Too Little, Too Late to Save the Planet

FROM switching off lights, recycling waste to reducing our car use, government is encouraging us all to change our behaviour and reduce our carbon footprint. But are these actions too little too late to save us from ecological collapse?

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gary haqFROM switching off lights, recycling waste to reducing our car use, government is encouraging us all to change our behaviour and reduce our carbon footprint. But are these actions too little too late to save us from ecological collapse?

This month sees two events aimed at mobilising the public to take action. On 19 March there will be a national day of action on Climate Change in Coventry organised by Christian Aid. The aim of this day of action is to highlight the plight of millions of poor people in developing countries for whom extreme weather conditions are now a matter of life or death. On the 28 March WWF will hold the world’s first global election.

The public are being asked to use their light switch as their vote – switching off the lights is a vote for Earth, leaving them on is a vote for global warming. WWF is hoping it will reach a international target of 1 billion votes, which will be presented to world leaders at the Global Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen 2009. These events are all well and good but do collective actions make any real significance in the long-term?

Despite international efforts the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are raising. As further evidence of the speed and magnitude of climate change comes to light a number of leading scientists such as Dr James Hansen, argue that time is running out and we need to take action now if we are to avoid runaway climate change. We can no longer put off changing our way of life and level of consumption. Current levels of carbon in the atmosphere are already too high.

gary haqThe public are willing to make small changes to their lifestyle. However, this can lead them into a false sense of security as they may think that this will be enough. They are unaware of the need for the more radical and less palatable changes.

Recently, the Northern Ireland Minister of Environment criticised the UK Government’s Act on CO2 campaign, claiming it was dangerous propaganda (See previous blog).

Only a small minority will truly make the radical changes necessary such as not flying or using the car. However, do unilateral sacrifices make any difference when the issue is of global proportions and requires global collective action?

Some environmentalists would argue that changes come from the grass roots. By raising awareness and mobilising action then individuals can be a collective force for change. Dr Mayer Hillman author of the book “How Can We Save the Planet” argued at a recent meeting on sustainable development in London that asking the public to switch of lights and voluntarily restraining their consumption was a waste of time. He did not believe individuals would voluntarily given up going to their holiday home in the South France for sake of the planet.

Dr Hillman argues that a considerable and rapid reduction of emissions will not be achieved on a voluntary basis. He concludes governments across the world must urgently set mandatory targets based on a global agreement on per capita rations, delivered in the form of personal carbon allowances. This notion is referred to as ‘Contraction and Convergence’ (C&C). This C&C strategy consists of ‘Contraction’ – reducing overall emissions of greenhouse gases to a safe level and ‘Convergence’ where the global emissions are reduced because every country brings emissions per capita to a level which is equal for all countries.

Such a radical framework may make politicians uncomfortable as the introduction of rationing would be unpopular with the electorate. However, Hilman argues due to the global ecological crisis governments need to form a War Cabinet and make these unpopular decisions if we are to win the war against climate change. Some environmentalists would argue that this is a form of “ecological dictatorship” and such constraints would result in a public backlash possibly on a scale never seen before.

(AFP photo/Remigiusz Sikora)There is an urgent need for World governments to have an international agreement that is legally binding and effectively delivers the cuts in greenhouse gases that is equitable and prevents serious disturbance to the global climate.

However, many politicians depend on their electorate for votes and it is clear that if we are to make the radical changes necessary then we need to convince the public of the urgency of the problem. This requires a combination of a ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ approaches. Our politicians need to lead by example and have the courage to make the difficult decisions that lie ahead. Equally, the challenge is so great, and the timescale so tight, that we can no longer wait for governments and businesses to take action. At the grass roots level individuals and community groups need to collectively work together and show what can be done and convince their neighbours to do the same.

The key to environmental protection is in the hands of the many, not the few. Therefore people power is the force which will allow us to tackle climate change. We can only avoid ecological collapse if everyone does as much as they can in the fight against climate change.

