Thursday, 24 July 2014

Disrupting the world of growth

Here's a book I recommend very strongly. It's
      The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding
      Bloomsbury, 2011

Gilding is an interesting fellow. Former trade union organiser, former military officer, former head of Greenpeace Australia and now an international business consultant.

The book contains a lot of familiar stuff: threat of climate change, history of international negotiations and so on. But the really interesting part is unfamiliar. I think these are his most original points:
  1. The opportunity to avoid a planetary crisis has passed. There will be a crisis and it will involve the whole natural-social-economic system.
  2. We can and will address it. We are "slow but not stupid".
  3. The experience of mobilising for WW2 and addressing the banking crisis shows that we can make big changes fast once we see the need.
  4. We have already entered the crisis period. This can be seen in food price instability, rising energy prices, rising mineral prices, recession and the banking crisis. And, I would add, our inadequate response to these problems.
  5. Once our political leaders recognise the imperative need to act they will create crisis plans which will use existing attitudes and institutions to address the most urgent problem - which is probably climate change.
  6. Only as we work through the crisis will people recognise that sustainability is incompatible with economic growth.
  7. A new and better world will emerge from the crisis.
 More specifically he thinks our response will play out over three phases:
  • Years 1-5, Climate War. Crash programme to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50%. Uses existing institutions under government direction and proven technologies.
  • Years 5-20, Climate neutrality. Reduction of net greenhouse gas emissions to zero. Some new institutions and technologies.
  • Years 20-100, Climate recovery. Negative greenhouse gas emissions and the building of a new society.
Despite the negative start this is fundamentally an optimistic picture and there are many things that could go wrong. For instance we could react "too little, too late". Good plans could be undermined by selfish and shortsighted individuals, groups and nations as well as honest error. And, in planning something so novel and dramatic, there will be mistakes in the planning too.

So this transition will need strong leadership, effective systems of governance and a political environment that will at least tolerate the necessary changes and sacrifices. Gilding says almost nothing about the politics and government institutions that will be needed so I'll flesh that out a bit for the Climate War phase.

I believe that the later stages will present different political challenges; no less serious but there will be more time to address them.

Since this has to be a global response we'll need global leaders who are completely committed to the cause and who control the necessary institutions. The closest we've come to that in modern times is the allied leadership during WW2. It's worth noting that Stalin was a dictator whilst Churchill led a coalition government that suspended normal politics, and elections, for the duration of the war. Also, that Churchill lost the first post-war election.

These leaders will probably be people with substantial political experience that is, experience of both  winning elections and governing states. It's therefore unlikely that they will be drawn from the environmental movement or the existing Green parties except in countries with proportional representation. They will have spent their years studying power, not science or nature, and will be ignorant of ecological thinking.

They will, however, probably recruit people from the environmental movement and the Green parties as advisers.

National institutions
The required programme will include closure of some major plants, eg drilling rigs and oil refineries, and a rapid expansion in industries such as solar and wind power. Industries such as travel will have to shrink. Yet others, eg agriculture, will be transformed. We cannot expect the industries affected to organise their own decline or even transformation at the required pace so there will have to be national and international planning agencies.

It may be that most companies and countries will follow these plans but not all will do so. The selfish and short-sighted individuals and groups whose existence I noted above will have to be compelled to comply. Companies operating in one country are subject to national law and can, where the state itself works, be brought into line through the familiar processes of regulation and inspection - though the level of intervention will be greatly increased.

Or can they?

There are many countries in which laws and taxes are widely evaded by concealment and corruption. These countries will not change their natures just because we face a global crisis. So the more law-abiding countries will have to accept substantial non-compliance. And the less law-abiding countries will have to accept unprecedented levels of international monitoring and direction.

These facts will create backlashes in both kinds of countries.

International institutions
Since this is a global crisis we will need international institutions to ensure that the national actions add up to an adequate global response. And, since many of the largest and most-polluting firms are multinationals, there will have to be international enforcement mechanisms. The WTO provides some useful precedents here with the vitally important difference that participation will not be voluntary.

None of this can happen unless the leaders of the major powers, that is, the USA, China and the EU, support it but just as nations include selfish and short-sighted individuals and groups so the world will include selfish and short-sighted nations. Here, again, enforcement mechanisms will be needed.

It's likely that, with a strong push from the major powers, a good deal can be achieved by courts and negotiation. Gilding seems to believe that this will be enough. I'd like to agree, but I don't.

The whole history of international attempts to address climate change persuade me that some nations will be unwilling to accept international direction and that military intervention will be necessary. This may be by UN forces or by the forces of the major powers.

