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 confirmed¹.
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 consultations², 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 Change³. 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
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
Cover, issue 175