Decentralisation for a post-carbon society

Speech Published 02 Apr 2008 Last modified 13 Apr 2011
EEA Executive Director, Professor Jacqueline McGlade's speech at the Copenhagen University 1 April 2008

Last October, the European Environment Agency published its assessment of state of the environment and outlooks under the auspices of the UN Environment for Europe for the 53 countries stretching from western Europe to the edge of Russia. The results were stark: environmental pressures were growing, 100 million people were still without access to safe drinking water and decoupling in the east between economic growth and environmental impacts was yet to happen. Climate change is simply making conditions worse in many regions. 

Globally, the climate change debate is linked to population growth and increasing energy demand and consumption.  Here oil is the real problem because it is the fuel for transport. 

But energy analysts, such as Douglas Westwood, point to three mitigating factors in its continued supply: first the oil left in the ground is getting increasingly difficult to extract, the offshore industry is supported by an ageing infrastructure and energy contractors are overwhelmed, with order books filled for at least the next three years.

Peak oil is happening because of these factors, plus the economics of oil and the significant shift in ownership and licensing from international to national owned oil companies. Gas and its delivery as liquid natural gas around the world is the other element in the mix, but the enormous environmental challenges caused by flaring will need to be addressed otherwise the gains made under the Kyoto protocol will be undone.  Offshore this leaves renewable energy from tidal streams and waves as a prime candidate for a post-carbon future.

But as you might have gathered, most of the current discussions and policies are driven by the needs of today’s economy rather than the environmental realities of our situation.

Being pragmatic, many environmentalists, wishing to see improvements or changes in policies and practices, have hooked up their arguments to the climate change and energy bandwagon, opting to use reductions in the use of oil, gas and coal as their cause célèbre to achieve a greener way of life.  

Critics would say that this was forcing us into doing the right deeds for the wrong reasons. But, I believe that this would be wrong. Reliable scientific arguments exist for building a post-Kyoto agreement on the basis of the environment and ecosystem services rather than simply based on meeting energy demands.

First of all, it is important to understand what climate change mitigation delivers and what it does not.  If you were to stand on top of the Alps, you would be looking down on half of the atmosphere in terms of its mass; so what happens near the surface of the earth is very important.

In its fourth assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that the emissions of greenhouse gases from anthropogenic activities was the root cause of global warming. 

Here in Denmark, Henrik Svensmark has concluded that it is the interplay of the Sun and cosmic rays that affects the climate rather than human-made carbon dioxide.

Bill Ruddiman working on air bubbles trapped in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets concluded that the volume of methane – a powerful greenhouse gas – was mostly controlled by the Milankovich cycles, which describe  the changes in the Earth’s orbit and hence the intensity of the sun’s rays.

Paul Crutzen and others named a new geological period - the anthropocene – which began thousands of years ago when humans took control of methane and carbon dioxide production through the widespread expansion of wet agriculture – such as rice paddies, fish weirs, and Taro – and through the burning of fossil fuels.

Potentially all these processes are involved in climate change, and so the delicate nature of the climatic stability that we experience on the earth’s surface is vulnerable to cosmic, planetary and human processes.

An example of how this vulnerability can affect us is the planetary process linked to the El Niño-La Niña cycle in the Pacific Ocean; a small rise in the sea surface temperature led in 1976 and again in 1998 to a series of worldwide phenomena, which in the1997-98 event became immortalised as the year the world caught fire.

It led to a number of permanent changes - burned forests that will not recover on any meaningful human timescale, a rise in the surface waters of the central western Pacific ocean temperature from an average of 19°C to the present day where it rarely goes below 25°C, shifts towards heat tolerant species living inside corals and a northwards shift in the jet stream.

This type of phenomenon shows us how vulnerable we really are to tipping points all around the world, not just necessarily those linked to increasing temperatures and carbon dioxide levels. Indeed ecosystem analysts can point to many examples of where overharvesting of resources or changed patterns in land use have triggered social and economic changes leading to shifts towards a more intensive use and reliance on carbon rather than the other way around.

Getting to grips with both large and small scale processes, is very difficult.  Observations of what is happening in the environment are generally limited, even in Europe, so we have increasingly come to rely solely on models to help design our course of action without proper reference to ground-truthing. This week’s round of international climate change talks in Bangkok is no exception.

