Wednesday, 23 December 2009


After promising at Bali two years ago to make a real deal, world leaders have failed to keep their promises.

Due to many factors including domestic US politics, rival "national economic interests" and sheer frustration and rage, what we now have is a deal that seems to my cynical eyes to be worth nearly nothing, certainly not the emissions generated in it's making.

After all the hype and soundbytes, what do we have?
We have a weak, non-binding deal, which fails to set effective targets or a deadline, in effect, all we have is a statement of good intentions,along with much distrust and dissapointment.

Two positives to emerge from this event have been the motivation and engagement of ordinary people with the issue of climate change and awareness of the need for real and rapid change. This engagement and feeling of urgency has been communicated eloquently and forcefully to our politicians and we may hope that they will act accordingly

As I have repeatedly said on this blog, and as has been conclusively demonstrated at Copenhagen, we cannot rely on others, we must act for ourselves.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Squabbling for dominance

I am not surprised, but I am saddened.

The Danish text, a draft agreement drawn up at Copenhagen by the "circle of commitment" which, reportedly, includes the UK, has severely damaged trust between the rich and poorer nations. The text was leaked to The Guardian newspaper and published on it's website

also reported on by the Guardian here

and the BBC here

The impact of this text and it's implications are huge. It is true that it was only a draft document, but it was drawn up outside the offical UN process and the intent, which it shows is actually very unpleasant.

To "lock in inequality" by allowing developed nations to emit more, while more severely restricting emissions from developing nations removes the fundamental ideal of equality from the negotiations and allows the already industrialised nations which bear the historic resposnsibility for a large proportion of atmospheric CO2 to benefit at the expense of those without that historic responsibility.

To also envisage placing financial control of the climate fund in the hands of the World Bank (removing the UN from centrality) and make it's distribution of money to developing nations dependent on their actions can also be viewed with understandable caution and trepidation by some, although it appears now that the proposed board to manage the fund would be accountable to the UN.

When taken with some of the criticisms of the cap-and-trade emissions trading scheme, which seems to be a central point of the negotiations, such as the profits to be made from this scheme by companies based in the developed nations, it does not paint an enchanting picture.

The intent of some to profit as climate change bites is actually quite shocking to me. Is this a symptom of our culture of consumption?

Meanwhile, the split within the ranks of the G77+China over the proposal by Tuvalu which posits emissions caps on developing nations as well as on developed nations (which are enshrined in the Kyoto Protocol), reported here by the Guardian (
does not bode well.

I am saddened that in the face of the oncoming crisis, we have not all risen to be the best of ourselves and I am concerned that this squabbling for dominance will fritter away what limited time we have.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Calling Ed, missing The Wave and a light in the dark

Yesterday saw the largest climate change protest in the UK. Tens of thousands of people turned out in London, Glasgow and Belfast to demand a fair and binding deal at Copenhagen (

I did not attend any of these actions, living where I do it would take me 2 inter-island ferries and an overnight ferry just to reach the UK mainland,or alternatively a short haul flight. Generating that amount of carbon to attend a demonstration calling for the rapid and drastic slashing of emissions seemed, to me, more than slightly ironic.

However, I was able to take part in the mass conference call organised by 38 Degrees ( with Ed Milliband and despite my cynicism (well documented on this blog) I was inspired. The questions were well thought out, intelligent and to the point. Ed Milliband seemed genuinely involved with the conversation and actually personally committed to action.

I know that he is a politician but....

It is hugely heartening to see the massive upswell in grassroots support for action on Climate Change and to see our politicians taking notice.
In the last week US President Barack Obama has comitted to include the last day of the Copenhagen conference in his attendance and Manmohan Singh, Indian Prime Minister, has also announced plans to attend, and India has pledged a 20-25% reduction in emissions by 2020.

While I still have doubts,and think that this is not enough, I hope that this may be the first step we need.

On December the 11th People around the globe will be holding candlelit vigils to call for fair and meaningful action at Copenhagen, to find out if there is one near you or to start one go to, lets keep the light focused on the need for a binding, fair and strong treaty to come out of Copenhagen.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Too little? Too late?....

US President Barack Obama and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jibao will be attending the conference at Copenhagen. They will both be bringing a firm commitment to cut their nations' emissions to the table. This is good. This is very good.

Being the cynical so and so that I am I wonder what this really means...

The US commitment of a 17% cut in emissions relative to 2005 levels by 2020 (reported by the Guardian here equates to only a 6% cut relative to 1990 levels (the reference level for Kyoto), compared to the EU pledge to cut emissions by 20% relative to 1990 levels and 30% if there is a global deal.

China has said that it will reduce the energy intensity of its economy by 40-45% relative to 2005 levels by 2020 (reported by the BBC: and by the Guardian: Carbon intensity is a measure of the amount of CO2 produced per unit of GDP.

Several reports indicate that these commitments do not go nearly far enough.
1) The recent report from the Global Carbon Project which reported that emissions had risen 29% in the period 2000-8 (referred to in my recent post, Burning Out)
2) The IPCC third report (2007), described the necessity for our emissions to start declining by 2015
3) Recent peer-reviewed scientific literature review by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) (pdf here: suggested that predictions from the upper end of the 2007 IPCC report were becoming ever more likely.

There are questions that we should be asking.

These commitments made are meant to look like a good beginning, but might they simply be a photo opportunity for the politicians? Even if these pledges are set down in a treaty or other legal document/vehicle, will we be able to do it?

The recent Institute of Mechanical Engineers (Imeche) report, referred to in my post Hard Choices, indicates that the UK will be unable to meet the targets of the Climate Change Act. Is there any more certainty that other nations will be able to meet the targets of any treaty made at Copenhagen?

Will any targets set be legally enforcible, and what mechanisms will there be to enforce them?

From where I am sitting, it looks like too little, too late. I hope that I am wrong and that this is the start of the massive collective effort at all levels, by all, that we so badly need.

Only time will tell.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Burning out

A report published in the magazine Science Daily on November 17th reports on the findings by the Global Carbon Project ( saying, that global CO2 emissions are up by 29% in the period 2000-2008(41% 1990-2008) and that despite the global recession, emissions increased by 2% in 2007-2008, suggesting that we are on course for a 6 degree celsius rise in the mean global temperature (read the article in Science Daily here:

The article also reports that the researchers found that coal is now the dominant source of emissions, after 40 years of oil dominance, and that increased economic growth in some developing nations has meant growth in their emissions, a quarter of their emissions being produced by manufacturing items for trade with developed nations.

With the efficiency of planetary carbon sinks declining (also found in the report), this paints a bleak picture.

We do not have time to pussyfoot around, we must act radically and we must act now.

Hard choices

The Guardian newspaper reported recently ( that a whistleblower at the International Energy Agency (IEA) is claiming that the IEA is deliberately underplaying the rate of decline from existing oil fields due to US pressure and fears that the market would go into chaos.

This is huge! the IEA Energy Outlook is used by governments around the world (including the UK government) as a tool for guiding energy and climate change policies.

The IEA Energy Outlook 2009 was released on Nov 10 and can be found here( The press release and the Climate Change Excerpt do not make pleasant reading.

The prediction that the current level of oil output can be raised from it's current 83m barrels a day to 105m barrels a day seems questionable and some of the assumptions for future scenarios including the "greener" 450 scenario, which assumes fossil fuel demand peaking by 2020 and zero carbon sources accounting for a third of global primary sources of energy, along with all the investment needed, seem unlikely to my cynical eyes, and the report by the Peak Oil Group(,( an industry taskforce on peak oil and energy security, which reportedly states that the UK could be hit by a major energy crisis within 5 years or even as early as 2011 is frankly terrifying.

The recent report by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (Imeche) ( some of the challenges facing us. The report says that the government's targets are unacheivable, that there just is not enough time or infrastructure (eg wind turbines or other forms of generating power) capacity to meet the targets set out in the Climate Change Act (80% cut in emissions relative to 1990 levels by 2050 with an interim target 0f a 34% reduction by 2020)

The report points out that the UK will be competing for the resources to build the necessary infrastructure in a global market, where many nations are trying to de-carbonize (leading to competition and price rises and increased profits for the shareholders no doubt) and also calls for massive investment in green infrastructure/projects, including geoengineering such as artificial trees.

It is difficult to see where this money will come from. With our millitary costs and commitments to superficial projects such as the London Olympics as well as the economic crisis and the needs of the NHS, not forgetting our contributions to the international climate change fund when/if it happens. (Of course this is looking at things from a very nationalistic viewpoint,much of the competition grows directly out of the construct of statehood.)

We have a very limited time to make some very hard decisions and investments that will be absolutely critical in the coming decades and we must choose wisely.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Shock and anger

I am writing because of an issue that I find unacceptable and which, unfortunately, I have encountered in person more than once recently. I am speaking of racism.

