Tuesday, September 25, 2007

"The time for doubt has passed"

That’s what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at yesterday’s Climate Change summit. The chief U.N. climate scientist, Rajendra Pachauri, said, “The time is up for inaction.”

Billed as the largest ever high-level meeting on climate change, the event re-emphasised the commitment of global governments to action. The next opportunity will be the Bali conference in December, when delegates meet to design a successor to the Kyoto Protocol. This commits nations to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2012. The task of Bali is to set targets for future decades.

Doubts remain, however, with George W Bush. The US president did not attend the summit, although he joined the delegates for dinner. He has his own climate change event later this week and has invited the world’s sixteen top polluting nations. Environmentalists are concerned that the US wants to hijack the debate, or at least muddy the waters. The US is believed to oppose mandatory carbon targets, preferring each country to set voluntary levels. They also want developing countries to reduce their carbon emissions, even though they are far lower than American emissions.

The US has an increasingly difficult energy supply situation, though it has plenty of coal – one of the most polluting fuels. Cutting back on energy use or making energy more expensive by installing carbon clean-up technology will impact the American economy – currently showing signs of weakness - and George Bush will protect it at all costs.AAfter all, wasn’t it George Bush Snr who said, “It’s the economy, stupid”?

Some people are beginning to say, “No, it’s the environment, stupid.” Without an environment there can be no economy.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Liberal Helping

As the LibDem conference comes to a close we’ve seen another expression of green policies. The LibDems are particularly upset, because alone of the three major parties they have been talking about environmental issues for years. Both Labour and the Conservatives now have a green agenda, but the worrying thing is that there’s no consensus.

Measures that will really make a difference to our carbon emissions will not be popular with the voters. Two million signed a Downing Street petition against road pricing, and last week I saw one of those chain emails claiming that high petrol prices were an oil company conspiracy and we could drive prices down to 69p a litre if we only stopped buying from Esso and BP. If all the political parties adopted the same policies on the environment then elections would change nothing. Unfortunately there is still argument between the parties – and argument within parties. One LibDem was heard to say that green policies were about as realistic as perpetual motion! More public education clearly needed.

And will the parties stop arguing about green issues and work together to actually do something? As the Labour Party gathers for this week’s conference we can only wait and see.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

They think it's all over

Latest reports from the IPCC, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, indicate that a 2 degree rise in world temperatures is inevitable – within 10 years. There is now so much excess carbon dioxide in the global system that it is too late to stop this happening; there’s nothing we can do. It’s time to face up to the consequences and prepare to adapt to them.

Ironically the prosperous West may benefit form the temperature rise in the short term. Higher temperatures will mean substantially increased crop yields in North America, Northern Europe and Russia. Elsewhere the opposite is true. In some parts of the Third World flash floods will wash the crops from the fields and destroy buildings, bridges and roads. Rising sea levels will make other places uninhabitable – already parts of the Maldives have had to be abandoned.

Too much water in some places; too little elsewhere as the Himalayan glaciers melt and the rivers they fill run dry. Up to a billion people will lose their water supply. Many species will become extinct and diseases will appear in places where they have never been seen before.

All this sounds apocalyptic. Too dreadful to be true. Turn the page – let’s not think about it. And what can we do about it anyway? And there on the next page is an advertisement from the energy company Total. “Total is pursuing the development of gas fields across the globe…” And burning more gas releases more CO2. Three degrees? Four degrees? Six degrees?

It needs government action. It needs big business to take action. What we can do is be aware of what is going to happen and be aware of how it will change our lifestyles. We need to do as much as we can to cut our individual carbon footprints. We can change public opinion. Enough public opinion influences government and changes business behaviour.

Within 10 years. That means it won’t just affect our children or our grandchildren. It’s going to affect us.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

More on Biofuels

We can't just write off biofuels, but we can't accept them blindly either. My view is that there are only three solutions to the coming energy crisis: reduce, reduce and reduce. (Yes I know it's an old one) Once we have minimised our fuel use, where do we get the remainder from?

