The Ethical Dilemma of Dairy Consumption – why buying organic is important

Cow

There are two main issues. The first is animal welfare and the second is environmental sustainability.

1) Animal Welfare

Let’s start with animal welfare, as there’s no question that the dairy industry, under the current system of mostly intensive factory farming, is cruel. There is one statistic that tells this story better than any other. Cows, if left to their own devices are said to live, on average, to be 20 years old, but industrial dairy cows live a mere 4 or 5 years.  Ethical Consumer explains why:

“To enable a constant supply of milk cows are usually artificially inseminated two to three months after they have given birth and are required to nurture a growing calf inside while simultaneously producing milk. This routine inevitably takes its toll, and many cows are slaughtered in the UK, physically exhausted, before their fifth birthdays.”

Is organic certified any better?

The Soil Association, which is responsible for organic certification in the UK, provides a guarantee of the highest levels of animal welfare standards available. Josh Stride from the Soil Association explains:

“As well as requiring that animals are genuinely free range, organic standards cover living conditions, food quality, the routine use of antibiotics and hormones, as well as transport and slaughter…”

The Soil Association say that in general all organic farm animals must:

  • have access to fields (when weather and ground conditions permit);
  • have plenty of space (indoors and outdoors);
  • be fed on a diet as natural as possible and free from genetically modified organisms (GMOs);
  • not be routinely given antibiotics to treat illness;
  • not be given hormones to encourage growth or productivity.

When looking at dairy cows in particular, there are several specific standards of note:

  • dairy cows must spend the majority of their lives outdoors and when they are brought indoors during bad weather they must have appropriate bedding and space
  • they must be fed a minimum of 60 per cent forage at all times and whatever the balance of forage or concentrate (soya or corn) it must be 100 per cent organic.

However, Juliet Gellatley from the vegetarian and vegan campaign group Viva! explains how problems inherent in the dairy industry still exist under organic and other certification schemes:

“Cows on organic farms may still be impregnated every year to provide a continuous supply of milk and may endure the trauma of having their calves taken away within 24-72 hours of birth. They may also carry the dual load of pregnancy and lactation for seven months of every year, just like those on conventional farms. These two welfare insults are inherent in dairy production and cannot be eliminated.”

Josh Stride from the Soil Association continues:

“A key difference between organic and non-organic dairy systems is in how calves are treated. Under organic standards, the feeding of calves must be based on natural milk, preferably maternal milk, for a minimum of three months. A calf may only be weaned when it is taking adequate solid food to cater for its full nutritional requirements…

Because the typical high milk-yielding breed of black and white cows (Holstein-Fresian) cannot be reared for high quality meat production, it is common practice for male dairy calves to be killed at birth or exported to the continent for veal production. Soil Association standards have never allowed the sale of calves to continental-style veal systems, and since 2010 our standards have specified that farmers must have a plan to avoid the culling of newborn calves. Options for organic farmers include raising native breeds such as a Red Poll or Shorthorn that have been bred for both milk and meat, or raising male calves for organic ‘rose’ veal – a robust, mature meat, pink in colour and aged for flavour. Male calves raised for this veal enjoy plenty of space and light inside suitable buildings over winter and outside at pasture for the rest of the year, a varied diet, and the care of a foster cow when available.”

Still confused?

I think we have to accept that there are still some animal welfare issues even with organic animal agriculture, but as long as I’m buying organic milk, I can live with myself in terms of the animal welfare issues – just. OK the animals may still suffer a hard life, but it’s debatable whether the animal knows this. A cow is not a particularly sentient being (like a primate, whale or dolphin) and has nothing to compare it to. Under the organic certified system, I think animal welfare is pretty good.

Where I struggle is when cruelty to animals can be avoided. That’s where non-organic milk to my mind is unacceptable. Quite simply, I think the soil association minimum standards should be the legal minimum standards.

2) Environmental Impacts of Dairy Production

A report by The Organic Center in 2010 summarised how dairy farm operations impact the environment as follows:

  1. Through the management and disposal of manure;
  2. The emission and sequestration of greenhouse gases – especially methane and nitrous oxide; and
  3. Through the impacts of feed crop production including soil erosion and energy, fertilizer, and pesticide use.

Organic farming can negate the issues caused by fertilizer and pesticide use and minimize soil erosion.

“In general, dairy farming, and especially organic and other forage-based dairy operations, is not a significant contributor to national or regional soil loss because of reliance on pasture and forage crops that dramatically reduce average erosion rates in most farming systems. ” – The Organic Center, Critical Issue Report: A Dairy Farm’s Footprint, 2010

However,  the management and disposal of manure, GHG emissions and energy use are still concerns, along with land use as a whole.

Management and Disposal of Manure

Where there are animals, there is animal waste, and as the growth of industrial farming concentrates thousands of animals on increasingly fewer farms, it produces massive amounts of animal waste on relatively small plots of land. When too much waste is produced in one place, there’s no safe, cost-effective way to either use it productively or dispose of it. Government regulation and better waste management practices can make a difference and should be encouraged for existing farms, but the problem of livestock waste will never end so long as we rely on concentrated industrial farms to produce our food.

What is the answer? If you want to continue adding milk to your hot drinks and breakfast cereal, then use your consumer power wisely. Try and buy from small, local, organic certified farms so that too much waste is not produced in one place.

