Remember the Sustainable Development Commission? For ten years it”s been trying to get Government to embed sustainability into its operations and policies – until last July the Coalition pulled the plug on its funding. The SDC is currently sitting on death row, awaiting final termination at the end of the financial year this April. But there might yet be a happy twist to the sorry tale.
Just before Christmas, buried amidst the snow and news about Wikileaks, the Environmental Audit Committee released a report into the future of sustainable development across government, now that the SDC has been scheduled for the chop. Its key recommendation – which could turn the demise of the SDC into a triumph for good governance – is for responsibility for sustainable development to be handed over to the Cabinet Office.
Could the Cabinet Office help green Whitehall? Read more
A new report released yesterday, Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs): a policy framework for peak oil and climate change, makes a valuable contribution to the debate about how policies affect public values. Read more
This is a guest post by Jon Alexander, who writes for Conservation Economy, a blog about what the marketing & communications industry should do in an economy not based on consumption. This post appeared in its original form back in October 2010. Jon’s view has shifted somewhat since then, so if you want to engage more with this discussion, please do see what you think of that post as well.
Over the last year, we’ve been hearing references to Martin Luther King in the sustainability debate with increasing regularity. King, we are told, didn’t inspire change by saying “I have a nightmare”; the implication being that the environmental movement needs to stop being so down in the dumps and instead describe the promised land if ‘it’ wants to motivate change… Read more
PIRC was asked by 10:10 in autumn 2009 to put together a study of policies that could help reduce UK emissions by 10% in one year – looking beyond individual or company actions to political interventions that Government might make.
One of our range of proposals was to reform Daylight Savings time in order to better align our hours of activity with hours of daylight – thereby saving electricity and hence cutting emissions. This was an idea that others greater than ourselves had previously hit upon, but had been unfairly forgotten of late. We were delighted when 10:10 took up the suggestion and turned it into Lighter Later, which launched in March 2010. It attracted immediate media attention and elicited support from all the main political parties in the run-up to the General Election. As of early November, Lighter Later had attracted the support of a broad coalition of 65 organisations championing its multiple social, environmental and economic benefits, as well as over 30,000 signatories from members of the public petitioning the Prime Minister.
For more details on the benefits that changing the clocks would bring, check out the Lighter Later website.
George Osborne’s Spending Review, just announced in Parliament with the full document available online here, makes provision for a new Green Investment Bank (GIB). This is a vital piece of policy to take forward the low-carbon transition. But the announcements look to be too little, too late.
The Government has pledged just £1bn of direct public funds for the GIB – despite a previously anticipated figure of £2bn – and falling far short of the £4-6bn that analysts and campaigners had been calling for. Read more
Yesterday evening Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander was photographed reading an internal Treasury briefing on Spending Review announcements. When enlarged, the paparazzi shot contained some revelations: most of the coverage has focused on the Government”s acknowledgement that budget cuts could see the loss of 500,000 public sector jobs. But few have picked up that the other page of the briefing discussed environment spending.
Information design extraordinaire David McCandless has produced a new bubble graphic looking at Government spending on much-maligned quangos. As with the Guardian”s colourful maps of total Government spending, you”ll have to squint to find the bits dedicated to tackling climate change.
In fact, McCandless” beautiful infographic shows only two agencies dedicated to cutting emissions – the Carbon Trust and the Energy Savings Trust. That”s because most of DECC”s agencies receive only tiny amounts of funding – and bodies with budgets less than £25m are excluded from the diagram. Much online casino climate spending is, in McCandless” diagram, invisible to the naked eye. Read more
With the number of polls I’ve written about here, it’s been a while since I’ve taken stock of the different results and what we can learn from them. Fortunately, MORI produced a handy collection of slides (a few months ago), which brings together a lot what we’ve seen into a single place:
Imagine you were part of a highly successful environmental campaign group, that had spent the best part of the last year enthusiastically building a broad coalition of organisations – from schools, to local councils, to football teams – committed to cutting their carbon footprint. How might you choose to mark such a successful 10 months?
An attention-grabbing stunt of some kind? Great idea. A controversial and challenging video? That could work, yes. A poorly executed ‘joke’ about peer pressure involving the violent deaths of children and office workers who don’t subscribe to your campaign? Err, possibly not…
But yet, bizarrely, this is precisely what the otherwise well-respected 10:10 group opted to do. If you’ve not yet seen the video No Pressure, then you can now only view bootlegged versions as the original was wisely taken down just hours after it was launched. It made the front page of the Guardian Environment section, took a predictable bashing from the far-right conspiracy theorist James Delingpole over at the Telegraph, and sent the, ahem, ‘data libertarian’ blogs into a spin. Read more
Why positive feedback doesn’t necessarily lead to runaway warming – Positive feedback happens when the response to some change amplifies that change. For example: The Earth heats up, and some of the sea ice near the poles melts. Now bare water is exposed to the sun’s rays, and absorbs more light than did the previous ice cover; so the planet heats up a little more. In both of these cases, the “effect” reinforces the “cause”, which will increase the “effect”, which will reinforce the “cause”… So won’t this spin out of control? The answer is, No, it will not, because each subsequent stage of reinforcement & increase will be weaker and weaker. The feedback cycles will go on and on, but there will be a diminishing of returns, so that after just a few cycles, it won’t matter anymore.
