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Newsletter, July 2008 (Issue 172)

Sustainable Lifestyles

What's to be done about climate change?

Readers may wonder what sort of response I've had to these articles on the inter-dependent changes, both local and global, that will affect our lives. My postbag is divided evenly between those who are sceptical of climate change or even the imminent exhaustion of fossil fuel supplies, those who are quietly getting on with modifying their lifestyle and "spreading the word" on climate change, and those who ask me what I want them to do about it.

I would like to thank all three of those readers for taking the trouble to reply! But why only three - out of a membership of over 1200, whom I would have expected to be the 1% or so of people who most care about their town? Then again, I might have struggled with the deluge if you had all replied, and maybe those three are all that I need to make the argument for sustainability, quite independently of climate change, by raising the following two questions.

Why do we need sustainability?

It's obvious really: if we live unsustainably, life will not be sustained. If my first correspondent prompts the question, "Why is our present lifestyle not sustainable?", my answer is as follows. The earth is estimated to have existed for 4.5 billion years, and its environment has eventually evolved into a sufficiently favourable and steady state for complex life to evolve. Many factors are involved, but crucially we would not be here now had it not been for early plant life slowly removing large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and instead enriching it with oxygen. Much of the absorbed carbon became buried as organic material which decomposed into coal, oil, and gas.

About 150,000 years ago, homo sapiens appeared, beginning the evolution of the wide variety of culture, civilisation, and technology that defines modern life. Many a worthy TV series has been devoted to the various aspects of this story, but for how long will it continue? Over the last century or so, man has exploited the energy stored in fossil fuels on a massive scale, apparently overturning the disastrous consequences of over-population predicted two centuries ago by Thomas Malthus, freeing much of the developed world from the tyranny of hard physical labour, and globalising the benefits of culture, civilisation, and technology. Who in their right mind would possibly want to undo all that is good in that?

Therein lies the paradox. On the one hand, it seems to me that the early environmentalists were seen as precisely some sort of killjoy, denying humanity the benefits offered by the earth's resources, and urging restraint "for the sake of the planet". But actually, the planet doesn't need us, it is we who depend on it, and it will still be here long after we are gone, still revolving about the sun with the moon in tow, possibly for another four or five billion years before the sun's nuclear energy is exhausted. On that time-scale, even solar power is not sustainable!

More immediately for us, however, Malthus's predicted apocalypse may merely have been postponed. For the other side of the paradox says that by burning fossil fuels on this massive scale for mere decades, we have unwittingly undone the work of millions of years by the early plant life that made conditions suitable for our own evolution. The environmental impact of greenhouse gases (GHGs) has long been predicted but is unfortunately slow to accumulate: climate change due to global warming has taken decades to become apparent beyond reasonable doubt, and will continue for decades to come, from the GHGs we have already emitted.

This is the broad conclusion from over 600 scientists in the 4th Assessment Review of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change, based on wide-ranging and increasingly abundant evidence gathered over several decades (the IPCC was formed in 1989 when the case for investigating climate change was already substantial). Unless we begin immediately to make drastic cuts in GHG emissions, the human race risks a man-made climate catastrophe, which may take decades more to emerge fully with its attendant risks for mankind's survival, yet we have only the next few years in which to arrest the emissions that are causing it.

One way or another, our GHG emissions cannot be sustained. We don't have processes to re-absorb them from the atmosphere at the rate that we currently emit them, and it is not we in the developed world who will be predominantly the first to pay the price. But it is we who have the choice: "Do we simply let nature take its course (for the outcome will be natural, what ever it may be); or do we try to do something about it in the few remaining years when that will be possible?" Even if you remain unconvinced by climate change, the argument for sustainability applies equally to the exhaustion of the finite resources which we are consuming at an ever-increasing rate, and to the ability of the earth to feed a population which demands an ever-increasing level of nutrition. We are drawn inexorably back to Malthus's assertion that populations have a natural tendency to grow faster than the means of subsistence, which modern technology has enhanced but, far from overturning the assertion, it may simply have postponed the consequences - unless we change to a sustainable pattern of living. Hence:

What can we do to make our lifestyles sustainable?

Purists may argue that life cannot be sustained indefinitely, but do we really want to jeopardise succeeding generations through our evidently unsustainable burning of finite reserves of fossil fuels? But what is the target level for cuts in emissions? The IPCC recommends 60-80% by 2050. The EU has set an intermediate target of 20% by 2020. The UK Climate Change Bill specifies at least 60% by 2050, with 26-32% by 2020. These challenging targets may actually prove to be conservative, since the work of the IPCC does not take full account of "tipping points" for positive feedback mechanisms which bring the risk of runaway global warming.

The Suffolk Climate Action Plan calls for a more stringent target of 60% by 2025, and there are growing calls for 90% cuts by 2050. Where is the consistency, and is any of this feasible?

I suggest that the possible actions fall into four broad categories. Firstly, there are many simple actions which most of us can undertake, which include switching "off" rather than using "standby", using washing appliances only when fully loaded, using a washing line or airer rather than a tumble drier, boiling only the water you need rather than filling the kettle for just one or two cups, installing low-energy lightbulbs, walking or taking the bus rather than the car; and in winter, closing doors and windows, turning down the thermostat and wearing more clothes. These simple actions save money as well as carbon emissions. They become more attractive as energy prices rise: but they aren't enough.

The second set of actions cost a little more, but pay for themselves quite quickly. If your house has cavity walls, insulate them. Likewise insulate your loft. As you need to replace appliances, from fridges, freezers, and washing machines to your central heating boiler or your car, choose the most energy-efficient options. Thus we may reach our 2020 targets, but not for 2050.

The third set of actions comprises the things you might do but would not have done otherwise, such as generating your own renewable energy, or significantly modifying your home. They include double-glazing, solar hot water systems, and newer technologies such as solar photovoltaic panels, heatpumps, micro-wind-turbines, and external insulation for houses with solid walls. Not all of these will be suitable for all locations, nor will they necessarily offer complete energy solutions or be compatible with existing energy-efficiency measures. Crucially, they will tend to be expensive, and may struggle to repay the investment over their operating lifetime. If they serve one valuable purpose, it is to focus the mind on the important role of economics in tackling climate change! Yet the Stern Report of 2006 suggested that an effective response to climate change could cost as little as 1% of Gross Domestic Product annually if undertaken soon enough. And more action will indeed be needed.

There is therefore an essential contribution to be made by a fourth set of actions, which lie beyond the individual, such as wave and tidal power, windfarms, nuclear power, carbon sequestration, and so on.

Mike Brain

    Front cover of issue 172 Cover, issue 172

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