Time is of the essence

No, I’m not talking about us running out of time before the climate goes boom. Although we are. I’m reckon that our outlook on time is the fundamental reason for us being in the state we are in.

What is the underlying cause of the apathy or inaction we face when it comes to meaningfully dealing with climate change? A lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to work that out. Is it fear? Ignorance? Greed? Vested interest?

I think it might just be time. We are used to having little of it, feeling as though we need to run about to get things done. We don’t have the time to cycle when the car beckons. Or to cook when there is a ready meal waiting. Or time to really explore the reality behind what we read, hear, feel, see, touch or taste.

Why are we all in such a hurry in any case? What is so urgent that we can’t stop running of the cliff?

I’d like to explore this a little more, but sorry, I’ve got to rush.

John Bell

Ordinary Bloke

Honey wine, a Compost toilet & Shifting the Power

A week ago Saturday I met up with the wonderful young people of Global Power Shift UK.  We managed to combine Eritrean honey wine, a night out in a trendy part of Brixton and a compost toilet with strategizing how to shift the power from money to people.

I’d got involved with the Global Power Shift (GPS) by first unsuccessfully applying to go to Istanbul earlier in the year.  I then met Nicolò Wojewoda of 350.org at a rally against the Keystone XL pipeline in London and went from there.

All national and regional GPS teams, covering everywhere on the planet where there are people, were tasked with creating their own Power Shift event.  The UK team has run a few events that could be described as a Power Shift and badged a few others with the same branding, but up until now hasn’t really found the unifying theme and idea that could be the start of something special.

Meeting in the British Museum with Nico, Ben Kurzman and Susan Poupard a few weeks ago, with my daughter Maddie reading a book beside us, we decided to hold a weekend workshop for the GPS UK team so we could nail down our ideas.

And so it was that a week ago Saturday I was waiting in fantastic Eritrean restaurant Adulis, sampling the honey wine and doing impressions of my son James’ Gollum-like crawl.  Femi was the unfortunate beneficiary, cousin of hip-hop artist KMT, who was to be our host.
Chess Set at May Project
We had a very interesting meal scooping up various different dishes with the think pancake-like bread injera and downloading the mind of Tara, who was unable to attend the workshop proper the following day.  The über-trendy Café Cairo was next – I was well out of place wearing my combats and carrying a rucksack.

I spent most of the night with my head on the floorboards in the music studio at the May Project Gardens in Morden, at right angles to the sleeping mat I’d brought.

The following morning started with my needing to negotiate the lack of toilet paper in the house.  I tell you, I was relieved, in both senses of the word, when I found the compost toilet marked on the helpful, painted map of the gardens.  The May Project Gardens is an inspirational permaculture set-up at the back of a council house in south London, complete with frog pond, herb spiral and polytunnel.  It was founded by a guy called Randy, whom I’ve not met, and KMT.  Permaculture is a way to live and to grow that apes nature, where waste is an alien concept.  It is highly efficient landwise – you get 2-4 times the produce by land area than farming – and requires less labour, chemicals and machinery.  The future as far as I can see.

The confidence inspiring Bernadette Fischler facilitated the workshop, which started outside with each of us drawing up a coat of arms representing our take on the GPS UK.  It was the day before the huge storm that cut through Southern England, so after a short while and a delicious falafel lunch we graduated indoors
GPS UK team at May Project Gardens
The upshot of our meeting of minds was a confirmation of our consensus view that we are here to help shift the power from money to people.  We intend to be the glue that allows diverse grassroots initiatives to share with one another and with the rest of the world.  To get that started, we are thinking that a Power Shift event where the those people and groups outside the traditional institutions can come together to meet each other, share stories and learn how to engage with the mass media.

Shift the Power UK is born.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

Under my hood

I thought I’d let you inside, to shed light on what someone who campaigns about climate change feels under the hood.  In my last post I mentioned that we can appear to be pleased about climate change and I promised to let you know the true picture.  I’d be interested to hear from anyone reading how much of this rings true for them, or if I am alone.
Me8 for main
How is it that everything we feel we want to do turns out to be bad for us?  I love a drink occasionally, but that’s not good for your health, breath, head the following morning or for avoiding leaving the door open overnight.  Fry-ups, cake, biscuits, pork pies, doughnuts – I’m salivating, thinking about them – but they’re not good for your arteries and processed meat leads to the big C.  Sex before marriage will send you to hell.  Some love to smoke, but that leads to the bigger C.