© Gary Haq 2009

When The Lights Go Out

THE UK government would be acting as a “climate criminal” if it allows a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth in Kent to go ahead, say campaign groups. If we are to address depleting energy resources and tackle climate change then we will need to face up to the impending energy crunch and the difficult choices ahead.

Gary HaqTHE UK government would be acting as a “climate criminal” if it allows a new coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth in Kent to go ahead, say campaign groups. If we are to address depleting energy resources and tackle climate change then we will need to face up to the impending energy crunch and the difficult choices ahead.
Power failures are a rare thing where I live. I have experienced then when visiting Karachi and Kathmandu. There the lights tend to flicker as a warning sign that we will soon be thrown into darkness. After experiencing the black void for a couple of seconds there is a sudden loud noise as the hotel generator normally kicks in and light is restored.

The last time I experienced a power cut in the UK was as a young child in the 1970s. Then sitting in the dark with a candle seemed like fun. However, after recently experiencing three power failures within a few days I was left with the realisation how the simplest of things in the home were energy dependent. For more than one hour in the evening I could not watch TV, boil the kettle, listen to music, neither see the time, call out on the landline nor could I use my mobile phone as that needed to be recharged. I had forgotten the inconvenience of being left in the dark. I was not totally lost. My 1930s wind-up wall clock and black 1950s Bakelite telephone, which I tend to keep plugged in because I like the ring, were both still functioning. These products are from a bygone age when we were less profligate with energy.

Gary HaqOur demand for energy has been increasing. According to the International Energy Agency world energy consumption is projected to expand by 50 per cent from 2005 to 2030. While the global economic recession will obviously result in a fall in current demand nevertheless we will continue to be a fossil fuel based economy. Our demand for energy has increased so much that we are now on the verge of passing the peak in oil production. This “Peak Oil” is the point where the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached. After this point the rate of oil production goes into terminal decline. The peak is expected in the next 20 years. However, this may be delayed due to the global economic downturn. The use of fossil fuels has resulted in carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas, being pumped in to the air. Pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide was 280 parts per million (ppm). Our use of oil and gas, have increased this to 385 ppm. It continues to grow by about 2 ppm per year.

If we are to meet future energy demand and avoid climate change then we need to address our demand for energy and look to alternative energy sources. Campaign groups claim the new coal-fired power stations will increase the impact of climate change on poor countries. If the Kingsnorth does get the green light it would be the first coal-fired plant to be built in the UK for more than two decades.

Gary HaqA number of leading environmentalists are now supporting nuclear power as a viable energy source arguing it is better than climate change. Nuclear power together with wind, wave and solar power are seen as vital if low-carbon energy generation is to be achieved. Nuclear power currently accounts for about a fifth of the UK’s electricity, compared with the 35 per cent from coal and 35 per cent from gas. The UK’s nineteen reactors in ten different power stations across the country are ageing. If action is not taken then by 2015 we will lose eight gigawatts power generation that is equivalent to approximately six coal-fired power stations. In the next 15 years the UK will need to replace 33 per cent of its generating capacity. Even with the planned gas-fired power stations there will still be a short fall to meet the increase in energy demand in the coming decade.

We need to face up to the fact that we will be left with an energy gap. Action to increase the efficiency of the energy we use and reduce our overall demand will be needed. If we are serious about tackling climate change and reducing greenhouse gas emissions then can we afford to leave out nuclear from the energy package? Its drawbacks may seem insignificant when compared to the scale and impact of a changing climate. Unfortunately, we may only realise this when it is too late to do anything about it.

Start stocking up on the candles now!

© Gary Haq 2009

Green Campaigns – Dangerous Propaganda?

The Northern Ireland’s Minister of Environment, Sammy Wilson, has taken the decision to block the government’s “Act on CO2” advertisement campaign on climate change to be shown in Northern Ireland claiming it to be “insidious propaganda”. Do green campaigns cause more damage than good? Do they go far enough in commuincating the message to the public about the scale of the real challenges ahead?