What, you might ask, is this doing on an environmental blog? Well, the issue arose during a discussion about reducing the global population and it was the same point of view that Dave Foreman put forward in his 1986 interview for Simple Living magazine, and later apologised for (everyone is entitled to make mistakes right?). The suggestion was that we should ‘stop all those people having babies in the developing world’ and even that we should ‘let nature take its course’ during and after natural disasters in developing nations. I was shocked, but sadly not completely surprised.

Maybe it is my age. I am in my forties and so I am sometimes (and in these cases I was) talking to people in their fifties and sixties whose upbringing was different. Maybe people younger than I rarely encounter this?

This opinion completely ignores the fundamental social causes of environmental degradation and destruction in some developing nations. The fact of the matter is that rich industrialised nations and multinational corporations have a long history of exploitation. It also completely exonerates the western consumer from responsibility by refusing to address the massive global inequality in allocation of resources. In every conceivable way, this view is morally indefensible!

Global overpopulation is an issue that desperately needs addressing, but when a medium sized pet dog in a developed nation uses more resources per year than a citizen of Ethiopia or Vietnam
(see New Scientist article here:, then something is very wrong.

We must look beyond our personal and national ‘interest’ and recognise our common humanity. We in the industrialised nations cannot deny our responsibility for the mess that we are in both currently and historically. We must all act together and act fairly if we are going to survive.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Truth will out

Two years ago, at Bali, politicians from around the globe vowed to finalise a binding treaty at Copenhagen next month. The UK government has acknowledged that this is now very unlikely (

With the massive and inspiring global day of action which happened just under a fortnight ago (see I had hoped for something genuine. I now believe that it will not happen. I expect to see some sort of "deal" made but I suspect it will have no real substance and any gains made will be frittered away in the cause of "national economic interest".

We have relied on our politicians to save us and they are proving to be something of a broken reed. Now we must act for ourselves. We must build local resilience in the face of the crisis; we must adapt or go under.
Grassroots activism and initiatives such as all the Transition initiatives, the 10:10 campaign and all the local food groups are needed now. As individuals we must act in our own lives, each reducing our personal impact on the planet.

Whether our politicians act or not, there is trouble ahead, and we should accept our personal responsibility to address it.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The root of all evil

In the light of recent news I feel both hope and desapair.

The EU has put forward an offer to cut its emissions by up to 95% by 2050 and by 30% by 2030 if a deal is reached at Copenhagen ( This is excellent news!

India and China have also agreed to work together in sharing and developing technology and reducing their emissions( This is also excellent news!

The British Prime Minister has adressed representatives from 17 nation, including several of the worlds biggest polluters, that we had "50 days to save the world from warming" ( (less now) and that a deal must be made at Copenhagen.

All this is very good, but being the cynical so-and-so that I am, I wonder...

In the same article that the Guardian reports the EU offer, it reports that there is disagreement over the funding package for developing countries. Poland and other poorer european nations are not happy at being asked to subsidise action in developing nations such as China, which have a strong growing economy.

China and India are both reported as stating that the measures needed to address climate change will harm their economies and that they require financial incentives from the developed nations which have historic responsibility for a large percentage of greenhouse gas emissions (despite China's vulnerability to climate change, see here

China and India, along with other developing nations, are reported to require that the Kyoto Protocol, with it's legally binding emissions targets on developed nations, be used as the basis for further negotiations.

Th US rejects this and is pressing for a deal not based on Kyoto and opposition in the US Senate, and fear that the Boxer-Kerry bill will damage US economic competitiveness seem not to promise much hope of a real, radical and binding deal being made at Copenhagen.

I am deeply concerned that our need to be economically competitive and to support our national economies will mean that we do not act radically enough or fast enough, that we will be doomed by our "national economic interest". We do not have the time, we MUST act now.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Arctic blue

The BBC reports today ( the findings of the Catlin Arctic Survey. The expedition trekked across 435km of ice earlier this year and was assessing the thickness of the ice.

The team found that the ice floes were on average 1.8m thick, typical of "first year" ice which forms during the previous winter and which is more vulnerable to melting than the thicker "multi- year" ice which they had been expecting to traverse. When the ridges of ice between the floes were included, the average ice thickness was 4.8m

Professor Peter Wadhams of Cambridge University, who has been studying the Arctic Ice since the 1960s, is quoted as saying that the Catlin Arctic Survey data supports the view that the Arctic will be ice-free in summer within about 20 years and that much of that decrease would happen within 10 years:
"You'll be able to treat the Arctic as if it were essentially an open sea in the summer," he said.

This echoes a modelling study undertaken by a group headed by Professor Maslowski of NASA in 2007 (reported here: Using data from 1979-2004, this study predicted that the Arctic would be ice-free in the summer by 2013. A recent Met Office study predicted a temperature increase in the Arctic of as much as 16 degrees C by 2060.

As the Arctic opens up, access to the fossil fuel reserves in the region becomes easier and international tensions are likely to rise, as I've mentioned before on this blog. See here for Canada's territorial claims to the Northwest Passage ( ).

However, the most serious environmental risk is the methane locked up under the Arctic which could be released into the atmosphere as the temperature of the region rises. Methane release has been linked to the Permian-Triassic mass extinction which killed 96% of all life (Ryskin et al. Geology, September 2003 pages 741-744).

So we must consider not the immediate bonanza of easier access to fossil fuels (just in time to temporarily avert peak oil) but a further future, in which we face the very real possibility of extinction. Perhaps that will bring the resolve we need.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Peaking too soon

Today, the UK Energy Research Centre published its Global Oil Depletion Report online at This report reinforces the conclusions of the IEA Energy Outlook in December last year, which I blogged about in my very first post, Peak Oil in 2020? The executive summary of the report provides interesting, if disturbing, reading. The most telling sentence of the summary is:-

On the basis of current evidence we suggest that a peak of conventional oil production before 2030 appears likely and there is a significant risk of a peak before 2020.

Basically we are looking at peak oil of conventional sources in ten or twenty years (or less).
Given that the report by Hirsch et al (2005) for the US Department of Energy argued that a twenty year lead-in time was needed to avoid massive social upheaval, we don't have a lot of time.

The peak itself is important. But given the sheer physical limitations on oil extraction, it seems that the rate of decline (how much less oil can be extracted year on year) will be critical. Increasing demand for energy from rapidly industrialising nations such as China and India, coupled with the already high demands of industrialised nations like the US, suggest that competition for energy supplies will be fierce.

With our complete dependence on cheap oil for our transport, agriculture, heating and food distribution infrastructure, we need to stop ignoring this and hoping it will go away.

The Transition movement (see the wiki here ), with its emphasis on engagement and building local resilience, offers one way forward. I am encouraged by the increasing number of Transition initiatives around the globe.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Under the carpet

In an interview with the BBC, Professor David Mackay is reported to have said that reductions in CO2 emissions since 1990 are "an illusion" (
He was speaking about the fact that we have exported our industry and that much of what we buy is manufactured or grown in other countries such as China or India. A study by Dieter Helm from Oxford University in 2007 estimated that our true emissions footprint is roughly twice as big as it looks on paper, due to overseas manufacture of goods we consume.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, emissions were considered to be the problem of the country in which they were produced. We get to look good while China looks like the bad guy for producing goods which we are buying, no wonder they are unhappy with this situation!

This issue is going to be a hot one! How well will the necessary impact on our lifestyles go down in domestic politics in the US, the UK or other developed nations? And how will this affect the negotiating positons of these countries at Copenhagen or other international summits?
Already Barack Obama is reported to be downplaying the need for a deal at Copenhagen (see Guardian article here:, while India's environment minister has challenged the US over it's "measly" efforts to combat climate change ( Li Gao of China said earlier this year that developed countries should take responsibility for the emissions produced in the manufacture of goods for them (
Our very status as nations the in G8 or G20 countries is based on our GDP which is a measure of consumption.

The issue we have to face is this, we cannot have our western consumerist lifestyle and avoid the consequences. Climate change is directly linked to our manufactured NEED for stuff, our cars and fridges and PCs and mobile phones and iPODs and just more and more stuff which we consume every year. We can no longer sweep it away under the carpet and blame another.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Closer than you think

The Guardian ( and the Daily Telegraph ( are both reporting today on a study prepared for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. The study, by the Met Office, apparently states that unless serious action is taken to reduce emissions, there could be an average global temperature rise of 4 degrees C by 2060.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) reported last week that an analysis of the latest peer-reviewed science indicated that many predictions from the upper end of the IPPC 2007 forecasts were becoming ever more likely (download the full report here:

In the UNEP report it is stated that carbon dioxide emissions from energy and industry had exceeded even the most fossil fuel intensive scenario developed by the IPPC: that aragonite (a substance in shells) corroding water is already upwelling along the California coast, decades earlier than existing models predicted; that losses from glaciers, ice sheets and the polar regions appear to be happening faster than anticipated; that an average sea level rise of 0.8-2.0m above the 1990 level is now plausible (compared with the 18-59cm scenario in the 2007 IPPC report). The list goes on...

