summer sea ice from the Arctic. In fact the usual stuff. She also drew attention to the UK’s vulnerabilities – we import 40% of our food and our 350 largest public companies own overseas assets worth £10T (that’s £10,000,000,000,000) many of which are vulnerable to climate change.

    24603 The most vulnerable sectors include energy, mining, utilities and manufacturing.Next up was Anthony Hobley of Carbon Tracker. Hobley acknowledged the science and mentioned that whole civilisations can fail. It’s happened repeatedly in the past though never globally. Of course, ours is the first global civilisation so that qualification is not entirely encouraging. These failures often followed environmental changes and the ruling elites failed to respond because their wealth shielded them from the impacts of those changes until it was too late to act. Hobley did not make the obvious connections but I will:

    • Climate change has increased in parallel with increasing inequality.
    • The super-rich are increasingly powerful and increasingly isolated from the problems that beset the rest of us.
    • London’s economy is increasingly dependent on the richest 1%.
    • Some of them use their wealth to stop governments addressing the problems.
    • Therefore, a sharp reduction in economic inequality is an essential step in addressing climate change.

    But back to the meeting! Hobley tried hard to be encouraging about the prospects for the 2015 UN Climate Change conference in Paris which he clearly regarded as our last hope. However he struggled to be optimistic and implied that the most plausible success scenario was a global crash programme that he called the Lastminute scenario. This is similar to my Emergency Braking scenario.

    The final speaker was Lord Krebs of Wytham. As Chair of the Adaptation Sub-Committee of the  Committee on Climate Change he was very well qualified to explain his committee’s thinking and recommendations. In short, last year’s National Adaptation Programme was based on climate projections made in 2012. These projections included rising temperatures and sea levels, drier summers, wetter winters and more extreme weather events. Specifically they expect 1 in 100 year events to occur every ten years.

    So a science-based plan?

    Actually no. In answer to a question from me Krebs explained that the projections were based on two degrees of warming “because that is the government’s target”. He accepted that this approach is inadequate and would need to be revised (though I didn’t get much sense of urgency from his remarks).

    I will go further. The current National Adaptation Programme is essentially dishonest because it implies that it is appropriate to the actual threats. Only a programme based on the most likely projection – four degrees by 2100 – can be honest. And, given the uncertainties, an honest programme must at least consider the possibility that things will be worse.

    First published on the Climate Cassandra blog

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  • EU needs to take action on climate change now!

    Margaret Gardner
    March 20th, 2014

    Our world leaders are working towards action on climate change – not a grand top down plan but a bottom up approach whereby all countries will set out their intended national contributions on the basis of what’s fair and equitable. The contributions are then pulled together to form the agreement. The intention is that this treaty will be agreed and signed at a meeting in Paris at the end of 2015.

    Should we be worried about this? I think so – let me explain why

    1. My action’s bigger than your action!

    Have you noticed that governments have a tendency to talk up commitments but somehow when it comes to delivery everything is smaller or somehow more difficult?  One current example –where there has been confusion at least over funding – is the Green Climate Fund.  It’s a UNFCCC flagship programme intended by 2020 to provide by $100 billion a year to assist developing countries mitigate and adapt to climate change.  It started operations this year after three years of planning but so far has been mired in debate about the level of finance to be provided by governments and what can be provided by the private sector.  Currently  only a fraction of this sum has been pledged so far, mostly to cover start-up costs’ according to Climate Finance and Markets 

    Kenyan women march against climate change2.  Maths – will the sum of the parts be enough?

    Today 49 less developed countries (LDCs) are calling for the process towards the Paris meeting to be speeded up. They worry that looking at all the commitments as a whole it just won’t be enough to deliver a maximum 2 degree average temperature rise, protect vulnerable countries like Bangladesh and/or that the timetable will be so elongated that by the time all of the pledges are in there won’t be sufficient time to work out if what’s proposed is enough.

    3. What about the poorest and most marginalized people?

    Keeping average global temperature rises to 2 degrees will now require urgent and transformational action. However even if we do managed to contain warming the impacts on poor people often living in the poorest and most marginal areas will still be significant. Their voices and needs are not sufficiently heard and represented in the climate change processes. Read our East Africa director, Grace Mukasa’s blog where she talks about the current unreported drought in Kenya.

