Friday, 28 November 2008

Update: Download the "Climate Safety" report

Following yesterday's launch in London, the new report from PIRC entitled "Climate Safety" is now available as a free download from their website.  

If you were at the launch meeting on Thursday evening, please email me ( and let me know your thoughts.  I look forward to hearing your views  Thanks so much!

You may also like to view the excellent climate change animation on the Oxfam website, here:

Please use the link on Oxfam's website to email European environment leaders in advance of two critical talks in December.  The first is the 2008 round of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which starts next week in  Poznan, Poland.  This is the 14th Conference of the Parties (COP14) to the UNFCCC and the 4th meeting of the parties to the Kyoto Protocol.  The 9000 delegates expected in Poznan will be working to establish a new, global protocol for climate change mitigation, to succeed Kyoto from 2012, that will be finalised at the 2009 conference in Copenhagen.  

The second is a debate in the European Parliament on 11 December, to set European emissions reduction targets for 2020.  You can send your views on Europe's 2020 emissions targets direct to your representatives from here:

Please add your voice to these campaigns now!

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Climate Safety - a clear and present danger?

George Monbiot's weekly column in the Guardian and at is always bitingly sharp and accurately argued from the recent references that he shares. This week he began by attacking Bush's final acts of environmental vandalism as he slips away into obscurity.

However, Monbiot quickly moved his argument on to recent claims that runaway global warming is much more likely and more imminent than any follower of the IPCC would have imagined. 

Having just read the excellent book by Wally Broecker and Robert Kunzig, "Fixing Climate", I am well aware that many climate changes in the historical record happened incredibly quickly.  I understand that positive feedbacks mechanisms like the lubricated flow of icesheets from meltwater drainage and the release of methane from melting permafrost and Arctic waters have the potential to raise sea levels in decades rather than centuries or millenia. These are the tipping points of dangerous climate change that we have heard so much about since Al Gore's inconvenient lecture in 2006.  What I didn't know was the sheer magnitude of the changes already in progress and the climate impacts still to come - even if we ceased all manmade greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow - as the planet's air, land and water all return to equilibrium under the insulating blanket that we have already discharged into our skies.

I ws sufficiently sceptical of Monbiot's claims to begin trawling through his online references, where I soon found myself in a world so much bleaker than Broecker's. It will take me a while to assimilate this new information and to decide whether this is reality rather than paranoid delusion. However, I would like to share the references here and encourage you to review them and draw your own conclusions.

First, a scientific paper published this year by Jim Hansen et. al. which assesses what level of atmospheric CO2 we need to target in order to retain climatic conditions similar to those that have held throughout human history. 

In dense shorthand of technical abbreviations, satellite observation and ice-core histories, Hansen and colleagues assess the correlation between previous, sudden climate switches and all the possible drivers for these events (e.g., greenhouse gas levels, aerosols, solar irradiance, ocean circulations, etc). 

They draw the unambiguous conclusion that our current atmospheric CO2 level of almost 400ppm wil result in several metres of sea level rise and other dangerous climate shifts that will render many populated areas uninhabitable and undermine any efforts to feed the world's people or protect our remaining biodiversity. They advocate rapid stabilisation at no more than 350ppm CO2 and assert that this is inconsistent with ANY future use of coal without carbon capture.

Having digested this, I was prepared to move onto a beautifully assembled work from the Graduate School of the Environment (GSE) at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT), published in collaboration with a charity called the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC). 

The centrepiece of this new website is their 2007 report of the same name, giving a powerful and cohesive evaluation of the steps needed to totally decarbonise Britain's energy infrastructure within 20 years. Central to their vision is a system of Tradeable Emissions Quotas (TEQs), to be issued free to individuals and businesses and used or sold as the holders see fit. Numbers of TEQs issued will decrease gradually and drive our investments and behaviour towards carbon-neutral alternatives.   The animation on their home page gives a short, sharp and accessible summary of the challenge and is well worth viewing.

Another incisive home page animation can be seen on the iconic 350 website, which seeks to become the hub of a new global movement to bring about Hansen's vision.

Lastly, I come to what Monbiot was really telling us. Tomorrow, he will be on the panel of an open meeting in London to launch the new report from PIRC, called "Climate Safety".

Try as I might, I could not download the report or its conclusions from the PIRC website. It will, however, be available from Amazon for around a fiver and I trust that an electronic version will also be available after the launch event. I am gutted that I cannot be at the meeting on Thursday but I look forward to hearing about it from anyone who can get along.