And it turns out that having bright, dimmable lights that some on instantly; Me7 for mainlong showers; too much heat in the house; open fireplaces; and travelling anywhere more than a few short miles away are bad for the planet*.

I’m not a religious man (I categorise myself as an active agnostic) – but this does all bring to mind the apple in the Garden of Eden.  I often wondered what that symbolised – maybe it refers to everything desirable being bad?

Thing is that booze, greasy food, shagging about and smoking really only hurt the person doing them†.  I’ve no problem with that – do what you like.
Me2 for main
Wasting energy and burning fossil fuels, however, don’t really hurt the person doing them.  They mainly hurt people in other parts of the world (if you are in the developed world while reading this) or in the future, such as our children.  Because of this natural injustice it makes me Angry when people ignore the issue, blame China and the US while continuing with bad habits and make out their opinion on the scientific facts are as valid as 99% of scientific studies.

The other deep emotion I feel is mourning for the lost future.  When I delve deeply to understand the root of this feeling, I realise that it is not only about the potential for world conflict and the loss of the natural world, but also my own personal lost future.  Me1 for mainThe increasing apathy and even antipathy towards climate change makes me realise that I need to devote more and more of my own life to the cause.  As former BP CEO Tony Hayward famously once said “There’s no one who wants this over more than I do. I would like my life back”.

The emotions aren’t all negative, of course.  This resolve gives me a life purpose that is hard to find from any other activity.  As Bill McKibben said “Whatever else you were planning to do next, nothing could be more important”.
Me6 for main
I am also hopeful, even confident, that we will eventually win the argument.  It is almost inevitable.  Nature will not allow us to ignore climate change forever, as it will crank up the stakes and shove it in our face and across our flood plains.

How about others?  When it comes to climate scientists, it seems that those that engage their emotions rather than carry out their duties in a detached way can feel depressed, even suicidal.  A far cry from inventing the issue to get grant money.

How does it make you feel?

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

* Caveats required here: These days you can get fantastic bright, dimmable low energy light bulbs and you can heat your house with renewable energy sources, such as by capturing the heat from a log fire.  I’ll stick by the others.

† Uh oh, more caveats.  Yes, all these things done to excess can ruin families and cost the health service a fortune.  And there is passive smoking.

Here we go again.  Of course it will hurt your back pocket.  And too much driving means losing out on the opportunity of more exercise.  And there are floods, droughts, crop failures and increased food prices.

My year ahead

It was the Annual General Meeting of Transition Town Berkhamsted (TTB), and so time to think to the coming year and what we plan to achieve.  We are as always on the cusp of either collapsing due to burn out or on the verge of making that major breakthrough in getting a significant proportion of the people in Berkhamsted behind us.
TTB Logo
In terms of practical achievements that will take us forward, there ought to be a few.  There is the Community Growing Project where in return for volunteering with the local charity Sunnyside Rural Trust people have the use of a large polytunnel and surrounding ground to grow vegetables.  With a partnership with the Town Council to make use of and improve currently unmanaged space we could potentially open this up and start something like Incredible Edible in Todmorden.  This would sit alongside the transition-led Dacorum Local Food initiative, which is mapping out local food and making it more available and attractive for everyone in the area.

At the AGM we heard from TiK (Transition in Kings Langley), who have made some exciting steps forward in creating a limited company GUCE (Grand Union Community Energy) for the locally owned generation of renewable energy.  They have done a quick survey of Berkhamsted and I am excited about the opportunity to build on what they have achieved and bring it here.  There are plenty of potential sites, in particular schools such as Westfield and St Marys.

I’m quite keen to start up a series of competitions, at least among the members of TTB, for our own personal reductions in energy use, driving, consumption etc.

