Could smaller government mean bigger green motivation locally?

Portcullis House, Westminster

Portcullis House, Westminster


A little newsy post today.

Localism within limits may be good for green agenda

More planning power for local government could mobilise communities to be more active in combating climate change, protecting local biodiversity and encouraging sustainable development, according to the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI).

The government’s move to hand over more planning and decision making power to local authorities through the Local Government and Decentralisation Bill has received mixed reactions and is being reviewed by a parliamentary select committee.

“We could end up with a situation where we have rather more of the environmental agenda being embeded in community thinking rather than being imposed from above. It will take time and there needs to be some terms of reference,” said Paul Tomlinson, Head of the RTPI’s Environmental Planning Network.

The RTPI is leading the “Larger than Local” campaign, an alliance including Friends of the Earth among others. They say while the government’s proposal is not unworkable, a wider perspective is needed to meet and maintain national and international standards.

“There would need to be some evidence of consideration of the cumulative effects and the extent to which they deliver national policy objectives. There needs to be an overarching obligation for them to consider these issues. You’ve got things that are international conventions and national stratergies for biodiversity and the like,” said Tomlinson.

“At the end of the day a plan doesn’t deliver much, it’s what happens on the ground that’s key. We need to make sure the agenda is on the table without necessarily being prescriptive about what the solutions are,” he said.

The details of the bill are yet to be revealed, but it is likely to include more emphasis on local control over planning and funds. Deciding exactly where the power would lie and who would be involved in making decisions is a crucial part of the success or failure of a more localised system, said Professor John Stewart, who specialises in Local Government at the London School of Economics.

“We see very great uncertainty and confusion in what the government is actually saying. It’s clear that local governments, communities and citizens are involved, what is not clear is how these relate to each other. We think there’s all sorts of problems about what giving power to communities actually means… who will define the boundaires of these communities?” said Stewart at a select committee meeting on Tuesday.

Tomlinson is also concerned that a fragmented approach to planning may result in the actions of one community impacting another unless there is a system of consultation.

“I think it’s all possible, it’s just a matter of what are the mechaims by which that’s going to happen. The danger is you lose economies of scale, you lose holistic thinking when you start breaking things down to too smale a geographical area. If you don’t have a decision making process how do you engage all relevant parties in the decision making process?” he said.

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Talks leading up to talks

Contemplating the outlook for Cancun (photo from Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean)

World leaders come together in Cancun two weeks from now for COP16. A chance to come to some solid agreements. A chance to make up for the disappointing outcomes of COP15 in Copenhagen last year. And the agendas are already being set – but are the key players taking this seriously enough to take charge and direct the negotiations out of the Copenhagen quagmire?

Today in California, Gubernator Arnold Schwarzenegger is hosting the Governors’ Global Climate Summit, with a focus on “Building the Green Economy”. British PM David Cameron is scheduled to speak at the conference via satellite at this very moment. The meeting’s agenda is very much about engaging players on a smaller scale and looking at ideas and examples of innovation and how to transition to a low-carbon economy.

In India, the Indian Institute of Sciences, a leader on climate change research in India, is making efforts to put it back on the pubic radar. According to Bloomberg, the chief climate negotiator for the United Nations, Christiana Figueres, says China is actually beatings its targets on emissions reductions although it is no closer to agreeing to a legally binding treaty.

Meanwhile, a week ago and across the seas at the Tarawa Climate Change Conference in Kiribati, an 18-point declaration expressing an urgent call for adaptation aid was signed by twelve nations including some of those facing the most immediate and dire consequences. This, after one day of inconclusive and still divisive talks. But without a doubt this was about keeping these pressing concerns in the midst of the international climate change conversation.

In light of these calls for monetary aid, the climate talks may be focused on the IMF proposal for a green fund and how to distribute the economic responsibility for adaptation and mitigation in the coming years.

The Climate Action Tracker gives us some idea of where current targets are for some of the major players in the climate talks.

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Nuclear power: the debate re-ignited

Nuclear power is back on the agenda in the UK, with the government looking for reliable energy sources with less carbon emissions. Eight new sites have been identified for new nuclear plants across England and the complex debate that’s been going on for decades has come back to the fore- the difference this time being the carbon calculations involved.

Kirsty Schneeberger, of the DECC’s Youth Advisory Panel, visited the Hinkley Point nuclear power station with other members of the Advisory Panel recently. She had this to say about the nuclear debate:

Is nuclear power really worthwhile in the long run? Is it our only low-carbon high-efficiency hope? It’s a very emotional issue, more than just the science and the pragmatism. What do you think?

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Young voices

Kirsty Schneeberger (MBE) talks to me about the work she’s been doing lately with the DECC’s Youth Advisory Panel.


We chatted about the need for young people to be taken seriously and have a say as we make plans to combat climate change and deal with its consequences – as Kirsty points out, we’re the ones who will be dealing with the consequences of what we do and don’t put into action right now. You can see more of what the Youth Advisory Council is doing at their blog.

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The Cities We Live In


According to the 2002 Census, over a third of Chile's population lives in Santiago

Yesterday I spent an hour on a journey through the cities of the world. Tuning in to their pace and character and the nature of their growth with Radiolab’s latest brilliant podcast has got me thinking about how we can sustain them. Cities continue to grow, only exacerbated by internal displacement – people driven to Dhaka in Bangladesh, effectively climate refugees (the term is still controversial, something we’ll go into in another post) after losing their livelihoods and their land, for example.