Public opinion
In the richer countries the Climate War programme will imply restrictions on holidays, travel, fuel, heating, food and employment. Many people will have to change the ways in which they work. This will provoke a substantial backlash both from who can see no further than their own problems and those who see further but hope, by money or privilege, to escape the worst consequences of climate change. Both groups are already visible. Neither will vanish.

In any country with a functioning democracy, indeed, in any country in which people are free to talk and meet, this backlash has the potential to derail the Climate War programme. A variety of responses are available to governments from abandoning the programme through persuasion to suspending civil liberties for the duration.

Since Gilding cites the WW2 experience repeatedly it's worth noting that each of allied leaders, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin, had domestic powers that constituted, or bordered on, dictatorship and control of large military and security forces. Each of them ran a command economy in which the government defined requirements and allocated work, and workers, to the places where it was to be done.

In short, I fear that success in addressing climate change may require some suspension of liberties and of democracy.

These are uncomfortable conclusions for me. I am not a closet authoritarian and I would much rather believe in a solution based on persuasion and democratic politics. But I have to agree with Gilding that the time for that option has passed. That it has passed is the fault of the politicians and commentators who could have provided timely leadership and didn't.

Now someone will have to clear up the mess.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Bring out your inner tortoise!

Speed is the defining characteristic of our age. Above all we go faster than our ancestors - until the steam train no-one had ever gone faster than a galloping horse. (Unless they fell off a high cliff I suppose.)  And we praise speed in sport, in business and in travel. It's no surprise then that George Osbourne's latest wheeze for reviving the economy is HS3, a high-SPEED rail line across the north of England.

Yet 'speed kills', speed is dangerous. Fast cars cause accidents. Fast decisions overlook inconvenient facts. And friction means that high speeds waste more energy than low speeds.

The Green movement knows this and has lobbied for lower speeds on roads and against high-speed rail on the grounds of energy and safety. But there's more to it than that. There are activities that are better if they're slower. Eating, drinking and lovemaking for just three. In fact most social activities are better if they're not rushed.

And this is one key to creating a better society. When we ask for speed limits we're making the street more accessible to those, children and the elderly, who aren't fast. We're also making the streets a more natural place for social contact. When we oppose high-speed rail we're also asking people and planners to focus on their local economies and suburbs.

And in all we're striving for a society that cares more for the relationships between its people than for the speed of its machines. A society in which people sustain each other and in which our demands are such that the Earth can sustain us; and our children.

For more on this see Carl Honore's TED talk.

Monday, 16 June 2014

The Global ConDominion?

In my Emergency Braking scenario I consider the possibility that a major power which I call Maverick (probably the US or China) becomes so concerned about climate change that it acts unilaterally to stop it. There's another, at least equally plausible, scenario in which the USA and China act together. Here's how it might play out.

It's 2020 and GHG emissions have continued to increase. China has invested heavily in renewables and the EPA has regulated carbon emissions. Even so, we're digging and burning more coal each year.

Meanwhile a research team at the University of Sao Paulo in collaboration with scientists in London, Beijing and California has created a fine-grained climate model which links climate to weather. They predict that if, given global warming, certain conditions occur the Atlantic and Pacific weather systems will synchronise and throw tornados and typhoons of extraordinary strength at the coasts of the US and China. The conditions do occur and promised storms arrive on schedule causing unprecedented damage and loss of life.

The US president phones the Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party, which is still in power but Communist in name alone. They agree that the delays in addressing climate change have been folly and that the world faces a planetary crisis. Both also consult their domestic allies and opponents. The Republican party tries to resist but is cowed by the threat of several major corporations to switch funding to the Democrats.

Within a month the leaders of the US, China and the EU meet in Iceland and after two days announce their shared determination to stop climate change. The two days have in fact been spent finalising a secret treaty whose effect becomes apparent on their return home. Their first actions are to announce that coal production will be phased out within 7 years and to accelerate the development of renewables and nuclear power. Barriers to both, such as requirements of local consultation, are relaxed by executive order. In the US the presidential order is reluctantly confirmed by the both houses of Congress. In the EU the Council of Ministers issues the orders and prepares for lengthy dialogue with the Parliament.

A new Planetary Crisis Mitigation treaty is drafted within 60 days and signed by the major powers in 30 more. It creates a new UN Agency, the UNPCM Agency, with almost unlimited powers to regulate emissions and overrule national and corporate investment decisions that effect emissions (which is essentially all of them). The governance structure is complex (Kafka would be proud of it!) and it takes years for people to realise that many of the functions of national governments have passed to the UNPCMA. A secret court system (with some similarities to the TTIP courts) makes challenges to the UNPCMA slow, expensive and futile. 

