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Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is lead researcher on climate and energy at nef.

I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen a pure blue sky without the tapestry of contrails that sketch out the invisible highways of the global aviation network.

The reality of the closed airspace due to the volcanic plume from an eruption near the Icelandic glacier Eyjafjallajoekull (pronounced aya-feeyapla-yurkul) hit me whilst strolling back along the Southbank on a warm spring Sunday afternoon. As I walked along the river, the world seemed strangely calm. The overhead roar of jet engines from aircraft as they march with military precession along the flight path to Heathrow, were conspicuous by their absence.

Eruption of Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, Iceland, 17th of April, 2010 (NASA, MODIS Satellite)

But, such events also reveal that we are hugely dependent on what often seems like hidden infrastructure, woven together to create an intricate web of interdependence across the globe.

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Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is lead researcher on climate and energy at nef.

Yesterday myself and a few colleagues headed down to the Design Museum, London for the launch of Sustainable Futures – Can Design Save the World? a new exhibition that:

presents key examples of how design can deliver a more sustainable future. The exhibition examines not only the objects themselves but also the infrastructure in which objects are produced and exist. At a time when designers and architects are under pressure to ‘think green’ and education establishments are placing greater emphasis on sustainability in the curriculum, this exhibition highlights how design can, literally, help save the world.

Ration Me Up at the Design Museum, London

And, the exhibition features our very own Ration Me Up monthly carbon ration book.

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Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

At the turn of the 1900s in the US there was a progressive campaign to establish a shorter, eight-hour working day. It was opposed by the National Association of Manufacturers (Nam) as potentially ruinous to the economy – on much the same grounds that the abolition of slavery, the introduction of the maximum load line in shipping and most other progressive reforms throughout history have been opposed. In the 1920s Nam also lobbied against a shorter, five-day working week. In the 1930s, however, Nam paid for a billboard advertising campaign boasting that the US had the “world’s shortest working hours”, underlining the point with “there’s no way like the American way”. Nothing succeeds like success.

When Barack Obama’s administration finally won its viciously contested plan to provide healthcare insurance to 32 million of its lowest-paid citizens, it subtly changed the chemistry of what might be possible in a range of other policy areas.

Having been on the back foot for much of his first year in power, Obama is emboldened both by success and the awareness that Americans like a winner. In the odd political ecosystem, the survival of health reform has direct implications for the viability of action on climate change. Some connections are obvious, others less so.

Greater weather extremes due to warming, such as heat waves and extreme events, have huge health implications.

So do other impacts related to the intensive use of fossil fuels. Deaths and injury resulting from traffic incidents and respiratory problems linked to transport-related air pollution both figure high on the World Health Organisation’s list of major global health threats.

But there are links, too, in the psychology of the solutions. Insurance is an intelligent, collective way to manage risk. As long as the providers of insurance are not allowed to distort its purpose by milking stakeholders for profit, it means that very many, regular and relatively small individual contributions can provide a very large safety net. Making it mandatory deters free riders and delivers universal cover. As with health, why not also with the climate?

The ban on smoking in public buildings draws another interesting line in the debate on the proper balance between “freedoms from” and “freedoms to”. This is on the basis that one person’s freedom to smoke in a public building denies another person’s freedom to breathe smoke-free air. The greenhouse gas emissions currently contributing to climatic instability could be seen as an issue of “uber passive smoking”, especially for those who like their climates to be friendly and convivial for human society.

Seeing banks like RBS, bailed-out and owned by the public, wriggle and squirm in regard to their fossil fuel investments, is to be reminded of tobacco companies floundering in the court of expert health and public opinion.

On the day that the head of “corporate sustainability” at RBS refuted has bank’s deep involvement in particularly dirty fossil fuel projects, the bank opened an office in Calgary, Canada, the very heart of oil tar sands developments. It was also hard to explain the $7.5bn of financial support given by RBS over two years to a range of the major oil companies.

Can things be turned around in the few years left in which we can make a real difference? Leading figures at the more establishment-friendly end of the environmental spectrum think so. The Last Parliament initiative, co-ordinated by Green Alliance, makes the point that the next government will either lay the foundations for rapid transition to a low carbon economy and keep our options open – or it won’t.