So. Are cities always gargantuan, excessive, resource-devouring monsters leading us towards an annihilation of our own making? Well, as some of the scientists interviewed on Radiolab suggest, it’s just possible that a high concentration of people and infrastructure could actually be easier to manage in a sustainable way than spreading out the resources and the infrastructure. If, I imagine, there is a great deal of planning and a huge emphasis on getting everything running in an efficient, sustainable way – which, realistically, is perhaps not very feasible. What exactly might ‘sustainability’ involve anyway?

The Canadian- based Sustainable Cities project has been up and running for over a decade – a collaborative effort to come up with ways to design and maintain urban environments which might not lead to such an extent of long-term damage and depletion. This could be especially important and interesting in the context of development in Asia (for example India) and across the world, where urban explosions are to be expected in the next couple of decades.

That’s not even getting into the recent report from the World Bank that by 2050 three of Asia’s coastal mega cities (Manila, Ho Chi Minh City and Bangkok) will be facing serious damage and displacement as a result of flooding if they don’t begin preparing ways to cope right now. The report says they’re likely to see more extreme weather events, compounded by more area prone to flooding, with the damage possibly costing between 2-6 % of the region’s GDP – that’s a pretty hefty price to pay, apart from the effect on human life. Their suggested solutions – urban planning, taking climate risks into consideration as essential factors in infrastructure and management.

The International Institute for Environment and Development has been working on exactly these issues in Africa – check out their work here.

Is it possible for cities to incorporate this kind of adaptation into their planning, the way the city develops, as they expand and draw more and more people into their folds? Can the pragmatic necessity for this kind of longer-term planning outweigh short-term political cycles and agendas?

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The Hours

Last day of Autumn, Kent


The last flares of autumn colour are falling to the ground, that chill in the air is developing a biting edge, and the daylight drains into evening well before dinner time. You can’t fight the seasons. But this last fact of losing daylight during the winter is being challenged, with a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies suggesting there could be environmental as well as social benefits to staying in summer time all year round.

The BBC’s Costing the Earth tackled the question before we changed the clocks this year, speaking to scientists in favour of the idea, politicians against the idea and communities which might benefit. Certainly worth a listen.

There is in fact an official campaign, Lighter Later, tied in with the 10:10 campaign to cut 10% of the UK’s carbon emissions by 2010. The suggestion is to move UK clocks forward all year round – to GMT +1 in winter and GMT +2 in summer.

According to a study by Cambridge University researchers, it would be possible to cut 447,000 tonnes of CO2 pollution per year with this strategy – having more daylight in more productive hours would mean using less energy to fuel our activities.

This neat little gadget will give you some idea of what that carbon reduction actually physically means (the embed link doesn’t work but you can punch in 447,000 tonnes and see the graphic for yourself).

The campaign suggests that simply moving time forward would mean lower fatality rates on the roads, lower crime rates and health benefits apart from the environmental positives.

Does it all sound a little too simple or far-fetched or is it a case of an obvious suggestion that’s just been overlooked? Will be keeping an eye on this one, especially if it means the wintery London gloom might be lifted just a little bit!

Here, by the way, is an interesting aside on how complicated and conflicted Daylight Savings is in the US, with some states actually operating in several different time zones.

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After the cash slash : where enviro policy stands now

The “greenest government ever”?

In May, Prime Minister David Cameron said he wanted this to be the “greenest government ever”, pledging his determination to battle climate change.

As the dust begins to clear on the British Government’s immense spending review announced last week, what impact it might have on the environment is becoming more apparent. Where do climate change and sustainability stand with almost every sector of British public life feeling the pinch?

Addressing climate change, what the head of the DECC called “the greatest challenge facing mankindat the same event in May, has not been abandoned completely. Is it enough to meet the targets set by the UK nationally? What could it signify for their part in the next round of global climate talks?

I’ll begin to take some of these issues apart in the next couple of weeks. For a start, here’s a look at what the spending review entails for environmental departments and programs:

The overall picture is that there is some investment into technological development, with small business intiatives and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) being the hardest hit by the cuts. The change in direction of the carbon tax scheme is also a significant blow to emissions- cutting incentives for bigger businesses.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change will have its budget cut by 20% – 5% annual cuts for 4 years. Its capital spending, however, will increase – the overall capital expenditure going up 28% over the next five years (mainly spending on nuclear decommissioning, carbon capture and storage and renewable heat incentives for green home heating). It will build just one instead of four carbon capture and storage demonstration plants, although there may be up to £1 bn set aside for this one. There will be a 20% cut to the green home heating initiative.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA)’s budget is slashed from £2.9 to £2.2 billion between now and 2015. There’s a 30% cut in spending on flood defence and coastal protection. Environmental stewardship schemes for farmers reduced.

The Green Investment Bank will go ahead, getting £1 bn in funding. It will attempt to attract private capital to invest in low-carbon projects. It’s unclear at this point how the bank would function – an independent bank or as a goverment fund.

New carbon tax – through the Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme, the proceeds from greenhouse gas emissions permits will now be retained by the government – no benefit to the medium and big businesses who cut the most carbon.

For the development of low-carbon technologies, £200 bn is allocated. Feed-in tariffs for small-scale renewables will probably be cut after another review – solar panel production is most likely to suffer.

Check out John Vidal and Tim Webb’s take at the Guardian on what all this will mean in practical terms for the DECC and the climate agenda.

So I leave you to digest all these details for a bit before we talk about their effect on Britain’s environmental obligations and outlook.
You can find more details of the spending review including the full document here.

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