Good news stories: Ocean sinks and UK investment

 It’s relatively rare these days to come across a positive climate change news item, but here are two.

British scientists at the Cape Verde Observatory have found that greenhouse gases over the tropical Atlantic are decreasing, and at a faster rate than predicted by climate change models.  The team measured ozone and methane levels at different alititudes over the ocean and found that more of these gases are being destroyed than predicted (ozone being a greenhouse gas at lower levels in the atmosphere).  The tropical Atlantic is acting as an effective sink for these gases, because of its higher sunlight intensity.  At the same time, the scientists emphasise that the intrinsic uncertainties associated with modelling the global climate system remain–these findings could relate to unrecognised remove processes occurring in other parts of the world.

Report from The Guardian link here.

Today the UK prime minister, Gordon Brown, announced a sweeping and well-funded initiative to move energy supply strongly towards renewables.  The government will provide the private sector with incentives to generate an investment fund of 100 billion pounds.  This will be applied to generate 15% of the country’s power from renewables by 2020.  Wind turbines will be focused on the North Sea, and on land where communities support them.  More responsible consumer behaviour at the household level will also be supported with incentives.  Energy utilities will be rewarded for reducing demand.  Some 160,000 new jobs will be created in the sector.  Carbon taxes have been foreshadowed, together with the public education programs they require.

Although supported by environmental groups, there is concern that the plan for new nuclear power stations is also going ahead.  As I have noted previously, there are powerful reasons to avoid such a direction.  It may be hoped, perhaps, that the practical outcomes of such a large-scale renewables program in offering a betteroutcome, economically, environmentally and socially, than any nuclear program could offer may make the nuclear option redundant.

Report from The Guardian link here.

George Monbiot on small farms

George Monbiot is a regular columnist on science and sustainability affairs for ‘The Guardian’.  He is a well-informed, iconoclastic writer.  He doesn’t mince words and he stands on facts, however inconvient.  His book on climate change, ‘Heat’, published last year, is well worth reading–well researched, and written with engaging candour and panache.  His central thesis–that the challenge to climate change is the challenge to ourselves and to the way we live–is one I’ve been pursuing in these pieces.  He is, simply, good value, in science, policy and style, a rarity among science journalists.

Monbiot’s recent piece on the value of small farms is the kind of observation he particularly enjoys.  He draws from research undertaken by the great development economist Amartya Sen, which seemed to show that the productivity of small farms is significantly greater than that of large farms–in some places, such as Turkey, as much as 20 times more productive.  This is a direct challenge to the conventional wisdom of agricultural economics and development economics in the developed world, which for more than 50 years has linked agricultural productivity with increasing size of farming operations, which allows mechanisation and economies of scale.  Not so, said Sen and others; and not so in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Malaysia, Thailand, Java, the Phillipines, Brazil, Colombia and Paraguay.  Of these research results Monbiot notes, “It appears to hold almost everywhere.”

Monbiot speculates on the reasons for this really quite remarkable finding.  Increasing labour productivity, through family structures; increased equity (that is, social fairness) in community contexts;  less ecological damage; increased investment in localised farming systems, such as terracing; all seem to play a part.  I would be inclined to add local knowledge, which in my work among farmers leads me to believe is much larger than is commonly thought, and directly influences sustainable productivity.  Ownership, too, is likely to be important; and not just ownership of the land, although that is important, particularly in family farming, but ownership of the work and of its products–we know from labour studies in all industries that ownership of work can dramatically increase productivity in the short and long term.

Monbiot concludes, with a typical flourish, that the differences in productivity between small and large farms are so significant that small farms may be necessary in order to meet the growing crisis in global food supply.  Since fair trade is one of the key ways in which small farmers can secure a stable living, fair trade too emerges as a critical factor.  The return of productive land to small farmers is a central part of the picture; a program which Monbiot takes great delight in observing is occurring in the unlikely country of Zimbabwe.

George Monbiot’s column in The Guardian link .

Reflections on climate change, global governance and equity

The greatest challenges of climate change are not, I believe, related to science and technology, although they are often put that way (see the recent report from UK and other scientists, reported in The Guardian, supporting carbon capture). They have to do rather with human societies and how we choose to live in them across the international community. For that reason, the solutions to climate change are not primarily technological (although renewable energy development and energy efficiency clearly have an important role) but political and institutional, at local, national and international levels.

 

In particular, it is difficult to see that climate change policy can be disentangled from global poverty. This link was recognised in the first major statement on global sustainability, The Brundtland Report. There it was pointed out that a central objective of action by the international community must embrace both economic and environmental goals simultaneously; that the enormous damage produced by poverty shouldn’t be overlooked in the drive to improve environmental outcomes; that properly structured economic growth can enhance environments (by providing people who otherwise have only survival imperatives with more options); and that improving environmental outcomes without reducing poverty had little point—an unapologetically anthropocentric position.