In parallel the leaders of the USA and China hold bilateral discussions with their main allies. The usual diplomatic verbiage is produced but the underlying messsage is stark: Every country should join the PCM treaty immediately. Those that stay out will be subject to escalating trade and diplomatic sanctions with combined military action as a back-up.

The UNPCMA acts quickly, converting the national and EU coal closure plans into global plans, making these plans legally binding and creating continental energy agencies that will build continental-scale super-grids to share access to renewable power sources. In Europe these include British wind, Norwegian hydro, German solar and Italian geothermal.

The UNPCMA also starts urgent feasibility studies for geo-engineering plants. Plants that extract atmospheric CO2 by burning biofuels and burying the CO2 are initial favourites.

By the end of 2021 it's clear that the plan is working. Greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric concentrations are down - though not by much. Most countries have signed the treaty and most of the exceptions, eg North Korea, are too small to matter. There has been strong popular resistance to the treaty in most countries causing seven countries to suspend their constitutions and twenty more to introduce martial law. 

In 2022 Bahrain announced its intention to renounce the treaty but the parliament reversed this decision following a US-supported invasion by Saudi Arabia. Variations of this scenario, some rather bloody, played out in Venezuela and Indonesia.

In 2023 the G20 announced its determination that the world should return to national sovereignty, democracy and the rule of law "as soon as circumstances permit". It was widely understood that 'circumstances would not permit' for at least twenty years and that the Western model - democracy, corporations, markets and political liberty - would be honoured only in the breach. National planning bureaucracies, supervised by the UNPCMA, were increasingly established and effective in all countries.

So what do you think? You don't like it?

Neither do I. But by 2020 - or 2030 - it may be the ONLY scenario that can work. We know that the window for more orderly mitigation measures is closing. This scenario would show the failure of environmental politics. More, a human failure to read the writing on the wall and act while there was enough time to avoid catastrophe and preserve our liberties.

But even a failure, as with defeat in war, leaves choices to be made. This might look like the least bad

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Coal: It kills you thrice

The recent mine disaster in Turkey has reminded me just how bad coal is.

a) Coal mining is dangerous. The death toll at Soma is now over 300. Some of that is clearly due to neglect of safety measures but those measures are necessary because coal mining is so dangerous. Fresh cut coal absorbs Oxygen and releases Methane (aka firedamp) creating risks of explosion and suffocation. Then there's all that rock overhead.

China has the most coal and has reduced accident deaths by a very creditable 80% since 2000. Still, official figures put the death toll at 1,049 for last year.

b)  Burning coal generates extraordinary levels of air pollution. Researchers (Public health benefits of strategies to reduce greenhouse –gas emissions: low carbon electricity generation. Lancet 374, 1917-29) have estimated avoidable deaths from electricity generation at 8,000 in the EU, over 100,000 in China and over 180,000 in India. Most of these deaths are due to coal.

c)  And then there's climate change. Coal is the worst fossil fuel in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. The ultimate death toll as temperatures rise is essentially incalculable since it depends on future emissions, the response of the biosphere and the adaptation measures that we take. If, as seems likely, climate change reduces food production and we humans do not reduce inequality the number of deaths will plainly be in the millions.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Two striking moments

For me the Q&A at the St. Paul's meeting produced two striking moments.

The first was when Christiana Figueres answered the question: What is the most important thing to do about climate change? Her answer - Put a price on carbon. That is, we need a carbon tax that is high enough to change behaviour. Admirably clear and brief.

The second was when a member of the audience asked: Since modern capitalism system requires constant growth do we need to replace capitalism? The moment came when  the audience applauded - the only question to be honoured with applause!

I also liked Tony Juniper's answer (my paraphrase): We don't have time to replace capitalism but we must reform it by breaking its obsession with economic growth.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Figueres: The unanswered question

Last night I was at St Paul's Cathedral. No, I have not had a Damascene conversion. I was there to hear Christiana Figueres of the UNFCCC and then to hear the Q&A.

Actually, hearing was hard. In 50 years of attending public meetings these were the worst acoustics I can remember! Still we now have an online recording. Meanwhile I want to comment.

Of course Figueres said much that was sensible, even wise, and happily there was no need to debate the science. That left space for more serious discussion. She said:

"If we are to stay under a 2 degree temperature rise we must peak global emissions in the next 6 to 10 years, and reach carbon-neutrality in the second half of the century, leaving most of the fossil fuel reserves in the ground. A tall order from where we stand today. We already know that the sum total of what countries can currently do does not sum up to the necessary level of emission reductions."