    4. Why now?

    Today and tomorrow we could see the EU lead the way – leaders are coming together for a crucial EU Council meeting where they could decide Europe’s climate and energy targets until 2030. They could set ambitious targets supported by binding actions, they could lead the world on climate change action and by their decisions prompt other countries to be ambitious, to make declarations early and to adopt legally binding frameworks.

    Paris is still the best hope for global action on climate change. Now is the time to work hard and push for action. But even if we get a deal in Paris we are still likely to exceed the 2 degree rise. So climate adaptation must go up the agenda on the UN and all the countries attending the talks. Practical Action will be pushing for this at the next UN climate talks in Peru in December.

    Take action https://twitter.com/TheCCoalition/status/446611628130189312

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  • Water, water, underground, but not a drop to drink

    Grace Mukasa
    March 19th, 2014

    You may not have heard yet, but our field staff in the remote Turkana region of Northern Kenya are reporting a growing humanitarian crisis.

    Normally, the long rainy season would have been in full swing by now. But so far, not a drop of rain has fallen. Should the rains fail over the next three weeks, many thousands of people could face a slow and lingering death, unless there is action now.

    A pastoralist girl holds on to one of their family's weak animals

    A pastoralist girl holds on to one of their family’s weak animals

    For almost 12 months now, the region has had no rain. Rivers are dry, water tables have fallen so dramatically that some boreholes can no longer reach it. Pastureland has dried up and the grass has disappeared. Pastoralists have been forced to migrate with their livestock into neighbouring Uganda.

    The Turkana region is home to about a million people, many of whom are nomadic pastoralists, raising cattle and goats. Of these over 300,000 are in dire need of food and water and the number keep swelling by the day.

    The great irony is that there are huge water supplies deep beneath the surface in Turkana. If this wasn’t enough last year oil was also discovered.

    But the situation is expected to worsen and terrifyingly, there is a forecast of poor long rains. Malnutrition levels are high among women and children and many people will die unless action is taken. Goats are already dying and livestock is growing ever weaker.

    Already, the situation in some parts of Turkana has now become so severe that I have heard reports that out of desperation people are eating tree roots and dogs.

    Practical Action has installed solar-powered water pumps to access the huge underground reservoirs in Turkana, and where we have been working the situation is not so desperate, but we cannot reach everywhere.  In addition, we have been working with the Ugandan Government since 2009 to negotiate safe passage for pastoralists desperate to access good pasture land in times of crisis and I am pleased to say our efforts are now proving vital. Already, 30,000 pastoralists have migrated with their herds over the border, saving lives and livestock worth millions of pounds in the process. Practical Action staff are continuing to work in Uganda to facilitate this process.

    This, of course, means that men of working age have been forced to leave their families and smaller livestock such as goats. In many communities in which we work only women and children remain, using the solar-powered water pumps we have installed as they battle desperately to survive as their goats die from starvation.

    The Kenyan Government is providing affected populations with some food relief and humanitarian organisations are starting to mobilise, but aside from one short online report, there has been no international reporting of the situation outside the Kenyan media.

    There shouldn’t be another famine in Turkana. The fact that one is looming should shame us all. We all need to take practical action there now.

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  • Inspiring Change: The role of Women in Disaster Risk Reduction

    Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is “Inspiring Change.” This makes for a particularly uplifting end to the week. Stories about powerful and influential women are filling up social media and it’s great. It’s also quite unusual.

    Whilst the need to recognise gender in international development processes is now broadly accepted, when we talk about the needs and experiences of women, more often than not we are talking about victims. This dialogue is important because women are disproportionately burdened by poverty and the associated injustices that come with it. But what is often missing is a focus on agency and the contribution that women can make to bring about meaningful change in their own lives.

