26 November 2006

The new climate kid on the block?

By Andrew Boswell

Thousand of delegates have just met for the annual UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) international climate talks in Nairobi - held for the first time this year in sub-Sahara Africa.

There is a global awareness, post-Stern review, that urgent action is required to stabilise the planet's climate. Many hoped that negotiations to steady levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases (ghgs), by mandatory annual reductions in emissions, would start at Nairobi.

However, the result can be very different when delegations from 190 countries meet for a UN conference - and so it was in Nairobi. Mainstream discussions centred on tweaking the current UNFCCC convention and its Kyoto protocol. Many disappointed delegates were left wondering if an international institution like the UN can act fast enough on climate change, and if not, who will?

To be fair, Nairobi did result in a fairer deal for Africa with Kofi Annan's announcement of a 'Nairobi Framework' to enable greater participation by developing countries in Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects. This is the scheme under Kyoto in which developing countries develop projects to mitigate or adapt to climate change, gaining carbon credits that can be traded with rich nations. So far sub-Saharan Africa only has three CDM projects out of over 300 globally. The Nairobi Framework aims to correct current inequities in CDM project distribution and bring badly needed development investment to African countries. This was Africa’s prize for hosting the conference.

However, this is a fund largely for adapting to climate change and ignores the urgency of preventing a climate disaster in Africa in the first place. It is a classic case of treating the symptom rather than healing the underlying the cause of the disease. The Department of International Development (DfID) has estimated that 40% of such development projects are 'climate sensitive' – that is their benefits may be wiped out by climate change. This indicates the necessity of urgently treating the cause – massive fossil fuel burning and deforestation.

The second Nairobi announcement takes the prize for myopia. Whilst climate science, and Stern, indicate that we have less than 10 years to act, the 2007 UNFCCC talks are to "review" Kyoto. Yet, Kyoto is just a temporary stepping stone before a new 'with teeth' long term climate stabilisation regime. It is far more important to start discussions on what follows Kyoto than waste a whole UNFCCC year reviewing a treaty that needs to be radically altered or completely replaced anyway.

The result is there is no timetable for post-Kyoto negotiations and they are unlikely to start until late 2008. This is too late and will leave a gap between end of Kyoto in 2012 and the start of new treaties.

Countries like the UK, Germany and Japan were concerned, but should speak out stronger and demand that the UNFCCC start post-Kyoto talks in 2007. The urgency is very great. The new UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon would make a great start to his term of office if he convened a special UNFCCC meeting on post-Kyoto before the one scheduled for next December.

Could salvation come from an unexpected quarter – also the source of one quarter of the world's fossil fuel emissions – the US, post mid-term elections? Things have been moving at the State level for some time: California recently introduced the first emissions reductions Bill, and a number of States cooperate with neighbours in regional Greenhouse Gas initiatives.

US environmentalists, I know, now hold high hopes since the recent mid-term elections. There are now no less than 5 climate change Bills in Senate including Senator Jim Jefford's Bill specifying 80% cuts by 2050. The bill's co-sponsor is the highly regarded Senator Barbara Boxer of California, the incoming Chair of the Senate's most influential environment committee.

Whilst nothing is likely to hit the statute book under the unilateralist Bush regime, all the legislative donkey work can be done now in Congress and Senate, for fast track approval post-Bush 2009.

It is politically incorrect in most circles that I move to even wonder this, but might a newly 'multilateralist US' then set the pace for the international climate negotiations? Climate bills in the US (and UK and EU) with mandatory and deep reductions move the right way towards a Contraction and Convergence framework that sets out a path for long-term stabilisation of the climate over several generations, and is based on a per-capita level of safe emission. Recent research from the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) shows it is essential for survival - annual emissions must peak within the next few years and fall by 70-80% globally by 2050 to avoid devastating climate change.

19 November 2006

Venus ascending?

By Marguerite Finn

"You can't kill the spirit / She is like a mountain / Old and strong / She goes on and on …"

(Greenham Women's song)
Doing some research recently on the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), I came across some ancient photos of women campaigning for peace.

Back in 1922, this required courage and it shines out of the faces of the women as they stare at the camera from underneath a range of hats that would put Ladies Day at Ascot to shame. Heavy coats, long black skirts and the occasional fur collar didn’t stop these women posing for a picture, each holding up a poster proclaiming "No More War".

Yet war continues to dominate our culture. When we are not being treated to images of death and destruction on our televisions, we are told that the arms industry guarantees our economic growth and stability. What does that say about us – if our 'success' depends on developing ever more efficient ways to kill others? There must be another way.

Women are on the case. Reaching Critical Will (WILPF research and information project) is developing an alternative way of seeing the world, taking people as its point of reference, rather than focusing exclusively on the security of territory or governments, shifting the disarmament and security debate away from national security towards a framework predicated on human security.

Unlike traditional 'patriarchal' concepts of security, focussed on defending borders from external military threats, human security is concerned with the security of individuals.