Himalayan Glaciers: Wrong Date, Right Message – Is the AR4 terribly flawed? It is important to note that this is one error in a roughly 3000 page technical document, an error percentage similar to the Encyclopedia Britannica. The 2035 claim was not included in the Technical Summary, the Summary for Policymakers, or the Synthesis Report. Does this error show the IPCC has an ‘alarmist’ bias – a tendency to exaggerate the negative impacts of climate change? In fact, there are far more documented instances of the AR4 being too conservative, rather than too alarmist, on emissions scenarios, sea level rise, and Arctic sea-ice melt. Many of the Himalayan Glaciers are retreating at an accelerating rate (Ren 2006) and roughly 500 million people depend on the melt water from these glaciers (Kehrwald 2008).
A history of international climate change policy – An overview of the history of international climate policy over the last 30 years, divided into five periods. The article shows (1) the increasing complexity of the definition of the climate change issue from an environmental to a development issue; (2) the inability of the developed countries to reduce their own emissions and raise funds commensurate with the nature of the problem and their initial commitments; (3) the increasing engagement of different social actors in the discussion and, in particular, the gradual use of market mechanisms in the regime; (4) the increasing search for alternative solutions within the formal negotiations—such as the identification of nationally appropriate mitigation actions for the developing world, reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, and the use of geo-engineering solutions; and (5) the search for solutions outside the regime—the mobilization of sub-national policies on climate change, litigation, and markets on biofuels.
Coffee threatened by beetles in a warming world (!) – The Arabica coffee grown in Ethiopia and Latin America is an especially climate-sensitive crop. It requires just the right amount of rain and an average annual temperature between 64 degrees Fahrenheit and 70 degrees Fahrenheit to prosper. As temperatures rise — Ethiopia’s average low temperature has increased by about .66 degrees F every decade since 1951, according to the country’s National Meteorological Agency — and rains become more variable, Ethiopian coffee farmers have suffered increasingly poor yields. Last year was especially bad, with exports dropping by 33 percent. Some have moved their coffee trees to higher elevations, while others have been forced to switch to livestock and more heat-tolerant crops, such as enset, a starchy root vegetable similar to the plantain. Now, there is evidence that a warming climate may be linked to one of the major threats facing the coffee industry in Ethiopia and elsewhere…
Cutting by 40%… but these campaigners wanted to cut emissions, not spending
I’m at the Labour party conference in Manchester this week, doing the rounds of the climate fringe events and asking whether ‘Red Ed’ will rediscover his previous persona as ‘Green Ed’. Expect a number of posts reporting back over the next few days.
First up, the future of the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) itself. This emerged as a key concern at this morning’s Fabians discussion on green jobs, with speakers Emily Thornberry MP (Shadow Energy & Climate team), Michael Jacobs (former environment advisor to Gordon Brown), Alan Whitehead MP, and Tony Hawkhead (CEO of environmental charity Groundwork).
The panel expressed great disquiet about the impact of the looming spending cuts on DECC. The department’s current budget is some £3.2bn; cutting its spend by 40% – as the Treasury asked all departments to model earlier this year – would leave it with just £1.92bn to spearhead the low-carbon transition. But it was pointed out that £1.7bn of DECC’s existing budget is spent on nuclear clean-up: liabilities that have to be taken care of and that Government can hardly divest themselves of. Assuming DECC would still be saddled with this responsibility, a 40% budget cut would leave the department with a paltry £220m to support renewables, energy efficiency, low-carbon cars and all the rest. DECC would effectively cease to function as a meaningful department – and it’s understood that DECC officials have said as much to the Treasury.
Green wood is not meant to burn well. But it appears that the Government is stoking its ‘bonfire of the quangos’ with over 15 environmental bodies, and considering the abolition of many more, blowing another hole in its claim to be ‘the greenest government ever’. At the same time, the confirmed abolition of the Regional Development Agencies will lead to £40m being cut from low-carbon investment programmes.
In Cabinet Office papers leaked to the Telegraph yesterday, it was revealed that 177 non-departmental public bodies (‘quangos’) are set to be abolished, with a further 94 currently under review. Examination of the list reveals that environmental regulatory and advisory bodies constitute a significant proportion of those being culled – despite only saving an estimated £6.75m in public spending, and with many of the bodies operating at no cost to the public purse.
Amongst the bodies for the chop include the Renewables Advisory Board – an expert panel drawn from industry that advises on renewable energy policy; the Commission for Integrated Transport, which researches how to reduce transport emissions and congestion; and the Regional Development Agencies, responsible for £40m of low-carbon research & development over the past financial year, according to recent analysis by the Committee on Climate Change.
Incredibly, bodies as central to the Government climate programme as the Carbon Trust and the Forestry Commission are not yet off the ‘endangered list’ of “Bodies still under review”.
