Transition Now Before It’s Too Late

If permaculture is bringing answers to the awkward questions around sustainability, then community is how we can make permaculture a reality on a meaningful scale. For a brief introduction to permaculture, see my earlier article here.

I’m delighted to report that many communities are now finding their feet and getting off their sofas to do this work, through the Transition Network.

People getting involved in Transition initiatives are coming from every walk of life and with a vast range of motives. The movement itself was begun due to concerns, not just about climate change and the loss of our natural resources, but also about the expected effects of peak oil.

Peak oil is a complex subject, but in a nutshell, demand for oil is growing, and new sources of oil are shrinking. There’s a point on the graph where the economics mean oil prices will sky-rocket. So let’s take a moment to think about what in our lives that would effect.

Tell you what – it would be much quicker to list what it wouldn’t effect. Nothing!

Everything we buy these days is transported, often half-way around the world. In fact, many things are made from materials transported half-way around the world. Then the finished products are transported back again. All this flying or sailing about requires fuel. Then there are the materials themselves. Plastics made from oil. In everything. Then there is the energy to drive the manufacturing processes. Sometimes, admittedly, from coal. Extracted and transported using oil. And then there are the energy-hungry, manufactured pesticides and fertilisers. There are those who believe that if we do not invent the technologies to combat climate change while we can still transport things about relatively cheaply, our options will suddenly become very limited.

So the Transitioners are starting now. Their aim, above everything else, is to build local resilience. What if we grew a huge range of food plants and animals close to home? What if we put back the local butcher, the local baker, and yes, the candlestick maker? What if we made an audit of the essentials in life, and tried to create local social enterprises to supply them? And what if, as shoppers, we supported these local enterprises before going to the supermarket?

It’s not about going backwards, to some romantic pastoral idyll, and giving up all our advances. We can green up the cities. We can connect and share ideas over the internet. There are already many great ideas to be found for greening up our lives, without losing anything of real value.

Transitioners are not waiting for governments to put things right for them.  They’re getting out there and building community themselves. And, rather hearteningly, quite a few councils are getting involved or lending support too.

Cheap energy, cheap food and cheap consumer products have come to us at an  enormous cost to the planet and to the people paid a pittance to produce them. Transition offers us a way to prepare for and begin to live more responsibly. Caring for people, caring for planet, ensuring fair shares for all.

See the video below to find out more about the Transition Movement and what changes we all can make to ensure we have a brighter future.

For more information on the Transition Model, check out the Transition Network website.

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Climate change – strong action in the presence of uncertainty

Managing climate change is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. We are already in a very difficult place with concentrations of greenhouse gases at their highest levels for at least 450,000 years. The science suggests that unless the world takes strong action to reduce emissions over the coming decades the risks of dangerous and disruptive changes in climate are immense. For example, the climate records, from a variety of sources such as ice cores and ocean sediments, suggest that while greenhouse gas concentrations may have changed relatively slowly in the past, climate transitions have appeared very rapidly. If concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continue to increase over the coming decades, we risk shifts in climate and impacts appearing very suddenly. This, and other insights from the science, indicates that the risks we are taking with the planet are immense and as such managing climate change is a problem of risk management. To view the problem otherwise is likely to result in misleading conclusions that tend to suggest little or delayed action. Therefore understanding how to comprehend and think about risk and uncertainty is key to greater progress on managing climate change.

There are several types of uncertainty relevant to climate change; as described in the paper by Smith and Stern in 2011 for the Royal Society. The first is “imprecision” or statistical uncertainty where we are able to provide statements of probability around a particular outcome. The second is “ambiguity” (or Knightian uncertainty) where it is not currently possible to provide statements of probability around an outcome or we are uncertain about the probabilities themselves. Third is “intractability” where we know it is possible to make computations relevant to an outcome but it is beyond current mathematical or computational capacity. And last is “indeterminacy” where we are unable to attach precise values to quantities that are relevant for policy-making. Here differing views between people and ethical considerations are relevant.

Understanding how these different types of uncertainty apply to this problem is very helpful; they provide a robust framework for thinking through the issues around climate change. For example, greenhouse gas concentrations (or stocks) have increased from around 280 parts per million (ppm) of carbon-dioxide-equivalent (CO2e) in the mid-19th century to around 445 ppm today. If we continue at current rates of emissions, by the end of this century we would likely add at least 300 ppm, taking concentrations to around 750 ppm CO2e or higher. Here we are able to provide fairly robust probability statements. Such a path would bring somewhere in the region of a 50-50 chance of a warming of more than 5°C on mid-19th century levels, a temperature not seen on Earth for more than 30 million years. Homo sapiens has experienced nothing like this, being present for around only 250,000 years, and our agrarian civilisation only 8,000 or 9,000 years, since the emergence from the last ice age. The commitments embodied in the most recent global agreements to manage climate change, the UNFCCC Copenhagen Accord and Cancun Agreements, if implemented in full, would likely see a rise in global average temperature of 3.5-4°C (50-50 chance), a temperature not seen on Earth for more than 3 million years.