 

These principles apply with equal force to climate change policy. Here, however, the issues are complicated by the fact that the economic growth which reduces poverty has been driven historically largely by fossil fuel energy, which is the major contributor to climate change. Developed countries are now in a position of asking developing countries to reduce emissions which under current conditions means limiting economic growth and continuing to accept these very high levels of poverty. Currently some two billion people live less than $2 billion per day.  More than four million people in Ethiopia are currently approaching critical food availability, from desertification and prolonged drought driven in all likelihood by climate change. Global food stocks have declined dramatically, resulting in steep price rises for food, with the major impact falling on the world’s poor.

 

Clearly ethical imperatives come into play at this point. Developed countries can’t very well insist on maintaining their own standard of living while denying developing countries the opportunity to reduce poverty and raise living standards. Yet this is precisely what the US (and, until recently, Australia) have effectively argued. The only ethical solution is that developed countries must transfer wealth, as well as technology as it is developed (it isn’t yet), to developing countries to assist in the transition to a low carbon economy while managing the social impacts in a positive way. It’s worth noting, too, that the US could within its own borders make a very great contribution to global climate change by reducing its own emissions, which both in total volume and per capita sit around the highest in the world. So far, with the exception perhaps of California, there has been little evidence of a willingness to do this at any level of government.

 

Already we are seeing how interest groups will put their own economic interests ahead of the general interest. At the present time we have thousands of truck drivers on strike in Spain over rising fuel prices. We have an Australian government which seems to be bound by the powerful coal industry to invest in further discovery and production for export income, despite the impact of coal-fired power stations everywhere (in China, somewhere around one new power station a week) on greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon capture technology, being put forward in Europe and Australia, on the other side, is highly speculative, and brings with it its own risks to the health of human populations.

 

The international community doesn’t have the cohesiveness to act like a nation, in imposing taxes, setting caps, redistributing income, imposing direct controls and so on. The political institutions of the international community are stretched to breaking point over this issue—because of the sacrosanct nature accorded to national sovereignty. It’s here that the issue of climate change will be played out. You’d have to say the historical record is against the sort of wholesale reconfiguration of these institutions that will be required.

 

Local solutions may be the only way open for the present. Sitting behind the governmental and political challenges are patterns of consumption and associated levels of well-being. At the household level, I believe most people are willing to contemplate and implement the required behavioural changes, within a relatively short period of time. Local governments are beginning to look at the possibility, for example, of localising power and selling back to the grid. But its difficult to see, without an ethical position being taken by the developed countries and embedded in the UN structures and procedures, that a challenge of such magnitude and scope can be effectively handled. We have yet to see whether the international community can develop the kind of deliberative processes, not to mention the shared ethical framework, that will be needed to prevail. 

 

The timeline, however, is getting shorter.  The most recent scientific evidence points to much more rapid global warming that predicted in any of the IPCC scenarios.  The international community needs to act decisively and coherently–not in six months time, or a year, but now.

Local government business and climate change

I delivered a paper to the “2008 Beyond Carbon: Local Government Climate Change Summit” in Adelaide on June 5, 2008.  The title of my presentation was”Conducting council business under radical uncertainty.” 

‘Radical uncertainty’ is not a flight of rhetoric, but a technical term from uncertainty and decision analysis which refers to situations where you don’t know all the relevant factors nor the complete workings of even the ones you do know.  I made the general point that forecasting climate change, its impacts and its economic costs is subject to very high levels of uncertainty.  That is particularly true when natural and human systems are put together.  This kind of uncertainty presents very real challenges to local government managers.

Local government in Australia operates within legislative and regulatory frameworks which require managers to develop strategic plans, long-term financial plans, up to 10 years.  Australian Accounting Standards required managers to consider depreciation schedules which are up to 80 or 90 years.  These planning objectives clearly take the analysis into the centre of climate change forecasting.

One response to the complexity and inherent unpredictability of climate change is simply to abandon the attempt to plan for it at all: that is still in practice the default position of the majority of organisations.  My presentation proposed, however, that there are analytic frameworks–from finance and uncertainty analysis–capable of at least beginning to map this uncertainty and explore its practical implications.

Beyond that, as Dr Mark Diesendorf of the University of New South Wales Institute of Environmental Studies pointed out at the conference, nearly all the the feedback loops (which are primary sources of complexity) are positive, in the sense that they compound the impacts of climate change.  It therefore makes sense to move ahead on the conservative assumptions that this is a serious challenge and must be met with clear and decisive action, on the ground of the precautionary principle.

Review the slides from my presentation here.

LGA conference presentation

A press report of the presentation here:

Press report