If the latter happens, it will feed the mildly misanthropic pessimism of gurus like James Lovelock, who advocated the Gaia hypothesis that Earth is a self-regulating system.

Unfortunately, according to Lovelock, if the Earth self-regulates under global warming he reckons that will leave life support systems for only around a billion people.

Oddly, though, for a scientist, his lack of faith in human ingenuity is highly unscientific. His implicit message of “abandon hope all ye who enter” the warming world ignores the many occasions throughout history when societies have achieved rapid transition.

The danger is that indulging a complacent negativity can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We know that change is possible. But if, instead of applying humanity’s immense capacity for creative, community based problem-solving, all some of our best minds do is spoonfeed the “league of no”, our fabulous experiment in civilisation will be written off as a bad April fool’s joke. Eighty months and counting …

Bookmark and ShareDr Victoria Johnson is lead researcher on the climate and energy team at nef.

Today, new zero-carbon energy company Lemonadability launches the first electricity tariff, fuelled entirely by lemons.

CEO and Lemonadability founder, Arthur Citrus says, ‘ it came to me one evening after a Gin and Tonic. I’d become increasingly worried by climate change and peak oil. And then it suddenly it dawned on me – in my school days we carried out an experiment with a zinc and copper electrode and a lemon. We made enough electricity to light up a small LED. And it just went from there.’

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Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Officer and blogmaster.

Jokes about climate change used to be in short supply, but fortunately climate “sceptics”* rectified all that. Here’s Richard Glover of the Sydney Morning Herald:

Do climate-change sceptics have the same attitude to other pieces of expert advice? When their car develops a fault and the local mechanic says the brake pads are shot, do they seek a second opinion? And having been told by the second mechanic that, yes, the brake pads are shot, do they then trawl around town until on the 99th visit, they strike a mechanic who says “no, the brake pads are fine”? And then driving at high speed up the F3, do they entrust their lives to this last opinion?

No. Because it would be mental.

What happens when Maurice Newman, climate agnostic and ABC chairman, goes to the doctor? Does he storm from the office when they diagnose chickenpox and seek second, third and 99th opinions until he finds a doctor who will give him the all clear? And does he then decry the first 98 doctors as victims of “group-think”?

No. Because it would be mental.

Read the rest here. (Hat tip to John Cook at Skeptic Science).

* The word “sceptic” can only be used euphemistically when describing those people who think anthropogenic climate change is some sort of massive hoax. They are, in fact, embarrassingly gullible: happily accepting whatever half-truths and distortions that have been put about by libertarian think-tanks and PR firms employed by fossil fuel dependent industry. True scepticism is the lifeforce of scientific enquiry, include climatology. The Royal Society’s motto is Nullius in verba – take nobody’s word for it.

Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

How should a Green Investment Bank most effectively be set up?
The banking failure laid bare the private sectors’ veiled dependence on the public sphere in bad times. But, a publicly owned Green Investment Bank will be proactive, not just there to pick up the pieces of mistakes made elsewhere. It should provide affordable credit, capital and guarantees, and in the process leverage further investment, but only to groups, companies and initiatives that will help push a rapid transition to a low carbon economy. Capital can be raised from a mixture of bonds, carbon taxes, the redirection of resources held in other part public owned banks and “green” quantitative easing. Working mostly at a large scale, the Green Investment Bank will need a network of more local, sister banks able to provide capital for smaller scale initiatives.

What should it use its financial resources to support?
The priority will be to finance a new low-carbon infrastructure for Britain. From new and renovated low-energy building stock, to a new multi-scale, multi-technology renewable energy power system, to a clean, efficient, transport network with a hugely enhanced role for mass public transit, the bank would be instrumental in rewiring the nation for a low-carbon, high well-being future. In essence, it will help to write a national insurance policy against a future of high and volatile fossil fuel prices, geo-political insecurity and carbon constraints due to global warming.

(originally published in the Guardian)

Bookmark and ShareKaren Schucan-Bird is a researcher in nef’s Climate Change and Energy team.

Today marks a global day of celebration for the achievements of women around the world. Established in the early 1900’s, this celebration takes place annually on the 8th March. This date is an official holiday in some parts of the world, and marked by a range of activities in others.

