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

In response to the recent media hysteria, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a news statement last week outlining their role and assessment process. This restated the ‘comprehensive, objective, open and transparent’ principles that guide the IPCC reviews. These principles seem to fit within a broader movement towards ‘evidence-based policy and practice’. This movement is characterised by a belief that sound evidence should inform policy and practice decisions. This seems to make sense on a very basic level. I am sure that we would all like to think that our governments are making decisions based on sound evidence (whether they are or not is another question). Indeed, the ongoing media focus on climate change research seems to suggest that we have a healthy obsession with ensuring that research feeds into our collective decision making.

Placed at the centre of the evidence-based movement is the systematic review. This represents a tool for summarizing and appraising research in a systematic and transparent way. The systematic review originated in the health field where studies about the effectiveness of a particular drug were gathered together to identify whether a particular drug did or didn’t work. For those who are interested, Ben Goldacre gave a simple and quick introduction to this on Radio 4. Whilst the IPCC report is not a systematic review, the procedures followed by the Panel seem to uphold some of its principles. As the recent news statement confirms, a standard set of procedures are followed using explicit and transparent methods. The reports aim to identify and appraise natural and social science research relevant to the climate change debate. The resulting outputs are then relevant and useful for policy makers (for example, producing Summaries for Policy Makers). It is this approach that gives us confidence that research forms the basis of the conclusions drawn by the IPCC.

Yet, it is important to recognise that the IPCC reports, as with any piece of research, can be improved. There is always scope to strengthen our understanding of climate change and its effects. After all, research and knowledge is not static but constantly evolving. This view seems to form part of the concerns expressed yesterday by Lu Xuedu, a Chinese climatologist. He suggests that the next IPCC report needs to incorporate more research from a wider range of sources (including more research produced from the developing world). The comprehensive, open and transparent nature of the IPCC procedures mean that it is completely possible and desirable to do this. This provides me, and hopefully you, with the confidence that our collective knowledge about climate change is, and will continue to be, evidence based. Whether this translates into policy is another question…

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

You may not be aware of this but, late last week, Ed Miliband ‘declared war’. This was not the usual, armed conflict type. Instead, the climate secretary entered into an ongoing battle based around knowledge and research. The main opponents were those who continue to deny the existence of human powered climate change. Let’s call them climate deniers (the use of this contested term, I realise, is worthy of a blog in and of itself but that will have to wait for another day).

The Minister for Climate Change and Energy was concerned, rightly so, about the extensive media coverage dedicated to the minority opinions of the climate deniers. The coverage was so extensive that I do not need to repeat the details here. Instead, I am interested in the nature of this debate and want it says about the way in which human knowledge is produced, debated and advanced.

Ed Miliband raised concerns about the media’s role in obstructing public understanding and promoting confusion about climate change. The Minister is not the first to make this observation. There is a growing body of academic literature that points to the powerful role played by the media in the climate change debate.[1] Indeed, the media seems to be one of the main platforms for expressing the climate denial perspective. This is problematic not only because the media influences public opinion but also because this form of debate completely by-passes the standard way in which scholarship and knowledge is debated, revised and advanced.[2]

Within the academic community, peer review is the cornerstone of knowledge production. In order to ensure publication (and so legitimatisation), research findings must respond to critiques and comments as part of the peer review process. Peer review, whilst not a perfect system, is the main mechanism we have for validating knowledge. Climate deniers disregard this system. First, the majority of their claims are not submitted to peer reviewed journals. Second, the peer review process has been critical to furthering our understanding of climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change generates reports based on a thorough and critical assessment of the evidence. This is what makes us confident that the findings are robust and trustworthy. Yet, it is this very process (and the findings) that climate deniers continue to dispute.

I don’t always agree with Ed Miliband but his recent concerns about the climate deniers are worth heeding. We need to continue to contest these views, not only to defend the rigour of academic knowledge advancement but, more urgently, to defend the future of our civilisation.

[1] See, for example, Boykoff, M., and Roberts, T. (2007) Media Coverage of Climate Change: Current Trends, Strengths and Weaknesses, Human Development Report Office Occasional Paper (UNDP)

[2] Antilla, L (2005) Climate of scepticism: US newspaper coverage of the science of climate change, Global Environmental Change, vol. 15: 338-352

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

If economics was subject to the same evidence-based scrutiny as climate change, our world would be run very differently. Photo by genericface via Flickr.

