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!