CLIMATE CHANGE and ENERGY. A path set out in Lima last month by the UN Environment Programme, is intended to limit global temperature rises to 2C above pre-industrial times, implied a 4.2% fall in world emissions between 2010 and 2013. Governments will try to work out a UN climate deal in late 2015 at a summit in Paris to limit emissions of greenhouse gases, which trap the sun’s heat…
Adair Turner recently wrote: With just days left to go, 2014 seems certain to be the warmest year on record, or at least the runner-up. International agreement on robust action to limit global warming remains inadequate: the just-completed Lima climate-change conference delivered some progress, but no major breakthrough. (6).
Away from the diplomatic circuit, technological advances make it certain that we can build low-carbon economies at minimal cost and great benefit to human welfare. Solar energy reaching the earth’s surface provides 5,000 times humanity’s energy needs. The technology to capture it cost effectively and cleanly is available. Indeed, photovoltaic module prices have fallen 80% since 2008 and the best utility-scale solar projects can now produce electricity for less than $0.10 per kilowatt-hour. Optimists say that solar energy will become economical without subsidies later this decade, while pessimists put the break-even point in the 2020s. The question is when – not whether – this will occur. (6).
The New Climate Economy report, launched by the United Nations in September, estimates that the investment required over the next 15 years will total $14 trillion. But the incremental low-carbon capital costs relative to the above high-carbon economy, are a smaller $4 trillion, less than a third of 1% of global GDP over that period. And the maximum sacrifice of future income per capita will be no more than 1-4% of global GDP. That means that the world might have to wait, say, until December 2051 to reach the income and prosperity level that it would otherwise have achieved the preceding January. (6).
So we do not need fossil fuels to support prosperous economies. If some extra-terrestrial thief came in the night and stole two-thirds of the planet’s coal, gas, and oil reserves, all of humanity could still enjoy the household appliances, information-technology products and services, heating, lighting, and mobility that define the modern world. But no such thief exists, and we are cursed with fossil fuels in dangerous abundance. (6).
Some environmentalists claim that we will soon reach “peak fossil fuels,” making green energy essential not only for the climate, but also for continued growth. Sadly, that is not the case. Total gas and coal reserves could support current demand for more than a hundred years, and technological progress – for example, hydraulic fracturing, which has unlocked shale energy – makes an ever growing share of these reserves economically attractive. Oil production may peak within the next few decades, but gasoline equivalents can be synthesized from gas or coal. As 2014 draws to an end, falling oil, gas, and coal prices threaten to undermine investment in green energy and stimulate wasteful consumption. (6).
Greenhouse gas emissions by the world’s top 500 companies rose 3.1% from 2010 to 2013, far off the cuts urged by the United Nations to limit global warming, a study recently showed. The top 500 firms by capitalisation accounted for 13.8% of world greenhouse gas emissions and 28% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2013, according to the report. “Almost all of us use products from these companies,” said Tim Nixon, Director of Sustainability at Thomson Reuters. “This is about transparency. We hope companies will look at the report and engage with their stakeholders to reduce emissions.“ (4).
When Roman Catholic bishops called earlier this month for an end to fossil-fuel use, their intervention was criticized for being out of touch with economic realities. Committing to phase out fossil fuels would strengthen incentives for technological innovation; and if consumer preferences are socially determined, even unsaintly consumers would lose nothing in the long term. Sadly, the bishops have less influence over divine action than over economics: Whatever deity might have put fossil fuels on earth, they have shown no willingness to take them back. Maybe this holiday season we should wish for a miracle. Absent that, we should commit to leaving most fossil fuels forever in the ground. (13).
Carbon dioxide emissions from energy registered one of their steepest rises in the last quarter century. Australia, which has the world’s second largest reserves of coal, has ramped up production 37% since 2000, helped by up to $3.5bn in government subsidies to the entire fossil fuel industry. Coal use in Germany rose last year for the third year in a row, even as the country met its ambitious targets to transition to wind and solar power. Poland has been promoting its coal as an alternative to Russian natural gas. (1). The UK is hooked on natural gas and the current government is fixated on the supposed bonanza offered by fracking. That’s a disaster in the making, scientists and energy experts say. The International Energy Agency has concluded that two-thirds of all fossil fuels will have to stay in the ground if the world is going to avoid crossing the 2C threshold into dangerous climate change. (1).
Recently, it is reported that the Narendra Modi government in India has decided to revive the long-pending Renewable Energy Bill in a bid to generate 1,00,000 MW of renewable energy by 2019, to help meet a promise to hook up the 400 million without electricity on to the grid in the next five years. (2).