The world is not run according to climate science. Amid the almost hysterical jeering since the Copenhagen climate summit, it’s a fact worth remembering. If things were done with one eye carefully checking the planet’s ecological engines and the resource levels in its fuel tank, it would look very different The largest indoor snow park in the world would not, for example, be in the roasting Middle Eastern emirate of Dubai. Public transport would be quick and cheap, and Richard Branson would be an unknown gardener, quietly cycling back and forth to his organically-run allotment.

Yet fear of the likely adjustments needed to halt dangerous climate change seems to fuel the vitriol of the vociferous minority attacking climate science. It’s odd when you think what those changes might be. A cartoon currently going around sums it up. An academic-type gives a lecture, listing the outcomes of climate action: energy independence, clean water, clean air, green jobs, liveable cities, healthy children etc etc, while a man in the audience blusters, “But what if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”

And, it’s not, of course, a hoax. The basic chemistry of global warming has been understood and remained unchanged for around 200 years. Stories concerning the science in recent weeks have been of the type, “how long can you hold your breath?” Not “can we actually breathe underwater?” At the same time, observed trends on greenhouse gas emissions, measured since the last major report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), reveal the opposite of scaremongering.

If anything, the IPCC has been too conservative, having underestimated how quickly we would be pushed toward dangerous change. Actual carbon emissions have been beyond even their “most fossil-fuel-intensive scenario”. Crowing over the inclusion in its last report of an erroneous date for the melting of Himalayan glaciers drowned out a new report from the World Glacier Monitoring Service, that detailed an “unbroken acceleration in melting” of glaciers around the world.

Sadly, right now, the climate change deniers have little to fear. We have no policies or actions remotely equal to the threat. Why is that? It is partly because the world is not run in respect of basic, well-understood physical laws. It is run according to the dictates of an altogether more variable discipline, economics, whose insights and proposals are subject to a weaker scrutiny. The real world ticks reliably according to the laws on thermodynamics and the conservation of energy. Such consistency cannot be claimed for the notion that a deregulated, greed-driven approach is the most efficient way to organise banking. But what if economic policy was subject to the same standard of evidence and review as climate science?

What would natural science make of the assumptions underlying mainstream economic models? They include the classic assertions that we are all perfectly rational, make choices that are unaffected by the behaviour of others, and that we have “perfect information”, knowing everything important there is to know. Or there’s the one in which an infinite number of small firms compete in open markets with no barriers to entry (think Walmart, Microsoft, Amazon, Tesco, Google). And the idea that consumption can grow infinitely on a finite planet.

Orthodox economics is based on simplifications that so distort the real world as to make it unrecognisable, yet its basic tenets are credulously repeated on an almost daily basis in national newspapers and on television news. A genuinely evidence-based approach to economic policymaking would not produce a system remotely like the one we have, the business-as-usual version that many climate sceptics seem so eager to defend. Given its task, the vast range of subjects covered, the thousands of scientists involved, and the sheer size of its reports, what’s stunning about the IPCC’s work is that comparing it to any economic analysis used to actually run the world is like comparing the complete Oxford English Dictionary to a guide to slang published by the Sunday Sport.

Elsewhere, some voices have called for there to be a separate climate sceptics’ report. On one hand, this misses the point. If the sceptics’ science was good enough to be published in decent, peer-reviewed journals, it would be considered alongside everything else by the IPCC. But on the other hand, subjecting the deniers to the same degree of rigorous review as everyone else is a rather delicious prospect. If that was done, the final report would likely be short indeed.

And, on current trends, it is still the case that by the end of the year 2016, the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will make it unlikely that we’ll stay below the critical 2°C temperature rise. It’s 82 months and counting

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

Like a patient waiting for hospital scan results, this week the government nervously anticipates new growth figures for the economy. Any sign of an increase and relief could quickly lead to self-satisfaction about its handling of the recession. Approving nods may be seen later this week in Davos at the World Economic Forum. Why? Because among political and business classes, growth, measured by rising GDP, is considered always a “good thing”. But is it?

