Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Underwater Land Tenure

Britain used to be joined to the European land mass by a land bridge until about 8,500 years ago when melting glaciers raised sea levels and formed the English channel. It is normal that over geological time the geomorphology alters, fortunately ever so slowly so that the changes from one generation to another are barely noticeable – or that is how it was. Human activity is now driving change faster than nature acting alone.

Britain’s southern coast is slowly dropping into the sea. If you buy a house with a spectacular sea view built on the cliff top there is a risk that it will collapse into the sea. This is not caused by human activity and although it can be delayed it cannot be stopped by human protection measures; this is the natural process of change at work. A house built further back from the cliff edge may not have such good views but the owner can be confident of passing a house with value and a future onto their children and grandchildren. There is a balance to be struck between enjoying the best view in the owner’s lifetime and being able to preserve the family’s inheritance.

The situation for small island states is altogether more serious and in this case humankind is culpable. The Maldives and other tropical atolls are typically no more than a metre above sea level. Sea levels have risen by about 20cm over the past century; scientists predict this trend to continue, and to accelerate, as emissions of green-house gases continue to rise unabated. Under international law, an inhabited island can claim territorial rights but this does not extend to small rocks - or to an island completely submerged by the sea.

The owner of a house on the edge of England’s south coast has traded a beautiful outlook now for a collapse that they can hope will be beyond their lifetime. The industrialised nations are making a similar trade, burning fossil fuel in the knowledge that many small island states will cease to exist as a consequence. In the former case, the house owner is playing with the inheritance of their own children. In the latter case, rich nations are destroying the inheritance of the smallest nations on the planet. Compensation is likely to be paid but how do you value the loss of, not just a house, but a location to call home and a state that ceases to exist.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Climate Change as an Opportunity

Two observations have grabbed my attention over the last 24 hours to lift climate change out of the doom-and-gloom locker and into the in-tray for bold action to make the transition to a low-carbon society.

First, Sir Nicholas Stern, the economist who led the UK study that showed that it would be cheaper to act sooner rather than later to counter climate change, gave a lecture in Dorchester last night. He started by laying down the foundations slowly, carefully and eloquently, with a distinct lack of histrionics. The science is rock solid; climate change is serious; business-as-usual will lead to catastrophic disaster.

Nicholas Stern went on to explain an optimistic scenario of coordinated action to address both CO2 emissions and poverty. In his view you cannot do one without the other. The message was clear that action is required now; further delay would make the transformation more difficult and keep society on the road to disaster.

As is often the case, it was the comments at question time where the really interesting information came out. He was asked about how people could be persuaded to accept a hair-shirt solution of reductions in consumption and restraints on lifestyle. In his reply, he explained that the financial down-turn of 2008 led to a small reduction in CO2 emissions, but this was insignificant in relation to the scale of what is required. His conclusion is that reducing growth and reducing economic activity is clearly not the solution. The solution is a transformation in the infrastructure of society which he called the ‘Energy Industrial Revolution’.

Meanwhile, this afternoon, I listened to a Press Conference on the closing day of the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn. My attention was drawn to comments made by Jϋgen Lefevre representing the European Union. He explained that climate change had started as an environmental issue. Now, Europe is starting to look on climate change as an opportunity to help lift Europe out of the financial crisis. The agenda is opening out to a broader agenda of economic development.

Both Sir Nicholas Stern and Jϋgen Lefevre are pointing towards aspects of the broader agenda that I termed back in 2007 the ‘Sustainable Revolution;’ of which the Energy Industrial Revolution will be a part. The Sustainable Revolution will bring economic activity and jobs. Building a low-carbon society improves quality of life and reinforces energy security. The environmental imperative to act is strong, but the outcome is good for the economy and good for society.

What a shame that this carefully explained message from the experts is drowned out by misinformation from a few vocal people who want to resist change, hold back progress and grab the headlines.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Hope and Reality

Last week, World Environment Day came and went with hardly a murmur in the world press. The next day, Monday 6th June, delegates gathered in Bonn for the UN Climate Change Conference. Again, it hardly earned a mention; the world is pre-occupied with a whole range of problems ranging from Libya and Syria to the troubles of the Euro zone.

In the Middle East, long established dictators have reached beyond the ‘normal’ tools of repression to treat their own population with almost unimaginable cruelty. There is no going back for the old guard; if they lose control they will surely suffer retribution. They have no choice but to ratchet up the violence until even their own inner circle decide enough is enough. There is hope that turmoil in the Middle East will lead to an Arab Spring as democracy and respect for human rights sweep through the region. Hope and reality are not the same.

