Sunday, 28 September 2008

September 2008 - Planes, (no) trains and automobiles

The European parliament surprised eager environmental pressure groups and bullish BMW lobbyists this week by voting in favour of a legal framework that will ensure the greenhouse gas emissions of new cars across Europe will be reduced. Any vehicles made after 2012 will have to be (on average) 17% more efficient, with deeper reductions in emissions required by 2020. Fines will be levied against manufacturers that flout the legislation - the higher the emissions, the harsher the fine. Environmentalists could hardly contain their excitement, with Greenpeace claiming that "climate change campaigning works" and Lib Dem environment spokesman Chris Davies declaring "this is a good day for democracy".

And, after years of vacuous greenwash from the motor industry, concrete emissions reduction targets, a firm but fair time frame within which to enact them, and punitive measures for those who choose to keep on truckin', are small reasons to be cheerful. Despite the economic muscle of the automobile industry, environmental values seem to have taken precedence on this occasion.

What the EU giveth, however, the UK does its best to taketh away. Leaked documents from the European council ( suggest that Britain is determined to push for aviation to be excluded from European targets on renewable energy use. This mirrors the current domestic agenda of the British Government, who are simultaneously expanding the capacity of the world's busiest airport by a third AND leaving aviation out of the doesn't-do-quite-what-it-says-on-the-tin Climate Change Bill.

This deference to the increasingly profitable airline industry is not entirely surprising. Despite the death of a few ropey budget operators (so long Zoom, you will not be sadly missed), civil aviation is a growing market. It is also sufficiently disassociated in the mind of the public from the suddenly villainous financial wheelers and dealers. Hence, aviation is likely to weather the threat of a recession for now, and cement its place as the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions.

And the apparent ease with which restrictions were slapped on the automobile industry demonstrates that the problem is not primarily one of regulatory ability, but of political desire. Cars are profitable in Germany, and noticeably, it was Germany's Chancellor Merkel who lead the call to water down the EU legislation. It was in Germany's short-term economic interests to avoid regulating their powerful car industry too stiffly. So, despite the imminent threat of environmental tipping points being reached within the next 99 months, Chancellor Merkel chose to place economic prosperity before ecological welfare, as if the former were not contingent on the latter.

But it is not just the natural environment that contains tipping points - as the events of the past few weeks have shown, markets too respond abruptly to cumulative sequences of small changes, reacting in extreme and unpredictable ways. In the same way that positive feedback mechanisms will, unchecked, ensure that dangerous climatic change is locked into place without urgent ameliorative action, so too can changes in markets be difficult to reverse.

Unlike environmental changes, however, this is a feature of markets that cuts both ways. The EU legislation that will financially penalise car manufacturers that emit more than they should, will create a powerful driver for a market in genuine efficiency: there is now a definite cost associated with over-emitting, rather than vague consumer brownie points based on appearing as green as possible.

When manufacturers compete with each other on grounds of fuel efficiency, we are starting to harness the much-celebrated ability of markets to grope their way towards the 'best' solution. Only this time, they are not groping in the dark; the path is lit by legislation that ensures that profit is contingent on environmental efficiency. And that's a small step towards an economic model that values people and planet.


Saturday, 27 September 2008

September 2008 - The DANGERS of over-insulating the energy providers

Those people shouting loud in September (John Cruddas, Michael Meacher and Tony Woodley have been!) for a windfall tax on the big energy providers were, I imagine, bitterly disappointed by Gordon Brown’s domestic energy announcement.

The NEW interest in the announcement was Brown promising to SWITCH ON “a sea-change in energy efficiency and consumption” by legislating to require the big power companies to pay for £910 million worth of domestic energy saving measures (full costs for older people and the lower waged and half costs for everyone else). So it isn’t a windfall tax but is this a fudged policy alternative or a “sea-change” approach to rolling out loft insulation?

Compass argued for a windfall tax as such:
“We believe that the moment is right for the government to levy a sensible one off windfall tax to guarantee social and environmental justice both now and in the future.”

It’s true a one off tax would give government the means to extend exponentially the government Warm Front scheme and encourage people to insulate their homes - probably alongside transferring money to help with utility bills (the primary objective of many of the tax’s supporters). If such a windfall tax produced turbo-tangible outcomes on home energy efficiency then it would be a robust move showing strong government leadership on the issue. However it would also be bad for three reasons:

1. It is just a one off
2. The power companies sadly are probably better at ‘selling’ the take up
of insulation
3. Companies would NOT be paying the carbon costs UPFRONT and
BUILT-IN to their business models

Doing TAX and GRANT means the Power companies can leave it to the public sector to ‘think’ whilst they remain insulated and operating to a pre Climate-Change-Conscious Logic.