The banking crisis taught us that when things look good on paper, if the underlying accounting system is faulty, it can conceal high risk and imminent disaster – as Jared Diamond put it in Collapse, his book about societies throughout history that fell by wrongly estimating the resilience of their environmental life-support systems. What looks like wealth might just be a one-off fire sale of irreplaceable natural capital. Ecologically speaking, he writes, “an impressive-looking bank account may conceal a negative cashflow”.

To avoid collapse the economy has to operate within thresholds that do not critically undermine the things that we depend on on a daily basis. They’re often interconnected, like a sufficiently stable climate, productive farmland, fresh water and a healthy diversity of plants and animals.

On climate change, a new piece of research by the New Economics Foundation thinktank looks at which rates of global economic growth are compatible with prevention of a dangerous level of warming.

It shows that, even with the most optimistic likely uptake of low-carbon energy, it is seemingly impossible to reconcile a growing global economy with a good likelihood of limiting global temperature rise to 2C, the agreed political objective of the European Union, and widely considered the maximum rise to which humanity can adapt without serious difficulty.

In this context, Adair Turner, chair of the Financial Services Authority and the Committee on Climate Change, refers to the pursuit of growth for its own sake as a “false god“. Other work by Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at Manchester University concludes that: “Economic growth in the OECD cannot be reconciled with a 2C, 3C or even 4C characterisation of dangerous climate change.”

The problem is that growth drowns out the gains from increased efficiency and technological innovation. The New Economics Foundation study looks at by how much growth would need to be delinked from fossil fuels – the so-called carbon intensity of the economy – to reach the mark of climate safety suggested by Nasa climate scientist James Hansen.

Having improved steadily in the late last century, “carbon intensity” changes flatlined over the last decade and even worsened in some years. Against this trend, to avoid dangerous climate change the fall in carbon intensity would need to improve by more than two hundredfold. The economic doctrine of growth collides headlong with the laws of physics and thermodynamics. Only so much energy efficiency can be squeezed from a system. The other problem is the counter-intuitive rebound effect spotted by William Stanley Jevons in 1865 when he wrote, “It is a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.” Increased efficiency tends to lower costs and perversely drives up overall resource use.

Writing in the science journal Nature last year, a multidisciplinary group of scientists identified nine key safe-use planetary resource boundaries, three of which had already been transgressed (climate change, biodiversity and the nitrogen cycle to do with farming). We are on the cusp of several others.

So, this week, if you find yourself cheering a return to growth, you may be inadvertently celebrating our acceleration toward an ecological cliff edge and an opportunity missed to find a new, better direction. For example, the economist Herman Daly points out that full employment could be easier to achieve in an economy not addicted to growth because it would reverse “the historical trend of replacing labour with machines and inanimate energy”.

Both the desirability and possibility of never ending growth goes unquestioned in mainstream economics. It’s odd, because the world would be a very strange place if the same was applied in nature. For example, from birth until around six weeks old, a hamster doubles its weight each week. If, it didn’t stop and continued doubling each week, on its first birthday, you would be looking after a very hungry nine billion-tonne pet hamster. There is of course one thing in nature that grows uncontrollably. It’s called cancer and tends to kill its host. So when those growth figures come out, let’s hope the government scans the results for what they really mean.

nef‘s new report Growth isn’t Possible was published today.

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

A lorry abandoned in the snow.

Man has lost the ­capacity to ­foresee and forestall,” wrote Albert Schweitzer. A colossal banking crisis and a big freeze in the middle of what was meant to be a mild winter don’t encourage confidence to the contrary.

Reassurance is fine as long as it’s well founded. And in the midst of fears about gas supplies and the panic buying of food Gordon Brown is hardly likely to scream that we are all doomed. It is, after all, his job to tell us that all will be well. But will it? People were shocked at the scale of social breakdown when Hurricane Katrina revealed a long-term, creeping erosion of civic resilience. Are we just waking up to the fact that several wrong turns have left our essential supplies much more vulnerable than they need to be?

In 2004 Britain ceased to be able to meet its energy needs domestically. Since then our dependence on imports, particularly of natural gas, has risen dramatically. The situation can only worsen as gas is subject to the same iron law of depletion as oil, and its moment of peak production lags not far behind.