America gets about 40% of its electricity from coal – according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), its use of coal for energy rose 4.8% last year. But the reality is that President Obama has spent the last six years expanding coal, oil and gas production under his “all of the above” energy strategy. “We quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the earth and then some,” Obama told a rally during his 2012 re-election campaign. (1).
The US federal government under Obama, gave away $26m last year in tax breaks to the coal industry, according to the Overseas Development Industry report. Even if the president wants to do more to curb coal, the Democrats’ heavy defeat in the mid-term elections means there will be no pull in that direction from Congress. Mitch McConnell, the Republicans’ leader in the Senate ran on a slogan of “Guns, Freedom and Coal”. Campaigners say the rise in coal use under Obama undermines his climate agenda and could wipe out efforts by other countries to fight climate change. (1).
Surprisingly, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Shultz faced off against Muammar Qaddafi, the Soviet Union and China. His latest cause, though, is one few fellow Republicans support: fighting climate change. Two years ago, Shultz was alarmed when a retired Navy admiral showed him a video of vanishing Arctic sea ice and explained the implications for global stability. Now, the former Cold Warrior drives an electric car, sports solar panels on his California roof and argues for government action against global warming at clean-energy conferences. Shultz, at 93, has a message for the doubters who dominate his own party: “The potential results are catastrophic,” he said in an interview. “So let’s take out an insurance policy.” (12).
Meanwhile, the Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, has stirred up the wrath of environmentalists by appointing a controversial advocate of agribusiness and weaker forest conservation as her new agriculture minister. Kátia Abreu, who has been nicknamed the “chainsaw queen” by her enemies, is included in a new cabinet that rewards political allies who supported Rousseff in her recent narrow re-election victory. Abreu is a leading figure in the “ruralista” lobby, which prompted the government to weaken Brazil’s forest code. In congressional debates and in her feisty newspaper column, she has called for more roads through the Amazon, congressional control over demarcation of indigenous reserves, more efficient monocultures, and the approval of genetically modified “terminator seeds”. (5). [It seems as though many of our politician’s have taken the correct turning but are proceeding slowly with one hand pulling on the handbrake!]
WILDLIFE in the UK. More than one in 10 of England’s local wildlife havens have been lost or damaged in the past five years, conservationists have warned. Sites including hedgerows and ancient woodland are under threat from house and road building and changes to environmental farming schemes. A study of 6,590 of the country’s “quiet, unnoticed wild places in which nature thrives” found that 717 had been lost or damaged between 2009 and 2013.
The Wildlife Trusts warn that the true scale of damage may be far higher, with many more of England’s 42,865 Local Wildlife Sites potentially under threat. The most recent losses also come on top of decades of earlier damage to wildlife. Local Wildlife Sites, which unlike national reserves and sites of special scientific interest are not protected by law, the Trusts warn.
They provide homes for wildlife ranging from frog orchids and marsh gentians to grass snakes, harvest mice and water voles. They give people access to nature in their local area and provide a network of stepping stones and corridors to connect wild spaces, the charity said. Such sites are key to reversing wildlife losses which have seen 60 per cent of species decline over the last half century.
Stephen Trotter, Wildlife Trusts’ director, England, said: “There is a real and pressing need for Local Wildlife Sites – one of England’s largest natural assets – to receive the recognition of their true value to society. “In some counties they are the best places for wildlife but they continue to slip through our fingers like sand. “Local Wildlife Sites are the Cinderella of the natural environment. Many are quiet, unnoticed wild places in which nature thrives. All act as links and corridors between other important habitats and are crucial to securing nature’s recovery. “They are vitally important for people as well as wildlife, bringing tangible benefits to local communities and contributing significantly to our quality of life, health, well-being and education. “We need to secure greater recognition and protection for them in the planning and decision-making process. We need action now to prevent further and ongoing loss of these wildlife-rich treasures by investment in them.”
Some habitats, including wild flower meadows and wet woodlands, have become so rare that the majority of those that are left automatically qualify for the status. But the Trusts warn that if they are not managed properly they can deteriorate, lose species and become “deselected” as Local Wildlife Sites, which means they lose their protection within the planning system. (3).
DEVELOPMENT in the UK. Communities have been left to face ever increasing risk from flooding, according to the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), after Communities Secretary Eric Pickles recently announced big exemptions allowing developers to continue directing rain water to sewers.
Nine out of 10 new developments have been automatically excused from installing SuDS – [areas where rainfall can seep into the ground to reduce flood risk] – and a large number of caveats have been added to rules governing the remaining developments. The decision will pile pressure on existing sewers, many of which are at full capacity already, while climate change is increasing the risk of storms.