While this climate of fear about climate seems far from everyday sustainable living, it actually needs to engender the sense of urgency that even now is missing from almost all the debate in Britain, whether in Parliament or in the pub. We're all doing something, we all know we should be doing more but we wonder whether it will make any difference and we're kind of waiting to be told what to do because it's the Government's job to lead on this sort of thing isn't it?

Well, that would be nice but the reality is that it's down to us. You and I have always been part of the problem and, however much we're doing to tread lightly, we remain part of the problem. If you've read this far then you, like me, are also determined to be part of the solution. 

We don't know all the elements of this solution but our journeys of discovery can be guided by the process of Continuous Improvement, the quality methodology pioneered by Joseph Juran, who died this year at the grand old age of 103.

Continuous Improvement starts with understanding the issues ("get the facts"), measuring where we are starting from (baseline analysis) and determining the "vital few" actions that will make the biggest difference (using the "Pareto principle"). We then work to establish relevant improvement targets and we continue measuring, to monitor our progress towards these targets, as we implement those actions. Ultimately we are rewarded by celebrating success.

New facts, such as those presented by Monbiot and the websites I have reviewed here, challenge us to go round the loop again, to reassess the targets we have set and think more creatively about the actions needed to reach them. Those actions with the highest impact will, like sudden climate change,  also be discontinuous, step changes - revolution rather than evolution - but this does nothing to diminish the importance of each citizen's responsibility and duty to reduce their own carbon footprint progressively.  I am certain that personal awareness and individual determination will remain at the heart of our response and form the essence of all effective actions to keep our climate safe.

At this point, I feel we need to think very creatively indeed. The "Zero Carbon Britain" report opens with a perfectly chosen quote from President John F. Kennedy.

"The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by sceptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were."

Friday, 14 November 2008

Two prizes in one week!

I am discovering how difficult it is to remember to post regular articles to a blog.  This time, I want to share my excitement at winning a couple of competitions for communicating sustainability.   

The first competition was won by my Scout Troop.  The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC-UK) got in touch with schools and Scout groups across the country and asked them to come up with imaginative activities for their young people, to mark their first annual awareness day on Friday 26 September.  This event was called, appropriately enough, FSC Friday.   

I designed a simulation game where the Scouts played the parts of Factories, Trees and Atmosphere. They used old CDs to represent oxygen molecules and paperclips played the part of carbon atoms.  The Factories burnt fossil fuels and released CO2 by clipping the paperclips to the CDs.  The Trees removed the paperclips and released O2. The Atmosphere ran around distributing O2 and CO2 between the Trees and the Factories. After a few minutes we checked how much CO2 there was in the atmosphere. Not much. Then we "cut down" half the Trees and turned those Scouts into Factories. They used the carbon they had gathered in their "timber" to make more CO2 and, at the end of the game, we checked the final amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. This time, there was lots. The Scouts had fun and understood that we need trees (as well as oceans, rocks and lots of other parts of the natural environment) to maintain a healthy atmosphere and prevent runaway climate change.

 After this game, the Scouts sat down and sorted through a pile of forest products - from ecosystem services like nutrient recycling and water treatment to traditional economic products like timber, latex, cocoa, etc. They deduced that the diversity of a forest is of greater value than the limited agricultural produce that can be grown on deforested land.


I wrote this up and sent it to Rosie Teasdale at the FSC , with a couple of photographs. Rosie got back to me a few weeks later and told me that our Scouts had won their competition and asked me what prizes they would like!  I was delighted to hear this, of course, and asked whether anyone from FSC could come to our Scouts and present the prizes in person.  

So it was that Charles Thwaites, the head of FSC-UK, joined us last night and congratulated the Scouts on winning the FSC Friday competition.  He handed out a number of FSC-branded goodies and awarded the Scout Group a beautiful clock, made from sustainable hardwood, as a permanent trophy. He ran an enthralling role-play exercise, modelled on his experiences at a global forestry conference in Cape Town last week.  

Three groups of six Scouts took the parts of loggers, indigenous people and environmentalists.  They were given 10 minutes to come up with the Top Three things that they wanted to achieve from negotiations with the other parties.  Each group's representative read out their three requirements and placed them on a table, each on a separate slip of paper.  Once all nine requirements had been shared, the groups took it in turns to remove two slips of paper, leaving a final set of three "agreed" outcomes.

Two of the three remaining outcomes were proposed by the Indigenous Peoples and the third was from the Environmentalists.  Although none of the Loggers’ requirements were agreed, they were happy enough to accept that their products would command premium prices because they could be marketed as sustainable timber and their investment in local communities and conservation would enhance their reputation as responsible businesses. 