Act on CO2ARE public campaigns aimed at raising awareness of our impact on the environment dangerous propaganda?

Northern Ireland’s Minister of Environment, Sammy Wilson, thinks so. He has blocked the government’s “Act on CO2” advertisement campaign on climate change from being shown in Northern Ireland. Mr Wilson is reported to have described the campaign has “insidious propaganda” claiming that the campaign adverts were: “giving the people the impression that by turning off the standby light on their TV they could save the world from melting glaciers and being submerged under 40ft of water

It is not surprising that Mr Wilson is a climate change denier and does not believe man-made greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause of climate change. However, it is surprising that such a view is held by someone who holds the office of Minister of Environment.

wilson1

Mr Wilson’s view not only questions whether climate change is man-made but also the role of environmental campaigns to persuade people to change their behaviour. National information campaigns have been used for many years to raise environmental awareness. These have included the 1970s “Save It” energy campaign, 1990s “Are You Doing Your Bit?” and more recently “Act on CO2” (2007). Many regional and local government authorities have their own campaigns to address particular environmental issues. Such campaigns tend to provide the public with information to allow them to make informed choices and to persuade them that collectively they can make a difference.

In particularly Mr Wilson’s view challenges the green mantra of: “Think Globally, Act Locally”. When faced with such an overwhelming global phenomenon such as climate change we may feel that the individual actions we take are insignificant. If the cause of the problem is the collective impact of individual actions then surely working collectively is the solution?

Some environmentalists would agree with Mr Wilson that encouraging people to take small painless steps such as switching of lights gives a wrong impression. lightsThey would argue that this leads to a false sense of security that current lifestyles can continue with only small changes while in fact more radical changes are necessary. There is a need to confront the problem of our high consuming lifestyles head-on and tackle the underlying motivations of consumerism. Campaigns such as the Government’s “Act on CO2” are seen by some hard-line environmentalists as a deflection and waste of precious campaign and communication resources.

We have become so locked-in to a highly energy intensive, polluting, wasteful and inequitable way of life that materialistic values will not be able to deliver the systematic changes necessary in human behaviour. For example, not owing or using a car may not result in net environmental benefits if the money saved is used to fly to a far-flung holiday destination.

flightEnvironmental campaigns are guilty of failing to communicate the fundamental changes that are required in the way we live. Unfortunately, the public are not receptive to extreme messages such as banning car use and flying. A survey of British attitudes to flying by the National Centre for Social Research found that there were high levels of public concern about the environmental impact of air travel and a growing agreement that the cost of flying should reflect environmental damage. Despite this view the majority of the public still believe that people should be able to fly as much as they want. However, the size of this majority is falling.

Although public awareness campaigns have limitations they are a vital tool in tackling the environmental challenges ahead. It would be “dangerous” not to use all available means to engage and encourage the public to take action collectively. In the words of Gandhi “We must be the change we wish to see in the world” and that means each and everyone one of us doing our bit.

© Gary Haq 2009

The Global Ecological Credit Crunch: The Elephant in the Room

HAVE you noticed everyone is talking about the credit crunch and the global recession these days?
Not a day passes without hearing further news about job losses, banks going bust, well-known companies folding-up and attempts by global leaders to implement measures to stop the global financial meltdown. This is all very well but no one seems to be interested in the elephant in the room – the global ecological credit crunch. An issue that will have catastrophic consequences for the future of humanity.

World EconomyHAVE you noticed everyone is talking about the credit crunch and the global recession these days?

Not a day passes without hearing further news about job losses, banks going bust, well-known companies folding-up and attempts by global leaders to implement measures to stop the global financial meltdown.

This is all very well but no one seems to be interested in the elephant in the room – the global ecological credit crunch. An issue that will have catastrophic consequences for the future of humanity.