A strategy for human security would start with an equitable distribution of resources, human rights, racial justice, decent working conditions, environmental sustainability and the infrastructure for the proper provision of healthcare, housing, education.

There is nothing new about women protesting against war. In 400 BC, Aristophanes wrote a play, Lysistrata, in which he imagined women of Sparta and Athens going on strike – refusing sex with their husbands – to bring an end to the 27 year war between the two city states that had become a way of life for the men.

In December 1982, approximately 35,000 women assembled at RAF Greenham Common to protest against the deployment of US nuclear missiles in Britain. They surrounded the nine-mile fence to 'Embrace the Base'.

On 10 December 2007, a new generation of women plan to recapture that energy and surround the US spy-base at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire – where international telecommunications are intercepted from all over the world.

Today, sixty years on from the dawn of the atomic age, the threat of nuclear devastation still hangs over us. Nuclear proliferation is not only a detriment to our health, our environment, our future, it also creates a dangerous lack of faith in multilateral processes. Negative nationalism, militarism, competitiveness and continual warfare are all key components of a patriarchal society - but look around the world: from Afghanistan to Iraq and Palestine to the Lebanon, war is not working. Militaristic societies like ours celebrate war, enjoy violence in films, sport and children's games, subsidize the international trade in arms, and fund our universities with military-industrial research. But violence sanctioned in conflict, becomes violence in the home and in the community.

Anti-militarist women want an alternative model that is inclusive, co-operative, consensual and non-confrontational which seeks to establish real human security.

This is no 'pipe dream'. The Human Security Centre at the University of British Columbia has produced a report, part-paid for by the UK government, which charts the demise of wars between states and the rise of 'irregular warfare' - against which vast armies and sophisticated weaponry (e.g. Trident nuclear submarines) are ineffective. The report argues for the switch from the security of the state to that of the individual. This coincides with the success of several women's NGO's campaigning for a strong, new, independent women’s agency at the UN – which has now been agreed.

On 10 November, UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, acknowledged "the world is starting to grasp that there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women and girls".

Setting up a new WILPF group in Norwich recently, we were asked, "Why women – why now?"

There was never better time for women's groups to urge their governments to agree a timetable for the establishment of the women's agency, to adopt a 21st century approach to security, to challenge current strategies grounded in the idea of military superiority and the threat of force.

Norwich WILPF meets on 10 January 2007 (Friend's Meeting House 7.30pm) to discuss campaigning priorities for 2007. Join us! (details:01603-722880). Meanwhile, I am going to buy myself a hat and a long black skirt – just in case!

12 November 2006

Less oil – more climate chaos?

By Rupert Read

Oil is running out. We've known this for a long time, only now, with the North Sea oil fields in sharp decline, and oil prices seemingly stuck at a 'high' level, are we really starting to face up to it.

Our lives are so deeply built on oil that we can barely imagine what things will be like when the oil running out starts to hit us in our daily lives as hard as it is already hitting our wallets. Our roads are made of oil. Our food supply is deeply dependent upon oil. Even our clothes are mostly made out of oil, nowadays.

We are probably almost exactly at that fateful moment in human history that is being called Peak Oil: the moment when the total worldwide production of oil reaches its maximum rate, and then starts slowly but irrevocably to decline.

This all sounds pretty gloomy; but is there a hidden reason here to be optimistic? Could it be that the peaking of oil production, followed inevitably by less use – less burning – of oil, whether in boilers, factories, cars, or aircraft, will at least help us to avoid climate catastrophe?

Sadly not. The fact is that Peak Oil is all set to make it even harder to prevent the degradation of human civilisation within a century that catastrophic climate change would mean - melting the ice-caps, flooding our coasts and cities, burning the Amazon, creating hundreds of millions of environmental refugees, rendering large parts of the Earth simply uninhabitable, bringing hurricanes and tsunamis even to England.

Why? Because, as oil starts running out, unless we are very well-prepared, the first effect will be massive economic downturns and instabilities. Remember the 'oil shocks' of the 1970s? You ain't seen nothin' yet, compared to the oil shocks that Peak Oil threatens us with. Major economic instability will make it far harder to find the absolutely essential political will to change our economy to a low-carbon economy.

Even more worrying: as the oil fields of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia go into decline, attention will shift to the lower-quality bitumen, tar and 'heavy oil' supplies buried in Canada, Venezuela etc. The problem with these is that they require far more energy to extract from the ground than do existing oil fields. How do you get that energy? Most likely, by burning lots of oil (or gas, or coal). You see the problem: as we scramble to find replacements for our dwindling oil supplies we will burn much more fossil fuel in order to get hold of new supplies. That means more carbon emissions

And some kinds of coal have CO2 emissions forty times as high as those from conventional oil. If we start burning that coal, we really are signing humanity's suicide note.

We must not do so. We must not kill the future. So: what we have to do is plan now to avoid jumping from the frying pan of Peak oil into the furnace of global over-heat. We have to move fast to transform our lives.