    This is certainly what seems to have happened in international efforts to prepare for and manage disasters. The first phase of the Hyogo Framework of Action is one example. A primary criticism of the framework so far is that despite its stated intentions to be gender sensitive, “Inclusion of a gender perspective and effective community participation are the areas where the least progress seems to have been made.”[1]

    This is perhaps not surprising – including women in formal planning processes is often difficult in settings which have strong pre-existing patriarchal structures. However, the framework as it stands appears to view women first and foremost as a “vulnerable group” rendering the vital contribution that they make to protect their families and livelihoods insignificant or invisible. This attitude also undermines efforts to involve them in decision making and according to the HFA2 paper ‘Women as a Force in Resilience Building and Gender Equality in DRR‘, when efforts are made to increase the capacity of women, the focus is usually on women as carers or service providers.

    With phase two of this framework (the HFA+ or HFA2) on the horizon, along with the setting of post-2015 Sustainable Development goals, we have a unique opportunity to change the narrative around women and disaster risk reduction.

    Vishaka in the foreground  contributing to a Practical Action Disaster Risk Reduction workshop with colleagues: Dinanath (Nepal), Dalia (Peru), Orlando (Peru).

    Vishaka in the foreground contributing to a Practical Action Disaster Risk Reduction workshop with colleagues: Dinanath (Nepal), Dalia (Peru), Orlando (Peru).

    Practical Action’s Vishaka Hidellage is a good example of how women’s agency can make a difference at local and global levels.  Not only was Vishaka instrumental in establishing Duryog Nivaran as a DRR network for the South Asian region, she has led by example ensuring that the network connects with communities – especially those that usually have little or no voice. Duryog Nivaran has been particularly successful at engaging women, especially the poorest and most vulnerable in a region dominated by entrenched views and limited opportunity. In recognition of this work, Vishaka now acts as a leader for women’s engagement in the global UNISDR process and is currently heavily contributing to the UNISDR programme of work on gender for the new global agreement.

    Vishaka shows us the potential and the need for more women to step forward as leaders and catalysts for change. Duryong Nivaran continues to focus on the needs of the marginalised in the south Asian region and Vishaka’s presence on the global stage ensures that these voices are harder to ignore.



    [1] The UN Hyogo Framework for Action 2005-2015 : Building the Resilience of Nations and Communities to Disasters Mid Term Review <http://www.unisdr.org/files/18197_midterm.pdf> p.44

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  • On making the SDGs meaningful: Practical Action’s views on the state of play of the post-2015 development agenda

    Aaron Leopold
    March 4th, 2014

    United Nations Headquarters in New York City. Photo courtesy of IISD.UN negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda represent the follow-up process of two globally significant policy regimes: the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Rio+20 conference of 2012. No small shoes to fill. On 21 February 2014, the co-Chairs of one of the key bodies in this process, the Open Working Group (OWG), released a preliminary sketch of the status of discussions on a variety of topics in their “Focus Areas Document.” Practical Action welcomes the strong and clear messages it contains. But while the document does encapsulate dozens of aspects crucial to the post-2015 development agenda, many areas key to its long terms success  are incomplete or altogether lacking.

    Focus area 7 on ENERGY, and particularly points on alleviating energy poverty, are at the core of progress in all other focal areas. We stress that the evidence on energy poverty is clear: neither energy poverty nor the litany of energy nexus issues (food security, education, health, water, gender equality, etc.) can be meaningfully addressed without emphasising deployment of decentralized (off-grid) provision of modern energy services, combined with robust indicators and monitoring systems. We strongly urge inclusion of these issues in discussions of any energy-related SDG goals to prevent energy, seen by many as the “missing MDG” from becoming a “meaningless SDG.”

    VIP-in-KenyaOn focus area 6 on WATER AND SANITATION, we welcome recognition of the need for safe drinking water and sanitation for all households, and urge that this ambition eventually be reflected in the indicators. However, we note that the bulk of issues raised in this focal area concern water and deeply lament that there is no mention of hygiene here or in focus area 3 on HEALTH.

    Considering focal area 13 on SUSTAINABLE CITIES AND HUMAN SETTLEMENTS, we note that this area must have a strong emphasis not only on poverty eradication, but critically, on promoting equality. If we cannot find a way of disaggregating indicators on the rich and poor of urban areas, the urban poor will remain among the un-counted and unreached.