From the global to the local level we have stamped our footprint on the natural world. We have over-exploited natural resources, degraded ecosystems, and caused mass extinction of some species while endangering others. Our long-term survival is dependent on having access to food, water, air and energy yet we seem intent on irreversibly damaging our life support system.
Footprint

A look at the current state of the planet provides a bleak picture. A United Nations assessment of the global situation shows that over the past fifty years we have caused more ecological damage than in any other period in human history. The extent of our willful destruction is becoming ever more evident. Global warming is resulting in changes to the climate system, which could have catastrophic consequences for humanity. The hole in the ozone layer over Antarctica is now larger than ever, allowing harmful ultraviolet radiation to reach the earth endangering human health, marine organisms and food production.

Fifteen out of 24 major ecosystems are being degraded or used unsustainably. Habitat destruction is threatening more than 16,000 species with extinction. Over-exploitation of aquatic ecosystems is putting the future use of marine and freshwater fisheries at risk. Unsustainable land use is causing soil erosion and desertification while the quantity and quality of freshwater is declining, increasing the likelihood of water scarcity in certain regions of world. Our exposure to environmental pollution is responsible for nearly one-quarter of all diseases contributing to respiratory illness, some types of cancers, vector-borne diseases and emerging animals to human disease transfer.

According to the Worldwide Fund for Nature´s (WWF) Living Planet Index we are degrading natural ecosystems at a rate unprecedented in human history. The Index measures trends in the Earth’s biological diversity and enables the health of ecosystems to be monitored. Since 1970 the biodiversity fell by about 30 per cent due to pressures of population growth, economic activities and consumption patterns.

Over the past 45 years, our demands on the planet have more than doubled. In 1961, nearly all countries in the world had more than enough capacity to meet their own demand. However, the situation had radically changed by 2005 with many countries able to meet their needs only by importing resources from other nations. Ecocredit - Ecodebtor

The demands of our increasingly globalised, industrialised, high consuming society have overloaded the planet’s natural ability to absorb, replenish and restore. We are now drawing on our ecological capital rather than living off nature’s interest. Habitat destruction and permanent loss of productivity are threatening both biodiversity and human wellbeing.

If we continue with the slow, steady growth of economies and populations then by the mid-2030s humanity’s demand on the planet will be twice its productive capacity. At this level of ecological deficit, exhaustion of ecological resources and large-scale ecosystem collapse will become increasingly likely. If we carry on regardless with our current level of consumption then by early 2030s we will need two planets to keep up with the demands we place on the planet.

elephant_in_living_room1If we have any hope of addressing the global ecological credit crunch then world leaders will need to start taking it seriously. They will need to give as much attention (if not more) to the elephant in the room as they are to the current financial crisis.

© Gary Haq 2009

Growing Old in a Changing Climate

Older People in a Flood THE ageing of our society and the changing of our climate are two key inevitabilities of this century. However, the effects of climate change will not be evenly distributed, as certain groups in society will be affected more than others. The recent heavy snow in the UK and the heatwave in Australia show that older people are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events.

Older people are not only among the prime contributors to climate change, but also potentially some of the first casualties. They may be physically, financially and emotionally less able to cope the effects of a changing climate than the rest of the population.

The August 2003 European heatwave clearly demonstrated the consequences of a rapid rise in temperature which reached 40°C and resulted in the death of 14,802 elderly people in France, and 2,139 in England and Wales.Heatwave

The June 2007 floods showed the impact severe weather events can have on local communities and services. Older people, especially those without the resources to cope, will be affected more by such events. The insecurity and heightened exposure to threats posed by a changing climate are further compounded for older people by their reduced capacity for coping independently.

The effects of climate change, such as high temperatures, storm damage and poor access to public services due to extreme weather events, pose a threat to our quality of life in old age. How well we will deal with the effects of a changing climate will be determined by our state of health, income, where we live, family support network and access to, and quality of, key essential services. As we grow older, we are faced increasingly with declining health and physical strength, disability, loss of income and bereavement.