From here we are able to, and should, “speculate” on impacts from such levels of warming. Such warming, particularly warming of 5°C, would likely cause disruption on a huge scale to local habitats and climates, for example through flooding, desertification, erosion and water and food scarcity. Hundreds of millions of people, perhaps billions, would probably have to move, with the associated risks of severe and extended conflict.

Here we must explicitly recognise ambiguity (we are sure a 5°C temperature rise will have great impacts but we are unable to determine precisely how), and also intractability and indeterminacy – none of these predictions can be made with certainty. However, it is clear that the potential risks are huge, and the probabilities where they are available are not small – this is about risk management. Unmanaged climate change will put at risk the great advances in development of the last few decades, which have seen hundreds of millions rise out of income poverty, great improvements in health and life expectancy, and major advances in education and literacy. A high-carbon growth strategy is likely to destroy itself and is not a serious medium-term option.

The case for strong action is clear. The risks are immense. But there is also much uncertainty around action and this must be explicitly considered or we may arrive at the wrong conclusions on the scale of action necessary and timing of emissions reductions. The science can guide us on global emissions paths that will constrain the rise in global average temperature to less than 2°C with a reasonable probability (imprecision). The 2°C limit is the level accepted in international agreements, beyond which the risks of passing climate “tipping” points and other climate feedbacks are greatly increased. As a world we are already at close to 1°C above the mid-19th century level.

An emissions path that would give a reasonable chance (50-50) of staying below 2°C (with a 20% chance of exceeding 3°C – remember, this is a probability distribution), would require annual global emissions to fall from their current level of around 50 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2010, to around 44 billion tonnes in 2020, under 35 billion tonnes in 2030 and to well under 20 billion tonnes in 2050. This would see concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere peak somewhere above 500 ppm over the coming decades and decline from there.

Reductions in emissions on this scale require nothing short of an energy-industrial revolution across all countries and economic sectors. Research, development and deployment of low-carbon technologies will be crucial if we are to achieve these reductions. It is important here to consider uncertainty around technological advance. The presence of intractability around the consequences and prospects of progress in technology might be taken by some to suggest a “wait-and-see” approach on emissions reductions. That would be a profound mistake and it is crucial that this is clearly understood. First, there is a flow-stock process here, from emissions to increasing concentrations, and it is very difficult to reduce stocks of greenhouse gases on a major scale in the short or medium term (geoengineering is currently not a viable option due to costs and/or risks associated with the various technologies). Second, infrastructure and capital investment involves “lock-in” with much of the relevant capital having a technical lifetime of a few decades. Delay would result in the lock-in of vast amounts of long-lived high-carbon infrastructure, especially in the developing world.

Delay is very dangerous: we are already at a difficult starting point in terms of annual global emissions and concentrations of greenhouse gases and weak action or inaction for a decade would make the necessary emissions reductions and stabilisation of concentrations at acceptable levels much more problematic or impossible.

Managing climate change is a problem of risk management. Risk and uncertainty is core to arguments for action and must be explicitly addressed – the risks we face as a world are immense and delay is very dangerous. Now is the time for strong action.

James is a Research Officer at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. The views expressed are his own and do not represent those of the Grantham Research Institute. This work was prepared drawing on various materials from collaborations with Nicholas Stern. I alone am responsible for any errors. 

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Permaculture Brings Harmony to Life

If our current lifestyle truly is unsustainable – and there are many voices clamouring that this is so – what are we to do about it?

Is turning off a few appliances, having one less holiday abroad a year, sorting all our rubbish into four different bins and buying fair-trade fashion enough to turn the tide? Or do we need to make more radical changes to what we decide to value in life?

One rapidly growing worldwide movement claims not to know all the answers, but to be asking the right questions. Permaculture is about empowering people to come up with solutions themselves.

Originally a shortening of the term “permanent agriculture”, permaculture now more readily means “permanent culture”. It’s a collection of tools, methods, systems, philosophies, experiences and ethics which are used to create a harmonious, non-damaging lifestyle.

The three tenets upon which permaculture stands are difficult to argue with: ‘caring for people’, ‘caring for Earth’, and ‘fair shares for all’. You may notice that ‘profit’ is conspicuously absent from the equation.