71% of respondents to a recent Government consultation, including WWT, warned that the changes to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, would mean water couldn’t be managed sustainably over the long term. Furthermore a large number of respondents warned that the exemption of smaller developments could have a cumulative, detrimental effect on flood risk. Despite the weight of public opinion and the Government’s own figures backing the economic case for SuDS, Mr Pickles’ written statement said that the changes had been brought in to avoid [unsubstantiated] “excessive burdens on business”. (7).
NEW EU FISHING QUOTAS. Britain’s fishermen will be allowed to increase their catch of cod and other key fish species next year after late-night wrangling between EU ministers in Brussels resulted in a new set of fishing quotas that flout scientific advice. The quota for cod catches for 2015 will increase by 5% on last year, though scientific advice suggested that it should be cut by 20%.
The UK’s fisheries minister, George Eustice, hailed the deal as a triumph for Britain’s dwindling fishing fleets. He said: “Although these were difficult negotiations, I am pleased that we were able to secure the best possible deal to ensure sustainable fisheries and a strong UK fishing industry. While fishermen had feared there would be major cuts, we were able to keep the same quota as last year for many species, in addition to important increases to the North Sea cod and haddock quota, which will benefit Scottish fishermen.”
Conservationists said the deal, reached after a day and a half of negotiations in Brussels, was not in line with what scientists had advised. After nearly four years of tense negotiations, the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy was finally reformed this year. In its new state, it is supposed to guarantee that fish stocks are managed at what scientists deem to be sustainable levels, known as the maximum sustainable yield.
Andrew Clayton, of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which advocates a sustainable fisheries policy, said: “After decades of failing to get to grips with overfishing, the new common fisheries policy was supposed to bind ministers to setting sustainable fishing limits this year. Instead, they have set a considerable number of [quotas] in excess of the level that scientists advised, failing to meet the targets they set themselves for overfishing. These are weak decisions, jeopardising the livelihoods of fishermen and the sustainability of stocks.”
The reforms are supposed to mean that fishing fleets must land all their catch, rather than discarding those specimens or species that are lower value. Discarding – the wasteful practice of throwing healthy fish back to sea because they are of lower value or because a boat has already reached its quota – has been a particular target of green groups in the last three years, with a campaign spearheaded by the chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. However, there are significant gaps in the new regulations that mean many fleets will be able to continue to discard large quantities of fish for several years.
The new European commissioner for the environment, Karmenu Vella, said after the deal was concluded: “We have succeeded in increasing the number of stocks that are now managed at sustainable levels. I can therefore say that sustainably managed stocks are now a broadly accepted concept across the EU. This will allow fishermen to progressively reap more and more benefits in terms of higher catches for these stocks. This is because science-based decision-making is increasingly becoming the norm.”
But he admitted that many of the decisions on quotas were contrary to scientific advice. “We have worked with [ministers] to ensure that where we do not follow science, member states take the necessary decisions to avoid a real disaster happening later.”
Greenpeace EU fisheries policy director Saskia Richartz said: “It is unacceptable that many of the fishing quotas agreed today fail to end overfishing. Ministers gave no justification for postponing action to recover fish stocks, despite new laws requiring that any delay is justified with appropriate evidence.” (8).
UK BADGER CULL. The controversial badger cull in Gloucestershire may not succeed in reducing tuberculosis in cattle, the government has admitted for the first time. But environment secretary Liz Truss, releasing the results of the 2014 cull pilots in Gloucestershire and Somerset, said she is determined to continue culling.
The Gloucestershire pilot failed dramatically by killing fewer than half the minimum number required. In Somerset, the minimum target was met, but the target has been criticised as “rubbish” and “unbelievably easy” by a leading expert. The UK’s chief vet, Nigel Gibbens, said: “Given the lower level of badger population reduction in the Gloucestershire cull area over the past two years, the benefits of reducing disease in cattle over the planned four-year cull may not be realised there.” But he said the results in Somerset showed that, “in the right circumstances”, culling could work.
Truss said: “The chief vet’s advice is that results of this year’s cull in Somerset show they can be effective. That is why I am determined to continue with a comprehensive strategy that includes culling.” She said: “During the last parliament, bovine TB rates in England soared to the highest in Europe. That is why we taking strong action in pursuing our comprehensive strategy, including tighter cattle movement controls, vaccinations and culling.”