In the Euro zone, the levels of sovereign debt racked up by the Southern European members of the Euro zone are so great that default (referred to by the softer term ‘restructuring’) is inevitable. The Euro zone is desperately talking up the prospects that its members will muddle through somehow. These hopes give a warm feeling that the problems are solvable, but this denial of reality is not helpful to finding real solutions. Real solutions require clear vision and tough choices. Hope and reality are not the same.

The climate meeting in Bonn is subject to the same collective delusion that permeates world affairs. It is hoped that through the copious quantities of documents and years of talks that solutions can be found to bring climate change under control, without making substantive changes to the way we live and the way the world economy operates. It is hoped that that a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol (which runs out in 2012) will tie the world into a plan that will prevent dangerous climate change. Hope and reality are not the same.

Real solutions require clear vision and tough choices. World leaders must take off their blinkers and get to grips with the real choices about the future of world society and the planet.

Monday, 6 June 2011

World Environment Day

World Environment Day (WED) has been held each year on 5th June since 1973 with the aim expressed by the UNEP to, ‘stimulate worldwide awareness of the environment and encourage political attention and action.’ The theme this year is, ‘Forests: Nature at Your Service.’

A selection of reports from around the world starting with this year’s host country, India:

The Times of India
‘Bollywood actors Priyanka Chopra and Rahul Bose are to compete on the World Environment Day to motivate people to do their bit to save the mother earth. The Bollywood stars are facing off in a new video for the ultimate Environment Day Challenge - where they are calling individuals, groups, families and schools, even entire communities - to post details of their green activities online. "And for Priyanka and Rahul, this is where the battle lines get drawn. When registering a green activity on the site, people will have the opportunity to pledge their activity to either one celebrity or the other," said a statement issued by UN here.’

The Daily Times, Pakistan
LAHORE: The World Environment Day was observed in the city on Sunday with little enthusiasm, and with majority of the citizens appearing unaware about the day’s importance.

The Sunday Times, UK
I read the main section of today’s paper cover to cover and glanced through all the supplements. I cannot be certain that hiding somewhere there was a mention of world environment day but there was nothing I could spot. Have we lost interest?

Around the world there are examples of people taking action:

Costa Rica: A major success story in reforestation (having increased its forest cover from 22 percent in 1995 to 51 percent by 2010), Costa Rica is hosting participants from 15 neighbouring countries for a training course on sustainable forest management.

Nepal: UNEP is supporting a clean-up expedition to remove an estimated 9 tons of litter in and around Mount Everest. Enlisting some 60 climber volunteers, the long-term aim of the initiative is to develop more sustainable waste management facilities and recycling plants in the region.

Congo, Brazzaville: A major international summit on tropical forest basins held from 31 May to 6 June focussing on the sustainable management of forest ecosystems in the Amazon, Congo and Mekong Borneo basins.

I am left to wonder whether this will be enough. Have most people have become inured to the environmental degradation going on around them such that few people even know that 5th June is World Environment Day.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Electric Cars on Motorways

Electric cars are only good as city cars – right?

Small, low speed and short range are the type of statistics that come to mind but this image is changing. The electric car that I drove for 6 months, the prototype BMW E-Mini, was fast, cornered well and looked cool. It only had two seats (the batteries filled the space occupied by the rear seats) but for a sporty short range car it was good. It also performed well on the motorway between the two junctions of the M4 close to home; ‘a friend told me’ that with the foot to the floor and it would reach 90mph before the speed limiter kicked in. At the same time the battery indicator moved very quickly moved into the red; it was not a car for long range fast motorway driving!

For an even better driving experience, there is the Tesla, a fast sports car. The Tesla is beyond the pocket of most people, so not many will be sold, but the main impact on the industry is to change the image of the electric car. The fundamental problem of limited range remains but for the Tesla this is a whopping (by electric car standards) range of over 200 miles.

Does range limitation condemn the electric car to the role of local run-around? It works as a second car for two-car households and for the playboy wanting to look green and cool driving from the harbour where his yacht is anchored to a local restaurant but long journey’s are out. This may be about to change.

My favourite motorway services on the M6 is the family owned Tebay, the perfect place to stop on the route to Scotland. The management at Tebay have recently fitted a fast charging point for Tesla cars. This will allow Tesla drivers to stop as part of a grand tour provided the driver includes a long lunch, as a complete fill of the battery (even with the 70 Amp fast-charge point) takes three hours.

For those fortunate few that drive a Tesla, it would be wise not to plan a social event at Tebay services for fellow electric car enthusiasts; it would have to be a very long lunch indeed if everyone needed to queue for their turn at the changing point!

I drive an electric car; they are the future of local road transport but people are slow to understand that they are different. My blog entry for 7th March says it all...