We can adapt to climate change and old age separately, but that risks seeking solutions in one area that might adversely affect another. For example, we might drive up the cost of fuel in order to restrain usage but impose, in consequence, on our older population, an inability to adequately keep warm and pricing them out of the car-using public when that might be their only option to get out and about.

The issues around climate change, and the issues about an ageing society, can be described in isolation, but we need to bring them together if we are to protect older people. Energy use is of particular concern as an increasing number of older people are facing fuel poverty.

The carbon footprint of those aged 50 to 64 years, and 65 to 74 years, are the two highest compared to other age groups. Clearly, our carbon reduction strategies need to give due attention to the particular characteristics of these groups. But older people must be part of the solution too: can we make it easier for them to conserve energy, and can we harness their interest and enthusiasm to “make the world a fit place for our grandchildren”, and build a positive force for the future?

Older people are willing to contribute to tackling climate change. However, there is no coherent policy response which addresses the interface between climate change and older people. Policies need to be sharpened, focused and co-ordinated to deal with the range of impacts a changing climate will have on the lives of an ageing population.

Government agencies and older people’s organisations need to make a concerted effort to improve the ability of older people to cope with the effects of climate change. It calls on government to risk assess all future policies so that they do not undermine government targets to reduce UK greenhouse gas emissions and put older people at risk.

If we are to meet the challenge of growing old in a changing climate, then older people need to have an active role. We need to make it easier for them to conserve energy, use public transport and maintain crucial social networks that will help them better cope with the effects of climate change.

© Gary Haq 2009

No Time to Waste – Returning to the Good Life

earth-clock-01AS a child the school summer holidays seemed an eternity. Time seemed to pass very slowly. These days as an adult its hard to keep up with all the things one has to do. How many times have you heard people complain we “just don’t have the time”?

Psychologist William James’ explanation is that children experience everything for the first time and that all experiences are new. Their intense perception of the world around them means that times goes slowly. As adults we have fewer new experiences, life is more familiar and less information is taken in and time is less stretched. While there are obvious cognitive psycholgoical explanations to our perception of time there are also other factors at play.

As a child growing up in the 1970s there was only three TV channels which only ran for a limited number of hours. We did not have a computer, mobile phone, video player or DVD to distract us. Most of the time was enjoyed playing out in the streets with other friends. On TV there was a popular sitcom called The Good Life which described the experiences of Tom and Barbara who have had enough of the rat race and decide to become self-sufficient. They convert their garden into a farm, keep pigs and chickens and grow their own crops.the-good-life1

Life seemed a lot simpler back then but perhaps I am looking back through rose-tinted spectacles?. Afterall, I did not have to worry about paying bills, going to work or doing house work. Despite all this, I do feel that life has speeded up.

streetsThis is evident in our breakdown in our sense of community. In the cobbled streets of inner city Salford (UK) where I grew up we knew or had a good idea who lived in the 40-plus houses there. These days I only know three of my neighbours. This is partly due to people being more mobile and not staying in one place too long and partly due to being more private individuals. No longer do we have the time for idle chit chat. Like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland we are rushing around saying we are late.

In his Novel Momo Michael Ende wrote about a mysterious young orphaned girl, who arrives in a small town and notices that the inhabitants are starting to change, becoming obsessed with time and money. Momo discovers that the culprits are the “Grauen Herren”, sinister, ghost-like men who are stealing time. The effects were dramatic. The village barber found that:

he was becoming increasingly restless and irritable. The odd thing was that, no matter how much time he saved, he never had any to spare; in some mysterious way, it simply vanished. Imperceptibly at first, but then quite unmistakably, his days grew shorter and shorter. Almost be­fore he knew it, another week had gone by, another month, and another year, and another and another.”

