Thursday, July 29, 2021

Despair at climate change, and how (maybe) to deal with it.

Woman despairing at burning forests

I feel so sad for the future of all life on Earth, and for my children's future.

I've been involved in environmental activism, research and the business of testing and spreading solutions to environmental problems for 30 years.

I always thought we had a chance of saving ourselves and nature from the worst that could happen.

But today I am in despair.

Sir David King, a chief British climate scientist, knows that there are already enough greenhouse gases in the atmosphere to warm the planet to dangerous degree.

We've already passed scary tipping points.

We have the solutions

It's not that we don't have the solutions, we do have many of them.

I've got one here. And more here.

It's not even that the politicians and CEOs of corporations, who have the ability to do what's needed, are still in denial.

It is that they pay lip service. They want to have business as usual and fix the problems. This is not possible.

It is possible for people to have a decent quality-of-life and to solve these problems.

But this entails a change in attitude and understanding. Such a culture change must come before the system can change.

Why isn't this happening?

We can learn something from the so-called culture war going on in most developed countries nowadays.

The right wing is winning most of these culture war battles.

They win, not by saying that the so-called woke culture is wrong, i.e. racism does not exist.

They win by saying the woke people threaten your way of life. For example, immigrants threaten your jobs.

Take this approach by analogy to the subject of climate change.

Activists can say: we can create thousands of green jobs in eco-renovation. This is good news!

But it is not good news to mainstream business, or to the unions, upon whom both the Tories and the Labour Party depend in the UK.

Too many business models are threatened by the transition to a green economy. These businesses and unions have big lobbying power.

Extinction Rebellion achieved the goal of getting the government to declare the climate emergency and to have a citizens assembly.

The citizens assembly made its recommendations to the government.

You wouldn't know it, would you?

These have been ignored, because the voices of business are louder in the ears of the Tory government and the voices of the unions are louder in the ears of the Labour opposition.

This is one reason why nothing is done about making existing buildings consume much less energy.

It is why nothing is done about making all new buildings zero carbon.

It is why they still building on greenbelt land, and planning new roads, and tearing up woodlands for HS2.

It is why we have a crazy trade deal with Australia to import sheep when we have plenty of sheep here.

The list of madness is endless.

Only when the fear of the effects of climate change is greater than the fear that their business model will suffer will the main political parties show the kind of leadership that they need to show.

By then it will be too late.

We have already passed the point at which we could make cheap, reasonable changes and still save civilisation from disaster, as suggested by Sir Nicholas Stern in 2006.

This is why Sir David King is proposing drastic geo-engineering.

I can't seriously see this working. Can you?

So what can you do as an individual?

I can only suggest that you do your best to make where you live as resilient as possible, and start learning practical skills, like growing your own food.

When supply lines dry up because of extreme weather and the supermarket shelves are empty you will need all the skills you can master.

Please, if you feel the same way, I'd like to hear from you.

Sunday, August 04, 2019

The 7 rules of carbon offsetting your flights

Suppose you have to fly, or you use a gas-guzzling SUV. Is there any point in carbon offsetting? Yes, and it's not as dear as you might think. But what sort should you use?

The 7 rules of offsetting are:

1. It doesn’t let you off the hook. You’ve helped global warming. And:

2. As soon as you do the thing that needs offsetting, like flying, those pesky greenhouse gas (GHG) molecules are up there helping to warm the planet.

3. Therefore: action needs to be as immediate and swift as possible.

4. So waiting around for a tree to grow is not an option esp. if you have no idea what will happen to it (fire/disease, etc.). It will take ages for it to recoup the CO2 from the skies.

5. The offsetting action needs also to be additional to what you’d do otherwise, or it makes no diff., right?

6. And it needs to start as soon as possible to start compensating for those GHGs you sent up.

7. Speed also includes the time it takes for the GHGs that would have gone into the sky if your offsetting hadn’t happened to reach the total equivalent of the GHGs caused by your flight: the faster the better.

Example: solar lanterns in Africa

I buy a single solar lantern from that displaces a kerosene lantern used by a family in rural Uganda for £5.

I have no idea how long it takes for that family to get the lantern, but it’s good that they do for other reasons (their health, and their kids can study after dark (6pm)).

Once they get it, I don’t know how often they’ll use it. So I don’t know how long it will take to displace the kerosene-emitted GHGs they were using to the equivalent of the GHGs caused by my flight.

But I do know that even though Jremy Leggett says that 1 lantern offsets a flight to Istanbul from London in an average of two years, the more lanterns I buy the faster the offsetting will happen.

If I buy 4, then in 6 months; 8 in 3 months. So I could buy 8 for £40. That would be a very good solution.

Example: solar roofs for community buildings in Wales

I could invest in solar panels on community buildings in’s share issue. That's a social benefit as well as an eco-benefit.

That would be additional if I wasn’t going to do it otherwise.

Egni will put up the panels on community buildings in Wales within about 6 months, I reckon.