In some circumstances biofuels are economically viable, but in some cases they are not. US farmers are heavily subsidised to grow crops for bio-ethanol, but it is very doubtful that the energy in the bio-fuel exceeds the energy needed to plough the fields, fertilise the crop, irrigate it, spray it against diseases and pests (and produce and deliver the fertilisers and insecticides to the farm), harvest it, process it and deliver it to the refinery and then refine it. It's good business for US farmers, but it's pushed up the world price of wheat which is affecting UK pig farmers and third-world countries trying to buy food.

Have you seen this month's Ecologist magazine? An article talks about how Colombia is becoming a major producer of African oil palm, a biofuel plant. This development is supported by the US and the EU, and on the face of it, it's attractive. It provides a source of green fuel (plant growth is more effective in warmer Colombia) and it can displace some of the drug barons' coca crops. The drug barons see an opportunity too. They are taking over the land, if necessary driving out the local farmers at gunpoint, and planting the oil palms. The government plans to cover an area twice the size of Belgium with the trees. If necessary they cut down the rain forest. Mono culture is rarely viable, and before long the land is exhausted and turned to scrubland. The rain forest has been destroyed, the ecosystems have been destroyed, the livelihood of the local people has been destroyed and the possibility of growing more biofuel crops on that land has been destroyed - and for what? To allow Westerners to continue to drive highly inefficient vehicles!

Our fatal assumption is that we will be able to continue with our present lifestyle and continue to enjoy the same access to energy, but just get it from different sources. There is a serious risk that if we don't wake up to reality, and if chase solutions without thinking through their consequences, we will destroy the planet faster than ever before!

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Every little helps

Yesterday I met Ian Berry, past president of the National Speakers Association of Australia. Ian speaks and advises companies on management and leadership, based on his long experience at senior level in major corporates. www.remacue.com He’s concerned, too, with the future of businesses. Climate change is a key issue, but he sees it as part of the wider sustainability picture, which also includes resource depletion, energy security and corporate social responsibility. In his view business has the key to our future survival. He believes that businesses and pressure groups will form alliances and take actions long before governments get round to doing anything – and businesses truly have the power to make significant changes.

Today we hear that Tesco is giving £25m to Manchester University to set up the Institute for Sustainable Consumption. It’s easy to accuse the retailers – and others – of riding the green bandwagon just to keep up with their competitors, but £25m is serious money and once the Institute is established it will surely be difficult to ignore it. And if I heard Terry Leahy correctly, the ultimate objective at Tesco is an 80% carbon reduction.. That’s far more than the target the government is set to miss. It will be interesting to see which other organisations will set themselves similar challenges.

For the moment, the prize for leadership goes to Tesco.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Too late to save the planet

The BBC can be criticised for the way it justified abandoning Planet Relief, but the truth is that a television spectacular would have achieved nothing. Yes, many people would have made pledges and yes, some may have sent money, but most of us have excellent reasons for making long-haul flights, driving large cars and constantly consuming. In any case we cannot stop climate change. Even if all nations fulfilled their Kyoto targets the best we could hope for would be slowing it down, but with the US refusing to sign and the UK and the rest falling short even this will not be achieved.

British government action on climate is largely lip-service and superficial. They continue to build roads, support airport expansion and subsidise wind farms – the most ineffective form of renewable energy. The implication of their policies is that fossil fuels are limitless; they ignore the carbon consequences of burning all these fuels. They dare not tax energy, cut petrol use though road pricing or restrict air travel. There lies electoral suicide. That leaves action up to us.

Concern for climate change must not blind us to the threats of pollution, resource depletion and particularly energy shortages. It makes sense to address all of these by reducing, re-using and recycling as environmentalists recommend. This won’t save the planet but it may help us cope with the dire conditions we can expect as the oil and everything else starts to run out.

Let’s face up to the consequences of climate change rather than pretending that a TV show or anything else we do will stop it happening.