Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Environmentalism and climbing: an uneasy partnership

Just finished off an article for UK climbing on climbing and climate change.

Will post some eco blog thoughts sometime soon!

Monday, 15 June 2009

End of an era

Apparently Margaret Thatcher once said that any man who reaches the age of 26 without owning a car can consider himself a failure. Up until now I was pleased to be branded a failure by Thatcher's kind of idealism, outliving her target date by 3 years. I've found living without a car not too difficult for the past decade of adulthood. I've got very good at finding cheap train tickets, knowing where I can get to on what train/bus lines and blagging lifts out of friends more "successful" than myself. So it was with a heavy heart that I finally conceded that I needed to buy myself a car. Ironically the event that spurred this was my imminent (I hope!) qualification as a commercial energy assessor, someone who can issue Energy Performance Certificates for Commercial buildings. This looks likely to involve visiting lots of sites that are in the middle of nowhere, on industrial estates and other places hard-to-access by train/bus.

I was primarily looking for something with the lowest CO2 emissions per km (which pretty accurately translates into a high mpg), I didn't want a hybrid because I wouldn't be doing that much city driving, and I was going to need a bigger range than current electric vehicles offer, so I narrowed it down to half a dozen small diesel cars. The murky world of second hand car sales was all new to me and luckily I managed to avoid the hard sell at dealerships and got a good deal out of a private sale on the first car I saw, a 2002 Citroen C3. I picked it up in Wakefield and it took two and a half hours to drive from there to the Hope Valley in heavy traffic, longer than it would have taken by train, my eco-karma was clearly not amused!

Once you have a car, of course, you are tempted to use it all the time - the upfront investment is so large, and the marginal cost per journey so small (often smaller than a bus or train fare), that it makes economic as well as convenience sense to do so. I almost found myself driving to and from north wales twice in 5 days this week, until the old self kicked in and I realised dossing with friends for a couple of nights in between trips was a cheaper, greener and altogether less stressful option. This seems to be the crux of the problem of getting people out of cars and onto public transport - we have to not just make public transport cheaper, faster and more convenient, but we have to make the cost per journey of car travel more expensive. It might be hard to do with the actual purchasing of cars, but it wouldn't seem unfeasible to make insurance and road tax something that we paid for on a "per journey" rather than "per year" basis, and this would be much fairer as well - currently you pay the same amount of road tax whether you drive 20,000 miles a year or 2000 miles a year.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Career environmentalism

I’m just back from my sixth Msc module, and the first I’ve attended for a while. The modules are 5 intense days' long; lectures and practical work all day followed by evenings in the pub of fired-up debate and discussion. Most of the people on the course are what you might call scientific idealists – hugely idealistic people suggesting far-fetched solutions that they actually have thought very deeply about, rejecting some of conventional green thinking because they don’t think it stacks up, and adopting other innovative solutions. There is so much experience from a wide range of professions, so much knowledge and so much enthusiasm that I look forward to each module as much for the inspiration it gives me as anything learnt in lectures.

It was a bit of a surprise then, in the middle of a long and involved debate about carbon trading, when the guy I was discussing it with admitted that the only reason he was on the course was because he thought it would be good for his career. My first reaction was indignation – how dare he dilute this bubble of ecotopian optimism with his career environmentalism! But thinking on it a little deeper I should have welcomed the news that people were signing up for this Msc simply because they see it as a way to make money. It will never be possible to educate sufficient numbers of people to make the magnitude of changes that are necessary to avert dangerous climate change, so we need market solutions that drive people, who otherwise would be indifferent, to seek work in the environmental field. And we need thousands of these people. That this is happening already – that people see the environmental sector as a growth area, that people are becoming what is sometimes disparagingly referred to as “career environmentalists”, is grounds for celebration not derision.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Money Money Money

I’ve been working hard for the past few months on building up contacts and qualifications for my environmental building consultancy. It’s been an interesting time, and it got me thinking about money, and the way in which it affects our society. Most people like to succeed, and for their successes to be recognised by their peers. Very successful people are presumably more concerned with this than others. Outside of small groups of people looking to succeed in niche areas (for example peer respect amongst mountaineers or other amateur sportspeople), this recognition of success is almost always provided through money – the more successful you are, the more society rewards you with wealth. This wealth has a double effect on you – not only do you gain the recognition from your peers (you must be successful because you have money), but you are able to do more of the things that you’ve always wanted to but could never previously afford. In other words it’s an extremely strong motivator.