But a post-carbon society, will need more than models - it will need to build on a strong environmental basis, having access to in situ information and knowledge about how to adapt and how the local environment will respond to climate change, and how vulnerabilities might arise from global geophysical and ecological processes.

This is particularly true for many aboriginal and poorer communities; it is adaptation that now matters. Mitigation will not necessarily help in the short term.

Last year, the European Environment Agency produced a film about climate change adaptation in Tasilaq in east Greenland. The hunters in the village have already had to reduce the number of days that they can spend out on the ice hunting with their dogs and sleds for seals and polar bears, shifting instead towards more fishing from boats; even short journeys around the coast have become more difficult as the sea-ice is less reliable. No amount of mitigation today will alter the speed of change for this and other settlements along the coast over the coming decade.

The net result is that to keep their traditional ways, the community in Tasiliaq will need to combine hunting with adventure tourism. Simply put, their way of life, which was understandable because of its long history within a stable set of ecosystem services and environmental conditions, is changing very rapidly. To be successful in the future, the community will need access to information about what is happening in their own local environment as well as innovative solutions for clean technologies that can work on a small scale and under extreme environmental conditions.

So back to the  post-carbon society, where one aim is to be climate neutral. Much is happening on this front. UNEP has launched the Climate Neutral Network to catalyse a transition to a low carbon world and four countries, four cities and five corporations have become the pioneering founders of this initiative to de-carbonize the global economy. But the question remains as to whether today’s model of governance and investment is really appropriate for a post-carbon society in which using resources locally, more efficiently, consuming less and co-operating and sharing resources will be the norm.

Let me illustrate this last point with one more example from the energy sector.

Last week two related but very different events took place. The first was when an 80 metre crane barge from Norway, arrived to transport SeaGen, the world’s largest tidal generation system and the first to be connected to a local electricity grid, to Strangford Lough, Nothern Ireland a site with special conservation status.  Once installed, it is expected to generate sufficient, clean renewable electricity for some 1,400 homes.

The UK has about half of all the European tidal stream potential  and between 10 and 15 percent world wide. The Pentland Firth – the channel between Orkney and the north Scottish mainland - could be considered  the Saudi Arabia of marine energy; every second enough water to fill 1000 Olympic pools passes through at a speed of up to 12 knots.

The second event took place in a football stadium in London between President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Brown as part of the entente formidable in which the two leaders agreed to proceed with a programme of nuclear renaissance around the world, starting with reinvestment in a new generation of power stations in the United Kingdom.

Whilst both represent a response to the demand for non-fossil fuel energy, they differ fundamentally in the scale and underlying model of ownership and distribution. And this is the dilemma for governments and society because choices will need to be made for us to move towards a post-carbon society.

Ever since the first national grid was constructed in Europe in the 1930s, governments have sought to maximise centralisation: it has always been seen as easier to build a few large power plants that rely on a large number of smaller ones.

Renewable energy however comes in small packages and is distributed for free: the diffuse nature of the energy from the sun, winds, waves and tides means that it is far better suited to a decentralised generating system. Decentralised energy is more efficient, as it suffers fewer distribution losses, is cheaper as the International Agency for Energy has pointed out and paradoxically more secure. It also represents the democratisation of energy.

The dilemma is that in many countries, renewable energy and large power plants are mutually exclusive because they both need government support as well as the same national grid infrastructure to distribute electricity. Carlo de Riva, of EDF put it more firmly when he said “If you provide incentives for renewables.  that will displace the incentives built into the carbon market.  In effect, carbon gets cheaper. And if carbon gets cheaper, you depress the returns for all other technologies like nuclear power.” From an environmental perspective there is a dividend-more renewable energy and less carbon accumulated.

So if you did not think life was complicated enough, the complexities of generating energy for our ever expanding demands is enough to reduce even the most hardened Keynesian to tears. As Sir Nicholas Stern pointed out in his report large year “Climate change represents a unique challenge for economics: it is the greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen”. I would add that the market place of an environmentally sound post-carbon society should not repeat the mistakes of the past but should reflect local needs rather than global greed.


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