Alongside what we’re doing with our hands is what we are doing with our voices.  There is the engaging of other groups and organisations in the town to find our common aims and to form a community.  The third Building Community day is tomorrow, where we will be discussing the creation of a community centre and the development of the centre of the town to be a hub for people to enjoy.  We will also be talking about a burgeoning initiative called My Compassionate Street, looking at bringing back neighbourly support for those that need it.

There are projects kicking off with the local secondary schools, Ashlyns and Berkhamsted School.  Ashlyns are to start their own active sustainability group and are hosting high profile talks with TTB, one each term.  We’ve got Ian Roberts (author of Energy Glut) lined up for 16 October, and Mark Stevenson (pragmatic optimist) for 5 Feb.  Berkhamsted School has a massive Duke of Edinburgh scheme, and we will be chatting to the Year 9’s as they start out to enrole them in volunteering for TTB – in particular in setting up a series of films.

And then there is the Positive Money talk coming up on 11 June, which I’ve written about previously.

As for me, I have been re-elected Leader of TTB for a second annual term.  I plan to complete the strategy and firm up the structure of the group as soon as possible – I want to start getting my hands dirty.  I’ll be splitting my time between TTB, the Global Power Shift, my business, allotment and family.

It’s Started

I imagine this is how some people felt years ago before going into a battle.  A kind of serene calm has taken hold of me, with the inevitability of what is about to ensue washing over my consciousness.  I know that humanity will eventually be persuaded to take meaningful action on climate change – that is inevitable, as nature won’t let us do otherwise.  What we need to do is all we can to bring that date as near to now as possible, to limit the damage we are causing to the lives of our offspring.

Alongside the work with Transition Town Berkhamsted, I have been networking with members of national organisations to see how I could help direct activity to be more coherent and co-ordinated.

I’ve spoken with and am very grateful for the time of the many people to whom I have spoken and got acquainted.  I am constantly left gob-smacked by the level of knowledge, eruditeness and enthusiasm of the folks involved in helping us move on to a fairer world.  In no particular order, thank you to Melanie Coathe of RSPB, Michael Davies of StartUK, George Marshall of COIN, Guy Shrubsole of Friends of the Earth, Ben Brangwyn of the Transition Network, Ed King of RTCC, Chris Church of the Low Carbon Community Network (LCCN), Becky from 38 Degrees and Nicolò Wojewoda of 350.org.
There are a couple of very interested leads among there.  LCCN ran a conference about a year and a half ago with the purpose of bringing together these disparate organisations, and are planning on running another in the Autumn.  I have spoken on a couple of occasions with Chris Church, the current chair of LCCN, and I may well get involved in helping to organise this conference.  One of the foci of the conference is to be supporting the leaders in climate action.
The other very promising lead is with 350.org.  They are an organisation that grew up in the States, where the focus has been on persuading organisations, funds, cities, colleges etc to divest their investment portfolios from fossil fuels, with the realisation that if climate change is to be defeated there will be £trillions of related stranded assets (i.e. investments that cannot be redeemed, e.g. the perceived value of fossil fuel reserves).

350.org are organising a Global Power Shift – a co-ordinated international grass-roots movement to address climate change and our response to it.  The first phase (to which I will not be going) is a global conference in Istanbul, bringing 500 climate leaders together to determine the strategy for the movement.
The next phase will be national Power Shifts within individual countries.  I met Nicolò, the UK co-ordinator, at a demonstration ahead of the G8 conference in London (we were attempting to persuade US Secretary of State John Kerry to not approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would link the very dirty tar sands in Canada to refineries in Texas).

Subsequently I have joined the UK national team of 350.org, and will be involved in helping to map the context of the UK, coming up with ideas for campaigns, developing and sharing ideas for regional events and developing a media strategy.  I need to decide which of those areas to focus on – which would I be best at and enjoy the most?
The LCCN opportunity and the 350.org one could work together – the LCCN conference could be a way to launch the UK Power Shift.  We’ll see what doors open.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

What have I been up to?


Berkhamsted Castle – we could make more of this

It’s been a while since I have given a real update as to what I’m actually doing, which is remiss of me.  I’m going to change the balance of my posts so there are more about what I’m up to and fewer that sound more academic.