GHG Emissions

Dairy production has a considerable effect on climate change due to emissions of greenhouse gases such as methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide, but there are ways to reduce emissions as outlined in this government paper.

Ultimately, it’s unrealistic to expect the world’s population to adopt a vegan diet and so the best way to tackle this issue is to reduce our dairy consumption as much as we can, reduce emissions on farms as much as possible through gradually increasing and improving regulation over the coming decades and then finally, offset the remainder through planned land use to create sufficient carbon sinks on farm land to ensure all farms are net zero emissions by some time in the second half of the century.

Land Use

Back in 2007, Cornell University researchers determined that a diet for a small planet may be most efficient if it includes dairy and a little meat.

The reason is that fruits, vegetables and grains must be grown on high-quality agricultural land, whereas meat and dairy products from ruminant animals are supported by lower quality, but more widely available, land that can support pasture and hay. A large pool of such land is available because for sustainable use, most farmland requires a crop rotation with such perennial crops as pasture and hay.

Thus, although vegetarian diets may require less land per person, they use more high-valued land.

“It appears that while meat increases land-use requirements, diets including modest amounts of meat can feed more people than some higher fat vegetarian diets,” said Peters, lead author of the study.

Conclusion

Whilst those who adopt an exclusively vegetarian or vegan diet should be applauded and encouraged, it’s unrealistic to expect everybody to go down this route. Furthermore, we wouldn’t necessarily want that to happen if we are to make the best use of the world’s available land.

What is clear though is that meat and dairy consumption needs to be reduced significantly. I enjoy meat and dairy and don’t want to give them up completely, but I’ve got used to and now enjoy a largely vegetarian diet. I eat meat less than once a week (closer to once a month) and when I do I avoid beef and lamb altogether given the high level of GHG emissions associated with them. I keep my dairy consumption as low as I can, but I still use a little milk and I can’t give up quality eggs, cheese and butter – I enjoy them too much! But, and this is important, I will only buy organic dairy produce. In fact, I’ve got to the point now where I would rather do without if it’s not organic. When I do occasionally buy meat, I also look for organic and occasionally even wild meant like venison.

The mantra is simple: Cut down on meat and dairy where you can, buy organic, locally produced where possible and with minimum packaging. The overall cost of buying organic can be offset by the reduced cost of buying much less meat just as the cost of organic fruit and veg can be cheaper than buying processed foods.

And I’m sure, the quality and healthiness of food you consume will be far better.

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Flexitarians for a safer climate

Flexitarians for a safer climate

Make Wealth History

I tend to avoid portmanteau words as much as I can, but today I’m going to break my usual rules and write about flexitarianism.

A flexitarian, in case you haven’t encountered the word, is someone who is mostly vegetarian. It could apply to someone who eats almost entirely vegetarian but breaks their rules a few times a year at barbecues. Or it could be someone who eats meat two days out of three. So it’s a broad church and not the most precise of words. Nevertheless, it represents one of the most promising opportunities on the table when it comes to reducing the risk of dangerous climate change:

“Reduction in meat consumption to a healthy dietary intake, that is flexitarianism, offers an immediate, accessible and effective opportunity to mitigate climate change and its negative impacts. There is overwhelming evidence that shows the most valuable, meaningful, fast and inexpensive action that…

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The case for a net zero climate change target – Write to your MP

In my recent blog I urged people to write to their MPs and ask them in turn to write to Ed Miliband offering their support for his campaign (and sharing any response they get). If you are so inclined, here is a copy I drafted and sent:

Dear xxxx xxxx MP,

As one of your constituents, I am writing to ask you to add your support to Ed Miliband’s campaign to amend the 2015 Energy Bill to include a commitment to set a date by when the UK will achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

The proposed fifth carbon budget’s 57% cut in emissions by 2032 was laid out before Paris by the CCC and has yet to be legislated on. In a letter last week to energy and climate change secretary, Amber Rudd, the CCC said that: “…the pledged contributions by the EU and others have not yet changed. On that basis we repeat our recommendation that the fifth carbon budget be legislated at 1,765 MtCO2.” This is very disappointing as we’re failing to increase our ambition in light of the Paris climate deal. Whilst we could take aim at the CCC for the advice given, as some campaigners have done, the fact of the matter is they are working to legislation that is now, quite frankly, out of date.

Ed Miliband wrote in the Guardian last November, even before the Paris summit had begun, conveying what the science was already telling us; that we would need to go further with our emissions targets to achieve net-zero emissions at some point in the second half of this century. The Paris Agreement has subsequently quite rightly acknowledged the very same thing.  

The net-zero emissions goal is crucial and already many cities and companies are adopting this goal. As Ed Miliband pointed out: “…the right step now would be for Britain to become the first major country to enshrine net zero emissions in law, with the date determined by advice from the independent Committee on Climate Change.” He went on to say that that this “would show our determination to face up to this existential challenge. It will provide an essential framework for business and government so that we make the right decisions now on key energy and infrastructure issues. And it will inspire the inventors, engineers and businesses that can deliver on this challenge.”