Taken together, these reports indicate a truly horrific scenario, that we may already be committed to "damaging and irreversible impacts" and that unless there is co-ordinated and drastic action now, further environmental tipping points may be reached sooner than previously predicted.

Climate change is not just a distant threat to our grandchildren. The effects of climate change will be felt by people now living and those effects will be huge and unprecedented. Human civilisation has developed within relative climactic norms and we are facing the possibility of pushing the climate outside those norms.

We must act now and we must make our politicians act now. We must prepare for the impacts which will happen and do our best to avert those which might happen. Each one of us who takes no action now shares responsibility for what is to come.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Earth Overshoot Day 2009

According to the Ecological Footprint Network ( today is Earth Overshoot Day.

The earth can only produce a certain amount of resources and absorb a certain amount of waste each year. Any resource consumption or waste produced above this level is unsustainable. Year on year, we use more resources than the earth can produce and we produce more waste than the earth can absorb in that year. So, between 1st January 2009 and today, we have used up all the resources the planet can sustainably produce in an entire year: from today we are living on ecological credit. And we still have more than three months to go till the end of the year. Any householder can see that this is ridiculously unsustainable.

We first went into overshoot in 1986. By 1996 we had a 15% greater demand than the planet could meet and now our demand is around 40% greater than the planet can meet in one year.

Overshoot Day shows the day on which our total ecological footprint (measured in hectares) is equal to the biocapacity (also measured in hectares) which can be regenerated in 1 year. It is calculated by multiplying the ratio of available global biocapacity to global ecological footprint by 365, which gives the day of the year when we go into overshoot. (See here for more info

Earth Overshoot Day 2009 is only one day later than last year. The global economic slowdown has not really cut our demand. And according to calculations by the Global Footprint Network, we have been moving 4-6 days closer to January 1st each year.

Earth Overshoot Day is yet another indicator that our overconsumption is killing us. As I have said on this blog many times, we MUST reduce our demands on the planet and there MUST be a more equitable distribution of resources and responsibilities. We in the developed world bear prime responsibility for this ecological debt and need to face up to that fact, both as nations and as individuals. Each of us must take individual responsibility for reducing our own ecological footprint.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

On foraging and the right to roam

From my viewpoint, which I recognise may be a little off-the-wall, foraging is an essential skill. Foraging allows us to "live within the landscape" in a way that is unique and goes some way to helping us reconnect to the planet on which we depend. It can also reawaken a knowledge of our dependence on the land and a sense of protectiveness towards it. This is, in my opinion, desperately needed.

At a time when world hunger is reaching epic proportions, our food supply is completely unsustainable: it is fragile in the face of peak oil and climate change. Reconnecting to the land and developing the skills to live more bioregionally are not only desirable, but essential.
Foraged food is really the ultimate in local seasonal food.
As a vegetarian of 23 years standing I have put some thought into my diet and have decided to eat flesh.

Where I live in Shetland there is an abundance of shellfish. As I walk by the sound I find edible seaweeds, maritime plants, oysters, mussels, cockles and crabs (along with winkles and whelks) within minutes.
After consulting the local offices of SEPA and the local Environmental Health Office regarding the legality and the safety (sewage, blue-green algae etc.) of foraging in the area, and having received some very positive support and clarification, I have decided to try my hand at foraging my own dinner once in a while.

If harvested on an individual scale with respect for their life-cycles and the local ecosystem, then I believe that my foraged seafood may have a lower environmental impact than Quorn, which is shipped in from the mainland, or cheese with all its associated animal-welfare and environmental issues.

One argument which I have heard against foraging is that "If everybody did it, it would not be sustainable", but it seems to me that this argument completely ignores the lack of sustainability of our present practices. Yes, care must be taken and I do not believe that foraging alone will provide food for all. But I think that if more people foraged (with care and respect), our worldview might well improve.

The right to roam or to gather shellfish, and access to the land and to the foreshore, have a long history in English and Scottish law. There is something very satisfying about going for a ramble and gathering food along the way, or going out with some buckets and a drop-net with the kids, or even going blackberrying, hunting puffballs and field mushrooms, or taking part in Abundance Project like the one in Sheffield (

Familiarity with our local bioregion and an understanding of our dependence on the planet that feeds us is critical to developing awareness of how unsustainable consumption impacts the planet, and in recognising that the results of our over-consumption will have a direct impact on ourselves and our descendants.
Land-rights and foraging-rights are vital as a means of educating ourselves, and may, in the future, become critical as a means of supplementing our families’ diets. They must be preserved.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Mr Brown goes to town

The British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has become the first national leader to pledge to attend the climate conference at Copenhagen in December. This is good news. I hope that his action will put pressure on other leaders to attend and to agree an effective, binding deal.

I am pleased that politicians are waking up to the gravity of the situation and to the possibility of public outrage and the loss of faith and consequently their jobs if they fail to show integrity on this issue. I am also innured to the capitalist vision of the economic returns from investment in a "green economy" and accept that this is the necessary driver for business. I hope that these will be sufficient to motivate even the most environment-blind politician to see the benefits of agreeing a strong global policy.

I am, however, cynical. They may talk the talk; now to see whether they walk the walk.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Feet of Clay

According to The Guardian newspaper today (, in the Draft Implementing Agreement submitted by the US to the UN in May was a clause which stated that emissions reductions will be in accordance with domestic law. It’s clear to see what loopholes this opens up for the unscrupulous!

The problem seems to be one of domestic politics: the urgency of the oncoming crisis appears less appreciated by the US populace and climate change is lower down the list of national priorities than, say, jobs and the national economic interest. The US Senate never ratified the Kyoto Protocol and the Obama administration appears doubtful that a new global treaty would get the 2/3 majority it would need to pass in the Senate, hence the clause. It also appears that there is some conflict between the EU wanting to build on Kyoto and the US desire to sweep Kyoto away and negotiate a new agreement based on their own system.

Critically, this may result in no firm agreement being reached at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen later this year.

Re-negotiation could take years; years that we may not have. The IPCC report published in May 2007 indicated that global emissions must peak by 2015 in order to prevent a global mean temperature rise of more than 2 degrees Celsius. A 2 degree rise would still affect millions, but a higher rise could be catastrophic (see an interactive map by New Scientist, depicting the projected state of the planet based on a 4 degree rise, here:

While I personally fear that we may be already too late to limit the temperature rise to 2 degrees, we must not despair. We must act! Politicians everywhere must be left in no doubt of the importance, both to us and to our future, of a strong, binding agreement and globally co-ordinated action now.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Business as Usual!

A BBC news report today regarding the airline industry ( reveals a situation that is nothing short of outrageous.

The article reports that the Climate Change Committee (CCC) is warning that the UK as whole will have to make more severe cuts in emissions than the planned 80%, in order that the aviation industry can continue to grow.

The CCC suggested in a letter to Ed Milliband (Climate Change Secretary) and Lord Adonis (Transport Secretary) that the aviation industry will need to cut its emissions back to 2005 levels by 2050. This is a much smaller emissions cut than is expected of any other sector, business or private. The overall UK target is to cut emissions of greenhouse gases by 80% on 1990 levels by 2050.

So where will the slack be taken up? Who will really pay for this? Will our fuel bills get higher and our lives become significantly harder in order to pay for the jet-setting life-style of a minority? In an age of near-instant communications technology, much air travel is completely unnecessary. Up to a point, even conferences can be organised via the internet.

In its 2007 report, Dying on a Jetplane, the World Development Movement said: “Flying is an activity dominated primarily by the rich. The richest 18 per cent of the UK population are responsible for 54 per cent of flights, whilst the poorest 18 per cent are responsible for just 5 per cent.” It’s very clear to see who benefits.

David Milliband (UK Foreign Secretary) is reported to have said ( that there is a "real chance" that the Copenhagen summit will not reach agreement. No surprises there, then! How likely is it that we can convince developing nations like China, India and Brazil of our sincerity and of the desperate need to limit their emissions when we are pandering to the desires of our own elite minority and of big business interests regardless of the consequences?

No wonder some critics talk of the neo-imperialism of emissions trading and carbon reduction protocols! Developed nations tell developing nations (often former colonies of theirs) to limit their consumption while at the same time making exceptions and cosmetic changes only themselves. The parallels with the "exceptionalism" of international diplomacy and dominance are quite chilling.