Similarly, Britain’s ability to feed itself has been in long-term decline, and food prices are reportedly rising in the cold spell. It was only two years ago that droughts in Australia caused a crisis in world grain supplies; in April 2008 food crises affected at least 37 countries and there were related riots in many. As climate change and volatile oil prices destabilise global agriculture, we are becoming more dependent on food and energy imports just as the geopolitics of both make it less likely that the world will generously meet our needs.

This year is the 10th anniversary of the fuel protests, when supermarket bosses sat with ministers and civil servants in Whitehall warning that there were just three days of food left. We were, in effect, nine meals from anarchy. Suddenly, the apocalyptic visions of novelists and film-makers seemed less preposterous. Civilisation’s veneer may be much thinner than we like to think.

Part of the problem lies in the infrastructure that emerges from a market system focused on narrow cost savings. The result is easily disrupted just-in-time supermarket food supply lines, and a risky assumption that anything we need can easily be bought on global markets. The latter becomes problematic when in response to global shortages, governments around the world understandably choose to meet their domestic needs first. In Britain, not only are our strategic fuel reserves low by international comparison, our strategic food reserves are history.

One response to the vulnerability revealed in 2008 has been the rise of the so-called land grab. Several wealthy countries and companies have targeted up to 20m hectares of productive farmland in poor countries for acquisition and control. In Madagascar, public outcry led to the government’s fall.

As a child I was quietly haunted by Doris Lessing’s book The Memoirs of a Survivor. Society had broken down, and people were on the move, displaced amid an increasingly brutal disorder. The presiding government was useless but just about able to “adjust itself to events, while pretending probably even to itself that it initiated them”.

Events are revealing that many of the things we take for granted, like bank accounts, fuel and food, are vulnerable. If we value civilisation, the litmus test for economic success should not be short-term profitability, but resilience in the face of climatic extremes and resource shortages. When Gordon Brown meets Cobra, the civil contingencies committee, this week, item one should be the transition to a more sustainable food and energy system.

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

In everything from climate to criminal justice, China is playing by its own rules.

The mother of all hangovers on 1 January 2010 has nothing to do with alcohol. From London to Washington DC it’s the result of waking up to find that the world’s most populated country, in whose economy we are inextricably entwined, doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks. From deciding the fate of civilisation’s climate, to the judicial killing of mentally ill people, China, bluntly, is going its own way. But world leaders or newspaper columnists pompously taking the moral high ground against such a disdainful dictatorship is quite futile. The shape of the current global economic realignment has a momentum and trajectory shaped by centuries of geopolitics. It also has a direction that we, having created and gloried in the consumerist model, are actively still encouraging. Only last August Tony Blair defended a tripling of traffic in China over the next decade.

Unless these dynamics are understood, no amount of hand-wringing at United Nations’ climate conferences or on national news will make the slightest difference.

The great economic historian Paul Bairoch pointed how, up until the middle of the 18th century, the average standard of living in Europe was probably lower than that of the rest of the world. In 1700 China’s share of world GDP was estimated to be just under a quarter, on a par with Europe and India. By the middle of the 20th century, two and a half centuries later, Europe’s share had risen to nearly a third while China’s had fallen to 5%, and India’s to under 4%. Was this the result of the internal brilliance, creativity and liberating power of the free market? On the contrary, it was more to do with the fact that their competition was, “forcibly dismantled by war, invasion, opium and (in the case of Britain) a Lancashire-imposed system of one-way tariffs,” according to historian Mike Davis.

History does not excuse China playing hardball with the environmental future of humanity (not to mention human rights and democracy), but it certainly goes a long way to explaining their dismissive attitude to the exhortations of the international community. India’s approach to climate negotiations can fall into a similar category.

We are in a trap of our own making, both historically and in the way that China’s current economic development is premised on rising consumption in places like Europe and North America, where people already over-consume.

It’s not only to do with climate change and the use of fossil fuels. Whether its rare minerals and timber from Africa, or farmland elsewhere in Asia, China is scouring the world to feed its export-led development strategy. In September last year, scientists reported in the journal Nature that globally we have already crossed the safe planetary boundaries of three out of nine critical environmental life support systems. Growing aggregate world consumption and waste production cannot be further sustained.