From Ed Miliband’s conversations with people across the House of Commons, including the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Caroline Lucas of the Greens and Conservatives such as Nick Hurd and Graham Stuart (chair of Globe, the international parliamentarians group on climate change), it is clear there is cross-party support. Does that include you?

Mr Miliband finished with this: “Paris must be the start of a journey of the whole world towards this goal. And far from this commitment holding Britain back, we can be a leader again on climate change. Leadership which does not mean harm to our economy, but will put us ahead in the race for the new jobs, businesses and advantages of this new world. I hope the government will support this initiative. We can build an alliance, put aside our party differences as we have before, and seize this moment.”

The Industrial Revolution that began in the North West of England ultimately transformed society into the fossil fuel dependent society we have become. It is right therefore that we also led the world in taking action to reduce emissions by becoming the first country to legislate for deep, long-term cuts (The 2008 Climate Change Act) and it is essential that we continue this leadership and remain on track by introducing updated legislation and making the right decision about the period to 2032, which the government now faces.  

As I am sure you are aware, the Energy Bill is currently passing through parliament. This Bill is a public bill presented to Parliament by the Government and passed its second reading on 18 January 2016 without a vote. Ed Miliband spoke during the Energy Bill debate, making the case for putting zero emissions into UK law. The next stage is committee stage when MPs consider the Bill line by line.

The Public Bill Committee is to conclude by Tuesday 9 February 2016 but it may finish earlier. Can you please write to Ed Miliband and the members of the committee to offer your support for his campaign and efforts to include an amendment to the Energy Bill. I would also be grateful if you would provide me with a copy of your letter and any response you get.

Looking back again at the history of the the first Climate Change Act, shortly after the 2005 general election, 412 of the 646 Members of Parliament signed an early day motion calling for a Climate Change Bill to be introduced. Only three other early day motions had ever been signed by more than 400 MPs. On 8 June 2008, following the Second Reading of the Bill, only five members of the House of Commons voted against it. I think this can be done, we just need to build the political will. Please can you add your political support to this important change in legislation.

Thank you for taking the time to read my email.

Yours Sincerely,

Name

Full address including post code

Further Reading:

 

  • In January, a report was commissioned by Sandbag to explore why the UK, in the light of the Paris Agreement, could consider an additional ‘net zero emissions’ long-term goal.
  • Sandbag have also recently blogged about the inclusion of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) provisions, added to the Energy Bill in it’s initial passing through the Lords

 

 

The case for a net zero climate change target

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The Paris agreement now necessitates an increase in our long term climate target to 100%. Or, in other words, we now need to set a ‘net zero’ emissions target.

“The House of Commons should amend the 2015 Energy Bill to include a commitment to set a date by when the UK will achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions. The Climate Change Committee (CCC) should then be asked to advise on what the date for the target should be, with that date then set in secondary legislation.” – Sandbag, ‘The case for a net zero climate change target”, 2015

Paris was the first truly global effort to reduce emissions. It lays the foundations for increasing international action and aims to hold the increase in global temperature to well below 2C above pre-industrial levels, to pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5C and to reach net-zero global emissions of greenhouse gases in the second half of the century.

This is more ambitious than the basis of the UK’s current statutory target for 2050, which is to reduce emissions to 80% and was based on the previous aim to hold the temperature rise close to 2C.

The Climate Change Act 2008

The UK signed up to the Kyoto Protocol in 1995 and The Climate Change Act was passed in 2008 to establish a framework to develop an economically credible emissions reduction path in line with that agreement. In doing so the UK showed leadership internationally by committing into law the action we would take in tackling climate change.

The Climate Change Act included a requirement on the Government to set legally binding ‘carbon budgets’ – a cap on the amount of greenhouse gases emitted in the UK over a five-year period.

CCC_website_logoThe Committee on Climate Change (CCC) was set up to advise the Government on the carbon budgets and report to Parliament on progress made in reducing emissions. 

The first four carbon budgets have been put into legislation and run up to 2027. The proposed fifth carbon budget’s 57% cut in emissions by 2032 was laid out before Paris by the committee, and has yet to be legislated on. In a letter yesterday to energy and climate change secretary, Amber Rudd, the CCC said that:

“…the pledged contributions by the EU and others have not yet changed. On that basis we repeat our recommendation that the fifth carbon budget be legislated at 1,765 MtCO2.”

This is of course very disappointing as we’re failing to increase the ambition in light of the Paris climate deal. Whilst we could take aim at the CCC for the advice given, as some campaigners have done, the fact of the matter is they are working to legislation that is now, quite frankly, out of date.

What should this mean for the UK?

Palace_of_Westminster,_London_-_Feb_2007

Ed Miliband has the answer. The former Secretary for Energy and Climate Change, and more recently Labour Leader, wrote in the Guardian last November, even before the Paris summit had begun, conveying what the science was already telling us; that we would need to go further with our emissions targets to achieve net-zero emissions at some point in the second half of this century. The Paris Agreement has subsequently quite rightly acknowledged the very same thing.  

Initially, this means switching to 100% clean energy by 2050 and making our energy system more efficient and productive. It’s also about putting in place the right infrastructure – buildings and transport. Further down the line we will need to make more savings in emissions in more difficult ways and it will mean cancelling out any residual emissions from agriculture and industry by capturing carbon from the atmosphere through new technology and/or biological means – creating carbon sinks through reforestation and sequestration in the soil.