So, what have I been doing?  I’ve spent some of my time working on the strategy of Transition Town Berkhamsted (TTB), which is still a work in progress and needs the others involved to give their pennyworth before it is made official.  I’ve also been networking with organisations and individuals involved in the area, to discuss my ideas and help refine them.  I’m getting somewhere with that.  And of course I’ve been researching a little for the posts and responses to comments.

Berkhamsted is a commuter town, with a predominantly right-wing political outlook.  It is also quite large, with a population of 16000.  Unfortunately all of those things lead to it not having a great sense of community.  This makes it that much more difficult for the town to move forward in a meaningful way into the uncertain future.  We need to strike the balance between talking and engaging with local organisations, such as schools, and us taking the initiative, rolling our sleeves up and getting on with it.  There is some debate about that.  When the strategy is sorted I’ll put some more up about it on here.

The other difficultly in making a difference at a local level is the overall sense of apathy and denial on the issue of climate change, which is why I also want to work at a national level to help us overcome that temporary obstacle.  I say temporary because it is inevitable that nature will let us know in no uncertain terms that it doesn’t care whether we believe or not in climate change: it will just get on with dealing out the consequences.

My self-appointed job is to help us realise what we need to do before nature rubs it in our face, by which time it will be too late.  The idea is that we put together the toolkit required – credible information about the reality of climate change, plus information and support for people wanting to take action at home or in their towns or wider.  Then to launch it all with a big fanfare and bring the issue back square up front.  I certainly am not going to do that myself, and it is encouraging to find that a lot of organisations are already working closely together.

I’ll be posting more often from now on, so will explain more in a few days.

Please do let me know what you think.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

Who’s Getting the Fossil Fuel Subsidies?

The economic case for a large scale move to clean energy is undermined because, incredibly, government subsidies for fossil fuels are larger than the size of the global renewable energy industry.  This subsidy amounts to a greater incentive to emit carbon dioxide than the market price put on carbon emissions, by a factor of more than ten to one on current prices.

In a previous post I promised to look further into the calculation of the fossil fuel subsidy to understand who is benefiting and what is covered.  This is me fulfilling that promise.

In November 2010, the International Energy Agency (IEA), World Bank and OECD met a request of the G20 to produce a second report on the international energy subsidy.  In it, they define the fossil fuel subsidy as any action taken by a government to decrease the costs to the fossil fuel industry or to reduce the price of fossil fuels or fossil fuel based energy to consumers.  It is essentially the opposite of a tax.

They list the main reasons that the subsidies exist.  It could be to alleviate energy poverty.  It could be to boost domestic energy supply or to support industry development.  It could be to redistribute wealth in rich oil producing nations from the producers of the oil to the rest of the population.

The report argues how the downsides outweigh the positives.  The subsidies encourage wasteful consumption.  They increase energy price volatility (by disguising market signals).  Crime is increased as fuel intended for one purpose or market is used for something else or sold elsewhere.  They tend to disproportionally benefit the well-off, increasing the poverty gap.  Above all (for me) they undermine the competitiveness of renewables.  And of course the money used for the subsidy could be used for other purposes, such as healthcare, or increasing energy efficiency.


So, who is giving out these subsidies, and who is benefiting?  The IEA have available on their website a breakdown of the subsidies by country in an interactive map – have a play.  They are mainly in the oil producing countries of North Africa and Middle East, due to consumers within the country paying artificially lower for their energy than the country could in theory make by selling the energy on the international market.  For example in Kuwait domestic prices are 87.8% lower than they should be.  Iran has the largest subsidy of $82bn (17% of GDP), which needlessly lead the country to be a net importer of oil – fortunately they recognise this and are tackling it.

You would have thought that calculating the subsidy would be simple – you just add up the money given to consumers or producers, don’t you?  Perhaps unsurprisingly that is not the case, as the subsidies take many different forms, from direct money transfers, through creating a separate market or guaranteeing low prices for domestic consumption, to tax breaks or de-regulated access to government land for producers.

There are therefore several different methods for calculating the fi

gure.  The method used by the IEA is called price-gap analysis.  This method doesn’t include all diffe

rent types of subsidy (such as research and development into new technologies) by its definition, which is to calculate a reasonable market value available to a country, and then compare that with the price paid by consumers for energy within the country.  If they are paying less than the market rate, then their use is being subsidised.  If more, it is being taxed.