Permaculture is about taking back responsibility for ensuring that our heart-based values are put before purely monetary considerations. Money maybe a tool. It is never a driver.

Care for people will cover things like ensuring that the food we eat is healthy, that it’s produced without exploitation, that the vulnerable and helpless are cared for in community. That our children are given real life-skills, like how to live happy, fulfilled lives and how to relate well to each other, rather than how to be worker/consumers.

Care for Earth means working with nature, not against it. Instead of stripping the land and pouring on chemicals, in permaculture we allow and encourage a healthy mix of plants and animals to grow together.  Just like they would in the wild, but selected to give us maximum benefit.  We also ensure that a proportion of the land is left totally wild and protected, to preserve biodiversity.

Fair shares for all is kind of self-explanatory, but it extends further than the immediate community.  We’re realising that when we buy cheap clothes we’re directly responsible for poor wages where they’re made.  We are not separate from the process.  So we take responsibility for all our actions. We don’t turn a blind eye.

The permaculturalists I’ve met are enthusiastic, endlessly inventive, beautifully creative, practical, warm and nurturing people.  I reckon they’ve found a truly fulfilling way to live.

One of my favourite permaculture principles is to aim always for maximum yield from minimum effort.  You combine things in the most beneficial ways. If you can get the trees to grow great fruit because you have animals roaming beneath – fertilising the ground and keeping competing weeds down – and you grow plants nearby that encourage beneficial insects that reduce pests, and you’ve selected a variety that thrives in the conditions on your plot … well, you can sling your hammock and learn to play the guitar while
they ripen!

In nature, organisms live as crowded together as the climate allows. Abundance, when it comes in a healthy mixture, is the natural order – until we come along, strip the land and force one thing only to grow there. Permaculture works with this natural order to bring abundance back to our doorsteps.

Further information:
Permaculture Knowledge Base
Transition Network

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Cambridge’s Eco Homes Open Their Doors

Cambridge Carbon Footprint are organising an Open Eco Homes event this month in Cambridge to inspire the public to make eco-friendly home improvements which can help save the planet and a bit of cash along the way. Open Eco Homes include a timber framed custom built house, a Victorian terrace house and even a narrowboat!

Fifteen homes in and around Cambridge will be opening their doors on Saturday 18th and Sunday 26th June to show what can be done with solar panels, sedum green roofs, wood-burning stoves, ground source heat pumps, wall insulation, in-home electricity generation, and many other measures fitting a wide range of budgets ranging from DIY to professional installations. The homes include old and new, big and small, and are warm and comfortable while economical in energy use.

Have you been thinking about low energy solutions or putting solar panels on your roof, for now or in the future? Eco Home owners are enthusiastic about the changes they have made and are happy to share their experiences, ideas, costings and excitement. You can find out what worked and what didn’t, and about the reality of giving your home an energy makeover.

You can see the homes here and choose which ones you’d like to visit. To book your guided tours call the Energy Saving Trust on 0800 512 012. Lines are open 9-7 Monday to Friday and 9-12 Saturday.

Liz Knox, the Open Eco Homes Project Manager, says, “There is a growing community of home owners with an infectious enthusiasm for making these changes, and helping others make them too. What’s great about it is that it brings people together.”

An exciting launch event has been planned to kick off the Open Eco Homes days. The launch event is called Eco Renovation ‘Question Time’ and comprises of a panel of local low energy homes experts; followed by wine & soft drinks, and a chance to browse stalls. The launch is free and starts at 7.30 pm on Friday 10th June at St Luke’s Centre, Victoria Road, Cambridge CB4 3DZ. Click here to see the Open Eco Homes leaflet for more information.

Visits to the Eco Homes will take place in guided tours of small groups at scheduled times, 10.30am, 12 noon, 2pm and 3.30pm on Saturday 18th and Sunday 26th June (Suggested donation is £3 per person per home). Accessibility: Private homes have different levels of accessibility so please ask for details when you call.

Open Eco Homes is organised by award-winning local charity Cambridge Carbon Footprint, in association with the Energy Saving Trust. It builds upon the success of last year’s initiative, with dozens of volunteers freely giving their time to make the event happen. Funding has been generously contributed by Cambridge City Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council and local businesses: Ridgeons, Midsummer Energy, Mole Architects and East Green Energy.

About Cambridge Carbon Footprint
CCF helps people work together creatively to make real reductions in their CO2 emissions. They have four main aims:
– Promote public engagement with the problem of climate change
– Help people make substantial reductions in carbon emissions
– Approach the issue from a psychological, social & cultural standpoint
– Move us collectively towards a lower-carbon society
For more information, check out their website.

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