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?

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

Is Clean Air Bad for the Planet?

HEALTH damaging particles in polluting gases emitted by industry, traffic and domestic heating have a ‘cooling’ effect on the climate. In reducing local air pollution we are lowering this cooling effect and inadvertently accelerating global warming. Is clean air bad for the planet?

Gary Haq HEALTH damaging particles in polluting gases emitted by industry, traffic and domestic heating have a ‘cooling’ effect on the climate. In reducing local air pollution we are lowering this cooling effect and inadvertently accelerating global warming. Is clean air bad for the planet?
The burning of fossil fuels such as coal and oil emit gases with small particles known as aerosols. These aerosols include PM10 and sulphates and are found in motor vehicle emissions as well as industrial and domestic heat emissions. They have been linked to asthma, heart problems, lung cancer and premature death as well as having an impact on ecosystems. Aerosols influence the nature of clouds and play a key role in reflecting incoming solar radiation and reducing temperatures at the earth’s surface. They mask the earth from the effects of global warming. While there is still scientific uncertainty about the contribution of this group of air pollutants to ‘climate cooling’ there is an urgent need to reduce the concentrations of these small particles to protect human health and environment.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that outdoor air pollution is responsible for 600,000 premature deaths worldwide each year. Britain is one of ten European Union member states that have recently been warned over excessive levels of PM10. The UK together with Cyprus, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden could face court action if it fails to meet a European directive limiting these harmful airborne particles. In particular, developing cities in Asia and Africa are struggling with a rapid growth in traffic, urban expansion and industrial development. This has resulted in high levels of polluting air emissions and poor air quality.

Gary Haq In many large Asian cities you will find street hawkers sitting beside strategic road junctions experiencing the general hustle and bustle of daily life. However these individuals are being exposed to high concentrations of motor vehicle pollutants increasing the risk of developing respiratory disease and cancer. Children ill with respiratory disease caused by exposure to high concentrations of air pollutants will be children that will not learn very well, will suffer in adult life from low levels of qualifications and skills which in turn has implications for their quality of life and the economic development of the country as a whole.

The issue of local environmental quality versus global environmental pollution poses an interesting ethical dilemma. Policies to reduce local air pollution such as improving vehicle technology, installing clean technologies in polluting industrial plants and introducing low-sulphur fuels will protect the health of many urban residents. However, by reducing aerosols emissions we are reducing their climate cooling effect. This could speed up global warming and climate change and thus threatens the lives of 7 billion people on the planet.

Gary HaqIf we are to avoid the inadvertent warming resulting from a reduction in PM10 and sulphate aerosols then we need to reduce ‘short-lived’ climate warming gases. That is the view of the Global Atmospheric Pollution Forum – an international partnership of governmental and non-governmental organisations that address air pollution. Unlike carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas that remains in the atmosphere for up to 100 hundred years, black carbon, ground-level ozone and methane are substances that have a relatively short-life in the atmosphere, lasting from days to weeks in the case of ozone and black carbon and for a decade with regard to methane. Black carbon is emitted from diesel engines, while ground-level ozone is produced from the reaction of gases from vehicle exhaust, industrial emissions, and chemical solvents. These pollutants are both local air pollutants as well as climate warming gases. While methane is an ingredient needed for the formation of ground-level ozone. Therefore decreasing the concentrations of these gases by cutting emissions could produce relatively quick climate results. This would counteract the cooling effect caused by a reduction in other pollutants such as PM10 and sulphates needed to protect human health. Measures to reduce concentrations of ground-level ozone, black carbon and methane must be pursued alongside cuts in carbon dioxide emissions. This approach should to be addressed in future climate change negotiations. A global assessment of short-lived pollutants is required to feed into the policy process.

It is clear air pollution and climate change are intimately linked with regard to sources and effects on human health and environment. Actions taken to reduce emissions of traditional pollutants may increase or decrease emissions of greenhouse gases. Likewise, strategies to reduce greenhouse gases can have positive or negative effects on air pollution. If we are to develop effective air pollution prevention policies then we to need an integrated approach to address both local air pollution and climate change. This means abandoning the traditional view of the environment as being made up of separate parts and treating it as a functioning interrelated system.

By taking a holistic view of air pollution and climate change we can ensure that clean air will never be bad for the planet.

© 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

Extreme Weather in Two Lands

Big Snow in LondonAS the UK struggles with the worst snow for six years across large parts of England, down under the Australians are having to deal with the worst heatwave in decades, with temperatures in excess of 43C (109F) in the south-eastern part of the country. Health officials in South Australia are blaming the high temperatures for an increase in the number of sudden deaths among the elderly. While in the north near Queensland authorities are monitoring a low pressure system that could develop into the state’s second cyclone within a week. More than 60 per cent of Queensland is covered by floodwaters and more devastation is expected. Already there are almost 3,000 properties in the north of Townsville surrounded by floodwaters caused by ex-tropical cyclone Ellie.

Australian heatwaveThe snowfall in England resulted in schools being closed, public transport closures and airport delays. The heatwave in Victoria is the worst since 1908. Wildfires in the west of the state made worse by dry conditions and sweeping winds destroyed 2,000 hectares (4,900 acres) of forest and grassland, forcing residents to flee their homes, emergency workers. The high temperatures resulted in a massive increase the use of air conditioners which have claimed to have caused a breakdown in Melbourne’s electricity grid – leaving half a million homes without power. The economic cost of the heatwave in Melbourne is estimated to be 100,000 Australian dollars.

In the UK the big snow is estimated to have cost the country £1bn in lost productivity due to approximately 20 per cent of the country’s workforce is believed to have taken Monday off due to the extreme weather. Many businesses in London and the south-east were forced to operate on a limited basis with transport services in chaos after up to eight inches of snow. Nearly half of businesses in London were operating at only 50 per cent capacity.

These recent extreme weather events clearly demonstrate our vulnerability to the impacts of a sudden change in climate. The social, economic and environmental impact of such extreme weather should be a warning to us all about what we can expect in the future as the planet warms up and the climate changes. We need to act now to prevent the possibility of run away climate change. We need to make the necessary investment to ensure the infrastructure, social and emergency services can adequately cope with extremes change in the weather.

© 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