    CLIMATE CHANGE is recognised throughout the document (including in the focal areas on energy, food security, infrastructure, sustainable cities) and with its own focal area 15, but it is conspicuously absent from focus area 9 on INDUSTRIALIZATION, a major contributor of continuing greenhouse gas emissions. Also absent from the document is mention of reducing risk from human-induced and natural hazards. We must ask whether the provision of social protection alone is able to reduce vulnerability and enable those currently living in poverty to fully participate in sustainable development.

    The mention of ‘inclusive’ growth in a number of focus areas is excellent but we feel strong and explicit linkages must be made between Focus Areas 8, 11, and 12 on ECONOMIC GROWTH, EMPLOYMENT AND DECENT WORK FOR ALL, and PROMOTING EQUALITY. In addition, care must be given when referring to ‘sustained’ growth as in focus area 8 and 12, which in a closed physical system such as our planet, is not a realistic or sustainable aim.

    The focus area 18 on MEANS OF IMPLEMENTATION is particularly welcome. Prioritising what will be measured in this enormous list of important issues will be hugely challenging. To transform systems most important to those living in poverty, such as agriculture, energy, water and sanitation, and the science, technology and innovation systems that support them, the ‘broad stakeholder engagement’ noted must promote the active, meaningful involvement of small and marginalised players.

    Although technology and access to technology is well represented throughout the document, globally we must look beyond transfer of technology from North to South, and recognise the potential of indigenous knowledge and local innovation to ensure a form of sustainable development that leaves no one behind. Missing from the document is reference to the desperate need to shift technology development towards those who need it rather than those who can afford it. This will require concerted investments in fostering grassroots and frugal innovation (i.e. innovation focusing on reducing the cost and complexity of goods and services), and the use and regulation of technologies that aim to deliver on sustainable development goals.

    Practical Action very much looks forward to continuing to engage with the post-2015 development process, and welcomes feedback on these issues.

     

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  • Watson to save Africa or is small still beautiful?

    Margaret Gardner
    February 28th, 2014

    Have you heard about IBMs super computer Watson? It was made to compete on the US TV game show ‘Jeopardy’ which it won! It has 200 million pages of content, can answer questions in natural languages and is said to be artificially intelligent.

    It’s now being deployed in Africa to solve the pressing problems of agriculture, health and education.  Such are the transformative powers of Watson the IBM project has been called Lucy after humankind’s first ancestor.

    On March 3rd 2014 The Tyranny of the Experts written by the economist Professor William Easterly is published.  He argues in it that there is an obsession with fixing the symptoms of poverty without addressing the systemic causes. Moreover that freedom and assuring people’s rights and thus choice are key to building sustainable development.

    Maybe unfairly (and I have only read the preview of Easterly’s book available on Amazon) I would characterise there two approaches as ‘science will find a way though’ versus ‘democracy is the answer’.  There are lots that I love and think true in what Easterly says but ultimately my concern is that we are seeking a one size fits all model.

    We have to start with people and they are complicated – individually and even more so when we come together as societies. Data can help but ultimately you/we have to listen. Democracy is the best system we have, but asserting people’s rights is not enough.  Rights without options or access can lead to massive frustration.

    22626So in terms of approaches to development – and although I’m seeped in Practical Action I must caveat with these are personal views

    • We have to change our course – consumerism leading to our current 3 planet living, testing the finite nature of our planet is leading to ecological disaster. The impacts of climate change are being felt first and hardest by poor people living on marginalised land. Taking action on climate change has proven a struggle in a democracy where significant changes are needed now but the full impact won’t be felt for decades.
    • Development should be at a human scale, we should start with people their choices and needs, looking at measures of wellbeing not just economic growth. People should have a voice and be listened to in development that impacts them.
    • We have to share and set up rules that promote sharing not greed and gargantuan acquisition – a world where the richest 85 people have the same wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion is a world where something is very wrong.
    • Technology has a huge role to play – but technology needs to know its place as a servant not the prescriber of solutions. Big isn’t always better.
    • Above all warm words need to be matched by action. The world needs to prioritise sustainable development but also to fund it. That means taking tough choices when it comes to government spending – huge bonuses for bankers or bailing out people?