In the face of the oncoming crisis it is essential that we are in agreement on the necessity to act globally and that we think in terms of our common survival and not in terms of "the national interest". Economic growth and consumption are not true measures of the health and happiness of a population. We must not be enslaved by their siren song.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

I'm Back/In a new place

Hi All

Thank you for your patience. It has taken BT nearly a month to connect us after our move to Shetland, but finally we are back online.

In this more rural setting, life seems slower and the immediate environmental concerns here are different: sewage, overfishing, marine pollution and a large inappropriate development (of which more another time). But there is still awareness of the global challenges facing us.

The Unst Regenerative Growers Enterprise (The URGE)(, just down the road from my home, aims to “turn your food miles into food inches". They grow chemical-free veg and fruit in polytunnels using scavenged materials. Due to the poor quality of the soil locally, they "make" the soil using kelp, animal dung, compost and a lot of hard work.

I suppose the point of this post (apart from saying "I have returned") is that local solutions need to be found to local issues and also that local knowlwedge and engagement are both necessary and highly desirable in finding ways adapt to the crisis that we face.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Please continue to watch this space

Hi All

I am aware that I have not posted for some time and thought I would offer some explanation.

I am in the process of a long-distance house move. The moving date is set for early August, so I am frantically packing. I have also been dealing with the death of a very close family member and, as a result, have also been engaged with funeral arrangements.

I will post again as soon as the dust has settled!

Monday, 29 June 2009

Local Seeds

Last Monday, 22nd June, I attended the first meeting of Transition Bedford ( and I have to say that it was inspiring. The “stars” of the meeting were the local community groups who are already taking action in some aspect of preparing or building local resilience. Speakers included representatives from Golden Gardens, a community gardening project; Zero Carbon Castle and others.

The transition concept of building local resilience in the face of the combined global effects of peak oil and climate change is vital. With our society so heavily dependent on “just in time” deliveries and imported food, energy and skills, it is essential that we begin the process now.

The grassroots aspect of the Transition movement is the secret of its success. We are accustomed to “top-down” solutions to our problems, and have become passive. But there may not be time for a coordinated government response, even if there was the political will for such a thing. We all have valuable skills and knowledge; these are wasted if we rely on salvation from above.

One central theme that ran through the meeting was food. Eating is a visceral connection to the planet, and growing your own or communal growing seems to be a gateway to a greater environmental consciousness. As only ethically sourced and homemade food was provided at the meeting, conversation and networking really hit the right spot.

All attendees agreed that we need to live more bioregionally, to look at our local ecosystem and live within its means as far as possible.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

All that Glitters

I have recently been reading the report Dirty Metals: Mining, Communities and the Environment by Earthworks and Oxfam America (available here It is shocking.

Take gold as an example. About 2/3 of the gold in use is new gold and 2/3 of new gold is mined from open pit mines. Over 80% of gold is used for jewellery, such as wedding rings.

Open pit mines are hugely ecologically destructive and generate vast amounts of rock waste. Cyanide is sprayed onto the piles of crushed ore, to trickle through the heap and bond with the gold. The gold-cyanide solution is then pumped to a mill for chemical separation and the cyanide is stored in an artificial pond for re-use. Each bout of leaching may take months, after which the heaps get a fresh load of ore. The piles of cyanide-contaminated waste ore are often abandoned and can continue to contaminate the surrounding area for years.

Another very visible problem is the failure of mine tailings dams. Tailings are a soupy to semi-solid suspension of pulverised rock in water, generally toxin loaded. On-site tailings disposal generally consists of bulldozing some of the dried tailings into a dam which can hold more liquid waste. These dams are constructed and enlarged over the life of the mine, so structural integrity can be a problem. When the tailings dam at Omai gold mine in Guyana failed in 1995, it released some 3 billion litres of cyanide laden waste into the Omai River, which is a tributary of Guyana’s largest river, the Essequibo. The whole 51 km drainage from the mine to the Atlantic Ocean (home to 23,000 people) was subsequently declared an official “Environmental Disaster Zone” by the president of Guyana.

After chemical separation, the extracted gold is transported to a highly energy intensive smelter for processing. There is potential here for a conflict of interests as governments have to choose between supplying energy to smelters or to homes. For example, China’s aluminium smelters use enough energy each week to supply 2 million of its citizens for a year (see Bloomberg on this issue here

The purified gold is sold and made into its final product. According to the report, a typical 18 carat wedding ring produces (at a conservative estimate!) about 20 tons of mine waste (without including “overburden” i.e. the earth which was blasted away to get at the ore)!

This is symptomatic of our lives. Our need for status-objects from stone axe-heads to cars, designer clothes, gold jewellery and wedding rings is having a huge impact on the planet that we live on. As we become more affluent and our model of “success” is spread around the world, the burden we are placing on the planet increases.

We must change our priorities and give serious thought to our “status-objects” if we are to survive.

Friday, 26 June 2009

This blog is moving

Hi All
Just a short post to say that I have been invited to join GreenPress an online host site for eco-bloggers and I am moving this blog over to there
Thank you all for your comments and feedback, I hope that you will all come and find me at

PS I have decided to keep posting the same posts on here for a while to see.

Have Fun

Monday, 22 June 2009

Parental Responsibility

My eldest child is 10 years old and already keen to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”. Currently, I am trying to teach her what little I know about foraging for food and wild medicine. This is because I think she will need these skills later on in her life.

Sadly, I think that society "as we know it" will alter radically in the course of her lifetime – perhaps in as little as 10 or 20 years – as peak oil and climate change impact our food security, pharmaceutical industry, health service and all aspects of our modern lifestyle.

We have a responsibility to our children and grandchildren. The decisions that we make now (and there is no escaping the decision, as doing nothing is itself a decision) will affect the world that they inhabit. The lifespan of carbon in the atmosphere, loss of biodiversity, ocean acidification and loss of cropland, among others, will have a huge and lasting impact.

In each of our actions we must consider the world which we will be leaving to our children, and we must teach them the skills to survive and prosper in that world.

I am not talking about a survivalist "I alone will survive" type of mentality. I think that community-based co-operation and sharing of skills is the only realistic way. But we must take our heads out of the sand and face the stark reality of the situation we have created for our children. Only then can we adapt. Only if we consider our children's future will we be motivated to act as we must.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Small Candles

Rising from the present climate of frustration and despair (which I seem to express repeatedly on this blog), I see candle-flames of hope. Lights which are growing and which may lead to the changes we need.

The Transition movement ( seems to me to be one such light. The community-based, decentralised nature of the movement with its focus on identifying local solutions and resources to meet local needs is a positive step towards the change of paradigm which we need. The very concept of "Transition" in its transformational nature expresses this.

For many years, writers and activists from the Deep and Social Ecology movements have been highly critical of "shallow" "reformatory" conservation. Writers like Arne Naess and Murray Bookchin argued convincingly that ethical and social transformation is a necessary first step towards dealing with the oncoming crisis and that without this we will be doomed to slow, despairing failure. The growth in environmental consciousness and grass-roots movements offer hope that such a transformation is possible.

I live in Bedford in the UK, which features in the excellent film Age of Stupid ( – not in good way. But even Bedford has taken its first steps with the formation of a Transition Bedford group ( and people from this group attended the national Transition Town Conference recently. The fact that the Transition Town movement is now big enough to hold a national conference, and that even people from a green "desert" like Bedford attended it, is definitely a good sign. This is not to minimise the huge challenges we face, but it is encouraging that so many people believe they can make a difference and are making concrete plans to address climate change at the community level.

It is essential in this process that we communicate! Others have different skills, viewpoints and knowledge. There is no point in re-inventing the wheel, and discussion of differing views is essential to avoid parochialism and isolation. When we are planning for the eventual transformation of our society, then the "hows" "whys" and "what ifs" must be thoroughly discussed.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Green Dictator

Recently I have noticed, both in conversation and in print, a marked increase in people calling for a dictatorship to solve the current environmental crises. This is a natural human response to fear for one’s family’s security, but I am very concerned by it. What people calling for a dictatorship actually want is for everybody to be forced to address the climate crisis, but a dictator might well do far more than that, and we would not necessarily approve of all his/her policies. Considering the history of twentieth century dictatorships and the recent rise in popularity of right-wing political parties in Europe and the UK, I fear the consequences of accepting a dictator.

As we grapple with ecological, political, financial and ethical crises; as we face the uncertain future, debate must not be circumscribed. All alternatives should be examined, from anarchism and non-statism to monarchism, nationalism and fascism; from voluntary simplicity to war for resources; from communal living to population limitation. However unpleasant some of these alternatives are, without honest and open discussion we risk sliding uncritically back into the old patterns and systems which have led us to this point.