The net-zero emissions goal is crucial and already many cities and companies are adopting this goal. As Ed Miliband pointed out:

“…the right step now would be for Britain to become the first major country to enshrine net zero emissions in law, with the date determined by advice from the independent Committee on Climate Change.

He went on to say that that this:

“…would show our determination to face up to this existential challenge. It will provide an essential framework for business and government so that we make the right decisions now on key energy and infrastructure issues. And it will inspire the inventors, engineers and businesses that can deliver on this challenge.”

From Ed Miliband’s conversations with people across the House of Commons, including the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Caroline Lucas of the Greens and Conservatives such as Nick Hurd and Graham Stuart (chair of Globe, the international parliamentarians group on climate change), it is clear there is cross-party support.

Mr Miliband finished with this:

“Paris must be the start of a journey of the whole world towards this goal. And far from this commitment holding Britain back, we can be a leader again on climate change. Leadership which does not mean harm to our economy, but will put us ahead in the race for the new jobs, businesses and advantages of this new world. I hope the government will support this initiative. We can build an alliance, put aside our party differences as we have before, and seize this moment.”

Conclusion

Now that COP21 in Paris is over, we know the direction of travel, and attention is turning to the hard work of getting there. To use an analogy put forward by Anthony Hobley, CEO of Carbon Tracker at the Hub Eco Series event I attended last night at Impact Hub King’s Cross, it’s like we now have planning permission to build a house, but now we have got to get on and build it.

Before we start laying those foundations and building that house, we need to go back to the architect and make sure everybody’s got a copy of the plans. Paris was an amazing achievement, but it’s a global deal that is underpinned by individual countries all doing their bit to to achieve the same goals. The UK took the lead in producing GHG emissions in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Industrial Revolution that began in the North West of England ultimately transformed society into the fossil fuel dependent society we have become.

It is right therefore that we also led the world in taking action to reduce emissions by becoming the first country to legislate for deep, long-term cuts and it is essential that we continue this leadership and remain on track by introducing updated legislation and making the right decision about the period to 2032, which the government now faces.  

Taking Action:

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The Energy Bill is currently passing through parliament. This Bill is a public bill presented to Parliament by the Government and passed its second reading on 18 January 2016 without a vote. Ed spoke during the Energy Bill debate, making the case for putting zero emissions into UK law. The next stage is committee stage when MPs consider the Bill line by line.

The Public Bill Committee is to conclude by Tuesday 9 February 2016 but it may finish earlier. Check here to see if your MP is on the committee.

The best thing we can do now is write to our MPs (especially if they are on the committee) and ask them to write to Ed Miliband to offer their support for his campaign and his efforts to include an amendment to the Energy Bill (providing us with a copy of their letter and any response they get).

Looking further ahead, if an amendment to the Energy Bill is not achieved, then perhaps we need to look to history for how we improve current legislation. The 2008 Climate Change Bill was preceded by a Private Member’s Bill of the same name drafted by Friends of the Earth and brought before Parliament on 7 April 2005. Would FoE be willing to draft an amended 2016 Climate Change Bill based on the Paris Agreement?

A Private Member’s Bill needs a sponsor, who can be any member of parliament (Miliband, Nandy, or Caroline Lucas for example, though it might gain more traction if it came from one of the two Conservatives mentioned – Nick Hurd or Graham Stuart). 

Looking back again at the history of the the first Climate Change Act, shortly after the 2005 general election, 412 of the 646 Members of Parliament signed an early day motion calling for a Climate Change Bill to be introduced. Only three other early day motions had ever been signed by more than 400 MPs. On 8 June 2008, following the Second Reading of the Bill, only five members of the House of Commons voted against it.

I think this can be done, we just need to build the political will.

Let’s start today by writing to our MPs and asking them to write to Ed Miliband with their support (providing you with a copy too). If you do write, please let me know the outcome. 

Further Reading:

In January, a report was commissioned by Sandbag to explore why the UK, in the light of the Paris Agreement, could consider an additional ‘net zero emissions’ long-term goal.

Sandbag have also recently blogged about the inclusion of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) provisions, added to the Energy Bill in it’s initial passing through the Lords.

 

The Paris summit was a success because the world is now left in no doubt that a low-carbon planet is an inevitability

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A climate change activist in Paris following the announcement of the Paris Agreement, showing her love for the planet.

It’s not perfect, we know that. It’s built on voluntary pledges, which at present are woefully insufficient to get us anywhere near a limit of 2°C, never mind the aspirational 1.5°C. Also, as George Monbiot points out in his typically cynical analysis on Saturday: “While earlier drafts specified dates and percentages, the final text stated only to ‘reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible’.”

But it’s a solid foundation on which we can build. As Ban Ki Moon said: “The current level of ambition is the floor and not the ceiling”.

The reference to a 1.5°C goal demonstrates the unexpected power and influence of the vulnerable countries in rooting the agreement in the realities they face. Even Monbiot conceded that the “aspirational limit of 1.5°C of global warming, after the rejection of this demand for so many years, can be seen within this frame as a resounding victory. In this respect and others, the final text is stronger than most people anticipated.”