    Reading the article in The Guardian about IBM’s Watson I was reminded of a passage in Small is Beautiful written in 1973

    ‘In the urgent attempt to obtain reliable knowledge about his essentially indeterminate future, the modern man of action may surround himself with ever growing armies of forecasters, by ever growing mountains of factual data to be digested by ever more wonderful mechanical contrivances. I fear the result is little more than a huge game of make-believe and an ever more marvellous vindication of Parkinson’s Law. …Stop, look and listen is a better motto than ‘look it up in the forecasts’ ‘

    40 years on there is still huge wisdom – encouragements to pause and think – to be taken from Small is Beautiful.

    But to go back to Watson – I love the Benedict Cumberbatch  version of Sherlock Holmes – so what could be better than a Sherlock quote on Climate change (I may be stretching its meaning)

    ‘I think you know me well enough Watson to know that I am by no means a nervous man. At the same time it is stupidity rather than courage to refuse to recognise danger when it is close upon you’

    The Final Problem

     

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  • Why the Daily Mail’s petition is wrong and we are all in this together

    Margaret Gardner
    February 12th, 2014

    Wherever you live in the world, having your home or land flooded can be utterly devastating. The victims of the floods in the UK deserve our help but the Daily Mail is wrong to target the UK’s international aid budget to provide it.

    Their petition calling on the Prime Minister to divert some of the aid budget to help victims here is in danger of robbing poor Peter to pay Paul. Climate change makes no distinction between extreme weather here and other countries around the world. We are all in this together.

    Floods currently threaten thousands of people in Zimbabwe, Burundi and Bolivia. When communities there are flooded they not only lose their possessions, homes and livelihoods but they are also at risk from cholera and other water borne diseases.

    Given the Daily Mail’s rhetoric and petition it is easy to forget that international aid accounts for just 0.7% of our GDP.

    I am proud that the UK’s three main political parties support the 0.7% target and want to help the poorest people in the world.  Their leadership is needed now more than ever.

    Last year our supporters met the Prime Minister and praised him for meeting the 0.7% target, a process which took over 20 years to achieve. In a letter he sent to us the Prime Minister said “Thank you very much for your kind words on 0.7%. It is something I am proud of. We need groups like Practical Action – and you personally – to be out there making the case for it”.

    David Cameron meeting Practical Action supporters 20 September (1)

    That is why we have decided to speak out now.

    Last year we received £2.83 million from the international aid budget and used it to help nearly one million poor and vulnerable people.

    In the UK the cost of the clean-up and compensating people for the loss and damage will run into many millions of pounds. But as a relatively rich country, it is a bill we can afford to pay without the need to take money away from some of the poorest people in the world.

    Countries like Nepal and Bangladesh were highlighted in the Daily Mail’s article. People there do not have insurance policies and unlike people here there is no government support available to help them. But they, like the victims in Somerset and along the Thames, know only too well what it is like to lose everything. I know because I’ve been to both countries and seen the floods there for myself.

    In Nepal we have put in place early warning systems to alert people when the water level rises. There I met Parbati Gurung, 45, a widow who regularly checks our water gauge station 2 km north from Chisapani. If there is a danger of a flood she lets people along the river bank know by texting them and a siren is blown three times.

    In Bangladesh I’ve seen how with funding from the international aid budget Practical Action has helped protect many local communities by working with them to build bunds around villages and through innovative technologies like floating gardens has helped people feed themselves during the floods. We have also worked with communities to build flood-proof homes and raise wells to protect vital drinking water.

    In the short term our work in Nepal and Bangladesh has helped to save hundreds of lives. In the long term, it means thousands of people’s lives are not devastated every time there is a disaster.

    It is something I believe the British taxpayer and many Daily Mail readers would be very proud of.

     

     

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  • Can we stop climate change in time?

    David Flint
    January 27th, 2014

    The science is clear. ‘Business as usual’ will increase global temperatures by at least four degrees – possibly much more. This will have catastrophic impacts on many parts of the world – and especially on the poorest people.