Their three agreed outcomes were:

  1. Sustainable logging restricted to 20,000 trees a year
  2. Loggers to supply Food, Water, Education and Healthcare for every village
  3. Loggers must plant more trees than get cut down

All this serves to illustrate just how interested - and motivated - teenagers can be in protecting the future of Earth's natural environment. They have a lot less trouble than adults taking complex issues on board and reaching consensus on co-operative solutions. Of course, these exercises are gross oversimplifications but the level of excitement in the room showed just how engaged the Scouts can become in sustainability matters. These are the people who will be making a difference in the coming decades, both in their personal behaviour and in the influence of their careers on the success of the next generation in tackling the wider, long-term issues of climate change, biodiversity and protection of human rights.


The second prize was for a competition I entered on Yahoo! Answers. They asked the question, "Now that autumn is getting a little colder, how do you plan to keep warm without wasting too much energy?"  I spelled out the details of my own investments in energy efficiency and solar thermal, explaining that I funded these by selling my car and that, while I did not expect them to pay back financially in the short term, my reason for making these investments was to reduce my carbon footprint.  You can read my answer here:

I was delighted, once again, to learn that my response was chosen as the Best Answer and I am now looking forward to receiving the valuable prize - a wooden double bed made from FSC-certified timber and a handmade orthopaedic mattress.  That certainly enhances my prospects for a return on my investment in sustainability, in an entirely unexpected way!


Friday, 3 October 2008

Still Debating Manmade Global Warming?

There is a small but vociferous group of contributors to discussion sites like Yahoo! Answers who continue to argue that the earth isn't warming or, if it is, then we (mankind) are much too trivial to have any influence on the great big planet's thermostat.  Even that CO2 is such a minor component of our atmosphere that increases in its concentration cannot possibly affect the Earth's temperature.  

I have been genuinely surprised by the virulence of this online community's posts, in response to contributors who attempt to explain or communicate the evidence for climate change, mankind's role in global warming and the likely consequences for our descendents.

Dr Iain Stewart (Professor of Geology at Plymouth University) has presented two extraordinary series on the BBC in the last year, "Earth: The Power of the Planet" and "Earth: The Climate Wars".  The producer for both these series was Jonathan Renouf.  

In the Gaurdian's "Comment Is Free" column yesterday (2 October), Renouf has written the most compelling rebuttal of the climate change sceptics.  He dismisses their aggression and their disingenous aderence to discredited hypotheses with consummate grace.  In his clear and calm language, Renouf displays the same thoroughness, objectivity and balance that the researchers and writers of "Climate Wars" achieved.  They have documented the emergence of evidence, the development of ideas, the campaigns and battles that have been fought.  In conclusion, Renouf writes that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree on three points: earth is warming, our emissions of greenhouse gases are the principal cause and that the coninuing rise in these emissions will become damaging to society.

"Earth: The Climate Wars" was a seminal production and will serve to put to rest some of the outdated objections of the climate change deniers.  I am honoured that my licence fee pays for people like Jonathon Renouf to produce transformational documentaries like this.

NB: I don't know whether these links to Google video are legal or if  they will work outside the UK.  I found them on another forum and will remove them if they breach copyright.

Episode 1:

Episode 2:

Episode 3:

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Meat is murder - on the atmosphere

I just signed a petition that will be submitted to the United Nations on Earth Day (22 April) 2009.

Having been vegetarian for 33 years (other than a brief lapse at university) it seems obvious to me that our ability to feed the world's population is hampered by our determination to feed our crops to animals that are raised in horrendous conditions before being transported hundreds or thousands miles to meet their deaths in poorly regulated slaughterhouses.  I thought everyone would understand that this unnecessary cruelty is also hugely inefficient, reducing the calories that reach people's mouths from our farmlands by 90 or 95%.  Eric Schlosser ("Fast Food Nation") and Colin Tudge ("So Shall We Reap") made all this crystal clear to millions of people - Schlosser's book topped the bestseller lists for months.

What this petition could do is bring this truth out into the open in 2009, something that powerful lobbies for the food industry and farming would rather we kept quiet about.

Of course, some kinds of animal husbandry are more ethical than others.  No-one could begrudge subsistence farmers their chickens and goats - these are essential to survival and quality of life for millions of impoverished families.  They are hardly likely to see much grain, anyway, as their starving owners have none to spare.  Similarly, grazing animals on hillfarms may be seen as a natural part of a sustainable lifestyle and what they consume (in summer at least) is free feed, additional to the calories our farms can provide. Against all my instincts as an animal lover, I have to concede that hunting genuinely wild animals, not those that gamekeepers have reared for so-called sport, can form part of a sustainable diet for indigenous families in remote areas. I am not excusing the probable extinction of great apes or other primates by the bushmeat trade, just noting that the use of wild populations can be sustainable in a way that intensive animal husbandry can never be.

