Sunday, 19 December 2010

Surviving the Climate

Heathrow has been closed all day to give the ground crew time to clear all the snow and ice from the taxi ways and aircraft parking areas hoping to resume normal operations tomorrow.

This is unusually cold weather for Britain. Unlike other countries of northern Europe, we are not geared up to cope. The maritime climate of our islands usually protects us from extreme cold (and from extreme heat). As the climate becomes less predictable with more extreme events Britain should fare better than most countries.

This cold weather reminds us how reliant we have become on the complex infrastructure of society. To stay warm, the central heating must keep running which means the gas must keep flowing. Gone are the days when the UK had enough gas under the North Sea to have energy security under our control. We now rely on pipelines that cross Europe from Russia and on LPG tankers from the Middle-East.

There was a time when we would have gathered and stored enough wood to keep the fires burning until the spring. Survival was under our control. The food stored locally would tide us over until the next crop. Now the markets are global and we rely on global capacity for our survival. Whilst oil is plentiful and food is produced in abundance, prices are driven down. As oil demand exceeds supply and a series of droughts hit simultaneously on world agriculture we will wish we had not become so reliant on long and complex supply chains.

We can use this insight into a scenario of the future to improve energy and food security or wait until the crisis strikes...

The world is bunkering down for a festive Christmas with all the food we can eat and all the drink we can drink. As we enjoy this season we should reflect on how fortunate we are and when the New Year comes have a thought for ensuring that the future is safe in our hands.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Cancun Climate Talks RIP

The Cancun climate talks delivered what was expected: a bland communiqué to hide the lack of progress. The world still does not have a plan to constrain carbon dioxide emissions. The Times got it right:

‘...climate talks have assumed a life of their own and many of the 15,000 delegates are already inquiring about the best hotel rooms in Durban.’
The Times 11 December

Of course we hope that over the next year the talks find a solution to addressing the risks of climate change. Wishful thinking is not enough. Whilst there is belief that the talks can succeed, the issue is parked to await the outcome, delaying the search for real solutions.

The talks are flawed because the discussion is focused on targets, not solutions. It is like trying to persuade a heroin addict to promise to inject fewer fixes without curing the addiction. The truth is obscured. The truth is that the world is addicted to fossil fuel. World leaders have to wake up to the reality of dismantling an economy built on cheap fossil fuel and build a new sustainable economy powered by renewable energy.

Targets are not enough. The entire edifice of the modern globalised economy has to be looked at and revised. If this is accepted, the discussion leads to a very uncomfortable place. The economic success of recent decades is put at risk. Solutions do not come easy; but there are solutions. The search for green outcomes in the real world requires rethinking the priorities for society and changing the principles with which we manage the economy.

The climate talks should continue in South Africa, a year from now, but we should not be fooled into expecting too much. The solution is to take fossil fuel out of society and out of industry. The implications are massive; the investment required is huge; the challenge is immense.

If you are one of the 15,000 people about to book a hotel room in Durban for December 2011, be prepared to argue for deep-rooted change. If you plan to continue to argue around the periphery of the issues then you should forego the flight and stay at home.

Monday, 6 December 2010

21st Century Challenges

Can the UK ever be Sustainable?

That was the questions posed at the Royal Geographical Society under their excellent series of events titled ‘21st Century Challenges’ putting the spotlight on the big important questions of today.

Sir Stuart Rose, chairman of Marks and Spencer, said:

“In today’s climate, more so than ever, putting sustainability at the very heart of your business is not just the right thing to do ethically, it makes commercial sense too. A sustainable business means a business that can thrive in the long term - it forces us to look over the horizon, accelerate innovation and respond to the challenges that lie ahead.”

Mr Benn, former Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said:

“Our biggest challenge as a world is to learn to live sustainably. In the years ahead, families, communities, businesses and countries that work out how to do this will be in a much stronger position. We need to help each other to do this.”

Andy Hobsbawm, founder of Green Thing, said:

“Creativity has a huge role to play in changing the way people think about the resources they have at their disposal. We aim to turn green living from something people feel they ‘ought’ to do into something they ‘want’ to do.”

These sound bites are from people with a track record of taking action and deserve to be listened to.

Meanwhile, I noticed that Colombia's president, Juan Manuel Santos, has been forced to cancel his scheduled trip to the United Nations' climate change conference this week because of devastating flooding – even though global warming itself could be causing the disaster his country faces.

"I cancelled the trip I was taking to Cancun, [Mexico] ... to attend the international conference on climate change, which is what is affecting us, but I cancelled this meeting," President Juan Manuel Santos said in a statement reported by CNN.

Colombia is considering declaring a state of emergency to devote more resources to response and rescue efforts, Santos said, noting the number of victims throughout the country could climb to 2 million.

Columbia’s president has put action before further talks – he has a point.