What is needed is not just reform, but a radical change of paradigm.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Asking the right questions

I have been wondering lately whether we are asking the right questions. Given that the impacts of peak oil and climate change are likely to be severe (particularly in combination) and that the timescale is short but uncertain, we need to think about what we actually need and what is achievable in the time available.

The question is not how we can maintain our comfortable urban western lifestyles. It is almost certainly too late for that. I think the question we should be asking is how can we survive the oncoming crisis?

We should invest the majority of our resources in adaptation. In the time available to us we need to change our paradigm completely. We need to focus on strategies which will alter us from a consumption-based, individualist, status- oriented society to one which can survive the challenges to come.

We need to envision the future, to create models of alternative societies. To do this we should look forward to examine the needs and constraints that we are likely face. Then, from various past and current cultures we can choose the tools required to meet our needs both socially and technologically. It is vital for us to seriously consider and implement a range of alternative social and domestic models in order to prevent us riding headlong towards the destruction of the majority of the human race.

Since the fall of state communism in the 1990s there has been no serious questioning of capitalism and with globalisation we have spread this model across the world. It is difficult to see how the capitalist model of continuous economic growth and ostentatious display is sustainable in a world with very limited resources. While I don’t believe that state communism is the way forward, we do need more co-operative thinking with more active and direct involvement of people in the processes of society.

Whatever our political views, we need to work together to meet the challenges facing us or face the possibility that we too, like the majority of species that have ever existed, will go extinct.

Thursday, 30 April 2009

Coal Fired Power Stations

Last week, Ed Milliband stood up in parliament and gave the go-ahead for a new generation of coal fired power stations.

These coal fired power stations are to be fitted with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technology to capture a percentage of emitted greenhouse gases and transport them to empty gas wells in the North Sea where they will be stored. However those emissions which are not captured by the CCS system will be free to enter the atmosphere.

100% CCS is supposed to be (retro)fitted to all coal-fired power stations within five years of 2020. I remain dubious. CCS is as yet unproven in full. Parts of the process have been proven to work, but as yet no full scale plant is operational. It is possible - though not guaranteed, especially with the present economic climate - that the technology will be workable eventually. But what if it is not? Will the government then shut down existing power plants, knowing that the result will be a poor electricity supply? This would surely be a very unpopular decision, so we have to assume that coal fired power stations would continue to emit massive amounts of carbon.

Should CCS technology prove viable, there remains the issue of the long-term security of the carbon storage. We would need to be very certain that the carbon dioxide will remain trapped and not escape, perhaps adding significantly to ocean acidification.

The Guardian revealed recently ( that secret intelligence on climate protesters was passed to E.ON ahead of the demonstrations at Kingsnorth last year. Given that E.ON is likely to be one of the companies involved in the construction of new coal-fired power stations, one might be forgiven for asking the Gramscian question "Who benefits?"

Surely we should be investing in efficient green energy technologies to generate our electricity. There are several tried and tested technologies we might promote:
• Biomass: Locally sourced biomass (e.g. used vegetable oil, vegetable waste or short rotation coppice) could be burned to provide electricity.
• CHiP: In CHiP, biomass is burned to produce electricity. The output heat is also captured and then used to heat the existing gas stream, then used to produce more electricity. The proposed Combined Heat "intelligent" Power (CHiP) plant at Becton in London is a very good example.
• There is also the possibility of generating electricity and heat (CHP) through incineration or gasification of rubbish. As with any heat producing plant, the waste heat can be utilised to provide heating and hot water for local residents via "district heating." Schemes.
• Biochar: Biochar kilns such as those provided by the Biochar Fund in Cameroon use pyrolysis to produce biochar and heat and electricity (CHPC). The Biochar Fund's stoves can also be used for cooking while the char is being made.
• In the UK, we have potential for good tidal current, wave and wind generation.

An important point to consider in the discussion of energy security is the role of decentralised energy: the use of local resources for local people. For example some areas are ideal for wind or tidal generation where others might be better burning rubbish or biomass: it makes sense to use the technology best suited for the area. This would result in a greater number of small-scale power stations or clusters of off-grid microgeneration, opening opportunities for community "ownership" schemes and local jobs building and maintaining the technology. These local schemes would be accountable to and would benefit local people, rather than corporations accountable to distant shareholders. Energy security should also be enhanced, where cables travel only short distances instead of across the whole country: energy outages in one area would not have a knock-on effect on another.

At the end of the day coal is a fossil fuel and has all the drawbacks associated with any fossil fuel – including the fact that, one day, we will run out.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Climate Change Now

The climate change we are currently experiencing is a direct result of the way people have lived, especially in the last 200 years, and people are just one of its many victims.
• In November 2005 the Papua New Guinean government decided to abandon their 30 year battle to stop the Pacific destroying homes on the Cataret Atolls. In the following 2 years, the Cataret people officially became the first to be evacuated because of climate change.
• According to the International Red Cross report Preparedness for Climate Change (2003), over the decade prior to their report (1993-2003) weather-related disasters accounted for 90% of all reported natural disasters and 86% of all deaths from natural disasters. Subsequent to the publication of this report, we experienced hurricanes Katrina (2005) and Ike (2008), the Boxing Day Tsunami (2004) and the Pakistan earthquake (2005), which would have pushed the percentages even higher.
• In June last year the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, warned that climate change was forcing growing numbers of people in the developing world to flee their homes.
• The UNHCR 2007 Global Trends Report ( states that the number of people under the UNHCR's responsibility had risen steeply for the second year running, from 9.9 to 11.4 million.
• According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre the number of people displaced internally by conflict increased from 24.4 to 26 million people. As climate change degrades already stressed environments, conflict for resources, which is at the root of the conflict in Darfur among others, ( are likely to increase.

In a Guardian poll ( sent to climate scientists who met in Copenhagen ahead of the G20 summit (see previous post, Saturday 21 March 2009) 86% of respondents said that they do not believe that we will be able to keep mean global temperature rise to 2 degrees centigrade; the most likely outcome is a temperature rise of 5-6 degrees centigrade. We are likely to see this rise by 2100, and some delegates believe it will happen by 2050. But what does this mean in real terms? Climate modelling predicts dire consequences if the global mean temperature rises by 4 degrees centigrade: a world where much presently inhabited land becomes uninhabitable due to extreme weather conditions, including most of the USA and all of Africa and India. At the same time, the habitable areas will be struggling to cope with local crises caused by far more severe weather events than they have previously experienced. A very good map from New Scientist illustrating this can be seen here (

If this model is accurate, then over the next few decades we can expect to see a massive increase in the number of refugees and displaced people, some as a direct result of global warming and others as a result of conflict for increasingly scarce resources.

We face the dual crises of peak oil and climate change at the same time as a global economic crisis. As we struggle to deal with food and water shortages, flooding, cyclones and refugees fleeing uninhabitable areas, how will our modern "liberal" societies deal with the challenge?

People facing adverse conditions tend to become more rigid in their views, in a bid to conserve increasingly scarce resources for their own community of like-minded individuals. In times when people feel their very survival is at stake, there is a stronger reaction against minor crime, against foreigners, and against anyone who challenges the status quo. It’s difficult to imagine people welcoming an influx of refugees into already over-burdened communities. We may see the rise of fascism and nationalism, martial law or entrenched gang rule/warlordism, depending on the extent of collapse in the individual area, with competition and perhaps war for increasingly scarce resources.

How will states deal with the refugee crisis? A state facing severe shortages of basic necessities and with a populace fearful of increased demands on local resources is likely to refuse entry to refugees. Vast amounts of precious and increasingly scarce resources may go into maintaining a standing army to protect the nation’s food security.

How will a starving nation act to secure food, water and energy? One absolutely terrifying possibility is the use of WMD in this scenario. Will the knowledge that their weapons may pollute the very resources they are trying to secure prevent them using those weapons? Probably not if they have the technology to clean the area afterwards, or if there’s the slightest hope that even polluted resources will keep them alive for just a little while longer. Truly desperate people have nothing to lose.

Human history holds many unpleasant examples of atrocities resulting from competition for even non-essential resources, and we must make sure that they are not repeated.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Thoughts from The Age of Stupid

I attended a public screening of the excellent film Age of Stupid last night. Between the film and the discussion that followed, two things really struck me.

1) The impact of globalisation
2) Our sense of "entitlement" in the developed world coupled with the aspirations of those in developing nations.

