Conference calls for radical, rapid action to reduce emissions – starting now

Notes on the Radical Emission Reduction Conference in London on 10-11 Dec 2013, by David Flint, a member of Enfield Green Party.

“The conference has to be a catalyst for very rapid action” – Prof. Kevin Anderson, Tyndall Centre

I attended this conference, which was essentially an academic event. Although organised by Prof Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre it was not a climate science conference. It took the science and the threat of climate change as given and asked what we could do about it. The speakers included economists, sociologists, anthropologists, NGO experts, a French philosopher and an Irish fireman!

The agenda and abstracts can be found at Tyndall has promised to post records and slides on its website starting about December 16th. (Ed. noteHere )

The political radicalism of the conference surprised me. The keynote speaker was Naomi Klein and Caroline Lucas was on the final panel. In her speech on the first day Naomi said, roughly,

‘I thought I might stir you up by calling for revolution – but that’s already happened six times!’

Naomi Klein – Keynote address from tyndallcentre

Many speakers – there were 35 in total – stressed the need for major change in politics and behaviour and discussed the political and ideological roadblocks.

But there was good news too.

Good News

The unexpected star of the second day was Neil McCabe, a fireman from Dublin. Six years ago he started a process of general improvement and emissions reduction at his fire station.  The key points included:

  • Start-up funding from firemen
  • Reinvestment of savings in further projects
  • Construction of gardens with lots of wildlife
  • Involvement of retired firemen in gardening and maintenance.

In six years he has done 300 actions and created 20 start-ups. He has extended his approach first to the rest of the Dublin Fire Service and then to the whole Council. Inspiring stuff!

More prosaically:

  1. Prof Terry Barker told us that his economic modelling showed that radical emissions reductions were economically and technically viable.
  2. Dan Staniaszek told us that stopping climate change will have many societal benefits, especially for health.
  3. Alice Hooker-Stroud set out the energy supply scenario in Zero Carbon Britain. This relies heavily on wind and uses hydrogen and biomass (sic) at times when there is not enough wind.
  4. Prof Fred Steward told us of £1B worth of emissions reduction projects across Europe running below national level. These, he told me, were mostly projects with other principal objectives, eg public transport improvement, but which would in fact reduce emissions.
  5. Brenda Boardman told us that using LED lights would significantly reduce peak electricity demand. Lighting, she said, is about 22% of peak demand (which occurs about 5 pm on December 18th by the way).
  6. Charlie Baker told us that the technologies already exist to make major emissions savings from existing homes. He is applying them to 13 properties this year. The process need pump-priming however, and the government has undermined the schemes that might have provided it.
  7. There are examples of radical emissions reductions. Andrew Simms mentioned Cuba and Utah.
  8. Dan Calverly told us that by removing the more inefficient cars from the market we could reduce car emissions by 40% by 2022.
  9. Alice Bowes-Larkin showed us that even the most energy efficient mode of transport – shipping – could make major emissions reductions by steaming slower, adding sails and supporting a more local pattern of trade.

Bad news

Though we’ve known about the threat of climate change for over twenty years nothing effective has been done.

The 80% reduction by 2050 target may not be enough. John Barrett thinks it should be 97%. Either requires annual reductions in the range 7.5 to 10%.

Almost everyone is in denial about both the scale and pace of the changes needed. Several speakers gave lists of reasons for the inaction and denial but here’s my list:

  1. Vested interests in fossil fuel and growth oppose effective action. The worst are fuel producers, both corporate and national, energy supply companies, automobile and aerospace firms. But they also include manufacturers, retailers, media and governments who benefit from growth, ie almost all of them. These interests fund denialists and have infiltrated government.
  2. The dominance of neoliberal ideology. Since 1979 this has become more and more influential and has conquered the parties of the Left as well as the right. Neoliberals believe in the magic of the market and that government intervention must make things worse. Naomi Klein criticised North American environmental organisations for using neoliberal arguments and proposing neoliberal remedies, thus strengthening their enemies. It is neoliberalism that has inspired the WTO – an emergent world government by corporations. Even at this conference, several speakers proposed solutions, such as tradeable quotas, that rely on new markets, yet Clive Spash and Steffen Bohm told the conference that carbon markets had failed.
  3. The fact that personal inaction is rational. Personal discipline will have little effect unless it’s part of a global response but will interfere with things people enjoy such as shopping and foreign holidays.
  4. The near absence of convincing role models for low-carbon living requiring acts of imagination too difficult for most of us.

Simon Bullock discussed DECC’s Pathways model. He noted that the target, keeping below two degrees increase, could not be altered. The modelling of the supply-side is good though there is some room for improvement. But the demand-side model is ridiculously committed to growth. For instance, the lowest level of flying that can be chosen for 2050 is an 85% increase! Government cannot accept even the possibility that we may have to do less of some things.

Going forward

Naomi Klein urged us to challenge vested interests and neoliberal ideology.

Rebecca Willis urged us to use people that MPs respect when trying to persuade them.

Everyone agreed that vigorous early action would be needed and that this would not happen without strong public pressure.

And Finally

Philosopher Nicole de Bouvrie declared that she ‘did not believe in physical reality’. Who let her in I do not know! A fellow philosopher spoke afterwards ‘to prevent philosophy coming into disrepute’.

Quotes to remember

“Of the 1 m Hurricane Sandy storm surge 20 cm was due to global warming”. Corrine Le Quere

“We are [energy] addicts … [and] shale gas is our methadone.”  Kevin Anderson

“Global recession is the only thing shown to reduce global emissions – and that only briefly.” John Barrett

“Roosevelt showed that government CAN tame finance.” Andrew Simms

“We must shred the neoliberal ideology”. Naomi Klein

“Our ideas are popular but not powerful.” Naomi Klein

“In primitive societies people see the rich as thieves. We see things differently. The peasants are right!” Richard Wilk

“A science-based response to the climate threat is our best lever to achieve economic justice.” Naomi Klein

“On average men and women have similar carbon footprints but men’s is dominated by recreational travel and women’s by energy-using domestic work.” Angela Druckman

(Updated 18 Dec with links to Conference videos and Naomi Klein keynote speech video)

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