Transparency

The common transparency and rules that provide trust between countries have been outlined, but need more work. Although this reporting issue – the need to shine a light on what governments are doing – might, to an extent, be taken out of the hands of governments, because private groups like Climate Tracker and the World Resources Institute are doing their own calculations and increasingly governments have nowhere to hide.

John Niles teaches greenhouse gas accounting at the not-for-profit Greenhouse Gas Management Institute. In Paris he launched an international partnership with similar trainers around the world called the Carbon Institute. They’ll educate a generation of greenhouse gas accountants who can do the work in every country the Paris agreement demands. And if countries can’t or don’t report properly, or try to hide what they are really doing, Niles says the same accounting skills can reveal the truth anyway“Of course we can check on governments,” he says. “Satellites can check CO2 in the atmosphere … they can measure the size of a forest and take multidimensional pictures … they can create a pretty good picture of what a country is doing,” he says.

Climate Finance

In addition, there is a framework for new finance, providing poor countries with access to investment needed to leap-frog dirty energy and accelerate access to renewable energy as well as funding to adapt to the impacts. Rich countries have promised that by 2025 they will set a new goal for climate finance “from a floor of $100bn per year”, the figure first pledged at the Copenhagen climate talks six years ago. However, the commitment was offered as a non-binding decision that accompanied the binding text.

Finally, the agreement includes efforts to address the impacts of climate change and deal with irreversible damages. This was a big concession made by the US in the end and should be applauded. This ought to mark a turning point in how the international community prepares for and responds to extreme weather events.

The Long Term Goal

Crucially, the Paris Agreement contains a clear and science-based long-term goal. This is given teeth by a mechanism that ramps up ambition every 5 years, starting in 2018. These 5-yearly reviews are the only real teeth the agreement has, because the targets themselves have to sit outside the legally binding part of the document (so the deal doesn’t have to go to the US Congress where it would inevitably be scuppered). Also, any failure in terms of the implementation of emissions reductions won’t lead to any sanctions. Instead, the whole idea is that peer pressure holds countries to account and builds the trust that would hopefully lead them to agree to deeper cuts over time.

Far from ideal of course, but there is no doubt the the Agreement sends a strong signal to business and investors that there is only one direction of travel. It makes clear that developed countries should continue to lead, but shows that the world is acting together. There is the sense that we now all share a common direction, but with an acceptance that countries will travel at different speeds.

The long-term goal itself is ‘to reach a balance between anthropogenic emissions by sources and removals by sinks of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the second half of the century.’  This effectively means net zero GHG emissions, whereby anthropogenic (human-caused) GHG emissions will be reduced to the maximum amount possible whilst simultaneously driving towards the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere until such at time that emissions are low enough to be absorbed by carbon sinks (for example, creating carbon sinks through reforestation programmes).

This is way beyond expectations. Personally, I would have liked to have seen an interim goal of net zero carbon emissions by mid-century written into the agreement (in line with the Avaaz campaign for 100% clean that I’ve been actively involved in), but this longer term goal that has been adopted covers all GHG emissions and is consistent with protecting the planet from dangerous global warming.

In any case, by also including an ambitious temperature goal (limiting warming well below 2°C and trying to limit to 1.5°C), we can infer certain other goals. For example, scientists have established the following:

To have a likely chance of limiting warming to below 2°C:

  • Carbon dioxide emissions will have to drop to net zero between 2060 and 2075 (80% clean energy by 2050 compared to the current level of 30%)
  • Total GHG emissions need to decline to net zero between 2080 and 2090

For a likely chance of limiting warming to below 1.5°C:

  • Carbon dioxide emissions have to drop to net zero between 2045 and 2050 (100% clean energy by 2050)
  • Total GHG emissions need to decline to net zero between 2060 and 2080

So fossil-fuel-based electricity generation without CCS will need to be phased out by mid-century if we are to limit temperature rises to 1.5°C. Transformation of other sectors and enhanced carbon storage like that achieved by increased landscape restoration will also be required to offset other emissions, especially if removals are to be maximized.

Keep them in the ground

By way of further criticism, Mombiot claims that the “UN climate process has focused entirely on the consumption of fossil fuels, while ignoring their production.” He alleges  that “delegates have solemnly agreed to cut demand (by focussing on reducing emissions from burning fossil fuels, rather than keeping them in the ground in the first place), whilst at home still seeking to “maximise supply.” His prime example of course being the UK government’s legal obligation, put upon itself under the Infrastructure Act 2015, to “maximise economic recovery” of the UK’s oil and gas.

Mombiot’s point being that until governments “undertake to keep fossil fuels in the ground, they will continue to undermine the agreement they have just made.”

He’s right of course. The role of government in the modern economy is to set long-term goals and then put the right policies in place to give the market the steer it needs. Something the UK Government is failing to do with its proposals to review – and essentially bring to an end – support for rooftop solar through the Feed-in-Tariff (FiT).

To my mind, governments will have a choice now. They can either lead the way or be dragged along. Either way, we can now expect a significant shift away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy. As Paul Polman, CEO of Unilever puts it:

“The consequences of this agreement go far beyond the actions of governments. They will be felt in banks, stock exchanges, board rooms and research centres as the world absorbs the fact that we are embarking on an unprecedented project to decarbonise the global economy. This realisation will unlock trillions of dollars and the immense creativity and innovation of the private sector who will rise to the challenge in a way that will avert the worst effects of climate change.”