And you’d get a return on your investment.

Every 4kWe of PV (photovoltaic panels), will save around 1124Kg of CO2 in one year based on this:

Ask Dan McCallum at how many kilowatts of PV a given amount of investment would buy if you want to know. (I made their website btw).

That would be a nice thing to do to.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Extinction Rebellion is just common sense – but what is the best response?

The related extinction and climate crises that are threatening the survival of life on earth can only be solved by reducing our ecological footprint – systematically curbing impacts and repairing nature to a level that sustains us within the planet's means.

“We are facing a climate catastrophe.” These are not just the words of tree-hugging Gaia-worshippers. They were said this week by the Legal & General insurance company, the UK's largest money manager, which last year blacklisted many companies for being unsustainable.

"As financial policymakers and prudential supervisors we cannot ignore the obvious physical risks before our eyes. Climate change is a global problem," they said in a statement.

Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, and Villeroy de Galhau, the governor of the Banque de France, said the same in an article in the UK Guardian newspaper this week, as they called upon financial institutions everywhere “to raise the bar to address... climate-related risks and to “green” the financial system”.

The wave of protests sweeping around cities across the world – International Extinction Rebellion – is simply asking for common sense to prevail in the face of the overwhelming threats facing the planet.


The plain fact is that all money spent everywhere must now be only spent sustainably: to meet our needs while also rebuilding & repairing our planet.

Not unlike the immediate French and worldwide response to the devastation of Notre Dame Cathedral, we must all, especially our leaders, pledge to take urgent action. Watching this global icon go up in flames has struck the hearts and souls of people around the world; within a few days almost €1 billion have been pledged to rebuild it.

Rebecca Johnson, a former Greenham Common anti-nuclear protestor compared this to the extinction crisis on BBC News: "Imagine millions of Notre Dames, all over the world, and not just art and history, but full of people, animals, plants and insects, the biodiversity. That is what the protesters are concerned that leaders are doing nothing about."

The movement's articulate young visionary, Greta Thunberg, told an assembly of European members of parliament this week: "We need cathedral-like thinking".

Watch this speech. She cries as she laments the rate of extinction of species. "Forget Brexit, tackle climate change," she tells the MEPs, to a standing ovation. “Our house is falling apart and our leaders need to start acting accordingly and they are not.”

As she was speaking, and all this week, the streets of European cities are being blocked by Extinction Rebellion protesters, who have pledged not to stop blocking traffic until their demands are met.


 Some city leaders are already responding.

About 100 cities and towns in the UK have already passed resolutions declaring a climate emergency.

The website is attempting to keep track of all cities in Switzerland, North America, Australia and the UK which have done so and has so far logged about 460 of them, including 18 in Australia, such as Darebin, Yarra, Vincent, Victoria, Gawler, Mariby, Hawkesbury and Adelaide Hills.

In California, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Richmond, Oakland and Santa Cruz have also done this, to name but a few.


The question for everybody, is what does a council do to follow up, having passed the resolution?

To meet the demands of the resolution they have to become carbon neutral by 2030 at the latest. They also have to include the population in their decision-making.

This will necessitate action on many fronts.

There is a solution.


All towns, regions and cities must become 'one planet'.

A campaign is beginning to persuade cities, towns and communities to declare “one planet" status that allows them to plan and track a path into the “safe and just space” defined by the work of Kate Raworth and others, where the basic needs of citizens are met without damaging the planet.

The framework proposed is a way for any town and city to work out how to #MoveTheDate of their Earth Overshoot Day (a measure of unsustainability) to become more and more sustainable over time using a framework like this.

I am beginning in my own part of the world with #OnePlanetSwansea, #OnePlanetCarmarthen and #OnePlanetLlandeilo. Work is underway to tackle Cardiff, the capital of Wales.

You can start this process in your own town, wherever you live.

The aim is to make all cities regenerative, based on circular economies and renewable energy, to ensure we live within our means. The solutions already exist. Policies to support them must be based on evidence, not upon ideology, belief systems or loyalties, because we are all in this together.

Policymaking has not caught up with the fact that humanity crossed the threshold of “one planet” living and began living in deficit way back at the beginning of the 1970s. This is why we need data, indicators and a coherent plan to relate our activities to what the biosphere of our planet can tolerate.


