06. 02. 2008

Answers to your questions

I was recently invited to take part in The Independent's 'You ask the questions'. Here's the full list of responses I supplied, for those that are interested.

Judging by your early writing, you used to be a real green radical. Have your beliefs mellowed over the years?
Josh Hogan, Cheddar

Not really, I wrote “Seeing Green” in 1984, before the collapse of Communism, so my political criticism in those days was even-handed – “a plague on both your houses”, communism and capitalism. If anything, I am now even more critical of contemporary capitalism, based as it is on short-term, planet trashing, people-crushing, profit maximisation in every corner of the world. But I have come to accept (as explained in my latest book, (“Capitalism As If The World Matters”) that we have got no immediate solution other than to promote a radically different kind of Capitalism – genuinely sustainable and equitable. I believe such a thing is (just about!) possible if those who care about Capitalism (and are its principal beneficiaries) realise the terrifying consequences of the entire system collapsing in the not too distant future, in the teeth of social implosion and ecological meltdown.

If we don't change our ways what will happen to the planet?
Lynn Green, Hants

It depends how you interpret the threat of “irreversible climate change”. If the planet just kept on getting hotter and hotter, then not only would we become extinct, but so would the vast majority of life forms. Would life on earth eventually be restored? The evidence from previous “extinction spasms” indicates it probably would, over hundreds of millions of years, with as great if not greater a level of species diversity.

In that case, it’s not so much the planet we should be worrying about, in the long run, as ourselves. Indeed, there has always been a particular school of green thinking which argues that the best thing we could do for the planet would be to accelerate our own demise – as in “cutting out the cancer of human kind”. I don’t subscribe to that view!

Many people still aren’t convinced about climate change. The evidence is mixed, so don’t you need to be more honest about man made changes to the environment?
Henry Blackthorpe, Winchester

The evidence on climate change is not “mixed”. The overwhelming weight of evidence now points to a rapid acceleration in human-induced changes in the climate, with rapidly worsening consequences for humankind. And every government in the world (including China, India, Saudi Arabia and the benighted Bush Administration in the United States) signed up to that consensus when they accepted the 2007 Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The real dishonesty lies in those vested interests who exploit any residual scientific uncertainty for their own political and commercial purposes.

How can we tackle the idiots who regard denying manmade global warning as a badge of right-wing ideological purity?
Chris Clayton, Waverton, Cheshire

The brigade of “idiots” gets smaller every year, and although they still have a disproportionate effect on the media and public opinion (sewing confusion, reinforcing inertia and so on), they are less and less relevant. Much more problematic are today’s politicians who theoretically buy into the scientific consensus about climate change, but whose responses remain pathetically inadequate.

Will a British government ever really have the guts to take serious measures on climate change?
Keith David, London

Despite all the fine words, emissions of CO2 in the UK have risen over the last few years, though Defra has just announced a tiny reduction of 0.1% for 2006. It’s all very slow, with faltering progress on both energy efficiency and renewable energy – the two most important pillars of any low-carbon economy – and absolutely zero progress on addressing emissions from road and air travel. Frankly, the political will just isn’t there, and as economic conditions worsen, there seems to be little prospect that this is likely to change any time soon.

Has the Sustainable Development Commission had any effect on the government, or are you just there to make it look greener?
Neil Stockman, Southwark, London

The Sustainable Development Commission is an independent advisory body. We advise; Ministers either accept or ignore our advice. That’s the way the system works – quite properly.

On the credit side, this government takes sustainable development more seriously than most OECD governments, has developed an excellent Sustainable Development Strategy, with serious efforts being made by a number of different departments (including DCSF, DWP and so on). It has set some ambitious targets both for itself and for key sectors (such as zero carbon housing by 2016), and the Climate Change Bill currently going through Parliament is widely recognised as a major step forward.

On the debit side, delivery against those targets remains poor, and Treasury has proved itself an implacable barrier to any serious, cross-government progress being made. Since 1997, there have been frighteningly few Ministers who have taken the trouble to think through the challenge of “sustainable wealth creation” in any serious way.

Has the Sustainable Development Commission served as a green fig leaf obscuring these inadequacies? I don’t think so. And I don’t think that’s how ministers or officials see it either.