Then she asked a key question:
 "So why are we lagging behind in the timely response? Why are we not using every option to peak global emissions and descend to carbon-neutrality in the second half of the century?"

But she did not answer it.  So I will. There are three reasons.

The first is short-sightedness. We all know that politicians in democracies have to win elections and are therefore focused on the next election. And that is never more than five years away. Climate change, however, is the ultimate long-term issue. Politicians would rather win by promising 'jam now' than lose by honestly explaining the difficult actions needed.

Something similar applies in undemocratic states too (with the possible exception of North Korea!) Even tyrants have to meet the desire of their supporters for food, housing and consumers goods. And if only a few people have to be satisfied then those few will want Rolexes and Mercedes cars. In China, for instance, the Politburo believes that only constant economic growth will buy off mass unrest. "Apres moi; la deluge", as de Gaulle probably didn't say.

And the leaders of major corporations are subject to similar pressures to deliver short-term results. US corporations report results quarterly and nothing but constant increases will satisfy investors and analysts.

Secondly is a kind of ignorance. Of course they know that climate change is real but they see it as just another issue. And issues are addressed by energetic hand-waving in public and negotiation in private. But you cannot negotiate with a flooding river nor does hand-waving have much influence on a drought. Almost all British and American politicians lack solid scientific training and, on an emotional level, just don't understand the cussedness of the physical world.

And third is the powerful vested interests. The fossil fuel companies know the science but to admit the truth about climate change would damage their profits and undermine their share prices. Many firms in other sectors recognise what many climate activists have been slow to accept: That effective action to mitigate climate change will demand a reduction in GDP right across the developed world. They therefore pay journalists, lobbyists, pressure groups and politicians to deny the science and resist effective action.

Since the required action, is in any case, complex, expensive, difficult and uncertain there is no shortage of plausible arguments for inaction. Yet inaction is itself the riskiest choice.

Figueres is smart. She knows how much financial, political and, indeed, emotional capital is invested in our fossil-fueled economy. But perhaps she has not understood just what lengths people will go to to defend their interests and privileges. If any readers are doubtful I suggest they look up the costs of American elections or the track record of corporate meddling in the politics of South America or the oil fields of the Middle East. Or the Iraq War.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Passion on the high street

Avoiding catastrophic climate change will require many changes. One of the most difficult will be to reduce our use of the car for there's nothing that gets people quite so excited as cars and parking.

This was brought home to me forcefully last night by a meeting in Palmers Green, an outer London suburb.  The meeting had been organised by the local Tory MP allegedly to draw attention to the concerns of local shopkeepers but more probably for electoral reasons - the local elections are only a month away.

These concerns were about the loss of on-street parking proposed by Enfield Council as part of a major plan - the 'Mini-Holland bid' - to make cycling safer and more popular in the borough. This was definitely a protest meeting as no spokesman for the Council or the cycling movement was given a place on the agenda (though several spoke from the floor after I pointed this out!)

The main speaker - Costas Georgiou of the Green Lanes Business Association - predicted the death of the Palmers Green high street if the plans were implemented and showed an artists impression of a traffic-free high street whose main features were cycle lanes and tumbleweed! Many other speakers were equally angry - though frightened might be a better word.  These fears are understandable. Most local businesses have struggled to survive the recession - not all successfully. And for a business owner the business is more than a way to make money - its part of their identity and they feel passionate about it. So the idea that they might lose some custom to places with better parking is deeply threatening.

The shopkeepers were articulate about the need for parking and the lack of consultation by the Council.

For the other side councillors, cyclists and Green Party activists were less passionate but cited much more evidence. Now the available evidence is not of the highest quality but a good survey (The means: to change places for the better) was published in 2012. It shows that:
  • car ownership is beginning to decline - by 3% in outer London between 2001 and 2010 (Page 26).
  • walking is the most popular way that shoppers reach district town centres in London (page 27).
  • shopping cyclists spend more per month than shopping motorists - which is not what shopkeepers think.
It was clear last night that the Palmers Green shopkeepers did not believe these points. That is not a surprise since a further finding of the study was exactly that "shopkeepers consistently overestimate the share of their customers coming by car". For instance a study in Camberwell in 2008 found the following 

Bus Car Walk Bike
Retailers estimate (%) 31 17 34 5
Actual (%) 63 3 15 3

Now Palmers Green is not Camberwell - no two places are the same - but this does show that we need not believe the shopkeepers estimates. What both sides, and all the other interested parties, need now is facts.

The Mini-Holland money - £30 million from Transport for London - is a great opportunity for the borough to make its streets and places more attractive and valuable to all residents. There's a need for consultation and also for more imagination than we've seen so far. I, at least, will be watching closely.