The six-step path towards One Planet Cities and communities 

  1.  Obtain community buy-in and feedback at all levels
Hold a series of public meetings and online and off-line consultations to explain the context and aims in order to obtain feedback and community buy-in.
  1. Decide which standards and objectives to use
These will include a methodology and accounting system and be applicable to all sectors such as soils, biodiversity, water, energy, buildings, transport, well-being, etc. They must include ecological footprinting.
  1. Set baseline – the current situation
Use data and surveys to ascertain the starting point from which goals will be set: On the supply side, the productivity of its ecological biocapacity (greenspace and water bodies). On the demand side, the ecological footprint – assets/resources required to produce the natural resources and services it consumes.
  1. Set targets for each sector over realistic timescales
A system similar to that applied by the UK Climate Change Act could be adopted, along with the Global Footprint Network’s Net Present Value Plus (NPV+) tool to test the results of different scenarios. A set of five year plans may result, each with a budget and a set of targets. The overall target could be, say, 30-40 years away, to meet everybody’s basic needs within planetary limits. Each short-term target will be a step closer to the overall one. Each sector (biocapacity, water, food, energy, buildings, transport, industry, etc.) will have its own schedule.
  1. Set in place ways to measure them
This should be based on what data is easy and cost-effective to gather, and relate to the baseline situation, chosen metrics and sector targets. The data should be transparent and publicly available. Everybody should be able to view the progress being made.
  1. Ratchet down consumption over one or two generations.
Each five-year plan will have its own evaluation period to check that all expected benefits are resulting, to share experiences, to accommodate criticisms, to potentially revise plans, and to celebrate successes.


If a population’s ecological footprint exceeds the region’s biocapacity, that region runs an ecological deficit.

...which almost all regions now do. A region in ecological deficit meets demand by importing, liquidating its own ecological assets (such as overfishing), and/or emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It must therefore identify the origins, destinations and impacts of consumption.

It would then be possible to model the effects of changes of policy and practice towards a circular economy upon the related biocapacity.

Tracking the Human Development Index (a measure of how human needs are being satisfied) against the ecological footprint over a time period can indicate the direction of progress.

Government agencies at all levels can manage their capital investments in a fiscally responsible and environmentally sustainable way by using ecological footprint accounting and the Global Footprint Network’s Net Present Value Plus (NPV+) tool.

The traditional net present value (NPV) formula used by economists adds up revenue and expenditures over a period of time and discounts those cash flows by the cost of money (an interest rate), revealing the lifetime value of an investment in present terms.

GFN’s NPV+ tool adds to this calculation currently unpriced factors, such as the cost of environmental degradation, and benefits like ecological resiliency.


 All costs and benefits – even those where no monetary exchange occurs – thereby can be seen as “cash flows”, and can be evaluated using different future scenarios.

This will provide a more accurate and useful guidance on the long-term value of the investment, because it makes reference to the ecological footprint of the project in question.

The ecological footprint can therefore help to identify which issues need to be addressed most urgently to generate political will and guide policy action. It can improve understanding of the problems, enable comparisons across regions and raise stakeholder awareness.


By identifying footprint “hot-spots”, policymakers can prioritise policies and actions, often in the context of a broader sustainability policy.

Footprint time trends and projections can be used to monitor the short- and longterm effectiveness of policies.

By understanding where the best long-term value is, policies can be oriented toward better outcomes, building wealth, avoiding stranded assets and leaving a better legacy for future generations.

The standard PAS 2070 can assist with monitoring cities’ carbon footprints of consumption and production. ISO standards cover environmental management, energy management and life-cycle analysis to help put in place procedures for reducing impacts.

At the same time, all citizens and politicians need to do more to raise awareness about the issues.

More information at

If you want support in doing this in your neighbourhood, get in touch.

We can do this. It just needs a massive, concerted effort.

David Thorpe is the author of the book The 'One Planet' Life and the forthcoming book 'One Planet' Cities.

Friday, December 21, 2018

''One Planet' Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits

I'm thrilled that my important new book, 'One Planet' Cities: Sustaining Humanity within Planetary Limits, will be out next May.

It addresses the crucial question of how the essential needs of the growing human population can be met without breaking the Earth's already-stretched life-support system and is the product of years of research, thinking, and conversations. It builds on the work of Kate Raworth's Doughnut Economics and the Global Footprint Network.

With four out of five people predicted to be urban dwellers by 2080, ‘One Planet’ Cities proposes a pathway to genuine sustainability for cities and neighbourhoods, using an approach based on contraction and convergence.

Utilising interviews with key players, including the Global Footprint Network, World Future Council, WWF, mayors and officials, and case studies from across the globe, including Europe, North and South America, Australia, Sweden, South Africa, China, and India, David Thorpe examines all aspects of modern society from food provision to neighbourhood design, via industry, the circular economy, energy and transport through the critical lens of the ecological footprint and relevant supporting international standards and indicators.

Recommendations on managing supply chains and impacts, how the transition to a world within limits might be financed, and a deep examination of the Welsh Government's pioneering efforts follow. It concludes with an imagined vision of what a genuinely sustainable future might be like, and an appeal for 'one planeteers' everywhere to step up to the challenge.

This book will be of great interest to practitioners and policymakers involved in governance, administration, urban environments and sustainability, alongside students of the built environment, urban planning, environmental policy and energy.

I'm delighted that it has a foreword by Herbert Girardet, founder of the World Futures Council.

From January 2019 I'll be publishing biweekly extracts to generate momentum for the launch. Watch this space!