The 8th of March also provides a space in which we can reflect on women’s role in society and the progress we have made towards gender equality. This year, my thoughts turn to the intersection of gender and climate change. Last week, the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) brought together some inspiring women (and men) to launch their new report Gender and the Climate Change Agenda. This report highlights that, whilst women contribute less to global warming than their male counterparts, climate change and its adverse effects are having greater impacts on the female population. Women are more likely than men to suffer from climate related disasters, feel the effects of rising food prices and experience associated health problems.

The WEN report also highlights the positive actions that women are taking across the world to tackle or adapt to climate change. Within the UK, inspiring ladies are establishing community food growing projects, helping to ‘green’ the NHS, heading up environmental campaigns and more. So on a day like today, let’s recognise the work that there is to be done but celebrate our achievements.

Bookmark and ShareKaren Schucan-Bird is a researcher in nef’s Climate Change and Energy team.

Two months from today, on May 6th, it is likely that we – the British public – will be invited to go to the election polls. Who and how many of us actually turn up is another matter. For those that do, we will be placing our vote with the (naive?) hope that the next government will do many things. Combating climate change sits at the top of my wish list. This must be an overarching theme of the work for the next parliamentary term. The significance and urgency of this task should not be under-estimated. We all know that the clock is ticking. According to analysis carried out by nef, we only have 81 months before we reach a crucial tipping point – the point at which it is no longer likely that we will be able to avert potentially irreversible climate change. With this in mind, how much of a priority is the issue of climate change in the current campaigns of the two main parties?

The answer, in short, is that it isn’t a priority. A quick review of the main new items listed on the Labour and Conservative websites highlights that not one reference has been made to ‘climate change’, ‘environment’ or even ‘green’ in the past week. Not one. The Labour party’s ‘energy and climate change’ page has not been updated since December, when they were canvassing for support for a deal at Copenhagen (so much for that). We see an equal paucity of interest amongst the Conservatives. Despite David Cameron claiming recently that the Conservatives are ‘the new environmental party in Britain’, the party has not released a news story on climate change and energy since early january. The Green Party, it seems, do not need to start to worry.

A low level of interest from the two main parties highlights that we have a vital role to play, as voters and activists, to move the issue up the political agenda. And now is the time to do so. We only have two months left. Write emails, wave a placard, start a campaign to get elected to parliament. Whatever it is, let’s all take action to make climate change a top priority for the election campaign and so the next government.

Climate change needs to be a priority at the General Election

Two months from today, on May 6th, it is likely that we- the British public- will be invited to go to the election polls. Who and how many of us actually turn up is another matter. For those that do, we will be placing our vote with the (naive?) hope that the next government will do many things. Combating climate change sits at the top of my wish list. This must be an overarching theme of the work for the next parliamentary term. The significance and urgency of this task should not be under-estimated. We all know that the clock is ticking. According to analysis carried out by nef, we only have 81 months before we reach our climate’s tipping point- the point at which it is no longer likely that we will be able to avert potentially irreversible climate change. With this in mind, how much of a priority is the issue of climate change in the current campaigns of the two main parties?

The answer, in short, is that it isn’t a priority. A quick review of the main new items listed on the Labour and Conservative websites highlights that not one reference has been made to ‘climate change’, ‘environment’ or even ‘green’ in the past week. Not one. The Labour party’s ‘energy and climate change’ page has not been updated since December, when they were canvassing for support for a deal at Copenhagen (so much for that). We see an equal paucity of interest amongst the Conservatives. Despite David Cameron claiming that the Conservatives are ‘the new environmental party in Britain’, the party has not released a news story on climate change and energy since early january. The Green Party, it seems, do not need to start to worry.

A low level of interest from the two main parties highlights that we have a vital role to play, as voters and activists, to move the issue up the political agenda. And now is the time to do so. We only have two months left. Write emails, wave a placard, start a campaign to get elected to parliament. Whatever it is, lets all take action to make climate change a top priority for the election campaign and so the next government.

Bookmark and ShareAndy Wimbush is nef‘s Communications Assistant and blogmaster.

