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Newsletter, April 2009 (Issue 175)

Roll Over Darwin!

St Margaret's Environment Group Energy Day, 7 February 2009

Optimism and overcoming climate change don't readily go together in many people's minds, yet what else will get us all moving? What is it, then, that leads many people to "switch off" or even respond belligerently whenever the subject is raised?

This was what I wanted to explore at the St Margaret's Energy Day, having been invited to represent the Society there. The event comprised a programme of talks, demonstrations and an exhibition to share ideas on what communities can contribute to reducing carbon emissions. Nineteen visitors to the Society's exhibition stand kindly agreed to share their views on global warming in response to my six questions, as follows:

1. Is man-made global warming a serious threat to the earth's climate system?
A unanimous "Yes" - though perhaps not surprising for such an event!

2. If so, what limit should be placed on the average temperature rise due to man-made global warming?
All agreed "It should be as small as possible". Out of eight people who specified a figure, five said less than 2 deg C and all said less than 5 deg C.

3. Will the UK meet its targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and 2050?
Nearly 70% thought it unlikely with 42% saying categorically "No". Only 21 % saw any possibility at all of success, due more to the recession than any conscious action.

4. Is enough being done to reduce emissions? If not, what more should be done, and by whom?
We must all stop wasting energy; but we will still require energy in the low-emissions world beyond 2020, and micro-generation by individual households will not meet all demands. Significant corporate contributions will still be needed to match the supply of energy to the instantaneous demand, and the unanimous perception was that not enough is being done: Government should drive this forward.

5. Carbon footprints: on average, how many tonnes/person/year of carbon dioxide are emitted in a) the UK b) the world c) what level is regarded as sustainable for the global average footprint?
Only four people offered any answer, of which three were of the right order, namely a) 9-12 b) 5 c)2 (though estimates vary according to what is included).

6. How big is your own carbon footprint? What have you done or are doing to reduce it?
Only two people had calculated this, but certainly everyone knew that theirs was too big and they were acting to reduce it, some even going so far as collecting rain water to flush the lavatory, and turning the thermostat down to 16 deg C.

So: a threat to the climate, targets being missed, not enough being done by anyone, not least because almost no one can do it all for themselves. It sounds pretty hopeless. But we should do what we can. In our "post-society" isolation, are we caught between guilt if we don't respond and the fear of austerity if we do? So if acting in isolation isn't the answer, should we perhaps act together, to sustain our standard of living while drastically cutting carbon emissions? To do so effectively, equitably and promptly will require a proper strategic intervention by Government on our behalf, which will require popular support. So what are we waiting for?

What has this to do with Ipswich? Let me count the ways ...

Firstly, in the preceding Newsletter, I reported on last November's seminar on Low Carbon Homes, at which the presenters emphasised the urgent need for Government to give strong policy guidance to drive reductions in carbon emissions. A similar popular view has now emerged from the St Margaret's event. And last December saw the publication of the Committee on Climate Change's first full report, "Building a Low-Carbon Economy", which provides a coherent rationale for defining targets for the UK's contribution to a global framework for emissions reduction, and for managing the supply and use of energy to meet them. One of the headline recommendations was to increase the target for cuts in UK emissions from 60% to 80% by 2050, but both that target and the pathway towards it may yet need further tightening following the global climate conference in Copenhagen this December, especially if new evidence for the acceleration of climate change is confirmed┬╣.

Crucially, the Executive Summary concludes: "The challenge now is for the Government to strengthen the policy framework and for individuals and businesses to respond. Meeting this challenge is vital if we are to avoid dangerous climate change and the significant consequences and costs that this would involve." We can thus see a potentially powerful consensus emerging on the roles of Government, organisations and individuals, between bodies as diverse as the CCC (which advises the Government), those organisations involved in developing the housing sector, and the Ipswich residents who participated in the Energy Day, a growing consensus which everyone might usefully build upon.

Secondly, the Government's Department of Energy and Climate Change has recently launched three public consultations┬▓, on the Heating and Energy Saving Strategy, the Community Energy Saving Programme, and amendments to the Carbon Emissions Reduction Target. Together, these proposals aim to reduce emissions, energy bills and fuel poverty, and you can have your say on how these measures might affect you. The closing date for the first two consultations is 8 May, while that for the third is 14 April.

However, their announcement in February may have been overshadowed by news stories on the banking crisis and the bad weather. The hardest UK winter for 18 years, following two dismal summers in a row, might suggest to some that global warming was, after all, just a passing aberration that we can safely forget about. Not so: that was just the local weather, varying daily and seasonally from place to place, occasionally to extremes. In contrast, the average of those extreme variations over large areas and many years is one measure of climate, which has been remarkably constant for centuries, if not millennia. Against this constancy, the observed rise of 0.8 deg C in average global temperature since pre-industrial times may seem trivial compared with everyday fluctuations in the weather which dominates our individual experiences, but it is a matter of immense and growing concern for its more subtle climatic disruption to the timing of the seasons and the complex inter-dependencies within the food chain, on which life in general depends. And that is only the beginning.

My third point is that this crucial distinction between climate and weather, which was the theme of my talk at the Energy Day, is currently echoed on the Met Office web site by Dr Vicky Pope, Head of Climate Change┬│. That site also carries a timeline whose entry for 2007 states: "The IPCC (Fourth Assessment Report) declares that warming of the climate system is unequivocal (as evident from observations) and most of the recent warming is very likely (>90% probability) to be the result of human activity." In plain English: having looked carefully at everything that might explain the measured rise in temperature, man-made global warming is driving climate change.

The choice grows increasingly stark: do nothing and let nature take its course, or acknowledge the consequences and plan for survival. In the year of celebrating Charles Darwin, whose life's work provided evidence for a natural evolution of species in which the fittest survive, this is surely a worthy challenge! Will 6 billion varied individuals reach the right decision in time? Of course not! Will Copenhagen provide a realistic global strategy? It had better! Will Government provide the wherewithal to guide us safely to the desired destination, so that we can undertake our own personal journey with confidence? How else will it happen?

This issue requires action by you, the rest of Ipswich, the Government, and the rest of the world. Would you prefer a bright future to the extinction of the species? If so, why not tell the DECC, and your MP, not to mention family, friends and acquaintances, so that we can all get our act together with optimism while we still have time!



    Front cover of issue 175 Cover, issue 175

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