You can pre-order the title here:

Monday, July 23, 2018

The energy and housing transitions are being led by communities

Across three continents, citizens are working with their local communities to build more sustainable futures for themselves in housing and energy.

New housing in Solapur, India
New housing in Solapur, India.

In Solapur, India, housing cooperatives have come together to build more than 15,000 affordable homes since 2001, relocating thousands of workers from slums.

The Solapur Housing Initiative, led by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, began construction of another 30,000 homes in January 2018, and recently took out the housing category of the Transformative City award.

Many of these homes – typically around 50 square metres in size – are for beedi workers, poorly paid cigarette-rolling women who are often the sole breadwinners for their families. These women previously rented tiny shanties in slums.

The land purchase cost was shared equally by the worker, the central government and the state government, but the workers struggled for a long time to win their demand and have previous debts cancelled.

The award proves that the sheer strength of workers’ sustained efforts, with the cooperation of governments, can deliver results.

On the other side of the world, in Bolivia, the residents of San Pedro Magisterio village used to have to fetch water from springs near their polluted river daily.

Then the San Pedro Magisterio grassroots community organisation founded a water cooperative. They drilled wells and built the basic infrastructure to bring water to their homes. The funding to solve all these problems came from contributions made by community members, who did all the work themselves.

They followed this with a long campaign to build a wastewater treatment plant to clean up the highly polluted river. The community set up a reed bed ecological sewage treatment system serving 4000 people.

Resident Doña Magui says they are now trying to replace the reeds with arum lilies because they perform the same function and will help keep the treatment plant going in the long-term, because residents will sell the lilies and put the profits back into maintenance.

“As far as the state is concerned, we don’t exist,” Magui says, adding that it was the residents themselves who built the first school, the church and the first roads. This community was awarded the water category of the Transformative City award.

The third and final energy category was given to the Spanish city of Cadiz for its action plan against energy poverty.

The campaign featured active cooperation between local government leaders and ordinary citizens. A group of unemployed citizens were trained as energy advisers and given an eight-month contract by the city council to tackle unemployment, energy poverty and climate change simultaneously.

The team gives families in Cádiz advice on how to optimise their energy contracts so they pay as little as possible. In just three months, the team ran 60 workshops, gave 640 people training on energy issues, and advised 70 families in their homes, reducing their electricity bills by 20-50 per cent.

There have been 224 households that have changed their contracts to a time-of-day tariff, another sign of the knowledge gained by workshop participants.

The energy transition and energy poverty

While in the South, communities face more severe problems in transforming themselves to achieve sustainability, in the North it is energy poverty which is frequently the hidden but powerful motivator for change. Energy poverty is where building design and energy supply meet.

EU energy regulation still lacks a commonly agreed legal definition of energy poverty and this prevents the setting of mandatory targets and roadmaps.

Some national governments give low income households the chance to access social tariffs:
  • In Flanders, Belgium, for example, each household can obtain an annual discount on bills based on its size.
  • In Italy, low-income households and large families are offered discounts on gas and electricity bills, – a national plan supported by all municipalities.
  • In France social tariffs have been replaced by 'energy cheques', which people can use not only to pay their utility bills but also to finance energy-saving works in their homes.
  • In Germany, Berlin’s electricity grid is up for sale approximately every 15 years. When selecting the supplier in 2016, the citizens pushed for fuel poverty to be one of the criteria of buyer selection to be factored in by the local government.
In the absence of this, community energy groups are tackling the issue:
  • In England, Plymouth City Council identified community energy as a potential solution to energy poverty and facilitated the creation of Plymouth Energy Community in 2013, which now includes 1200 individuals and organisations who are transitioning to an affordable and low carbon energy system by offering access to grants to cancel energy debt, free and assisted insulation and advice on the best tariff options.
  • And a Low Carbon Hub Community Energy Fund is tackling the looming end of the British Feed-in Tariff subsidy for locally-generated solar electricity in March 2019, by fundraising frantically to install as many solar panels as possible on schools and businesses before the deadline. It has already successfully installed a new array at a primary school and is working with Oxfordshire County Council to encourage more schools to follow their example. It is campaigning to raise £1 million by 31st of July 2018, to bring in long term equity from positive investors.
  • In Scotland, non-profit social company OurPower, which is owned by social housing providers, community organisations and local authorities, produces and sells its own energy. Profits are reinvested to benefit customers and their community and every member can access locally produced renewable energy at a fair price and is able to control their energy supply and distribution.
  • In Wales, a similar approach is achieved by Awel Aman Tawe, which owns a wind farm and has installed photovoltaic rooves on community buildings.
  • In the Netherlands, a new Climate Agreement was reached at the beginning of this month which includes a community energy target that requires all new wind and solar projects to be at least half owned by the local community. All 33 Dutch regions have regional energy strategies under development.
Siward Zomer, representative of ‘Energie Samen’, the Dutch sector association of sustainable energy initiatives of citizens and farmers, said that "We expect a great acceleration of the development of new renewable energy projects where communities can become owners".