What Chancellor Darling says of the proposal
"I suspect that we have got rather more out of the energy companies than we might have done out of a windfall tax."
Remains to be seen! And the OUTCOMES have to judged but the intention has to be right that these Companies have got to bear a much larger share of Carbon Costs Up Front – and Built-In to their Business models. Corporate responsibility too often has meant corporate minimum standards. The Global Financial Crisis that shows deeper wounds the longer September runs, shows profoundly, that Business can no longer assume that PROFIT is their only responsibility.


Sunday, 21 September 2008

September 2008 - carbon offsetting and 'being reasonable'

In the September copy of the Co-operative's Re:act magazine, there was a debate between Tom Picken, Friends of the Earth International Climate Campaigner, and Paul Monaghan, Head of Social Goals & Sustainability for the Co-operative group, on carbon offsetting. Making all the key arguments against offsetting was Tom Picken, who accurately observed that a) we only have a few years to reduce global carbon emissions, and b) an offset is an offest - not a reduction.

It is not, perhaps, surprising to find the Co-op, despite the admirable ethical credentials, supporting carbon offsetting. After all, one part of their business is a travel company, and they make income from selling flights. Paul Monaghan's stance, however, was disappointing - not so much because of his support for the carbon offset concept, but because of the disparaging and misleading way he characterised those in the environmental movement who believe that carbon offsetting is simply not an appropriate response to the urgency of tackling climate change.

Monaghan claimed that disliking carbon offsetting was a badge of honour that some environmentalists wore to indicate their 'greener' credentials. He even claimed that taking such a stance was 'dangerous'. In painting those who do not share his views about carbon offsetting as a lunatic fringe with a point to prove, however, Monaghan is doing something far more dangerous: placing boundaries on the 'acceptable' limits of the debate.

Most environmentalists oppose carbon offsetting not because they wish to appear 'greener than thou', but because it fails in contributing to the most basic aim of the fight against climate change - reducing carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. Global carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced rapidly to avoid dangerous climate change - that much is now uncontroversial. Aviation is the fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions, yet carbon offsetting does noting to reduce this - if anything, it encourages it. That comforting feeling you get when you carbon offset is the the wool being pulled over your eyes - it is not enough to simply carry on as we are, and making the tough changes to our behaviour is only made harder by pseudo-solutions like carbon offsetting.

So, while there are serious objections to carbon offsetting that arise from a uncompromising assessment of the harsh reality of climate change, 'reasonable' people like Monaghan make a shameless plunge for the 'reasonable' middle ground and designate all dissenting views as 'dangerous' and 'anti-development'. In a high profile position, working for an organisation supposedly at the forefront of environmentally responsible business practice, Monaghan should know better.There is perhaps nothing quite so dangerous as an attempt to curtail genuine debate - especially when the stakes are so high.

For a far more creative critique of carbon offsetting, see


Wednesday, 17 September 2008

August 2008 - Kingsnorth Climate Camp

The third annual Climate Camp ( took place between 4th-11th August at the site of a proposed new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth, in Kent. There is already a coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth, but it is soon to come to the end of its sooty little life, and energy behemoth E.On have kindly offered to build a brand new one in its place. All that stands between Kent and a shiny new power station is government go-ahead...and several hundred committed climate campers.

The aim of the camp was to highlight the dangerous absurdity of building new coal-fired power stations whilst simultaneously trying to reduce one's carbon emissions. The UK government look likely to pass legislation that will commit Britain to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 60% by 2050 (a scientifically unjustified and pitifully inadequate target, but a target nonetheless). Coal, being the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, must necessarily be phased out if emissions are to be reduced, but the proposed power station at Kingsnorth alone would belch out as much carbon dioxide as a country like Zambia does in a year.

Malcom Wicks, the Energy Minister, displayed a criminally glib attitude towards the camp, declaring that "The real prize is to develop technologies so that the CCS technology can be retro-fitted onto coal-fired plants in countries like China. Our decisions about any one application for a coal plant in Britain are pretty small fry compared to the risk of global CO2 emissions in coming years."

Wicks' barely disguised drooling for the 'real prize' of Carbon Capture & Storage (CCS) technology is a clue to the solution that the British Government favours to the problem of climate change - and guess what? It involves lots of lucrative contracts for new coal-fired power stations, but with the proviso that an as-yet unproven technology will, at some yet to be specified time, be fitted to these new power stations. CCS may prove itself to be a viable way of capturing emissions from existing coal-fired power stations. But it's primary use at the present is as a justification for coal new-builds.