But China follows a simple logic. Rather than the flawed model that defeated so many developing countries, by integrating into the world and trading more on its own terms, all China is doing, ironically, is to emulate what worked for Britain and the US in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Now, with just 83 months to go before it is no longer “likely”, to use the IPCC definition of climate change risk, that we will stay below the critical 2 degree temperature rise, our options are limited. Rich countries have no choice but to lead by example in setting a different, less destructive model for economic success, that does not rely on endless growth in consumption. This has barely begun. They also have to realise that the hollow annual charade at meetings of the G8 or G20, which endorses greater global economic equality but then ignores the mechanics of its delivery will have to end. With relatively painless innovations like the financial transactions tax, it easily could.

We have seven years to turn things around until the end of 2016. The power of seven: the number of sins, the hills upon which Rome was built and the ages of man. Perhaps more important now is the notion of the seventh generation, to consider what will be the impact of decisions made today on seven generations hence. You could call it the “responsibility of the long now,’ an approach used by many indigenous people that forces us to connect across time to those you could not possibly know. A greater sense of history may help us negotiate more effectively with China. A greater sensitivity to the future may enable us to live better with ourselves. Happy new year, and make every month count …

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

Spending a fortune to prop up the banks but only small change on the urgent transition to a dynamic, low-carbon economy, is like building a crystal palace on sand, then shoving a few bricks under it as an afterthought for foundations.

New investment to match the Government’s rhetoric on climate change amounts to a tiny fraction of 1 per cent of the public support given to the finance sector. Such lack of ambition is counterproductive and a missed opportunity if Alistair Darling wants to pay down the public debt. As the Green New Deal Group point out in their report, The Cuts Won’t Work, productive investment in renewable energy, efficiency and green transport both pays for itself through the economic multiplier effect of spending, and ensures that more people are in work to pay taxes.

That’s without counting the additional benefits of cutting carbon emissions, increasing energy security and tackling fuel poverty. It’s odd that such basic economics is so hard for the Government and the opposition to grasp. History told us that it was when Roosevelt stopped spending three years into his New Deal that things went wrong and plunged the country back into depression. More than with the banks, the biosphere really is too big to fail and we should invest what is needed to maintain it, not small random amounts. Around £50 billion a year on a Green New Deal to create jobs and make the UK fit for a low-carbon future is needed to get us on track. The PBR prescription is more like medieval bloodletting, it is more likely to kill than cure the patient.

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

Cuts, cuts, cuts… The word is chanted in politics until we work ourselves into a frenzy. We’re transfixed by a large and growing public debt brought on by banking failure. But does it make sense, now, to cut public spending? Can we even afford to? History suggests not.

For three years after Roosevelt announced his New Deal in 1933, regulating the banks and launching a bold programme of public spending, things went well. But then he blinked. Afraid of rising debt, he cut spending – and made the depression worse. It was only later, when there was a surge of production for the war effort, that things turned around again.

Public spending creates jobs and has a positive, “multiplier” effect in the economy. There are more economically active people to pay taxes, in turn reducing the public debt. It is a false economy and counterproductive to cut in a downturn.

It’s also a schoolboy error to think that a national economy should be managed just like a personal budget. Governments can issue and manage money for a wide range of purposes, individuals can’t.

But, of course, that doesn’t just mean the government should go ahead and spend on just anything. On the contrary, some spending can do more harm than good.

It’s hard to be precise, but it’s very likely that most of the benefits from the blanket cut in VAT and the bung given to the car industry through the scrappage scheme leaked out of the UK – not to mention encouraged environmentally wasteful consumption.

Targeted spending, however, in the face of climate change and rising energy insecurity, could do an awful lot of good, creating jobs, cutting carbon and fuel poverty and helping to reduce the public debt.

A new report The Cuts Won’t Work by the Green New Deal group (of which I am a member) shows that earmarking just £10bn in “green quantitative easing” (that is, releasing more money into the economy on the condition it is spent on low-carbon initiatives) could create 60,000 long-term jobs in the energy efficiency sector (a total of 300,000 years worth of employment). The same amount could multiply by five the contribution to the UK’s electricity supply of onshore wind power.