The control over revenues from renewable energy projects means that citizens, farmers and local entrepreneurs can directly benefit the local community.

Zomer says that strong collaboration between the market and the community will accelerate the energy transition. "The transition to a carbon free electricity system needs to be a democratic transition, giving all citizens the opportunity to participate. As part of the overall agreement, five hundred districts off the gas pipeline will have a transition plan within three years, agreed between housing collectives and community groups, local municipalities and other parties."

In Mouscron, Belgium (58,000 inhabitants), the first community energy cooperative COOPEM was launched this year by the municipality itself, following a feasibility study and several public meetings, strong involvement of citizens and a partnership with two companies, Energiris (a Brussels citizens’ cooperative) and Aralia (a third-party investor in PV projects).

COOPEM’s equity is owned 55 per cent by citizens, 15 per cent by the municipality and 30 per cent by the two private partners.

Thanks to bulk purchasing and the government’s Qualiwatt subsidy (a feed-in tariff that runs out at the end of July) citizens benefit from a reduction on the cost of the installation. When residents use energy from the grid, their meter runs normally but when their PV panels generate electricity, the meter runs backwards.

Many such organisations are members of the European Federation of Renewable Energy Cooperatives (REScoops), a network of 1,250 European energy cooperatives and their 1.000.000 citizens who are active in the energy transition.

Villages in Transition

Luzy in France is part of another network, the Village in Transition movement. It boasts a farmers’ corner, associative café, the Horizon, the donation shed, all run by citizens, with municipality support.

Luzy is a member of POTEs (Ordinary Energy Transition Pioneers), fostered by pan-European initiative Energy Cities, whose Carine Dartiguepeyrou says "are every-day-life innovators and visionaries working in areas related to the energy transition that Energy Cities, the Bourgogne Franche-Comté Region and ADEME, the French national energy conservation and environment agency, are forming into a network.

"POTEs are efficient and innovative… they collaborate and take care of others by helping them make progress in their project and overcome difficulties."

She explains that "A good example of this is the 'hold-up' method, a collective intelligence tool used for the third place the Horizon and the farmers’ corner at Luzy. Starting with an issue faced by each project, the participants put forward solutions to help the Horizon find a new business model and the farmers’ corner perpetuate its activity.

"In order to solve concrete challenges faced by project leaders (social entrepreneurs, researchers, engineers, government, NGOs ...), the actors who participate in a Hold-Up discuss and exchange ideas."
Energy communities

The European Council and the European Committee of the Regions (CoR) are drafting models of local energy ownership and the role of local energy communities in energy transition in Europe.

Energy Cities has prepared a joint contribution together with ResCoop.EU, the European federation for renewable energy cooperatives for the European Parliament to move forward on this issue. They are arguing that "only by distributing control among local actors will we be able to get to a fair energy transition and effectively fight climate change. Furthermore, this would contribute to local development and the reduction of (energy) poverty."

They perceive an enormous interest among local authorities to take control of the energy infrastructure, but also a lot of uncertainty on the 'hows and whats', and fear of failure.

Energy communities represent a distinct market actor in the energy system. They can play many roles at the local level such as provision of clean renewable energy and technical expertise. They can also as a partner to support local economic and social objectives.

For, renewable energy cooperatives are ideal partners to lead the energy transition to energy democracy.

Sharing best practices and organising exchanges between cities can fill in the current knowledge and confidence gap.

So the EU Energy Poverty Observatory has published a new Guidance on designing effective energy poverty policies in municipalities about how to implement realistic and appropriate local energy poverty policies.

The EU Energy Poverty Observatory is now inviting municipalities to apply for technical assistance with the implementation of this guidance, including insights from best practices and recommendations based on the local circumstances.

 Power to the people!

David Thorpe’s two new books are Passive Solar Architecture Pocket Reference and Solar Energy Pocket Reference. He’s also the author of Energy Management in Building and Sustainable Home Refurbishment.

Monday, April 30, 2018

UK and EC drag themselves towards net zero emissions

In both London and Europe, the effort to reduce emissions summons up a picture of a person, put on a diet by a doctor, eying a cream pie: the head knows it shouldn't eat it, but the body has to be dragged kicking and screaming away from the table.

 A version of this piece appeared on The Fifth Estate six days ago.

That's the picture I get after studying three recent developments – in the UK's climate change legal framework, the EU's Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, and its Climate Action Regulation.

All three developments embody the praiseworthy aspiration to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions around the middle of the century (in line with the Paris Agreement on climate change), but the fine words are not yet backed up by measures that will achieve that goal.

UK sets aim for 'net zero'

Claire Perry
Claire Perry
The UK's Energy and Clean Growth Minister Claire Perry made a significant and unexpected announcement that she will ask the country's Committee on Climate Change (CCC) for ideas on how to adopt the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement to limit global warming to below 2oC above pre-industrial levels, with an aspiration to keep it below 1.5oC. This means achieving net zero emissions by 2050.