The encouraging news is that many countries that do subsidise fossil fuels do seem to be taking steps.  This gives us a chance that at some point everyone will be paying the market rate for fossil fuel use.  Capitalism will have that bit of an extra chance to prove that it is the right system to improve our lives while resources dwindle and without damaging our future.

Thoughts below please!

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke


Some Numbers – A 4⁰C World

In my last post I said I’d look into information available quantifying the effects of the level of climate change currently expected.  I have to admit that I’ve spent a very frustrating morning trying to find facts and figures about the effects and have not managed to find a great deal, particularly relating to the effects of the 4 to 6 ⁰C increases that are forecast on current trends (of change and our response to date and planned).

Anyone reading who has another or better source of up to date facts and figures about what we are letting ourselves in for, please do comment at the bottom of this post.

Generally what I’ve found is that when looking at the higher end of the forecast increases in temperatures, commentary in the scientific papers falls back on statements to the effect of “it will be really bad” and comparing with the coldest temperatures during the last ice age (5-6 ⁰C lower than current temperatures).

I think the lack of quantification available is genuine.  But I think some numbers would be better than none:

 “Uncertainty is an argument for a more, not less, demanding goal [on reducing greenhouse gas emissions], because of the size of the adverse climate-change impacts in the worst-case scenarios.” – Stern, 2006

And taking that a step further, lack of figures on the impacts is an argument for a more, not less, demanding goal, because the figures that we do have, particularly for lower increases, are bad enough.

Anyway, on to what I have managed to unearth.

My main source is a paper published in January 2011 by the Royal Society.  I’ll put links to the sources directly in the text below.  To start, a 4 ⁰ C increase is estimated to be reached during 2070s.

Looking at water, it looks as though dry regions are to get dryer and wet regions are to get wetter.  I found it difficult to interpret the graphs, but it appears to show a 30-70% decrease in the water available per capita, dependent on population growth and temperature change (the latter dominates in a 4 ⁰C world).  The regions under the greatest water stress at the moment are the US, Mediterranean Europe, India and China, plus parts of Africa – and these are the areas that are expected to feel the brunt of increases in water stress in the coming decades.  This is leading to increases in grain prices as water is used directly rather than for agriculture.

Looking at monetised costs, in Africa alone in 2030 for adapting to climate change are estimated at $60 billion per annum.  This still leaves residual effects that cannot be avoided.

Costs for global sea-level rises for a 4 ⁰C world are expected to reach $37-407bn per annum (I’ve adjusted to show present value), with the range depending on whether 4 ⁰C leads to 50 cm or 2 m of rises, which in turn depends on the unknown extent of the melting of the Greenland ice sheet in those conditions.

The Stern Report of 2006 costs of mitigating climate change are -2% to +5% of GDP (the lower part of the range relating to more prompt and efficient mitigation action), with an average of 1% of GDP.  Global consumption would decrease by 20% otherwise.  Then the net benefits of one year’s action to mitigate climate change would be of the order of $2.5 trillion.  So we should do so, you would think?

The UK parliament is currently discussing the Energy Bill.  It falls short in that it doesn’t commit to a target on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and so I urge you to take action to promote amendments to the bill to introduce an end target and interim targets.  In developed nations, we need to largely decarbonise by 2030 for 37% chance of not exceeding 2 ⁰C (assuming developing nations peak their emissions by around 2025), according to the Royal Society.

The proposed changes to the bill not only give us a chance of mitigating climate change, they also make sound economic sense in the medium term.  It is estimated that there would be a £23bn saving in the UK if we went for de-carbonisation rather than for emerging fossil fuel deposits.  Gas prices (not renewables) were responsible for 62% of the increase in energy prices since 2004.

Again, if anyone reading has a different or better source of information about the quantification of the effects of a changing climate, then please do share by commenting below.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

I Don’t Believe in Climate Change

There, I said it.  I don’t believe in climate change.  It is not a religion.  People will often talk about it in religious terms (e.g. “preaching to the converted”), but it is not about a leap of faith or opinion as to what is going on.