As someone who likes to see himself as being not very materialistic I was amused to find myself getting excited while waiting to hear about whether or not I had won a large contract. No doubt some of this excitement was due to the challenge of taking on such a big piece of work, but I was also excited because of the positive impact it would have on my bank balance. Now if I’m working in an area that I feel is doing something worthwhile in the world, this isn’t such a bad thing – if the business is making money that means it is being successful, and the more successful it can be the more of a positive impact it can have in the world. In this case the incentive provided by money is a very good thing. The problem is that much of the economic activity in the world is providing goods and services that, while useful to those involved, leave the world as a whole worse off. In many cases people are being very strongly incentivised to deplete and pollute the global ecosystem upon which the whole economy depends. This is because the economy is full of market failures – incidences in which the producer of a good or service is failing to pay the full cost of the activity. In his eponymous report on the economics of climate change, Nicholas Stern called climate change “The biggest market failure the world has ever seen”.

As environmentalists we should recognise the extreme power of money in influencing the way people act, and instead of demonising it, seek to reshape the rules of the economy so that the incentives are pushing in the right direction.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

I’ve just finished reading the book Kyoto 2 by Oliver Tickell. I’m always interested in the politics and economics of climate change solutions. The field of work I’m involved in with building efficiency offers a small part of the answer, but it is generally accepted that efficiency alone will not necessarily result in reductions in carbon emissions (because of the Khazzoom-Brookes postulate), so I’m always interested in how my field of work might fit into a larger solution. The book offers a comprehensive vision of how climate change should be tackled, politically and economically, and gives answers to many questions that had nagged at me about how previously suggested systems like “Contraction and Convergence” might work. Tickell’s work is certainly the best solution I have read, but it still leaves a burning question that I can’t yet answer. If we know what needs to be done, how on earth do we go about getting it done?

Recently climate change protestors managed to break into Stansted airport and delay flights. This sort of action provokes different reactions from different people. Personally I haven't so far got involved in this sort of action because I feel uncomfortable with the disruption it causes to normal people’s lives; it seems likely to alienate large numbers of people. There is always a risk that most or many people watching coverage of events like this will write off protestors as eccentric hippies because of their extreme actions, when in fact many of them are intelligent people taking a considered, pragmatic view of the science and feeling desperately at a loss for what can be done to bring about change.

I met with some in laws recently, and we discussed how much change the previous generation had seen – space exploration, motorised personal transport, international flights, computer technology etc, and that by comparison their own generation had experienced few paradigm shifts in the way things are done (they are in their 70s). It seems obvious to me that our generation, or the generation to follow ours, will necessarily experience huge changes, and these changes may dwarf those seen in the industrial revolution, or those brought about by harnessing the power of fossil fuels. These changes will either be through a conscious choice to reduce global carbon emissions to the levels demanded by the most up to date science and undergo a "green revolution", or through continuing on our current course and accepting the extremely severe consequences that this will bring. We stand now in a position where we can still choose the most planned and least disruptive course of action – a planned shift to an economy that prices pollution, an infrastructure that does more with less energy and a modal shift in the generation of energy towards carbon free technologies. The mistake most people make when arguing against these changes – because they believe they will be too disruptive, too expensive or too technologically difficult – is that they assume that business as usual is a viable option. It is certainly a viable option to continue emitting greenhouse gases at a rate far in excess of our planet's ability to absorb them, but this will not result, in the medium to long term, in a continuation of the high standard of living we currently enjoy. On the contary it is likely to result in a massive drop in average global living standards. As environmentalists we need to move past our image as killjoys and spoilsports and persuade people that tackling climate change is the way forward that offers least hardship and most opportunity.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

On line

I thought I'd start this eco-blog as a counterpart to my climbing and running site. I'll be posting fairly regular musings of an environmental nature, links to interesting sites and news stories, and hopefully a running tab of recent journeys and how they were done/how much they cost/carbon emissions from them (if I can figure out how to do this on this blogger). Hope you enjoy the site.

For now here's a link to Sandbag - a very interesting project I found recently - an idea to try and correct the way the European emissions trading scheme is working - currently there are too many permits on the market, meaning the price for carbon is way too low and the trading scheme has little effect on the participants. By buying up excess permits, or persuading companies and organisations with excess permits to "retire" them, Sandbag aims to help put the emissions trading scheme back on track.