In the film, the Nigerian woman living in the polluted Niger delta, dealing daily with the consequences of our unquenchable thirst for oil and Shell's unquenchable thirst for profit, wanted to live in an American house like an American. The Indian low-cost airline entrepreneur was inspired by EasyJet. Our culture, which rides on the back of multinational corporations like Shell and McDonalds, is exported around the globe as "the good life," to the point that impoverished women all over the world buy manufactured baby milk – despite the fact that they cannot afford it – because it is more “civilised” than breast-feeding. Views of the world which differ from the current western norm are deemed “primitive,” "unrealistic" or "radical" and are marginalised or demonised. People who live in self-build houses made from natural materials in the developing nations are objects of appalled pity and often even scorn: those who live in similar houses by choice in the developed world are generally regarded as certifiable extremists.

We in the developed world are living at an unsustainable level. Our consumption of resources is vast and we seem to take it for granted. For example in my local Tesco there are organic strawberries from Spain, blackberries from Mexico, organic apples from the USA and organic bananas from the Caribbean. My organic sea-salt is from South Africa and my organic, fairtrade coffee is "produce of more than one country". We take all this and more (our bread, chocolate, cars, toilet paper, washing machines, gravel drives, computers, cotton clothing and mobile phones...) for granted. At a more basic level, our "right" to constantly available hot water and clean drinking water and 24-hour heating for our homes in winter goes unquestioned and we barely consider the impact that this has on the planet. Even "green" consumption still uses resources. Wind-farms still need concrete, steel and the energy to manufacture them, and organic veg box schemes still deliver bananas and oranges shipped from across the world.

We need to examine the fundamentals of our society and, as individuals, to examine our way of life. To reconsider the values and ethics which are the foundations of our lives both individually and communally.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Cold Rush

As Barack Obama and Dimitry Medvedev meet in London, further north relations are not so warm.

According to the Guardian newspaper, ( Russia has announced plans for a dedicated military force to patrol the Arctic.

As the Arctic warms and its ice melts, facilitating access for ships and offshore drilling rigs, northern countries (including the EU) are lining up to exploit the oil and gas reserves in the polar region. In 2007 Russia planted a titanium flag on the seabed under the North Pole, laying claim to the area, and last September Mr Medvedev said that the region must become Russia's strategic resource base for the 21st century. This attitude has heightened international tensions, and the suggestion by NATO Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, in January that NATO should have a presence in the region was not well received in Russia.

The jockeying for position to exploit remaining fossil fuel reserves is short-sighted and runs directly counter to our imperative need to combat climate change. We need to stop burning fossil fuels and investigate other, cleaner forms of energy. The Arctic contains an estimated quarter of the world's unexplored oil and gas reserves and its exploitation will have a huge effect on the climate.

The benefits of a few more years of cheap "business as usual" cannot outweigh the costs. This short-term bonanza will have severe consequences for us all.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

London Protest

Thousands of people are expected to march for social and environmental justice today in London ahead of the G20 meeting next week. The protest will continue throughout the following week. London’s Metropolitan Police state that this protest demonstrates unprecedented planning and co-ordination between protest groups. Tonight, many more will join in the protest by turning off all the lights in their houses from 8:30pm local time in the highly visible global Earth Hour action.

At last, I am inspired with a little hope. I see some chance, however tiny, that the world leaders will recognise the popular support for change both here in the UK and across the globe and realise that they must act convincingly immediately. As climate change and social justice become widespread concerns, politicians will need to address those concerns or risk an even greater loss of faith in the political process than they already see.

We must make our voices heard. We must somehow tell our elected representatives how critical this is to us. For our own future and that of our children.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Voices Raised

In the wake of the Copenhagen conference the UK government's chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, predicts a 'perfect storm' of crises peaking in about 2030, just 21 years from now (

As food, water and energy shortages begin to bite it is the poor, and especially the urban poor, who will suffer most. Our current way of life is very resource-hungry, and if global population rises as predicted then conflict seems almost inevitable. Take into consideration diseases like the Stem Rust variant Ug99 which threatens our wheat supply and which has evolved resistance to controls, and the situation looks perilous. Development of new controls for such diseases takes time and resources which we may not have, and an already precarious situation regarding our food security may become critical.

Despite these warnings from the world’s senior climate scientists, Shell this week ended its funding of wind, solar and hydrogen projects, explaining in a press release that they are "not competitive in the current economic climate" (

The same economic short-termism characterises our political scene: our politicians look towards the next election and often choose not to make essential decisions which may lead to voter discomfort or job losses. In reaction, NASA scientist James Hansen has called for more protest and non-violent direct action, saying that the political process is not working fast enough to reduce carbon emissions and has been corrupted by corporate lobbying (

A conflict, operating at personal, national and international levels, between the desire for profit and the need to act responsibly is at the core of the challenges facing us. Unless we address this, we will lurch from crisis to disaster.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Final Warning

Over 2,500 scientists met at an emergency conference in Copenhagen last week to discuss the changing climate. In their statement, they warned of “devastating” consequences if global warming is allowed to progress at current rates, and called upon governments to "stand up to vested interests that increase emissions." Currently, governments are trying to address the concerns of businesses anxious to increase profits year on year at the same time as responding to the warning signs of serious climate change, and business interests seem to be taking precedence (e.g. the recent decision to expand Heathrow).

Delegates to the conference agreed that the EU target of limiting the rise in global mean temperature to 2 degrees C is now impossible: things have gone too far. They said that if governments take strong action now to reduce emissions, it may yet be possible to hold the temperature rise to 3 degrees C, but this is looking very unlikely. A rise in global mean temperature of at least 4 degrees C is now the most likely outcome, and we will probably see it by 2099 (some climate scientists believe it may happen as early as 2050, just 40 years from now). 4 degrees C doesn’t sound like much, but it will have catastrophic effects for most life on earth.

Climate change models predict the following results if temperatures rise by 4 degrees C:
• the Amazonian rain forest burns and dies, leaving behind an uninhabitable desert
• the Mediterranean region, along with most of the US and southern and central America as well as all of Africa, India and Australia become uninhabitable deserts
• refugees from these regions pour into more northerly areas, such as the UK, Canada and Alaska and parts of Russia, and also into those few areas which are far enough south to be inhabitable, e.g. New Zealand and possibly parts of western Antarctica
• Salination of the soil through rising sea levels leads to loss of cropland.
• the UK is battered by terrible storms, with parts of Scotland suffering cyclone strength winter storms
• the south of England faces winter flooding, eroding soils which are parched from the extreme summer heat waves.
• sea level rise threatens London

As the social consequences of this scenario unfold in severe food and water shortages leading to social unrest or perhaps even collapse, who will we have to blame? Ignorance will be no excuse; the evidence is clear. Our greed is robbing our descendants of a future. We must act individually to reduce our emissions and to consume less, and we must force our politicians to act now or we and our children will face the consequences.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Conflict of interests?

Recently, I attended a local conference on climate change as a delegate of Bedfordshire Climate Change Forum, a not-for-profit organisation. It was well-attended, with delegates from local government, local businesses and a few other not-for-profit organisations.

We had a superb keynote speaker who gave a well rounded presentation on the issue, drawing on Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, outlining the problem and the causes. This was followed by presentations, discussions and short workshops on reducing carbon dioxide emissions in transport, business and at home. Feedback from these workshops will inform local authority thinking and policy.

Two issues raised at the conference really struck me.
1) How do you generate real grassroots engagement with climate change?
2) Is there an underlying conflict between the goal of business to sell us services/commodities and the necessity of reducing our consumption?

In addressing the first issue it is impossible to avoid politics. Some grassroots organisations are deemed acceptable by the mainstream while others (e.g. Earth First, Rising Tide, Plane Stupid) which take direct action to confront the root causes of climate change and to raise awareness of the issues, are labelled as "eco-terrorists" and often treated severely by the police. Individuals at demonstrations have been filmed and have had their details placed on the Crimint database (as reported in the Guardian on 07/03/09) or have been subjected to inappropriate use of anti-terror legislation. This - along with a widespread disenchantment regarding politicians and those in power - seems to me to contribute to a sense of apathy and powerlessness regarding our ability, as individuals, to affect climate change. Too many people say to me, "Whatever I do makes no difference." Using the internet to get positive information across and some sort of genuine empowerment of grassroots organisations may be a way to combat this.

On the second issue, I do think that there is an underlying conflict between the goal of business to sell stuff to us as consumers and the need for us as responsible global citizens to buy less and to buy right.

In the UK we emit about 1-2% of global carbon dioxide emissions directly and yet as consumers we have a greater impact. By buying food and other goods which are manufactured abroad and transported to the UK we are contributing to the emissions of those nations. China has claimed ( that about a third of its emissions are the result of producing goods for the developed world. Given that China emits more carbon dioxide than any other nation we must accept our share of the blame.