She made the announcement at a meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government last week. "After the IPCC report later this year, we will be seeking the advice of the UK’s independent advisers, the Committee on Climate Change, on the implications of the Paris Agreement for the UK’s long-term emissions reduction targets," she said.

The independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) exists to set five year plans for the UK to meet its legally binding target under the Climate Change Act (2008) of reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 compared to 1990. It then monitors and reports on the UK's progress.

Perry's announcement was welcomed by the low carbon industry and campaign groups, but they cautioned that legislation is needed soon.

Dustin Benton, policy director at thinktank Green Alliance said, "The Government has made real progress on some issues, such as diesel cars and offshore wind, but there are glaring holes in areas such as energy efficiency and onshore renewables," adding waste, housing and transport to the list.

Greenpeace executive director John Sauven said this would mean the end of plans for a new runway at Heathrow. "No new runway at Heathrow will fit inside our carbon budget. The data show that the challenges posed by emissions from transport – land, sea and air – and our reliance on gas for heating will have to be confronted as a matter of urgency."

The CCC itself recently challenged the Government’s policies, saying that they do not go far enough even to meet current targets.

They want to see "urgent action" on the Clean Growth Strategy (published in October 2017), and to see detail on a long list of ideas that have been adopted by the government  to reduce emissions but which are not accompanied by substance on strategy.

These include: phasing out sales of petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2040, increasing the energy efficiency of homes by 2035 and the energy efficiency standards of new buildings, how to phase out installation of gas and oil, to generate 85% of the UK’s electricity from low-carbon sources by 2032, and deploying carbon capture and storage technology.

They highlight also a need for new policies to close the remaining ‘emissions gap’ in the fourth and fifth carbon budgets.  Even if delivered in full, existing and new policies, including those set out in the Clean Growth Strategy, miss the fourth and fifth carbon budgets by around 10-65 MtCO2e – a significant margin.

The CCC says, "There is a particular risk around meeting the fourth carbon budget which begins in just five years’ time, including completion of Hinkley Point C nuclear power station". This is looking increasingly unlikely due partly to EDF's problems on completing a similar reactor at Flamanville.

Energy Performance of Buildings Directive

Meanwhile, on 17 April, the European Parliament approved the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive. This will target the renovation of buildings, and the creation of smarter energy systems for new buildings, acknowledging that around 75% of buildings in Europe are currently energy inefficient and that buildings are the largest single energy consumer in Europe, using around 40% of final energy.

The revisions to the previous version of the Directive form the first of eight proposed steps towards the EU’s Energy Union ambitions and include advocating the use of smart technologies to introduce automation and control systems which could ensure buildings operate efficiently, the use of a 'smart readiness indicator' which can measure a building’s capacity to integrate new technologies, support for the introduction of new infrastructure for e-mobility in new buildings, and a path towards zero-emissions buildings by 2050.

There are also mechanisms to create the investment needed to renovate existing buildings to make them more energy efficient: at least 40% of infrastructure and innovation projects financed by the European Fund for Strategic Investments should contribute to the Commission's commitments on climate action and energy transition in line with the Paris Agreement. There is also funding under the European Investment Bank's Smart Finance for Smart Buildings Initiative. This aims to unlock a total of €10 billion in public and private funds between now and 2020 for energy efficiency projects.

The European Commission Vice-President for the Energy Union, Maroš Šefčovič, said: "As technology has blurred the distinction between sectors, we are also establishing a link between buildings and e-mobility infrastructure, and helping stabilize the electricity grid.”

The Council of Ministers have yet to finalise agreement of the Directive before it enters into force. Member States will have to transpose the new elements of the Directive into their national laws within 20 months. If the UK eventually Brexits, it will not have to.

I have already reported here and here on how the Directive has been watered down compared to what it might have been.

New EU Climate Action Regulation

A new European Climate Law is also edging closer. The Climate Action Regulation (formerly known as Effort Sharing Regulation) covers almost 60% of all greenhouse gases and establishes annual carbon budgets between 2021 and 2030 for each EU country, covering sectors like surface transport, buildings, agriculture, small industry and waste, as follows:

How effective it is as will depend on the policies adopted by each Member State, who, in the coming months, are supposed to develop National Energy and Climate Plans to show how they expect to meet their commitments under the directive.

The European Council already has an overall GHG reduction target for the EU, of reducing emissions 40% by 2030 compared to 1990, with a subtarget for sectors not included in the emissions trading system (ETS) of 30% reduction compared to 2005. The CAR gives each country an individual target to implement that target. France and Germany have by far the highest targets. Eastern European and other less industrialised countries such as Greece and Portugal will be able to continue to increase emissions [for the full list see the table on page 5 of this analysis.