However, the burgeoning appetite for meat in the emerging markets will not be met from these more ethical sources any more than it is in Europe and North America.  The world's demand for meat and meat products is being supplied by intensive farming. 

  • This industry, built on the suffering of animals, competes with human mouths for the crops that our farms can produce.  
  • Meat production, together with the current generation of biofuels, is driving the clearance of tropical rainforest at a greater rate today than ever before.  
  • Lastly, if more reasons were needed to stop eating meat, animal husbandry results in around 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.  

In a letter published in the current edition of New Scientist (27 September 2008), Peter Martin of CarbonSense points out that methane has an 'instantaneous' greenhouse gas potency that is more than 60 times as great as carbon dioxide.  The biggest manmade source of methane is animal husbandry - from both ruminant guts and fermentation of slurry.  We may be unable to prevent the outgassing of methane from the Arctic Ocean and tundra, as the northern sea ice and permafrost disappear, but at least we must begin to tackle the methane contributed by our own actions in raising animals for meat and dairy products! 

This blog is about reducing the environmental impact of everyday life.  That means changing our behaviour.  Adopting a vegetarian diet is one of the most significant changes we can make in our impact on the environment.  We need some basic knowledge and information to maintain good nutrition without meat but it's a really big contribution to a healthy lifestyle.  

If everyone were to halve their meat intake, this would go a long way towards feeding all the world's people, reducing deforestation (for cattle ranching and soya production) and cutting the greenhouse gases that animal husbandry emits.   

Please sign the "FOOD vs FEED" petition and think about cutting your own consumption of meat and dairy products.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Giving up the car

I started this blog a year ago with little idea what it would achieve and that's why it didn't achieve much.  This time around, I will try to post regularly and keep it practical so that you may be able to make use of what I have to say.

I have been busily working to cut my family's home energy usage and have now reduced our annual consumption by 30% since 2006.  Some of this required capital outlay - money which came from selling my two year old Civic Type-R.  This pocket rocket was much loved but owning it contradicted everything I believe about sustainability.  Consequently, selling it became a powerful statement of my personal commitment to reduce my own impact on the environment.  In a rare case of economic and environmental coherence, ditching this 200 horsepower runabout saved me at least £2000 a year (insurance, maintenance, tax, fuel and depreciation), cut my carbon footprint by around 4 Tonnes a year and put more than enough cash into the bank to fund my energy efficiency measures at home.  In the interests of transparency, I must add that my family still has the use of my wife's company car at weekends and for holidays.  

I know that my former online buddies at the CTR Owner's Club were unable to take the environment seriously but it's really hard to get your head round the idea that your own lifestyle is the problem!  Nothing is wrong with the CTR in particular, it's a fantastic car.  Like all petrol and diesel engines, however, it emits greenhouse gases whenever you use it.  The emissions per passenger-kilometre depend on driving style and number of people on board.  The incredible performance of the CTR is begging to be used and encourages the driver to adopt a fiery rather than frugal attitude.  It is also rare to see more than one passenger in a CTR and, during the rush-hour, most have no passengers - just a lone driver commuting between work and home.  

The alternatives to driving to and from work are difficult for many people and adopting them takes real courage.  Perhaps we should start by persuading everybody to avoid one day's commute a week - or even a month!  For the record, here are the obvious alternatives:
1) Work from home - using broadband, phone or just catching up on all that reading you're supposed to get through.
2) Share a lift - find out who lives near you and what days it will be convenient for you to pool.
3) Try the public transport options.  No really, they do exist for many of us.
4) If it's within an hour's cycling distance - pedal.  
5) If it's within an hour's walking distance - walk!  (or pedal, it's so easy if it's that close)

Less obvious - and really hard to do - is to face up to the environmental impact of living so far away from your place of work.  Few of us are in a position to trade in our current job for something closer to home - or to 'up sticks' and move closer to the office/ factory / shop, etc.  

The change that will drive us towards more sustainable personal transportation is likely to be painful and unpopular.  It will involve paying the true cost of the energy used and the environmental impact of this usage.   Fuel prices may bring this about, some years after peak oil has been recognised, but that will be too late to start managing down the carbon emissions  of our personal transport choices.