The privatisation of the Forestry Commission has been mootedbefore, but what this would mean in terms of retaining a national forest stock is unknown. It is possible that the Carbon Trust is being eyed up for assimilation into the proposed Green Investment Bank – as suggested by the Green Investment Bank Commission earlier this year – but simply moving funds around, rather than earmarking new money, will be insufficient to stimulate private sector green investment.
Nor is this the last of it. As the Telegraph reports, “Other bodies that are likely to survive but face significant budget cuts are the Environment Agency, the Energy Savings Trust and the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group.” The revelations follow hot on the heels of the announced abolition of the Sustainable Development Commission, and recent concerns that the promised £60m Ports Fund – for developing ports into manufacturing hubs for wind turbines – is under threat.
The cull of public bodies follows a worryingly ideological pattern. It is no secret that the hard-right Taxpayers’ Alliance has been lobbying for years to squash environmental regulation and spending. As I highlighted in July, Caroline Spelman’s decision to abolish the Sustainable Development Commission had been presaged with repeated lobbying by the Taxpayers’ Alliance, who called it “…a Government-sponsored campaign for an increase in green and environmentally aware policy”. The TPA’s Policy Director Matthew Sinclair boasted on Twitter that it was a ‘#tpapolicywin’. In a blog piece posted yesterday, the TPA revealed its desire to see even more green government bodies swept away, stating: “Whilst the news is initially encouraging… the Telegraph also lists a number of bodies still under review. It names the Carbon Trust, The Advisory Council on Public Records and the Energy Savings Trust among others whose future is yet undecided. This shows that there are still lots more quangos that can be added to this growing bonfire.”
Others on the right are clearly rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of rolling back bodies that attempt – heaven forbid – to tackle global warming. Andrew Porter, the Telegraph’s political editor, wrote yesterday: “The abolition of the British Council would be welcomed by many… Critics have accused it of being hijacked and used to promote such causes as climate change.” Imagine!
The irony of such small-statist antagonism towards green quangos is how little they cost the taxpayer, despite their value in providing expert advice to government. By the admission of the Taxpayers’ Alliance themselves, the Renewables Advisory Board cost precisely £0 in 2008-9. The same was true of the Advisory Committee on Carbon Abatement Technologies, and many other similar bodies earmarked for abolition. Interestingly, six quangos that deal with nuclear liabilities appear to have escaped the guillotine, despite eating up over £800m of public funds – and despite the Coalition pledge to remove public subsidy for nuclear.
Nick Clegg claims he did not enter politics to cut public spending, and I am not interested in politics because of some bizarre wish to defend unelected civil servants. But taking an axe to dozens of environmental regulators and funds threatens to choke off the green economy just as it is coming to life. It is quite some irony that, on the same day as the Energy Secretary sings the praises of the nascent British offshore wind industry, the Renewables Advisory Board is abolished and £40m cut from low-carbon funding. If only it were a laughing matter.
Johan Rockström recently appeared on TED to present the ‘planetary boundaries’ approach, published in Nature last year. It’s a great presentation well worth the time. (You can get the paper the approach is based on, or read Nature’s special feature.)
I’ve heard a few scientists complaining about what they see as arbitrary boundary choices, or the false confidence such an approach can arouse.
[E]ven if the science is preliminary, this is a creditable attempt to quantify the limitations of our existence on Earth, and provides a good basis for discussion and future refinement. To facilitate that discussion, Nature is simultaneously publishing seven commentaries from leading experts that can be freely accessed at Nature Reports Climate Change (see http://tinyurl.com/planetboundaries).
Defining the limits to our growth and existence on this planet is not only a grand intellectual challenge, it is also a potential source of badly needed information for policy-makers. Such numerical values, however, should not be seen as targets. If the history of environmental negotiations has taught us anything, it is that targets are there to be broken. Setting limits that are well within the bounds of linear behaviour might therefore be a wiser, if somewhat less dramatic, approach. That would still give policy-makers a clear indication of the magnitude and direction of change, without risking the possibility that boundaries will be used to justify prolonged degradation of the environment up to the point of no return. Read more
It is the beliefs and values that our citizens bring to such difficult debates which puts breath into the inanimate skeleton of scientific knowledge. Censor or mock beliefs, and we are nothing: our knowledge counts for naught. – Mike Hulme ((In Andy Revkin’s discussion on whether scientists are from Mars and the public are from Venus, Dot Earth, June 2010 http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/29/scientists-from-mars-face-public-from-venus/))
In the latter months of last year and the earlier months of this one, public debate on climate change became particularly charged and divided. The media’s fragmented reporting became more and more confused following a cold Northern hemisphere winter and the CRU email-hack, dribbling out contradictory reports about apparent (later largely disproved) IPCC mistakes, and there seemed to be disagreement between everyone. As an organisation thinking about various ways of communicating climate change, we started thinking about the broad idea of ‘public engagement’ and whether it could usefully be applied to discussing climate change. Public engagement – an umbrella term for a set of different approaches to getting citizens involved in issues to do with pretty much anything, usually related to society or politics – has become a widely used tool in decision-making processes in the last ten years. Read more