This is not as straightforward as it might seem. The CAR is meant to contain flexibilities to let nations meet targets more cost-effectively, but, according to separate analysis by three think tanks (Sandbag, T&E and Öko Institut), this means it is full of loopholes that allow countries to get out of their commitments, meaning it will only lead to 25-26% reductions compared to 2005. Furthermore, they say, it does not provide the incentives to put the EU in line to fully decarbonise these sectors by 2050.

In respect of action on reducing emissions, the UK was one of the EU's high performers. With it out of the Union, the rest will have to try harder to achieve that 40% target. However, T&E says they won't make it. "Countries that will not meet their 2020 targets will be rewarded by being allowed to emit even more".

It cites the example of Ireland, whose emissions since 2011 have steadily increased. Rather than the CAR giving it a baseline starting point for emission reductions of the 2020 target of 20% relative to 2005 levels, it is being given a 2018 level, which means, because it is failing to reduce emissions to badly, it has to achieve just 5% relative to 2005 emissions. Austria, Belgium or Finland could also be among the countries that will benefit from this starting point.

To return to the picture described in my opening paragraph, at least the head has drawn up rules; whether it can implement and enforce them effectively is another matter entirely.

David Thorpe's two new books are Passive Solar Architecture Pocket Reference and Solar Energy Pocket Reference.  He's also the author of Energy Management in Buildings and Sustainable Home Refurbishment.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Has the world reached peak ecological footprint?

Humanity’s ecological footprint may have levelled off after decades of consistent increase, according to new data released last week by the Global Footprint Network.

[A version of this piece appeared on The Fifth Estate website last week.
For more information on this topic, see:]

Mathis Wackernagel, founder and CEO of Global Footprint Network, speaking in an interview with me from Oxford University just before the launch, said, "We may have reached peak eco-footprint, after years of expansion. For example, China underwent a rapid expansion of its footprint, and now it has flattened. This could be a real trend."

Graph of China's ecological footprint 2014
Peak consumption? In 1961 China was consuming the equivalent of 0.31 Earths of biocapacity, but since then rocketed to 2.21 Earths, where it has sat for the last two years of data.

What is ecological footprint?

Ecological footprint is a shorthand way of understanding the relationship between our consumption of resources and the capacity of the planet to provide them and absorb the pollution we cause.

Every individual, a community or nation has their own ecological footprint. It is the biologically productive space needed to renew all that we demand from nature. For the world as a whole, it was in the early 1970s when humanity started consuming more than the planet could regenerate. From then on we have been in deficit, implying that we cannot carry on consuming at this level without ever-stronger risk of ecological crises.

Global Footprint Network has been providing this country and planetary level data for many years but last week’s launch also saw the launch of a new data platform and an open source system, meaning that anyone can now freely explore and interrogate the data on global or national bases.

The new data is compiled from statistics provided by the United Nations and, being complicated to collect, is always three or four years behind the current year. The first year in which the data was collected was 1961. The new website currently provides time series of data for every year between 1961 and 2014.

This is what the world’s ecological footprint looks like over this period:

the world’s ecological footprint
From 1961 to 2014 we have gone from exploiting 0.63 Earth-equivalents to 1.69, approximately flatlining for four years.
 The horizontal line represents the total biocapacity of the planet. Before about 1970 we had ecological reserves to spare. Ever since then our ecological deficit has been rising. But it is noticeable that since about 2011 the rate of increase has levelled off.

“We don’t know whether or not this is a blip or a trend. It is too early to say,” Wackernagel said.

Mathis Wackernagel
Mathis Wackernagel
 “But even if we stayed at the same level as last year, we’d still be in a severe global storm. So the question is, how good is your boat? For instance, even though India has a small per person footprint on average, it is still larger than what their ecosystems can renew. While this may be unfair, the reality is that this puts them at significant risk – and ignoring it at even larger.”

Individual country data compares consumption data to biocapacity data. What Wackernagel is referring to here is that India, despite having a total per capita footprint of 0.67 Earth-equivalents, is in deficit in relation to what it is able to supply itself to feed its consumption, and is therefore using biocapacity from other countries to fuel its rapid pace of development.

The data is compiled from UN information on population and the amount of built-up land, carbon emissions, cropland, fishing grounds, forest products and grazing land.

For the world as a whole, the peak was in 2011. It is interesting to compare the statistics for 1961, 2011 and 2014 to see what has changed to cause this overall peaking:

Year Built-up land Carbon emissions Cropland Fishing grounds Forest products Grazing land Total
1961 0.026 1.005 0.465 0.096 0.431 0.265 2.288
2011 0.061 1.779 0.533 0.087 0.281 0.147 2.888
2014 0.064 1.707 0.550 0.093 0.278 0.144 2.835

The world’s ecological footprint per person in 1961, 2011 and 2014.
The world’s ecological footprint per person in 1961, 2011 and 2014. The units are global hectares (gha) – these are a biologically productive hectare with world average productivity for a given year, to account for the fact that different land types have different productivities.