His assertion that any one planning application is 'small fry' is also terrifyingly disingenuous - if Kingsnorth is given the go-ahead, it is likely to be the first of seven new coal-fired power stations in Britain. While the climate camp succeeded in grabbing some media attention for a short time, the real work to prevent Kingsnorth being built is likely to be played out over years, not days. the camp organisers have declared that a rolling blockade, and peaceful, direct action, will be deployed if the new plant is given the green light (which looks highly likely).

As the 100 month countdown begins, things are not off to a good start - in order to prevent dangerous climate change, fossil fuels must ultimately be phased out altogether. They will run out of their own accord, of course, but this will be too late for millions of people in low-lying settlements, and the eco-systems they depend on. Plus, the quicker we start making the transition out of a fossil-fueled economy, the softer the landing on the other side of the oil peak will be.

Sadly, the short term interests of a government that has firmly hitched its cart to the kamikaze horse of globalised capitalism are not easily reconciled with an end to the age of fossil fuels.


Tuesday, 16 September 2008

August 2008 - The 'energy gap'

It has become commonplace for proponents of new fossil fuel power stations to refer to the 'energy gap' - that is, the gap between our energy demands and the capacity of a renewable energy sector to meet them. Indeed, one of the arguments routinely wheeled out in support of E.On's application to build a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth is that new coal is necessary to 'keep the lights on'. Of course, it goes without saying that this gap must be closed by meeting the increasing energy demands of a growing capitalist economy - not by attempting to reduce our energy consumption and live within our ecological means.

There is, however, another notable gap - that between the scientific reality of dangerous climate change (conservatively estimated as requiring atmospheric concentrations of CO2e to not exceed 400 ppm - or approximately 2 degrees of climatic warming above pre-industrial levels) and the political feasibility of taking drastic and urgent action to prevent it. In the same week that the 100 months report appeared, the British Government demonstrated precisely how large this gap had become, as the chief scientific advisor to DEFRA Bob Watson warned that we should 'prepare to adapt to 4 degrees of warming', becuase 2 degrees was an 'ambitious target'

At 4 degrees above pre-industrial levels, "between 7 million and 300 million more people would be affected by coastal flooding each year, there would be a 30-50% reduction in water availability in Southern Africa and the Mediterranean, agricultural yields would decline 15 to 35% in Africa and 20 to 50% of animal and plant species would face extinction." (
The idea that we could somehow 'adapt' to 4 degrees of warming is, as medialens pointed out, deeply irrational ( Of course, any discussion of 'dangerous' climate change is of course a value judgement about how many people we are prepared to sacrifice for the sake of our 'ambitious' targets. As James Hansen, the chief scientist of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies is keen to remind people, climate change is already dangerous.

But where there should be debate about the most effective methods of mitigating climate change, and averting ecological and humanitarian disaster, there are instead thinly veiled threats from corporate energy providers about 'keeping the lights on'. Where vast sums should be invested in decentralised and community based renewable energy generation, millions are poured into building infrastructure that will commit the country to a fossil fueled energy economy for decades to come.

The real gap, it would seem, is between the imminent reality of runaway climate change, and its savage human cost, and the weak, compromised clunking of a political system that openly concedes that a 50% reduction in water availability in Southern Africa is something that we just have to 'adapt' to.


100 months...and counting

"By using the best estimates of current greenhouse gas emission growth rates, conservative estimates for the potentially damaging environmental feedbacks that accelerate global warming, and the maximum concentration of greenhouse gases that might prevent irreversible climate change, it is possible to estimate the length of time until this threshold is passed" (New Economics Foundation '100 Months', 2008)

On 1st August, 2008, the New Economics Foundation ( issued a report stating that in order to avoid 'dangerous' climate change, the world had 100 months to take collective action ( That is, if things continue as they are, dangerous atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will occur in less than nine years time. For the purposes of the report, 'dangerous' climate change was defined as an atmospheric concentration of Carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) of above 400 parts per million (ppm), which means an above average chance of keeping global temperatures 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.

It is worth noting that even 2 degrees of warming will have negative ecological and humanitarian consequences. However, stabilising the global average temperature at less than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels gives a decent chance of avoiding the 'tipping points' - the positive feedback mechanisms - that spell disaster for the environment as we know it.

100 months takes us to December 2016. This will be a monthly record of how, in the UK, we measure up to the challenge of drastically reducing global carbon emissions. Will we bury our heads in the sand and desperately put our faith in free markets, techno-fixes, and 'business as usual'? Will we wring our hands, sigh dejectedly and evade responsibility? Or will we take decisive action and acknowledge that the economic model of globalised capitalism is dragging us kicking and screaming into ecological destruction and humanitarian disaster on an unprecedented scale?

100 months...and counting.