In his article entitled Time Pollution, Prof. John Whitelegg attempts to explain the paradox that the more people try to save time, the less they seem to have? Whitelegg argues:

Time is central to notions of sustainability. A sustainable city or a sustainable transport policy or a sustainable economy cannot be founded on economic principles which, through their monetarisation of time, orientate society towards higher levels of motorisation, faster speeds and greater consumption of space. The fact that these characteristics produce energy-intensive societies and pollution is only part of the problem. They also distort value systems, elevate mobility above accessibility, associate higher speeds and greater distances with progress, and dislocate communities and social life.”

There is no doubt that our lack of time has contributed to the community disintegration that has been occuring across Europe and other western countries in the last few decades. Perhaps we need to change our perception of time and spend more time being rather than doing. A global recession may provide that window of opportunity to reassess our values and lifestyles and perhaps like Tom and Barbara we can return to the “Good Life” that many of us remember.

© Gary Haq 2009

Staying Green in a Global Recession

Drax Power Station in YorkshireWHERE there is a will, there is a way. Unfortunately, when it comes to tackling climate change, the Government and the public may not have the will to make the radical changes necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Faced with the credit crunch, global recession and a decline in personal finances, we may feel more inclined to abandon our green intentions.

In the short-term, this may provide some financial and political relief but we will have to pay in the long-term when faced with the human, environmental and economic cost of climate change.

The Stern report on the economic impact of climate change showed that the dangers of unabated climate change would cost the equivalent of at least five per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP) each year.

In contrast, the costs of action to avoid the worst impacts of climate change can be limited to around one per cent of global GDP each year. People would pay a little more for carbon-intensive goods, but
our economies could essentially continue to grow strongly.

The UK has shown some leadership with the Climate Change Bill. We are the only country in the world that has made the national long-term goal of a 80 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 a legally binding target.

In contrast, the idea of personal carbon allowances, whereby people would have to trade in credits if they wanted to exceed their own carbon quota, has been shelved. Carbon allowances are seen as being effective and fairer than green taxes. However, the Government claims that while the scheme has appeal, it would be too expensive and complicated to implement.

For the past year, Louise, a 52-year-old secondary school teacher from York, has been struggling to reduce her carbon footprint. From fitting energy efficient light bulbs, recycling waste to reducing her car use – she has followed the advice. While she has made considerable progress, she has not found it easy. “I keep finding really good reasons why everyone else should be doing the hard work,” says Louise.

She is not alone. While we may rush to embrace the fashionable
idea of being green, our enthusiasm begins to waver when faced with the many small, but numerous difficulties we encounter in practice. A report by the Worldwide Fund for Nature questions whether promoting what it calls “simple and painless steps” for reasons of self-interest (e.g. lower heating bills) may be preventing us from engaging in more significant and potentially inconvenient and costly changes to our lifestyles.

It claims that those who engage in environmentally friendly behaviour in pursuit of goals such as personal growth and community
involvement tend to be more motivated and are likely to sustain their behaviour in the long term. While this may be the case, not everyone has the ability, time or inclination to lead a green lifestyle.

Cycling in HollandSetting emission reduction targets is easy; it is more difficult to implement the changes that will result in the required emission reductions. We only need to look to our European neighbours to see that the knowledge and technology exists to reduce carbon emissions. The Netherlands has an integrated transport system where walking, cycling and public transport provides realistic and affordable alternatives to the car.

The German green dot system requires manufacturers to take back the packaging of their goods, requiring them to reuse or recycle. In Scandinavia, energy-efficient homes are the norm rather than the exception. We can no longer claim ignorance on how to achieve a low carbon society. What is lacking is political will.

Politicians need to show leadership and take the tough decisions to make a low carbon society a reality. If we are to kick the carbon habit, then the low carbon option needs to be the cheaper, convenient and easier option for all. We will not longer have to think about being green, as it will be the only option.

In the face of economic difficulties, we should not be distracted by short-term issues but focus on the long-term consequences of our actions. We will need to accept that if we are to avoid the worst impacts of climate change then fundamental changes are required to reduce our carbon dependency.

© Gary Haq 2009