Even the UK’s main business lobby group, the CBI, is calling on the UK Government to review it’s policies. Director-general, Carolyn Fairbairn, said the agreement “heralds an exciting opportunity for business” and called on the UK Government to do more to back clean technology:

“Businesses will want to see domestic policies that demonstrate commitment to this goal and none more so than in the UK”

As Simon Howard, chief executive of the UK Sustainable Investment and Finance Association said:

“This is a better than expected deal which is really encouraging. It shows the world united, committed to beating climate change. The need now is for Governments and regulators to set consistent long-term policies on which investors can rely.”

Putting a price on carbon

One way in which governments can give businesses and investors the policy certainty they crave, is to put a price on carbon. The World Bank Group, business groups, and investors have called on governments and corporations around the world to support carbon pricing to bring down emissions and drive investment into cleaner options. Euan Munro, CEO at Aviva Investors said:

“The outcome of COP 21 is a significant step forward. There is increasing recognition among policymakers of the huge financial losses that climate change will cause. We now need real action by each country to cut emissions domestically and establish a material price for carbon. The UK government, for example, must move quickly to provide a credible plan for meeting its carbon targets.”

Picking up the pace

Bill Mckibben, writing in the Guardian following the conclusion of the Paris Agreement, believes that ‘pace’ is now the key word:

“Pace – velocity, speed, rate, momentum, tempo. That’s what matters from here on in. We know where we’re going now; no one can doubt that the fossil fuel age has finally begun to wane, and that the sun is now shining on, well, solar. But the question, the only important question, is: how fast.”

For him, that means no more drilling or mining in new areas, the Arctic will now have to be completely off limits, as will the Powder River Basin of Montana and Wyoming, the pre-salt formations off Brazil, and the oil off the coasts of north America. According to McKibben, we’ve got to “stop fracking right away (in fact, that may be the greatest imperative of all, since methane gas does its climate damage so fast)….The huge subsidies doled out to fossil fuel have to end yesterday, and the huge subsidies to renewable energy had better begin tomorrow. You have to raise the price of carbon steeply and quickly, so everyone gets a clear signal to get off of it.

“At the moment the world has no real plan to do any of those things. It continues to pretend that merely setting the goal has been work enough for the last two decades….Its governments are still listening mostly to the fossil fuel industry…”

Bill McKibben highlights a good case in point when he says that the Obama administration, even as it negotiated the new climate agreement, has been flirting with lifting a longstanding ban on oil exports, which would be the equivalent of “opening a hundred-odd new coal-fired power plants and operating them for a year.”

McKibben uses an analogy of governments as novice marathon runners who have now set themselves a goal to run a super-fast marathon and for the next few years, the  job of climate activists will be act as their personal trainers; to “yell and scream at governments everywhere to get up off the couch, to put down the chips, to run faster faster faster.”

 

We’ve had our say. Now it is up to world leaders to deliver

We’ve had our say. Now it is up to world leaders to deliver

After attending the London Climate March yesterday, it was good to hear this morning that the UK prime minister is seeking legally binding emissions targets at the Paris conference, along with help for poorer countries.

I was lucky enough to be at the front of the London Climate March, leading the way and leading the chants, along with around 50,000 other climate change campaigners in London, who were all demanding a strong global deal on climate action at the Paris conference, which opened today. 785,000 people marched worldwide – a record number overall and a record-breaking number in 20 of the cities that took part.

The People's March for Climate, Justice and Jobs – London. 29/11/15.
London, UK. 29/11/15. Tens of thousands march through central London ahead of the Paris Climate Conference. (© Rob Pinney / Avaaz)

COP21, as the conference is known, is seen as a make-or-break conference. The last chance for the two-decades-old UN process to bring nations together to tackle what many scientists regard as the biggest single threat to humanity. Nearly 150 heads of state and government officials from  countries around the world will attend the two-week talks, which are seen as crucial if we are to stand any chance of controlling greenhouse gas emissions before it’s too late.

Countries are aiming to agree on financial support to help poor nations to cut emissions and cope with the effects of extreme weather. They also hope to set targets on limiting global emissions that would come into effect from 2020, when current commitments run out.

Legal Framework

Nobody really believes that a plan will be put in place that will lead to a world of zero emissions or one that will limit global warming to within the so-called danger level of 2C. As such, whatever happens, many will condemn the process as a failure. What is really important though, is that leaders agree a robust legal framework that will ensure that targets are improved upon on a stepped basis, as technology develops.

As the UN General Secretary pointed out in his opening speech today, the agreement must be lasting and must not need continually renegotiating. It must be a credible starting point, with a mechanism that includes five year review cycles at the very least. Crucially though, it must balance responsibilities of developed and developing countries.

The UK’s Climate Change Act is a strong domestic framework to deal with emissions and we need to see a similarly robust system at the international level.

Climate Aid

Developed countries must also keep their promise of delivering $100bn of climate aid per year to poorer countries by 2020. Ban Ki-moon has correctly called for the climate deal to include a framework for monitoring those financial flows. This money will go to helping countries adapt and strengthen their infrastructure to cope with the effects of extreme weather.