    That’s why one of our leading climate scientists, Prof Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre, convened a Radical Emissions Reduction conference at the Royal Society. This was not a climate science conference, the speakers included economists, sociologists, anthropologists, NGO experts, politicians, a French philosopher and an Irish fireman! The conference brought a variety of perspectives to bear on the technical, social and political feasibility of reducing our greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to avoid catastrophe.

    “We are [energy] addicts … [and] shale gas is our methadone.”  Kevin Anderson.

    The conference passed no motions and made no declarations but I took away three main messages:

    • It is technically feasible, though it will be very hard, to reduce emissions fast enough.
    • To do so will require the citizens of developed countries to make significant sacrifices.
    • Neither the people nor the leaders of these countries have the will to make the changes needed.

    The political radicalism of the conference surprised me. The keynote speaker was Naomi Klein and Green MP Caroline Lucas was on the final panel. In her speech on the first day Naomi said, roughly, ‘I thought I might stir you up by calling for revolution but that’s already happened six times!’ Many speakers stressed the need for major change in politics and behaviour and emphasised the political and ideological roadblocks.

    The Good News

    The unexpected star of the second day was Neil McCabe, a fireman from Dublin. Six years ago he started a process of general improvement and emissions reduction at his fire station.  In six years he has done 300 actions and created 20 start-ups. He has extended his approach first to the rest of the Dublin Fire Service and then to the whole Council. Inspiring stuff!

    Some speakers discussed technologies. Brenda Boardman, for instance, told us that using LED lights would significantly reduce peak electricity demand. Lighting, she said, is about 22% of peak demand (much more than I’d have guessed). Wed may already have reached ‘peak light bulb’. Other speakers discussed low energy technologies for homes and shipping.

    Other speakers presented scenarios for the transition to a low-emissions energy system and Dan Staniaszek told us that stopping climate change will have many societal benefits, especially for health.

    The necessary changes are technically possible, economically affordable and offer many benefits.

    The Bad News

    Though we’ve known about the threat of climate change for over twenty years nothing effective has been done. Global emissions continue to rise. “Global recession,” John Barrett told us, “is the only thing shown to reduce global emissions – and that only briefly.” The impacts are serious and increasing precisely known. According to Tyndall Director Corrine Le Quere “Of the one metre Hurricane Sandy storm surge, 20cm was due to global warming”.

    The oft-cited 80% reduction by 2050 target may not be enough. John Barrett thinks it should be 97%. Either requires annual reductions in the range 7.5 to 10% in the developed world. Yet almost everyone, and not just mainstream politicians, is in denial about both the scale and pace of the changes needed. Several speakers gave lists of reasons for the inaction and denial but here’s my list:

    1. Vested interests in fossil fuel and growth oppose effective action. The worst are fuel producers, both corporate and national, energy supply companies and automobile and aerospace firms. But they also include manufacturers, retailers, media and governments who benefit from growth, ie. almost all of them.
    2. The dominance of neoliberal ideology. Since 1979 this has conquered the parties of the Left as well as the Right. Neoliberals believe in the magic of the market and that government intervention must make things worse. Naomi Klein criticised North American environmental organisations for using neoliberal arguments, thus strengthening their enemies. Even at this conference, several speakers proposed solutions, such as tradeable quotas, that rely on new markets, yet Clive Spash and Steffen Bohm told the conference that carbon markets had failed.
    3. The near absence of convincing role models for low-carbon living requiring acts of imagination too difficult for most of us.

    What is to be done?

    The general shape of the needed policies is clear. We need more R&D funding for renewables, energy storage, insulation, energy efficiency and low-carbon farming. We also need much tougher standards for energy efficiency, carbon taxes and selective subsidies, eg for house insulation.

    But how, politically, can we get them when government is doing the opposite? The necessary actions follow from the reasons for inaction: We need political reform to reduce corporate power, and we need, as Naomi Klein said, “to shred the neoliberal ideology”. Everyone agreed that the necessary action would not happen without strong public pressure so we need a political movement.

    All this is hard but our future requires no less.

    Videos of the conference sessions can be found at http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/communication/news-archive/2013/radical-emissions-reduction-conference-videos-now-online

    David Flint is a retired management consultant, visiting fellow at the Cass Business School, Practical Action supporter and active member of the Green Party.

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