Spending on some things creates more jobs than spending on others. Spend on public transport, housing and energy efficiency and you will create far more jobs, pound for pound, than you would if you opted for unproductive military expenditure. Cancelling the Trident replacement and spending instead on the great low-carbon transition would create 105,000 jobs according to a York University study.

So, should the chancellor implement cuts when he announces the pre-Budget report on Wednesday?

Medieval doctors used to think that the best way to cure patients of a wide range of ailments was to drain their blood. More often than not it killed them.

The government and the opposition parties all need to understand that economic bloodletting will not work. It’s far more likely to kill the ailing, carbon-addicted economy.

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

Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Nobel Peace Prize winning IPCC, and one of the contributors to Other Worlds are Possible

On the eve of the Copenhagen climate summit we seem to be poised between the possibility of new directions for the world, and meek capitulation to environmental upheaval. Dr Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says we have just months to take large-scale action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. He calls on developing countries not to try to copy western consumer lifestyles.

In an interview to be broadcast on the BBC, he adds that growth and rising GDP are an “extremely harmful” way to measure human progress. Pachauri’s determination to think about fresh solutions, from championing less meat-eating to challenging bad economics, is a lesson to commentators who affect weariness and distaste at yet another reminder of the extreme consequences of our lifestyles.

It’s a call to rise above national and sectoral interests. But it’s not easy. Point scoring in global talks often becomes more important to negotiators than preserving a planet fit for civilisation. Worse still, as the problem becomes ever clearer, a collective cultural “Am I bovvered?” seems to rise from the most materially comfortable and least likely to suffer.

But are people really saying that it’s just not worth fighting for the climatic conditions that make life both enjoyable and possible? If somebody threatened your child, what would you do? Only the sociopathic or comatose would sit by and let the people they love be threatened without acting. Yet inadequate climate action is the equivalent of inviting threats to our offspring. And in front of us there are clear but diminishing opportunities that really could solve the problem. We’re still living in the grip of a consumption explosion. Our material consumption is rising at the same time that nature’s ability to provide resources and absorb waste is weakening. Human overuse seems to be undermining available biocapacity.

The latest data on humanity’s global ecological footprint makes worrying reading. The UK’s footprint makes our level of consumption even less sustainable: it would take at least 3.4 planets for everyone to live at our level. Globally we are using resources and pumping out carbon emissions at a rate 44% faster than the biosphere can take. It now takes just under 18 months for the earth to produce the ecological services humanity uses in one year.

As Pachauri writes in the foreword to a new report, Other Worlds Are Possible: “It is crucial that we engage in fresh ways of thinking about development and sustainability.” Too often rich countries excuse their own inaction by pointing at the rising consumption of poor countries – as if that is the true problem. It’s convenient, but ignores what many other voices from the global south are saying.

Writing in the same report, the leading Indian economist Professor Jayati Ghosh takes a different view: “The presumptions and aspirations of what constitutes a civilised life will have to be modified. The model popularised by ‘the American Dream’ is perhaps the most dangerous in this context, with its emphasis on suburban residential communities far from places of work, market and entertainment and linked only through private motorised transport.” The Chilean economist Professor Manfred Max-Neef is similarly dissenting: ‘Solutions imply new models that, above all else, begin to accept the limits of the carrying capacity of the earth: moving from efficiency to sufficiency and wellbeing.”

Some of those solutions are right under our noses, according to the energy researchers Mark Z Jacobson and Mark A Delucchi. Writing in the November edition of Scientific American, they describe how, by 2030, the world could shift to a virtually zero carbon energy system. Their model is based only on existing technology that can already be applied on a large scale, and excludes nuclear power and fossil fuels. It calls for, globally, the building of 3.8m large wind turbines (wind being 25 times more carbon efficient than nuclear power), 90,000 solar plants and a combination of geothermal, tidal and rooftop solar-PV installations globally.

They admit the scheme is bold, but it follows Al Gore’s challenge for the US to abandon fossil fuel power in the next decade. In terms of the physical challenge of producing so much renewable generating capacity, they point out that the world already produces 73m cars and light trucks every year.