How do you feel about the government’s apparent full endorsement of nuclear power in this country?
Annie Lennox, by email

The Sustainable Development Commission came up with the figure that nuclear power would only reduce emissions by 4% after 2025. So why hasn’t Brown listened?
H. Shah, by email

[answer to both questions:]

Simply stated, it is the view of the Sustainable Development Commission that this Government has got it completely wrong on nuclear power. Despite the fact that it’s going to cost UK taxpayers at least £75 billion to clean up the legacy of our current nuclear programme, that we still have no solution to the problems of nuclear waste, that nuclear power remains very expensive, that the risks of proliferation and threats to national security remain very high, and that the contribution from a new nuclear programme (if it ever materialises) to total energy needs and CO2 abatement will remain relatively low, Ministers are now putting more effort into encouraging nuclear power than they have devoted to the entire field of renewables over the last ten years.

As they see it, this is the only manageable mega-fix available to them, the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card. But this is a sad and extraordinarily ill-judged illusion.

How can we stop the Brazilians chopping down rain forest? Should we just pay them not to?
Deane Craven, by email

For Brazil, (and other rainforest countries), their forests and the land beneath them are valuable economic assets – just as our forests once were before we cut them down centuries ago. But they also have huge value for the rest of world in terms of climate regulation, sequestering of CO2 and so on. So the reality is (as was recognised at the Bali Conference before Christmas) that the rich world needs to develop financing mechanisms to make it at least as beneficial economically for Brazil to maintain its forests intact as to cut them down – in effect, compensating them for “profits foregone”. And the billions involved would still represent seriously good value for money for the whole of humankind – given that deforestation currently accounts for around 18% of total CO2 emissions.

Does buying trees on carbon trading websites to counteract our flights really make a difference? Or is that all nonsense?
Katy Langmore, Wombwell

Offsetting emissions from any form of transport is not nonsense – if it’s done in the right way. And that means avoiding journeys where possible, choosing the most CO2 – efficient form of transport where possible, and when you have to fly or drive, offsetting the CO2 emitted with the kind of offset providers (such as Climate Care) who are able to guarantee gold standard offset projects. As it happens, Forum for the Future does not support forestry-based offsets – we prefer to invest in renewable energy projects in developing countries – particularly those that achieve positive social outcomes as well as climate change outcomes.

When did you last fly, and to where?
Kate Simpson, Aberdeen

I’m just back from Amsterdam, where I attended what turned out to be a quite extraordinary workshop on the future of nutrition, quality of life, genetics and so on.

It is easy for you wealthy toffs to spout greenery. But isn't it all a luxury if you can't afford organic chicken and fair trade clothing?
John Maclean, Chester

It is clear that some products that are more sustainable (such as organic food) do indeed cost more – although the indirect costs of “cheap food” are often borne by society and individuals in ways that are not immediately apparent. But most aspects of sustainable living do not cost more: living in a properly insulated home saves huge amounts of money; avoiding the car for short journeys and walking or cycling instead saves huge amounts of money. It doesn’t cost anymore to bank with an ethical bank than with any other bank, to recycle your waste, to holiday in the UK rather than abroad. The idea that living responsibly is an indulgence for “wealthy toffs” is often used as an excuse by superannuated class warriors or by people who are too lazy or selfish to do the small things that everybody should be doing.

One of the partners of Forum for the Future, an organisation you founded, is BAA. How on earth can you work with a firm that wants to build more airport terminals?
Linda Rankin, Aberdeen

Forum for the Future works with BP, involved in what The Independent called ‘The Biggest Environmental Crime in History’. Why?
Grahame Jacklin, by email

(answer to both questions:)

Working with companies like BAA and BP is really difficult for an organisation like Forum for the Future – and recent decisions (to support a new runway at Heathrow by BAA and invest in the tar sands in Canada by BP) have made it even harder. But we set ourselves some very strict tests here. We have to be able to demonstrate that our advice and challenge to these companies is still making a difference, enabling them – in the round – to reduce negative social and environmental impacts and reinforce the benign impacts of which they are capable. It’s messy, morally compromised. But so are we all at the individual level – or at least, those of us who fly or ever travel in a car.