Steel manufacturing in Shanghai | Image by 2 dogs via Flickr

You’d be forgiven for suspecting that the Chairman of the Financial Services Authority, Adair Turner, might be some sort of Climate Camp mole (and you wouldn’t be the first: the Financial Times nicknamed him Swampy last summer).

Look back over Lord Turner’s policy suggestions over the last twelve months and you’ll find that they read like an activist’s wishlist. He began his call to tame global finance by accusing banks of engaging in activity that is “socially useless”, and arguing that many financial institutions had grown “beyond a socially reasonable size”. In the same interview, Lord Turner proposed that banks be subject to a tax on financial transactions, pre-empting the Robin Hood Tax campaign. Speaking to nef policy director Andrew Simms on the BBC’s World Tonight in January, he even suggested that the pursuit of economic growth at all costs might become a “false god“. Not surprisingly, we’re completely in agreement: see our report A Bit Rich on the real social value of elite City banking, our publication on the Robin Hood Tax and our various reports on the limits to growth and GDP: Growth Isn’t Possible, Growth isn’t Working and National Accounts of Well-being.

The reality is, of course, that Lord Turner is a figure at the heart of the establishment, who has reached his conclusions not through ideology, but from a long cool look at things as they stand. Now he is back in the news for his suggestion that government should consider a carbon tax on cheap imports from countries not implementing serious climate measures to help boost British manufacturing and encourage world leaders to tackle climate change. From the Guardian:

Lord Turner, who heads the UK committee on climate change, said the government should “rigorously assess” bringing in levies on cheap imports from countries outside the European Union, which are not subject to carbon-related costs such as the EU emissions trading scheme.

Ministers have in the past resisted calls from European counterparts to introduce such carbon levies, arguing they would be anti-competitive. In future, heavy industry such steel and cement manufacturers in the EU will not have to pay for most of their allowances to emit carbon under the trading scheme, unlike other firms taking part. The idea is to protect EU manufacturers and prevent “carbon leakage” – plants being moved to countries which do not have their own trading schemes.

It has emerged that Indian-owned steelmaker Corus, which is closing its Teesside plant, stands to pocket around £250m by selling unused carbon permits. Unions allege that this is why the company does not want to find a buyer for the plant.

Lord Turner said a change of approach was needed. “Business needs a clear and consistent market-based incentive to move towards a low-carbon economy. We can’t solve the problem by giving out emission allowances for free as the only option for internationally trading manufacturing sectors. Border carbon-price levelling should not be excluded, but rather subject to rigorous assessment alongside other options.”

In 2003, nef published a report called Free-riding on the Climate which proposed that since UN negotiations were not delivering the binding agreement necessary for avoiding dangerous climate change, the UK and the EU should consider using litigation or trade measures to force other industrialised countries to cut emissions. The thinking behind the idea is that if some countries are spending money to cut their emissions in industry and manufacturing, then they will be undercut by cheaper goods from other countries that are still using cheap and dirty energy. A border tax on these imports would try to redress the balance. It’s called a countervailing duty, and is permitted by the World Trade Organisation in certain circumstances. Andrew Strauss, Professor at Widener University School of Law, explains:

The Organisation currently allows states to impose countervailing duties when foreign companies ‘dump’ goods into their markets at less than the market value, and to offset the previously discussed competitive trade advantage that foreign companies gain when they receive subsidies from their governments.

So despite seeming like a radical measure, a carbon tax wouldn’t be without precedent in other areas. In fact, nef‘s report pointed out that there was a scheme introduced in the USA to help clean up domestic toxic sites, which was paid for by taxes levied on the petro-chemical industries: the 1980 US Hazardous Substances Trust Fund, popularly known as Superfund. GATT – the precursor to the WTO – decided that the Superfund wasn’t an unacceptable restraint of trade.

When George W. Bush was resolutely refusing to even acknowledge climate change, Caroline Lucas – on nef‘s behalf – asked Pascal Lamy, then European Commissioner for Trade, whether economic measures against the United States would be permissable under existing agreements. He replied that it was a “thought-provoking contribution”, adding:

“There is a clear case for being aware of any adverse effects on our industry and doing everything in our power to minimise these. In that sense, it is relevant also to keep under review the scope for action under WTO rules to ‘level the playing field’.”