Will the climate negotiations succeed?

Elements of an agreement are slowly falling into place. Almost every country in the world, including all the biggest economies, have submitted their individual plans on how they will reduce emissions from 2020 onwards, when current comitments expire. The US and China, the two biggest emitters, made a joint announcement on their emissions, for the first time, in a marked show of unity.

They must do better than the last big summit in Copenhagen in 2009 when all that was achieved was a “political declaration”. Whilst major developed and developing countries jointly agreed emissions targets for the first time, it fell short of the formal treaty that many had hoped for.

Many things are expected to be different this time. At Copenhagen, the text of a potential deal was too unwieldy to produce a formal treaty. Whereas the text for Paris has been slimmed down to just over 20 pages, which will hopefully make it possible to get it signed off in the two weeks of the talks.

Most of the world’s biggest economies have now publicly declared they want a deal. However, at the UN talks, small and desperately poor countries have just as much say as the richest. They may not be so happy to oblige if they don’t feel they are getting fair treatment. It’s all to play for. For now, all we can do is hope.

A global shift to 100% renewables is within sight

A year ago I started campaigning for Manchester to commit to become 100% clean by 2050. A growing number of cities, regions and even countries were committing to such a transition and I hoped the new ‘Northern Powerhouse’ could be one of them. I still do…

To meet the internationally agreed climate goal to limit global warming to below 2°C, the science is clear: take carbon emissions to zero by roughly 2070 which means you need 100% clean energy by 2050.   

At the Climate Summit in New York last September, the task given by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon was simple. Heads of States had to promise the delivery of a global action plan by 2015 and this needed to target a fully decarbonised energy sector based on 100% renewable energy by 2050. That means no new carbon put into the air by the way we power our lives. Homes, transport and businesses – everything needs to be powered by clean, renewable energy.

Is this possible? Yes. Remember we have 35 years to get there. Think of all the technology we have now that didn’t exist 35 years ago: computers, the internet, smartphones etc. We can create even more solutions that we haven’t even thought of yet.

The EU has said it will push for at least 27% of the EU’s energy to come from renewables by 2030, but that’s not enough. The G7 have said they will commit to ‘strive’ towards transformation of the energy sector by 2050, but this is too loose. We can do so much better than this when you look at the progress made already.

Since the Copenhagen climate summit 6 years ago…

In the last six years since that now infamous and disastrous Copenhagen climate summit there has been a huge amount of investment in renewable energy, spectacular growth in the amount of solar and wind generated power, with renewables now the world’s second largest source of electricity. The prospect of a renewably-powered future is now much more tangible.

In 2009, there was 1,223GW of renewable power capacity installed globally (including hydro and traditional biomass), according to REN21, a thinktank. By 2014 that had risen 28% to 1,560GW, equivalent to 780 average sized (2GW) coal power plants. That’s in just 6 years.

2013 was the first year that more renewable capacity was built than fossil and nuclear combined: 56% of the electricity generating capacity built in 2013 was renewable.

China increased the amount of renewable power it generated by more than three times as much as the rest of the world put together in 2014.

Investment in renewables grew significantly in the years following Copenhagen, according to figures from BNEF. $196Bn was invested in 2009. In 2013 it stood at $254Bn, a 30% increase.

The growth of wind and solar power has consistently outstripped projections from the influential International Energy Agency. Renewables have even grown faster than predicted by Greenpeace.

Wind Power

Global wind power capacity more than doubled between 2009 and 2014. By 2014 China had installed more than four times the wind generating power it had in 2009. India doubled its wind capacity in the same five years.

Solar Power

Global solar capacity saw even faster growth between 2009 and 2014 – growing by 91% in 2010 alone. In 2014 China had achieved a staggering 94-fold increase in solar capacity since 2009. Solar capacity grew 15-fold in the United States between 2009 and 2014, with a third of that installed in 2013/2014 alone.

And now?

The latest figures on renewable energy trends from the UN Environment Programme (Unep) reveal a striking turnaround after a period in which low oil prices and policy uncertainty pushed investment down, threatening the sector. Even though oil prices remain low, world investment, largely in solar and wind, went up by 17% to $270bn last year, reversing a two-year dip. The new generating capacity that represents is about the same as the total output of the current US nuclear system.

The cost of renewable electricity has fallen rapidly over the past six years, particularly for solar power, where cost reductions have been dramatic and unexpected. IRENA says solar PV module costs have fallen 75% since the end of 2009 and the cost of electricity from utility-scale solar PV by 50% since 2010.

Of course it’s tough for politicians trained to look only to the next election cycle, but we are starting to see progress. At least 16 cities already have 100% targets. Copenhagen, San Francisco, Munich and Frankfurt were the first to commit to going 100 % Clean – Copenhagen even a lot earlier: by 2030!

Costa Rica may have relied on its very particular topography to have its energy system powered 100% by renewable energy in 2015, but it is symbolically powerful and Costa Ricans are enjoying falling energy prices. Also, the best energy systems should always be locally tailored.

Under very different circumstances, the district of Rhein-Hunsrück in the industrial giant of Germany achieved 100% renewable status and exports surplus clean energy to the grid. The €290m (£213m) it used to spend on importing energy is being turned into value for the local community by an energy system based on efficiency and local, renewable sources.