Why shouldn't India and Chinese have our standard of living?
Steve Pickles, Colchester

The simple answer is because we shouldn’t be enjoying our standard of living as we enjoy it today. If China and India try and replicate that, the planet will literally implode. It literally can’t be done physically. So we should all aspire to a higher quality of life, with a massively reduced social and environmental footprint – and China and India have as much right to that as we do.

With the projected increase in food demand globally, is it truly possible to conserve biodiversity and simultaneously feed more than 6bn people in an increasingly unpredictable climate?
Simon Attwood, Queensland, Australia

Shouldn’t we be trying to put caps on population in order to protect the planet? More people means more energy use – that’s inevitable.
Gill Sands, by email

(answer to both questions:)

I have been banging on about the importance of addressing population issues since I joined the Green Party in the early 70s. The refusal of most environmentalists to acknowledge the fundamental reality that coping with an additional 70 million people every year just makes all our sustainability challenges that much harder to deal with is cowardly and intellectually bankrupt.

I’m still reasonably persuaded that it is indeed theoretically possible to feed anywhere between 6-9 billion people whilst simultaneously protecting biodiversity and reducing emissions of greenhouse gases. But not without the wholesale transformation of modern agriculture, with massive reductions both in the use of fertilisers and chemicals and in meat consumption. Much more of the food we consume will need to be grown locally and regionally, with far lower environmental impacts.

Do you think Hilary Benn is a good environment secretary?
Colin Blake, by email

Yes. He’s thoughtful, diligent, open-minded and up for (most of !) it. But he is going to have to punch well above his weight to get his colleagues to start taking climate change and sustainable development really seriously.


Why does the UK have such a week Green Party when it’s so much stronger in Europe?

Johann Engel, by email

I’m still a member of the Green Party, and have asked myself that question on literally countless occasions over the years. Our wretched first-past-the-post electoral system; our media; the Green Party’s own inadequacies; it’s failure to attract enough good people – all these play a part. But the Green Party has just taken a huge step forward by deciding to elect a proper Party Leader – and is at long last getting serious about the business of winning real political influence.

What three easy things should I do to be greener?
Anthony Robertson, Bristol

Walk and cycle wherever you can.
Sort out the basics in your home and workplace (lighting, heating, appliances, etc)
Get angry and campaign like crazy.

Even you can't be perfect. What are your worst 'green' offences?
Ben Collett, Leeds

Flying – far too many work-related flights. (Even though the emissions are, of course, all offset in the right kind of way!)

It’s all doom and gloom from eco-warriors. Is there any good news about the environment that we should know about?
Nick Harris, Southampton

One of the reasons we set up Forum for the Future 12 years ago was to amplify all the good news that is going on out there – about people, communities, technologies, companies and so on. That’s what our magazine, (Green Futures), is full of six times a year. Without all that, I would have long since collapsed into a pit of despair given all the bad news that crosses my desk day-in, day-out.

And although new technology absolutely isn’t the whole answer, there is now huge enthusiasm out there for a whole raft of Clean Tech solutions for energy, waste, water, lean manufacturing, processing and so on. Tens of billions of dollars in new investments are now pouring in – at long last!

Do you use your knighthood to get into restaurants and suchlike?
Chris Hawton, Guildford

Just for the record, it’s not a knighthood, but a Baronetcy, inherited from my father – which is just one of the reasons why I go to great lengths not to use it at all. And certainly not for booking tables at restaurants!

Could you tell me an eco-joke?
Al Wainwright, Manchester

In 1984, when I was Director of Friends of the Earth, we launched a competition for the best environmental joke. The only funny thing to emerge from it was that we received not one single entry.

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Comments

06. 02. 2008
clare brass

Jonathon
have you heard the one about the two planets that meet in space:
1st planet : hey ! long time no see! how are you doing ?
2nd planet : oh my, I don't feel good... I have Homo Sapiens...
1st planet : oh that's bad, I've had that before.. but don't worry: it'll go away by itself after a couple million years...

06. 02. 2008
Martin of Energy Lens

OK, having spent 20 minutes scouring the web for an environmental joke that also happens to be funny, I can confirm that, if there is anything funnier than nobody sending you a joke in 1984, it's not easy to find.

Sorry for not having something more intelligent to say...

19. 02. 2008
Jay

How many environmentalists does it take to change a lightbulb?
At this rate, several million over three decades.

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