The amount of built-up land has steadily increased over the entire period, but carbon emissions have recently slightly decreased. While the amount of fishing grounds, forest products and grazing land have all continued to decline, the amount of cultivated land is almost back to the level of 1961.

Biocapacity is also shrinking quite rapidly per person, so even though per person ecological footprint has not changed that much, its ratio to biocapacity has become ever more unfavourable.

This implies pressures on biodiversity. It does not tell us about the nitrogen and phosphorus pollution caused by this increase in agriculture. For this we have to look for other statistics not covered by the ecological footprint metric, but covered by a different metric – planetary boundaries, collated annually by the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Planetary Boundaries

As can be seen in the above diagram this is one of the four boundaries that have been exceeded.

Australia and the UK

The website allows anyone to play with the data. Let’s compare, for example, the ecological footprints of Australia and the UK.

Australia is using the resources of 4.09 Earths, down from a peak of 5.15 Earths in 2011.

The UK is using the resources of 2.85 Earths, down from a peak of 3.55 Earths in 2011.

In addition, both of these countries’ ecological footprints of consumption (in global hectares divided by population) have declined slightly since their peaks, in 2008 and 2007 respectively:

Australia's ecological footprint

Australia's ecological footprint in terms of the number of Earths needed to sustain it, if everyone on the planet had the same level and impact of consumption as Australia does.
UK's ecological footprint
The UK's ecological footprint, pictured the same way. The UK's has reduced since the financial crisis of 2007.

In the UK’s case, if we drill down to the category level, the reason for the fall is solely a reduction in carbon emissions (which is largely due to a switch for gas to coal-powered electricity generation, but also due to a cut in fishing grounds due to previous over-fishing). The area of built-up land has just over doubled since 1961:

UK time series:

Year Built-up land Carbon emissions Cropland Fishing grounds Forest products Grazing land Total
1961 0.068 3.835 0.803 0.396 0.297 0.751 6.150
2007 0.139 4.240 0.815 0.103 0.623 0.324 6.245
2014 0.156 2.996 0.832 0.082 0.483 0.250 4.799

UK ecological footprints in 1961, 2007 and 2014
UK's ecological footprints in 1961, 2007 and 2014.

In Australia’s case, again there was a decline in carbon emissions. The area of built-up land has almost tripled since 1961:

Australia time series:

Year Built-up land Carbon emissions Cropland Fishing grounds Forest products Grazing land Total
1961 0.024 3.026 0.527 0.049 1.031 2.813 7.471
2008 0.047 5.867 0.872 0.127 1.206 0.872 8.992
2014 0.063 4.700 0.679 0.122 0.863 0.458 6.886

Australia's ecological footprints in 1961, 2007 and 2014
Australia's ecological footprints in 1961, 2007 and 2014.

Other trends are not improving, however.

What can be done?

Despite the levelling out, Wackernagel remains alarmed by humanity’s unsustainable activities.

“People don’t look at this stuff. Instead, they’re buoyant about labour productivity, but this came about because of cheap energy and resources. Now we need to maintain our quality of life but reduce resource use.”

But he sees a way out.

“Total and ever-lasting decoupling of economic growth from resource consumption is not possible. Some may be possible. But it takes resources to run an economy. Our data shows how the resource dependence of most countries have increased, even though we have more efficient technology. For instance, we can calculate the average resource intensity in the world – or nations or cities – by sectors. This points out which sectors are within resource intensities that are consistent with the one-planet budget, and which ones are on a collision course.”

Cities are beginning to employ ecological footprinting methods to track the demand on nature of different types of development. To do this other sources of data are added to those on the website.

“We are starting work with six cities in Portugal. We are also in conversation with the Wuppertal Institute, Germany, to run a campaign on all the larger German cities and drive up demand for sustainable solutions,” Wackernagel said.

“They recognise there is a danger of stranded assets due to having exceeded planetary boundaries.

“The framing of the argument is important. The ecological footprint calculator may come over as negative, generating a sense of sacrifice and suffering. We should ask: what is the best move to secure lasting development improvements for us? The alternative – encouraging expansionism – is dangerous.”

Cities can use their own detailed information, he says, to compile a “consumption land use matrix for a city”.

“This details how various consumption activities contribute to the overall demand. Then, using local consumption statistics, this can be extended into the past and future to evaluate trends in the city’s resource performance.”

This has been done already in Calgary, Canada, where consultants worked with a planning department to reduce the level of impact of a new housing development.

The ecological footprint is a useful tool alongside other tools. Although time will tell whether the impact of human consumption on the planet has peaked, it is still at an unsustainable level. It will take much work to actually reverse the rise of the last decades to a sustainable one, especially given the inexorable rise of human population and urbanisation.

For more information on this topic, see:

David Thorpe is the author of The One Planet Life, about living within planetary boundaries, Passive Solar Architecture Pocket Referenceand Sustainable Home Refurbishment.