In the UK, government and other organisations set targets for businesses and help them to reduce their emissions; also, many environmental management systems stress the supply chain angle. However, as consumers, we are often unaware of the "intrinsic costs" - the environmental and social costs of producing an item - which are not shown on the label.

In order for us to truly reduce our impact on the planet rather than just "outsourcing our emissions," all items should be clearly labelled with the intrinsic costs incurred in its production. This will involve a rise in the prices of many goods, particularly those which are resource-intensive; however, local and less resource-intense items may be relatively cheaper and local jobs may be generated by an increase in sales of these goods.

If we are to act as responsible global citizens we must become well informed and highly selective consumers. We should demand that all the information to enable us to make an informed decision regarding our purchases is openly and easily available.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Community now!

Watching the BBC Natural World program A Farm for the Future got me thinking. With our agriculture and food industry based on the availability of cheap oil, who will be feeding us in, say, 20 years?

Most of our crops are grown using chemical fertilisers and pesticides which are made from oil. Farm vehicles are powered by diesel. In the UK we are a net food importer, so much of our food is transported in ships and aeroplanes powered by oil; it is often chilled or warmed in transport, requiring the use of still more energy. When it arrives in the UK it is trucked – using fuel - to distribution centres and thence to supermarkets for us to buy. As oil availability declines and oil prices rise how will this affect the current system? I suspect that supermarkets will be unable to remain open at all. So how will we be fed?

In the Second World War, the UK population was a little over 47 million. The “Dig for Victory” campaign resulted in local needs for fruit, vegetables and some meats (rabbit etc.) being largely met from back gardens and allotments, reducing the requirements for imported goods. According to the office of national statistics, in mid-2007, the UK population reached 60,975,000 ( Even with a massive "Dig for Victory" style campaign, it seems almost impossible, using conventional agricultural methods, to grow enough food to feed our current population, especially in the absence of cheap fossil-fuel based fertilisers and pesticides.

This is without even considering the impacts of climate change in terms of loss of cropland and water and suitable climate, or the other impacts of peak oil, for example on domestic use, the pharmaceutical industry and the National Health Service.

We need to radically alter the way we eat, grow and think of food. How many of us even know what is seasonal any more? How will our predominantly urban and de-skilled population cope as the supermarket shelves empty?

We need to

  • start building land-focused intentional communities to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels
  • look at alternative methods of agriculture such as permaculture, urban gardening and urban forestry.

    We need to re-skill; we no longer have the luxury of time. If we continue as we have been the social and environmental costs will be catastrophic.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Resource focus

In a previous post (Sunday, 18 January 2009) I mentioned that I had put in a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to the Ministry of Defence. In this request, I asked for information regarding MOD greenhouse gas emissions and regarding the financial cost of UK operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The MOD very courteously replied to my FOI request, sending me an email detailing the financial costs and a link to the MOD Climate Change Strategy 2009 document online (

The climate change strategy document makes interesting reading regarding the predicted effects of climate change (such as water shortages, food shortages and sea level rise, leading to displacement of people and animals) particularly from a defence viewpoint.

However, back to the issues I asked about.

MOD Carbon Dioxide emissions:
· MOD direct carbon dioxide emissions for the period 2007/2008 were 6.1 million tonnes (source: MOD Climate Change Strategy 2009).

As a point of reference:
· According to DEFRA statistics for 2007, the UK emitted 544 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, which accounted for 85% of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions (about 2% of the global total).
· 40% of the carbon dioxide in 2007 was emitted by the energy supply sector.

Financial cost of UK operations in Iraq and Afghanistan:
· The total monetary cost of British activities in Iraq up to 2008 is £6,439 million. The predicted cost for 2008/2009 is £1,379 million.
· The financial cost for UK operations in Afghanistan up to 2008 is £3,086 million. The predicted cost for 2008/2009 is £2,318 million.
Presumably as operations in Iraq wind down and Afghanistan becomes the primary focus the costs will reflect that.

As a point of reference:
· A proposed 3 turbine wind farm near Santa Pod, which if built will provide electricity to about 3000 homes, will cost around £7million to develop/build (source: Nuon).
· The RSPB-Atkins study for the Severn "reef" development, projected to generate 20,000GW of energy each year, will cost around £13 billion to build.
· The cost for the 2012 London Olympics seems to keep rising. The China Daily website cites a cost of around £9 billion so far (

In the present financial and environmental crisis we need to invest our limited resources wisely if we are to achieve what is needed to mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Exeunt without fanfare

Here’s a scary thought – well, it scares me. There will be no fanfare as we pass a global tipping point. The sky will not turn pink. No articles in the newspapers or announcement on TV will inform us: “Today, we passed a point of no return. From here on, we all swim.”

As we heat our homes in this cold snap; as we drive the kids to school or ourselves to work; as we cook our food and buy those "made in China" goods or fruit from Brazil; as we turn our PCs on, charge our phones – in short, as we lead our daily lives – we are contributing to our own and our descendants' destruction.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide is creeping up towards 400ppm. Permafrost is starting to melt, releasing the frozen methane hydrates. The ocean is acidifying, its surface slowly warming, making existence harder for marine life including one of our planet’s control mechanisms: the alga which pumps carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Sea level rise is threatening the croplands of the world.

We cannot afford to be complacent. We cannot afford to make exceptions to drastic emissions caps for our national industries, be it coal, steel or cement production.

Our present fixation on consumption is misplaced: we will never consume our way out of this; we can only consume our way deeper into trouble. If everybody on the planet consumed at the level of those of us in the so-called “First World,” it would take the resources of three to five Earths to sustain us all. Despite this, the Western consumerist ideal is marketed across the globe as "the good life," encouraging ever-increasing numbers of people to buy into the concept that possessions are the only real measure of a person’s value: a throw-away lifestyle that will binge away our planet’s resources in no time.

We need to have more equitable distribution of wealth; to separate our "needs" from our "wants;" to rethink what constitutes “value.” Those of us in the developed world need to face up and take the hit: we must reduce our consumption to acceptable levels. Maybe "contraction and convergence" as originated by Aubrey Meyer is the way to do this; it is at least a beginning. We no longer have the luxury of wait-and-see: we must act now or we will be exiting without a fanfare.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Polar warming

Over the last 50 years, Antarctica has warmed at a rate of about 0.1 degree centigrade in the east of the continent and about 0.17 in the west per decade. The results of this research were published in an article by Steig et al in Nature magazine (Nature 457, 459-462 (22 January 2008). Discussing the results on the web ( one of the authors says that the trend is difficult to explain without taking into account the effect of global warming linked to atmospheric greenhouse gases.

If this trend continues, it will result in a major melting of the western Antarctic ice sheet. Taken in conjunction with increased flow from the Greenland ice sheet (IPCC Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report – Summary for Policymakers) we may be facing a serious rise in sea levels over this century. Clearly, this would have a huge global impact on people and wildlife, with the human population crowded into ever-decreasing amounts of space, with ever-decreasing amounts of land for growing food.

As the ice retreats, exploitation of the Arctic’s resources becomes easier, and the EU and other nations are lining up to exploit the oil and natural gas which are present. Fishing craft are exploiting the marine life, and tourism is also increasing in the region. As the lands fringing the arctic sea become green, trees, grizzly bears and caribou move northwards, competing with native arctic wildlife. Additionally, migration of polar bears and arctic island caribou may well be disrupted as the sea ice breaks up, and changing ecosystems will affect many arctic-adapted creatures and northern peoples. The darker land has a lower albedo than ice, which means more sunlight is absorbed, further warming the land and being trapped by the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The melting of the permafrost has potentially catastrophic consequences, both in terms of erosion and subsidence and, more critically, in the release of methane. There is great deal of methane locked up in the permafrost and, as it melts, the methane (a greenhouse gas 21 times as powerful - if shorter lived - than carbon dioxide) is released into the atmosphere. It is also possible that the warming of the region and thawing of the permafrost will lead to the release of subsea methane hydrate as methane gas. This gas has been linked to previous mass extinctions and climatic changes, such as the Permian-Triassic mass extinction which killed about 96% of all life (

Evidence of the release of methane hydrate was reported in the arctic region last year. Shakhova et al (2008) estimate that not less than 1,400 Gt of Carbon is presently locked up as methane and methane hydrates under the Arctic submarine permafrost, and that 5-10% of that area is subject to puncturing by open taliks (a patch of unfrozen ground in an area of permafrost). They conclude that "release of up to 50 Gt of predicted amount of hydrate storage [is] highly possible for abrupt release at any time" (

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

"Greener" Cars

Peter Mandelson yesterday unveiled a package to support the UK automotive industry. It was stressed that this was to support the industry in its changeover to "greener" cars such as plug-in hybrid and electric cars.