They are working on it in Sweden. They plan to end their dependency on oil by 2020! Here are some examples of how they're doing it:
  • Running a small city's bus fleet on very clean biogas made from the sludge that otherwise goes to waste in sewage treatment plants.

  • Using the tax system to incentivise power stations to switch from burning fossil fuels to burning local biomass.

  • Building 'passive' houses that don't need any external heating.

  • Renovating housing estates systematically along ecological principles, reducing crime and increasing the well-being of those living there.
The big challenge for Sweden will be trying to go zero-carbon without becoming dependent upon large-scale unsustainable biofuels projects. But at least they are really trying. It is time for renewable energy and a relocalised economy to see us all through this crisis. Roll on the day when East Anglia - and England - try to follow Sweden's example!

And d'you know what? If we did, we’d have happier lives in the process. For all the oil that we have burnt over the last generation has not made us any happier than we were in the 1970s. It has in fact made us more isolated, more stressed, more materialistic, iller, less contented.

So maybe Peak oil and even Climate Change are good news in the end. They may prompt us to make the changes in our society, that we need to make anyway: in order to live lives not with more stuff, but with a higher quality of life.

Thanks to Jack Guest, filmmaker ('A convenient truth'), for help with this column.

5 November 2006

Not Stern enough

By Andrew Boswell

The Stern report has got people talking about climate change like never before. In the 700 pages of Sir Nicholas report there is a simple message – it will ultimately cost far more to spend nothing on mitigating climate change than it will to start spending to try and prevent the worst of it.

Although Stern has got people thinking the right direction, the assumptions in his report still bind us to the globalised economic system that has brought us to the brink of catastrophe, and the ensuing political talk this week still largely lacks the teeth to really make the difference.

Simply the science and climate changes observed on the ground are moving much faster than the politicians. Government thinking is based on the 2001 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) data. This is about to be updated and the signs are that this year's IPCC reports will be much bleaker as to temperature rises and their impact.

Stern too inhabits the IPCC 2001 world when he suggests that we should stabilise emissions at 550ppm equivalents of CO2. This is expected to give a 3°C rise in temperatures, whilst most scientists think that we must stabilise the climate at 2°C above pre-industrial levels to avoid runaway climate change. Some scientists like pre-eminent NASA climate scientist Jim Hansen are saying 1.7°C.

We are already at about 0.8°C above pre-industrial levels and scientists know that there is a delay between gases being emitted into the atmosphere and resulting changes to the climate of around 30 years. So our current climate is a response to the gases already emitted by 1976, but since then greenhouse gases equivalent to another 0.6°C rise have been emitted, leaving only another 0.3°C equivalent of ghgs before hitting Hansen's figure.

However, three recent pieces of evidence that indicate runaway effects may already be occurring. We may not even have that 0.3°C buffer.

First, Arctic ice cap summer melt has been 40 times faster in 2005 and 2006 – this induces a 'positive' feedback as water absorbs heat that the ice would reflect so causing further warming. Second, methane emissions from Siberian tundra melt are found to be increasing rapidly – this region of the planet is warming faster and threatens to release huge amounts of methane - a potent greenhouse gas. Last week further data on a slow down of the Gulf Stream was published.

This week politicians who have persistently ignored the environment spluttered "urgent, urgent, urgent" but still would not set realistic targets to prevent runaway climate change. Despite the Stern warning, the Government was still talking about its target of a 60% reduction by 2050 – a target originally set in 1990.

The latest science as discussed in George Monbiot's new book Heat suggests that we actually need 90% cuts by 2030 in the UK. Urgent action should initiate these cuts immediately and 'front-load' them so the greatest cuts are made first. The positive feedback effects now being detected demand nothing less, and front-loading will create less total emissions over the period until 2030 leaving less a less damaging legacy beyond 2050. I have calculated such front-loading needs to be 7-9% annual reductions now leading to 3-4% reductions by the mid 2020s.

David Miliband must be challenged on his promise this week to legislate cuts by 30% by 2020, only 2% a year, in a Climate Change bill as being wholly inadequate. The biggest wake up call for the public and politicians alike is yet to come – that is that it is economic growth itself that underlies much of climate change. Stern lost the chance for real radical change as he built his report around the God of our times, continual economic growth, which is part of the problem not part of the solution.

Economic growth has been in lockstep with carbon emissions since 1960. It is absurd to build policy on a belief that growth can continue and decarbonisation will magically happen. It is common sense that growing takes a lot of energy. So with the economy, it is the growth part the 3% extra (or more in China) that produces most of the emissions. To make the 7-9% annual cuts needed now, we must restructure to zero-growth (see also The steady state economy).

Aubrey Meyer’s 'Contraction and Convergence' (C&C) model offers the best underlying principle for future international treaties as it provides equal rights of all people and nations to emit safe levels of carbon. The Nairobi talks next fortnight are the opportunity to negotiate a new post-Stern international agreement based on C&C and zero growth. It should supersede the wholly inadequate Kyoto without delay. People like you and me are marching around the world today including in London to demand this radical path to climate justice.