Even with President Bush out of the way, a binding international agreement on climate change still seems impossible to reach. Perhaps it is time to reconsider the possibility of border taxes and sanctions against those countries who are still taking a free ride on the climate.

Like a bad disaster film, the naysayers have been in charge over climate change. It’s not too late to rewrite the final scenes.

Bookmark and ShareAndrew Simms is nef‘s Policy Director and head of nef’s Climate Change programme.

"What? You mean the scientists' prediction of catastrophe was correct?" (Image via Wikipedia)

Every disaster movie has a stock character – the person who tells everyone else that there’s nothing to worry about. Shark? There’s no shark. What could possibly go wrong with that tower block, ship, plane, volcano, dinosaur safari park or paramilitary robot cop with a slightly psychopathic glint in its eye?

Such “don’t worry” confidence is always bullish and reassuring. The motives are mostly financial: to open in time for the holiday season or launch the product ahead of a few safety checks. People fall for it, of course, because they want to believe that things will be OK, that their plans won’t have to change. It always ends badly. In the battered landscapes as the final credits roll, there is little doubt that a false-negative diagnosis costs vastly more than a little healthy caution.

So, how lucky do we feel about the climate threat to civilisation? With a few important exceptions, the media swallowed spin and insinuation from peddlers of doubt about its seriousness, without ever holding them to remotely the same standard of evidence demanded of climate scientists. As a result, he time for meaningful action is shrinking just as fewer appear convinced of the need to act.

There is a fine line between noble self-interrogation (generally a good thing) and liberal self-flagellation (generally pointless, painful and scarring). Why is it that so many avowedly progressive people are drawn anxiously, like moths to the flames of even their most wild-eyed critics? Meanwhile, the latter sail on, blithely unconcerned by doubt or evidence.

And yet what has really changed since the strange convulsion of “sceptics’ hour”? It allowed a peculiar release of tension after the relative failure of much-hyped international negotiations. Then, it slowly dawned on the media that science always was about probabilities, not certainties, and decisions still had to be made on these. A huge, obfuscating dust cloud of doubt was kicked up, but now that it has settled, the landscape is the same, the basic science unaltered. There’s just a lot of grit in people’s eyes. Climate change is still real, happening and without radical action could, in a few short years, move into a phase whereby it becomes very difficult to reverse.

At least, and modestly reassuring, the world is already moving on. For, example, could there be a more symbolic act than GM’s decision to close its factory making the petrol-hungry Hummer, especially after China, rising economic power and its last hope for rescue, pulled out of the deal?

Elsewhere, business as usual no longer goes unquestioned. American web giant Facebook recently announced plans for a massive, energy-intensive new data centre in Prineville, Oregon. When it became clear that coal power plants would help provide its electricity, around 20,000 people formed a group on Facebook, calling on the company to use 100% clean energy with the strapline “We want Facebook to use 100% renewable energy“.

Whatever people may say to pollsters, at a deeper level, the need for change is altering expectations for people, companies and governments. The fact that public attitudes seemed to change quickly in the wrong direction also means that they are volatile and could flip again. Perversely, we maybe in the last hurrah of the sceptics, and closer to a positive tipping point in attitude than it seems. Even with plenty on his plate, President Barack Obama took time out to explain the difference between weather and climate systems after heavy snowfall in North America (but melting ice at the winter Olympics).

Students of the disaster film genre won’t be surprised. Generally they adhere to a reliable story arc. In the first act, all seems well until a prescient few stumble across evidence of impending disaster. In the second act they get ignored. False reassurance (often with dubious motives) wins the day. Then, bad things happen. In the final act, with all hell breaking loose, the siren voices are either silenced or left quivering in the face of their own foolhardiness. Some kind of sense wins out.

Real life, though, is a movie whose script we have to write for ourselves. And here we are, stuck in the second act, with the bad things just beginning to happen. Quick, grab the keyboard, the floor’s beginning to shake, we’ve got 81 months, and counting

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nef employees blog in their personal capacity. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the new economics foundation.