Maria Eagle, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, said: “It is appalling these badger culls went ahead for a second year when they had already been described by Professor David Macdonald, the chief scientific advisor to Natural England, as an ‘epic failure’. The government must today commit to abandoning any attempt to continue these unscientific, inhumane and ineffective badger culls.”
Claire Bass, at Humane Society International/UK, said the government was “placing politics above science and ethics”. She said: “The cull fails animal welfare by subjecting supposedly protected animals to inhumane shooting; it fails farmers by promising a solution to TB that scientists agree cannot be delivered by killing badgers; and it fails the public by wasting valuable funds that could be far better deployed on nationwide badger vaccination, improved farm biosecurity and stricter cattle movement measures.”
But Meurig Raymond, president of the National Farmers Union, said the Somerset results showed culling must be rolled out to other areas: “There are many other areas where bTB is rife and is having a massive impact on farming family businesses.” He said the results from Gloucestershire highlighted the need to make it more difficult for culling operations to be sabotaged by protesters.
The government has disbanded the independent expert panel, which found the first year of pilot culls in 2013 were neither effective nor humane. Defra’s report on the 2014 cull found that 341 badgers were killed in Gloucestershire, far short of the 615 minimum. In Somerset the minimum target was 316 and 341 were shot. A landmark £25m trial of badger culling that ended in 2008 showed that TB in cattle could actually increase if too few badgers are killed, as displaced badgers spread the disease further.
The report found that, as in 2013, about 10% of badgers shot at were not subsequently found. Defra said the shots may have missed but that “we have assumed these animals were at risk of experiencing marked pain.” The report also concluded that about 15% of the free-running badgers that were killed were not shot in the target chest area. Defra said the culls were “carried out to a high standard of public safety”.
Vet Gibbens said: “Continued action is needed to increase levels of confidence in the effectiveness of any future culls, for example through contractor training and assessment, improved operational planning, monitoring and delivery.” In October, Professor Rosie Woodroffe, who worked on the landmark 10-year trial and believes the current culls should stop and said: “The cull targets are all rubbish because they are based on rubbish data. In Somerset they set themselves an unbelievably easy target.” (9).
UK POLITICS. The traditional political parties are in big trouble. Back in the 1950s, one person in every ten was a member of a political party. The era of two big political parties slugging it out on the national stage is well and truly over. Today we publish new research showing clear public appetite for having a larger number of parties on the national stage, and for those parties to be willing to work together in pursuit of the common good.
The older, more traditional parties need to wake up to this new reality or face the consequences of ever-dwindling support. They need to embrace new ways of opening up beyond their narrowing band of members, and they need to push through reforms which will give people the type of politics they want. Parties should be a force for good. At their best, they bridge the divide between politics and people and make our democracy work. They should be part of the solution to political disengagement, not part of the problem. But to achieve this, the British party system needs to catch up with the type of politics people want to see.
The Electoral Reform Society recently published a landmark report on the future of political parties. Open Up sets out the challenges faced by the mainstream parties, the ways in which newer parties appear more adept at attracting support in the 21st century, and what the mainstream parties need to do to reconnect with voters.
The report makes four core recommendations for the mainstream parties to address their spiral of decline. These are:
- Increased role for non-members Parties’ experiments with involving non fee-paying supporters should be accelerated
- More member- and supporter-led policymaking People want to see an end to top-down, command-and-control politics
- Party funding reform Parties’ reliance on big donors is undermining people’s trust in them
- Electoral reform A fairer voting system would help meet people’s expectations of having a greater choice of parties and more consensual policymaking. (11).
EUROPEAN POLITICS LURCH RIGHT. The launch of a ‘New Ecology’ movement by France’s National Front (FN) this week has been condemned by environmentalists as opportunistic and inconsistent. The far right eco-nationalist grouping was launched by Marine Le Pen, with a ‘patriotic’ platform of opposition to international climate talks and support for France’s nuclear industry. The FN has made political capital about cruelty to animals in the preparation of halal and kosher meat in the past, and its MEPs are preparing a resolution that would limit shale gas exploration, despite the party voting against a shale moratorium in the last parliament.
In Hungary, the neo-Nazi Jobbik party has campaigned against invasive flora from abroad which they say is destroying Hungarian plants and animals as it spreads unchecked.
The far-right Danish People’s Party is virulently opposed to immigration, multi-culturalism and multi-ethnicity. But it also pledges “to ensure that the way in which the earth’s resources are used bears the stamp of consideration, care and a sense of responsibility for the natural world and all its living creatures.” (10).
In Greece, a snap election has been called which could well see an anti-austerity party gain power and possibly lead to Greece leaving the EU and the Eurozone being turned on its head.