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Newsletter, January 2009 (Issue 174)

New Year: New World

I must start by wishing everyone a happy and prosperous New Year, even though material and spiritual prosperity are noticeably less evident than usual. What are the prospects?

In the coming weeks, a new US President will be inaugurated and, in the UK, the Secretary of State will decide the future of local government in Suffolk, unitary or otherwise. Which of these events will have the greater local impact, I wonder?

The outgoing US administration has had considerable worldwide impact: having presided over the sub-prime mortgage boom which precipitated the current worldwide financial crisis, having prevaricated on climate change measures for eight years; having led the invasion of Iraq; and so on. None of these problems is about to disappear, but it is surely encouraging to see in the White House a new and inspiring figure whose agenda for change commands such popular support, not just in the USA but in countries around the world, which is surely crucial if the challenges bequeathed to the world are to be successfully addressed.

In the UK, our new Prime Minister came to office in 2007 without needing to seek a popular mandate, though public support has grown with his timely international intervention on the financial crisis. His administration is also enacting the world's first Climate Change Bill, with a legally binding target for emissions reduction by 2050, which has been increased to 80% on the recommendation of the Committee on Climate Change (the CCC, whose creation was also enabled under that Bill). By the time this Newsletter appears, the CCC will have produced a full report on emissions for 2050 and the de-carbonising of the various sectors of energy use (http:// www.theccc.org.uk/). A strategy for Renewable Energy will also appear in April 2009, following a Government consultation held in 2008.

The US and the EU together represent about one-tenth of the world's population, but they are responsible for about one-third of the world's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. If they now begin to act in concert on climate change, this must surely provide strong new encouragement for the rest of the world to follow suit. But does this yet help you and me to decide what we should each be doing - or indeed may soon be required to do - to contribute to the outcome?

Firstly, if anyone still doubts the need for any action whatsoever, especially after BBC TV's 2008 Climate Wars series, then I recommend exploring the following websites:

  • http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/climatechange/
  • http://www.decc.gov.uk
  • http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Environmentandgreenerliving/
  • http://royalsociety.org/climatechange
  • http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/research/hadleycentre

Secondly, there have been recent speculative reports of the converse threat of global cooling should the sun deviate from its regular 11-year sunspot cycle, as was last observed in the 17th century when the Thames froze over. Two disappointing summers in a row may, for some, lend credence to this hypothesis, though climate modelling already provides other explanations. Even so, such cooling would actually increase the urgency of reducing GHG emissions. Burning fossil fuels throughout several unusually cold decades would drive global warming even harder, but the climatic impact will be merely delayed until regular sunspot activity eventually resumed, by which time our successors would be powerless to stop it. Whatever we do to limit GHG emissions in the next few years will be critical in determining the world's climate for decades to come: and not living to see the outcome provides no release from the responsibility for it.

What, then, should we do? On the Society's behalf, I attended a recent seminar on Zero Carbon Homes, held at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, which considered the technical, economic, social and political challenges ahead. 27% of our energy is dissipated in the UK's 22 million homes, which will still comprise the vast majority of the country's housing stock in 2050. Any credible plan to deliver the 80% reduction in overall GHG emissions must take account of the poor energy efficiency of much of our present housing, only 70% of which has cavity walls which could be cheaply insulated, of which only half have already been so treated. Low-carbon energy will be needed, for which there is a whole range of potential new technologies, but there are no 'silver bullet' solutions: they each offer only a partial solution for the individual householder's overall energy requirements, and represent significant investments and risks. And while local government has provided policy leads and the vast majority of Local Area Agreements include at least one climate change indicator, speakers at the seminar were in virtually unanimous agreement that policy led by National Government is an essential and urgent requirement if the twin social and environmental goals of eliminating fuel poverty while meeting climate change obligations are to be achieved.

Similar messages will be familiar from my previous articles. The problem is now well established, but our response is still only to point in the right direction, rather than to map out the journey. Much more remains to be done, through further public debate and consultation, to produce a clear practicable strategy from the centre, not only for what is to be done, but for the essential contributions we will each make that are within our means.

It may seem perverse at a time of immediate financial hardship to continue to press for urgent action on climate change, so let's recap on how we got here. The modern market culture has encouraged us to spend money we haven't yet earned, to buy more goods and services than we need or can afford, using resources which can't be renewed, and potentially wrecking the climate for future generations. It is irresponsible to shout "Fire" in a crowded theatre, even when there is a fire! But surely the audience should not just sit there, trying to ignore the smoke and the flames until someone else does something? So I will close by wishing you a happy and sustainable New Year. If you aren't already rising to these opportunities, would this New Year be a good time for a new resolution?

Mike Brain (mikebrainl@btinternet.com)

    Front cover of issue 174 Cover, issue 174

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