One in four UK homes now benefits from wind power, a rise of 15% on last year, and Scotland is generating enough clean energy to be used in 98% of its homes.

Solar entrepreneur Jeremy Leggett argues in his forthcoming book, The Winning of the Carbon War, that three mostly independent dynamics are at play driving the change. Firstly, the numbers no longer add up in the old fossil fuel model. The costs of new acquisitions become unmanageable in a system that feasts on debt. Secondly, costs in solar and the vital link of a green energy system, battery storage, are plummeting while the sector offers attractive, reliable rates of return to investors. The Swiss bank UBS famously predicted the rapid “extinction” of the old fossil fuel system as battery costs as much as halve over the next five years.

And, finally, there is movement internationally on climate policy. “We are now in danger of winning the carbon war,” says Leggett. ”Would I like to be running an oil company now? Defending their case is becoming untenable.”

Here are three recently reported examples of how local economies can be strengthened by transitioning to 100% renewable energy:

Frankfurt, Germany

By 2050, Frankfurt will produce 100% of its energy consumption from local and regional renewable sources bringing down its current energy import costs from €2bn a year to zero. Thanks to its public local utility which drives this transition, the city not only benefits from these savings but generates additional income in the form of revenues and tax incomes. By prioritising energy production from within the city and the surrounding region – while still being connected to the larger national grid – the money will stay in the region.

Energy efficiency measures have saved Frankfurt €100m in energy costs, a number that is projected to rise. The city has also reduced emissions by 15% between 1990 and 2012, while its economy grew by 50% for its 715,000 inhabitants.

Vancouver, Canada

One city leading the movement in North America is Vancouver. Widely recognised as the most livable city in the world, its environmental footprint is currently three times larger than it can sustain. Mayor Robertson and his team are committed to changing this, by putting the city on track to become the greenest in the world. By 2050, Vancouver will obtain 100% of the energy it uses from renewable sources and emit 80% fewer greenhouse gases than in 2007.

It is not only the environment that motivates the government to take this action; Vancouver is a great example of how climate and environmental protection, and economic growth, can complement each other. A study by Brand Finance estimates that Vancouver’s brand is valued at $31bn due to its reputation as a “green, clean and sustainable” city. Steering the city towards 100% renewable energy and focusing on local sustainability, has helped create more than 3,000 new local green jobs in only five years.

Kasese, Uganda

The district of Kasese in Uganda (of approximately 130,000 households) is radically transforming. By 2020, Kasese will supply the energy needs of its population by only renewable sources. This ambitious target will be achieved by adopting a people-centered approach, with a wide variety of renewable sources such as biomass, solar, geothermal and mini-hydroelectric technologies. This will help the region overcome health issues strongly connected to the uncontrolled use of charcoal, firewood and kerosene, the main energy sources used for cooking and domestic electricity production.

By implementing a decentralised renewable energy system in the region, several clean energy businesses have been started since 2012, creating jobs for locals. They sell solar equipment, construct solar hubs, build biogas systems, improve cook stoves and deliver mini-hydro projects. The number of businesses in the local green economy has increased from five to 55 since 2012, and at least 1,650 people have been trained in the process.

So why Manchester?

Well for starters thousands of people from Manchester have already signed our petition demanding a 100% clean energy future. We are a city region intent on achieving a better future for our children.

Significantly though, politically, Greater Manchester is perfectly placed for this. The ten local authorities have come together to create the first city-region and a new elected mayor will be appointed from 2017. This will lead to a city region with greater freedoms, which will ultimately control all public spending in Greater Manchester. With responsibility for local transport (something which is already making great strides through the expansion of the successful Metrolink tram network), along with devolved planning freedoms and control of funds for housing, Manchester will be able to control much of its own destiny.

As part of this process, 17 Priorities have been outlined as part of the Greater Manchester Strategic Framework. One of these is ‘Building our global brand’ and another is ‘Seizing the growth potential of a low carbon economy’.

The economic argument

Some countries have begun to realise the benefits. A recent German study [pdf] reveals that some €5.4bn was generated in Germany in 2012 through projects that were partially or fully owned by local investors, including citizens. Local private investments created a total of around 100,000 jobs that year in both the construction sector and operation.

It is doable – the weight of scientific opinion leaves no doubt. Professor Mark Jacobson from Stanford University has outlined a vision to power the entire United States, including the transport sector, by 100% renewables by 2050. We don’t lack the ability, we lack political will.

Taking Action

Online petitions are a growing political movement all on their own and fast becoming a proven way to make real change happen, but they are at their most powerful when they are directed at local actors by people in their community. I like the idea of a cascade of campaigns in cities and towns across the world calling for local pledges for 100% clean energy by 2050. Together we can turn our countries green from the inside out and show national politicians that climate action is possible and popular.

Cities contribute two thirds of the world’s energy use and 70% of carbon pollution, so the commitments our mayors make has a major global impact. Getting our towns & cities to promise a clean, sustainable future is an important step towards stopping runaway climate change, and together we can make it happen. That’s why I created a petition to specifically get Manchester to commit to 100% clean energy.

The more of us who take action, the more likely it is our leaders will listen. Please sign the petition here and share as widely as possible.