People forget, perhaps, the effort it took to get us hooked on oil in the first place. As Jacobson and Delucchi point out, starting in 1956 the US interstate highway system managed to build 47,000 miles of highway in just over three decades, “changing commerce and society”.

84 months and counting

Bookmark and ShareProfessor Wangari Maathai is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, founder of the Green Belt Movement and author of The Challenge for Africa.

Members of the Green Belt Movement plant trees on an eroding hillside in Kenya.

In Other Worlds are Possible, the latest report from the Working Group on Climate Change and Development, the the coalition asks how the global economy should be reshaped to enable human development in a carbon constrained future. A post-carbon society and addressing climate change mean much more than constraining carbon usage. While Africa is rich in resources, her people are poor; to counter this poverty, Africa needs to develop. For development in Africa to be successful, we need to ensure the right conditions in society that facilitate respect, equity and sustainability.

Current economic models create wealth at the expense of the environment and so we need to rethink how we develop. The current model from the industrialised countries which develops through the use of fossil fuels as the driving source of energy cannot be sustained. We must find a balance to improving our quality of life while not undermining the environment, and therefore the capacity of our species and other forms of life to continue. This can be controlled by investing in renewable sources of energy low in carbon – solar, wind, hydropower; sources of energy that will help us to develop without sacrificing the environment.

I wrote The Challenge for Africa to encourage Africans and others to think beyond the current economic model which is dependent on resources from the rest of the planet. The fact that humanity’s current use of resources is outstripping the planet’s ecological capacity should give all of us a reason to pause. It is simply not sustainable for the rest of the world to mine, log, drill, build, dam, drain and pave in a rush to achieve the standards of living of the industrialised countries, which themselves depend on massive resource extraction in the global South. In so doing, they could encourage the growth of sustainable industries that provide good employment in well-managed cities and towns – not crowded filthy slums with virtually no infrastructure that blot too many African cities and too many African lives. Africans, like citizens in other regions of the world, can also work to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and to harness renewable energy sources to industrialise in a way that provides work for the millions of Africans migrating to cities, and allows some of those currently practising subsistence agriculture to move off the land.

The challenges facing agricultural communities throughout Kenya are mirrored throughout Africa and many of the poor countries in the global South. In these regions, concern for environmental issues is treated as a luxury. But it is not: protecting and restoring ecosystems and slowing or reversing climate change are matters of life and death. The equation is simple: whatever we do, we have an impact on the environment; if we destroy it, we will undermine our own ways of life and ultimately destroy ourselves. This is why the environment needs to be at the centre of domestic and international policy and practice. If it is not, we don’t stand a chance of alleviating poverty in any significant way. Nor will we create for the African people a continent where security and progress can be realised.
For the many reasons that have been articulated, there is a real need to develop a funding mechanism that will not only help industrialised and developed countries to address climate change, but also developing ones.

As major polluters, the industrialised countries have a responsibility to deal with climate change at home, but also to assist Africa and the rest of the developing world to address climate change. They are in a position to share their technical know-how to reduce vulnerability and address adaptive capacities. Mechanisms ought to be established – quickly – to raise steady and reliable funds for the prime victims of the climate crisis, who will be poor and rural, very young, and, more often than not, female. And many of them will be African.

One way to ensure that African countries are more self-reliant and competitive is for industrialised nations to transfer technology – with a priority on green technologies – to those nations that are technologically less advanced. Industrialised countries should accept the moral duty to assist Africa and other poor regions to find alternative and renewable sources of energy – such as biomass, wind, hydropower, and solar – and enable the global south to participate in the carbon market so Africa can develop industries based on renewable energy sources. But African countries themselves should also invest in science and technology. Global investors have ploughed billions into new wind, solar, and other alternative energy initiatives. But those funds were almost wholly concentrated in the industrialised countries, along with some in China, India, and Brazil. Almost none of this investment is coming to Africa, despite the continent’s vast energy poverty and abundant sun and wind. Africa’s challenge lies in making herself a relevant beneficiary of these resources.

This is an edited extract from Wangari Maathai’s essay in Other Worlds are Possible, the sixth report from the Working Group on Climate Change and Development.


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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.