We can understand the facts and then take a view on what we should do about it.

The facts are very clear that the planet is warming and that the cause of this is man-made.  Many, many studies by different people using different sources and different techniques have proved this.  It is natural that someone not convinced of this would find a way to deny it, at least in their own minds.  That doesn’t make the facts go away.

To pick out two sources of evidence, please take a look at recent work published in the Science journal showing how until the industrial revolution we were heading towards an ice-age, with temperatures slowing dropping for about 9000 years.  Or this video (with references) showing what proportion of the recent warming is man-made, and that it has continued unabated:

I could go on (and on and on), but I won’t.

Instead, what I want to know is what we are letting ourselves in for if we continue to emit greenhouse gases at the rate that we have (or more).

That is much trickier because we are talking about predicting the future.  The mainstream scientific reports on the issue (e.g. from the IPCC) give qualitative guides as to the probable effects and how quickly they will come about.  I want to know numbers.  I’m sure you do to.

How many species are at risk? How many people will be displaced or put into water or food distress?  What are the likely economic impacts?

Without some grasps of the numbers, it is difficult to know what courses of action are the most sensible (other than those that are obviously a good idea even in the absence of climate change, such as increasing efficiency to reduce energy costs).

I’ll address this in a future post or posts, after further research.  If you have some information on this, I’d love to hear from you.

Thoughts below as always.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke

Is Carbon Capture & Storage the Silver Bullet?

Can Carbon Capture and Storage technology (or CCS for short) allow us to deal with climate change without damaging oil company share prices? Many hope that CCS will allow us to mitigate against climate risk without first going through a major global economic transition with the demise of the big oil and coal companies.

CCS, as I’m sure you know, is the process of extracting the carbon dioxide at the point that fossil fuels are turned into energy, and taking that carbon dioxide and storing it safely away under ground for long enough for it to decompose.

As described previously, if we burn the declared resources upon which the big fossil fuel companies share prices rest we will emit 5 times as much CO2 than we can afford to in order to avoid an average global temperature increase of 2° Celsius. And the oil companies are still looking for more – e.g. shale gas, searching the Arctic and so on.

Carbon capture and storage is seen by many as the way through that.

All of the individual elements of the technology exist and are in use. In fact, there are already 8 fully integrated schemes in operation with a commercially viable capability and another 64 in the pipeline (Global CCS Institute, Jan 2013 survey). We are already capturing 20 megatons of CO2 per annum.

Come on, this sounds great. Could it really do the trick? Let’s do some sums.

At the moment, we emit 33 gigatons of CO2 each year. In their scenarios, Shell forecast that will continue to increase to over 40 gigatons per annum by 2040, and will decrease thereafter.

The Global CCS Institute survey reports that they expect us to be able to capture more than 120 megatons of CO2 per annum by 2020. Oh dear, that was megatons wasn’t it? That means we will be capturing about 1 in every 300 tons of CO2 by 2020. A drop in the ever rising ocean.

We must be able to do better than that, surely? Shell scenarios help again, as one of the scenarios they evaluate (Mountains) describes a future where we go all out for CCS, starting in a realistic time frame. It is a little optimistic possibly on that front as the rate of deployment of that CCS outstrips even the most grandiose historic achievements (Kramer-Haigh, Nature 462, Dec 2009). In this scenario, we capture 30%  of CO2 by 2050, and all by the end of the century. We miss the 2° C target by miles.

If not CCS, maybe this?

If not CCS, maybe this?

So, we need to get a move on now rather than later. Unfortunately, the number of potential projects is going down rather than up (is 72 now and was 75 in October 2012). The UK competition (UK CCS Commercialisation Programme) has been held up at the Department for Energy and Climate Change as they are concerned about getting their numbers right following the UK Department for Transport being burned in the evaluation of the West Coast rail franchise competition. The European Commission’s NER300 competition awarded funding to zero CCS projects (out of an expected 12).

Clearly, this needs regulation and vastly quicker progress if this is to be the silver bullet. Let’s not pin our hopes in it just yet.

Thoughts below as always.

John Bell,

Ordinary bloke