Plug-in cars have great potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. However, there remains the question of how the electricity to power them is produced. Certainly with our current infrastructure, while the cars themselves are not producing problem emissions as long as they are running on the battery, the power stations which supply the charge for the battery are, often burning fossil fuels such as coal and gas to produce electricity. With the expected growth in renewables, this may cease to be a problem. If a "smart-grid" is used, it is even possible that plug-in cars could act as storage batteries for solar and wind-generated electricity, selling power back to the grid at times when demand is excessive or the turbines are not turning.

However, a major issue which must be addressed if electric cars are to be a truly viable resource is the battery material. Car manufacturers plan to replace the NiMH (Nickel Metal Hydride) batteries in their electric cars with Li-Ion (Lithium ion) batteries in the near future. While they can be recharged many more times than NiMH batteries, Li-Ion batteries are far from perfect, as anyone who has ever owned a laptop computer for more than a year can testify. Although re-chargeable, they hold an ever-decreasing charge over their lifetime until they are beyond practical use and must be disposed of and replaced.

It takes 1 million tonnes of lithium metal to make 5.3 million tonnes of lithium carbonate, which is what goes into Li-Ion batteries. Data from the US Geological Service ( : based on a 1976 National Research Council report) says that global resources of lithium are about 14m tonnes, although Keith Evans (who worked on the original 1976 report) gives an abundance of 29.79m tonnes ( Even the more optimistic estimate doesn’t seem like nearly enough to keep our electric cars on the road for any length of time, especially as Li-Ion batteries are also used in other machines.

In 2007 global lithium carbonate demand was 93,000 tons, up 7.4% year on year, and China's battery output reached 33.4 billion, with an export volume of 25.168 billion: (source The Times reported on November 6 2008 that Japanese car manufacturers and electronics firms were adding lithium extraction and mining operations to their portfolios, indicating that they foresee increasing demand. Assuming that the US Geological Service’s figures are correct, this gives us less than 70 years worth of lithium, unless there is an improvement in mining and extraction methods in the meanwhile. But even then, this hardly constitutes as reliable a resource as, say, wood, which can be re grown more or less indefinitely.

There are several actions we might take to reduce emissions without over-exploiting our limited natural resources.

  • To avoid overexploitation of lithium, there could be greater investment in alternative transport: to move freight, we might, for example, use high speed electric trains powered by renewably generated electricity instead of trucks.

  • We could consider prioritising the needs of cyclists and pedestrians over those of drivers in our urban planning: this would encourage more people to leave their cars at home.

  • Taxation could be used to shift costs, reflecting the true inherent costs of petrol, for example, (while reducing income tax). This would increase the cost of car use which would encourage the use of alternative means of transport.

  • Mining and processing operations should be carried out with respect for the environment, the workers and the local population: this would almost certainly raise the costs of production and therefore the cost to the consumer, encouraging more careful use of our resources as well as raising the standard of living of the miners to an almost acceptable level.

Car manufacturers appear to view the Li-Ion car as a stop-gap while they attempt to develop completely different technology, probably hydrogen fuel cells. As a potentially cleaner fuel than fossils, this is a laudable aim. However, plans should be made to ensure that the Li-Ion car, which will inevitably become redundant, can be fully recycled and will not be the cause of yet more pollution at the end of its life.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Mind the gap...

Recently, there has been much talk in the media about the necessity of slashing carbon dioxide emissions by 80% relative to 1990 levels by 2050. At the same time, coal fired power stations and airport expansion have been promoted. We are seeing here a significant gap between the rhetoric and the reality of our policy makers' approach to tackling climate change.

There is a similar gap in the perception of environmental issues in the general population. On the one hand we have a radical element in the green movement which predicts the total collapse of industrial society and a return to a kind of neo-pleistocene existence, and on the other hand the climate change deniers and the "business as usual" or the "small cosmetic changes will be enough" believers. In between these two extremes, the rest of our population ranges from the genuinely well-informed to the frankly clueless, passing through the well-intentioned but ill-informed and the gullible on the way.

Are we really too late to stop the earth warming by 2 degrees centigrade? Are we really facing sea level rises of 12m? How will these and other changes affect food, water and energy security for us all? While answering these questions with absolute certainty may well be impossible, I would argue that our policies regarding all environmental issues should be strictly based on the most recent, properly peer-reviewed scientific evidence, with wider dissemination of data so that the information is easily available to all. Of course, information by itself is useless to those without the skills to interpret it accurately, so easy access to education in critical skills is an intrinsic part of the solution.

Faced with a generally well-educated population able to regard their pronouncements with a critical eye, extremists at either end of the spectrum would find it difficult to persuade many to believe their inflated claims. It would also be easier for a well-intentioned government to push through sorely needed environmental legislation: legislation which will inevitably make our lives less comfortable and which, in the face of a poorly-informed populace, would be a sure-fire recipe for a government's growing unpopularity and ultimately loss of power at the next election.

We all need to be able to seperate the reality from the rhetoric. A well-informed populace able to identify the difference between policies which are based on good science and those which are based on ideology or political expediency is a populace which can insist that its long-term interests and those of its descendents are prioritised. It is a populace which can be part of the solution, rather than just part of the problem.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Where are we focusing our resources?

I was reading Lester R. Brown's Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to save civilization. Using a value of 210 US dollars per ton of sequestered carbon, he calculates the cost of afforesting 171 million hectares in order to sequester carbon, conserve soil, reduce flooding and provide firewood over ten years at around 20 billion US dollars per year. Citing a Congressional Research Service study by Vatenfall and Belasco (2007) on the cost of US military operations in the "war on terror," Brown points out that this afforestation would cost less than 2 months of US occupation of Iraq (presumably each year).

I began to wonder what emissions are produced by UK activities in Iraq and Afghanistan, and also what this involvement is costing the the country in financial terms. It would be interesting to calculate how much could be achieved with these funds were they to be diverted instead to combatting climate change. In order to find out, I have put a Freedom of Information request in to the MOD, asking about both emissions and financial cost: I will let you know the result if/when I get a reply.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Third Runway at Heathrow

The proposed third runway at Heathrow got its long expected approval today, in spite of much protest and questioning.

  • A recent report co-written by the Sustainable Development Comission and the Institute for Public Policy Research called on the government to completely rethink its aviation policy.
  • Research by the Tyndall Centre (K, Anderson, A. Bows & P. Upham (2006)) shows that if the industry is allowed to expand as predicted, aviation alone would threaten the ability of the UK to meet its target of an 80% cut in carbon emissions by 2050.
  • The EU environment commissioner, Stavros Dimas, has also expressed concern that if expansion goes ahead the UK may breach mandatory EU targets on nitrogen oxides which come into force in 2010.

All that before we even take into consideration the impact of high-altitude emissions released by aviation.

It is claimed that this expansion will bring many economic benefits to the UK. However, a report by CE-DELFT (CE-DELFT (2008) The Economics of Heathrow Expansion) questions the validity of the study used by ministers to assess the economic benefits of a third runway. It demonstrates that the official figures overestimate both the number of jobs generated and the value brought to Britain by extra business travellers.

The first most popular destination for travellers from Heathrow is Paris and the fourth most popular is Manchester, both of which can be reached by rail, which is much less carbon intensive.

With the economic downturn already affecting passenger numbers, and with solid grounds for concern that peak-oil may have a significant impact on the future viability of air travel, it seems increasingly unlikely that the benefits of this project could outweigh the costs.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Peak Oil in 2020?

On 15th December 2008, The Guardian newspaper reported a George Monbiot interview with Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Authority (IEA). You can watch the full interview here Birol explained that for the first time the IEA had actually researched decline rates in the world's largest 800 oilfields: as a result, the IEA is now predicting peak oil around 2020! Why is this not headline news daily? With so much of our society based around cheap energy (especially oil) we need to be doing something about this right now! Instead, the UK government seems determined to push ahead with "development" projects like the expansion of Heathrow and Stanstead airports, which will increase demand for oil-based fuel. The disastrous rush to coal and nuclear energy is their response to this scarcity, but these pose real problems for the future, both in terms of climate change and in terms of safe disposal of nuclear waste. A better strategy might be to invest in decentralised renewable energy solutions, such as microgeneration and small-scale combined heat and power (CHP)plants. It would also help if the government stopped subsidizing the airline industry with public funds; the companies would then have to pass on the real cost to the consumer, which would discourage casual jaunts. As someone who has family overseas, I am as eager as the next to see them more frequently. I know there is no substitute for meeting them face to face, but video-conferencing is increasingly accessible, and costs less in hard cash and to the environment. Let's make the best use of the modern technology we have and stop relying on out-moded technologies which are not only well past their best-before date but are actively poisoning us and our posterity.